ON THE FORGOTTEN SIKHS' TRAIL
1. Preamble: I am grateful to the Institute of S~ Studies for the privileged opportunity to share my observations about the life and times of a .section of Sikhs living outside Punjab, whose existence has been eclipsed from the memory and consciousness of the Sikh community over the last few centuries.
My story of the Forgotten Sikhs is that of the.Sikligar Sikhs, fortunately who are forgotten no more. It is the remarkable story of Forgotten Sikhs who have not forgotten their roots. Due to ttIe active interventi()n of some dedicated individuals and organizations -the Sikligar Sikhs, or more appropriately, the Sikhs with the Sikligar background, have come into focus over the last decade. It is their trait of. adherence to the fundamentals of Sikhi despite all odds, which has prompted me to take up their study.
2. Introduction: My search for the Sikligar SikP.s started a year ago, when around this time last year, I visited the Sholapur dera, (habitat) of the Sikligar Sikhs there. In the last one year, I have visited d1.e habitats of these traditional weapon-makers and weapon-polishers in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore, Pune, Gwalior, Dabra, Ludhiana, Alwar and very recendy in the Sultanpuri area of Delhi.
Some twenty-five years ago, as a student activist, I had visited a Sikligar Sikh dera in Nagpur for the first time alongwith with a local activist.. The image that still stays in my mind is that of poor and determined Sikhs, hardworking, taking easily to liquor in the evenings to overcome the fatigue due to their rigorous work and the families having many children. In fact, in Sardar Uppal's words -"they are a very hardworking and virile people, who have not forgotten their roots" still resonate in my ears.
I am neither a social scientist nor an anthropologist. I do not have the training of a historian, though I do claim to have a sense of history. I am not a linguist, but my love for languages has provided some peculiar insights into the linguistic skills of the Sikligar Sikhs. My present observations and recommendations are purely that of a social and human rights activist. It is my wont that whatever litde be done, should b.e carried out in a meticulous and consistent manner and I have been attempting to do so in the case of Sikligar Sikhs too.
My observations about the Sikhs with the Sikligar background would have the factualness of field research, the diligence of an academic and the investigative touch of a journalist. They are based on contemporary oral sources and not on references found in earlier books and articles. I am conscious and I admit at the outset that my findings are based on preliminary work and much more remains to be done and I urge nmr involvement in further exploration of the hypotheses enumerated by me. My suggestions and recommendations for the amelioration of the lives of the Sikligars, the education, empowerment and employment of their children arc that of an activist in a hurry to change and transform lives. They are practical in nature and may have some pitfalls of overlooking some sociological and anthropological issues, which at this prelin1.inary stage of my research, I may not have properly comprehended. I seek the active indulgence of all concerned to bear with me and point out to me issues and hypotheses which may not be upto the mark, fot which I take sole responsibility.
3. Origin of Sikligar Sikhs: I am not enamoured by the wishful and subjective thinking' of some activists and scholars that the Sikligar Sikhs have been associates of Sikhs and Sikhism right from the times of Guru Nanak. If this is to be held true, then there is need for some serious anthropological and historical research into this unexplored facet of Sikh history.
There is no doubt that etymologically speaking Sikligar is a Persian word, comprising Saiqal + gar meaning, 'polisher/burnisher of wtapons: From weapon polishers -the Sikalgars, over the centuries turned weapon-makers. In the Indian Express of 21 January 2009, columnist Moiz Mannan Haque in an article has called them Samurai Sikhs. His description of the Sikligar Sikhs in village Talegaon of Maharashtra is classic and I quote,"Khadak Singh Joone has lost count of the years, he has lived. "I'm a hundred and ten," he says, more by way of a question, as he peers through thic;:k glasses which haven't been wiped for probably that long.
He caresses a country-made muzzle-loader gun as if it were his only child and takes pride in whipping out his firearms licence issued by the Government of Bombay under a GR of September 17, 1895.
He has acquired the surname 'loone' not because he's so old but because he was the first one in a settlement of more than 400 in the tiny highway village of Talegaon, about 90 km from Nagpur.
Khadak Singh is a Sikh. He swears by the Gurus and the Granth Sahib. He adorns the kesh, kangha, kirpan, kachha and kada. But the similarly with the popular image of a 'Sardarji' ends there.
He does not know a word of Punjabi nor ~an he read the Gurmukhi. He's dark-skinned and he's very, very poor. He's a Sikligar. This tribe, with its roots in Rajasthan, lives in scattered pockets in central and eastern Maharashtra. Isolation and poverty have made them wary of sangat. Once inside the settlement, an outsider gets the feeling of having travelled back in time -by a few centuries." Where did they come from? When did the Sikligars become Sikhs? Over the last year, I did not get any fIrm answers either from the Sikligars or from activists working in the field. Two schools of thought that are in currency are that they came in touch with the Sikhs, first at the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib and then at the time of Guru Gobind Singh. Prior to that, they were residents of the Marwar area of present day Rajasthan. From what I have read and heard, there is not enough proof to substantiate this, though there is nothing to contradict it either. However, my passion for oral history, through recording the life and times of the elderly has given me some rough idea, which presently looks sketchy, but has the potential for being the basis of a more thorough research.
