Dilemmas of Shillong’s Dalit Punjabis

It took an argument between three young Khasi boys and a Punjabi woman of Punjabi Lane, Iew Mawlong Shillong for the whole world to know that there are Sikhs in Tribal Shillong and there are serious tensions between them and Khasis, for which Khasis can throw stones, Sikhs can brandish their swords and both can spread fake WhatsApp messages with fantasies of death and destruction (and a Punjabi Akal Channel to send Shillong to Mongolia). Dalit vs Tribals, Khasi vs. Dkhar, Sikh vs Christians, Rock vs. Bhangra, Scotland vs Canada – media used every binary available in their coffee machines to describe our recent troubles. Journalism became stereotypes written in a hurry.

RAIOT, the most unpopular and laziest gutterzine from Shillong kept its curfew silence. Confession – apart from recollecting our Punjabi Lane experiences, we were not even sure that there were Sikhs living in Punjabi Lane. Our curiosity about the people led us to publish a long historical essay by Prof. Himadri Banerjee. And suddenly we found that this long essay started its viral journey on Social Media and journalists and thinkpiecers started throwing around the phrase Mazhabi Sikhs. Some looking to establish Sikh solidarities started trolling us for our impudence in pointing out caste hierarchy within the Sikh faith. And then there were those who cursed us for the length and seriousness of the essay.

So here we go again with a sequel by Prof. Birinder Pal Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab (we had no idea that there is a Punjab University and a Punjabi University). This essay describes socio-economic profile of the Mazhabi Sikhs (and other ‘sweeper’ Punjabis) settled at Shillong for more than a century. These safai karamcharis (sweepers) have been keeping the city clean but themselves live in worst slums. The essay tries to locate survival strategies of Punjabi sweepers in a milieu hostile to ‘outsiders’. What makes them stick together, maintain their ethnic and religious identity and resist various attempts to ‘relocate’ them. This brilliant essay (based on research conducted in 2012) was languishing since 2016 in Sikh Formations, an academic journal with exactly ONE view. 

So, dear readers get ready for a clearheaded, grounded reasearch essay on many lives of the residents of Punjabi Lane/Line, Iew Mawlong Shillong. Know them before you even think of evicting them.

This essay is a description of the needs of a population that defines itself as a community for improving its quality of life. It is an attempt to obtain empirical data first hand for the first time on Mazhabi Sikhs, locally called Punjabis inhabiting Shillong. This study sponsored by the National Commission for Minorities, New Delhi, has the main objective to identify such communities there that demand the immediate attention of the government for welfare. It serves two purposes, one, of identifying the poor slum dwelling Sikh minority community settled for at least last a century. Two, it is a sequel to Himadri Banerjee’s historical study that provides a social historical sketch of these Sikhs. This essay tends to supplement history with sociology, social history with socio-economic profile. It also intends to highlight the plight of Sikhs outside Punjab living in slums, a fact hard to believe by Sikhs themselves.

The present study differs from Banerjee’s in the sense of focusing on Mazhabi Sikhs alone not their relation with other Sikhs at both places. There is hardly any difference between them at two places; rather they are interlinked through bonds of marriage and kinship besides places of origin of their migration since all of them belong to two districts – Amritsar and Gurdaspur – in Punjab. It may be summed up as

Je Guhati saure te Shillong peke and vice versa. If parents are at Shillong then in-laws are at Guwahati and vice versa.

Even if Guwahati was the point of break in rail journey to the hill resort and then headquarters of the colonial administration Shillong, it had no fascination for Sikhs since the Shillong municipal board provided employment to them. They were on its rolls since its establishment in 1910. (Banerjee 2010) The Harijan Colony at Marakhali (Guwahati) came up later in 1930.

The respondents inform that their grandparents were brought to Shillong to work as safai karmacharis (sweepers) by an English military regiment that served in Punjab earlier. It sounds plausible as the local tribal people would not remove the night soil of colonial officers and civilians alike. There is no menial caste amongst them. And, the bug of market society had not bitten them then. Therefore, the choice of Mazhabi Sikhs for the city’s cleanliness and sanitation fell on them. They are a hardy people even amongst Punjabis. The presence of a people of ‘martial race’ in the upcoming cantonment on the north-east frontier adjoining Burma also might have suited the administration.1

LOCALE

Sweeper Lane / Punjabi Line / Harijan Basti / Them Metor / Mawlonghat / Iew Mawlong – Many names, many histories

The Sweepers Line at Bara Bazar / Iewduh (Shillong) or Punjabi Colony is the largest settlement with about 252 houses and more than double the number of families residing there on both sides of the market road in the heart of the city (Iew Mawlong/Mawlonghat of Iewduh). Although there are different estimates of population at Bara Bazar. According to a ‘Note on Sweeper Colony, Mawlonghat’ submitted by the Director of Urban Affairs Department, Shillong in July 2010 there were 200 families residing in 1990 that increased to 249 as per a joint survey by the Shillong Municipal Board and the Harijan Panchayat Committee in March-April 2007. It rose to 342 in 2010.

