Indian Sikhs? The description may seem unfamiliar. While Sikhs are
overwhelmingly associated with Punjab, much less known are those
from the community who made their home in Karnataka, Andhra
Pradesh and Maharashtra centuries ago.
For instance, there are around 25 Sikligar families tucked away at
the rear of a redeveloped slum in the peripheries of this city.
Their present state, as that of other Sikh groups like Banjara,
Lubana and Satnami, leading socio-economically marginalised lives
and mostly outside Punjab, has prompted initiatives for the uplift
of these "forgotten Sikhs".
The process of blending into southern India for the Sikligars
began at the time of 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, who came to the
Deccan and passed away in 1708 at Nanded (Maharashtra).
"The resilience of these people in the face of centuries of
vicissitudes and hardship is remarkable," Harminder Singh,
secretary of the Karnataka Sikh Welfare Society (KSWS), told IANS.
Sikligars came to southern India as expert arms-making camp
followers of the tenth Guru. Sikligar is a compound of the Persian
words 'saiqal' and 'gar' meaning a polisher of metal.
Famed for their weapon-making skills, the Sikligar continue with
their traditional occupation to eke out a precarious living,
crafting kitchen implements. To compound their current distress,
they are mostly illiterate.
They are categorized as Scheduled Castes in the census of India.
The Bangalore-based KSWS provides scholarships to Sikligar
children to acquire formal education. Older Sikligars are
encouraged to join Punjabi learning classes to wean them away from
Amardas Singh, 23, is a Sikligar beneficiary of the KSWS
scholarship programme with a job in the financial sector.
"Education will definitely help improve our condition," he says,
"but with youngsters less inclined to the life of an iron smith,
the craftsmanship coming down from our forefathers may be lost."
Amardas also points to the need to upgrade Sikligar skills, citing
the case of the kirpan, the small sheathed dagger carried by
"The kirpan industry in India is quite hard hit by competition
from cheaper kirpans made in China. If our artisans had the
finance to upgrade their skills and equipment, we could compete
better," Amardas says.
Another group of Sikhs came to the south early in the 19th century
when the Nizam of Hyderabad raised a Sikh contingent in his army.
The Sikhs stayed back and their descendants are known as the
Dakhini or southern Sikhs.
There is a community of Ahom converts to Sikhism from the time of
the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur's travel to Assam. Agrahari Sikhs,
also known as Bihari Sikhs, have lived for centuries in Bihar and
Banjaras are a nomadic tribe who traditionally travelled with
merchandise and are found across a large swathe of northern India,
as well as in the south. Sikh Banjaras too travelled with armies
of the past supplying them with provisions.
Sikhs comprise more than 60 percent of the population of Punjab.
But Sikh scholar Chiranjiv Singh speaks on the question of Sikhs
born and bred among a culture distant from the Punjab region, the
home of Sikhism. From a Punjabi Sikh family, Chiranjiv served as a
senior Indian Administrative Service officer of the Karnataka
cadre. Steeped in Kannada culture, he has made Bangalore his home.
Chiranjiv is of the view that non-Punjabi Sikhs and Sikh tribes,
whose numbers together are said to be larger than Sikhs in the
Punjab, "should be left free to chart their own future,
independent of the lead of Punjabi Sikhs."
India's awesome diversity of people coupled with its unique
history of coexisting identities have helped evolve a dynamic
process of interchange between different cultures and ethnicities.
The relations of Sikhs of Punjab vis-a-vis other Sikhs is one
complex part of this process, especially in the context of the
depressed social and economic situation of the latter.
"They should be liberated, so to speak, from the hold of the
Punjabi Sikhs," says Chiranjiv adding, "Sikhism, which was a
movement of subalterns for freedom from the inequities imposed by
the social system, would thus be returning to its origins."
(Biswajit Choudhury can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)