Though which of the two periods mentioned above - movement to Punjab at the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib or during that of Guru Gobind Singh - is true or is it that both are true may be a subject of discussion, but the language spoken by the Sikligar Sikhs, clearly points out to the fact that they were originally residents of Marwar. A young Sikh activist provided a very interesting angle, which certainly needs more explorauc:>n. He surmised that the Sikligars may have first came in touch with the House of Guru Nanak, when Guru Hargobind Sahib visited Gwalior and the other is that they may associated with Gurughar, when Guru Gobind Singh Ji visited Nanded. If this is true, it leads us to the corollary which needs historical study and that, whether the Sikligar Sikhs came to Punjab or did they actually join the path of Sikhism when he respective Gurus traveled through their lands.
The Sikligar Sikhs living in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are flat sure about this. All they know is that "our fore-fathers were traditional weapon-makers, so are we and we have come from Nanded. The one thing that has surely been passed on from one generation to the other is "kesh sambhal ke rakhne hai, in fact, it is "Kesh nahi kaatne hai, chahe jaall chali jaqye. " This and this alone is the message that they have received and passed on from one generation to another and to me this vasdy expliins their adherence to the fundamentals of Sikhism. This is our proud heritage.
The Sikligars living in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi trace their origin to Rajasthan, though they too are more aware of their pre-British and post-British pasts only.
It is therefore safe to say that the Sikligars were traditional weapon polishers and weapon makers, who were influenced by Sikh thought, who have retained the essence of Sikhi over the last few centuries, even though they have been leading lives of vagabonds, selling their wares and skills to whosoever needs them.
Nanak Singh Nishter while talking about Sikligar Sikhs says, "For generations, they were master armourers and armoury manufacturers, their skill known far and wide. With change in technology of warfare, availability of new arms and armaments, strict restrictions on the general making of arms, these master craftsmen, were .forced to become highly skilled blacksmiths. Today, they make household utensils and other agricultural equipments from scrap iron."
4. Pre-British times of the Sikligar Sikhs: The mobility of the Sikligar Sikhs, combined with their artisanship as weapon makers, made them the cynosure of the eyes of the British. They were bracketed as criminal tribes by the British government. While I have yet to understand their status and role during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, or even before that during the times of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, it is quiet clear from my interviews with the elderly Sikligar Sikhs in Ludhiana, Alwar and Sultanpuri in Delhi that a large number of them were living in various areas of the present Pakistan, namely Multan and Sindh, particularly various villages of Sindh. Even today, some of the elderly migrants speak fluent Sindhi, apart from their own spoken language and dialect. The eighty year old Granthi Singh of dIe Gurdwara Sahib in Sultanpuri, the seventy-two year old m~n from Alwar -Hargun Singh (who knew the names of his grand father and great grand father for 7 generations) both tell me the interesting story of their travels, which has been validated by many others I spoke to. The story narrated in the subsequent paragraphs is fascinating and contain~ the seeds of more research work.
5. Post-British times of the Sikligar Sikhs: In search of work and to evade the onslaught of the British police forces -as the British government had declared them as a criminal tribe (alongwith Pardis and many others), the Sikligar Sikhs went far and wide. Perhaps, some of them went during the thick of battle during the times of Guru Gobind Singh and Banda Singh Bahadur.
Most of the Sikhs setded in Alwar city and the villages around it, those living in Sultanpuri - which witnessed one of the worst massacres during the November 1984 anti-Sikh carnage, have come from Mirpur, Sindh, in erstwhile Pakistan. The eighty year old Gran.thi Singh, who with his son, at full risk to his life, saved duee Saroops of Guru Granth Sahib on 1 of November 1984, when police-led mobs attacked the Gurdwara in.Sultanpuri, told me that before and after the partition, when the migration had started, they stayed put there in a place, whose name he
could not recall, under the protection and patronage of a local Muslim leader, for nearly a year. When they realized that after the death of the ailing Muslim leader they would be unsafe, they made arrangements for migration. From Sindh, they traveled by train and road to Karachi, from Karachi by ship to Mumbai, where they lived for nearly three-four months. Then the tribe split. Some went and settled in parts of Maharashtra, whereas his clan came to Alwar and each family was allotted 16 acres of land. As they had never done agriculture, and according to some, the atmosphere too was hostile, they either sold their lands or just gifted it away or simply left without doing anything. To earn their livelihood, they went here and there, including various parts of Delhi. They first settled in Prem Nagar, till the government allotted them pigeon-hole houses, worse than Russian ghettoes. In Sultanpuri in 1977, from where again some of them were killed and some uprooted in November 1984.