The larger population on the upper side has a City Gurdwara, two temples of Shiva and Durga and a Balmik ashram. 2

The roadside houses have shops of various types on both sides. There is Guru Nanak Lower Primary School established in 1964 on the opposite side that has been upgraded to upper primary in 2010. The school principal is also the general secretary of the City Gurdwara Management Committee (CGMC) and of the Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC) functioning since earlier times but formally registered in 1993. There is also an Sadhu Sundar Singh Church of the Church of North India which caters to at least 50 of the families.

Another Punjabi colony at Gora Line has about 160 households on the lower side of the hill road. It has a gurdwara renovated in 2009, inaugurated by the local minister, and a Balmik ashram. At Happy Valley and Cantonment, there are a few scattered families only. The Cantonment gurdwara is under the control of a single family residing there.

In Guwahati their concentration is at Marakhali, earlier on the outskirts of the town near the cremation grounds (as also the Gora Line near the burial grounds in Shillong.) Starting from meagre 6 to 7 households in 1930 it has grown into a congested colony of about 80 households. Fatasil and Malegaon have a few households but Last Gate Colony at Dispur, the new capital of Assam, closer to the government secretariat has larger population comprising about 150 households. It has its own gurdwara, a temple and a Balmik ashram. The respondents inform that earlier they were at Shillong and employed at the secretariat.

When the capital was shifted to Dispur in 1972 we opted for it.

Most of its senior residents were and still are working as safai karmacharis at the secretariat, other government and private institutions. The younger ones indulge in a variety of trades.

At Guwahati and Shillong are both class I towns and yet the habitation of Mazhabi Sikhs is full of filth, foul smell and overflowing drains. Narrow and winding lanes are often used for washing and cooking since there is no such space inside numerous houses. Initially, in Shillong, there were independent barracks but over time, natural population growth has increased its density enormously. The division of residential space and encroachment of pathways has increased accommodation capacity but enhanced congestion. Restriction on colony’s expansion and not allowing the ‘outsiders’ to buy land and property at Shillong too contributes to congestion and stink. The central location of these settlements leaves no scope for any expansion, given the scarcity of land and exorbitant prices at both places. None of these settlements are purely Sikh or Punjabi though dominant yet have households of other migrant communities from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Bengal, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal and Bangladesh.

PEOPLE

Given the homogeneity, a random sample was taken from each of the colonies at Shillong and Guwahati/Dispur totalling 175 households, all Sikhs. The respondents have 136 males and 39 females; 37.7% heads of the households are in the age group of 30–40 years and 34.3% between 40 and 50 years, that is, 72.0% respondents are between 30 and 50 years. 17.2% are above 50 years and 10.8% below 30 years. 65.2% are engaged in job or service while 10.3% have own petty business like a corner shop in their own house. 10.85% men work as drivers.

Earlier the municipalities at Guwahati and Shillong and the government secretariats were their major employers and a father’s retirement would lead to his son’s placement in the same position. Majority of respondents are still employed as safai karmacaharis or as peons etc. in various offices. The Department of Urban Affairs (DUA), Shillong conducted a survey in 2007 to ascertain the number of legal or actual municipal employees staying at Sweepers Colony, Bara Bazar and found out that a total of 1204 persons are staying there out of which 291 adult males and 282 adult females are working with Shillong municipal- ity while 47 adult males and 48 adult females are with other departments of the government. The remaining population consists of minor children. 3 Their responses reflect distinctly that for all the 175 respondents there is no occupational change over the last five years.

The employment crunch and non-filling of vacancies as government policy has led to unemployment of the younger generation besides the policy of employing the locals only. A respondent sums up the general sentiment:

Phelon tan naukrian hi nahin. Je nikaldi hai tan NGO pahunch jande ne ki local layo.
First there are no jobs. As and when advertised, then NGOs dictate that only local be employed
4

Now local tribal people too are willing to undertake these (safai karamchari) jobs. This has blocked the employment opportunities of Punjabi youth who had ensured employment earlier. In the words of a young respondent:

Hun ehna nu vi akal aa gayee ki thoda ja chahdu maar ke changey paise milde aa.
The locals too have understood the benefit of sweeper jobs of getting good salary without doing much.

Most young male Sikhs now prefer driving a cab either hired or on salary though only eight households own a vehicle. Retirement benefits of the parents are pooled with bank loans to purchase a cab. Parents too think:

Bachae nu settle vi tan karna wa.
The son is to be engaged usefully.

Moreover, both cities have strong tourist attraction and the quantum of tourism – national and international – has increased tremendously over the last two decades.

A look at the respondents’ income levels reveals that 42.8% earn between Rs. 5000 and 14,000 per month and 36.0% above the said range while 21.2% less than Rs. 5000 per month. These households have sufficient income since 65.0% respondents are employed but they do not count well on family assets as 92.6% have neither land nor shop. None has any cattle and 98.0% have no pets either. The government rules in Shil- long do not permit ‘outsiders’ to buy property.

Even if 90.3% houses are pucca (made with bricks), 75.43% have temporary roof with corrugated sheets while 22.86% have permanent roof. The condition of floors is better since 61.14% houses have cemented floor. But sanitary conditions are deplorable as 13.7% houses have neither bathrooms nor toilets and 7.0% are without a kitchen. 34.3% households use a common source for water which is a major source of social conflict between women and families within the colony as majority cases reported to Pradhan (the president) are on this issue.5 82.3% households use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking and 98.3% use electric bulb for light. Interestingly, despite slum dwelling 37.2% households have scooters/motor bikes. However, 48.6% of these have no vehicle at all.

