[CURFEW-READ] Lives & Histories of Mazhabi Sikhs of Shillong and Guwahati

With the controversy about the residents of Sweeper’s Colony/Them Metor/Punjabi Line/Harijan Basti of Shillong not ever ending, we thought it would nice if we all at least understood the history of those we call Khar Metor or Sweepers in Shillong. And what better way to begin our understanding, an essay by Prof. Himadri Banerjee, famous historian of the Other Sikhs, Sikhs not in Punjab. This essay was published first in an academic journal Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theoryin 2010 and has been lightly edited to prune some academic flourish


Scholars studying Punjabi Dalit experiences are essentially concerned with the Ad-Dhramis (leather workers). As a result, another important Dalit segment – the Chuhras (sweepers),[footnote]Hanes 1920, 115–19. I am grateful to John C. B. Webster for forwarding the text.[/footnote] standing at an even lower caste status – misses their attention. Many of them had embraced Sikhism in medieval times. They do not bracket them with those Chuhras who are not Sikhs, preferring to dub them as Mazhabis (Ibbetson 1970).

I intend to go beyond the Punjab and seek to review the Mazhabi past of two important urban centres of north-eastern India.[footnote]For the convenience of discussion, I have used the term for identifying those vast stretches of territories comprising eight separate states (provinces) like Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura. It broadly represents the boundaries of India with Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar. The term does not convey any homogeneous region. It has become almost a common term in any administrative usage of the country. For an account of recent politics in the region, see Baruah 2005.[/footnote] They are located in Shillong and Guwahati, and have so far escaped the attention of scholars engaged in studying the Dalit past of the region. Situated in the Khasi Hills, their early presence in Shillong goes back to the days of colonial rule, while in Guwahati of the Brahmaputra Valley they may have settled around the time of the country’s Independence. Their emergence in two different cities[footnote]Shillong has generally been the capital of undivided Assam since the late nineteenth century. But Guwahati became the capital of the new state of Assam in 1972 after the old state of Assam was partitioned into a number of smaller states, and Shillong became the capital of the new state of Meghalaya.[/footnote] under dissimilar political conditions perhaps offers an interesting point for the enquiry.

In the north-east, Mazhbis live in different slums. Information derived from various sources suggests that in spite of their long ties with the region, they are despised as undesirable outsiders (bahiragatas) and foreigners (dkhars). In Shillong, these Sikhs are debarred from certain legitimate rights and privileges that an Indian citizen enjoys in other parts of the country. They are not under any similar restrictions in Guwahati, but their difficulty in obtaining a permanent residency certificate from the government persists. In the eyes of many, their residential areas remain dirty spots requiring immediate municipal interventions.

While delineating these local Sikh experiences, the study would go back to their early years of settlement. It would focus on the significance of kinship in their migration and development of new habitats in distant parts of the north-east. These relational ties do not allow them to forget their over-arching link with the Punjab, particularly with the native village (pind).

There is another aspect of the Dalit Sikhs’ life story. Like their diasporic brothers of the West, these Sikhs may have conceived of creating a petit Punjab in the north-east. Did they carry any of their important Sikh baggage there? How have they been responding to local regional ethnic polarization and discrimination? My enquiry will conclude with a brief reference to the contemporary developmental politics and its impact on the lives of these Sikhs. In recent years, such ‘modern’ state interventions in the name of urban ‘progress’ often give rise to such anxieties. Have these Sikh slum-dwellers of Shillong and Guwahati already undergone a few of these ordeals, thanks to the interference of the municipal bulldozers? What have been the Dalit reactions on these specific occasions? Did they protest against eviction from holdings in which their forefathers were resident, or did they remain silent, looking forward to some local intervention beyond governmental agencies?


I would like to start with a brief personal note going back to October 2004. A winter vacation in Shillong gave me the opportunity of meeting one Dalit Sikh. There he was engaged in sweeping the staircases of a busy marketplace.[footnote]For further details, see my paper, to be included in a volume edited by Pashaura Singh entitled Sikhism in Global Perspective (forthcoming).[/footnote] Initially, I did not believe that there would be any Sikh sweeper in the remote Khasi Hills; yet over the course of my subsequent visits, I found many of them. There are a number of Mazhbis residing in Bara Bazaar Punjabi Line, Laitumakhra (Gora Line), Happy Valley and the Cantonment area of the city over the decades. A section of local Sikhs of Ramgarhia (a composite caste of carpenter, blacksmith and mason) and Soniar (goldsmith) castes with some professional contacts with them facilitated my interactions. I had the privilege of meeting some in their houses, gurdwaras and other public premises.

My Shillong Sikh enquiry developed out of an accidental encounter. In the case of Guwahati, I had to wait a few years more before I could communicate with their local counterpart. It is largely owing to a section of Guwahati Sikhs’ politics of silence about them. In spite of my long association, some of them either evaded the issue or had brus- quely retorted that Sikhism has no room for casteism. As a result, I was unable to ascer- tain their views. Finally, with the help of one of my Assamese friends, a Sikh lady of Ramgarhia caste introduced me to a Mazhbi leader of the city. He serves as a gurdwara sevadar controlled by a powerful Jat Sikh. My visit coincided with their visit to the Dhubri Sahib, representing the apex of Sikh religion in the region.

The study is primarily based on my field work during the period October 2004 to November 2009.[footnote]There are numerous gap periods in my field work. I was able to visit some of these places during my university vacations. I am grateful to Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati for making my field trip possible in Guwahati. For Shillong, I am grateful to the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, for extending the necessary financial assistance to carry on the work.[/footnote] It draws from other field notes, as well as comments sent through other channels by local investigators from Shillong and Guwahati. I also had the privilege of talking to a number of Sikh friends residing in the Punjab, Chandigarh and Delhi who had earlier links with the Dalit Sikhs of the north-east. My telephone conversations prompted a few to write to me about their experiences in these cities.

In spite of my contact with a few local Sikhs and a senior police official of the city, I was not allowed to enter the Shillong Municipal Commission’s record room on grounds of official secrecy.[footnote]I visited the municipal office on more than one occasion during 2006. But its denial was not communicated in any written answer. Possibly, the real cause lies elsewhere. The Shil- long Municipal Corporation was engaged in a long court case with the local Sikh Dalits, seeking their eviction from those prized lands under the community’s possession. This legal battle may be an important argument in denying my entry to the record room. Some of my local Sikh friends, however, suggested that many of these records may have been destroyed in a fire; but the municipality was not sure of the extent of the fire damage. All these factors may have contributed to the municipality’s refusal.[/footnote] But other printed official and semi-official sources, such as census reports and different monographs brought out by the Anthropological Survey of India and other governmental agencies, were used which are significant to the present enquiry. In addition, vernacular sources, newspaper clippings, the gurdwara directory and old photographs were sometimes utilized.

Finally, I need to add that here the term Dalit Sikhs represents around 4,000 Sikh slum-dwellers. They are, however, differently addressed in Shillong and Guwahati. In the former they are generally known as the Valmikis and Harijans, which is an improper term for their Guwahati counterpart. Here the latter prefer to be known as Mazhbis, which is again not their typical identity in the Khasi Hills.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 24 August 2009. Joginder Singh of the Cantonment Area Gurdwara is perhaps an exceptional example in this regard. He proudly wears the Nihang dress, which clearly identifies him with the Rangreta Dal.[/footnote] It suggests that there are some interesting differences regarding the self-perceptions of the Sikh slum-dwellers. The term Dalit is used owing to its wider relevance and currency.[footnote]I am thankful to Professor Imtiaz Ahmed for forwarding a few of his unpublished essays delineating the presence of similar groups among Muslims.[/footnote] It also provides space to appreciate its subtle differences at the local level.


During the nineteenth century, Shillong emerged as a strategic British administrative headquarters, military cantonment and hill station. Local officials tried their best to maintain the city’s health care and allied sanitation matters so that the place could remain a safe hill resort for its civil and military use. Their politico-military compulsions gave it a distinctly European look, like any other hill city of the period.[footnote]About the political significance of hill stations in the psyche of the colonial bureaucracy, see King 1976.[/footnote]

It is difficult to suggest any specific year pointing out the presence of Mazhbis there. As safai karamcharis, by the late 1910s they were already on the payroll of the local municipality, which had come into existence in 1910. It is likely that they were employed in its Conservancy Department through the recommendation of one of the British regiments then posted in Shillong cantonment area. Local sources suggest that in the early twentieth century, a small group of Mazhbis were first brought to Shillong by a British military regiment that had earlier served in the Punjab. Their service within the limits of the cantonment may have satisfied the army administration. With its recommendations, the Shillong Municipal Corporation (SMC) appointed a separate group of Sikh sweepers and scavengers for the solid waste management of the hill city. The municipal public utility services were initially restricted to its European ward, but later extended to other areas of the city.

