“This is our janambhoomi”: Shillong’s Punjabi Line residents face threats, fear eviction

Vinod Singh, a Punjabi Line resident, has been ordered to relocate to government quarters. Prakash Bhuyan
24 July, 2019

On 11 June, an employee at the Ganesh Das Government Maternal and Child Health Hospital, in Meghalaya’s capital city of Shillong, received a notice from her supervisor. The notice informed her that she had been allotted living quarters under the jurisdiction of the office of the medical superintendent. For over three decades now, she has worked as a sweeper and cleaner at the hospital. Two other grade-four employees like her received similar notices. All three are members of the Dalit Sikh community and residents of Shillong’s Punjabi Line colony.

“Many years ago, we had requested quarters but they told us that there were no vacant ones at the time,” the hospital employee said, on condition of anonymity. “Now, some of the employees have retired, so they allotted it to us even though we never asked them for it.”

The hospital employee and other Punjabi Line residents claimed that these notices are an attempt to get the community to relocate against their wishes. Also known as the Harijan colony or Sweepers colony, Punjabi Line consists of about 300 households. Atleast three generations of its residents have been engaged in sanitation work.

There has been a long-standing dispute over the area. For several years, the government has been attempting to evict the residents of Punjabi Line, an effort that Khasi groups such as the Khasi Students’ Union and the Federation of Khasi Garo Jaintia People have supported. The government claims that there has been unauthorised construction in the colony and that many of the residents are illegal settlers.The colony’s location in the prime center of the city’s commercial hub has also been a factor. “It’s an unhygienic slum that’s an eyesore in the heart of the city,” Prestone Tynsong, the state’s deputy chief minister, said. A member of the Shillong administration said, on condition of anonymity, that government wanted to use the space for commercial purposes, possibly as a “shopping area.” Meanwhile, the Khasi groups claim that the area is a place of criminal activity. Further, many members of the local tribal community in Shillong see the Dalit Sikh community as outsiders, despite them having lived in the city for over a century.

On the other hand, the Punjabi Line residents said the colony is their ancestral home. They said that community has not yet been offered any credible relocation alternative. In the late nineteenth century, the British administration had moved the community from Punjab to Shillong to work as sweepers and manual scavengers. The residents claimed that the syiem—traditional chieftain—of Mylliem village, who exercised jurisdiction over this area, allotted the Punjabi Line land to the community more than a hundred and fifty years ago. In the traditional courts of the Khasi tribal hills that were in place prior to India’s independence, a syiem would adjudicate on matters of civil dispute. A syiem presently exercises authority over civil and administrative matters within the jurisdiction of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council. The Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution empowers autonomous councils in Meghalaya to make laws and adjudicate on matters related to land, agriculture, local committees, administration of towns and villages, social customs, and property.

As proof of their claim to the land, the residents point to a 2008 letter that Hima Mylliem, the village’s syiem at the time, sent to the Meghalaya Electricity Board. In it, Hima acknowledged that his predecessors had allotted this land to the Dalit Sikh community. The letter noted that the Dalit Sikh community has been in Shillong prior to 1863. It also pointed to an agreement between the syiem and the Shillong Municipal Board dated 4 January 1954, which allowed the board to “use the vacant plot” of Punjabi Line for “shops, godowns and office rooms,” while the remaining land was to be “continued to be used for accommodation for the Sweepers quarters and not for any other purposes.” The 2008 letter noted that the SMB, the police department and several public sector establishments were using the services of the Punjabi Line residents.

The first major confrontation related to this dispute happened last year. On 31 May 2018, protests broke out after an altercation between some residents of Punjabi Line and Khasi locals. There are two competing narratives about what sparked the trouble. The Khasi and Jaintia groups claimed that the Punjabi Line residents assaulted Khasi locals over a parking dispute. Meanwhile, Punjabi Line’s residents accused the Khasi teenagers of sexually harassing a young woman from the colony. Soon after, false rumours spread that a Khasi minor was killed in a confrontation with the Punjabi Line residents. Hundreds of protestors took to the streets. The Khasi community demanded that Punjabi Line’s residents be relocated to the outskirts of the city.