70.0% respondents claim to own a house as they have installed own electricity meters and built additional accommodation as the family size increased but the fact is that these barracks at Shillong (Bara Bazar and Gora Line) and Marakhali were built by the respective municipal committees.  The son could retain the house on his father’s retirement and get it transferred in his name with a right to use. However, 30.0% respondents have reported living on rent. The president of a colony in Shillong says:

Sadde bajurgan ne kha-pee ke taem kadd chha- diya, koi jaidad wal dhiyan nahin ditta jiven Bangalian te Napalian ne praperty banayi aa. Sannu surat aayi, tan bandash lagg gayi.
Our elders did not care to invest in property like the Bengalis and the Nepalese. They simply whiled away their time. When we became conscious the government banned it.

Of the total households, 46.3 and 39.4% have 3–4 and 5–6 members, respectively, in a family though 13.2% families have more than six members. The data show that 83.5% respondents are living in two to three rooms. There is hardly spatial mobility of the respondents since 85.2% are staying at their place of residence since birth and the remaining for more than 15 years.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE

Post-independence resurgence of tribal political consciousness has made them aware of their constitutionally protected rights and privileges and gain political rights. Adoption of the ‘sons of the soil theory’ has conveniently made all non-indigenous people as ‘outsiders’(dkhar) and has become the source of conflict between them. Myron Weiner comments in the context of Assam:

Clashes between migrants and the indigenous population have become prominent feature of post-independence politics within multiethenic developing countries. 6

Shillong, a hill resort and a colonial town as administrative hub for the far east in the midst of Khasi and Jaintia hills and dominated by the Khasis has numerous communities from outside the region including Mazhabi Sikhs from Punjab besides the Bengalis, Marwaris, Nepalese, Biharis, Muslims (sometimes tarred as Bangladeshis) and the tribal people from neighbouring states. Shillong was the capital of united Assam till 1972 and later of the newly formed Meghalaya. Subir Bhaumik writes:

In Meghalaya, the tension between indigenous tribesmen and outsiders has been largely restricted to the state’s capital Shillong, … . Since loss of tribal lands … has been restricted mostly to Shillong and its surroundings, violence against settlers has been most intense in and around Shillong. 7

The issue of ‘outsider’ does not bother them much in Guwahati which is the concern of the tribal outfits in the interior areas of Assam. They are called bahirghati. Its large size and heterogeneity of population with 963,429 persons in 2011 acts like a buffer. Shillong city is small (143,007 persons) though its metropolitan area has 354,325 persons in 2011.

The formation of a separate state enhanced the morale of local pressure groups who started dictating their own terms to the elected government. In the words of Subir Bhaumik:

In recent years, all across North East, generic identities that emerged during the last days of colonial rule and consolidated in the early years of the Indian Republic have tended to splinterize. The material advantages that follow recognition as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in India have encouraged retribalization. 

The political demand of reserving jobs for the locals only generated hostility between communities. It led to the branding of the non-tribal as ‘outsider’. Tribal people even from other regions of the India were not suspect.11 To safeguard the economic interests of the locals the government banned purchase of property by ‘outsiders’. The Sikh youth grumble:

Asin outsider kiven hoye. Koi Pakistano aaye aan. Asin Hindustani nahin?
How are we outsiders? Have we come from Pakistan? Aren’t we Indians?

It adds to their dilemma, to be or not to be there. The senior generation wishes to return to Punjab but the younger one finds the present residence more fascinating given their peer group and metropolitan opportunities for work and occupation relative to Punjab where they see no scope. The question of social status and identity is important too. In Punjab living at the outskirts of a village in a caste society or even in a city is more discriminating than being ghettoized in the North-East. I. P. Singh profiling a village in Amritsar district writes about Mazhabis in the early 1970s:

They live on one side of the village, and a long wall of the backs of the houses of the higher caste group separates them from others in the village. About twenty families live a hundred yards away on the land given to them for residence by the father of the Sarpanch on the birth of his first son. Mazhbis work as farm laborers, while their wives clean the courtyards, collect cow dung and make cow dung cakes. Further, they have a separate well and a separate small room as marriage palace ( janj ghar) ‘in their part of the village’ while all other castes use the gurdwara premises for marriages. 

Balbir Madhopuri writes in his autobiography about his own village in Punjab:

If an untouchable (chamar/churah) boy moves out from home after a bath and combed hair, then someone from the Jutt group (dhani) sitting under a tree or tharah (platform of bricks) would put sand on his head. If he protested, he was thrashed ( fainta chariah janda). Similarly an untouchable moving out with a new set of clothes was beaten too on the pretext that he was trying to be like them. 8

The situation about 40 years later is not all well. Paramjit S. Judge and Gurpreet Bal write about five villages in the district and the city as well:

mazabi respondents of Amritsar district reported caste-based exclusion of religious practices. Many of them said that the upper caste Sikhs did not allow them to carry the sacred book to their residence for purpose of performing various rituals/ceremonies … Similar information was given by the mazabis of Guru Ki Wadali – an erstwhile village that has become a locality of Amritsar city. 9

