Shillong's Sweepers' Line Colony Caught in Limbo

Located in the tribal hub, the colony has sparked divergent views on the constitutional demarcation of tribal and non-tribal areas under the Sixth Schedule

Shillong: In the wake of the May 31, 2018 Sweepers’ Line incident, Meghalaya’s capital has been mired in a controversy over land disputes, administrative control and rising tensions. 

In their enthusiasm to support the residents of the Sweepers’ Line, or what is locally referred to as Them Metor, in the city’s Mawlong Hat area, the wider Sikh community represented by national and international organisations and even the Congress-led government of Punjab, and its Opposition Shiromoni Akali Dal (SAD), have been visiting Shillong since the incident grabbed headlines. Even as a high level committee (HLC) set up by the Meghalaya government under its deputy chief minister Prestone Tynsong – tasked to study the feasibility of shifting the residents of the Sweepers’ Line to another location to clear the congestion in the busy market area – is getting its facts together, these dignitaries have been making routine announcements, pre-empting the HLC’s decision.

They are of the view that removing the Sweepers’ Line from the present location is not an option, as the residents have been there for nearly 200 years.

For the old timers of Shillong, this is a wild assertion, because the city itself is only 155-years-old. It was established in 1863, when the British first stepped in as conquerors. By claiming historical precedence, the Sikh dignitaries have waded into the quicksand of land dispute, which is the hallmark of the northeastern states, where histories have remained the lifeline of the indigenous tribes and communities. The biggest ‘land dispute’ many tribes and ethnic sub-nationalists have is with the sovereignty of the Indian state. Though that’s a different story, it is quite relevant as an overarching context in the current case.

The second and directly relevant point is the divergence of views within the framework of the Constitution. This argument is based on the constitutional demarcation of tribal and non-tribal areas, the latter of which are called ‘normal’ areas in Meghalaya; and of the constitutional rights that citizens of India have or don’t have in the areas marked ‘tribal’ and protected under the Sixth Schedule.

In this context, the claims of the Sikh delegations on the Sweepers’ Line, which is located in a tribal hub, is liable to be marked by tribal organisations as encroachment of tribal land. It is not just the local youth organisations which are digging in their heels, but many local politicians too are closing ranks with the present dispensation of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), who otherwise are bitter rivals. The KHADC is a constitutional body created under the Sixth Schedule to protect the tribes’ traditions and their lands.

Powerful local organisations such as the Khasi Students Union (KSU), have warned the visiting Sikh outfits to cease interfering in the ‘internal affairs’ of other states. A communal conflagration spreading beyond the state is not ruled out if the two sides persist, which would only be aided by the power of social media to manoeuvre facts.

This past week, Tynsong, the chairman of HLC, told the latest Sikh delegation that met him in Shillong, that the committee would not infringe on the rights of any citizen. He said the committee would ask unauthorised people occupying the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) quarters, meant for the sweepers employed by the civic body, to relocate elsewhere, to be arranged by the government.

Commercial heart

Mawlong Hat is a crowded, dirty and busy corner of the state’s biggest market, Lew Duh or Bara Bazaar. Considered the commercial heart of Shillong, it is a traditional market of the tribals, even preceding the British. It is the location for local farmers and rural folk to do business. Bara Bazaar is perennially in a mad rush, with all manner of people from various ethnic and financial backgrounds brushing against each other on its tiny lanes. On the road bordering the market, and particularly at Them Mawlong Hat, where the vehicles going to the market eventually turn around a circle, it is another mass of wheels and humanity. Jay walkers, shoppers, hawkers and coolies carrying goods give a hoot to the vehicles, even as drivers spit out curses and the traffic cops desperately blow their whistles in an attempt to create order.

Within this frenzied scene stands the Sweepers’ Line, with its crammed residential spaces. Always known as the Sweepers’ Line or Sweepers’ colony or Them Metor, it has been the centre of dispute for some time now, as the city administration has attempted many times, unsuccessfully, to shift the occupants to another locality in a bid to clear out the ever growing congestion. The administration’s attempts have always been seconded by the tribal people.

