Kavita Navlani Søreide (2018)
Economic & Political Weekly Vol. 53, Issue No. 29, 21 Jul, 2018
Kavita Navlani Søreide has a new publication regarding land rights in Meghalaya in the newest volume of Economic & Political weekly.
Mismanagement of Land in Meghalaya
The recent clashes in Shillong between the indigenous Khasis and the minority Dalit Sikh community, cannot be dismissed as merely communal identity politics at play. The roots of the conflict, beneath overtones of tribal assertion, have much to do with the unique land distribution in the state, and the challenges that regulation presents.
Shillong, the capital city of Meghalaya is currently witnessing a violent conflict between the minority Dalit Sikhs and the local majority tribal Khasis (Sinha 2018). The recent conflict is not merely a problem of two communities at loggerheads due to their different group identities, but is essentially also an example of land (mis)management in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. Shillong has a unique administrative set-up, which, barring a small ward area inside the capital being directly under the district administration, puts the capital city, like the rest of Meghalaya, under the purview of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The special constitutional provision is a unique instrumentality that recognises and legalises the tribal covet: “Land belongs to the people.” This is unlike the rest of India, where land, in general, belongs to the state. Despite the constitutional protection of the tribal idea of land, it is a severe bone of contention in Meghalaya, as is evident not only through the recent violent clashes, but through many more contestations in the Khasi Hills today. Although the recent contested land of Punjabi Lane is under the district administration’s governance, the root problems of land regulation and control are similar to the rest of the conflicts amongst communities, and between communities in the Khasi Hills today.
The source of the current conflict is in the dispute between a Dalit Sikh community—settled in Shillong by the British who brought them from Punjab to work as manual scavengers for their settlements—and the Khasi community. The Punjabi Lane settlement, it is claimed, was a result of a land settlement between the tribal chief Syiem of Mylliem in 1863, but since the 1970s–1980s, it has become a bone of contention, given its presence right in the middle of a commercial hub in a land-scarce Shillong.
Land, and more importantly, prime commercial land in the Khasi Hills, like in the rest of India, is a deeply-contested resource. Given the special status of Meghalaya as a Sixth Schedule state and the hotly contested politics of the inner line permit, the current conflict between the Dalit Sikh and Khasi communities is not merely one of communal identity politics, but one which has land politics at its core. Contests over land in Meghalaya can be broadly categorised as: inter-community, such as the one under discussion; intra community; and between the state and communities. It is therefore interesting to see what it is about land as a resource and its management under the current system which has resulted in a steady stream of contestations and rising juridifications around it, with varying degrees of criminal–legal ramifications.
Land management and control in Meghalaya has historically been different from the rest of the country. Simply put, land in Meghalaya primarily belongs to the people and is owned by individuals, clans and communities. Land distribution and management is done according to customary practices. The current regulations do little more than lay down the primary land control in the hands of the tribal groups. Land tenure system, management and regulations are extremely complex and varied, and the land laws remain uncodified. Hence, the social changes in the society have a unique relation with land and understandings of it. Land cannot be sold from “tribals” to “non-tribals.” The state is regarded a “non-tribal entity,” except when land acquisition is towards “community and/or tribal welfare.” Today, land management and control is single-handedly assigned to the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). In reality, in the Khasi Hills, for example, three layers of hierarchical institutions coexist: the Syiem (the chief), the Raid (intermediary level) and the Dorbar (local level). All these are under the jurisdiction of the Khasi ADC. The symbiosis of local governance between the ADCs, state bodies and tribal bodies has been significant for land management and regulation purposes, especially and perhaps more significantly, in times of land conflict. The overlapping jurisdictions and web of legal and para-legal conventions, tribal practices and laws create a situation where tribal institutions enjoy significant control, allegiance and loyalty from tribal territories, while as per constitutional law, land management is a shared subject between state administration and the district council. The multiple poles of authority and governance in Meghalaya spin a web of laws and conventions around land. Resultant confusion and competition around land are hence symbolic of larger socio-economic and political changes.
So, what was the nature of tribal land management that is undergoing a change today and what lies at the heart of these current conflicts? The history of Khasi contact with the British can be regarded as the starting point for modern state values establishing an administrative engagement with tribal society in the Khasi hills of North East India. The contact with the British administration, beginning around 1826, resulted in some alterations by the British administrators to the existing land control system. Khasi lands were bought/leased by the British from the Khasi chiefs. For example, parts of Shillong were leased or bought from the Syiem of Mylliem. The differential land management in the Khasi hills was recognised, and unlike the rest of its Indian territories, no land tax was collected by the British. However, the British were responsible for altering the local authority and landownership structures by introducing monetised economy and leasing lands from local chiefs. This helped the rise of a single authority with a power to issue land documents, significantly affecting the tribal ethics over land.
Slowly but steadily, modernising influences of a monetised economy and an act of “leases” or grant of sannads or pattas between the British administration and Syiem chiefs, especially in Shillong, helped the rise of these chiefs as single units of authority over tribal land. It is important to note that the tribal conventions did not consider the Syiems as comparable with peninsular India’s equal of a zamindar. As mere elected heads, the chiefs neither had any control nor any claim to land revenue. This has, in the long run, had significant ramifications over monetisation of land.
Root of Conflict
The sixth schedule was an extension of the act of political accommodation under British India’s Act of 1935, granting a differential treatment in order to safeguard the land rights of indigenous people in Meghalaya. However, the Sixth Schedule in many ways also inherited the significant weaknesses of the British India’s administrative engagement with the hills of the North East. The Sixth Schedule is essentially a constitutional contract between the state and indigenous social groups. Focus has been on the collective rather than at the individual level. This creates problems for not only the rights of the marginalised within protected communities, but also affects the rights of minorities such as the Dalit Sikhs living in the region. Hence, the conflicts over land in Shillong are not merely conflicts emerging from “ills of monetised economy,” but are a direct test of a modern Indian state engaging with tribal conventions to establish rule of law and just distributary outcomes.
Given that land in the heart of Shillong where the Punjabi Lane colony exists has a high commercial value, it remains a sore point amongst the local Khasis and the Dalit Sikh minority community. Thus, while the contest may have overtones of tribal identity, in reality, it has much to do with the larger and deeper land management and regulation challenges in Meghalaya today.
Dutta, Prabhash (2018): “How Shillong Got a Separate Punjabi Colony and Why It’s a Problem Now,” 4 June, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/how-shillong-got-a-separate-punjab….
Sinha, Chandrani (2018): “Shillong Unrest: Fresh Clashes Reflect Meghalaya’s Past Characterised by Conflicts between Tribals and ‘Outsiders’,” Firstpost, 3 June, https://www.firstpost.com/india/shillong-unrest-fresh-clashes-reflect-me….