BY JT Lyngdoh
In 1968, the then Union Commerce and Market Affairs Minister, Ram Niwas Mirdha, made a quick tour of Northeast India. He first stopped over at Shillong, still under Assam and visited incognito the whole of Iewduh on foot to assess its overall set up. He got a very bad impression of the actual lay-out of the market. The most appalling view was the lower portion, namely Them Mawlong. The garbage deposit from the market, the slum-like condition of the city bus stand, the unhygienic filth at the Harijan Colony posed great health risks to pedestrians frequenting the area. He also couldn’t understand how within the precincts of a market there should be a shanty human settlement. In his remarks he observed that among the markets in India, Iewduh was most disorganised, ill-planned, health prone, very congested and didn’t fit the minimum standards of a public market.
The Syiem earns crores of rupees annually but is not bothered to ameliorate its infrastructure. In 1862 the British imperialists transferred the capital from Sohra to Shillong. The process was completed in 1874. Shillong became the new capital of the freshly carved out Assam State. Simultaneously with Haflong, North Cachar Hills they were declared as hill stations for summer resort. For administrative purposes the British brought the educate Bengalis from East Bengal, who settled at Laban area. To maintain cleanliness of the town they needed people who would do the scavenging work. Until then Khasis and other tribals were an agrarian society with majority having little or minimum education. Haflong didn’t pose such a problem. To solve the second problem they brought in from Punjab the low caste people called Shudras by Hindu and Mazhabis by Sikh religions. They were employed in menial jobs like conservancy and scavenging under Municipal areas, especially tending service latrines which were still in vogue then, except among those who could afford sanitary latrines. To accommodate them, the British Government leased a plot of land from the Mylliem Raja below Iewduh at Them Mawlong. Both parties exercised strict control over their activities. They were to stay there so long as their services were needed.
When India attained Independence, the Assam Government inherited the legacy of the British. It retained the services of the scavengers. These people stuck to their jobs and brought in more of their families and relatives to seek employment in Shillong. Their numbers multiplied through inter-marriage with other communities like Khasis, Nepalis, Biharis etc. To reduce congestion at Iewduh some families were shifted to another settlement, in the outskirts of Laitumkhrah, named Gora Line. Assamese people including other non-tribals engaged in business and were employed in various government departments. They considered themselves high caste Hindus. They looked down upon the Mazhabis as untouchables and disallowed them from mixing with their society. In tribal localities other than tending service latrines, people themselves cleaned their compounds and dumped the garbage in the municipal dustbins. The most irritating factors that locals take offence to, is their arrogant behaviour. People, especially women, dread to pass through Them Metor because brigands hiding in their colony harass passers-by even in broad daylight. To chase them is pointless since their homes are built like rodent holes with only the entry points visible. To lodge complaints with the police is useless in the absence of concrete evidence. Mazhabi Sikhs having consolidated themselves, named their settlement as Punjabi colony by erasing the Khasi name of Them Mawlong. They also acquired land deeds (pattas) in parts from Mylliem Raja, Mile Sing Syiem and his subsequent successors. He was the one who expedited shifting of erstwhile Iew Rynghep at Nongkseh Rim, Upper Shillong to the present site at Iewduh. The last deed was issued in 1954.They manipulated things in total disregard of the District Council and Government machinery. They set up a panchayat without the permission of the District Council and named the colony without approval of the State Cabinet.
Although they identify with the Sikh community, as followers of Guru Nanak they were considered to be of a lower caste, hence they maintain a separate Gurudwara at Them Metor. Some Mazhabis also became Christians (CNI and Catholics). The CNI built a chapel in the colony, but Catholics attend service in any city parish. With land patta and secure Government jobs in various establishments, the settlement thrived alongside unhealthy conditions. But things went awry when unruly elements led by Lal Singh, aka Appu, committed intolerable acts at main Iewduh. The notoriety was endured until on June 1, 1996, it developed into regular skirmishes with people of nearby localities. The situation was however kept under control by the Civil Administration. The still active HNLC closely monitored Lal Singh’s moves and one Sunday when he was checking his brand new Maruti car, a bullet was fired at him and he collapsed on the spot.
The crux of the problem is becoming clearer now. The present MDA State Government is trying to solve the entangled mess through the High Level Committee (HLC). Unfortunately, previous governments have not been serious with the matter. Stakeholders like Shillong Municipal Board, Cantonment Board and Syiem of Mylliem with his Dorbar Hima are mainly responsible for creating a rumpus. Even politicians who made use of the Harijan vote banks for their vested interests are equally accountable to the community in perverting the process through backdoor interference. Khasi customary law considers market places as sacred and strictly forbids construction of dwelling houses within their vicinity. On top of Iewduh there is a sacrosanct enclosure, specially preserved for the annual Pomblang Iewduh (Iewduh goat sacrifice).The sacred ceremony performed here precedes those of Pomblang Nongkrem (Nongkrem goat sacrifice) at Smit, Nguh ‘Lei Shyllong (paying obeisance to the God of Shillong). Thereafter other religious festivals followed. How did the Mylliem Dorbar Hima ignore this fact and allow the violation of the sanctity of Iewduh by allowing illegal slums to thrive and other structures of worship to coexist?
