Sunday, 28 September 2014

Deccani Sikhs: Punjabi by nature?

Sikh policemen were part of the Nizam’s law and order machinery. (Virender Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

Since the past 10 years, Sajjan Singh, an engineer in Hyderabad, has been chasing  the stories of his people, the Deccani Sikhs, and seen them disappear like rabbits down a hole — old reports commissioned by central or state minority commissions would cancel their own oral histories or only highlight part of it; new leads would pop up with the excavation of an ancient sword or a flintlock gun and be left hanging; a period-book would turn up at the Salarjung Museum in a script that he would have to learn to translate. And he would try to work out, as all minorities do, how best the history and culture of his community not only be more widely known and spoken about by the community itself, but that it should ‘appear’ in the official history of Telangana at a time when the state is charting its own.

In the 100 days following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana government has been trying to redraw its priorities. A section of the population has interpreted the recently-conducted survey as one demanding proof of nativity. The small but rooted 50,000-strong Deccani Sikh community has no such qualms. They say they are “natives”, people who arrived in Hyderabad in 1832 as part of a gentleman’s agreement between two kings. “This is our home and Telangana has always treated us as its own,” says Iqbal Singh, who runs a transport business, referring to their 200-old history of habitation at Barambala, the 600-acre area where the first Sikh regiment camped as it marched into Hyderabad from Lahore on Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s orders to help the fourth Nizam on the appeal of his Punjabi Khatri prime minister, Chandu Lal.

Around 90% of Deccani Sikhs are descendants of that army. On Barambala, stands a school run by the Sikh Education Society, and a gurudwara, one of the first constructed in the Deccan. A rare lithographic Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, of Lahore lineage is kept here. Sajjan Singh’s interest in his own history, he says, began with this book as he helped in its binding and learnt to conserve it with the advice of Salarjung Museum experts.

Sajjan Singh of the Sikh Heritage Foundation- Hyderabad Deccan has been conserving manuscripts and artefacts related to Deccani Sikh culture. (Virender Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

What Deccani Sikhs now face is a peculiar situation. They are sandwiched between two identities: a) their Deccani culture with historical links to the house of the Nizam, not a popular figure with India’s political elite due to his pro-Pakistan stand at the time of independence and hence under no obligation to honour his last orders; b) and the pressure of being Sikhs outside Punjab. Being a minority among minorities, they are also on no party’s agenda. Muslims constitute 18% of the minority population of Hyderabad, Christians are 7-9% while the Sikhs are just 1%. The dominant Muslim minority gets the cream of reservations. On the other hand, the propagation of the Sikhs’ social culture, leave alone religious culture, find, if at all, intermittent political support.

In 2010, the Sikligar Sikh community (the ironsmiths) was included in the Backward Class (A) category; 285 houses were built for them, but they got no government job or financial assistance. The encroachment by the Wakf Board of the 200-acre Barambala land (gifted by the Nizam, now a busy Hyderabad suburb) has meant the control of the community has dwindled to a mere 65 acres. They further allege that no government has tried reclaiming it on their behalf. Sardar Ravinder Singh, the Karimnagar mayor, a Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) man, is their sole ‘political force’. It’s a political appointment, they wish him well, but Deccani Sikhs expect nothing out of it.  

There may also be a token Superintendent of Police here and an IAS there among the Deccani Sikhs, but most members of the community are self-employed. They run small-time businesses or are drivers working their own vehicles, or, are security guards at factories, reports a study by sociologist Birinder Pal Singh of the Punjab University, Patiala. Deccani Sikhs are, thus unsurprisingly again, a mass of knotted longing and frustrations. In 2014, Telangana almost reminds them of the state of limbo that followed the annexation of the pricely state of Hyderabad into the union of India in 1948.

Nanak Singh Nishter is a descendant of a risaldar in the Lahori fauj. (Virender Singh Gosain/HT Photo)

“We came flying 14 holy flags, we were a 14,000-strong army, we were led by Risaldars,” recites Baby Singh, a Class VII student at the Guru Nanak School, Barambala, at high pitch, as if she had just seen them charge past her school window. The Sikhs aided in tax collection, spread the Nizam’s rule in his dominions and were, by all accounts, a good bouncers-cum-peacekeeping force. “Unlike the British, the Sikhs didn’t come for war, or as refugees, we were invited,” says Yuvraj Singh, a young mechanical engineering student on the lookout for a job. “We came on horseback, we stayed on horseback.” This 19th-century adventure story went kaput in its post-colonial encounter — by 1950, the Nizam had entered the Governor’s house; his Sardars were getting out of their two-starred lapelled tunics and breeches into civvies, ready to leave the cantonment.