In response, on 4 June, the Meghalaya government appointed a high-level advisory committee to work out a “practically feasible” solution for the relocation of the residents, headed by Tynsong. The committee conducted a survey in Punjabi Line to establish the number of households, occupants and their employment status. According to Gurjit Singh, the secretary of the Harijan Panchayat Committee—a group formed to represent Punjabi Line’s Dalit Sikh residents—the advisory committee asked government departments to relocate its employees who were living in the colony. The committee also asked the Shillong Municipal Board to conduct an “inventorisation” in the Punjabi Line area through a public notice, to assess the number of residents and their period of occupation.

On 8 July, the Harijan Panchayat Committee filed a writ petition in the Meghalaya high court, questioning the high-level committee’s mandate to relocate the residents. On 15 February 2019, the high court disposed the petition stating that matter should be addressed by a civil court, after “taking appropriate evidence on record.” The court directed “the government and all the other agencies not to disturb the petitioners in any manner and if at all they want to evict or remove them, they are to approach the Civil Court and the Civil Court will pass a proper judgment after giving equal opportunity to both the parties and decide the title in accordance with law.” The court further noted, “It is a settled principle of law that nobody can be removed or evicted without due process of law even if he is illegally or legally settled.” On 23 March, the government filed a review petition challenging this order.

Punjabi Line residents said that the Meghalaya government has resumed efforts to relocate them without approaching a civil court. On 26 November 2018, the SMB had sent notices to Punjabi Line’s residents seeking proof of land ownership. The notice asked residents to “furnish information with regard to their possession of either piece of land/ building structure” in Punjabi Line “and the period of their occupation.” On 31 May this year, the SMB posted notices on the doors of residents in continuation of the November notice and directed residents to submit this information by 3 July. The notice said that “it is in the interest of [the] general public” to cooperate. On 4 July, Tynsong informed the media that the residents had been given 30 more days to furnish the information, and that the exercise was being conducted to distinguish between the legal settlers in Punjabi Line and the unauthorised residents.

“Last year, the high-level committee came with the police and coerced us into submitting our details,” Singh, the secretary of the Harijan Panchayat Committee, said. “They have asked us to furnish this information yet again, in November, and later in May. What is this if not harassment?” On 12 June 2019, the committee filed a contempt petition in the Meghalaya high court, claiming that the SMB’s latest notice was a violation of the 15 February court order. In its response, the SMB submitted that “the purpose of collecting information is to prepare a long term and short term policy for resolving a long pending issue.” It added that “the State Government is committed to resolve the issue in accordance with law and no one will be thrown out without following the procedure.”

In light of this, the petitioner’s counsel informed the court that they would not be pursuing the contempt petition. Accordingly, the high court disposed off the petition in June 2019, while granting the Harijan Panchayat Committee the permission to approach the court again if the SMB sought to illegally evict the residents in future. On the SMB’s review petition, however, on 28 June, the court ordered the residents of Punjabi Line to cooperate with the SMB and furnish the requisite information. The matter will next be heard on 25 August.

At present, the community only possesses land deeds for a school and a gurudwara in Punjabi Line. Residents in the colony do not hold any land titles to their living premises. Singh told me that 218 residents applied for land titles in 2006, but none of them received it. The community’s strongest defense of their land entitlement is the letter from the syiem and stay orders from the high court on their relocation.

Singh said the community received their first eviction notice in 1988, from the district commissioner, and then twice from the SMB, in 1992 and 2001. An official at the SMB, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, confirmed that an eviction notice was sent in 2001 on account of “unauthorised construction” in the colony. Singh added, “Hum yaha hoke bhi yaha ke nahi ho paye”—We have always been here and yet we could not belong.

Since the SMB notices were put up on their doors, four Punjabi Line residents who work for government departments—including the hospital employee—said they had received another notice, allocating residential quarters for them outside the colony. The residents believed these developments were part of a slow process to relocate them.

