What went wrong for Sikhs and Khasis in Shillong?

Shillong has a reputation for being safe for women but the long night of arson in the city recently triggered mild consternation in Punjab because the Sikhs lost their valuables and household possessions

The spark for the week-long incidents of violence in downtown Shillong was a lie spread through WhatsApp, the ubiquitous messaging platform, that has increasingly become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour mongering.

A scuffle between members of the Mazhabi Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was the trigger. But a fabricated story that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents move outfrom the area. The “Sikh settlers” have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The administration did well to protect the dwellers of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until a curfew was imposed and the Army put on stand-by.

Picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is unreasonable and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986.

To prevent a repeat of those incidents, the government must stand by and protect the Sikh residents, and not give in to the arguments of the protestors. The Sikh Forum moved the country’s religious rights watchdog, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), in a show of solidarity with Shillong’s tiny Sikh neighbourhood caught in an unrest with a powerful local tribe.

The Sikh Forum, an apolitical grouping of community professionals, entrepreneurs, former military veterans and bureaucrats, was set up by Lt-Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, the hero of the Bangladesh war after anti-Sikh violence ripped through parts of the country in the wake of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.

Its secretary-general, former DIG, Partap Singh, led a delegation to the NCM in Delhi to seek protection for Sikh settlers in Shillong’s Punjabi Lane, also referred to as the city’s Sweepers’ Colony.

Since May 29, the Meghalaya capital has been hitting national headlines following reports of clashes between the Khasi tribe and residents of the Sweepers’ Colony that have left a dozen people injured, including police. The Sikh residents are descendants of Dalit Punjabis that the British moved them here before 1857 as the colonial rulers expanded their footprints on the subcontinent. “We met the NCM’s Sikh member, Manjit Singh Rai, in Delhi and requested the Sikh minority be given all possible protection in Shillong,” said Lt- Col Sukhvinder Singh Sodhi, part of the delegation that called on the religious rights watchdog.

“The NCM member promised that state and central authorities have already been directed to take all measures to safeguard Shillong’s Sikh community,” Sodhi said.

Conflicting versions have appeared about what led to clashes between the Khasis and the Dalit Punjabis in Shillong. Some reports blamed them on alleged harassment of a Punjabi woman, some on a row over parking.

The trouble was sparked by an altercation between a Sikh woman who lives in the colony and a Khasi bus driver over the parking spot for a Meghalaya State Transport Corporation bus. Matters escalated later that day, leading to curfew being imposed in the city.

On the ground, there are two versions about the incident that set off the violence. Some members of the Sikh community in Punjabi Lane said that after a Sikh woman was harassed by Khasi men, she and four other women living in the settlement beat them up. The Khasis said that after the argument about parking, they were assaulted by men from the Punjabi Lane colony.

Despite the competing claims, the feuding parties reached a formal compromise at the local Cantonment Board police station. The agreement, written by the bus driver in Khasi, stated that he had no hard feelings towards the Sikh woman and man accused in the altercation.

The fake news spread on Whatsapp said that a group of Punjabi people from the colony had decapitated two Khasi boys. A mob soon gathered near the colony, intent on violence. The mob clashed with personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force and state police, resulting in injuries on both sides. The police had to fire tear gas shells to disperse the crowd.

The curfew was imposed in several parts of Shillong while internet and text messaging services were also shut down across the city to prevent rumours from spreading. The Army was put on standby. The Army also fed and housed more than 300 civilians from the “disturbed areas” in the cantonment, according to a release from the Press Information Bureau.

Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has assured his Punjab counterpart Capt Amarinder Singh on the safety of Sikh community and their religious institutions in Meghalaya. Conard Sangma called up his Punjab counterpart, Captain Amarinder Singh to assure him of the safety of Sikh community and their religious institutions in Meghalaya in the wake of clashes that broke out in Shillong.

According to a statement issued by the Punjab government, Conrad Sangma apprised the Punjab CM of the situation in the state in the wake of communal violence reportedly triggered by a minor incident and tried to allay any apprehension of Sikhs being under attack.

Sangma assured Capt Amarinder that there was no damage to any Gurudwara or other institutions belonging to Sikhs in Meghalaya.

The Punjab Chief Minister expressed concern over the developments and hope that situation would not escalate further.

The Meghalaya Chief Minister has said that he is personally monitoring the situation to ensure that there is no further trouble or fresh incident that could escalate tension.