Home Anthropology Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – II

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – II

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – II

Dispersed over different parts of India like other Partition migrants from Sindh, the Sindhi Sikhs are an urban population. As migrants they lived close to Sindhi Hindus in refugee camps and continue to have social and business transactions with them.

By Rita Kothari and Jasbirkaur Thadhani

[Authors’ Note: This paper argues for the inclusion of ‘Sindhi Sikhs’—a minor group in terms of religion, language and number—into the archives of Partition, Sindh and Sikh scholarship. Terming this group as the ‘missing people’, we draw attention to contexts that might have made them slip through the cracks of the three archives. At a more fundamental level, the paper critiques the processes by which strait-jacketed definitions of a ‘Hindu’ or a ‘Sikh’ make invisible those who, in the logic of modern nations, appear to have oxymoronic identities. What role did Partition play in this matter? Did Partition cause further ruptures, and what kinds of negotiations did the Sindhi Sikhs undertake during and after Partition?]

Sindh and the Permeability of Sikhism

The region of Sindh had a historical intimacy with Punjab. Khushwant Singh states: ‘As regions that bled into each other’s geography, it is only natural that linguistic-cultural overlapping of Sindh and Punjab would be enormous’, although marked by ‘both proximity and wariness’. As a frontier area between Balochistan in the northwest, and parts of modern-day Rajasthan and Gujarat, the region of Sindh witnessed over centuries non-textualized and flexible practices of what would today be seen as ‘Hinduism’, ‘Islam’ and ‘Sikhism’. Sufi traditions rather than Quranic practices characterized Islam there and touched the lives of Hindus and Sikhs as well. As for the Hindus, they were governed by mercantile pragmatism, so the rigid classifications of sect and caste were avoided for amore pluralistic approach in which many gods (and especially the figure of Guru Nanak) fitted into their world-view. A method of gentle discipline called ‘sahaj’, advocated by Guru Nanak, was particularly adopted in Sindh. In terms of political trajectory, the province of Sindh was ruled at different points by Muslim rulers who do not constitute one homogenous group. When annexed by the British in 1843, the province became part of the larger Bombay Presidency, only to ask for separation in the 1930s. It is not being implied here that Sindh was an isolated area, but given its geographical location and demography, it was closer in spirit to the northwest part of the subcontinent than what would be considered ‘mainstream’ India. In the run-up to Partition, Sindh played an important role. It was a theatre for the dream of the creation of Pakistan, a Muslim-majority province that witnessed the making of some of the most foundational decisions of the 1940s. In the wake of Partition, Sindh went in its entirety to Pakistan, leaving its non-Muslim inhabitants feeling somewhat insecure and unwanted.

The departure of Hindu Sindhis (as well as other religious minorities) from Sindh and their journeys to various parts of India, followed by processes of rehabilitation and resettlement and the re-inscription of post-Partition identity, have now been addressed by several scholars. A tiny sub-group among those Sindhis who left were the Sindhi-speaking Sikhs. It is illustrative of the ties between Sindhi Hindus and Sikhism that barely five years after Partition, and in the first decade of their resettlement in India, the Sindhi Hindus had transliterated the Guru Granth Sahib from the Gurmukhi to the Devnagari script. Writing on behalf of the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), L.H. Ajwani described this as a remarkable achievement in his survey of literary activities in Sindhi:

As almost all the Sindhi Hindus are devoted to the Sikh scriptures and teachings of the Sikh Gurus, and many of them read the Granth Sahib daily, the service done by Jethanand Lalwani to the entire Sindhi community can hardly be overestimated. In the writings of the Sindhis the Granth Sahib is a perpetual fountain of inspiration even as the English Bible has been to writers in English, and the publication of the Granth Sahib in Sindhi characters will do much to stimulate literary activity among the Sindhis.