Mixed feelings

All the talk of missed opportunities since 1950s also reflect to the Deccani Sikhs’ other anxiety which many of them put in the language of demand. They are proud of being Deccani, but they also want an acknowledgement of their ‘cultural loss’ and a separation from latter-day Sikh migrants, the Punjabi Sikhs who settled in Telangana post-partition, or came here to escape the 1980s riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Sarjit Singh, a retired bank employee, the Sikh representative in the state minority commission (erstwhile Andhra Pradesh called it the Minority Finance Corporation), for example, says he is now an office-bearer without an office and a salary. “100 days of the TRS government are over but the status of the body is ambiguous”, he says. “A `1,000-crore/ year fund is allotted for minorities but the breakup per community is unclear. I spent `1 lakh out of my own pocket to go on tours, visit gurudwaras in disturbed areas… Who will give us compensation? We came here from Lahore and lost our culture, our practice of spoken (Punjabi) language.”

Deccani Sikh households speak a mix of Hindu-Urdu are fluent in Telegu; Sajjan Singh’s wife, a bank official, even got a chance to be a Telegu news reader on TV. The women wear bindis and saris, though the preference for salwar kameez has begun to catch on. The higher economic profile of the Punjabi Sikhs has triggered at the same time, a protectiveness towards their own regional identity but also a watchfulfulness towards their upwardly mobile brethren from Punjab who are equally isolationist in their attitude. Pal’s study reveals that Hyderabad’s Punjabi Sikhs maintain a “hardbound glossy directory with complete contact details of their businesses” excluding the details about Deccani Sikhs and their businesses.

A group of young Deccani Sikhs list the following differences in all seriousness and state why these are reasons enough against intra-marriage: “We follow a line, we are hardcore Sikhs. In Punjab, if they feel like dancing, they dance, they drink”; “We never allow Sikhs with trimmed beards inside the gurudwara;” “We may read the Guru Granth Sahib in Hindi and they might know Gurumukhi but we are more attached to the Sikh tenets”; “Our food can’t do without imli; they make khatti dal in amchoor…” Their relationship with Punjab and mainstream Punjabi culture is, thus,  complicated. They watch Punjabi films and TV serials, but have no family there nor any special desire to relocate there. (Only two students in a class in the Guru Nanak School said they have visited Punjab). They acknowledge the importance of the Golden Temple but want to stay away from Shirmonani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) politics. “The SGPC tries to capture gurudwaras of Maharashtra and Hyderabad,” says a Deccani Sikh on the condition of anonymity. “They have a `800 crore-annual budget. But no funds for scholarship or grants for schools come our way.”

“We want reservation, we want Baisakhi declared a state holiday,” says Kunal Singh, a bank employee. “Deccani Sikhs are cremated at Hindu cremation grounds. We want our own graveyard,” he adds when another young Sikh shuts him up with a cackle referring to a member of their community. “That Darshan Singh Rajan, ever since he got a vehicle fitted with Gurbani cassettes to take people to the funeral ghat, two people have been dying every week!” No population to speak of and how we go on about having our own crematorium...”

Paramita Ghosh, Hindustan Times   September 27, 2014

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Mughal and Sikh era towers crumbling brick by brick

The crumbling towers of Lahori Gate at the entrance of Qila Sarai at Sultanpur Lodhi. The police station and DSP's office continue to function from here.

Ten days after the crumbling of one of the two ‘minars’ (towers) of Lahori Gate at the entrance of historical Qila Sarai at Sultanpur Lodhi on Thursday last, the authorities concerned are yet to wake up to the cause.

Heaps of debris that lie at the entrance of the gate presents a picture of neglect on the part of the heritage and tourism authorities towards the significant archaeological monument.

The monument dates back to 800-year-old Lodhi dynasty and its two gates, Lahori Gate and Delhi Gate (which lies permanently closed on the back side), were part of the erstwhile GT Road. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is learnt to have rebuilt it. It was here that his sons Aurangzeb and Dara Sheikoh took up their studies. Guru Nanak Dev is also learnt to have spent time here.

The fort currently houses the Sultanpur Lodhi police station and the DSP’s office. The partially broken Lahori Gate is the only access point for the scores of police employees and residents coming here daily. Even after Thursday’s incident, the police vehicles continue to pass through the gate, shaking its fragile structure every now and then.

Onlookers say the life of the remaining part of the gate would not be much unless it is preserved at the earliest. As birds perched on it today, some loose bricks and dust started falling. “Any calamity, storm or even heavy rain may lead to the crumbling of the other ‘minar’, which seems to be losing its balance now,” says Sonu, a trader who has his shop opposite the building.

In August 2008, a conservationist group, The Anad Foundation, led by prominent vocalist Bhai Baldeep Singh, had even presented a proposal for restoration of the two gates and the fort to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. They had prepared an estimate of Rs 7.2 crore, but the government continued to turn a blind eye.

