Slighted by the influential Sikh community, considered outsiders by many locals, the Dalit Punjabi Sikhs of Shillong have nowhere to go, say historians and sociologists

By Nirupama Dutt

Punjabi Lane or Them Metor valley of sweepers in Bara Bazaar Shillong

Punjabi Lane or Them Metor valley of sweepers in Bara Bazaar Shillong

Precarious peace, with night curfew and high alert still persisting, has been restored in Shillong, the capital of the northeastern hill state of Meghalaya, but clouds have not yet lifted from Punjabi Lane and the future of Dalit Sikhs who inhabit this ghetto in the heart of city.

Historians and sociologists are pointing to the predicament of a people who are not accepted in the fold even of Sikhism to which their forefathers turned to avoid the stigma of being outcasts. These were the Mazhabi Sikhs of Punjab who belonged to the “lowest” rung of Dalits, the ‘untouchable’ scavengers.

“The sad saga in Shillong this month has once again brought to fore the prejudice that exists within Sikh community to Mazhabis,” says Amritsar-based Rajkumar Hans, a retired professor from MS University, Baroda, who has been engaged in recovering Dalit Sikh histories. “The rage of Khasi tribals against Dalit Sikhs in Shillong has also shown the local elite Sikh community in poor light,” he adds.

Himadri Banerjee, former professor of history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, was among the first to probe migration of the Dalit Sikhs of Punjab to Shillong and Guwahati. What set him on this task was surprise at seeing a Sikh sweeping a street in Shillong in 2004. Commenting in his research paper on the recent dilemma, he said: “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 dispossession 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.” In the pre-Independence era, the dominant Ramgarhias here denied them the entry to Sri Singh Sahib Gurdwara, and the new leadership did not allow the Dalits to forget their untouchable stigma carried from the Punjab and abused them for their “dirty” style of living.

Prejudice persists

Ask Paramvir Sehdave, vice-president, Sri Singh Sahib Gurdwara management, if Dalit Sikhs are now allowed access to the gurdwara and he says, “They come to the gurdwara and even cook langar (community meal) there!.” But the key question is: Are the given membership of the gurdwara? “The gurdwara is run by members who are significant so, along with them, we cannot give membership to a mere municipality worker.” This only underlines the lament of Gurmeet Singh, secretary of Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara for the Dalits in Bara Bazaar: “The discrimination in the Sri Singh Sahib Gurdwara with Dalit Sikhs continues even though they have been given entry at last.”

Birinder Pal Singh, a professor of social anthropology and sociology from Punjabi University, Patiala, in a research paper for the National Commission for Minorities, studies the dilemma of these people who have kept the city clean for over a century but continue to live in filth and squalor: “The Mazhabis at Shillong and Guwahati are especially targeted for eviction in the name of slum clearance and beautification of the two cities and to build a flyover and multi-level parking in Shillong to ease traffic congestion. The residents see it as a plot to evict them and render them homeless.” He further says that “80% reservations are for the tribal” and the Khasis are “now open to taking up cleaning jobs”.

Alleged complicity of “upper caste” Sikhs in maintaining dismal conditions of Mazhabis provokes writer and art historian Belinder Dhanoa to say, “As a Sikh born and brought up in Shillong, I am gutted that Sikhs continue to allow caste to be a part of our social structures.”

To be or not to be

The Dalit Sikhs are from Amritsar and Gurdaspur districts of Punjab and have married their daughters to men in Punjab villages; however, the return to Punjab is by the community is not a choice. Birinder Pal says, “It adds to their dilemma, to be or not to be there. The senior generation wishes to return to Punjab but the younger one finds the present residence more fascinating, given their peer group and metropolitan opportunities for work and occupation relative to Punjab, where they see no scope. The question of social status and identity is important too. In Punjab, living at the outskirts of a village in a caste society or even in a city is more discriminating than being ghettoised in the North East”.

It is this dilemma which evokes a Dalit Sikh in Shillong to say, “We are a tragic people: outsiders here and outsiders there”.