Denial of entry to the municipal archives prevents me speculating on the specific timing of this, or on the exact numbers recruited by the SMC. Similarly, related issues like working hours, monthly salary and other rules and conditions regulating civic service remain uncertain. It is likely that they were appointed with the consolidated monthly pay and given accommodation in the Bara Bazaar locality – a sparsely populated area situated away from the heart of the busy marketplace, Police Bazaar.

Their residences were located at a comfortable distance from their place of work. These not only enabled them to attend official duty in the morning but also to come back, if required, for a second time later that day. Again, the same colonial ‘benevolence’ encouraged them to bring their relatives for work in other wards of the city. As it was expanding its limits, the municipality was also happy to have some readily available, well-informed workers. They were subsequently accommodated in garbage clearances and given other civic duties, including some as assistants to bullock cart drivers carrying waste to a location outside the city. The municipality’s residential accommodation steadily tied sweepers and scavengers to the local world (Prasad 2001). It remained ‘as one of the means of locking’ them ‘to their job’ and imposed certain invisible conditions restricting free movement during long working hours. Their new home introduced them to a certain urban fixity after they were forced to throw away many traditional rural ties.


The municipality’s initial enthusiasm for new recruitment helped to create the first trickles of migration. The passage from Punjab to Shillong was still a long and tiring one. During the early twentieth century, they took eight or nine days to reach the hill city. Generally speaking, these journeys began with a brisk walk from the native village to the nearest railway station (see Verma 2002). A long train journey extended over three to four days then brought them to Amingaon, on the banks of the Brahmaputra.[footnote]The account of their long journeys to Shillong is derived from different sources. Apart from these Sikhs, others also narrated the difficulties of travel. Apart from the story of the introduction of the regular bus service between Guwahati and Shillong (probably in 1914), it is based on the oral testimony of Bittu Singh, a clean-shaven Mazhbi, as well as Kulbir Singh, a Soniar Sikh, both of whom had reached Shillong at different times – separated from one another by almost 30 years.[/footnote]After being ferried across the river, they reached Pandu, an outskirt of Guwahati. From there, they would come to Shillong by bus through the hill roads.

In spite of their few decades of settlement in the city, their number in the SMC remains possibly less than a hundred. This is probably due to the limited availability of residential accommodation, which was all located in Bara Bazaar Punjabi Line. As their numbers increased over the years, they were housed in the Laitumakhra area (Gora Line). This confirms not only an increase in their number since the late 1910s, but also deployment in varied municipal jobs scattered throughout the city.[footnote]My numerous visits to these places suggest how living rooms and other accommodations of these settlements were subdivided and compartmentalized over the years by inferior materials. In some cases, these settlements also managed to extend their limits by encroaching upon nearby footpaths along the roadside.[/footnote]

The workforce included different categories of menial employees, most of whom were probably retained as sweepers. They were asked to clean some of the major thoroughfares of the city and pick up waste from the side gullies and drains. Another group was engaged in carrying night soil and ensuring its disposal at the central depot. They formed a reliable army of sweepers and sewage cleaners for keeping the city clean. It is likely that there would be a few minor variations in their wage rates. It remained an endless issue for many of them to satisfy the upper echelon of the municipality, which levied many complaints against them. One was the slow speed of transporting urban waste to the disposal depot beyond the city limits. This was largely due to the long, meandering journey that the bullock carts carrying waste had to take during the early hours of the day. Besides, the adjoining hilly terrain and the uneven road surface made matters even worse. It was not unusual for one or two important colonial officials to be trapped in the narrow routes exiting the city while the slow-moving, heavy bullock carts were on their way to the central depot. This exposed the city bosses to the filthy smell of the night soil and the ‘uncivilized’ demeanour of the municipality’s subordinate staff.

The SMC took time to rationalize the problem. It gradually realized that the entire delay in clearing the city waste could not be explained in terms of inefficiency on the part of its lower cadre. The speedy disposal of waste from one end of the city to another would require some amount of mechanization. The continuation of World War II and the presence of a large number of Anglo-American troops in the north-eastern hills for resisting the aggression of the Japanese made the colonial bureaucracy extremely sensitive about the health of the allied army posted in the region. Prevention of an outbreak of cholera or any other tropical disease from these infectious city wastes during summer months or rainy season, therefore, became one of its major concerns. Around 1941–42, the first phase of mechanization was introduced for the speedy disposal of city wastes. Lorries were introduced for carrying municipal refuse to a central depot.

Even after the introduction of some degree of mechanization, Shillong Municipality, run by a nominated chairman, did not tire of ‘disciplining’ its native subordinates. The wartime needs of the military gave this process a new ‘dignity’ and ‘imperial urgency’. It made sweepers accustomed to listen to periodic lectures of their superior officials like head jamadars, sanitary inspectors and others about the ‘significance’ of maintaining the ‘high standard of health’ of the city dwellers for the ‘higher imperial interest’. If their work showed no improvement, they were even threatened with wage cuts and dismissal.


The municipality also felt the need to develop a system for coordinating its workforce. It was initiated with the introduction of a few middle-cadre personnel for supervision. The process was elaborated in the second half of the century, though the first half had witnessed its modest beginning. It may have started with a number of jamadars at the bottom. At a later date, when jamadars grew numerous, they came to be supervised by a head jamadar. Further, one sanitary inspector was appointed to control them. The Senior Sanitary Inspector stood at the apex of all these lower-level municipal staff.[footnote]Kashmir Singh, Senior Sanitary Inspector, Shillong Municipal Board, 26 March 2007.[/footnote] Generally speaking, 10 to 12 jamadars worked under the direction of one head jamadar, who was again monitored by the next superior municipal official.

It led to the creation of a hierarchy of authority, with the jamadars standing at its lowest scale working under the stringent rules and strict supervision of their superior. Given Shillong’s importance as one of the strategic hill stations, its municipal apparatus might have frequently figured in local bureaucratic notes. As a result, even a petty jamadar had to remain alert to avoid being caught in any accidental cross-fire emanating from bureaucratic wrangling, which could result in severe punishment if found guilty. He started his daily work before dawn, and had to remain busy until the afternoon. Thus jamadar Ram Murti (born in the 1920s) described the era of his grandfather, Nawab Singh, who had also served the municipality in different positions since the early 1930s.[footnote]Testimony of Ram Murti, 27 March 2007.[/footnote]

Ram Murti began his career as an ordinary safai karamchari. His monthly salary was Rs. 10 per month. Later, he was promoted to the office of head jamadar and received a salary of Rs. 25. In those days, a safai karamchari had to work from late night onwards. Dry latrines were then widely prevalent. He had to carry night soil on his head and was expected to serve a minimum of 40 latrines of a particular ward. These night soils were initially collected from different spots and then deposited in a bigger container. It was later tied to a bullock cart. Each bullock cart carried a specified number of buckets. It used to move from one fixed point to another along a specific route, finally reaching the Jail Road at a late hour of the day. Shillong Municipality’s central depot was situated there. Later, with the expansion of the city limit, the central depot was shifted to a place near Polo Ground where the Police Training School is now situated. The depot was recently shifted to its present site in Mowrang. After their scheduled work, the bullocks and their carts were regularly washed. The safai karamcharis were expected to participate in the whole exercise. From evening until late night, these carts and their bullocks were kept on the right-hand side of Punjabi Line in Bara Bazaar locality. There were around 36 bullock carts in the service of the municipality.

In some ways, this narrative highlights the struggling life of a significant number of municipal workers. Their living conditions were hardly satisfactory, with very few immediate remedial measures against the hazardous tropical diseases that they often carried home from different workplaces. These residential areas were characterized by the typical features of poverty such as overcrowding, lack of balanced diet, drinking of unhygienic water, absence of education, children loitering in the streets, and inadequate savings.[footnote]It may be debated whether the ‘culture of poverty’ thesis dominated their daily life. It may be true regarding those who have left their struggle of life. I have had the privilege of visiting some of their dwellings. These communicated the message of their economic use of the available living space as well as masterly utilization of different recycled materials lying scattered in the streets. Their untiring fight against poverty underlines the dignity of living beyond presentism.[/footnote] Their situation could deteriorate, especially with the arrival of the long rainy season accompanied by occasional wild storms and land slides. These led to the blockade of roads and other dislocations in normal life.[footnote]Some of those residing in the sweepers’ colonies described their experiences to me during my stay in Shillong in March 2006. Twice, I witnessed the consequences of short-term road blocks caused by heavy rains.[/footnote]Long and bitter winter nights added to their misery. These men, therefore, struggled on many fronts.