On May 31, a female resident of Them Metor set out to fetch water and found her way blocked by a state owned bus, stationary in the traffic jam. She asked the driver to roll ahead and create some space for her to trickle through. The ‘driver’ was later reported to be the son of the driver, who had left the bus in the hands of his three sons, two of them minors, while he jumped off for a quick cuppa nearby. So the youth on the wheels could not do the lady’s bidding. She left, returning with a group of men from Them Metor, who thrashed the boys. Local people and police intervened and a compromise was reached. The boys were taken to the hospital.

But rumours about their ‘death’ spread by late evening and a mob of tribal boys reached the location, leading to a violent confrontation.

The demand for relocation of the Sweepers’ Line has been decades old, but some observers felt that a local daily referring to the Sweepers’ Line as “Punjabi Lane” or the “Sikh colony” gave an entirely different political aura to the issue, absent in the past. According to Klur M. Syiem, assistant professor of history in a local government college, it was the “wrong use” of nomenclature that distorted the “truth” which spun it from a “local affair to an international one”.

An old proposal

The local administration has been mulling relocation of the Sweepers’ Line since at least 1972. The administration felt it was proving to be “out of place” in the busy commercial intersection. Official documents show the spot was earmarked for building a parking lot for heavy vehicles coming to the market. In 1993, the state government sent an eviction notice to the residents. The residents approached the court, which stayed the eviction. In 1996, the then state urban affairs minister J.M. Pariat, in the wake of a massive protest demanding the eviction of residents, had said the government-owned colony was meant for 200 workers of the SMB and unauthorised residents would be shifted soon.

The government then proposed to relocate the residents to two blocks on Cantonment land as the state government, unlike other governments, does not typically own land barring the few pockets in the ‘normal’ areas of Shillong, all of which are occupied. Apart from the land under Defence Estate, land in Shillong is divided into two categories: a tiny pocket, comprising about 10 square km called ‘normal’ areas, under the state government; and tribal land held by individuals, clans and communities under the broad jurisdiction of the KHADC. 

The state administration, in its peculiar constitutional position of being a government with no jurisdiction over land, has never been in a position to commandeer a piece of land at will. When the Cantonment Authorities (CA) refused to part with its land, as records reveal, the state government petitioned the Ramesh Chandra Committee on Defence Land to return some of the plots held by the Defence Estate to ease the city’s growing congestion, including shifting the Sweepers’ Line. State officials claim that there has never been any response from the Defence authorities since. Eventually, they say, the government built “84 units in various locations” within the already cramped government-owned land. However, most Sweepers’ Line residents refused to move to those units, citing distance from work.

While one cannot discount the fact that the area is in prime commercial location and that there could be vested interests working behind the move to shift the colony, it is Shillong’s historical baggage which has turned a simple administrative decision into a communal issue, thus paralysing normal life and the establishment for days.

A view of the Police Bazar circle in Shillong.

British tutelage

Shillong was, a stolen baby, by the British trade and war machine. It grew under the tutelage of the British, who chiseled the place into their own image of a little England away from home. Since the time the Syiems or Khasi chiefs were made vassals by the British, Shillong attained glory as the capital of the entire northeastern region and the adjoining areas. But that also meant that it was inundated with migrant population, who either came on their own or were brought by the British to work in various capacities. So came many Bengalis, Marwaris, Nepalis, Bihari, Punjabis, Europeans and Americans among others. They lived and worked in the municipal town areas and the adjoining parts. The sweepers were brought by the British to keep the official manual latrines clean and usable. They held the position of safai karamcharis.

When the British left in 1947, Shillong continued to be the capital of Assam. The local tribes were just coming to their own and in 1972, were able to get their own state, Meghalaya. By then, Shillong had gone from being an ‘English’ town to a ‘non-tribal’ town entrenched in the Khasi heartland. The atmosphere was soaked in political rhetoric of all hues. The tribal and non-tribal equation has always been an uneasy one due to this factor, leading to violent clashes.

However, when one changes the microscopic view of the typical conflagrations between the tribes and the non-tribals of Shillong and widens it to the national and global canvas, it can be understood that Shillong, indeed the whole of its neighbourhood in the North East, has been the epicentre of a long drawn out struggle. The migrant population, present in these areas due to historical compulsions, and the indigenous tribes and communities have been at odds.