Judge and Bal note much change over time yet:

At the level of the caste system, inequalities and exclusion continue to show their existence, the evidence of which could be ascertained on the basis of data on social ecology, occupation and access to religious places

And before them Surinder Jodhka too concludes from his survey on untouchability in 51 villages:

Notwithstanding the changes experienced in almost all spheres of life, the continuities are not yet insignificant. Rural Punjab has not forgotten caste 10

Even I was told by Bhai ji of gurdwara in Dispur:

The Akali Dal has forced us to convert to Christianity. They were not allowing us to enter Darbar Sahib. They would refer to us as: ‘some’ (koi) Sikh brought the beheaded head of Guru Tegh Bahadur. A president of the SGPC would refer to us as ‘kachhehrian diyan juan ne uppar na charan diyo’ (ticks of the long breeches who should not be allowed to climb.

He added:

Aithon da mahaul Punjab nalo changa wa. Saade munde smack tan nahin peende, daru-sikka chald’ai. Mere pind’ch 40 smakiye ne.
The milieu here is better than Punjab. Our boys do not take smack at least though they do take liquor. There are about 40 boys in my village who take smack.

In the North-East they are not discriminated as low caste at least but on grounds of ethnicity as Punjabis, as also by upper caste and class Sikhs, and other communities. Mazhabis find it easy to neutralize this hostility in their quotidian life than do anything with their caste status in Punjab. They know how to fight back. The history of Sikhs also tells them not to remain subdued. The Punjabi culture too values fierce retaliation – ikki de katti paune or itt da jawab pathar naal dena (reply to bricks by stone) etc.11

WOULD WE BE EVICTED?

The Mazhabis at Shillong and Guwahati are especially targeted for eviction in the name of slum clearance and beautification of the two cities and to build a flyover and multi-level parking in Shillong to ease traffic congestion. No doubt these problems are there not in these cities of the North-East but all over the country, which is why the residents of Punjabi colonies at Guwahati and Shillong especially at Bara Bazar are not willing to vacate. They fear it to be a ploy to dislodge them and then throw out forever. The HPC is struggling against the government and the Shillong Municipality. They have approached the Human Rights Commission, the National Commission for Minorities, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, seeking help in this regard but without success. The secretary of the HPC is busy mailing their grievances to all quarters. They have also filed a law suit against eviction citing evidence that the Syiem (chief) of Mylliem had allotted this land for their settlement. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation has constructed a multi-storey building at Marakhali adjacent to the sweeper colony for allotment to its residents. They have agreed and are rather happy but that is not the case with Shillong dwellers or those at the Last Gate Colony, Dispur.

The history of Shillong has witnessed local nationalist movements against other non-tribal (dkhar) communities but only the Punjabis are stuck it out and resisted through various means.12

As I was told:

Hale tak Sikhan naal kuchh nahin hoyiya.
Nothing has happened to the Sikhs so far.

But they are becoming frequently the target of local peoples’ rage because they are neither moving out nor shying away from resisting which is why their number has increased recently. Punjabis have resolved not to be sitting ducks to them rather retaliate fiercely. Colloquially put:

Asin chupp nahin behnde, karara jawab deyi da wa, nahin tan sir chad jaan ge. Bhaaji rakhi di nahin, ikki de katti maudi de aa.

Two incidents, one in the recent past (2012), are important.

In the first case of 2012, a group of Punjabi boys were standing at the turn of their colony (Gora Line). Some Khasi boys came in a car and shouted at them:

You outsiders (dkhar) why don’t you go home (des).

One of them alighted from the car and hit a boy with a beer bottle and fled away. The Punjabi boys called their people, got onto their motor bikes and chased them. ‘They got hold of them and thrashed them well,’ so narrates a respondent. The Khasi boys reported the case to the police. The local lady minister came to Gora Line along with the police and district officials and insisted on handing over the culprits. All residents came out of their houses and refused to hand them over. The officials kept camping there till midnight. The community leaders insisted: ‘We shall hand over our boys only if you hand over to us the Khasi boys.’ The stalemate continued for some time without any conclusive action.13

In the second case of 2004, when 40 houses of the Gora Line were gutted in fire and the residents started rebuilding their houses, the city administration found an opportunity to stall reconstruction, a step in the direction of their eviction and slum clearance. The police force was also used for this purpose. Residents apprehensive of the administration’s design resisted eviction and arrests putting up their women as shield. The Khasi boys too pelted stones on them in the presence of police. Sikhs believe that CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) is neutral since it is not under the state government while the state police is biased against them and favours local people.

‘Our men too were ready with swords etc. in case of any eventuality’, recalls a respondent. It was the occasion of Guru Nanak gurpurab (birth anniversary) celebrations when the LPG cylinder had burst in the gurdwara kitchen. A senior resident recalls:

The reconstruction of the gurdwara too was stalled many a times but we were not relenting. Overnight we would raise the structure that finally led to its completion in many stages. That is why it was completed in 2009.