An enquiry conducted by one senior official of the Anthropological Survey of India (Sarkar 1979) in the last quarter of the twentieth century suggests that most of these men were from two central Punjab districts, namely Amritsar and Gurdaspur. The same source also points out that nearly 75% of the sweepers and scavengers came from nine thanas which had close social binding among them. This facilitated their sharing of common hardships of the early settlement years. After confirmation of service by the SMC, many of their womenfolk may have joined them: later, they swelled the ranks of sweepers to supplement meagre family incomes. Within a couple of years, their new generation may have come into existence. The hill city thus had a small but distinct Dalit Sikh settlement having its own caste tie and village affinity going back to Punjab. There were occasional disputes among them, but settlement within a well-defined space and long working under the official umbrella forged group cohesion.

Their inner unity was not always an even one, as some families had longer ties with the SMC. As safai karamcharis, they might have come earlier and the same relationship was stretched over two or three generations.[footnote]I had the privilege of going through the result sheet of the field survey conducted by Gurjit Singh during the period October 2006 to January 2007. It points out that there were a significant number of Harijan families who had been serving the Shillong municipality for three generations. A few of these still live there. It was largely possible owing to Harijans’ near monopoly over these municipal jobs. They also tried to keep the middle-level municipal staff officers in good humour; many of them are also Sikhs.[/footnote]This created many common experiences. Their desire for getting sons or other relatives appointed to any future vacancy of the municipality sometimes forced them to work longer hours in order to earn the goodwill of superior officials. Sometimes it led to a struggle for jobs, and precipitated conflict within ranks. These were possibly minor hiccups compared with their closer family ties, evolved out of living together far from home.

Their prevalence in SMC jobs may perhaps be attributed to local Khasis’ lack of enthusiasm for these positions. This opened access to a job market that they dominated until the closing quarter of the last century. Many could send signals to their kinsmen to come to Shillong and join them. The prospect of getting even a menial job in the civic body encouraged intermittent spells of migration over the years.[footnote]In recent years, this has fuelled deep resentment among a section of local Khasis. Their complaint that the Sikh Dalits sometimes operate as a closed caste group and discourage other ethnic communities from taking on jobs with the municipality may not be an altogether baseless allegation (Sarkar 1979, 123–25).[/footnote]

Later, those who reached the hill city could neither be provided with a full-time job nor be short-listed for any future vacancy in the SMC.[footnote]My field work experiences suggest that the majority of them do not hold a full-time position with the accompanying service benefits. In the course of the last two decades, they are no longer appointed to any permanent vacancy. On the contrary, they are asked to serve as casual workers at the rate of Rs. 70 per day for 21 days in a month. They represent the largest section of the municipal menial staff responsible for keeping the city clean. They are on the municipal payroll, but are liable to be dismissed at any time (source: Kashmir Singh, Senior Sanitary Inspector, 26 March 2007).[/footnote] It is likely that many were accommodated in similar jobs in different non-municipal offices like educational institutions, missionary organizations, private hospitals, and other autonomous bodies.[footnote]Shillong has long remained an important educational centre in the north-east. The city houses numerous schools and colleges run by Christian missionaries of different orders. Some of their major educational institutions and other organizations are the Don Bosco, Auxilium, Loreto School, St. Mary School, St. Anthony College, St. Edmunds College, and Nazareth Hospital. In the last few decades, a central university has been established there.[/footnote] Besides, there were a few areas of the city that had long stood beyond the limits of regular municipal services. Generally, the private residents as well as non-official organ- izations residing there had to make their own cleaning arrangement. Thus Shillong’s growing urbanization of the post-independence years created newer demands for jobs outside the SMC. New job opportunities arose as the hill city steadily developed as an important centre of tourist attraction. But their Dalit identity had left very little alternative except to stay in clusters. And this inevitably led to ghettoization.


The process had its likely beginning during colonial rule. Their secluded settlements in certain fixed localities of the hill city, excluded from the rest of the civic population, made them aware of their marginality. In spite of the rapid expansion of Shillong, they were strictly advised to reside within their restricted areas. This halted the process of dispersal of the sweepers to newer areas, put additional pressure on their existing physical space, and turned these settlements into pockets surrounded by other ethnic groups. In spite of Shillong being a European city and a hill resort, these Mazhbi colonies provided a sharp contrast to the principles of urbanization and communicated a message of exclusion (D’Souza 1977; Masselos 1982). They were indispensable for keeping the hill city clean and healthy. But their bracketing into numerous menial jobs as well as ghettoization gave the urban space an image of degenerate urbanization. With intensified segregation of sweepers, the SMC could ‘monitor’ them from close quarters and, therefore, at lower cost.

Two other Sikh castes – namely Ramgarhias and Soniars who were also in the hill city – did not take much time to orchestrate much of the SMC mantra. They reinforced it in their own way. Their relatively higher status in traditional caste hierarchy gave it an additional ‘social legitimacy’. Of these two, again, Ramgarhias were more numerous and comparatively richer. They dominated the Police Bazaar Gurdwara from its founding in 1922. Under its existing caste arrangement, the untouchable sweepers were not only forbidden to sit in the pangat but had to remain satisfied with dry rations, langar, distributed from the gurdwara. They were expected to consume these outside the main hall of the sacred space.[footnote]Information furnished by Lt. Col. B. S. Birdi of Chandigarh (9 February 2005) and B. S. Virdi of Shillong (3 February 2005).[/footnote] In those days, this was considered nothing unusual and evoked no protest from sweepers. It underlines that the message of the Akali movement had not yet reached the Khasi Hills, nor were the local Sikhs less enthusiastic in preserving their Punjabi caste baggage.

As a result of this two-pronged attack, the sweeper Sikhs could barely muster the courage to challenge either the authority of the municipal board run by European offi- cials or the Ramgarhia caste-whip dominating the Police Bazaar Gurdwara. They had to lie low. But their over-arching link with the Punjab would soon offer them an alternative rallying point in one of these ghettoized settlements of the hill city.


Their muffled voice of dissent was communicated through the foundation of a gurdwara in Bara Bazaar in the early 1930s. It was managed by them, and its functioning was never subjected to any Ramgarhia scrutiny. The deep concern of local Ramgarhias regarding the ‘deviant’ stance of the Sikh untouchables and the need to ‘reform’ them was echoed in the pages of the Ramgarhia Gazette,[footnote]The Ramgarhia Gazette, 3 December 1936.[/footnote] but this could not stop the Dalits. It perhaps marked the beginning of these Dalits’ search for a distinct space in the local Sikh milieu. With their establishment of additional gurdwaras in Gora Line and Cantonment Board, their position took on wider dimensions. But the vigorous presence of the colonial administration, as well as the ineffectiveness of nationalist politics in the city, meant that the radicalization of Shillong sweepers could go no further in the first half of the twentieth century. Their protest manifesto had been written, but it was initially restricted within the limits of each of their religious institutions. Their link with the Punjab, however, widened the scope of protest.

Almost during the same period, a few Punjabi cities witnessed the radicalization of the Chuhras (sweepers who were neither Sikhs nor Muslims). They ‘took Rishi Valmiki, the author of the classical Hindu epic, the Ramayana, as their patron saint and adopted his name as their own’.[footnote]For further details, see Juergensmeyer 1988, 170 – 1.[/footnote] It did not take long to capture the imagination of many of their community, and stimulated a large-scale mobilization among them. A small section of the Dalit Sikhs of the Khasi Hills was also influenced by its protestant note. They carried its message to Shillong. The radical ideology of the Valmiki movement found nothing wrong in incorporating a number of Hindu icons, rituals and celebrations, thereby strengthening an uninterrupted cultural dialogue with Punjab. Through these incorporations, they sought to reach out to some of those scattered in the Khasi Hills who shared Punjabi culture.

In Shillong, the coming of the Valmiki movement provided the Dalit Sikhs with additional moral strength and support to stand away from the dictates of the Police Bazaar Gurdwara. Besides, it accommodated their large-scale abandonment of unshorn kesh (an important external marker of the Sikh identity), which was gaining in popularity among them. While sending an olive branch to those who had formally abandoned Sikhism or had embraced Christianity, they continued their veneration of the Adi Granth. Thus the local Dalits sought to evolve a composite religious profile so that they could expand their minuscule presence.


In the course of the last few decades, there have been numerous changes in the northeast of the country. Withdrawal of the British (1947) was followed by the steady intervention of the Indian state through its developmental strategy. It coincided with the birth of an undivided Assam province, the influx of refugees, local fear of being submerged by outsiders and, above all, the ethnicization of local politics resulting in violence, insecurity of life and, property. It led to the redrawing of the boundary of the old Assam state and contributed to the birth of a new state of Meghalaya (1972) with its capital in Shillong (see Chaube 2008).

