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IOSS Seminar 2009: A Report

Ishwinder Singh
House No. 114, Sector 18-A, Chandigarh.
Email: ishwinder@airtelmail.in

The Institute of Sikh Studies (IOSS), Chandigarh organized a two day seminar on the subject of “Sikhs living in States other than Punjab” on 24th-25th October 2009 at its headquarters in Gurudwara Singh Sabha, Kanthala, Industrial Area Phase II, Chandigarh. A number of scholars and activists from India and Abroad participated in the deliberations.

Day 1 of the Seminar kicked off with a Shabad by the Jatha of Kendri Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Chandigarh as is the norm every year. The first session was chaired by the renowned historian Dr Kirpal Singh and the stage secretary was S. Gurcharan Singh, who was also the Convenor of the Seminar.

The welcome address was by S. Gurdev Singh IAS (Retd.), Patron of the IOSS. He provided a brief background of the IOSS and the various activities being undertaken by it.

S. Pritam Singh IAS (Retd.), President of the IOSS, acquainted the audience with the Aims, Objectives and Analytical framework of the seminar. He said that Sikhs settled in states outside Punjab fell in four categories- local converts during the Guru-period, those who settled there during the Sikh Raj, migrants who settled there at the time of partition of the country and Sikh tribes like Sikligar, Vanjaras etc. He explained that the main objective of the seminar was to take stock of the problems, concerns and aspirations of these categories of the Sikh community and to devise effective remedial measures to enable them to avail the benefits under various government programs for the minority community. The analytical framework's suggested focus was on four sub-themes-

  • Ethno-sociological issues: Interaction amongst Sikhs of various ethnicities and with the majority community.
  • Impact of political developments in Punjab on Sikhs of other states.
  • Interaction between the Sikhs and State for minority issues.
  • Religious, cultural, socio-economic problems, political participation, education and empowerment issues relating to Sikligars, Vanjaras.
The inaugural address was by Dr Jaspal Singh, Vice Chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala.  The core question which he addressed was as to why the spread of Sikhism had been limited in recent times despite its historic feature to grow and prosper beyond the frontiers of the region of its birth –right from the times of the Gurus? In his opinion the answer lay in the fact that Sikhs had not been successful in maintaining the Guru-ordained uniqueness of identity and character and had hence failed in attracting others to their faith.

The keynote address was by S. Harcharan Singh Josh, former member of the Minorities Commission of India. He shared with the audience his interactions with Sikhs all over India first as a bureaucrat, then as a politician and later as a member of the Minorities Commission of India. He highlighted disturbing statistics regarding the housing, sanitation, education and employment conditions of the Sikligar, Vanjara and other marginalized sections of the Sikh community from various surveys which he had got conducted during his stint with the Minorities Commission. He repeatedly emphasized the important role which NGOs had to play in the upliftment of underprivileged Sikhs.

In an interesting follow-up, two former IAS officers- S. Balwant Singh from Gujarat and S. Charanjeev Singh from Karnataka spoke on the Sikhs in their respective states. They covered the historic links with Gurus’ travels to these states, the origin, history and demographic statistics of Sikhs settled there, their relationship with Punjabi Sikhs, information on local Gurudwaras, preservation of heritage through various organizations started by them and the role being played by them in society. Both of them pleaded the Punjabi Sikhs for a greater acceptance of differences in culture and maryada of the local Sikhs.

The last paper of the morning session was by S. Nanak Singh Nishter from Hyderabad. He provided information on the history, social and religious life of the ‘Deccani Sikhs’. He lamented that unlike the Muslims, Sikhs had not been able to properly understand and use the power of the ballot. He added that the Sikhs had only themselves to blame for failing to avail the facilities, concessions, benefits and privileges offered by the State to all minorities. He concluded by enumerating various steps needed to be undertaken by Sikhs outside Punjab to gain a foothold in the country.

The morning session was summed up by the chairman and the audience then interacted with the participants over lunch.

The afternoon session was chaired by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Kartar Singh Gill, CEO of the International Sikh Confederation and the stage secretary was S. Sadhu Singh.

The session started with a talk by Dr. Himadri Banerjee from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He focused on the Sikhs in the North-Eastern states mainly Assam and Manipur. He appreciated the fact that Punjabi Sikhs were discussing about non-Punjabi Sikhs but requested the audience to understand the fact that these non-Punjabi Sikhs were of a different ‘ethnicity’ and hence were different as far as their food habits, dances, languages and even Gurudwara architecture were concerned.

