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.