SIKHS AND SIKHISM IN EASTERN AND NORTH-EASTERN INDIA
I am grateful to you for the invitation. I regard it a privilege to be here in a seminar dealing with my area of interest. In the early 1980s, when I was a beginner in Sikh Studies, some of my intimate friends doubted my academic integrity. To many of them I was an agent of Khalistan while others in the Sikh Diaspora condemned' me as an instrument of the Government of India. My mails were occasionally intercepted by the staff of the postal department. I was criticized by some of my teachers. My secular nationalist credential was seriously threatened.
These experiences perhaps emboldened me to go ahead in my search for the Sikh past. Since theft I had tried to carryon my academic enquiry and sought to outline how non-Sikh perceptions regarding Sikhs and Sikhism were determined by local experiences and developments. While continuing this part of the enquiry, I became aware of the existence of different minuscule Sikh communities around me. This has brought me to the present area of research. After years of labour, I am increasingly feeling that so far an insignificant part of it has been accomplished. I need to work harder so that I could complete it. I need to live one more decade for it.
In the early 1980s, any research on the Sikh past or pointing out Sikhism's intimate link with the wider Indian milieu was not considered a subject of any serious scholarly enquiry. Sikhs were widely highlighted and viewed as a secessionist force. In spite of its dominant bias among a sizable number of non-Sikh intellectuals, I was fortunate in receiving encouragement and support from a number of well-meaning Sikhs of Kolkata. A few of them are no longer alive. They made me aware of what the Sikhs had to say about them after the Delhi Ghalughra of 1984.
In the meantime much water had flowed down the rivers of Punjab. There is certainly a significant change in our understanding of the Sikhs' li11k with the wider Indian sub-continent. This seminar suggests a sincere attempt towards that direction. It has also an academic relevance. The census of 2001 points out that nearly one-fifth of the total Sikh population resides outside Punjab and there is hardly any big Indian district which does not have one or two Sikhs. A number of Indian cities are proud to have many Sikhs who have their second innings of life there after the Partition of 1947. There are others who are engaged in their third innings after being squeezed out of Burma in the 1960s. I have met a few of them in Delhi, Guwahati, Shillong, Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Imphal and elsewhere. I would be grateful if you kindly introduce me to anyone of them in connection with my present visit to Chandigarh.
I would briefly be dealing with the Sikhs residing in eastern and north-eastern states over the centuries. In coastal Orissa, their presence goes back to the pre:-modern days and there are sufficient literary and other materials suggesting Nanakpnathis/Udasis' periodic visits to Jaggannath Puri from Punjab via Banaras, Bhadrakh, Cuttack and a few other places. Later on they set up mathaJ' of their own providing food and shelter to pilgrulls from Punjab. Here Gurus' disciples were often interacting in a mixed language and managed to create a distinct religious space of their own in a number of Orissan urban centers. They succeeded in evolving a regional profile of their own, continued it till the days of the coming of colonial modernity and its direct intervention in the early twentieth century.
Beyond medieval Orissan san experience, we would be looking forward to the Brahmaputra valley and the streets of Kolkata of the late eighteenth century. They point to the presence of two more groups of indigenous Sikhs. Both of them were possibly from Bihar. They had embraced Sikhism during the time of the ninth Guru. Recent findings prompt me to suggest that they belong to an ethnic group which is distinctly different from that of the Sikhs of Punjab. A significant part of my enquiry in colonial Kolkata revolves round the AgrahariSikhs. In Assam, it also refers to the settlement of Assamiya-Sikhs in a few villages of Nagaon district. Prior to it, the latter had a brief military career in the Ahom army till the early nineteenth century. .