What happened above has its own history of differences, discord and distrust between the two communities. The fire that broke out in Bara Bazar on 22 March 1996 gutted many houses including a part of the Guru Nanak School. The President and the Secretary of the City Gurdwara, Shillong, mention in their representation dated 3 October 2006 to the National Commission for Minorities, New Delhi:

No Government authorities came to their assistance; only the two Gurdwaras in the city helped the victims … On top of it, the D.C. (Deputy Commissioner) East Khasi Hills District issued prohibition U/S 144 Cr.P.C. in the Colony to prevent the victim citizens from building their homestead. A Writ Petition was filed (Civil Rule No. 31 (SH) 96) … the learned Single Bench of the High Court stayed the order of D.C. and made a remand in his judgement: ‘I fail to understand why on the same day even when the fire was not put out, the District Magistrate passed the impugned order.’

The president and secretary of the CGMC and HPC, Bara Bazar had been making representations to authorities at all levels from the local police to the President of India from time to time, apprising them of their grievances but to no avail. The oft-quoted grievance as in the letter dated 25 November 2011 to the National Commission for Minorities is that

the Shillong Municipal Board, the Urban Affairs Department and its Agencies and other such authorities have always been looking down upon the community and there has been conspiracy after conspiracy to demolish the Gurudwara & Guru Nanak School and drive away the people of the colony … 14

Over these years the local leaders and administration had made announcements for their eviction and relocation. The Urban Affairs Minister reiterated on 21 August 2007:

the government was firm in its decision to shift sweepers from Sweepers Line, Mowlonghat, to the government housing units at Nongmynsong
(
The Meghalaya Guardian. 2007. “Shifting of Mawlonghat Residents will Take Place: Paul Lyngdoh,” August 22.).

But the local leaders have already challenged and condemned the government’s decision:

Government’s move to accommodate the sweepers in the Housing department’s colony at Nongmynsong was unacceptable, arguing that the colony was meant for providing housing facility to poor and homeless people.’ Moreover, ‘Nongmynsong does not fall under Shillong Municipal Board’s jurisdiction …’
(The Shillong Times. 2007. “Nongmynsong Rebuffs Paul Move on Sweepers’ Lane residents”,August 12.).

The mounting pressure of multiple factors like the local politics of insider versus outsider, the administrative moves to beautify the town and ease traffic congestion in the wake of growing tourist industry, the rising congestion within the colony and eviction of other communities over the past years may have softened the stand of the Bara Bazar residents to comply with administration by stating their terms of settling them there only in a housing colony. Thus the HPC in its meetings on 24 September and 9 October 2011 resolved the terms and conditions for the proposed residential colony. It listed 27 items and submitted the same to the Urban Affairs Minister on 20 October 2011 with copies to 18 offices starting from the President of India to the local media.15

The senior generation, as per their tradition here, especially after retirement, wishes to return to Punjab for emotional reasons (aapni dharti wa), their motherland. One respondent who retired from the Meghalaya State Electricity Board says:

Bas ji bachian karke baithe’an. Ji tan Punjab jaan nu karda wa. Othon da tan paani vi gheo vang lagda’i.
We are here for the sake of children but wish to return to Punjab.

Another 80-year-old former President of the Guwahati Municipal Sweepers’ Union with many feats to his credit is insisting on settling in Punjab. His son remarks:

I ask him to visit Punjab and be there for as long as he likes but permanent shifting is not possible. People there always look at us what have we brought for them (ki liaaye aa), at least tea if nothing else. After a few days stay, things are different … We had built three shops near Central Jail Amritsar. The occupants are neither paying us rent nor vacating. I approached the local M.L.A. (Member Legislative Assembly) (names him). He refused help, ‘We have to listen to our voters, not you.’ Then I lodged a complaint with the police. No one listens. On my insistence, the police officer tells: ‘Tusin tan baharle’on, asin tan aithon walian nu sunna’i.’ You are an outsider. We have to listen to the locals. Finally, we had to ‘strike a deal’. What do we do under such circumstances? My father doesn’t listen to me. He gets emotional (bhavuk ho janda’i). I have some business in Guwahati (vadda shehar’ai). What shall I do there (in Punjab)? No one knows me there and no employment chances as well. We are a tragic people, outsiders here and outsiders there.

All Punjabi people in the North-East are living with this dilemma, to be or not to be there. The one getting a chance to move out on the basis of education, business or employment prefers it making an excuse:

Yahan kuchh nahin hai.’
There are no opportunities here
.

All others tend to stick out there under whatever circumstances. They have understood the message of the times present. They have formed associations at the level of locality and community to fight for their rights and their welfare. The data reveal that 96.0% have such associational memberships though each one does not have acumen to engage in active community politics that is the creed of 58.3% respondents only. In a way politics is imposed on them. A senior person remarks:

Changey-bhaley baithhey san, ehna ne majboor kar ditta wa.
We were happy with ourselves but threats of throwing out have forced us to show our strength and nuisance value to the local administration.

RESURGENCE OF SIKH IDENTITY

Punjabis now know well that ‘befitting reply’ is the only way to stay put which is why there is resurgence of the Khalsa identity though for political purposes of asserting their presence and local embeddedness. Earlier turban was supported by a few of the older generation but now the younger generation too is inclined especially between 15 and 30 years. Many of them have taken amrit, keep flowing beards and support kakar, the Sikh symbols. Bhai ji of the Last Gate Colony gurdwara informs (June 2012) that 50 boys have taken amrit recently out of which 12 are from Bara Bazar. He reiterates:

Aj bachae ziada ne dastaran wale, pehlon nahin si. Mere tinne munde sardar ne. Badi tagdi personality wa. Kise nu pata nahin lagda eh Mazhabi ne.
Now a day more youngsters are supporting turban than earlier. My three sons have the Sikh form and appear impressive. None can make out their Mazhabi status.