The hospital employee said that there were only two years left until her retirement, after which she would have to vacate the new government-allotted quarters. She did not want to give up her permanent home in Punjabi Line, where she lives with her in-laws—all of whom were formerly grade-four employees with the Shillong Municipal Board— to relocate to a temporary accommodation.

“Our children were much younger then, so we thought it would be good to live in our own quarter,” the hospital employee said, referring to the time she applied for official quarters from the hospital. But with the responsibility of ageing in-laws and a growing family, the matchbox accommodation of the quarters no longer holds any appeal. They had renovated their Punjabi Line home with their own money. Over the course of thirty years, the family has built a comfortable home. Bright wallpaper, posters of the Sikh guru Nanak, and studio portraits of the family adorn the walls of their Punjabi Line residence. Wooden construction and corrugated tin sheets have been added to the original area to make space for the family members who have joined them from Punjab.

Vinod Singh, a Punjabi Line resident who works as an attendant in the special branch office of the additional director general of police, also received a written notice allotting him new quarters. The order, issued on 10 June, directed him to “immediately occupy the government quarter” and to submit an occupation report to the special superintendent of police.

When he visited the allotted quarter, he found a colleague was still living there and awaiting orders to move to a new quarter. “My in-charge told me to drive out the occupant if it’s not vacant,” Vinod said. When asked if there was any pressure from the department for him to comply with the order, he said, “I’ve been threatened with a loss of pay or even my job if I don’t occupy the quarter.”

Vinod grew up with six brothers and four sisters in a two-bedroom residence in the narrow lanes of Punjabi Line. A few years ago, he tried to obtain a Scheduled Caste certificate but was denied because the Dalit Sikh community was not listed as a Scheduled Caste in Meghalaya. His mother’s dying wish was for him to take care of his three younger brothers, since he was the only government servant in the family. “I can’t leave them despite the many domestic disputes that happen amongst us,” he said. Vinod added, “If those who are entitled to quarters leave, then it’ll weaken the unity of the community against the government’s attempts to evict us.”

None of the SMB employees I spoke to in Punjabi Line had received similar written orders to relocate. However, Shanti Godna, who has worked as a sweeper for over two decades with the SMB, said her supervisor verbally asked her to move to the SMB quarters. Godna was hired on a contract basis and not entitled to a pension or a permanent job. “I earn Rs 3,000,” she told me. “How do they expect me to go live elsewhere, pay the rent and survive? I have even been warned that my salary will be delayed by one to two months if I don’t move.”

But even if Godna agreed to relocate, the SMB quarters would have offered no space. When I visited the official SMB quarters, all the housing units were occupied. Most of the units were taken by grade-four government employees of the municipality and staff of the Pinewood Hotel. A resident, who did not wish to be named, said that the Pinewood Hotel staff had occupied 16 quarters for the last 20 years because the urban-affairs department allotted them that space. He said the staff had not received any notice for relocation. Of the 88 units in the complex, the municipality’s offices occupied 32 units. According to the resident, none of the municipal employees living in the SMB quarters worked in the sanitation division.

Emphasising that Punjabi Line is her ancestral home, Godna recalled how her grandparents came to Shillong. She said they took about six months to reach the hill city from their village, in Batala, in the Gurdaspur district of undivided Punjab. “My grandfather told me that it would easily take six to seven days just to cross the Brahmaputra River since there was no bridge those days,” she said. “They drove the horse carts ferrying British officials and luggage to these hills.” Referring to the practice of manual scavenging, Godna added, “My grandparents and parents did the kind of work that we can’t even talk about anymore. Now that it has stopped, they want to get rid of us.”

Over the years, the National Commission for Minorities has lent their support to the Dalit Sikh community against attempts by the government to relocate them. In addition, Jagdish Hiremani, a member of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, pledged his support this year. He said that the commission would submit a report to the state government, recommending against relocating the Punjabi Line residents. Ampareen Lyngdoh, a Congress member of the legislative assembly and a former urban affairs minister in the state government, told me, “It’s a very complex issue that the government of the day has jumped the gun on by assuring the public that they”—the Punjabi Line residents—“would be relocated.”