It is also possible to talk about the close ties between Hinduism and Islam in Sindh. Steven Ramey begins his book on the Sindhi Hindus in Lucknow with the following statement: ‘A disciple of a Muslim sufi advised a community of Hindus in Lucknow, India, to install the Guru Granth Sahib, a text that is central for Sikhs’. Before we go further, it is important to broadly summarize the tenets and history of Sikhism. Scholars are divided on when ‘Sikhism’as we know it today became a distinct and organized religion. Harjot Oberoi’s landmark study demonstrates the ‘brittleness of our textbook classifications’ with respect to religions in South Asia.16Drawing a distinction between the early period when Sikh tradition did not show much concern for distinct religious boundaries, to the formation of Singh Sabhas, the Gurudwara Act and the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, Oberoi has drawn attention to the historical moment of the institutionalization of Sikhism. Apart from him, others also argue that the markers of region, language, caste and class that characterize our perception of Sikhism today were the outcome of specific political developments. Views also diverge on whether Guru Nanak should be seen as the ‘founder’ of Sikhism, considering how his spiritual pursuits are only a part of the evolutionary history of Sikh-ism. Be that as it may, it is beyond dispute that he is foundational to the sant or devotional aspect of Sikhism. Guru Nanak lived from 1469 to 1539 in the Punjab. His itinerant preaching left a profound impact in many parts of northern India that continues in both overt and covert ways. Sindh in particular carries strong memories passed from generation to generation of Guru Nanak and his companions, their conversations, teachings and the overall principle of renunciation. It is quite possible that northern Sindh (especially Sukkur and Shikarpur) came under the influence of Sikhism through the travels of Guru Nanak, although it seems likely that at this stage that is during the first two centuries of early Sikhism, processes of institutionalizing faith were few, if any. So whether this influence translated into conversions of Hindu Sindhis, or remained only at the level of a pro-found allegiance to Guru Nanak, is an open question. Nevertheless, the Sindhi satsang tradition drew heavily on the life and times of Guru Nanak. The Sindhi Hindu temple, known as a tikaana, would invariably have a picture of Guru Nanak (and quite often even the Guru Granth Sahib) in addition to Hindu gods such as Ram and Krishna. Until the1984 anti-Sikh pogrom following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, in cities such as Jakarta and Manila, it was possible to see Sindhi Hindus and Sikhs sharing the same gurudwara (temple).

Darbar HallIn more recent times, however, such commonly shared spaces between both Sindhi Hindus and Sindhi Sikhs, as well as between Sindhi Hindus and Punjabi Sikhs, have begun to decline, an issue that has both local and global contexts for how religion is defined today To return to the tenets of Sikhism, the Panth (community) initiated by Guru Nanak was consolidated through Guru Angad. The territory covered by Guru Nanak’s teachings expanded through him into the region where the three significant points of the Majha, Malva and Doaba areas converge. Guru Angad’s successor, Guru Amar Das, directed the affairs of the Panth from 1552 to 1574. Changes introduced by Guru Amar Das included the appointment of territorial deputies or vicars (masand) and the conferring of a distinctively Sikh status upon specific places, specific occasions and specific rituals. Incidentally, the Sindhi surname Masand refers to this moment of Guru Amar Das’ intervention in the region of Sindh. Many scholars posit 1603, the year of the compilation of the Adi Granth (the Guru Granth Sahib), as the next very significant moment in the self-image of Sikhism because it was no longer of ‘uncertain identity’. Guru Arjan Dev, the compiler of the Guru Granth Sahib, is also a much revered figure in the homes and temples of Sindhi Hindus, who worship the Guru Granth Sahib more than any other religious text. As well, the Guru Granth Sahib is used as a witness to marriages, deaths and on many other social occasions. The tikaanas or Hindu–Sikh shared gurudwaras are common spaces for those who worship (or rather worshipped) only the ‘Guru’ (Guru Nanak) as well as those who saw the ‘Guru’as a figure along the continuum of Hindu gods. After the death of Guru Arjan Dev in 1606, the self-image of Sikhism took on a special emphasis. Given the hostilities between the Panth and the Lahore administration from the seventeenth century onwards, the nature of mentorship amongst the gurus changed. Sikh self-defence in the face of attacks by the Mughal administration and the ‘martyrdoms’ of Guru Hargobind (1644), Guru Tegh Bahadur (1661–65) and Guru Gobind Singh (1666–75) changed the tenor of Sikhism. The new ideal was not simply being sant, spiritual or devotional, but also being a sipahi, or warrior. The region of Sindh shows allegiance mostly to the sant side of Sikhism, although there are exceptions. (Continues) 


Rita KothariRita Kothari is Professor of English at Ashoka University, Delhi. She is one of India’s most distinguished translation scholars and has translated major literary works into English. Rita has worked extensively on borders and communities; Partition and identity especially in the western region of India. She is the author of many books and articles on the Sindhi community.

Courtesy: Courtesy: Researchgate / South Asia Journal of South Asian Studies

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