This seems in tune with what Stephen Harrison Oppong has observed:

Youths are more likely to struggle with identity cohesion, as they continually search for a sense of self. Basically, youths undergone this psychological journey so as to solidify and understand their experience of self as well as identifying and associating themselves with the familial, vocational and societal roles…

Religion is more likely to play significant role in identity formation in a culture where youth confront a continually fluctuating social and political milieu. Essentially, the transcendent meaning derived from religious affiliation is important for a youth identity development and well-being…

The existing literature on religion and identity is limited. However, evidence from few studies in the area suggests that religion is correlated with identity formation. For instance, religiosity is found to be relevant in explaining commitment and purposefulness in terms of identity formation. 16

The political circumstances, particularly in Shillong, are conducive to such developments whereby youth are getting ‘serious’ with regard to their religious identity. It has no contradiction with Punjabi ethnicity.

The present data show there is no one in the sample who does not believe in Guru Granth Sahib; 72.0% respondents recite gurbani while 93.2% view it on television as Punjab Television Company, a television channel telecasts daily live gurbani kirtan from Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar. All respondents actively participate in the celebration of gurpurabs and 87.5% undertake pilgrimage especially to Dhubri Sahib in Assam about 500 kms away. It is associated with the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur. But only 30.28% respondents have reported taking amrit once and majority of them are not regular with its observation. They are loose about the prescribed rituals. The hair (kesh) are supported by 58.28% and many of them are women and elderly males. Kangha (comb) and kirpan are supported by 32.57% and there is no relation of correspondence between them. Moreover these are symbolic entities and miniatures than actual ones. Interestingly, kada (steel wristlet) is supported by all respondents. It seems for them ‘the’ symbol of Sikh identity.

Though there are sporadic cases of local marriages, 98.3% respondents perform Sikh rituals on all rites of passage of birth, marriage and death. And last of all, despite labelling of being outsiders and having a distinct identity of a Sikh/Punjabi, 94.86% respondents believe that they have no difficulty in practising their religion. This may also be attributed to their remaining ever in high spirits following the Guru’s blessings – Chardi kala of the Khalsa.

All the four major settlements of Mazhabi Sikhs at Shillong and Guwahati have their own gurdwara and a Balmik ashram and almost all respondents participate in all celebrations equally and collectively, be it a gurpurab or Balmik jayanti. Langar (free meals) is also prepared collectively and served to all. Since 2002 they have restarted organizing Sikh religious processions (nagar kirtan jaloos) with pomp and show greater than before. Respondents claimed that in 2012:

Aida vadda jaloos kade nahin niklaya. Sangat bahron wi aayee si.
Mundian’ch poora josh si.We had the biggest procession ever on Baisakhi replete with enthusiasm especially amongst youth. Sangat came from outside Shillong as well

A medium-sized goods carrier decorated with flowers all over carried the palanquin with Guru Granth Sahib. The procession was led by armed five Khalsa Sikhs, the panj piyaras. Gatka (Sikh martial art) players kept showing their agility throughout the procession. All participants brandishing naked swords with jaikaras (war cries) of Jo bole so nihal, Sat Sri Akal; Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki fateh and Raj karega Khalsa definitely must have unnerved the local populace and administration. But it has to be understood as a means of expressing solidarity.

VIOLENCE & VALOUR

A few years ago, a letter in the name of Balwinder Singh, Regional Commander (North- East) of the onetime dreaded Babbar Khalsa International,17 an outfit highly active in Punjab militancy, was received by The Shillong Times (2007):

By the end of this month (December), we are going to explode (blast) bombs in Shillong city to take revenge on you for committing atrocities on Punjabis residing in Sweepers Colony (Punjabi Colony) in Iewduh in previous years and for India’s oppression on us.

The following day the City Gurdwara and Harijan Panchayat Committee (CG&HPC) and the Khasi Students Union (KSU) ‘strongly condemned the bomb threat to Shillong’. CG&HPC rebutted it as it is meant to ‘create undue tension between different communities’. KSU also added, ‘the students body was not afraid of “this kind of threat” and that it would continue to fight to “protect our own people”.’ Further, it called upon the ‘State Government to take the issue of influx seriously before it was too late’ 18

A young man of Gora Line reminisces:

Many Khasis were requesting us to acknowledge their innocence that they did no wrong. We are brothers.

The case of Pal Singh of Bara Bazar is also illuminating. According to files of the Department of Urban Affairs, Government of Meghalaya, Pal Singh of Sweeper Colony was extorting money from shopkeepers and misleading youth. A complaint to this effect was filed by a social worker in April 2001 and enquiry was conducted by Extra assistant commissioner, Shillong attesting to above charges. Some residents pf Punjabi Lane though remember Pal Singh’s strength and bravery. As they say that Pal Singh, aving been left as killed by some Khasi youth walked up to the hospital on his own.

