Look East for the other Sikh
Roopinder Singh

Prof Himadri Banerjee
Prof Himadri Banerjee

Diaspora is any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland. The Sikhs in Calcutta certainly qualify as diaspora. Like other people in similar situations, they identify with the "home" culture and have played a significant role in the politics of Punjab, including in the Punjabi Suba movement. A Punjabi weekly magazine, Desh Darpan, reflected their sentiments. However, not all Sikhs in Calcutta trace their roots to Punjab, there are also Sikhs from Assam, Bihar and Orissa, whose traditions are at variance with those of the Punjabi Sikhs.

Prof Himadri Banerjee who holds the Guru Nanak Chair in Indian History at Jadavpur University’s Department of History has made the Sikhs and Sikhism in eastern India his primary area of academic study. He was in Chandigarh recently to present a paper at the seminar on ‘Bhagat Singh and His Times’ organised by the Institute of Punjab Studies, Chandigarh, and the Indian Council for Historical Research, New Delhi, at Panjab University.

His book, The Other Sikhs: A View from Eastern India, is widely regarded as a path-breaking work on the Sikhs and their history and heritage in Assamese, Oriya and Bengali traditions. The second edition of the book has recently been released.

He maintains that the Sikhs are proud of their Gurus’ intimate contact with eastern India, but have only a rudimentary knowledge about how the Guru’s message was received and how their followers evolved in east India.

He has studied the information and records, published over a century between the First Sikh War (1845) and the Partition of India (1947), available in local languages, and he shows how the regional flavour lends its own colour to the traditions of the Sikhs.

The history of the Sikhs in eastern India dates back to the times of the Gurus. The Sikhs can broadly be classified as diasporic Sikhs on the one hand, and indigenous Sikhs on the other. There are significant pockets of Sikhs in Assam, Orissa and Bihar.

"In Nagaon district of Assam, there is a 250-year tradition of Sikhs who are indigenous people. They participate in gurpurabs, Baisakhi as well as Assamese festivals. They speak Assamese and generally follow the local code of conduct regarding marriage, food, social discipline, and dress. They, however, are aware of their Sikh identity and wear the five Ks. Gurdwaras follow Sikh rituals but are also influenced by local style of worship," he says. In Orissa, the Nanakpanthis and the Udasis have an interesting interaction with the followers of Lord Jagannath.

Prof Banerjee’s next book will concentrate on the wider aspects of this Sikh diaspora of the East and he is much exited about his new find—a Panda’s bahai (ledger) that has shows a pattern of Sikh migration in the East—for this scholar, there are many facts to unearth and bring to light about The Other Sikhs.