The government is learnt to have rather hired its own consultants two years ago, got the fort re-plastered with a thick coat, only to scrap it later. Bhai Baldeep Singh says, “I call it pseudo-conservation, the result of which is before you. The inexperienced hands rather left marks on the beautiful thin bricks. It was the worst masonry which they did. I do not mind to call it murder of the last traditional remains in Punjab.”

For the commoners, the fort and the gate seem to have become irreparable, though conservationists believe otherwise. “There is no monument that cannot be restored. It only needs the mind and hands of an expert. The collapsed portion can be reconstructed by experts,” says US-based Harjap Aujla.

Kapurthala Deputy Commissioner DS Mangat says he would get in touch with the officials and apprise them of the situation.

Raji Pramod Shrivastava, Secretary, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Museums, Archives and Archaeology, says, “I will send a team to the site on Monday to ascertain what needs to be done.”

About the monument

The building dates back to 800-year-old Lodhi dynasty
The Lahori Gate and Delhi Gate were part of the erstwhile GT Road
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is learnt to have rebuilt them
His sons Aurangzeb and Dara Sheikoh took up their studies here
Guru Nanak Dev is learnt to have spent time here

Deepkamal Kaur, Tribune News Service
Sultanpur Lodhi, September 14

Sunday, 14 September 2014

SGPC removes plaque with wrong information at Golden Temple

A view of the newly cemented portion of Maharaja Sher Singh Gate where a plaque was installed earlier at Golden Temple in Amritsar.

The SGPC has removed a plaque put up at the historic Maharaja Sher Singh Gate adjacent to Akal Takht in the Golden Temple complex after a plea was filed with the Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission, stating that the plaque carries wrong information about the descendants of Maharaja Sher Singh.

When The Tribune team visited the Golden Temple complex, it found that the plaque was removed from the gate and the place where it was installed is now plastered with cement. The Maharaja Sher Singh Gate also holds great significance due to the fact that the SGPC has preserved it as a memory of the Operation Bluestar.

The gate bears a number of bullet marks of the Army operation carried out in 1984. The SGPC took off the plaque after Vigyan Singh, a resident of Sarhali, filed a petition with the Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission, alleging that the management of the shrine has resorted to negligence and has given wrong information about the descendants of Maharaja Sher Singh, which is tantamount to distorting history.

He also stated that this was leading to dissemination of wrong information among scores of pilgrims visiting the holy shrine daily. He said the SGPC, which is the mini-parliament of Sikhs, should have verified facts pertaining to Sikh history before putting them up for public display. When contacted, Sikh Gurdwara Judicial Commission Chairman MS Brar confirmed that the petition was filed with them. However, he said, it was later withdrawn as the “two sides reached an agreement”. On the other hand, Darbar Sahib manager Partap Singh admitted that they have removed the plaque after a mistake in it came to the fore, adding that it would be put up again after making the correction. He said he had no idea as to when this plaque was installed.

Perneet Singh, Tribune News Service

Amritsar, September 13

Saturday, 13 September 2014

British Army honours Sikh role in World War One

The British army has honoured the contribution made by Sikh soldiers during World War One.

Thousands of Sikhs from the Indian sub-continent fought and died for Britain during the conflict.

The commemoration at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst featured a re-enactment by 36 Sikh volunteers.

Kameldeep Singh Samra, from Birmingham explains why it is so important to remember the thousands of Sikhs who died fighting for the British Empire.

See video at the BBC website

Friday, 12 September 2014

The 21 Sikhs of Saragarhi

A small body of Sikhs defended a vital North-West Frontier post against 10,000 Afridi and Orakzai attackers. Today is the 117th anniversary of their heroic effort.

Britain’s Parliament interrupted proceedings and rose to give a standing ovation on September 12, 1897 to 21 valorous soldiers — all of them Indians, all of them Sikhs — for what was undoubtedly a tremendous act of collective bravery, and one of the greatest ‘last-stands’ in military history, the Battle of Saragarhi.

The North-West Frontier of undivided India, now a part of Pakistan known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, is a harsh place. Embroiled even today in bloody conflict, it has been home to a multitude of battle-hardened tribes for centuries. In this tumultuous region, between the forts of Gulistan and Lockhart, which were built by one of India’s most proficient military commanders, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, is where Saragarhi is situated. As there was no visual contact between the two forts, Saragarhi was created as a heliographic communication post to signal between them.

Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen had started to revolt against British annexation of the area in the latter part of 1897, resulting in a multitude of attacks on both Gulistan and Lockhart, especially during the first week of September that year. Elements of the 36th Sikhs, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Haughton, had been moved to the area and had been successfully repelling attacks from the tough, hardy Pashtuns.