The local people were terribly scared of him. He could lift a Khasiya with a single hand

It is a result of this reputation of Sikhs that the city administration too is ‘scared’ of them. A senior official of the Department of Urban Affairs narrates:

All sorts of illicit activities happen in Bara Bazar but the police dare not enter there. Once when a police party raided the colony a senior police officer too was manhandled.
The residents of this colony are considered violent and criminal, indulging in flesh trade, gambling and liquor worth lakhs of rupees into this business while the residents of Gora Line (Laitumkhrah) are more sensible, understanding and well- behaved (woh sharif hain).
19

The congested houses and narrow lanes of Bara Bazar, one merging into another, are sure to confuse the outsider and that is one factor among others for administration to infer the residents’ indulgence in criminal activities.

PUNJAB CONNECTION &  PUNJABI IDENTITY

An interesting feature of this community is that they have maintained their Punjabi language and accent intact over the years. Entering the first house at Marakhali, I wondered if I was sitting in Guwahati or Gurdaspur (Punjab). Not the Majhaili Punjabi but that very typically accented regional tone and dialect was baffling.20 It is true for those even born and brought up there. It did not take me long to decipher their Punjabiat. One, they are a close-knit community based on kinship and marriage between Shillong and Guwahati, and Punjab as well. Two, they maintain strong ties – physical and socio-cultural – with Punjab. The preferred and prescribed form of marriage is arranged and that too within the community. A boy and a girl of the same residential colony may marry but they should not belong to the same village in Punjab. Moreover, it should be acceptable to all (‘sab di sahmati honi chahidi aa’). Hence area for match selection ranges from within the colony of a city to another colony in the same city, to another town/village that may extend to Punjab as well. The local match was and is preferred still since there is no cultural lag and social adjustment is easier both for the bride and the groom. The girls especially are married early.21

Over the last two decades there is change in preference for Punjab especially for marrying the daughter. A common reply is that due to increasing tension on the ‘issue of outsiders’, it is ‘safe’ to marry one’s daughter there so that one may have some foothold in Punjab in case of their exodus. A respondent suggests:

Eh rujhan 1996 ton vadhiya wa.
This trend has caught up since 1996.

It sounds plausible in this context but a similar practice was followed earlier too. Many respondents have their father’s sister(s) (bhua) too married in Punjab. It was almost a norm that one of the children preferably a girl is married in Punjab. Hence there is twofold characterization within the community, of being a Sikh and a Punjabi, though a Sikh. The latter term denotes a bride or groom from Punjab.The data inform that 62.30% respondents’ mothers belong to the Sikh and 33.14% to the Punjabi community. The corresponding figures for respondents’ wives are 65.0 and 27.14%, respectively. Quite paradoxically with the opening up of the Indian economy and society with liberalization, privatization, and globalization and media revolution, we find the Guwahati-Shillong Sikh community has not opened up further as 73.07% daughters-in-law belong to the Sikh and 26.93% Punjabi community. The share of other communities in making marital partners of the mothers’ generation is 4.56%, which increases to 7.86% in the case of wives but gets confounded with the new generation since there is not a single daughter-in-law from outside the Sikh community. From mothers to wives and to daughters-in-law there is a slide from 95.44% Sikh to 92.14% and an ascent to 100.0% Sikh.

Why do the Mazhabis refuse to open up in the era of globalization? The case of the sons-in-law is no different with 90.0% Sikh and 10.0% Punjabi, making the total 100.0% Sikh for the present generation.This characterization of the self as local and the other though internally belonging to Punjab is suggestive of their embeddedness or at least such willingness despite odds. And it is in consonance with the characterization of Mazhabis as Punjabis and other Sikhs of other castes as Sikhs, hence their locality as Punjabi colony. The ‘other’ Sikhs who are affluent do support them financially even if they keep distance from them. It is not only due to their numerical strength but their fighting spirit that they are supported.

Their indulgence in physical violence is quite a deterrent to the locals (khasi)  and hence security of high caste and upper class Sikhs. In rural Punjab a Mazhabi worker with a big peasant is often ‘used’ to carry out the revenge for him for some money and liquor or a mere pat on his back (halasheri). Interestingly, the Mazhabi Sikhs of Shillong and Guwahati are not bothered about their dual identity of being a Sikh and a Balmiki. On the contrary, more youth are taking amrit and adopting the Sikh form.

The heads of households are usually men. Women take up this responsibility in case of husband’s death. Though some of them did belong to other communities like Nepali, Khasi, Assamese, all of them converted to Sikh religion at the time of marriage. The husbands of 89.45% respondents belong to the Sikh and 10.55% to Punjabi community. There is none from another community.

Selecting a match from Punjab seems more a case of compulsion than choice for two reasons. The looming insecurity of being driven out of the state now hangs more on their minds than before. It is a usual reply:

Pata nahin ji kadon kadd den. Aithon de halat eho jehe ne. You never know when you may be expelled from here. The situation is like that.

That is why they prefer to have some foothold, a close kin in Punjab, hence match-fixing. But either taking a bride or a groom from Punjab becomes problematic in terms of socio-cultural adjustment. The educated girls of Shillong and Guwahati in an otherwise socio-culturally liberal milieu of the North-East do not fit into the patriarchal and caste-dominated mindset of families in Punjab. An elderly lady quips:

Othhon te aithon da bada pharak ai ji.
There is a big difference between two cultures (Punjab and the North-East).

