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Urgent call for the care of Sikh Vanjaras & Rural Youth

Er Mohinder Sngh*

Sri Guru Nanak Dev (1469-1539), founder of Sikh religion and the first prophet-teacher, propagated one-ness of God and equality of human beings irrespective of religious/caste barriers. Under Divine inspiration, he visited many obscure hamlets of the downtrodden and the holiest Hindu and Muslim religious centers in India, Ceylon, South-Arabia and Iraq for disseminating the revealed spiritual ideals. His Divine mission attracted many followers, who came to be known as “Nanak Panthis”.

I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim…
There are the low castes, lowliest of the low. I, Nanak, have my place with them; what have I to do with high born? God’s grace is there where the down-trodden are taken care of.
O Almighty God, kindly shower your blessings on the entire humanity.

Vanjaras’ Linkage with Sikhism
The nomadic wanderers, Vanjaras tribe of Rajput origin came into the Sikh fold quite early during travels of Guru Nanak Dev. For their livelihood, the Vanjaras had been trading in all types of human consumables along with weaponries for rulers of the time by traveling in big caravans from one corner of the country to another. The Sikligars among the Vanjaras were excellent iron smiths capable of manufacturing all types of weapons. Few of their families from Marwad first came into contact with Guru Hargobind for the first time (1595-1644), when they offered services for weapon manufacturing and recruitment as Sikh soldiers. Later on, with association of Sikligar soldiers, the Guru fought and won all four battles against Mughal tyranny and laid the foundations for a Dharam Yudh. The Sikligars converted to Khalsa by taking “Khande di Pahul” of Guru Gobind Singh during Baisakhi of 1699 and played commendable role in arms manufacturing and fighting for the Khalsa cause. In the last stage, they accompanied the Guru to Hazoor Sahib in Nanded. The Vanjaras still consider Sri Hazoor Sahib as their highest place of worship. Some of the prominent Vanjara Sikhs who dedicatedly served the Gurus were Bhai Mansukh, Bhai Makhan Shah, Lakhi Shah, Ude Singh, Bachitar Singh. Some of them who sacrificed their lives were from the family of Bhai Mani Singh. Later on, they joined Khalsa Raj service under reigns of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839). But after annexation of Khalsa Raj by the English in 1849, the hereditary profession of Sikligars received a great setback due to English preference for their own country’s machine-made lethal weapons. The Britishers’ policy was to cripple Indian industry and its crafts by allowing liberal import of English goods.

The imposition of the “Criminal Tribes Act, 1871”, classified the Vanjaras/Sikligars as criminals. The demonization of their sect compelled them to make a mass migration into jungles in most backward tribal belts to save their lives. For living, they now switched over to manufacturing/repair of iron/sheet metal wares, agricultural tools and other miscellaneous household items like scissors/kitchen knives, etc. The Act was repealed by the National Government in 1952, and the Vanjaras were de-notified as a “non-criminal”, nomadic tribe. But this period of isolation from mainstream society for generations is the cause of their worst socio-economic backwardness. The Sikligars sect though adopted Sikhism, yet they are facing a lot of discrimination within the community because of their illiteracy and their following of old traditions. Out of estimated 10 crore Vanjaras population in India (majority ‘Sehajdharis’), the Sikligar sect is estimated at 4 crore (Kesadharis). But due to ignorance, all Vanjaras are being enumerated as ‘Hindu Rajputs’ during past censuses due to political considerations. Thus, there is emergency wakeup call for All India Sikh Institutions/leaders to rise above party politics and work jointly for the amelioration of the Vanjaras. Following steps are required to be taken :

1. Need for a constitutional amendment for inclusion of all Nanak Panthis/Vanjaras/Sikligars and others to enumerate them as followers of Sikh religion during the next census.

2. To initiate a special campaign from all Five Takhts for imparting proper Sikh religious awareness and daswand funds provision for Vanjaras development out of annual budgets of SGPC/DSGMC, etc.

3. To plan a ‘Special Economic Zone (SEZ)’ around Vanjaras Tandas for providing guidelines for availing assistances under various government-sponsored development schemes and promoting mass-literacy-cum-economic rehabilitation of wandering youth and assisting them for vocational trades’ training.

4. Carrying out youth talent hunt to develop new entrepreneurship for placements in industry/service ventures at one place instead of patronizing their out-dated trade of iron smithy by wanderings.