Long residence of these indigenous Sikh groups adds a few interesting dimensions to the present study. In the first place, they were of local origin and not descendants of the Sikhs from Punjab. Their mother tongue is not Punjabi and they perhaps stood beyond the reforming message of the Singh Sabha movement. Many of them do not read the Sikh scared text in its original language. These domiciled Sikh groups therefore communicate a great deal of diversity in the local Sikh parlance. One may argue that a social scientist tracing the roots of these eastern and north-eastern Indian Sikhs should not always look back to Punjab. His projection of any Punjab made packaging in reconstructing their Sikh past would likely to give rise to many disquieting results. One therefore needs to be cautious in appreciating the message of the regional milieu which contented to nourish the disciples of Gurus over the centuries. Medieval Punjabi sources may provide him interesting glimpses to their early presence. But the history of these people could be better appreciated if it is contextualized after rigorous field survey, studying oral traditions of these communities and critically analyzing their vernacular source materials. It is likely that our perceptions of the book-view of the eastern and north-eastern Indian Sikh past may significantly differ from what one would be gathering from the field enquiry
There is also a strong component of Punjabi-Sikhs in the region. They are Sikhs from Punjab representing the numerically dominant segment of the community. With the introduction of colonial rule, they came to settle in significant numbers. Their migration is stretched over a long period which also adds distinctiveness to their settlement pattern and interaction with the local communities. Here one would come across Sikhs from western Pakistan districts as well as from Burma. In this sense, the Punjabi-Sikhs, if I am allowed to use the term for those Punjabi speaking Sikhs, would not only trace their history to the more recent past compared to that of the indigenous Sikhs but also they had often been working in areas where the latter had already been operating.
In Assam also these two distinct Sikh groups could be seen. One is from the Nagaon villages while the other comes from the different urban centers of Assam. Agriculture constitutes the predominant occupation of the Assamiya-Sikhs and here no Punjabi-Sikh could be found. The latter mostly reside in rural society, incorporating more Assamese shades and experiences while the former belongs to more technical jobs. In Assam, local Sikhs generally represent poorer sections of the rural society while the Punjabi-Sikhs are more affluent and mobile. Assamiya-Sikhs' presence in rural society is an outcome of complex historical circumstances. They constitute an integral part of. the history of Assam and introduce us to the lively process of Assamization.
On the other hand, the indigenous Agrahari-Sikhs of Kolkata represent an urban community. They are primarily small-scale traders and reside in some of the older areas of the city. Their prosperous days came in the late nineteenth century through textile trade and they preferred to stand away from the nationalist politics of the next century owing to their long term commercial connection with the British Raj. Last century coincided with the community's economic decline. It was Agrahari's lack of education, inability to expand its trading frontiers, followed by the decline in overseas trade and above all, the Great Depression of 1929, which had eroded the community's economic potentiality. Nowadays, their economic misery has intensified the gulf of difference with their Punjabi counterparts of the city. A small section of the Agrahari-Sikhs who have managed to go out of their core settlement area around Bara Bazaar and Sutapatti, they now have a better chance of economic survival. Chances of survival are more for those who have greater economic resources at their disposal. My field survey has introduced me to a few of them.
One is expected to travel beyond this narrow rural-urban division and look forward to other areas of Sikh activity of the region. One may refer to their politics of the PunjabiSikhs. How could they ignore it even if they were staying away from Punjab? They had never lost sight of Punjab politics and it was perhaps replicated on different occasions. Here I would refer to two major trends of the contemporary Punjab politics of the period. Here the Akali dominance needs to be emphasized. It does not, however, suggest that other forms of political response were missing in the city.
Here I would begin with Kolkata which has always been an important powerful center of Akali activity. Even today if the Akalis catches cold in Punjab, here the Kolkata Sikhs would start sneezing. It took place on numerous occasions beginning with the Akali lehar of the 1920s. It continues even today. Kolkata sends Akali fathas not only during the Gurdwara Reforms Movement but remains equally active during the Punjabi Suba struggle and the city Sikh reactions during the post- 984 years are too well-known to be missing your attention. Another form of Akali struggle was their participation in national struggle and many Kolkata newspapers did record it in glowing terms.