A recent threat issued by the banned militant outfit, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, has caused further panic in Punjabi Line’s Dalit Sikh community. The group was formed in 1992 to secure the interests of Meghalaya’s Khasi and Jaintia communities against the Garos and outsider communities, commonly referred to as Dkhars, or people of the plains. The group issued a press release warning the Harijan Panchayat Committee against challenging the state government’s attempt to relocate them. “When it comes to protecting the interests of our people, we shall press the trigger and their people will fall to our bullets,” the release said.

Security officials I spoke to said that the HNLC was no longer a high-level threat or a force to reckon with as they used to be in the nineties. Claudia Lyngwa, the East Khasi Hills superintendent of police, told me that over the years, the HNLC has been reduced to a defunct group. “While they may issue statements now and then, they do not have the capability in terms of firearms,” she said. Lyngwa has been a part of several counter-insurgency operations against the HNLC in the Khasi hill districts, and said that the outfit is reduced to less than ten senior leaders.

Gurjit claimed that the HNLC issued the threat at the behest of the state government, in response to the Harijan Panchayat Committee’s challenge against the SMB notice. “The language used in the statement reveals who is behind it,” he said. “Why else would the HNLC, who have not bothered us for such a long time, do this?”

He added, “If people are relocated to the new quarters, the government will capture the land legally or illegally.” He noted that Punjabi Line residents who are not employed by the government would not have any other quarters allotted to them, and would therefore be evicted. According to the latest electoral roll published on the Meghalaya chief electoral officer’s website, Punjabi Line consists of 1,029 registered voters. While the Harijan Panchayat Committee claimed that the SMB employs 70 percent of the residents, an official at the SMB, who is not authorised to speak to the media, told me that the SMB believes it employs only 128 residents of the colony.

According to Himadri Banerjee, a professor at Jadavpur University who has been researching the history of the Dalit Sikh community in the North East for a decade, the assertion of indigenous rights being witnessed in Shillong is part of a growing trend of regional nationalism everywhere, which typically goes against minorities. He added that sanitation jobs have become harder to come by for the Punjabi Line community because it has become increasingly mechanised in the state and is no longer looked down upon. “Earlier no Khasi was willing to do this but now that the job has become coveted, they feel that why should it go to outsiders?” Bannerjee said.

Now that the Dalit Sikh community needs to compete for these jobs with the local tribal communities, the Punjabi Line residents said that the land and their home is the only thing they have to hold on to. Further, the younger members of the community have begun to look for better jobs in the private sector that do not come with allotted government quarters.

Tynsong, the deputy chief minister who is heading the advisory committee, told me that it was formed with the agenda of relocating the residents because the place was deemed unfit for residence. “When we talked about permanent solution, it means we will find a place where the residents of the Harijan colony can be permanently relocated,” he said.

When I asked him whether a redevelopment of the area for the residents was a possibility, he said that it does not fall into the smart city vision for Shillong. In June 2018, Shillong was selected to be part of the central government’s Smart Cities Mission, which aims to make cities citizen-friendly and sustainable. “It’s a commercial area so redevelopment is not a question,” Tynsong told me. “The government will decide what to do once the relocation is complete.” He added that about two months ago, the committee had requested government departments to consider allocating any vacant quarters to their employees living in Punjabi Line. “The notices were sent out of the department’s own concern for their employees,” he said.

Asha Kaur, a Punjabi Line resident whom I met last year during the agitation, lives with five families in a two-room quarter in the colony. “If the government can’t improve our living conditions, it’s better they leave us alone,” she said. “We feel more secure living amongst our own.”

Vinod said that when the state government hasn’t given them reserved quotas yet, they could not hope for a land deed. “For people of my generation, this is our janambhoomi,”—birthplace. “We do not ever want to leave.”

Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She tweets at @makesyoucakes. She is a National Foundation for India fellow.