5. Ensuring for their community representations in Sikhs social/religious bodies and gurdwaras.

Punjab Rural Youth
The 33 years of my service in Punjab Industries Department, till retirement in 1991, provided me sufficient experience to study the poor educational standards of the Punjab’s rural youth. Hardly 20% of rural applicants could be found clearing prescribed matriculation level, besides other eligibility criteria, for selection under various job-oriented government development schemes, whereas balance 80% selection targets used to be easily achieved among urban youth. A largescale school drop-out, neglect due to families, break up of land holdings, drugs indulgence, lack of family counseling, poor rural infrastructure and prevailing poor law and order conditions in Punjab during nineties were the major factors behind poor rural economic development & unemployment. The deteriorating socio-economic ground realities in the rural area are much the same and need to be appraised by all sections of Sikh society rather than wholly depending for their solution from government agencies. It is a known fact that 75% of residents out of 2.42 crores population of Punjab living in rural areas are predominantly Sikh followers (2001 census).

The economic distress and large number of rural suicides by the debt-ridden farmers, during last 10 years, have been repeatedly highlighted in the press. The government is aware of the horrible problems of marginal farmers. The solution of rural un-employment lies in providing their children a better education up to higher level and subsequently creating suitable job-opportunities for them. Dr G S Kalkat, Chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission’s recent briefing to the National Development Council was very timely. For sustainable rural development, he suggested that the necessity of guiding farmers to shift from farming to industry or service sector in phases. The state’s priority should be for heavy investment in training the rural youth to enable them to get jobs in industries or service sectors. The trades training should be identified according to industry’s needs/requirement of the area. Sikh NGOs and institutions are, therefore, advised to guide and assist the youth for getting vocational training in desired trades for enabling them to seek employment in industry or service related jobs.

The rural Sikh youth is going astray due to non-supporting social environment. He has formed an impression of achieving his career’s dream by migrating to foreign countries by fair or foul means. All Sikh institutions, Gurdwaras & Deras have to share responsibility to set up special help-cum-counselling clinics, in addition to carrying on routine Maryada schedules, to provide assistance to youth for improving their educational standards for their better economic rehabilitation. Sufficient funds out of frequent building renovations, Kirtan Darbars/Chetana marches, etc., can be saved and invested for Sikh youth development schemes. By providing such additional educational services, the youth gone stray is likely to be won over and brought back into the mainstream.

The Trust for Vanjaras & Other Weaker Sections
The Trust formation was an experimental step to devise a system of reaching out to the most neglected sectors of widespread Vanjaras and economically backward categories of rural youth. With interactions, guidance/cooperation of some of the eminent Sikh thinkers, it was planned to start some linkage cell with broad objectives of providing heritage awareness, literacy promotion, educational/vocational training scholarships, guidance for availing government-sponsored economic development/rehabilitation assistance schemes for economically weaker sections. A system was laid down for achieving these objectives under joint association with some of the effectively working state-based voluntary Sikh Societies and Institutions.

A Trust for Welfare of Vanjaras and Other Weaker Sections was thus established in Oct, 1997. (Late) Justice Harbans Singh (retd.) Chief Justice of Punjab & Haryana High Court, was the founder President. After his death, Dr. Kharak Singh, is now the President since 2004. (Late) Jathedar Gurcharan Singh Tohra, President of SGPC, was kind enough to provide a one-time financial grant of Rs.15.00 lakhs to the Trust. An Endowment Fund of over Rs.22.00 lakhs was thus created within the starting year with individual donations. It is registered with the Registrar of Firms and Societies, Punjab, as well as with the Commissioner of Income Tax U/S- 12 A and 80-G. The annual accounts are regularly audited and the Income Tax Returns are filed through an authorized Chartered Accountant since 1997. The summary of its achievements are:

1. The Vanjaras concentration pockets and areas based location of effective Sikh Societies, for joint collaboration, were first identified after random survey by extensive touring in states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra, Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, Uttarkhand and Punjab, etc.

2. Objective awareness drive was carried out in Vanjara colonies & other Gurdwara congregations.

3. The need-based schemes selected for field operation at pre-identified places were : elementary education-cum-tailoring/vocational training for girls with supporting equipments & staff, trades vocational training at local centers/polytechnics, higher educational/professional grant on merit-cum-economic considerations, apprenticeship factory training, trades sponsorship to higher learning institutions/polytechnics, free school books/stationery supply, Gurmat/heritage awareness camps, career & job-options counseling camps/seminars, free tools/machinery to the trained youth/artisans for rehabilitation in self-employed ventures and hand operated/auto cycles assistance grant to the handicapped artisans and Gurdham Yatras to Sikh historic Gurdwaras and factories for religious and trade awareness, printing & distribution of guidance notes/pamphlets for career options in local languages, appeals for programme cooperation to Sikh institutions/Gurdwaras, etc.

4. 100% annual cost of operation of these schemes are met by the Trust for specified period. The associates are to provide working place, hygienic facilities and supervision of the centers’ working.

5. The funds are met out of annual interests accrued from Trust Endowment Deposits. The schemes’ operational assistance is released in installments @ about Rs 2.00 lakhs per annum per centre.