Dr. Sukhdyal Singh from Punjabi University, Patiala shared his observations based on his personal experiences during a tour along Guru Gobind Singh Marg in 2007 as a part of a committee set up by the Punjab Government. He provided first hand experiences of 3 villages (2 in Rajasthan and 1 in MP) connected with the stay of Guru Gobind Singh during his journey from Talwandi Sabo to Nanded. In all the 3 villages, there was a historical Gurudwara each though there was not even a single Sikh family living there. The Gurudwaras were looked after by the locals with the help of a Sikh Granthi. These locals enthusiastically participated in the Gurpurab celebrations and proudly shared information about Guru Sahib’s visit. The speaker emphasized the importance of transmitting the teachings of Gurbani to them so that they could fully appreciate the beauty of Sikhism.

Bhai Ashok Singh read out the paper of S. Saran Singh, editor of The Sikh Review who could not make it to the Seminar due to ill health. It focused on the concerns and aspirations of the Sikh youth.

J. Jayan, a scholar from Madurai Kamaraj University spoke about the Akali support to the Vaikom movement of the oppressed classes in Kerala. The conduct of the Akalis during the agitation as also missionary work by the SGPC inspired some of the ‘low caste’ Hindus in Kerala to convert to Sikhism in 1936. Some other Sikh families also settled down in Kerala after Partition of the country. However, over time most of them assimilated into the local population and their descendents do not regard themselves as Sikhs any longer.

The last talk of the day was by Dr. S.S.Sodhi from Canada. He informed the audience that the Sikhs in Canada had grown from merely 9000 in 1961 to almost 500,000 today. This was primarily a result of the strategy of Canadian Sikhs to develop political clout in their adopted country. Canadian Sikhs supported and penetrated into political parties which supported human rights and ethnic minorities. The Sikhs there enjoy so much clout that top politicians attend Vaisakhi parades, Indian degrees are recognized there, inconvenient occupants of Sikh Studies chairs can be got replaced, etc. Almost 50% of fresh migrants to Canada today are Sikhs. He exhorted the non-Punjabi Sikhs to learn from their example to improve their condition wherever they live.

Finally, the chairman summed up the papers delivered during the session and also shared some interesting anecdotes of his interaction with non-Punjabi Sikhs during his service career as an Army man.

Day 2 of the Seminar majorly focussed on Sikligar, Lubana and Vanjara Sikhs. Several activists who have worked with these Sikhs and have researched about them addressed the audience.

The morning session was chaired by Dr. Gurbakhsh Singh USA and the stage secretary was S. Gajindar Singh, Editor of the Abstracts of Sikh Studies.

The first paper of the day was by S. Mohinder Singh of the Mohali-based Vanjara Trust. He had only recently been involved with a tour of Punjab by a group of 60 Vanjaras. He provided the audience with an overview of the various problems faced by them and suggested steps which needed to be taken for their education and socio-economic empowerment. He also pointed out that local Gurdwaras and other institutions should set up a helpline to cater to the logistic and official needs of these sections on the lines of the facility set up by the Sikh Gurudwaras in Australia.

This was followed by a talk by S. Jagmohan Singh Gill from Kolkata who is General Secretary of the Central Gurudwara Committee, West Bengal. He shared with the audience his experiences as a Sikh born and brought up in Kolkata. Sikhs in Bengal are either indigenous Sikhs from Punjab who have shifted their base or are Agrahari Sikhs from Bihar. He threw light on the history of each of them, their peculiar problems and the nature of interaction between the two. He also explained the work done by him for the development of ‘total personality’ of the Agrahari Sikhs. He lamented that it was disgusting that Punjabi Sikhs looked down upon these brethren and stressed that this chasm should be bridged.

Principal Dalvinder Singh Grewal then briefly explained the work he has done with Sikligar, Vanjaras, Lubanas and Satnaamis over the years. He repeatedly emphasized that by reclaiming them back into the Sikh Panth, the population figure of Sikhs could be multiplied manifold. He also provided interesting information about Sikhs in Tibet and Bhutan.

The most comprehensive and informative talk on Sikligar Sikhs was delivered by Prof. Jagmohan Singh from Ludhiana, who is the Editor of World Sikh News. His observations were based on his first hand study after visits to the habitats of Sikligars in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore, Pune, Gwalior, Dabra, Ludhiana, Alwar and Sultanpuri in Delhi. He covered their history and origin, numbers, habitat, interaction with the Indian state and local Sikh communities and the need to stop incidence of apostasy amongst them. A little known fact which he shared with the audience was that majority of the victims of the 1984 pogroms in Delhi were Sikligar Sikhs. He also gave the audience a sample of the languages spoken by the Sikligars with the help of 2 Sikligar Sikh missionary activists –S. Gurmail Singh and S. Jatinder Singh who had come especially from Alwar to participate in the programme. Finally, he presented a 13 point agenda for the education, employment and empowerment of these Sikligars and highlighted the role which IOSS could play in it.