But when a local match is not available, there is no option. Himadri Banerjee too quotes a respondent:

The reason is that their girls find it difficult to adjust in the Punjab and brides from the Punjab are not able to adjust in Assam … when she was brought into the Marakhali Colony, she found it awkward and miserable. It was slowly after she had chil- dren that she was somehow able to assimilate herself into the ‘culture’ of the slum settlement.

It is invariably that a daughter is married in Punjab. It is easy to find a better match for them since the metropolitan girls are smart and they can give relatively good dowry. In many cases both parents are employed, which is not so in Punjab. Now it is virtually a rule to marry one daughter in Punjab.

Why do they not prefer a local son-in-law? Isn’t marrying a daughter in Punjab economically taxing for the whole life? Yet it is in practice. An old man replies:

Aithon de saare munde nashedi ne.
All local (Sikh) boys take drugs.

But to a counter poser that situation is no better in Punjab as liquor/drugs is referred to as the sixth river there, a quick reply is:

Makhi dekh ke ni nigali jandi.
One cannot take a dish with a fly.

Those in Punjab at least are out of sight.

These reasons seem plausible but a look at data across generations reveals that there is a difference though but not significant enough especially for later generations. If 33.14% respondents’ mothers were from Punjab, the percentage of their wives comes down to 27.14% and that of their daughters-in-law to 26.93%. None is giving a satisfactory response to this question – why are daughters married in Punjab? More fieldwork is required on the subject especially to make sense of marrying sisters in Punjab when all brothers and other relations are at Shillong and Guwahati only.

It is interesting that despite numerous socio-economic and political odds they keep ties with Punjab strong and kicking. The geographical distance too is significant, costing time and money. The better offs make it a point to visit Punjab once in two or three years:

Har saal tan nahin, do-tinn salan’ch tan parvar naal ja aayida wa
If not annually atleast in three years we visit our Punjab family

88.57% respondents have close family links in Punjab and 91.43% have visited there at least thrice. Once again it is father’s sister(s) that make the ancestral homeland connection in majority cases than paternal kin. Their kin in Punjab hardly ever visit them. On asking why, a respondent replies:

Its not easy. It involves lots of money.
Nale saak sambandhian nu milaayi da wa. Only we go there to see kinsmen.

Another aspect of the Punjab connection of the respondents is that the first-generation migrants employed and getting regular salary during times when money was virtually illusive and village economy was largely barter, sent home their savings to help parents as also to buy some property like a plot of land etc. The renovation and/or extension of the house would enhance the family status and reputation of the migrant. It must have been considered more worthwhile an investment than spending on self in an alien society where they worked as safai karamcharis and lived in government barracks. Once an investment is made then property requires up-keeping and maintenance necessitating frequent trips to Punjab, hence a common reply:

Jaidad di sambh- sambhal vi tan karni hoi.
There is noone to look after the property

The nonresident Punjabis of Doaba too have made huge investments in large residences in their ancestral villages that remain locked till a family returns once in two-three years and stays for a week at best. These mansions are looked after by a caretaker put up in a garage.

Besides the personal contact with Punjab and Punjabi culture this connection is also taken care of by the media technology. The mobile phone comes very handy in this respect besides the internet and television. Punjabi songs, films and other programmes play an important role. A senior respondent informs:

Sara din mohalle’ch Punjabi gaun hi chalde aa.
Whole day they keep playing Punjabi songs.

The data show that 94.3% respondents listen to Punjabi songs and an exactly matching number watch Punjabi programmes on their television sets. The number of those who watch Punjabi films is slightly lower (92.57%). The beat of these songs is so enamouring that local youth too dance to these tunes.

No doubt that the respondents and their dependents know Hindi, Axomiya and Khasi languages as well but Punjabi is their lingua franca. 86.85% respondents speak Punjabi at home while 59.43% speak outside as well. Respondents’ wives are not behind them in counting at 84.3% Punjabi speakers. The respondents do not fare well on the writing scale as they are a meagre 1.14% for Punjabi only while 26.86% do so in Punjabi and Hindi. On the contrary, 30.86% write in Hindi only while 24.57% combine it with English. However, 12% can write in more than two languages. So we may say their literacy rate is 95.43% that is higher than the local averages and much higher than their counterpart in Punjab.33

It is interesting to note that low-caste Mazhabi Sikhs settled in North-East India have neither changed their occupation nor caste identity over the last one century. They have created space for themselves and stick their neck out by reasserting their ethnic and religious identities in a socio-political milieu manifestly hostile to them as ‘outsiders’. Their affinity to Punjabi language and culture too is remarkably intact.

 

Acknowledgement

Thanks are due to Professor Himadri Banerjee for his comments on the paper.

Funding

National Commission for Minorities, New Delhi and Punjabi University, Patiala, are to be thanked for supporting the project on Socio-Economic Conditions of Dakhani Sikhs in Particular and Minority Sikh Communities Settled in South and North-East India.

 

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Birinder Pal Singh Written by:

Birinder Pal Singh is a Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab.

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