The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, August 24, 2003

The identity of North-East Sikhs
Surjit Hans

The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern India
by Himadri Banerjee, Manohar, New Delhi. Pages 279. Rs 550.

The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern IndiaONE out of four Sikhs live outside Punjab. Eleven thousand Sikhs in Assam constitute one per cent of the population. Out of them, four thousand are Assamese-Sikhs. Though they cannot speak or write Punjabi, they are more or less conscious of the five Ks. They are mostly cultivators, settled in villages like Barkola, Zhaparmukh, Lanka, Hatipara in Nagaon district. There is no sizeable indigenous Sikh population in Orissa.

A settlement of Agrahari Sikhs has come up in Bara Bazar, Kolkata. They came from Sasaram, Gaya, etc., in Bihar, about 200 years ago. They speak Hindi and Bengali, have separate gurdwaras, and they do not have any social relations with the Punjabi-speaking Sikhs of Kolkata.

This is the extent of "other" Sikhs in eastern India. The image of the Sikhs in Assam is predicated on the peculiar situation in the state. For long, the middle-class largely constituted of Bengali Hindus. The word "bangal" in Assamese means foreigner. Bengali Muslim peasants entered the Assam valley in large numbers. From 1911 to 1931 in the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Nagaon, Sibsagar and Lakhmipur, their number jumped from 37 thousand out of 120 thousand to 311 thousand out of 496 thousand. Fear of foreigners is the basic character of Assamese sensibility.


In the last two decades of the 18th century, there was a revolt in the Ahom kingdom, followed by Burmese invasion and the absorption of Assam in British India in 1826. In the novel, Padumkuari, published in 1891, "a Sikh soldier, Kumedan Singh, is portrayed as a villain and a traitor, apart from being a foreigner."

Sailadhar Rajkhowa (1892-1962) changed the Sikh image in a poem, ‘Pashan Pratima’ (stone images). They are the Fullara and Chatala hills in whose vicinity Ahom lost its independence in the battle of Haidirchaki. "Chatala and Fullara are two young girls who fell in love with Chaitanya Singh and his associate, the Assamese hero, Krishnaram. They were ready to wait for the battle to end but the two heroes were slain in the battle. The two hills appear as two cursed daughters of gods who witness the death of Assamese independence."

The poet "did something which is perhaps the most desired objective of a minority community`85. The Sikhs had married Assamese girls as the poet might have personally witnessed. Here the Sikh image acquired a halo so far unknown in some other parts of the Indian subcontinent."

In 1994, Assamese author M.R. Goswami wrote a novelette, Tej aru Dhulire Dhusarit Pristha, on the Delhi Sikh carnage of 1984.

The Oriya Nanak differs from the Guru Nanak of Janamsakhis. The Oriya Nanak may not satisfy the emotions of the Sikh faithful, but he is dear to the Oriyas of Puri, Bhadrak, and Cuttack, because he has been recreated out of folk memory and local experience.

The Brahmo Samaj introduced Guru Nanak to eastern India. Madhusudan Rao (1853-1912) used to speak of Sikhism at its meetings and never hesitated to point out the resemblance between the preaching of Guru Nanak and Brahmoism.

The rise of nationalism led to a renewed interest in Guru Gobind Singh. Guru Gobinda Singha was published in 1929. "The Sikhs combined religion with politics; the Guru added a name, a dress, a language, a code of conduct, etc., and thus created a vast field of an opportunity of spiritual uplift for them."

In 1935, Lingraj Mishra as a Hindu nationalist made out that "Sikhism preached by Guru Gobind Singh was Hinduism." Jayamangal Rath in 1928 anticipated Grewal and Bal in locating the social supporters of Guru Gobind Singh. "Hordes of new people joined the new Sikh community. Those deprived of social rights, those persecuted and despised in society, those tortured by the Muslims and those who were given to banditry and warlike pursuits embraced Sikhism."

The loyalists of the Empire gave a new twist to the contribution of Guru Gobind Singh. "The Sikhs were loyal to the British Raj and the militarisation advocated in their religion was a great support to the British Empire." One Oriya writer, expanding on the second Anglo-Sikh war, made a comic contribution to historiography in 1878—"only an ignorant historian will look for deeper causes."

In Assam, regional nationalism continued to be rallied in favour or against the local Sikhs, whereas in Orissa it lost much of its appeal before the rising tide of nationalism. Regional nationalism played a complex but major role in shaping the image of Sikhism in both the areas.

The earliest connection between Bengal and the Panjab is Jai Dev’s inclusion in the Adi Granth.

We may take Tagore as an exemplar of the Sikh image in Bengali literature. During the Swadeshi and Boycott Movements, Tagore’s view on militant politics underwent a change. Widespread communal riots and blood letting by the terrorists worried the poet. He held the national leaders responsible for the deterioration in Hindu-Muslim relation. This made him write that the "finale" of the Sikh history was "very tragic" and the 10th Guru bore the responsibility for that. In fact, Tagore was echoed by Jadunath Sarkar in Modern Review and History of Aurangzeb. Equally, he composed Baje baje ramaybina baji based on a Sikh hymn.

Once again, it is clear that it is the situation in Bengal that changes the image of Sikhism in Bengali literature; the image does not, and cannot change itself.

Dobhasi Bangla (the Bangla of Bangali Muslims) can be enthusiastic about Guru Nanak but critical of Ranjit Singh. In a monthly in 1933, we find the present echoing in the past: "...Shivaji, Sambhaji, Shahji, especially Ranjit Singh...devastated mosques, majhars (graves). Compared with that the demolition of temples by Mahmud, Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan was insignificant."

I had to persuade myself often that a person could master three literatures of eastern India. Himadri is superhuman. More in admiration than in envy I am bound to say that the book requires editorial help. Repetitions, for example, on Tagore, mar magisterial authority. The dates of the authors are in Christian years, but the ones of publications are either in Saka (Saka year+78=A.D.) or BS=Oriya year (BS+593/4=A.D.). I fail to sympathise with the author and the publisher, so keen on self-injury; the one by calling Sikh image ‘Sikh Studies’ and the other proclaiming The Other Sikhs when it is nothing of the sort.