Though the number is very less, I learnt that some of these Sikhs are contesting in various courts of Delhi the case of usurpation of their lands in Alwar, either by vested government interests, anti-social elements and the land mafia.
6. Numerical Strength of Sikligar Sikhs: Frankly speaking, I am not infatuated with the numerical strength of Sikligar Sikhs which some of our writers, activists, organisations and Panthic thinkers are fond of narrating and even boasting about. There is no doubt that in
current times, political strength is measured via numbers, but I am sure that you will agree with me that more than numbers, it is the strength of character of the Sikligar Sikhs or any Sikhs
that should concern us. Whether they are in millions or thousands, it should be the priority of all of us here, concerned about the welfare of the Sikh nation, to do our bit, to do more than our bit for the safety, education, empowerment, employment and development of each Sikligar Sikh -man, woman and child. Numbers will automatically take care of themselves.
As there has been no demographic study of any kind - big or small about the numbers, all talk of numbers is either in the realm of wishful thinking or speculation based on hearsay or statements of political and social activists without basis.
To my knowledge, in post-1947 India, the first survey of any kind was done in the last two years by the National Commission for Minorities under the initiative of Harcharan Singh Josh. The report of the NCM on the Sikligar Sikhs, Vanjaras and others is still to be tabled in Parliament and still to be made public. However, as per my information, the team of enumerators of
the NCM visited around 270 centres of habitat of the Sikligar Sikhs in the whole country. A rough idea and understanding of these centres makes me think that there are an equal numbers of centres which could not be covered by the NCM, and which should be made part of a future survey and research project. Nevertheless, the National Commission for Minorities and Harcharan Singh Josh, in particular, deserve kudos for the project and I hope that Sardar Josh will endeavour to ensure that the Government of India pursues the report and its implementation with the same gusto and vigour as it is doing with the Justice Rajinder Sachhar report on the Muslims.
As I said above, there are many rough estimates of the numbers of Sikligar Sikhs and I find it disturbing to narrate them or even refer to them. It is my considered view that all
organizations and activists working for the welfare of Sikligar Sikhs should reach a meeting of minds to enumerate these brethren rather than continuing to harp on half-baked statistics.
7. Languages of Sikligar Sikhs: One of the most fascinating features of the Sikligar Sikhs is their language, which to my knowledge have not been explored adequately. Across the spectrum that I visited, I found that they speak multiple languages -the local language where they have their settlement, a smattering of Hindi which is a link language linking all states.
What they speak at home amongst themselves is their own Sikligari language. Irrespective of what they speak outside their homes, they speak Sikligari amongst their families and clan. I have recorded some conversations in Bangalore and Alwar. As I have said earlier that though I am not a linguist, I have understood that this spoken language is the most common link amongst all Sikligar Sikhs. I have spoken to many Sikligar Sikhs and those working with them and I find that this language is a mixture of Marwari, Hindi with a sprinkling of Punjabi thrown in. It is my guess that 70 percent of it is Marwari, some 10-15 percent Hindi and the rest Punjabi, wherein the Punjabi portion includes substantial voc~bulary from Gurbani.
Those of them, who have come from Sindh, like the ones living in Sultanpuri and Alwar, speak Sindhi too. Some in Ludhiana remember some remnants of Multani.
Another remarkable trait about the Sikligar Sikhs is the language which they are fond of calling as their "secret code language". This language is called Parsec. No non-Sikligar can understand it. I have recorded this and played it over. and over again without understanding a syllable about it. The Sikligars say, and I too believe, that this language was developed over the centuries so that they could protect their skills as weapon makers, as they were always in confrontation with the state -the Mughals, the British and now the police in post-1947 India in various areas of setdement.
Kirpal Kazak in his monumental work, Sikligar Kabeele da Sabhayachar, based entirely on field research and surveys, says that it is taboo for the Sikligar Sikhs to let others know about the Parsee language. He further says that there is a quip current amongst Sikligars that if and when this language is understood by non-Sikligars, this tribe would be wiped out. He has provided a whole lot of words and sentences of the Parsee language spoken by them in his book published by the Punjabi University, Patiala. On .the basis of his indepth interaction with
the elders of the community, he states that this secret language is passed on from generation to generation. Kirpal Kazak's research was published in 1990 and was based on field work adeast for five years or a decade before that. I would like to say that since then, much has changed. In Bangalore, Alwar and elsewhere, I found that the youngsters could speak and understand Parsee, whereas in Sultanpuri, Delhi, like the incidence of ap?stasy, the strains of tradition had weakened and the young were unable to speak and write Parsee and in some cases Sikligari too, both of which have no prescribed script and are only spoken languages. One middle-aged Sikh rued the fact that this would die with him. Tarif Singh, a young Sikligar activist trained in Gurmat at the Gurmat Gian Missionary College and zealously working as a ffiissionary in Alwar, Jaipur and Sirsa, confirmed the findings of Kirpal Kazak and said that there was no danger to the language dying out. He has also done the preliminary work of writing Sikligari words in th.e Gurmukhi script.
