‘Sweepers’ Line’ is not a communal issue but a historical one

No other issue, in the recent memory, evokes the relevance of history more than the Sweepers’ Line imbroglio. The week, following the incident of 31st May, misinformation and misrepresentation flew thick and fast. One such, being the nomenclature (name), ‘Punjabi Lane’. One does not deny the fact that there had been clashes in the past three decades, but never was it attached a communal colour, as this time round. That the situation, spin from a brawl to a communal flare up, stemmed from the ‘falsification’ of the name of the said ‘Area’, thereby unnecessarily, dragging the name of a particular community to it.

Hence you have political parties, from Punjab and politicians of Sikh community from Delhi, rushing to Shillong. Overnight the city attained notoriety, in the national media. Organisations rushed to the city with aid. This truly, was unprecedented. Also unprecedented was the ‘non-residents’ commenting almost daily on the affairs of our land, and get off easily. Some of them even had the audacity to give historical spin that the settlers – settlement – had resided in Shillong for more than two hundred years. Truth be told; Can such ‘interferences’ be possible in other states’? It is ironic, however, that we stand accused of being ‘wild’. That’s a bit unfair, don’t you think. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]These non-resident ‘outsiders’, are ignorant of the fact that Shillong, is still 46 years away from celebrating 200 hundred years of its existence.[/perfectpullquote]

Hence my submission that, the repeated portrayal of the Sweepers’ Line, (since 1st June 2018) as Punjabi Lane is not only sensationalising the issue, and giving it an unnecessary communal colour, but it tantamount to distorting TRUTH.

Sweepers’ Line or Punjabi Line or Punjabi Lane or Harijan Basti?

Statements and Press Release from the government mentioned of the word Sweepers’ Lane, indicating that the records with the Revenue Department, attested to the fact that the word ‘Punjabi Lane’ is a misnomer. I, however, begged to differ with even the mention of the word ‘lane’, which I shall specify, in the latter part of my account. Certain ‘learned individual’, it appears, believed that the word Sweepers’ Line is demeaning, discriminatory and hence not politically correct. This, however, concealed the truth. “When you try to be Politically Correct with Reality, Truth gets diluted and problem gets confounded”. I am, however pained, by the silence and non-clarification of the Revenue Department, Government of Meghalaya, on the misinterpretation of the said ‘geographical locale’. Some might interject: What’s in a name? Well, for the uninitiated, everything is in a name; our essence and, nay I say, our ethos is circled around our nomenclature. For instance the name ‘Iew-duh’ or ‘Lait-umkhrah’ or ‘Riat-sam-thiah’or any other, for that matter, are nomenclatures linked to the experiences of our forefathers- read history. We have almost lost the traditional name Iewduh. Should we lose all?

First published by Survey of India 1925

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]How did this nomenclature Sweepers’ Line originate?[/perfectpullquote]

Certain friends are themselves confused. Sadly, however, they transmitted their confusion to others. It is a classic case of a blind leading the blind. The irony is: the blinded ones are falling down the precipice of ignorance, because they follow the ‘herd mentality’. It is, an indisputable, fact that it was the British who brought along with them the predecessors of the ‘genuine’ settlers at Sweepers Line, for the purpose of scavenging etc. It is on this premise, that the nomenclature Sweepers’ Line stands, and not Punjabi Lane, as repeatedly portrayed. A study of the town settlements under the British in certain parts of India which had been directly annexed to the British Empire, notably the Presidencies, shows that the Towns have been divided into two parts. The first part, where the military resides and often is the seat of power, generally referred to as the Cantonment Areas. The second one, and where the civilian (generally, the ruled) resides, is called the Civil Lines. In certain areas, words like the ‘white towns and ‘black towns’ have been used. In the Khasi Hills, however, as the territories of the Khasi States have not been ‘directly’ annexed, the question of Civil Lines does not arise.

The Syiems have administrative control over their own area, save for those areas that had been either acquired, leased or bought for the purpose of establishing Cantonments etc. The areas held by the British government are called “Ri Sorkar” (Government Land). The Syiem had to renounce all administrative rights over these areas. (Source: ‘Ka Jingiathuhkhana Pateng Shaphang ki Syiem Mylliem jong ka Hima Mylliem- naduh 1830 haduh 1960’ by Jor Manik Syiem). However by using the term ‘bought’, I am not trying to mislead that the Syiem and his Dorbar, were traitors for having sold the lands to the British. Though the British did not have direct hold unto the reins of power, yet it possessed the authority to ‘command obedience’ (pynkohnguh). Its crystal clear, I hope, the distinction between ‘obey’ and being ‘made to obey’. As is evident from the records, prior to the shifting of the capital of the Khasi-Jaintia Hills District, from Sohra to Shillong in 1864, there was an agreement signed between the Syiem (referred to as Rajah) of the Mylliem State, Mile Sing and Lt. Colonel J.C.Haughton in December 1863. And it was in this agreement that large areas were leased to the British for constituting ‘Ri Sorkar’. (British India which included the present European Ward, Police Bazar, Jail Road and Cantonment areas) – [ Source: “Shillong”- an article by Late E.H. Pahkyntein (M.A. LL.B, IAS Retd)].



