Saturday, July 6, 2002

Deccani Sikhs prospering in an alien land
Brijender Singh Panwar

Participants of the Ist Deccan Sikh Education Conference in 1940
Participants of the Ist Deccan Sikh Education Conference in 1940

WHETHER in the tough deserts of Rajasthan, the thick jungles of Uttar Pradesh or the rocky setting of Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, the Sikhs have always proved to be highly adaptable. This gregarious community has always met challenges unflinchingly.

The 35,000-strong Sikh fraternity in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad has proved to be inimitable in that it has neither clung to its own distinct culture nor tried to deliberately overplay ethnical differences with the natives of the region.

The history of the Deccani Sikhs can be traced back to the visit of Guru Nanak who, accompanied by two disciples, Bala, a Hindu, and Mardana, a Muslim, crossed the Deccan, including Hyderabad. Thereafter, about three centuries ago, i.e. some time in September 1708 A.D., Guru Gobind Singh, while on a sojourn to the South, expired at Nanded. As was common in those days, the Guru had an entourage of about 300 persons with him. Some of these people stayed back and made Nanded their home by marrying into local families. It is the descendants of these Sikhs who are known as Deccani Sikhs.


The second phase of the entry of Sikhs into the Deccan was during the regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1828-1839), some time in 1832. During those days, the Nizam of Hyderabad ruled over the 16 provinces of the Deccan which included Mahaboobnagar, Nargunda, Warangal, Karimnagar, Adilabad, Nizamabad, Medak, Nanded, Purbani, Beed, Usmanabad, Aurangabad, Gulburga, Reicher and Bidar. As he was being exploited by local zamindars, mansabdars, jagirdars, nawabs etc., his Prime Minister, Maharaja Chandu Lal, advised him to enlist the help of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Consequently, the Nizam sent his advocate Darvash Mohammed to the Maharaja with gifts. Ranjit Singh agreed to the Nizamís proposal on the condition that he would cooperate in the construction of a gurdwara at Nanded, where Guru Gobind Singh had breathed his last. The Nizam readily agreed to the proposal and the gurdwara was constructed in 1840.

Deccani Sikhs of erstwhile Hyderabad state at a get-together
Deccani Sikhs of erstwhile Hyderabad state at a get-together

Maharaja Ranjit Singh then dispatched a strong army of 14,000 men to Hyderabad with the instructions that he would give them their salaries and that none should return till recalled. The army reached Hyderabad in four months and was given a place to set up a cantonment at Mir Alam Tank, Attapur, on Rajendranagar road. To this day, the descendants of the soldiers stay here. The soldiers were soon able to control the revolt against the Nizam. Since the Nizam was extremely pleased with the performance of the Sikh army, he didnít let the soldiers return to Punjab after Ranjit Singhís death. So, they came under the Nizamís control and married into local Rajput families of Hyderabad and adjoining districts.

According to an elderly Sikh gentleman who had worked in the Nizamís army, there were four main categories of soldiers in the army during the Nizamís days ó risaldar, zamadar, siladar and sepoy. After the retirement of the father, the son was appointed to the same post after he attained the age of 18. Till the age of five, the child was allowed to stay with his parents. Thereafter, till the age of 18 he was trained at the Amberpet Police Training School in Hyderabad and subsequently absorbed into the Nizamís army. That is why even now 90 per cent of the Sikhs are in government service. However, of late, some Deccani Sikhs have ventured into business.

The third phase of the arrival of Sikhs in Hyderabad was after Partition. The Sikhs who had been engaged in various trades in Pakistan had to work their way up in Hyderabad. The local Sikhs are basically Andhraites. Though most of them donít speak Punjabi, let alone read or write, they chant verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, go to gurdwaras, and observe all Sikh religious customs. In short, it is very difficult to distinguish between a Deccani Sikh and a Punjabi Sikh. At present, the Sikhs control a big chunk of the local business, especially automobile spare parts transport, steel etc.

The Punjabi community in Hyderabad is represented by a body known as the Andhra Pradesh Punjabi Sabha. Sardar Darshan Singh, a descendent of Deccani Sikhs whose forefathers contributed to the development of the Sikh community in Hyderabad, said "The Punjabi Sabha was given 200 acres of land by the fourth Nizam at Attapur Sikh cantonment for the development of a housing society. This scheme has, however, run into legal trouble, and nobody is willing to help us out."

The Sikhs, according to the senior citizens in the twin cities, were traditional Congress voters. But all this changed with Operation Bluestar in 1984. There was a complete shift in the voting pattern towards the Telugu Desam of N.T. Rama Rao, mainly because post-Operation Bluestar, while the whole country saw violence against Sikhs, in Andhra Pradesh, N.T. Rama Rao ensured their safety. After his demise, their votes were divided between the Telugu Desam (Parvati) and Telugu Desam (Naidu).

Of late, a large section of Punjabi voters seems to be in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which the elders of the community say, "should be given a chance to rule." On the whole the Punjabi community has blended so well into the culture of Hyderabad that it is not possible to think of Hyderabad without it.