Another distinct form of reaction came from the Assam valley. It had nothing to do with the politics of protest. On the contrary, it subscribed to the ideology of colonial loyalty owing to the local Sikhs' job allocation. These Sikhs were generally employed in laying railway lines beyond Guwahati, served in tea gardens for operating and keeping in order its sophisticated machineries, drove automobiles, repaired them, drilled oil as well as brought coal out of the upper Assam mines. They were closely related. by ties of kinship, worked diligently and finally, rose to the position of important thekedars. Their gurdwaras were often known by their caste affiliation, though they had all changed their original names, with the exception of one which is located at Jorhat.
Generally speaking, they stood away from the contemporary national struggle owing to their. nature of work with different groups of English officials. They however learnt lessons from the contemporary Akali gurdwara mobilization in Punjab. There are enough sources pointing out that they had maintained close link with their community mobilization in Punjab, sent it bulk of the seed money for the future educational development of the community, subscribed to the community gazette and celebrated gurpurabs on a grand scale.
In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the Sikh politics in Assam. It is trying to be broad based which had made them enthusiastic about protecting the Great Tradition of Sikhism. It is even looking forward to give the local Sikhs a place of their own which was earlier denied to them during the pre-independence years. There was great media hype in the last few months as the local Sikhs were reaching the parikarma of the Harimandir. This politics certainly yielded a few benefits to those who had arranged their visit to Punjab. But the Assamiya-Sikhs have already carved out a space of their own in the Brahmaputra Valley through their closeness to local culture and martyrdom during the Assam struggle in the eighties of the last century. This visit to Punjab would likely to reinforce their dual identity in the Valley.
As we all know that the British administered Assam is no longer in existence. There are now Seven Sister States in the region. I have the privilege of continuing my study of the Sikh past in two of these newly created states, namely, Meghalaya and Manipur. Here, a small number of Sikhs from Punjab reside in the Khasi Hills (Meghalaya) while those of Manipur are located in its valley-hill continuum. Early British military connections introduced them to these places.
But all of them do neither belong to the same profession nor are having equal financial success to their credit. Later on other factors brought larger number of Sikhs in the locality. It added newer perspective to the local Sikh world which one would possibly be missing in the Assam villages or in the streets of Kolkata. Here one would come across Sikh refugees from Abbottabad, Peshawar and Burma in significant numbers communicating freely in Assamese, Bengali, Burmese, K.hasi, Manipuri, Nagamese, Nepalese and other languages.
In these two states, they have grand gurdwara buildings at the heart of the city. In Shillong (Meghalaya) it was initially founded in 1922 in the Police Bazaar area which was later on shifted near the Raj Bhavan in the late 1970s. But in Imphal (Manipur), it was originally a part of the musaphirkhana but later enlarged and envisaged on a massive scale, thanks to the encouragement of a sehajdhari municipal commissioner of the city. Local Sikhs constructed another great gurdwara building in Moreh, a .small town near Indo-Myanmar border. Like many gurdwaras of Pakistan, they have virtually left it behind. Local Sikhs however do not expect that there would be another additional line to the Ardas for it.
Sikhs of Moreh have virtually left the town but a section of their coreligionists of the Khasi Hills continue to fight for gurdwara entry in the present century. In spite of having numerous gurdwaras there, a sizable number of poor 'Sikhs are yet to achieve their entry to Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Shillong controlled by a small rich section of the community. The rich and poor divide is no doubt an important cause of this unfortunate denial but there are still other deeper causes at work. One of them is their carrying of the Punjabi caste which they had carried from Punjab in the hills of Meghalaya. Here their Punjabi caste baggage continues to haunt them but it is also dictated by other economic factors. The presence of a few rich Khalsas seems to be a more decisive factor in settling the law regarding gurdwara entry. But many of their fathers were srehajdbris when they were in western Punjab districts during the pre-Partition years.
