Sweepers’ Line Unrest In Shillong: Busting The Misinformation And Half-Truths

Klur Manik Syiem

Jul 17, 2018, 05:51 PM | Updated 05:51 PM IST

The colony from where the residents are being asked to vacate their homes by the government.
The colony from where the residents are being asked to vacate their homes by the government.
  • The conflict is wrongly being portrayed as a communal flare-up between Sikhs and Khasis.
  • Call it a travesty of the education system or otherwise, but it is somewhat strange that students from the North East are aware about the geography, history and polity of the rest of India, whereas the rest of India hardly knows about the North East. Students from the remote region are well aware about who Chhatrapati Shivaji was, or the capital of Punjab, or for that matter where Mumbai and Chennai are located. Forget about knowing the history of the region, simple geographical facts elude most of the population from the mainland. Often, upon visit to various cities of this great nation, I find a significant number of people are ignorant of the fact that Shillong is the capital of Meghalaya. They mistake Shillong for Ceylon. At first instance, one would think that it is a matter of syllables and pronunciation. Truth is they have not even heard of Meghalaya, one of the states on the Indian Union. It is hilarious, despite some coming and giving ‘unsolicited historical attestation’ to the age of the ‘Pine City.’

    What is Sweepers’ Line unrest?

    For the uninitiated, it relates to the almost two weeks of turmoil that Shillong witnessed, wherein a showdown between the security forces and the tribal youths took place, over the demand for the relocation of the Sweepers’ Line – a designated area housing the employees of the Shillong Municipal Board. It all started on 31 May 2018, when the conductor of a bus was assaulted by the residents of the Sweepers’ Line. There were varied explanations over how the brawl started. Some ascribed it to eve teasing, others say it was the argument over the ‘right of way’. Well, any attempt at ascertaining the truth has, by now, become purely academic.

    This incident that started as a brawl followed by the demand to shift the Sweepers’ Line, nonetheless, snowballed into a full-blown communal issue and allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Sikh political parties and organisations from other parts of India rushed to the capital city of Meghalaya. Over the next fortnight misinformation and misrepresentation flew thick and fast. Shillong attained national and even international ‘notoriety’. Members of the community from far off Australia took interest on the nondescript ‘Pine City’, by writing to the High Commissioner at Canberra, over the purported attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Punjabi community. In the mayhem, reality becomes the casualty and facts about the age of Shillong City gets distorted. Nomenclature of the Sweepers’ Line gets mischievously changed, unnecessarily dragging the name of a particular community and the state government unfairly accused of complicity in the so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’.

    It is on this premise that I would like to begin this narrative on the misinformation and half-truths vis-a-vis the Shillong Sweepers’ Line unrest.

    #1: Shillong, the capital city: It is an indisputable fact that Shillong, as an administrative capital, was the creation of the colonial rulers. Also uncontested is the fact that it was the British, who brought in the predecessors of the ‘employees’ at Sweepers’ Line, for the purpose of scavenging among others. There were, however, claims that Sweepers’ Line has been in existence since ‘180 years’ or as some claimed ‘more than 200 years’. The fact is, however, that Shillong’s prominence as the administrative capital was to occur only in 1864, when the district headquarters of the Khasi-Jaintia Hills district was shifted from Sohra (Cherrapunjee) to Shillong. In the article “Shillong and its Land System”, Late R T Rymbai (ex-IAS and an authority on such matters as he had been in the services since the pre-Independence period and was also the chairman, Land Reform Commission for Khasi Hills between 1973-74), asserted that, “there was no settled habitation by the name of Shillong till the British selected this valley as their district headquarters in 1864”. So the contention that the Sweepers’ Line having been in existence prior to 1864 is a ‘historical fallacy’.

    #2: ‘Punjabi Lane’ a misnomer: Records available with the Revenue Department, Government of Meghalaya, made mention of the word Sweepers’ Line, attesting to the fact that the word ‘Punjabi Lane’ is a misnomer. The word Sweepers’ Line is connected with the arrangement done in the colonial era. A study of the town settlements under the British in certain parts of India which had been directly annexed to the British Empire, notably the presidencies, shows that the towns have been divided into two parts. The first part, where the military resides and often is the seat of power, are generally referred to as the cantonment areas. The second one, where the civilians (generally, the ruled) reside, is called civil lines.

    In the Khasi Hills, however, as the territories of the Khasi states have not been ‘directly’ annexed, the question of civil lines does not arise. The Khasi Syiems (Rajahs) had administrative control over their own area. Though the British did not have a direct hold on to the reins of power, yet they possessed the authority to ‘command obedience’. Therefore, the colonial government commanded the local Rajahs into obedience to sell, allot or lease land to itself. Such areas are called ‘government land’ – read British India.

    Sweepers’ Line, as it stands now, was placed outside the ‘government land’, within the jurisdiction of the then Mylliem state. The question arises as to how or why was this arrangement done? When the sweepers were brought in by the British as employees for their ‘convenience’, how were they placed outside the government land? Truth is, since the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British had a deep sense of distrust for the ‘natives’, read Indians (I am using the word ‘Sepoy Mutiny’, with reference to the context which I am discoursing). It could have, therefore, been that the British commanded the Syiem into ‘obedience’, to allot a portion of the land for the settlement of its employees outside the ‘government land’.

    Hence, this area was meant as a designated ‘residential quarters’ called Sweepers’ Line, and not ‘Punjabi colony’, as mischievously misrepresented.

