As Shillong’s Punjabi lane residents protest relocation decision, govt says it’s doing ‘due diligence’

On October 7, the Conrad Sangma-led state cabinet approved a proposal to relocate the Punjabi residents from Them lew Mawlong area, based on a recommendation made by a high-level committee (HLC) headed by Tynsong.

Days after representatives of the Dalit Sikh community in Shillong’s Them lew Mawlong area — also called the Punjabi Lane — protested the Meghalaya Cabinet’s decision to relocate them in another area, Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong said that the government was doing “due diligence” on the issue.

“We are following due diligence. It is not a question of throwing out the Sikh community from the area. Our aim is to relocate them to a proper place,” Tynsong told The Indian Express.

On October 7, the Conrad Sangma-led state cabinet approved a proposal to relocate the Punjabi residents from Them lew Mawlong area, based on a recommendation made by a high-level committee (HLC) headed by Tynsong.

The HLC was constituted in June 2018 to find a solution to the decades-old land dispute, following violent clashes between local Khasis and Sikh residents of the area the previous month.

Sikh Dalits who came as sweepers

The 2.5-acred ‘Punjabi Lane’, next to Shillong’s commercial hub and its largest traditional market place Iewduh, has been home to Sikh Dalits, who were brought by the British to work as scavengers and sweepers in the 19th century. For three decades, sections of society and political organisations in Meghalaya have been demanding that residents be shifted to some other area — the primary argument being that a prime commercial area shouldn’t hold a residential locality. Over the years, localised brawls between residents and Khasis have been reported, the biggest being the clash in May 2018.

While the government claims the disputed land belongs to the Urban Affairs Department, the Sikhs say the land was “gifted” to them by the Syiem (chief) of Hima Mylliem, (one of the chiefdoms in Khasi Hills) in the 1850s. Today, Mylliem is one of the 54 traditional administrative territories under the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council — the Punjabi Lane falls under it.

As per the Cabinet decision on October 7, the Urban Affairs Department would take possession of the land from the Syiem (chief) of Mylliem within a week. Announcing the decision, CM Sangma tweeted that the residents, who were permanent employees of the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB), would be relocated to constructed quarters. “Further, we will request the other residents residing in the Colony to shift to the designated locations,” Sangma had tweeted, adding that the Urban Affairs Department would “explore other locations” for them.

In response to the decision, the Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC), which represents members of the Sikh community in Shillong, said that it would “fight tooth and nail” to stop the government from carrying out the drive. On Sunday, PTI reported that Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said he would take up with the Union Home Minister Meghalaya government’s alleged move to “evict” Sikhs living in Shillong.

Speaking to The Indian Express, HPC secretary Gurjit Singh said the government’s plan had caused “a lot of tension and anxiety” among the community members.

“We have lived here for 200 years. Time and again, the government tries to move us and our people get scared,” he said, adding that they had not received any official intimation from the government yet. He added that they had two documents to prove that the land was “gifted” to them by the Syiem of Mylliem: a 1954 agreement and one more in 2008.

Tynsong said that the Sikh community should not “get confused” that they were “being thrown out”. “They are people of Meghalaya and we are here to help them,” he said, adding that they wanted to make a registry of the residents of the area. “While several of them work at the SMB, there are many settlers as well and we do not know where they came from. We request them to help us make a list, and come forward and declare their details such as name and occupation,” said  Tynsong.

Singh said that about 300-odd Punjabi families reside in the locality. “Only 20 people out of them (who are close to retiring now) are permanent employees of the SMB — whom the government claims will help relocate. The remainder, according to the government, are unauthorised,” he said, adding that it was “completely unjust” and “baseless”.

“We did have a good number of families who were in the SMB before in the 1990s, but now our children and grandchildren work in other jobs — be in business or transport. Moreover, many sanctioned SMB posts now go to the local Khasis. We have been fine with that. All we want is to live in the land which rightfully belongs to us,” he said.

He also added that the HPC has filed a petition in the Meghalaya High Court in 2018, and a status quo has been ordered by the court on April 9, 2021. “We fail to understand why the government is in such a hurry when a status quo has been ordered recently,” he said.

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