In search of the Sikligar Sikhs, during my visit to Mysore, I visited and spent time at the
Indian Institute of Languages. I had a brief but sufficient interaction with the team there that helps document rare, disappearing and spoken languages. I saw how they record, listen, relisten, and break-up languages into syllables to decipher their origin and growth.
An issue which bothers me about this is what I have cursorily read about the preservation of spoken language as a heritage. If the Sikligars consider that they are the "owners" of their spoken language and it is their tradition to pass it on from generation to generation and it is happening, would it be wise to document it? I am not sure. Dr. Himadri Banerjee sees their language as intellectual armoury and an inner protection wall.
However, I would like to reiterate that to me an. understanding of their languages seems to be a key to many sociological and historical issues connected with the Sikligar Sikhs.
It is my considered view that an understanding of Sikligari and particularly Parsee languages can provide us a totally new vista of knowledge about the origin, setdement and history of the Sikligar Sikhs. The work of Kirpal Kazak and Sher Singh Sher needs to be followed up.
Akhar SOH has taken up the language issue quite earnesdy. Plans are afoot to start a quarterly publication in Sikligari language in the Gurmukhi script and the first issue will be launched in February 2010, when the next round of discussion of the Forum for Forgotten Sikhs will take place. This Sikligari magazine to be called, Saanjh, will be the first of its kind and as per the proposal, it will be a magazine prepared and run by the Sikligar Sikhs, with those from the outside functioning as coordinators. Not only this, it is also proposed that the magazine will also be available in audio format on CDs/DVDs and as MP3 files. It is expected that it will serve as a link between the Sikligars spread far and wide and enable effective and regular transmission of information and sharing of experiences.
Sample discussions with young Sikligars on this subject in Bangalore, Jalgaon and Alwar have elicited great enthusiasm for networking. Akhar SOH hopes that this will enable networking of those deras left untouched so far.
8. Sikligar Sikhs Habitat: The Sikligar Sikhs live in deras and each of these deras comprises of extended families of one or two elderly grandfathers still living as heads of the deras. The elderly sitting on charpoys appear to be idling and monitoring the affairs of everyone and
are very fond of saying, "Yeh saare mere daade ke parivar ke log hain."
Most of them live on encroached government land, which had been lying vacant decades
ago. Now the government and the land mafia are pressuring them to go "elsewhere."
Those living in Sultanpuri were allotted houses (if you can call a house of 22 square yards to be a home) ironically by the Indira Gandhi government, after their eviction from Prem Nagar. In this one room, one kitchen and one bathroom house, with toilets at a distance of 200 yards or more as public toilets, live more than 7-10 members of the family. Just outside the house, at the door is the small coal-based foundry which is their main source of living. They work outside d1eir homes in perpetual fear that the pollution-control bodies of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi will fine them, harass and arrest them. In this day and age, when animal activists talk of dignity of animals, while they are transported from one place to another, I feel ashamed writing about this sorry state of affairs of the Sikligar Sikhs living in Sultanpuri. Recendy, when an volunteer of Sikhs Helping Sikhs visited Sultanpuri and took cudgels to rebuild the Gurdwara there, they posted a video on You Tube called, Slumdog Sikhs. A Sikh scholar protested at the nomenclature. To be honest and terse, and to drive the point home about the abysmal conditions, it would not be wrong to classify their hamlets as Came Class.
In Mysore they live in an area, which is officially called Hutments and I saw that on their
Voter Identity Cards. In Sholapur they live in mud-thatched huts, where the conditions of sanitation are such that it is an open invitation to environment-ridden epidemics. In Alwar they live on land adjacent to the Railways; they were paying rent at the rate of Rs. 2 per house till some years ago and have now stopped paying, and now live in perpetual fear of eviction.
An important feature of their life pattern is that despite difficulties, they do npt go out in search of jobs. They want work of the kind that they have been doing over the centuries and preferably right near to their setdements. With some exposure to the bigger world, they see the possibilities of better jobs, but are still hesitant to venture out.
In Bangalore, due to the efforts of the Karnataka Sikh Welfare Society and Delhi-based Nishkam, some families now have comparatively decent accommodation, but all activist organitionnizations realize that the task of housing is daunting and monumental, yelt needs to be done.
A significant feature of their lives in post-1947 India is that they are no longer vagabonds. They may be going to other towns and cities in search of a market for their iron utensils and implements, but they have now more or less chosen their habitat and are sticking to it for the
last two-three decades.
Just as education is a primary need for children of Sikligar Sikhs, so is the need for housing. Organisations engaged in education are conscious of the needs for good housing and requirements of sanitation and hygienic living, but paucity of resources, negligence by the government as they do not have a voice, illiteracy, being dubbed as "denotified people" -all these and more factors combine to force them to live in such appalling conditions. The young and old told me in no uncertain terms that "if they are made to move out en masse to a better place, they would."