During all these years, the hill city had reported its unregulated urbanization. It made room for the continued migration of the Dalits,[footnote]In some cases, the Punjabi Tragedy of the last quarter of the twentieth century prompted many young Mazhbis to go to Shillong seeking shelter and work in order to escape the Punjab bloodbath.[/footnote] stimulating a significant rise in their numbers. This may be confirmed from different sources. According to the same enquiry cited earlier, there were 168 full-time workers on the payroll of the SMC in the early 1970s. A subsequent report of the Meghalaya government had raised their numbers to 200 sweepers’ families (1990) (Dutta Choudhury 1994, 175), which would put their total number around 1,000 (five persons per family).[footnote]See Sengupta 2006, 225. Another survey conducted in 1998 more or less confirmed this number (Singh 2008, 122). It is likely that the census (2001) conveys insufficient detail, which will be addressed in a later section of the essay.[/footnote] The majority had continued to serve as sweepers, while a tiny segment shifted to other jobs in the informal sectors that had evolved as a result of Shillong’s urbanization and development. The latter group could take advantage of the recent changes owing to their access to some technical training and education. There was a message of occupational mobility, which brought with it some changes in their lifestyle and value system. They were destined to provide new leadership to the Dalits.[footnote]They have sufficient exposure to elementary education, office management, and maintenance of accounts, together with the courage to lead the Dalits who are adequately skilled. Here one may refer to at least two names, one each from the Gora Line and the Bara Bazaar Punjabi Line. They are Raju Singh and Gurjit Singh. They do not serve the municipality, but subscribe to the different political strategies in their dialogue with the Shillong Municipality.[/footnote]

But the rich few also had limited residential options. They were not allowed to hold any landed estate in their name, due to certain stringent legal restrictions. In spite of the long duration of their stay in the city, their marginalization not only denied them access to the local power apparatus but also made them victims of the protective discriminatory politics pursued by the Meghalaya government.[footnote]For details, see Baruah 2005, 183 – 208.[/footnote]Being outsiders (dkhars), they continued to suffer indignities and segregation in the eyes of the local tribal population of the city. Most had no voting right, ration card or electricity bill in their names, despite making such payments year after year.

Thus the end of colonial rule and the coming of a democratically elected government in the Khasi Hills had led to very little change in their legal position. With the radicalization of local politics, the Khasis wished for their departure so that their jobs could be offered to their kinsmen. But to the new generation of Dalits who were born here, going back to Punjab held little attraction. Many of them had been unable to accumulate any savings to invest in Punjab. New experiences had made their life unsafe, though the Meghalaya government had set up a few billboards in Police Bazaar encouraging tourism to the Khasi Hills.


An indirect outcome of this is the continued ghettoization mentioned earlier. It also led to their sliding down in the scale of standard of living. A recent survey thus provides a profile of one of their slums:[footnote]This is based on a field survey of 1998 (Singh 2008, 133 – 6, 141 – 2).[/footnote]

Of the six [slum settlements], the Sweeper-lane [Bara Bazaar] . . . is the oldest . . . [It] is . . . absolutely unfit for habitation . . .. The street lanes are narrow . . . also used . . . for cooking . . . almost 80 per cent of the dwellings are . . . temporary . . . made of tiny wood-bricks and plastic clothes [sic] . . .. Most of the hutments are self-made . . . dominated by Sikh migrants who are . . . sweeper/cleaners and work as casual labourers in Bara Bazaar . . . caught in perpetual indebtedness and vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation . . . . 65.82 per cent of the population fall below poverty line. . .

These sweepers received no better treatment from the local Singh Sabha, which had also witnessed many important changes during these years. It is no longer in the hands of Ramgarhias, nor is it located in its previous site in Police Bazaar. In 1969 it was shifted to a place near Raj Bhavan, after a fire had gutted the old gurdwara building. Its new leadership came mostly from the Soniars, who represent a mobile group of traders with immense control over the purse-strings, and who have the opportunity of access to the local corridor of power. A generation ago, they were predominantly sehajdhari (clean-shaven) Sikhs who had migrated from some of the western Punjabi districts in the post-partition years. With the erosion of Ramgarhia power in the post-independence days, they came to the forefront of local Sikh politics. With financial success and power, the new generation born in the city had shown a deep interest in religion. This had emboldened many to become strict keshdhari Sikhs – an identity that was often missing among their predecessors. Like their Ramgarhia predecessors of the Singh Sabha, the rich few Sikhs had found nothing wrong in continuing all traditional restrictions upon the Dalits, particularly those limiting their access to sacred spaces: in some cases, the new leadership made this difficult for them.[footnote]The new management board made it compulsory for all members entering Shri Guru Singh Sabha to be aware of the principle of cleanliness. They argued that there was nothing new in this, because Guru Nanak’s message greatly emphasized the point (ishnan). Harijans were extremely annoyed because they felt that the Soniar leadership invoked the laws, rather than the spirit, of Sikh Guru’s message. Almost all of them were rigorously checked, generating considerable bitterness. Local Soniars may have viewed the problem from a narrow law-and-order perspective and tried to implement what they had generally witnessed in any Shillong church. For details, see the author’s unpublished essay, ‘Shillong Sikhs and their Politics of Caste’ (forthcoming).[/footnote]This furthered their distance from the sweepers, who were larger in number at the local level.

While depriving entry to the Dalits, the Soniars could bring out a list of charges against them. They were accused of continuing many ‘un-Sikh’ activities such as coming to gurdwara in a state of inebriation, the use of slang language in public places, and worshipping Hindu idols like Kali, Siva and Valmiki. The Soniars also accused them of conspiring with Masihs (Christians), bringing disrepute to Sikhism in the streets of Shillong.[footnote]I had the privilege of visiting their gurdwaras in Bara Bazaar, Laitumakhra and Cantonment area. Idols were present within these gurdwara premises, and the Dalits were never reluctant to discuss these icons in the presence of outsiders. Soniars found that both the groups mentioned above often misbehaved under the influence of alcohol, offending the dignity of women and gentlemen. For strong Dalit reactions against the policy of discrimination of the Soniars, see Shillong Times, 17 June 1998, 19 June 1998, 26 June 1998, and 17 August 1998.[/footnote]The new leadership did not allow the Dalits to forget their untouchable stigma carried from the Punjab, and abused them for their ‘dirty and unclean style of living’. With their growing ‘Khalsafication’, the Soniars not only asserted the right of defining Sikhism within the limits of the hill city but also tried to exclude those who were opposed to their power. Thus caste did not escape relevance among the Sikhs, even when they were residing away from the Punjab in an urban tribal setting.


The Dalits witnessed one final offensive: this time, from the Shillong Municipality. The lands where they had been living for nearly three generations were ‘suddenly required for more vital purposes’. In its attempts to ‘modernize’ the city and make it ‘useful’ to its more ‘successful’ residents, the government drew up a master plan for the period 1991–2011, describing how some of the slum settlements could be cleared of squatters and shanty-dwellers in the coming years of the new century.[footnote]Nindini C. Singh, in a personal note (20 September 2008), communicated that the Directorate of Urban Affairs, Government of Meghalaya, Shillong, drew up the ‘Master Plan of Shillong: 1991–2011’. This included many proposals, one of which was the clearing of the Bara Bazaar slum. In the opinion of the municipality, most of its residents had no legal title, which therefore offered a convenient plan of action. Also see Sengupta 2006, 225.[/footnote]It encouraged bulldozing of some of these ‘illegal’ and ‘unauthorized’ constructions around the Bara Bazaar locality. As a mark of ‘generosity’, it promised alternative residential facilities for the few who had adequate ‘legal’ documents to support their continued residence in the area. The rest – who constituted more than 90% of the local population – were shown the door.

The SMC’s readiness to implement its urbanization programme posed a serious threat to the Dalits. They had lived with their families over the years, so had no alternative accommodation in the city. Many were born there, married local folk, and regarded Shillong as their home. It also accommodated those who were still serving the municipality or in search of regular jobs. A few of these were its former employees but had not yet received their pension, gratuity, etc. Since the municipality had turned a deaf ear to their legitimate dues, they also felt no moral obligation to vacate their quarters.[footnote]I met a significant number of slum residents who had made numerous complaints against the municipality. Many of them gave away photocopies of their payslips, arrears gratuity slips, due leave salary documents and outstanding leave encashment payments.[/footnote]

Armed with state power, the municipality, instead of listening to their grievances, took an adversarial stance. In its eyes, these slum-dwellers had no ‘legitimate’ right to be there. They had no ration card, no right to franchise; not even an electricity bill in their name. The economic plight of the slum-dwellers went hand in hand with their political marginality. Such marginalization had led to minorities in other urban settlements being labelled as ‘depoliticized’ and ‘criminal’, and the Shillong Dalits may have anticipated the city administration applying similar labels to them.