It is a scene of a classic battle for reclamation of indigenous histories, territories and lands from the colonial powers and their neo-colonial inheritors and retainers. It is also the arena of a clash between the modern and the traditional superstructures, which is being played out on a regular basis. The inability of the local administration to maintain rule of law compounds the problem. 

Attempts to carry out a survey have often been resisted, said some urban affairs department officials that this correspondent spoke to. This past week too, the officials have spoken about experiencing resistance.

The last survey, conducted in 2007 by the urban affairs department, showed 1,024 persons were authorised to stay in the SMB quarters. Those occupying the quarters claim to have inheritance rights over both the quarters and the job. But under the new sociological settings and desperation for government jobs, it is doubtful if they will be successful in holding on to their jobs as many tribals are not averse to doing a sweeper’s work.

Unlike in most other parts of the country, the occupation is not linked to any caste hierarchy in tribal societies. While the Mahjabi or Dalit Sikhs occupying the Sweepers’ Line are often ostracised by their own larger Sikh community – many gurdwaras do not even allow entry due to their ‘low caste’ – they are free from that stigma in the tribal milieu. They mingle freely with the city’s population, eat and drink with the tribals and some have married into tribal families. The May 31 incident is the first such violent confrontation between the two communities, even though the demand for shifting the Sweepers’ Line has been an old one.  

However, tensions have been building up. What has caused the tribal ire has been the mobilisation of Dalit Sikhs under the Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC) banner. The committee has allegedly been issuing certificates and documents to the residents of Sweepers’ Line, which in the tribal areas, is the zealously guarded right of the local dorbars or traditional village councils. The HPC’s activities are seen as a breach of that tribal right. Quite a few times, the KHADC had been asked to take action against the HPC for ‘illegally providing documents to illegal settlers’.

Land agreement

Erwin Sutnga, the legal counsel for the Executive Committee of the KHADC, told The Wire that the HPC has claimed right to the land based on an Agreement of 1954, signed between the SMB and the Syiem of Mylliem, the head of the traditional Khasi unit called Hima. As per the agreement, the land which holds the Sweepers’ Line was handed over to SMB by the Syiem in exchange of a plot on the other side of the road, with a clause that the land would be used only for the sweepers quarters by the civic body, while the vacant spaces could be used for godowns, shops and its offices. However, over the years, the said area has been encroached by the residents and others to open shops and build residential areas.  SMB appears to have lost control over it.

Besides the SMB land, in 2008, the then Syiem issued four land pattas adjoining the colony to construct a gurudwara and two temples, which are now said to be “under dispute”. Sutnga said it was beyond the Syiem’s brief to issue such pattas to the colony residents after the enactment of the Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act, 1971 (MTLRA-1971) which forbids transfer of tribal land to non-tribals.

The land occupied by the defence establishment and para-military forces in Shillong is another sore spot with the tribals. A demand to return those portions not in use has been made for decades. The fact that portions of those land nudging Bara Bazaar area are being leased out to non-local businessmen has caused further heartburn in many. Letters have been written by the successive governments to expedite the process of returning such land to the tribal authorities. 

Army’s role

During the recent violence at Them Metor, many are of the opinion that some Army officials played a “negative role”, claiming to have given shelter to 400 families in the defence area during the clash. This fuelled anger on social media about displacement. based on which the Sikh organisations started their campaign for humanitarian aid. It turned out that those given shelter were not from the Sweepers’ Line. Some believe that they could be the same people whose homes were demolished under a Supreme Court-directed eviction drive by the Cantonment authorities over the last few years in the Mawlong Hat areas, in which hundreds of homes and petty trader establishments, including those occupied by some Sikh families, were cleared. 

Jemino Mawthoh, senior general secretary of the United Democratic Party (UD), a partner in the present state government, said, “We hope the Sikh organisations use their good offices and generosity to solve the decades-old problem of congestion in the city. They can use their influence on the Central authorities to return unused defence lands to the state authorities so that the Sweepers’ Line can be relocated and further confrontations are avoided.” As a youth leader in 1996, Mawthoh was among the leaders of protests demanding the relocation of the Sweepers’ Line.