9. Role and status of Sikligar Sikh Women: While the education level of the Sikligars in general is extremely low, that of Sikligar Sikh women is virtually negligible. Only in the last few years, one has seen young girls going to schools. They are rarely sent to colleges and thus their education ceases at standard tenth or in some rare cases at twelfth.
The marriageable age for Sikligar Sikh women is around 14 year onwards. Though this is illegal in law of the land, it keeps happening with impunity as they live within the confines of their introvert settlements. Boys are to be married before their beards sprout, for a bearded boy is considered "too old" for marriage. In Pune, just a month and a half back, I came across the engagement of a ten year old boy with a girl yoUnger to him.
In Alwar, I also came across some young girls who boldly told me that some boys and men of their clan are averse to their studying and, therefore, they had quit school as well as the local Punjabi classes run by Tarif Singh and his colleagues. However, I think that this is an aberration as in the adjacent colony, I was happy to listen to a mother who said, "Four of my children go to school and I am proud about it. I had studied till class eight before marriage and I am determined that my children study more than that."
With their heads covered with Dupattas all the time, the Sikligar women work in unison
with their husbands and in some places go out of homes to do menial jobs to make a living.
In Sultanpuri there was talk of widow remarriage, otherwise in all other deras widow
remarriage was a taboo. The experience of Akhar SOH activists in Sholapur needs a special mention. With their active intervention with the community, now girls are not married at a young age. In fact the activists are active collaborators in fixing marriage dates and deciding the names of new-born progeny.
10. Sikligar Sikhs and November 1984: While the Sikhs commemorate twenty-five years of the anti-Sikh pogrom this week, while revisiting 1984, I came across unprecedented pain, anguish and suffering of the Sikligar Sikhs. The death and destruction of Sikligar Sikhs as a class of Sikhs attacked during November 1984 needs a more thorough and detailed study and analysis and I am doing so. I have found that all thO'se Sikligars, who were able to present a picture of strength and a portrayal of themselves as strong weapon-keeping Sikhs were able to protect themselves, whereas others, steeped in poverty and visibly vulnerable in their settlements, were brutally attacked aud killed in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and even in certain parts of Mahrarashtra, though the numbers in all other areas except Delhi was small.
When a large number of Sikligar Sikhs were attacked and killed in a well-planned massacre in Block A of Sultanpuri, the others fled and went to Alwar, their original base of the forties, in the first week of November 1984. Those who were left behind from the notorious
Block A were allotted houses and compensation in Tilak Vihar, whereas those who suffered monetary losses, with their home and hearth destroyed, came back to charred remains and started life again from scratch. Once again the journey from zero had started for these Sikligar Sikhs.
Sultanpuri today mocks at the Sikh nation. Sultanpuri is only one of the many deras, where these beloved traditional weapon makers, the Sikligar Sikhs -the protectors of Sikh honour and dignity - were made sitting ducks in an organized manner, which has shattered not only their living but has become instrumental in the. elders letting their children shorn their
hair, forgetting their age-old message passed onto them from generation to generation -Kesh nahi katane haz chahe jaan chali jaqye. During my recent visit to Sultanpuri, I forced myself not to
cry. Generally the parents express helplessness and the womenfolk are the ones who are most saddened by this situation. Their plea to me was, ''hamare bacchon ko kissi tarah kesh rakhana sikha do, hamko bahut sharam aati hai. "Though the shadow qf fear of November 1984 is 110 more, it has become an easy excuse for the young ones who go out in search of work and livelihood. Anyone who visits Sultanpuri, and I am sure there are other such places too, will not blame them. Their existence can put anyone to shame. I recognize that it is high time for our religiopolitical institutions to intervene comprehensively and completely, before it is too late.
The most disturbing fact is that no Sikh organisation has ever visited them since 1984. These Sikhs are at the mercy of the local politician and the conscientious Sikh or Sikh organisation which occasionally visits them to provide solace and succour.
In this monograph, I have presented my observations regarding Sultanpuri. I am working on visiting and creating awareness about the situation of Sikligar Sikhs in Tilak Vihar, Mongolpuri, Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri areas of Delhi. Apart from these, there are many more small centres of Sikligars in Delhi.
11. Apostasy amongst present-day Sikljgar Sikhs: Historically, they have preserved the outward appearance of Sikhi remarkably well, particularly outside Punjab. In Punjab, however, some numbers in Ludhiana, and I am told that many in Moga and Patiala also, have been deeply influenced by the neo-Nirankaris and a handf\U by Christianity too. While the prevalence of apostasy is palpably visible in Delhi, Gwalior and to a very small extent in Alwar, it must be mentioned that the situation in many areas of Mahrashtra and Chattishgarh is diametrically opposite. In these places, it is very difficult to locate a Sikligar Sikh with shorn hair. In Pune, where the Sikligar Sikh population is nearly 5000 plus, it is difficult tq find a patit, though they live and survive under very trying circumstances. Even those in prison have not shorn their hair.