In the early years of the present century, the majority of these Dalits are almost sandwiched between two engines of coercion: one (Soniars) seeking to stop their entry to Sri Guru Singh Sabha, while the other (SMC) threatened them with disposses- sion from the Bara Bazaar slum. Besides, periodic ethnic violence in the Khasi Hills and the Dalits’ lack of regular communication with their counterparts scattered in other parts of the country had made matters critical.[footnote]Until the end of the last century, the National Commission for Minorities and the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee had done virtually nothing for the cause of these Dalits.[/footnote]While appealing to some of the judicial as well as humanitarian bodies, the Dalits also mobilized their own resources at the local level. They had so far managed to put a temporary halt to the SMC bulldozer, but Soniars had maintained their traditional distance. It is their local ties that had held the Dalits together by a delicate cord that could perhaps be broken under the pressure of extreme circumstances.


Compared to Shillong, the Sikh Dalits came late to Guwahati and settled in fewer numbers. On their way to the hill city from the Punjab, they had earlier touched the place but it did not attract them due to its limited job opportunities. Guwahati’s urban potentiality was still a restricted one[footnote]The Guwahati Municipal Board was formed in 1853, but failed to develop ‘an adequate civil infrastructure and public utility services’ until 1972. The city figured as the ‘most unhealthy place’ in Assam (1865) and lacked sufficient financial resources to develop them. With the elevation of the city to become the capital of the new state of Assam, local conditions started changing (Choudhury 1992–93, 104; Deka 2001, 35–54).[/footnote]owing to the powerful presence of the hill city. As the administrative headquarters of the undivided Assam (until 1972), Shillong continued to provide them with a larger number of jobs, so they had flocked there.

But the local Dalits’ claim that they were invited to come here is of doubtful validity. According to their sources,[footnote]Swaran Singh, 20 November 2009.[/footnote]Gopinath Bardoloi (1890–1950), the first Chief Minister of Assam, brought them to the city, although this is yet to be confirmed by other sources. It is likely that the story of invitation was invented[footnote]Local Sikhs (Assomiya-Sikhs), who have lived in the Brahamaputra Valley for nearly 200 years, also narrate a similar story of coming here at the invitation of the Ahom King in the early nineteenth century. There are similar Sikh sweeper settlements in many other towns of upper Assam like Golghat, Karimganj, and Digboi – lending credence to the claim that these Sikh sweepers came here on their own initiative.[/footnote]to get rid of the stigma of ‘outsider’ (bahiragata) which had caused much bad blood and tension since the 1960s in the Brahamaputra valley. During the pre-independence years, Guwahati had a number of recognized slums. These were scattered in different parts of the city. One of them was the Marakhali Harijan Colony, which traces its origins back to 1933 (Das and Barpujari 2006, 257).

It is evident from the name itself that it constituted a part of the cremation ground of dead bodies and stood away from the major residential areas. With the rapid extension of Guwahati during the course of the last few decades,[footnote]The census of 1971 described that in the course of the last 30 years, Guwahati had ‘grown in all directions, in the most haphazard and unplanned manner’ (Census of India 1971, 114).[/footnote]the slum presently lies ‘in the central part of the city’ (Sandeep Sharma 2001, 19). It was initially inhabited by the members of the Bansphor scheduled caste community from Bihar. They are located in the Solapara region, with its distinct name (Jayshree Harijan Colony).

Later, a considerable number of Telugus and Sikhs came to reside near Islampur Road in the same colony. As a result, the slum is again subdivided into two parts. Its western side belongs to the Telugus, and the Sikhs are settled on its eastern side. The two communities had a relatively amicable relationship, except for a rare and somewhat bloody confrontation in the 1990s.[footnote]Chakradhar Kalita, a senior trade union leader associated with the local Harijan Association affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI), reported (23 November 2009) that he could remember only one occasion of direct fighting between them, which resulted in the death of one Telugu sweeper during the Holi celebration in the early 1990s. But many other Sikh residents of the Marakhali Colony repeatedly referred to a Telugu conspiracy in the distribution of official quarters there.[/footnote]There are around 75 Sikh families; their total number would be around 300–350 persons.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 11 September 2009. But Jarnail Singh, President of the Marakhali Sikh Colony, puts the figure at around 500 (24 August 2009), which seems improbable. Being an important leader of the Dalit Sikhs in the Marakhali area, he is likely to suggest an inflated figure to underline the gravity of the crisis emerging from the GMC’s action.[/footnote]The area is criss-crossed by small drains (nullahs), resulting in severe waterlogging during the rainy season. ‘There is a very narrow lane passing through the settlement fit only for walking in some parts and in some parts it is suitable for two wheelers while some parts of the lanes are pukka, and the rest is kutcha… Most of the residents are engaged as sweepers in Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) or Government offices’ (Sandeep Sharma 2001, 20–21).

The local Sikh population may be divided into two groups: one that had directly come and settled here, and those who had moved from Shillong with a few Burma connections. This may explain one section having a closer relationship with their counterparts of Gora Line, which frequently figures in their interactions. There is a long history of marriage relationships between these two slum settlements, though many hold no satisfactory opinion regarding the present position of the Sikh Dalits in Shillong.[footnote]Thus Ram Singh, a Mazhbi sevadar of the Gopinath Gurdwara who had previously been a resident of the colony (24 August 2009), remarked: ‘Shillong was and is a tough place for them compared to Guwahati. Instances of the ill treatment [of Sikh Dalits] by the local people [Khasi] are reported. . . Even the attitude of the government over there is cold’.[/footnote]

Over the last few years, there has been little improvement in the living conditions of the colony population. On the contrary, these have steadily deteriorated owing to the impact of the growing urban push around the slum settlement. This has increased discomfort and anxiety among the existing public facilities of the colony. As a result, the place has become even more unhygienic. There is inadequate provision of community toilets, and just one two-storied RCC building, providing residential facilities for a disproportionately large number of families. Overcrowding of the colony street is a common sight; its consequences are reflected in the unsatisfactory functioning of the Guru Nanak Free Primary School, run by locals, which students do not attend regularly. ‘The teacher blamed ignorance of parents being one of the reasons behind it, as they remain busy to earn their daily livelihood’ (Sandeep Sharma 2001, 21).


Another Dalit Sikh settlement can be found in the Fatasil–Ambari area of the city. Like the Marakhali Sweeper Basti, it is also on municipal land, but is more seriously affected by waterlogging. It occupies some of the low-lying areas of the city and suffers from the backflow of the river Brahmaputra during the rainy season (S. Sharma 2001, 98, 107–13). The colony grew up possibly in the post-independence years, when the hill city was no longer able to accommodate them. The place is thus described by an investigator a few years ago:

The settlement is dissected by a narrow lane with a width of 5 feet, it is connected to main road on both sides. . . Whole area is very compact and hardly any open space is available as houses are very close to each other. The settlement gives a very clear picture of overcrowding of the slum population. Moreover, it falls on busy market area which adds to the misery of people living there.[footnote]Sandeep Sharma 2001, 21. On my visit to the same place after a gap of almost eight years, I found very little change in the local situation, except for the massive municipal construction work that is likely to introduce some significant changes in the living of the colony.[/footnote]

Unlike Marakhali, the local Sikhs do not constitute the majority of local residents but have shared the space with the Bansphors and the Telugus. The former came before the Sikhs, while the latter had followed them. They are mostly employed as sweepers by the GMC and other semi-governmental offices, and their homes match their hierarchy and gradations. Compared with the Islampur area, it is still something of a backwater that had long served as the main dumping-ground of the city’s solid waste. In the course of the last few years, its low-lying lands had been adequately raised for future urban settlements.[footnote]Jarnail Singh, 10 December 2009.[/footnote]

As its ground level was elevated, the GMC was ready with a blueprint for its future use. The scheme envisaged the construction of a large housing complex so that the civic body could relocate a few of its flats to those evicted and disgruntled staff of the Marakhali Colony. The urban administration had long been toying with the idea of giving the slum a facelift. It could not go ahead, owing to the non-availability of an alternative space for rehabilitation. With the coming of the Fatasil–Ambari residential complex, the GMC was determined to dismantle Marakhali by shifting some of its legitimate occupants there.

This had long been an urgent issue, owing to the rapid pace of urbanization in the locality. The Marakhali area is viewed as one of the prime areas of the city which could be utilized for widening its narrow lanes. This would facilitate speedy movement of traffic between Guwahati and the new capital city, Dispur. The GMC possibly borrowed a large sum of money to execute the scheme. The entire locality was geared up after the construction of a flyover, a modern sports complex, a five-star hotel and a few other markers of the modern city.

A section of the Sikh Dalits raised objections to their shifting to the Fatasil–Ambari area. It was viewed not only as a source of additional economic embarrassment but also as a ploy on the part of the GMC to push out those who were seen as unwanted guests. This had virtually made the Sikh slum-dwellers a fly in the GMC ointment. Its result was the beginning of an unequal tussle between them, with many political repercussions. Some of these questions are intimately associated with the wider regional issues, high- lighting the marginality of the Dalit Sikhs in Assam.