As regard to the Sweepers’ Line, as it stands now, is placed outside the Cantonment Area within the jurisdiction of the Mylliem State (This term Mylliem State was used until the year 1950). Question arises, how or why was this arrangement done? When the Sweepers’ were the employees brought by the British for their ‘convenience’, how come they were placed outside the “Ri Sorkar’? Truth is, since the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857, the British had a deep sense of distrust for the ‘natives’- read Indians. It could have, therefore, been that the British command the Syiem into ‘obedience’, to allot a portion of the land for the settlement of its employees.

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

In the year 1874, Shillong was made the capital of the Chief Commissionership of Assam and with that came the Municipality. In 1878, the first localities outside the ‘Ri Sorkar’, which were brought within the ambit of the Shillong Municipality, were Laban and Mawkhar. The British Government took upon itself the responsibility, to clean the localities through the employees of the Municipality (Sweepers). It needs to be stated, however, that the administrative writ of the Syiem was never affected in these areas. ( Source: ‘Ka Jingiathuhkhana Pateng Shaphang ki Syiem Mylliem jong ka Hima Mylliem- naduh 1830 haduh 1960’ by Jor Manik Syiem) That remained the situation till Indian gained Independence. In the year 1954, which by now we are familiar, another agreement was signed by the Shillong Municipal Board with Syiem of Mylliem (by then it was referred to by its present nomenclature Mylliem Syiemship).

Recently, a noted legal luminary suggested a “tripartite agreement” as the solution. My humble submission is- wouldn’t that unnecessarily draw the entanglement into a “legal quagmire’. No such agreement had been entered with the ‘employees’, since 1863, and subsequently none in 1954? What warrants it being done now?

It appears, that, there are attempts, at pre-empting an objective solution. On 7th June 2018, The Shillong Times reported under a headline “Government to face legal hurdles in shifting Punjabi Lane residents” that:

[su_quote]The documents states that the Harijan Community was already settled and inhabited in Shillong even before the agreement entered into by U Melay Sing, Syiem of Mylliem, with the British Government for establishing civic and military sanitaria, posts and cantonment signed on December 10, 1863[/su_quote]

Statements like the above tantamount to falsifying Truth. It is clear that it was the British who brought these settlers. At least, this is an irrefutable, historical fact. Now, we are coming to the interesting part, where the accusation of falsifying/distorting truth, stands vindicated.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] When the cleaning of ‘Sor Shillong’ started at the “Ri Sorkar” in 1864, due to shifting of Capital, and extended to Laban and Mawkhar in 1878, how can it be that the settlers have settled prior to the signing of the agreement with Mile Sing?[/perfectpullquote]

Accordingly, Ma R.T.Rymbai, in his article “Shillong and its Land System”– stated:

[su_quote]There was no settled habitation by the name of Shillong till the British selected this valley as their district headquater in 1864. [/su_quote]

In the light of the above facts, one questions the motive for such irresponsible statements, by the media, when there was already the High Level Committee to handle the issue. Nonetheless, as a historian whose responsibility it is to study the Past, linking it to the Present and drawing out its implications for the Future; I am at liberty to ask: What influenced the media to ‘mischievously’ plant controversial statements, that too a sensational one, when the city was limping back to normalcy? It ought to have restrained itself and at best verify. I would, however, like to add a caveat. (Pardon me for sounding like a legal hawk. For, like the lawyers, historian too, sift through evidences- read FACTS.) If there are any, and I reiterate, any agreement documents (whose veracity I seriously doubt), it has to be properly examined and attested by experts and not to be taken at face value.

Dilemmas of Shillong’s Dalit Punjabis

In the light of the above facts, I see no reason that the demand for the shifting of the Residential Quarters from the present location to other parts should be ‘manufactured’ as a Communal issue, or worst still, an ‘ethnic cleansing’- as some learned individuals are bent on portraying. It would be wrong to turn this issue, at least not this one, into a communal flare-up. This issue should be seen, not from the prism of Communalism, but from the lens of History.

A version of this essay was first published By HIGHLAND POST on June 16, 2018



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Klur M. Syiem Written by:

Asst. Professor,Department of History, Sohra Government College Sohra.

One Comment

  1. Syiemlieh
    June 20, 2018

    Hats off to you Sir …fr clarifying the truth…..

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