Ravinder Singh, the sheet anchor of Akhar SOH, an organisation engaged in educating Sikligar Sikhs, made a significant observation that the life patterns of other Sikhs living around the Sikligar Sikhs must be studied to discern the impact of their lives on the Sikligar Sikhs. This organisation is working in the interiors of Maharashra in Sholapur, Ichallkaranji, Srirampur, Jalgaon, Pune, and in Gwalior, Dabra and Alwar. Activists of this organisation have rarely found someone with shorn beard, leave alone s.omeone with shorn hair. He and others had a sad observation to make, "the nearer to Punjab, the more the chances and incidences of apostasy." I too found that to be true during my visit to the Sikligar Sikh dera in Ludhiana, where the Guru Angad Dev Educational ~ociety is providing education to children of Sikligar Sikhs. This should certainly be food for thought for all of us .here.
12. Sikligar Sikhs and the Indian State: As far as I know, the government of India denotified the Sikligars after the partition of the country in 1947. As they live in ghettoes without a voice, they are nomadic tribes in some states, backward class in yet another and scheduled castes in some states.
The bureaucracy of the country, in almost all states, in deference to the notion that any turbaned and bearded person who is a Sikh, cannot be poor, refuse to acknowledge their caste as well as economic status. A large section of them being illiterate too, they cannot negotiate their way through the corrupt systems and therefore are devoid of BPL (below poverty line) certificates, caste certificates and in some cases ration cards too -all of which are essentials for obtaining government benefits of all kinds -educational scholarships, loans from the National Minority Development Corporation or the Scheduled Castes Development Corporation and housing under various government schemes.
Even during the last census, they were classified as "others" for no fault of theirs as the enumerators inspite of their Sikh appearance did not enlist them accordingly. S Mohinder Singh of the Vanjara Trust based in Chandigarh has prepared elaborate guidelines and would soon let the Sikh world know as -to what needs to be done in this regard.
A massive country-wide movement needs to take place to ensure that each Sikligar family gets the much-needed certificates from their respective government departments.
13. Sikligar Sikhs and local Sikh communities: There are many castes and sub-castes amongst the Sikligar Sikhs and the castes determine their work. Some of the castes that I have come across are: Joone, Tankk, Mundran wale Tankk, Soor wale Tankk, Bichuu waleTankk, Kalani, Budhani, Burhani, Dangi, Tilpatiya, Bahda, Bawri -Churnmar Bawri, Andrele Bawri, Bhond and Khichi.
Though I have not come across any marked discrimination of the Sikligar Sikhs by the community at large in all the towns and cities where I visited the Sikligar Sikh deras, I could perceive a sense of neglect by the mainstream Sikh community. Somehow, working for the poor does not seem to be on our agenda. Somehow, working for the so-called lower castes or those different from the rest, does not seem to catch our fancy.
This attitude to a very large extent explains the abandonment of the Sikligar Sikhs over the centuries for no one can say that they were not around. Their visibility is definitely acknowledged by even those who may not know anything about their background. We are aware of the Taale-Chaabi wale Sikhs, but never does it occur to us to know more about them.
Our Gurdwara Parbandhak Committees are conscious of their existence and the stark realities of the Sikligar Sikhs and I exhort them to catch the bull by its horns before it goes astray and then we start another tale of regret and add "it to our litany of grievances.
When the Sikligars themselves or activists approach the mainstream Sikh leaders for their empowerment and reference in government departments, they view it as a demeaning activity as they too, like government departments, do not want to accept the harsh reality that can be poor and underprivileged. Some of them take the holier than thou approach and question the issue of seeking caste certificates from the government departments for Sikhs, claiming that Sikhism propagates a casteless society. This question continues to bother me as well. However, for the present, I am convinced of the fact, that till the Sikh community in its collective wisdom and resourcefulness cannot arrange massive resources for their rejuvenation of Sikhi amongst the Sikligars, till then it is inappropriate and more so impractical to question the need for caste certificates. Undoubtedly, Sikh society does not propagate a caste system, but why should only the lowliest of low, whom Guru Nanak befriended, be segregated for the implementation of this system?
14. Sikligar Sikhs in Pune: There are a few interesting and noteworthy features of the Sikligar Sikhs of Pune, which deserve special mention. It is interesting to note and mention that Guru Nanak Public School within the pretincts of the Camp Gurdwara in Pune, is perhaps the only Sikh school in the whole country which provides education and other basic amenities to the children of Sikligar Sikhs free of cost in a special section created especially for them. All this is done because the key sewadar.
Then there are around thirty young Sikligar Sikhs, in the age group of 20-30, who have been working as Caddies in the Poona Golf Club for the last decade or so. They work as caddies during the mornings and evenings and sometimes work as ironsmiths during the day to augment family income. It was the goodwill generated by these hardworking young Saabat S oorat handsome Sikhs that convinced local businessman Ikram Khan to experiment with these young Sikhs living in shanties and slums next to the Golf course. Social activist Ikram Khan was told about the resourcefulness and hard work of these Sikhs by the Director General of Police of Maharashtra K K Kashyap in the early nineties of the last century. Earning some hundred rupees a day, these young golfers, proudly say that they know all the nuances of this "rich man's game" and desire to become players and trainers of this game, for which they look askance for sponsorships and patronage. They .are also waiting for some benefactor Sikhs to come and donate the expensive golfing kits which will enable them to play golf as they are allowed to play at the Golf course twice a week in lieu of their services as caddies.