A profile of local Sikh Dalits would not be complete without a reference to the Last Gate Colony. It is located almost at the heart of the capital city, Dishpur, representing the third and last settlement of the Sikh Dalits. After the creation of the truncated Assam state in 1972, the colony was set up at the behest of the Assam Government. The place is never bracketed with other slum settlements of the city. Nevertheless, it shares some of its distinctive features such as overcrowded dwelling-places, inadequate drainage facili- ties in some areas, and a narrow meandering lane that encompasses the semicircular colony habitation, providing a combined entry and exit point.

Upon leaving the area, a visitor may have a ghettoized impression of its inhabitants, though the administration did not set up the colony with this intention. It was constructed on a priority basis so that the new Assam capital would not be missing its minimum number of sweepers and cleaners. They were all recruited from their Shillong settlement. There is no evidence to suggest that some form of coercion was used in their recruitment and subsequent migration to Guwahati, but this possibility cannot be ruled out.[footnote]Swaran Singh, a senior Dalit Sikh sweeper, suggested that ‘coercion was employed on those who had refused to comply’ (field investigator’s note, 28 September 2009).[/footnote]

It is the smallest of the three Sikh Dalit settlements, and only recently came into existence. Compared with two other locations, the Last Gate Colony ‘is well maintained, neat and better planned’. As regards sanitation, hygiene and cleanliness, it was found ‘better compared to the colonies at Marakhali and Fatasil’.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 27 September 2009.[/footnote]Its composition is another feature: besides the Mazhbi Sikhs, there are Marwari people from Rajasthan. The area also conveys a somewhat different impression due to the better economic profile of its inhabitants and the maintenance of its public facility system by the govern- ment. Their lifestyle and dress, as well as aspirations of local youngsters, reinforce this impression.[footnote]As I was walking along the colony lane (20 November 2009), I was able to interact with a number of them. I asked one boy who was relaxing in a chair, his back to the winter sun, with his mother patting him from behind, ‘What do you want to be in your life?’. Before he could reply, his mother answered instantly: ‘He will go for a service, and it must be a big one’.[/footnote]

Unlike other Sikh sweepers, local residents are state government employees. They ‘are better aware of records related to terms of employment and other different rules guiding allotment of official quarters. Further, their direct relationship with some important politicians and bureaucrats at the secretariat’ made their position easier in the settlement.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 28 September 2009.[/footnote]On certain issues, they possibly represent a slightly different set of people who are better equipped to deal with the contemporary politics of bargaining. Unlike their counterparts residing in other colonies, they generally prefer to stay with the local Assamese majority of the city. This not only secures their position within the limits of the secretariat, but also distances them from the local Mazhbi politics around the Marakhali slum settlement. Their politics of playing safe is also dictated by their better economic position with the rest of their community in the city. Besides, the secluded location of the colony, grafted within the limits of the state capital administrative parameter, imposed certain restrictions on its political behaviour. All these factors do not strictly hold good with regard to those Mazhbis residing in Marakhali facing the GMC’s aggressive stance.


These Dalit Sikhs started coming to the city when the Ramgarhias had already entrenched them in different urban centres of the Brahmaputra Valley (Banerjee 2009). The Ramgarhias have been in Guwahati since the beginning of the last century. Contemporary British colonial interest in railways, oil, tea, timber and others had brought them to Assam. Since its foundation in 1908 they had dominated the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara, which is situated centrally within the city. As in Shillong, here also they pursued a policy of caste discrimination. Thus Gurmej Singh, one of the septuagenarian Mazhbis residing in the Marakhali Punjabi Colony, recalled his experiences:[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 26 August 2009.[/footnote]

The management of the affairs of the Gurdwara Fancy Bazaar was . . . one of the bones of contention. They [Mazhbis] were initially denied any representations . . . as they were regarded as … ‘unclean’ and ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘incapable’ and ‘greedy’… they would be deprived of the right of touching the Guru Granth Sahib… denied participation in the gurpurabs, they were not informed of the dates of other religious occasions which the Sikhs celebrate apart from gurpurabs like Sangraad and Baisakhi. . . . Why are we considered as outcast when we are a part of the Sikh Community? It is simply because we are sweepers and removers of the night-soil. Guru-ka-Ghar belongs to us as much it is to you Ramgarhias.

Here also their discrimination at the sacred space forced the Dalits to set up their own gurdwara at Marakhali. It prompted them to shift their allegiance to it, thereby widening the gulf of differences with Ramgarhias, then in command of the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara. Thus the politics of caste continued, more or less persisting until the arrival of the Jat Sikhs in larger numbers in the Brahmaputra Valley.[footnote]During the pre-independence years, they did not reach the place owing to insufficient surfaced roads in the province.[/footnote]

With the independence and partition of the country followed by the Indo-China border clash in 1962, the Indian government took a keen interest in the improvement of communication in the Valley. It led to the introduction of new broad-gauge railway traffic and other means of faster surface communication in Assam.[footnote]A rapid increase in the amount of vehicular traffic is largely borne out by the steady increase in the number of trucks, trailers and lorries since the 1960s (see Statistical Abstracts of Assam).[/footnote] These developments sent signals to the Punjabi Sikh Jats, who are widely known for their expertise in this trade throughout India. Since the 1960s, with the extension of the city towards the Beltola area, they generally flocked there. Acquisition of a sizable amount of land for the construction of a gurdwara underlines the community’s commitment to live there in the coming years of the century.[footnote]A visit to the region would illustrate the point. The availability of wider space for parking an increased number of vehicles made it their preferred choice. In recent years, they founded a makeshift gurdwara at the top of a three-storey building. I am grateful to Sr. Santam Singh Khalsa, the most important Jat leader of Assam, who kindly took me to visit these places (8 August 2009).[/footnote]

As the number and economic consolidation of Jats steadily increased over the years, they gradually developed interest in the affairs of the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara. Since its foundation, it had been an exclusive Ramgarhia preserve. This may have tempted them to attempt a trial of strength. In their struggle against Ramgarhias, the Jats frequently highlighted their politics of exclusion towards the Mazhbis, expressing their anger in the election of the Gurdwara Management Committee. The Jats were privileged to have the leadership of a powerful leftist Dalit Sikh leader, Ajit Singh (1903–2007) Bhatra, who had already made his mark in the mobilization of the GMC sweepers in trade union politics.[footnote]Many local Mazhbis have referred to his leadership. Singh came to Guwahati in 1954 and practised as a doctor, though he had no medical degree. He may have belonged to the CPI, and had been active in local Dalit Sikh politics over a number of years since the early 1970s. The strike of the GMC workers continued for more than two weeks (verbal communication, Chakradhar Kalita, 23 November 2009).[/footnote]Other Sikhs who were not Jats but had long been dissatisfied with Ramgarhias joined hands to bring about a change in the existing Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara leadership.

It is difficult to point out any specific year marking the end of Ramgarhia caste domination in the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara.[footnote]The Ramgarhias did not fall out of grace simply because of the combined Jat–Mazhbi assault on the Fancy Bazaar management body: there was also a steady decline in their number over this period. It may also be due to the fact that the sporadic ethnic violation in Assam, as well as the dislocation in a number of industrial developments, encouraged their migration from the Punjab. Many moved to Bangalore, Delhi, and as far away as Dubai and England. Gurbachan Singh, a leading Ramgarhia leader from Jorhat, has drawn my attention to this issue. Incidentally, two of his sons who were educated outside did not return to the Punjab (15 November 2005).[/footnote]Local sources indicate that Ajit Singh was functioning as its General Secretary in the mid-1970s. With his elevation there, the Gurdwara opened its door to the Dalit Sikhs. One from their caste was even appointed to hold another position there. It also sought to establish a wider link among the different Sikh religious places scattered throughout the city.[footnote]There are now more than ten gurdwaras in the city. With the throwing away of the Ramgarhia leadership in the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara, these are steadily brought under one umbrella. In the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara, the Ramgarhias are there, but they remain there with their power crippled. They had agreed to work under the new Jat leadership. I met a few of them during my last visit there (22 November 2009).[/footnote]

Entry of the Dalits in the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara with the support of local Jats resulted in some long-term modifications in the balance of power in the Sikh Pratinidhi Board. It represents the apex Sikh body in north-eastern India, with its headquarters at Dhubri Sahib. This would take another quarter of a century to achieve, but is expected to be copied with the growing success of the alliance elsewhere in the Assam valley.