On September 12, the frustrated tribesmen changed strategy; they decided to cut off this vital communication link that was being guarded by a detachment of the Sikhs, having only been reinforced in the previous couple of days by Havildar Ishar Singh, and just 20 other ranks. At 9 am, no less than 10,000 tribesmen assembled to launch an assault on Saragarhi.

Haughton, who was based at Fort Gulistan, received a signal that Saragarhi was about to come under attack from a mammoth force. His reply couldn’t have been anything but demotivating for the defenders; he was unable to send any immediate relief. The Sikhs, however, resilient and undeterred, knew quick, hard decisions were required. Ishar Singh and his men decided that they would fight to the last man. This was not just bravado. The tactic could, if successful, delay an attack on the forts, giving the troops there more time to prepare and for reinforcements to arrive. Fierce fighting ensued once the assault began and the Sikhs fought a series of delay tactics to ensure the fighting continued for as long as possible.

So much so, that as the battle was prolonged, and Afghan casualties mounted, commanders of the assault force tried offering the defenders favourable terms of surrender. That wasn’t an option for the Sikhs. Attack after attack was repulsed. Ishar Singh and his men continued to stubbornly hold out, while inflicting a steady toll on the enemy, despite an acute shortage of ammunition which eventually ran out. The tribesmen made more than one attempt to rush the gates of Saragarhi, but this too was unsuccessful. Finally, a breach was made in one of the walls by a small body of tribesmen which was not visible to the Sikhs, having stealthily crept up using a blind spot and laboured at the wall for a while. By this time the battle had raged on for the better part of the sunlight hours.

One can only imagine the fierce and brutal hand-to-hand combat that ensued between these ridiculously lopsided forces once the wall was breached. A determined Ishar Singh ordered his troops to fall back into an inner layer of Saragarhi, while he distracted and held the attackers at bay — another classic delaying tactic. After he fell, the enemy managed to finally breach the inner layers, and except for Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, who was regularly communicating details of the battle to Haughton, his commander in Fort Gulistan, every defender had been killed. The determined Gurmukh asked his commander if he could now fix his bayonet, and an account describes him packing his equipment into a leather bag before doing so. The attackers decided to set fire to Saragarhi and according to Haughton’s account, engulfed in flames, Gurmukh’s last words were the Sikh battle cry: “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal (Victory belongs to those who recite the name of God with a true heart)”.

The courageous decision of Ishar Singh and his men had achieved the desired outcome. The battle had raged for over six hours and while there were a couple of patrols launched from Gulistan and Lockhart to distract the enemy, which reported there were around 14,000 attackers, the tribesmen had stayed focused on Saragarhi. The Sikhs, knowing very well what their fate would be, had held out against some of the most unfavourable odds for many hours, buying enough time for their comrades. Gulistan and Lockhart were saved from falling into Afghan hands and the lives of the vast majority of their regiment was saved too. For this extraordinary act of bravery and valour, all 21 Sikhs were awarded the Indian Order of Merit, which was the highest gallantry award given to Indians at the time. This remains the only instance when an entire body of troops has been given the highest award for the same battle.

When the relief party finally arrived at Saragarhi, there were over 600 dead Afghans and 21 soldiers of the 36th Sikhs along with one non-combatant — a camp follower and cook of the Sikhs who had been with them. Some of those enemy casualties are said to have been caused by artillery fire, after all the Sikhs had fallen; but in any event, for just 21 men to hold off the utterly overwhelming assault force of 10,000-14,000, this battle remains utterly remarkable and among the most heroic last-stands, ever — something akin to the Battle of Thermopylae fought between a Greek alliance and the Persian Empire in 480 BC.

The 36th Sikhs survive to this day. They were re-designated as the 4th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment — which is, unsurprisingly, the most highly decorated regiment of the Indian Army. Now 20 battalions strong, the entire regiment remembers the heroic and selfless sacrifice of these soldiers by commemorating Saragarhi Day as their Battle Honour Day each year.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Help towards a permanent Word War Sikh memorial in the UK

130,000 Sikhs fought in World War One - now a special monument at the National Memorial Arboretum will ensure they're never forgotten.

When the First World War broke out, nearly 130,000 Sikh combat troops were sent to every corner of the conflict.  To put that into context that's more people than could fill Wembley Stadium, and a greater number than the current British Army.

We feel it's important to remember our ancestors contribution and promote their heroics.  While this is a story we all believe in wholeheartedly, it's lamentable that there is no national memorial dedicated to their memory and sacrifices.

A mock up of the memorial

That's why the "Sikhs At War" project is bringing together a team of professional British Sikhs - including members of the Armed Forces - to create an everlasting memorial.

The "WW1 Sikh Memorial Fund" will set up and administer the UK's first national memorial to Sikhs who served during the First World War - and it'll be funded via Kickstarter by grassroots supporters - YOU.

Please help towards the memorial at


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