A Bit of Punjab in
The Sikhs stand out as the dominant Indian community in Shi’ite Iran. They have been prospering in this alien land for close to 150 years. True, their numbers are declining (there are just 100-odd families left in Teheran), but their presence still commands respect. T.R. Ramachandran, who travelled with the PM to Teheran recently, writes about the Sikhs’ long association with Persia and their future prospects.
Sikh community’s innate sense of adventure and its capacity to
assimilate itself with the milieu of far-flung lands without losing
their distinct cultural identity has been one of its great strengths.
Their respect for labour and undying spirit to make the best of
opportunities despite the adversities in an alien environment has been
remarkable. Industrious and law-abiding, they have always looked ahead
and stoically accepted the good times with the bad.
The Sikhs have been associated with Iran since the early 1900s, especially during the First World War. Interestingly, Sahib Singh, an enterprising Sikh entrepreneur, set up a private bank called the Hindi-Iran Bank which did flourishing business in undivided India and Iran. After the death of Sahib Singh, the bank crumbled. Most of the Sikhs had gone to that country in search of greener pastures during the pre-partition days from areas surrounding Rawalpindi, notably from Dhudial village now in Pakistan. A large number of Sikhs streamed into Iran as members of the British Indian Army while the others made the trip by road via Quetta to Zahedon, a tiny hamlet bordering Pakistan. All of them initially settled in Zahedon and then slowly moved to Teheran essentially because it is the seat of power. Then the inevitable migration from Zahedon to Iran took place. The leaders of the Sikh community say that there are barely 20 families still remaining in Zahedon. Their once-flourishing businesses are at a low ebb due to various factors, the most important being revolution of 1979 in which the Shah of Iran was deposed. Zahedon, it is claimed, has the distinction of having the first gurdwara not only in Iran but in the entire Arab world. It is now said to be in a decrepit condition. The few remaining Sikh families there are looking after its upkeep.
The robust Sikh community talk about the Shah regime fondly. After the revolution, free enterprise and westernisation took a back seat. The revolution had brought in its wake severe restrictions and controls which tantamounted to virtually taking a prosperous Iran back to the dark ages. The unhindered freedom to do business was lost."It was an extremely difficult period and we had to trudge cautiously. Now things are beginning to look up with reforms being the buzzword during the last few years. There is definitely a 180-degree turn and that is encouraging," observed leading entrepreneurs who have diversified their interests by looking beyond Iran’s shores towards the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the United States of America and the United Arab Emirates. They also have close linkages with their relatives and friends in Amritsar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Business interests in the land of their ancestors brings them home, and to Mumbai in particular, at least twice every year. Despite the viccisitudes of time, the Sikh community which is adept in Farsi or Persian has maintained its equanimity and have nothing but praise and appreciation for their Iranian friends. "Our Iranian friends have always stood by us and have gone out of their way to help us," is the common refrain.
The once large and prosperous Sikh Indian community in Iran has been shrinking with the second and third generation preferring to send their children abroad, especially the USA and Britain for higher education. They crave for the American pattern of schooling and several families have sent their children to some of the prestigious boarding schools in India before dispatching them westwards. A sizable number of the Sikh youth have taken up employment in the USA, while several others have moved to the UAE because of the congenial business environment there. There are very few among the Sikh community in the 30-40 age group residing in Teheran. Their parents are looking after the family enterprises and make biannual trips to their kith and kin.
Conscription is also an issue which has been unsettling for the Sikh community. It is mandatory for all Iranians to serve a minimum of two years in the armed forces, especially as the Iran-Iraq war which lasted eight years took its toll among the youth of the country. To circumvent conscription, some of them have got their birth certificates from Indian cities though they were born in the Islamic Republic. Amazingly, when it comes to settling their children, the Sikh community goes back to their roots in search of brides. The wives of the younger generation of the Sikh community in Iran hail from places like Amritsar, Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Burdwan, Delhi and Mumbai.
Life is by and large peaceful, comfortable and safe, unlike in some of the Indian cities. Shared taxis are a boon which makes commuting easy and cheap. There is no fear if a woman travels alone even late at night. "Wearing a scarf over your head each time you step out of your home and keeping one’s hair covered is rather cumbersome but one gets used to it by and by. That is the custom and things have markedly improved on the dress code front, thanks to the progressive Iranian women," say Sikh women.
Darshan Sawhney, 68, and Amarjit Singh Chaddha, 72, whose peers went into trading and import and export business emphasise that they do not miss the cultural aspects despite the small irritants. Sawhney, who runs the popular Tandoor restaurant and Hotel Safir in Teheran, is one of the minuscule members of the Sikh Indian community who has obtained Iranian citizenship. He had applied for it during the Shah’s regime and it came through during the revolution. His wife’s parents hail from Amritsar and his daughter-in-law is from Delhi. She grew up in Defence Colony. Chaddha, who runs Chaddha Commercial Company and exports dry fruits, used to be in jute business that is now on the downslide because of severe competition from Bangladesh. He is worried about the future though his son was with him in Teheran and had doubts if the youngster would immerse himself in the family business. The sprightly M S Sawhney or "Juggoo", as he is popularly known, oversees the Iran Transmispoles Company and supplies equipment to power stations in that country.
S S Kohli, managing director of the Kohlidor Trading Company representing manufacturers and import-export indentors, believes a lot could be done to boost bilateral partnerships. He is confident that the Prime Minister’s trip will such endeavours a jump-start.
The Sikh Indian community has its complaints against the Indian leadership. They claim that the leaders conveniently forget their problems once they return home after a formal visit to Iran. They draw pointed attention to the Indian community having to cough up a substantial amount every month for every member of the family pursuing a vocation. They firmly believe that this matter is required to be taken up at the highest level by the Indian leadership and regret that their repeated entreaties in this regard have fallen on deaf ears. They hope Vajpayee’s path -breaking visit to Iran would contribute in resolving some of these problems.
Vajpayee’s unscheduled visit to the gurdwara in Teheran did have its impact. It created among the Sikh Indian community a feeling of kinship and belonging. The Prime Minister assured the assembly that his government would not be found wanting in coming to their assistance in times of crisis. He wanted the Sikh community in Iran to ascertain definitely if Guru Nanak had paid a visit to Teheran."If this is true, Teheran will undoubtedly become another place of pilgrimage for all Indians," he observed.
The Vice-Chairman of
the National Commission for Minorities, Tarlochan Singh, played his part
in ensuring that the Prime Minister paid a visit to the gurdwara in
Teheran called the Masjid-e-Hindan. In a letter to the Prime Minister’s
principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, on March 30, Tarlochan Singh said:
"The Sikh community is the most dominant Indian community in Iran
for the last 150 years. The Sikhs have been traditionally traders in the
cities of Teheran and Zahedon and most of the rich families in India
have their links and relatives in Iran. One of the most beautiful Sikh
gurdwara is in Teheran called Masjid-e-Hindan and there is also a higher
secondary school run by the Sikh community affiliated to the Indian
Central Board of Secondary Education. I suggest that the Prime Minister
may visit the Sikh gurdwara or the Indian Ambassador may organise a
special gathering of the Sikhs during his visit." Clearly, the Sikh
Indian community is eagerly looking forward to being an intrinsic part
of the inevitable process changes in Iran.