It is to the credit of Ajit Singh that he brought some of the different segments of local Dalit groups under a broad-based political platform. He was mainly concerned with the mobilization of the GMC sweepers and cleaners, cutting across ethnic affiliations and religious boundaries. Under his leadership, the Sikh Dalits had an opportunity to vent their many grievances. As the General Secretary of the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara, he had not only created a space for them within the religious body but also encouraged many of them to join in a general strike against the GMC in 1987.[footnote]Important Sikh leaders belonging to Jat, Khatri and Ramgarhia castes had so far refused to refer to Ajit Singh’s activites. On the other hand, the Dalit Sikhs are eloquent in remembering him. The field investigator’s note, as well as my own visit to these places, suggests that even today the Mazhbis mourn his absence.[/footnote]It looked forward to achieving certain economic concessions, including the demand for a bonus which the GMC had earlier refused. The strike continued for 21 days and was brought to an end through a violent police intervention upon the Dalit protestors.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 23 October 2009.[/footnote]This hostile ending to the strike resulted in a temporary thaw in their radical politics. During the protests, they had tried to set aside many issues like linguistic rivalry as well as cultural divide which had often created bitterness and hatred among these slum settlers. After the strike, the fragility of their position in relation to the GMC’s aggression had begun to dawn on them; this led to sharp divisions in their ranks. A section of them were even willing to leave the Marakhali Colony on terms and conditions dictated by the GMC.[footnote]I had the privilege of talking to a few of them in the Fatasil – Ambari Colony during my visit in November 2009.[/footnote]

The Dalit Sikh position, therefore, communicates an uneven history. The Marakhali unit was already marginalized by the forces of urbanization. Henceforth it would fight for its survival within the limits of slum location, but on a lower key. A sense of insecurity steadily gripped its everyday life. It could hardly afford to antagonize the GMC by its radical politics of the 1980s; instead, it was ready to resolve the issue peacefully because it was unlikely to receive support from the other two Dalit Sikh settlements.

The Last Gate Colony settlers, with their sheltered life under the closed surveillance of the administration, found themselves in something of a gilded cage. The latter had some sympathy for their Marakhali counterparts, but could not go beyond it. Similarly, the Fatasil–Ambari folk would also be facing some form of eviction by the civic agency. But compared to the anxiety of the Marakhali Dalits, the latter would be more a part of the larger rehabilitation programme involving the shift of slum settlers from one part of the colony to an adjoining plot of the same locality. Hence it did not alarm them deeply. In other words, each of the colonies had its own problems; and its target of criticism was not always the GMC, though it had to share the larger part of it. A variety of tricky issues thus dominated the lives of the Dalit Sikh population and often kept them separate. It prevented any joint plan of action from their end.[footnote]The following extract from the field investigator’s note (24 August 2009) would confirm the point: ‘[In spite of strong ties], one aspect of the relationship of the three settlements is that I have not come across any evidence, not even any oral one, suggesting the Mazhbis of the three settlements making a joint and united effort or putting up a joint resistance or organizing rallies etc. for a common cause’.[/footnote] As they were increasingly becoming sure of their numerical insignificance and limited ‘bargaining power’, the GMC once more intervened in 2002.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 11 September 2009.[/footnote]The civic body quickly dismantled a few unauthorized slum dwelling-places before it was asked to halt the operation.


The GMC had clearly done their homework before confronting the Marakhali slum- dwellers. The administration was very selective in the use of its power. It particularly targeted those shanties that had no ‘legitimate’ claim to the plots upon which they were built. In most cases, its victims came from the ranks of former municipal workers who had already retired or had died, leaving the family to face an uncertain future. It included mostly old and infirm persons, as well as children. Their conditions were already worse, but the municipal bulldozing further intensified the crisis. As narrated below, two recent field reports thus narrated their plight:[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 7 September 2009.[/footnote]

I met around three women, all of whom along with their children had been evicted from their accommodation in Marakhali Colony as their husbands, who had been [municipal] employees, are no longer alive. These women despised the fact that none of their children had been offered jobs in GMC after the death of their father, though it was previously the norm. Some of the boys are working as casual labourers in the GMC and the women themselves work either as domestic helps in nearby houses or as part-time safai-karamcharis with the GMC.

I had the opportunity of meeting Makhan Singh (a clean-shaven Sikh). He is around 80 years old, and among the oldest of the migrants. He was evicted from his accom- modation in 2002, after retirement. He lives with his wife and son, his daughter-in- law and their two kids in a two-room makeshift accommodation under the flyover on the B. Baruah Road . . . He had served in Burma and after the turmoil there [went back to Amritsar. With the end of the World War II in 1945] his father … then an employee of the Irrigation Department… asked him to come to Guwahati. . . as a safai karamchari. He recalls receiving as salary a sum of Rs.15/ . . .when he had retired [his monthly salary] of around Rs. 7,000. He is entitled to a pension of Rs. 3,000. But as per rules, he is not entitled to any accommodation.

The victims could hardly go to any court of law. They had neither the financial clout nor sufficient official documentation to support their claims. Whatever moral right they had acquired by virtue of making the city clean as well as residing in its former trenching ground carried little value with the GMC. Besides, being a fragment of the minority community,[footnote]There is no reliable figure to ascertain the size of the local Dalit Sikh population. It would be around 400–500. The total Sikh population of Guwahati is 3,470 persons (2001), less than 0.01% of the total city population (around 8.1 million, according to Census of India 2001).[/footnote]these poverty-stricken Dalits no longer dreamt of directly antagonizing the GMC. Instead, they tried to solve the eviction issue through political lobbying at different levels. Once more, in the hour of crisis, the local Jat leadership from the Beltala area came to their rescue. They intervened and sought the personal intervention of the then Chief Minister of Assam so that the GMC could be stopped from its destruction spree.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 2 September 2009.[/footnote]


The GMC went back (in 2002), but had possibly temporarily left the field. There is always a fear of its return with renewed vengeance. Like any other municipal body of the country, the principles of ‘modernization’ are in wide circulation among the highest level officials of the GMC. Thus the anxiety of dismantling of shanties continues to grip the lives of the Marakhali slum-dwellers. The issue had intensified their differ- ences with the Last Gate Colony but it had brought them closer to the Beltala Gurd- wara. It had been mutually beneficial to both the parties. The Dalits had facilitated the consolidation of the position of Jats in their leadership drive at the Dhubri Sahib Gurdwara. It represents the most respected religious institutions in the north-east of India and Jats had even replaced the old Ramgarhia leadership there. On the other hand, the Mazhbis were given a place of honour, not only in the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara Management Committee but also elevated to the position of the chief sevadar in the Gopinath Gurdwara, which was to become another important religious institution in the city. At the Dhubri Sahib, a separate hall had been constructed for their stay on any future occasion.

All these experiences had emboldened the Dalits to look forward to the Beltala Gurdwara for any future material and moral need.[footnote]The Mazhbis of Marakhali prefer to go to Beltala, rather than to Fancy Bazaar, to solemnize any marriage ceremony, though the latter is closer to them. They have so far been unable to get rid of their past cultural distance with the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara. It was initially caused by caste difference which the former Ramgarhia leadership used to maintain over the years (field investigator’s note, 28 August 2009).[/footnote]As the new city of Guwahati is rapidly expanding along the National Highway No. 37, leaving older key areas like Paltan Bazaar, Fancy Bazaar and Pan Bazaar in the background, the recent Jat – Mazhbi realignment also suggests a new power equation in local Sikh life. The reign of power is no longer in the hands of Ramgarhias of the Fancy Bazaar Gurdwara, but lies with the new partnership of Jats and Mazhbis. Here the Jats are, of course, in the driving-seat; but they have accommodated the needs of the Mazhbis too. It is likely that this power structure would steadily be extended to other areas of Assam which had hitherto been subject to the control of Ramgarhias.

An important agenda of the partnership is its enthusiasm for the Sikh Dalits’ Mazhbis identity. It seems more contented to see them in Sikh attire, including all its external markers. Keeping unshorn hair is repeatedly underlined in their gurdwaras to halt the numerical rise of clean-shaven Sikhs among younger generations.[footnote]Field investigator’s note (28 August 2009), as well as my visit to all three settlements in the last week of November 2009, confirms that they are mostly clean-shaven.[/footnote]The leadership shows keenness to promote gatka (Sikh martial art), singing of kirtan (Sikh devotional music) and celebrate gurpurabs (celebrations associated with the lives of Gurus) with adequate dignity and respect. Taken as a whole, it discourages any deviation from the Sikh rahit (code of conduct) and wishes to look back to the book-view of Sikhism. It is too early to predict the impact of this on the younger generation, but the enthusiasm of the Mazhbi leadership merits attention.[footnote]The leadership of the Sikh Dalits is in the hands of those who are all keshdharis.[/footnote]To these leaders of a minuscule group who are incessantly threatened by the insecurity of settlement in a place far away from the place of birth, perhaps the message of religion provides them with a rallying-point as well as a message of living in a difficult situation.