The most moving speech of the morning session was by a young Vanjara Sikh boy S. Chattar Singh, who until a few years ago used to be a mona and went by the name ‘Lallu’. His ancestors were Sikhs but over time they had lost their identity. With the intervention of the Scottish Sikh Council and the Gurmat Gian Missionary College, Ludhiana, he had learnt the fundamentals of Sikhi and now he was a “Sardar”.  He and his colleagues now travel from village to village in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh to spread the word of the Guru.  They do prachar in Vanjari language because the locals do not understand Punjabi or Hindi. He very poignantly requested for support from everyone to spread the mission of Guru Nanak far and wide. He was offered words of encouragement by Bhai Ashok Singh of the IOSS and donations started flowing in immediately from the audience. They were also assured of further financial assistance for the success of their mission.

Dr. Gurbakhsh Singh summed up the morning session by cautioning everyone present that even though it was easy to give suggestions it was difficult to act on them. He exhorted everyone to not stop at giving suggestions but to start acting on them.

The afternoon session was chaired by Bhai Ashok Singh Bagrian and S. Gurpreet Singh, Secretary of the IOSS was the stage secretary.

Journalist S. Harbir Singh Bhanwer shared with the audience his experience of working with Sikligar Sikhs during his association with organizations like SGPC and DSGMC. He maintained that the task of integrating the Sikligars was a gigantic one and could not be attained by the efforts of a few organizations. Rather it needed a sustained effort on the part of the whole Panth.

S. Sukhdev Singh from Ludhiana threw light on the work being done by various societies like Guru Angad Dev Education and Welfare Council, Scottish Sikh Council, International Sikh confederation,  Akhar SOH, Nishkam Sikh Welfare Council, Gurmat Gyan Missionary College, Shahid Bhai Mani Singh Sewa Society etc for the upliftment of Sikligar, Vanjara and Lubana Sikhs. He recalled that IOSS was the first organization which had given a clarion call in this respect in 1996. He was pleased that by holding the current seminar, IOSS was renewing its commitment to the cause.

S. Manmohan Singh from Chhattisgarh shared information about the work being done by the Satnaam Foundation for the upliftment of Satnaami Sikhs. He exhorted the Sangat not to be wary of anti-Sikh forces but to boldly continue the work amongst the poorest of the poor as was done by the Gurus in the course of their vast travels.

The stage secretary of the afternoon session ensured a lot of interaction between the audience and the speakers through question, answers and his comments. Bhai Ashok Singh closed the session with his perceptive observations. He reiterated the need for maintaining the unique identity of the Sikhs and pointed out that in atleast 7 states as per population of Punjabis and Sikhs, the language Punjabi should be the second language but it is in none of the states.

Various renowned scholars like Prof. Surinder Singh, Dr. Darshan Singh Tatla, S.S.Dhanoa, Harnam Singh Shan, Prof. Hardev Singh Virk, Swarn Singh Kahlon, Bhai Sikander Singh, Malwinderjit Singh Waraich, Dr Gurbakhsh Singh (USA), S. Gajindar Singh etc were present in the audience. Of particular interest was the presence of Prof. Anne Murphy, who holds the chair of Punjabi Language, Literature and Sikh Studies in the University of British Columbia. She is presently in India conducting research on “Importance of Sewa in Sikhism” with special reference to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the other Sikh chiefs.  She left the audience spell bound and highly appreciative when she spoke in chaste Punjabi while providing information about the work she is doing in Canada to promote Sikh and Punjabi literature.

On the occasion, a photo exhibition on the conditions of life the Sikligar Sikhs was organized by the Forum for Forgotten Sikhs. Vice Chancellor of Punjabi University –Dr. Jaspal Singh also released the inaugural issue of the Forum, entitled Forgotten Sikhs. 
Resolutions passed by the audience present included:

  1. Sikhism is neither ethnicity bound nor region bound. Punjabi Sikhs should not use derogatory terms for Non-Punjabi Sikhs. They should make special efforts to overcome the grievances of Non-Punjabi Sikhs and treat them as their brethren.
  2. Sikhs outside Punjab should do prachar and spread Guru's Word in the local language for the benefit of the residents of the State.
  3. An awareness campaign should be started by various Sikh institutions in and outside Punjab to educate Vanjaras, Sikligars and other Nanak Panthic families to get themselves enumerated as followers of Sikh faith only instead of any other clan during forthcoming 2011 General Census. This would enable them to avail benefits under Minority Schemes of the Government and the Sikh population would be further augmented by inclusion of these numbers.
  4. Drafting of a suitable model constitution/regulations of NGOs at district and state levels for addressing the issues of and imparting education and empowerment to the Sikligars, Vanjaras, etc. Organization of an annual consultation conclave with the state level NGOs by the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh for reviewing the problems and progress in availing the benefits under the various programs by the Sikhs, especially Sikligars/Vanjaras, living as a minority community in various states.

S. N.S.Parwana, a renowned journalist drafted a special resolution for the promotion of Punjabi language in states adjoining Punjab and pleaded to various Punjabi newspapers to play an active role in this regard.

The Seminar concluded with a vote of thanks by S. Gurcharan Singh.


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