A disturbing feature of the Sikligar Sikhs is that around 45-50 Sikligar Sikhs are languishing in Yerwada jail in Pune-some for petty crimes and some for internecine murders. Significantly, there have been cases of extrajudicial killing of a few of them at the hands of the local police and some being forced into crime by the police as they are kind of "blacklisted". It is my view that the bias of the police in Maharashtra against Pardis, Sikligars and other denotified
tribes is also responsible for this kind of unlawful and illegal actions of the police against these sections of society. However, due to the reputation built by the caddies, a section of the Pune police has started viewing the problem of Sikligars as a social problem and not only as a law and order subject alone.
Another proud fact about Sikligars Sikhs of Pune is the decade-long work of a 30 year old social activist Bachhu Singh. Bachhu Singh should b~ rechristened as Bhai Bachau Singh. He has single-handedly saved the lives of around 78 people, so far, who would have otherwise drowned after falling into the unprotected Hadpsar Canal, which carries the water of Moola Mutha river. His house is located next to the canal. At great risk to his life, he has removed 118 dead bodies too, not to mention carcasses of dead animals. This Saviour Singh, has received commendation from small time social organizations in Pune and recognition by the Sri Guru Singh Sabha of Mumbai, but the Maharashtra and Indian government and non-governmental bodies have failed to take notice of this record, which keeps growing. Bachu Singh says, "come what may, I am destined to save people and I will continue to do so." He is training his five year old son and his nephew to be expert swimmers. A leader in his area in his own right, Bachhu Singh says, "Poverty, measly existence in shanties, unemployment and underemployment, lack of counseling and early marriage are our fundamental issues, which force some to take to crime. Educ~tion and jobs alone can save them."
I have made an amateur documentary on the work of two young golfers engaged in undergraduate studies and all the caddies and that of Bachhu Singh, which should see the light
of the day in the coming months on You Tube. In the video, Ravinder Singh Tak, while speaking to me in chaste English, which he has painstakingly learnt by himself, said, ''We want to put back our notoriety as criminals and I know that we can do it. Our pride as Sikhs is intact and so is our hard working approach. If the Sikh community continues to bless, I would like to become an IAS officer and change the face of my fledgling community."
15. "Silills are not poor": A sizeable percentage of the Sikhs in Punjab live below the poverty line and nearly thirty percent of the Sikhs in Punjab are illiterate. Though no such statistics are available for the Sikhs living outside Punjab, the fact that Sikhs are poor is striking like lightning to the Sikhs themselves, government aepartments and the political leadership of the country. In this regard, I must say that the religious and political leadership of the community at all levels has to redouble its efforts.
According to the 2001 Census, Punjab has only 58.67 percent literacy and as religion wise data for the entire country is available, it may shock us out of slumber to know the literacy rates of Sikhs.
It is a reality, which has been endorsed by the study of the National Commission for Minorities. It would be more than corre~t to reiterate that the entire Sikligar population, whatever their numbers -in thousands or millions, lives below the poverty line. They are the poorest of the poor.
I have yet to come across a Sikligar Sikh whose daily earnings are more than Rs. 200 and yet to come across someone who gets work for all days of the month. All minor attempts at empowerment have failed because they are caught in a vicious circle
and the meagre investment of time, money and energy by individuals and organizations does
not create the required impact. As leading economist V K R V Rao, once said, "India is poor because it is poor." I believe that until and unless a major infrastructural and boosting investment is made by those concerned, we will continue to have the satisfaction of doing something, but not achieving much.
16. Funding Education of Sikligar Sikhs: Sikh activists from Mumbai of Gurmat Missionary College and Guru Gobind Singh Study Circle Maharashtra, namely Kulwant Singh and Jaspal Singh, and Rajinder Singh from Chennai of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Study Centre Trust, are setting up SSELF -Sikligar Sikhs Educational Loan Fund which would involve the Sikh community far and wide to participate in this programme by donating in cash and kind. This initiative will need endorsement and engagement of the entire Sikh community and it is hoped
that this will generate resources for sponsorship of adeast 5000 school going children, 500 college going children and 50 youngsters for specialized education of their choice by the end of the next year.
17. Education versus Artisanship of Sikligars: The one question that bothers me a lot is the relationship between education and loss of artisan qualities of the Sikligars. As it is, time has snatched from them their skills of weapon making reducing them to repairing drums, buckets, making locks and keys and other agricultural implements, except amongst those still engaged in weapon-making in parts of Maharashtra.