The Sikh Dalits of Guwahati fight for survival, but how long they would be able to continue it is a matter of speculation. Their widespread poverty and lack of education make matters worse for them. They are hardly aware of the different beneficial schemes of the government offering varied opportunities to depressed classes. Besides, the majority of them are too poor to ‘invest anything for the education of their children’.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 7 September 2009.[/footnote]These are mostly accessible to that handful of Dalits who are already enjoying these benefits. One result of this is that a small number of rich, mobile Mazhbis have taken over its leadership. Thus economic differentiation intensifies, but the baton of leadership often passes into the hands of those who belong to the educated and the higher-income group among them.[footnote]This prevails in Marakhali Colony, but is not the case in the Fatasil–Ambari area.[/footnote]

On the other hand, the dominant section of the new generation is increasingly denied access to the GMC jobs of sweepers that their parents have had in the past. For these opportunities, they have to face increasing competition from the local population, who hate them as ‘outsiders’. Many young Mazhbis do not like to work as sweepers, but have insufficient expertise to apply for better jobs elsewhere. Earlier, their parents discouraged them from learning the Assamese language, which they are now picking up. As a result, they can be extremely critical of superiors and question their authority.

In these critical moments of life, local Dalit Sikhs’ relationship with the Punjab often figures in different discussions. Only a small section of them can afford to maintain their old ties with the distant Punjab. A handful of seniors, like Ram Singh of Gopinath Gurdwara, visit their native place in Amritsar; Ram Singh often visits once a year, because his wife hails from the same district. But the Punjab does not evoke the same emotions in those who have married locally or in Shillong. They prefer to arrange marriage for their sons and daughters with the local Sikhs, not in the Punjab. Even Ram Singh’s wife, who is from Amritsar, agrees to this. She communicates her frustration thus:[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 11 September 2009.[/footnote]

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 children that she was somehow able to assimilate herself into the ‘culture’ of the slum settlement.

There are others who feel like going back to the Punjab after retirement from a sweeper’s job. An important factor in this decision-making process is the legal compul- sion to vacate official quarters. With no security of employment of their sons in the GMC, no permanent place of residence and no property here in Guwahati, they ‘do not mind going back to the Punjab’. But there too, they ‘have no permanent asset’. They represent the unfortunate lot who ‘have nowhere to go’.[footnote]Field investigator’s note, 28 September 2009.[/footnote]


The Dalit Sikh past of the two most important cities of the north-east of India communicates a mosaic of profiles that offer scholars of Sikh Studies a new area of enquiry. It differs significantly from what the historians of the Punjabi and diaspora Sikhs generally suggest about the prosperity of the different Sikh settlements, as well as their extent of remittance in their native place of birth. These poor, marginalized groups cannot be compared with those ‘new Sikhs’ who figure as powerful spokesmen and patrons of Sikhism in the writings of a number of social scientists of the West. Again, the study points out why those minuscule Sikh Dalit settlements of the north-east continue to witness segregation and exclusion from the local populace. Even the provincial governments and the other ‘high’-caste Sikhs continue to treat them as ‘unclean’, even denying them the right to enter the Singh Sabhas. They are also victims of legal discrimination and treated as ‘denizens’.[footnote]I have incorporated the term used by Barua (2005, 184–208), who uses it in the context of the discriminatory state politics in the newly created Meghalaya state, where local administration puts certain legal restrictions upon the participation of outsiders and denies them certain rights to which every citizen of India is entitled under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution. This constitutes discriminatory state behaviour, denying equal rights to its citizens.[/footnote]The Dalits are equally pushed to the wall by the municipality’s drive to clean up capital cities by dismantling some of their slum settlements, which the colonial and regional state powers had initially sponsored out of their own interests.

It would, however, be wrong to portray these Dalits as a homogenous unit. At least a few of them are rich, owing to their access to education. This has made them aware of the governmental schemes for scheduled castes, but these are limited in number. Some look forward to the Punjab, and intend to settle there. But the bulk of them remain below the poverty line. It may be a point of debate whether all of them can be bracketed within the frontiers of Sikhism. Apart from their identity as Valimikis and Mashis, the number of clean-shaven Sikhs is also on the rise in both cities. In Guwahati, the incoming Jats have sought to halt the process, but with limited success. But the same Jat Sikh’s voice is missing in Shillong. Unlike the Guwahati Jats, the local Singh Sabha leaders are Soniars. They are strict regarding entry into the Singh Sabha of Shillong.

The two cities of the north-east thus offer two distinct forms of response to the Mazhbis going clean-shaven. In spite of their marginalization in both places, the presence or absence of Jats at the local level may offer an interesting key to the local riddle: it indirectly reminds us how ‘uncut hair’ was traditionally – and remains –a part of the larger Jat custom (McLeod 1975, 52), underlining the continued importance of Jats in Sikhism. Their claim to be the leader and protector of the Sikh community even outside the Punjab is somewhat corroborated by their willingness to cooperate with the Mazhbis. They championed the Mazhbi cause largely out of their own group interest, but this came at a time when these marginalized people had no other support to fall back on. In the Punjab, the traditional Jat–Mazhbi relationship is dominated by the former, though it is often characterized by brutal domination. Here also, the secondary role of the Mazhbis is not unknown to them. In other words, in spite of the strong rebut- tal of the historians of the Sikhs, the community does not hesitate to carry much of its caste experience beyond the Punjab.


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Himadri Banerjee Written by:

Prof Himadri Banerjee who holds the Guru Nanak Chair in Indian History at Jadavpur University’s Department of History has made the Sikhs and Sikhism in eastern India his primary area of academic study. His book, The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern India, is widely regarded as a path-breaking work on the Sikhs and their history and heritage in Assamese, Oriya and Bengali traditions.


  1. Pragya Deb Burman
    June 8, 2018

    A very thought provoking article on the Dalit Sikhs of N.E India. I wonder how many of our politicians and local leaders even know or care about them and their history, their plight and the service they had rendered in the region, when none of our local populace even bothered about sanitation and left unclean jobs to this community.

    After reading this and as an old resident of Shillong, I recollect fondly one of our ‘sweepers’, who used to be the headman of the Sweeper lane. His name was Chameli and old residents will recollect a fair, jolly turban clad man who’d salute everyone he’d meet with a ‘Salaam’. He died at the ripe old age of 90 or so and we grew up seeing him, since he used to reside in our compound (Tripura Castle). We never thought of it as peculiar since he had been serving since the days of my grandfather (1920’s), as to why he hardly ever stayed in the colony. He was given a separate room here and would wake up early at 4 am and finish sweeping the entire area. We had numerous dogs and he was also assigned the job of cooking their food and cleaning, bathing them. He used to visit Guwahati every Saturday I remember, to visit the Kamakhya Temple despite being a Sikh. He was accorded a higher status and used to have a few relatives in the colony and in the Punjab and would visit the Ghetto occasionally.

    When he died sometime in the winter of 1990, I visited the slum area and donated an amount for his cremation. That was the first and last time I’d been to the ghetto but was given a lot of respect.I was only about 20 years old at that time and could see that hardly anyone from a so called ‘respectable family’ ever visited them.

    My thoughts on the current issue and violence in Shillong is one of sadness. Have we failed to recognise this marginalised group of people as humans, being so utterly consumed in ourselves and our sole development? As a society is it not our responsibility in helping them to rise and develop at par with the rest of the country? Why are we so caste / class stricken and communal ( this applies to both tribals and non tribals)?
    So many factors have contributed to their alienation from mainstream society- they are still treated as untouchables in this day and age by even the high caste Sikhs, which was something I didn’t know of.Despite conversion to Christianity or Valmiki sect, they still have bear the stigma of their past and occupation.
    Brought in by the British they were probably better treated then, than they are now. Nobody looks down upon a janitor in the West!

    A solution is required very soon, and I’m not talking about just relocation ( which is the only thing going on in people’s mind), but of a long term solution to help a community that has served the inhabitants of Shillong and parts of Assam for over a century and a half. We detest menial or unclean labour but these people have toiled day and night just to keep the streets, public toilets and morgues in hospitals clean and hygienic. I’m sure they too don’t enjoy this work but do they have a choice?
    It’s time we grow up and discard our differences because we have contributed also to this current problem and degradation of their society, by denying them the normal rights of a human being residing in India.Violence is never the solution to any problem and I urge the local leaders, Municipal board, heads of departments and the NGO’s to lend an impartial hearing to this long impending social issue.

  2. Dr Harpreet Kaur Vohra
    June 9, 2018

    Very insightful article. It was well researched and took the reader on the long journey of suffering and segregation. Even the so called protectors of the religion have denied the Mazhbis their rights and this ghettoisation will continue for centuries.

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