There are some more issues which figure in the life of Sikhs of eastern and northeastern states. They arc of different political shades engaged in varied occupations. There are a sizable number of hyphenated Sikhs. Earlier the issue was studied in the writings of Karen Leonard with reference to the Mexican-Indians in North America. Similarly, Verne Dusenbery seeks to review some of the problems of the Sikhs scattered across the globe. The Sikh Diaspora within Indian territorial limits raises similar issues which have missed scholarly attention. Is it solely due to their numerical insignificance? One may agree to it but I have doubts whether this explains the entire scenario. Its causes perhaps lay else where. Is it due to their lack of weight in the contemporary Punjab politics or due to their economic marginalization?
The problem needs elaborate scrutiny. Perhaps an example may give us some clues to its answering. I would refer to my interesting experiences from the city of Kolkata. Bengali interest about the Sikh past is as good as proverbial. There are tons of writings in Bengali on the Great Tradition of Sikhism. But how many of them had written about the Little Tradition of Sikhism prevailing in the same city over the centuries? Here I intend to draw your attention to the Agrahari-Sikhs who would be around four thousand in population. There is not even a single Bengali writing on them. In other words, there is possibly a double standard in Bengali narrative too of the last one hundred and fifty years.
Bengali admiration for the Sikhs of Punjab as well as their reluctance to record anything regarding the local Sikhs who happen to be the next door neighbours may seem enigmatic. Kolkata's Punjabi-Sikh community often refuses to regard them as paccka Sikhs and contemptuously call the Agraharis as Patniyas owing to their link with Patna Sahib. A similar contemptuous outlook is prevalent among the Punjabi-Sikhs of the Brahmaputra valley. There is no roti-beti relationship between these two traditions of Sikhis prevailing in north-eastern India.
In other words, the local Sikh world suggests the prevalence of not only social hierarchy but also a bitterness and distance between its two groups. It may indicate the presence of two water tight compartments which has no meaningful dialogue between them. The recent visit of local Sikhs from Nagaon villages to the Golden Temple (March 2009) perhaps suggests the beginning of a new trend in their relationship. We would however keep our fingers crossed. My reading of tl1e Khalsa Samachar of 1904, however, reinforces my anxiety. The Singh Sabha leadership was not unaware of the presence of the local Sikhs in Assam. It suggested a constructive dialogue between them. But the Sikhs of Punjab residing in Assam had shown very little initiative and enthusiasm in this regard. One would certainly be happy if the local Sikhs' again visit to tl1e Harimandir in near future and it would mark the beginning of a new chapter in their relationship between Punjab and Assam.
Sikhs in India constitutes a minority community representing less than 3 percent of the total population. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees them certain rights. Does the present study on the Sikhs of eastern and north-eastern India not suggest the presence of a small section of minorities among them? Would we try to preserve them in their present position or bring them together within an overarching. Sikh unity? Is it really feasible to carry all these distinct groups under one umbrella and introduce any minimum amount of symmetry among them? Does it provide any meaningful answer to the diverse problems faced by them? Who would be taking the lead at the local level and in what form and by virtue of what authority?
In other words, this interesting initiative would underline that there is a mainstream of the community in relation to its margins. But does this suggestion of bringing these scattered marginal groups to the so-called mainstream would not lead to further tensions and conflicts! Would not the taking of the margin from the periphery to the mainstream prompt the former to strike at the latter as it is frequently reported from the different north-eastern Indian states? Does it not suggest something closer to the nationalization of the territorial space occupied by these different ethnic groups of the region? Would it not be introducing a coercive process negating the identity of the minorities? Would it not be unleashing a process where the Sikhs would be against their own kin? Should these marginal Sikhs be denied of their autonomous space in the wider world of the Sikhs and Sikhism? .
The Indian state is negotiating with some of these burning questions in its different frontiers. One needs to learn certain lessons out of these unfortunate experiences. Would the Sikhs be taking up any similar stride in d1e name of homogenization or allow the prevalence of plurality to persist? This acknowledgement of diversity as well as the rights of the minorities within the larger community would perhaps be some of the important markers of the twenty first century Sikhism and its existence as one of the world religions.
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