Now with the young taking to education in a small but sure way, I foresee the disappearance of their traditional artisanship, if no major step to adopt and patronize the same is taken.
I invite scholars and activists to explore this field before it is too late.
18. The Road Ahead: As I said at the outset, my approach is not that of a scholar alone,
but that of an activist. While delving deep into the lives of the Sikligar Sikhs, and empathizing
with them, I have taken the initiative of building a c~llaborative effort by forming the Forum for Forgotten Sikhs, with other activists like Nanak Singh Nishter from Hyderabad, Mohinder Singh from Chandigarh, Ravinder Singh from Bangalore and Kulwant Singh from Mumbai as coordinators and with all member organizations as constituents. Albeit on a small scale, the website of the forum, wwwforgottenszkhs.com has started focusing on areas of research, funding possibilities, activism and volunteerism.
On the basis of the above observations, I venture to mention that for the amelioration
of the lives of this section of Forgotten Sikhs, the following areas need immediate attention:
1.. Demographic Survey of Sikligar Sikhs."
2.. Participation of Sikligar Sikhs in various Employment Schemes of the government
for the marginalized sections.
3. Participation of Sikligar Sikhs in various educational loan, scholarships and funding Schemes of the government for the marginalized sections, as well as, those of non governmental organisations.
4. Participation of Sikligar Sikhs in various housing funding Schemes of the govern ment for the marginalized sections.
5. Building health and sanitation needs in the habitat of Sikligar Sikhs.
6. Identification of government rules and regulations and the means to be adopted to procure caste and income certificates and then ensuring their use for education, empowerment and employment.
7. Study and adaptation of Micro-Finance methodologies for overall development of Sikligar Sikhs.
8. Identification and employment of women activists as the women section continues to be unattended.
9. Usage of traditional talent of Sikligar Sikhs in making metal crafts.
10. Identification and sponsorship of children of Sikligar Sikhs in education, sports and
adult education activities.
11. Training young Sikligar Sikhs in Gurmat inissionary activities amongst their own people
and in other areas.
12. Involvement and engagement of local Sikhs in programmes for Sikligar Sikhs.
13. Research into the life and times of Sikligar Sikhs, Vanjaras, Satnamis and other marginalized sections.
On the basis of the NCM sUrvey and the work done by various organizations, it is my well-calculated estimate that there are around 500-600 deras of Sikligar Sikhs in the country. According to what I have seen and worked, it is my considered opinion that we need at least one full time, fully engaged co-ordinator cum missionary cum educational counsellor, handsomely paid and provided with resources to directly touch the lives of the Sikligar Sikhs on a . day to day basis to handle the multi-faceted tasks needed for change and transformation of lives.
19. What should the Institute of Sikh Studies do?: During the course of these travels and while engaging with young concerned Sikhs, the one question that cropped up rather frequently was the non-availability of study material on the Sikligar Sikhs, the Vanjaras, the Satnamis and others. When I attempted to corroborate my field surveys with some work done by some one in the past, I could not get more than the book of Kirpal Kazak mentioned above and photocopy of The Sikligar Sikhs of Punjab by Sher Singh Sher.
As I propose to continue this journey more closely and in a more detailed manner, I urge the Institute of Sikh Studies to follow up on this Seminar. The lOSS should sponsor timebound research into the life and times of the Sikligar Sikhs as also in the thirteen areas mentioned above. I am in touch with students from Mumbai, Gwalior and Alwar who are keen to take up such studies but would require support, sponsorship and patronage.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I profusely thank you for your kind indulgence and I assure you that every single word uttered here would be followed up. God willing, I am determined to continue my journey into the lives of the Sildigars and also to involve others. Much as I am keen to bring them into the mainstream of the ?ikh fold, I am conscious of the words of Dr. Himadri Banerjee, the brilliant author of The Other Sikhs, from whom I take regular inspiration working for the marginalized sections of the Sikhs that "while it may seem important to bring them into the mainstream, it is pertinent to un,derstand and preserve their uniqueness, which they have so ably been able to maintain over the centuries."
Many of the Sikligar Sikhs need the comfort of a proper home, the women need the privacy of a washroom, kids need a good environment and education to grow and prosper, the
elderly need care and medication, but all of them need a life of dignity, an enhanced sense of belonging to the Sikh community and a decent dwelling with no fear of and penury.
20. The Last Word, almost: I am deeply conscious of the limitations of my preliminary findings and my inability for not adopting proper academic methodologies of cross examination of data. For want of more information, as I said at the outset, oral history and discussions witl1 activists and field visits were ,the primary sources of information and as the Sikligars have honestly safeguarded their life patterns, traditions and .rituals over the last three centuries, I had no reason to doubt what they narrated to me.
If we do not answer the call of history, we may end up adding another century to the sto.ry of Forgotten Sikhs. If we unite and the community as a whole responds honestly, honourably and aggressively, we may manage to travel a century back in time and give them the honour and dignity which they have so ably provided us in the past. We do not have a choice,
do we? .
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