Inside Shillong’s Punjabi Lane, A Story Of Migrants In The Eye Of An Unrest

200-year-old Punjabi Lane is slowly limping back to normalcy but uncertainty remains

Shillong:  88-year-old Darshan Singh, a retired employee of the Shillong Municipal Corporation, hasn’t slept a wink in the last five days. Mr Singh was born in Shillong after his father had migrated from Gurdaspur in Punjab in search of job during the British Raj. After living here all his life, Mr Singh can’t understand why he is now being called an “outsider”.

“Most of our people who came here got jobs with the municipality and later some got other jobs but all Punjabi migrants stayed here together and this settlement is from the times of British-era. At that time we had good relations with the local Khasi tribe,” Mr Singh told NDTV.

After five days of stand-off between security forces and an agitated mob, today Shillong has been calm. In most part of the city, life is limping back to normal but there is a palpable tension as curfew during the night continues.

punjabi lane

An estimated 4,000 people live in Panjabi Lane, which has been the flash point of the ongoing crisis

But life has become completely uncertain for the residents of Punjabi Lane, a 200 year old settlement, that the protesters want to be relocated. An estimated 4,000 people live in this area which has been the flash point of the ongoing crisis. 

The colony was established to house the sweepers and workers of the municipality — mostly migrants from Punjab and the land was donated by the tribal chief of the area. After Independence the land belongs to the government.

Tension first began around 30 years ago with the dominant Khasi tribals wanting the Punjabis to be relocated. Conflicts have erupted on and off over the years, this time residents say it has been more intense.

The current unrest started when an altercation between the residents of Punjabi Lane and a Khasi bus conductor happened on last Thursday.

shillong violence

Tension first began around 30 years ago with the dominant Khasi tribals wanting the Punjabis to be relocated

The tribals allege that the area is a hub of anti-social elements and drug-peddlers.

However, the younger generation in the area have more interactions with Khasi youths. “We heard about violence, clashes and curfews of past but for our generation this is now in Shillong. We never thought this can happen. We also have a friend circle where we party with a lot of Khasi boys and girls and we are now perplexed,” said Sandeep Singh. 

It is the fear of “outsiders” taking over that led to the violent movement by the Khasi Students’ Union in the ’80s, which forced many Bengalis and Nepalis to flee. The worry is history seems to be repeating itself.

“We have no problems with the genuine residents who worked with the municipality, but over time the area has become hub of people who are illegal, the area is encroached and is a den of anti-social elements and not only Khasi but other non-tribals have also complained about this,” said Lambokstarwell Marngar, President, Khasi Students’ Union. 

Residents of Punjabi Lane vote in every elections but in the last 30 years the government never made a serious effort to solve the dispute over the contested settlement.

“The issue has been there for a long time. And whatever may be the issue it needs to be resolved because every time it comes up, it creates trouble and people suffer,” Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma told NDTV.

Political parties have supported the chief minister’s decision to form a high level committee to look into the demand of relocation of Punjabi Lane. 

For now, flag march by the army has been effective in bringing calm to Shillong, but the challenge ahead for the government is to bring total normalcy and resolve the dispute over the settlement without much hassle to any community.

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