In Meghalaya there is no practice of panchayats. The Autonomous District Councils are constitutional bodies above panchayats. Under them fall the syiems, dolois, sordars, wahadadars, dorbar shnong, dorbar hima, elaka, akhing and nokma. Mazhabi Sikhs being outsiders, with majority of them illegal migrants, Hima Mylliem should not have issued patta or sanad to the colony. During the crises on June 1, 1996 and May 31, 2018, Sikh leaders from outside rushed to Shillong to make a big issue of the skirmishes. They symphathised with Mazhabi Sikhs but had no compassion for local victims brutalised at their hands! Is this the tenet of Sikhism? The National Human Rights Commission’s spot investigation vouched for this.
We appreciate Punjabi leaders’ concern for Mazhabis but the fact finding mission had dual motives – to vindicate denial of violence perpetrated by sweepers and to dictate terms to the Meghalaya Government not to resettle genuine employees elsewhere. By no means should Meghalaya succumb to external pressure for it has the full backing of the political machinery, civil administration, NGOs and local populace. Denial of history will be dangerous. Killing of PM Indira Gandhi, CM, H S Longowal and Gen AS Vaidya are concrete proof. Late KPS Gill, DGP and J Ribeiro risked their lives in Punjab. Even Kiran Bedi as SP had a tough time tackling talwar wielding Khalsas only with police lathi.
Sikh leaders want to disrupt Meghalaya’s plan for shifting genuine employees to a better place to give a facelift to the area. They have the resourceful Punjab State as their own. Instead of vying for Shillong’s sordid area, they can demand tagging Punjabi dominated enclaves in Rajasthan, Uttaranchal, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, UP, J&K and Chandigarh to expand their territory. Pakistan occupies a big chunk of Punjab. The Sidhu-Imran camaraderie or Sidhu-Bajwa hug could help part a portion of it. Ms Nikki Halley naturalised US Sikh citizen and UN Representative can be instrumental in this. This would ensure that Mazhabi Sikhs of Meghalaya are rehabilitated with dignity there. A recent review by Outlook magazine on India’s First War of Independence or Sepoy Mutiny 1857 reveals that the British deployed Sikh mercenaries to crush the movement. After Bhagat Singh’s revenge over the Jallianwala Bagh massacre it was disbanded. The imperialists then recruited Rajputs, Marathas, Tamilians, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and north-east people who were as good, brave, loyal and martial spirited. Sikhs enjoyed much freedom in India and prospered by sheer hard work, although misguided Khalsa and Khalistani elements emerged to fight for Sikh independent homeland. Khalistanis even crossed over to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Afghanistan, Australia, New Zealand, South-East Asia, USA, UK and Europe to establish bases in fulfilling their end. In Pakistan they are hand in gloves with ISI to malign India.
Ignoring Meghalaya’s goodwill gesture, Mazhabis sought help from Punjab and the BJP on exaggerated grounds. One MP from Punjab even lambasted Meghalaya irresponsibly. Intelligence sources warned of undercurrents because Mazhabis do not care to sidestep plans worked out for their betterment by the State. It’s a matter of time when bigger showdown with locals would erupt; hence the State has to act swiftly in sanitising Them Mawlong. Some years ago Paltan Bazaar, Guwahati was linked to Pan Bazaar by a steel railway over-bridge. Underneath was a colony of sweepers, living in shanty houses; thriving by rearing livestock which were let loose on the railway vacant land. Sweepers engaged themselves in rag picking and begging. After connecting the bridge with a fly-over, the unoccupied portion was completely sealed and the scavenger family left the area without a fuss.
Meghalaya is to become India’s smart city, but with the eyesore of filthy Them Mawlong, roads congested by vendors, regular traffic snarls, distracted view of Umkhrah and Umshyrpi rivers, non-planned constructions at Polo, Upper Mawprem, and Them Mawbah. What impression would outstation visitors have on Meghalaya’s capital? Besides being the State capital, Shillong also is a prism reflecting the image of Meghalaya.
By invoking relevant District Council and Meghalaya Land Transfer Acts, combined with strong political will, the State can easily overcome the crises. Writings on the wall indicate that many outside forces are using every means to destabilise and claim birthright of the State for their own gains. Local indigenous inhabitants have to be on constant guard lest a blight future ruins Meghalaya for good like Tripura, Sikkim and Assam. External political actors are projecting its internal issues even in Parliament, whereas our two MPs, (minus Garo Hills), propped up by the Congress preferred to keep silent, the reason being that MDA Government is a non-Congress coalition. Their interest is to enjoy the status and privilege of political representatives only and nothing more.