Sandeep Singh: Shillong Sikhs Have Called Punjabi Lane Home For Five Generations, Now Facing Forced Relocation

The Meghalaya government and the Shillong Municipal Board have signed a contentious agreement with the Syiem of Mylliem to transfer the land to the state. 

Sandeep Singh
November 1, 2021 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting

“Government takes possession of Harijan colony,” the Shillong Times reported on its front page this past Saturday. It is Meghalaya’s main daily, a state in India’s northeast. There are only about 350 Sikh homes in the colony of about 3.5 acres, but the prominence the story has been given in the leading paper tells a lot about how important the story has become locally. 

The Meghalaya government and the Shillong Municipal Board have signed a contentious agreement with the Syiem of Mylliem to transfer the land to the state. 

The colony is popularly known as Punjabi Lane, some 2,400 kilometers away from Amritsar. Home to Dalit Sikhs, as well as Dalit Christians, of Punjab. The lane is barricaded from both sides by the Central Reserve Police Force, which has set up permanent posts to control entry and exits. Outside vehicles are not allowed to enter, while the occasional pedestrian is stopped and searched. 

I explore Punjabi Lane with Gurjeet Singh, 55, the Secretary of the Harijan Village Committee when we walk past an abandoned gas station. 

”In 2018, a riot had broken out between the Khasis (a local tribe) and Punjabis. Since then paramilitary forces have been deployed in the area. As traffic has been stopped, a petrol pump owned by a Khasi in the lane has closed and many shops have been shut down due to less traffic in the area.” 

Punjabi Lane has a diversity of religious shrines in it, including a large Gurudwara, another one under construction, a Mandir, and a Church. 

Punjabis first moved here around the 1850s, during the British Raj, and use to work as manual scavengers. A British army camp used to be nearby, and the Syiem of Mylliem had given the land to Punjabis claims Gurjeet Singh. 

“Punjabis were living peacefully since the 1850s. However, in 1987, the Deputy Commissioner had got houses demolished in the Punjabi Lane area. In 1996, a part of the colony caught fire, and locals and the government started demanding the land. Punjabis protested in response and the government put up a curfew. We made efforts and rebuilt the old structures.” 

Gurjeet Singh claims the Meghalaya government has been trying to evict the Punjabis since then, but they are not ready to leave. 

“On June 1, 2018, the entire colony was attacked by a crowd of about 400 to 500 Khasis with petrol bombs and stones. Punjabis took out their lathis and swords to shoo them away. After the initial violence, the Indian Army took out a flag march and the lane returned to normalcy. The government formed a High-Level Committee to decide the fate of the Punjabis living in the lane and it was decided to relocate them.”

Gurjeet Singh continues.

“We had filed a case in the High Court which stayed the government’s plan to evict us. Back in 2008, the Syiem of Mylliem recognized the fact that Punjabis have been living here since the 1850s. We have right of occupancy and possession is with us.” 

Punjabi Lane is in the heart of the city and its commercial value is in the crores. Many believe this is why the government has been acting so aggressively in attempting to relocate the Punjabis and taking control of the land. 

Sham Singh, 45, is a banker. He shares with me that that where Punjabis now live was once a completely barren area where no one wanted to come. 

“But now this area has been developed the government wants this land back so that it can commercialize it. Punjabi Lane is the second most prime location in all of Shillong after Bara Bazar. It is the value of land which is behind the government’s attempts to take it from Punjabis.”

Fumty Marwein, 55, is the daughter of a Punjabi father and a Khasi mother and speaks English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Khasi.

”My father drove trucks of dirt and my brother-in-law worked with others as a manual scavenger. At that time locals used to call our area dirty because our people work as manual scavengers. They used to avoid passing by our area. But after sanitation came locals started saying that they will themselves work as sweepers and Punjabis should go back to Punjab.” 

Marwein tells me that her family has lived in Shillong for five generations now, but she has noticed increasing hatred against the Sikhs. 

“Look at this local newspaper in which a statement from the leader of Khasi Student Union (KSU) is published. He said that kids of today’s sweepers will become tomorrow’s politicians.”

Many have begun to see the government’s actions as a political act. Notification of possession was issued a day before by-elections for three assembly constituencies - polarizing local tribal people in the ruling party’s favour.  The opposition Congress has raised this question and the Election Commission has taken notice as well.

Sham Singh’s family has called the area home for multi-generations now. 

“My Grandfather died here and my father was born and died here as well. It has been more than 150 years since we started living here but now they want us to leave this place. How can we leave this place, where we have been living for such a long time? Since the 2018 riots, we have been facing problems. Our Sikh kids don’t easily get admission in schools, departments keep our official work pending, and locals look at us as if they will eat us. Even if schools have the seats they will try not to give it to a Sikh kid.”

Pirthi Das hails from Shankarapura village of Gurdaspur’s Batala Tehsil and serves in the temple of Guru Nanak’s son, Baba Shri Chand. Das claims that his maternal grandfather had moved to Shillong before the 1850s and after him, his father and mother came to the region. Now Das and his sons and grandkids live in Shillong.  

“It has been more than 150 years since we started living here. Do you think we would want to leave? Four to five generations have been living here. So we want to live here.”

I come across Sandeep Singh, 29, who dropped out of college due to family problems. He explains the dilemma facing local Punjabis. 

“Even after living here for more than 150 years, we are called outsiders and told to leave this place for Punjab. It is happening in our own country named India. Whenever we see Punjabis living in Canada reaching great heights without being discriminated against it makes us feel proud. At the same time, we feel sad that why do we get such bad treatment in our own country?”

I end my tour of the lane with Gurjeet Singh. He takes seriously the role of being the main lead in fighting the relocation matter.  

“The government is saying it wants to remove the Punjabis but we will act on the basis of the High Court order and fight for our rights.”

He has no choice but to remain defiant. 

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Sandeep Singh hails from Machhiwara, Punjab. As an independent journalist, he has worked with many prominent Indian news organizations. Sandeep has been following the farmer’s protest in Punjab since its onset and traveled with them to Delhi. He spends most of his time at the Singhu border protest site. You can follow Sandeep on Twitter @Punyaab


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