    #3 Land at Sweepers’ Line gifted by the Syiem of Mylliem to the residents: As is evident from records prior to the shifting of the capital from Sohra to Shillong in 1864, there was an agreement signed between the Syiem (referred to as rajah) of the Mylliem state, Mile Sing and Lt Colonel J C Haughton in December 1863. And it was in this agreement that large areas were leased to the British for constituting British India, which included the present European Ward, Police Bazar, Jail Road and Cantonment areas. The process of shifting of the capital started in 1864 and concluded by 1866. A portion of the land, outside ‘government land’, was commanded into obedience by the then sovereign government to be allotted for providing residential quarters for its employees (sweepers/scavengers). The service of these employees of the British government was restricted only to the ‘government land’.

    In the year 1874, Shillong was made the capital of the Assam administration and with that came the municipality. In 1878, only two localities outside the ‘government land’, read British India, were added to the Shillong municipality. The British government took upon itself the responsibility to clean the localities through the employees of the municipality (sweepers). It needs to be stated, however, that the administrative writ of the Syiem was never affected in these areas. That remained the situation, until India gained Independence. As necessitated by the requirements of post-Independent India, an agreement was signed in 1954 between the Shillong Municipal Board and Syiem of Mylliem, as regards the site at Sweepers’ Line, being residential quarters for housing the employees of the board.

    So, the question of the land being ‘gifted’ by the Syiem to the settlers does not arise. The so-called patta given was done only in 2008, and that too only for places of worship and a school. Issuance of patta does not bestow ownership rights over the land. This clause is usually clearly written on the terms and conditions of the patta, issued by the Syiem and his Dorbar. Besides, this area, Sweepers’ Line, is situated outside the ‘government land’, meaning that it is under the scheduled areas protected by relevant provisions of the law that prevents it from being transferred to non-indigenous people.

    #4 Ethnic cleansing: Ethnic cleansing? If one truly understands the connotation, overtone and undertone of the terminology, one would agree that it is too strong a terminology to have been used: and totally misplaced for this occasion. Efforts are on to draw parallels with the sporadic incidents of the late seventies, eighties and early nineties and hence scathing remarks such as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Those events need to be placed in the historical and political context of those times.

    Meghalaya was a young state, carved out of the then composite state of Assam, within a few decades after Independence, along with a few others. The birth of these states, in tune with the historical realities of the pre-colonial period, is seen to be efforts at realising the legitimate aspirations of the tribal people. However, Meghalaya, like Assam and Tripura, have been facing the problem of ‘migrants’ rush from the neighbouring areas in the 1960s and 1970s. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was not popular then, but this ‘demographic flood’ was interpreted by the ‘indigenous population’ as an attempt at decimation of the ‘tribal aspirations’ and threat of ‘racial extermination’ of the miniscule tribal populace, which was then just a few lakh. It is another question, however, whether the fear is justified or not. Nonetheless, Tripura has been a case point, for such a consequence of ‘migrants’ outnumbering the indigenous populace. Recent protests over the Citizenship Amendment Bill were held in almost all states of the North East, including Assam, at the ‘perceived’ demographic implications that the bill will have on the local populace of the region.

    The present issue over the Sweepers’ Line does not even come close to the ‘sporadic communal incidents’ of the yesteryears. The protests were concentrated only in the areas around Sweepers’ Line. The stray incidents that occurred were only for one truck, driven by a Punjabi driver, and some tourist taxis (not necessarily driven by persons of Sikh community) plying the Guwahati-Shillong road. There was no report of physical harm or loss of property of people from the ‘community’ (and there are hundreds of them) residing in various parts of Shillong.

    Therefore, the issue is one of relocating the residential quarters of the employees from one part of the city to another and not of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Besides, one doesn’t see any reason why the residents are said to be ‘ethnically cleansed’. A separate residential quarter has been specially constructed for them, not on the outskirts of Shillong as some news media are being misinformed, but at the plush European Ward which houses the ministers and government official bungalows.

    #5 Long-time residence provides permanent claimant rights: Sweepers’ Line is the residential quarters for employees of the Shillong Municipal Board. This has been and will be an indelible fact of history. The contention that long-time residence provides permanent occupancy rights does not hold water. If that is the presumption, then any employee availing residential quarters from the government or any organisation could claim permanent residential rights. That would be an expensive precedence, wouldn’t it? The very fact that the residents are resisting attempts at a government-directed survey, lent credence to the suspicion that everything is not above board in the settlement. There have been allegations of sub-renting among others in the area. Is that legal for a residential quarter? If somebody is playing the card of a victim for too long, one doubts the bonafides of such claims.

    #6 Government behind the whole agitation: The Meghalaya Democratic Alliance under the leadership of Conrad Sangma has been facing a lot of flak for the handling of the situation since 31 May 2018. None, however, falls under the bracket of ‘complicity’ or ‘connivance’. Documentary evidences from local news channels showed the residents of Sweepers’ Line coming out of their houses in ‘hundreds’ and letting out full-throated war cries brandishing swords, when Section 144 was in force and the Indian Army was conducting a flag march. The administration ‘calmly’ chose not to react, unless it aggravate the situation.

    In fact, the state has shown utmost hospitality to these people. Where else in India will you have a state government that opens its doors to politicians from outside the state and give them unlimited access to facts? Compare that to other states, where politicians are debarred entry on the plea that they will create a ‘law and order situation’. The Meghalaya government has shown utmost sagacity, maturity and transparency in the matter. It has promptly constituted a high-level committee to find a permanent solution to the long-pending issue of relocation. Hence, to accuse the state government of being complicit or taking sides is absolutely unfair.

    In the light of the above facts, I see no reason that the demand for the shifting of the residential quarters from the present location to other parts should be ‘manufactured’ as a communal issue, or worse, still, an ‘ethnic cleansing’. It would be wrong to turn this issue, at least not this one, into a communal flare-up. This issue should be seen, not from the prism of communalism, for that is not its core.

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