6. The most successful projects effectively carried out or in operation and their locations are:

i) Talwandi Sabo-Guru Kashi Campus - Yadavindra College of Engineering, where 10 rural students have so far been sponsored under Punjabi University ‘Golden Heart Scholarship Scheme”. Under the scheme a package fee of Rs.2.04 lakhs per student is to be donated in advance for 6-years period scholarship from 10th/10+2 class to 4-years engineering course. Rs.12.32 lakhs have already been deposited.

i An educational-cum-vocational training for girls and boys, factory apprenticeship and educational/professional scholarships scheme are in operation since 2003 at Sikligar colony of Preetnagar, Ludhiana, in collaboration with Guru Angad Dev Educational & Welfare Council on matching expenditure sharing basis. The Trust contribution comes to over Rs. l.00 lakhs annually. It is the biggest center where over 280 Vanjaras/weaker sections students are availing of these.

iii) Dehra Dun - V. Kurdi Khera: Here Giani Sadhu Singh, a reputed Sikh raagi, has established an Inter College, a Gurdwara, a Gurmat Parchar center, drinking water & some other welfare works in his most backward native village all from his own resources under the banner of Guru Nanak Darbar Vidyak Society. According to his version, all kirtan bhaints received by him are invested in these welfare works. He himself belongs to a Vanjara class and converted to Sikhism at an early age. He and his team workers have been very successful preachers who brought many Vanjaras of neighboring districts of UP/ Uttarkhand states into Sikh fold through regular campaigns. The Trust has recognized his services towards propagation of Sikhism by associating with him for last three years & financing some additional welfare schemes like tailoring training to local girls & Music class in the High school. Musical instruments and tailoring machines have been provided by the Trust along with meeting teachers, salary expenses. A grant of over Rs 60,000.00 is being disbursed annually in the V. Kurdi Khera. The trained girls are proposed to be brought under a Women Society for promoting self-employment.

iv) Two Gurdham Yatras were arranged during year 2004 & 2005 for the benefit of poor Vanjaras in two batches of 65 each from Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan. The historical Gurdwaras in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab were visited for providing Sikh heritage awareness. They were also taken to some factories at Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Guru Nanak Dev University at Amritsar & Punjab Agriculture University at Ludhiana for providing them guidance for their likely migration to Punjab for better educational or employment prospects. All travel transport, stay & meals facilities, from their place of residence to all visited stations & back to their respective homes, were provided by the Trust. A third similar Yatra is being arranged for Vanjaras of Uttaranchal by Oct-Nov, 2007.

v) During last three years over 30 students, including 7 Vanjaras were trained for one year machinist auto-mechanic & Tailoring-cum-embroidery trade courses from Mohali based Guru Nanak VBT Polytechnic. The hostel facilities for the 7 Vanjaras from Nagpur side were also made. The Vanjaras were financially helped for their rehabilitation at their respective places for self-employing ventures. The total project cost including their rehabilitation was over Rs 4.75 lakhs.

iv) A career guidelines book under the title of Entrepreneurship Status – Prospects & Promotion, was published by the author of this article, from his own sources, for free distribution to the youth.

v) Between the years 1998-2005, similar Vanjara promotional schemes, completed in some other identified stations, had since been closed after successful running for a fixed tenure. The assets have now been handed over to the respective collaborators for a follow up action at their level. The stations were at Bhopal-Khandwa-Sighaji (Madhya Pradesh), Hyderabad (Andhra), Kota (Rajasthan – at Bundi, Raipur & Nanta), Nagpur (Maharashtra), Bangalore (Karnataka), Maloya (UT Chandigarh)

Appeals & Conclusions
In view of experience gained during last 10 years, performance along with reactions received from the targeted group and area’s Sikh Associates, I appeal and conclude:

1. That our religious centres must try to associate the local professionals on a voluntary basis . These experts can best assist the respective managements in successful execution of youth promotion schemes.
2. The Trust work system as briefed above may provide them necessary guidelines for all others.
3. Each Gurdwara Management is requested to spare 10% Daswand from their total annual income to create a Welfare Endowment Fund for economic betterment of community’s weaker Vanjara sections.
4. Educational Heritage awareness through film shows/CDs and conducted tours can attract youth.
5. Effective awareness & socio-economic help can be provided fruitfully if each Gurdwara adopts at least one nearby village & holds weekly evening Diwan along with a spot counseling to all sections.
6. A Sikh Missionaries cadre should to be promoted on the pattern of Christian missionaries.
7. Free Stay/meals facilities for visiting students for interviews/exams/competitions and awarding Sikh students for attaining any proficiency in sports/education and All India Service Competitions be encouraged.
8. Organising one week Summer/Winter holidays Gurmat-cum-Career Guidance Camps can provide practical incentive to Sikh youth who have strayed and Vanjaras back to main Sikh stream.
9. Dedicate 3rd centenary 2008 Gurggaddi of Sri Guru Granth Sahib as year of the Sikh Youth.



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