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

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – IV

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – IV

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 to Amritsar: The Persistence of Fear in Tej Kaur’s Life

‘Kachhari mein puchte hain umar kya hai? Maine kaha, pata nahin. Naam bhi poora Sukkur mein reh gaya’(‘They ask me in a court, what is your age? I tell them I don’t know. Even my entire name is left behind in Sukkur’). Tej Kaur could be in her late seventies. She was born in a village near Sukkur in northern Sindh, where her father traded livestock. Tej Kaur is one of the few women amongst the Sindhi Sikhs who remembers crossing the border into India as a Partition migrant. Her memory is sharp in some respects, but diffuse in many others. Available to us only in fragments, her narrative is a bewildering mixture of the Sindhi and Punjabi languages. It holds the clear presence of fear at the memory of violence and aggression towards the Sikh community before as well as after Partition. If the source of fear when leaving Sindh was the ‘Muslim’, in later years, it was the Indian state that exuded a threat towards her.

Tej Kaur remembers for instance that she left Hyderabad with her extended family by taking a train from Hyderabad (in Sindh) that arrived in Pali (in Rajasthan). She was approximately ten years old at the time.

‘We heard that they were killing Sardars. They were also killing little children’. ‘Who were they?’ we asked. ‘Who else? Musulman’. A rhetorical question pointing to Muslims followed. And did she see anybody die? ‘Mainu sunatha, meri dadi ne bataya tha’. ‘I had heard it from my grandmother’, she said. It was not clear whether the grandmother had witnessed the event, but hearsay, fear and experience had become blurred in Tej Kaur’s account. The recurring statement ‘Musulman aa riha hai’ (‘the Muslim is coming’) suggested an urgency to move, to defend, and also to attack if necessary. ‘We were told keep the swords ready with you, don’t be scared. We had our kirpans ready. Police followed us, they kept saying, these are Sardars, they are sewadaris of Guru Gobind Singh. Don’t dare touch them’. She said that the train carried all of her biradari, her community of Sindhi Sikhs: ‘Poori gaadi mein Sardar the’ (The entire train was filled with Sardars). Her pronunciation of the word ‘gaadi’ was Sindhi, while the rest of the sentence appeared to be Punjabi, as boundaries between regions, languages and experiences blurred between Punjab and Sindh. The violence that had occurred in Punjab increased the vulnerability of the Sindhi Sikhs. ‘We would have liked to visit Hazoor Sahib before leaving, but we were advised not to do that. Wahan to bahut maarkaat ho rahi thi (There is a lot of stabbing and bloodshed there).

Tej Kaur’s family eventually arrived in Pali. Although it was not clear to us whether the incidents of violence she remembered being told about occurred during the journey or upon arriving in Pali, the family’s period of rehabilitation in Ajmer was communicated to us with horrifying banality. From Pali, a contingent of Sindhi Sikhs moved to the city of Ajmer. The area called Diggi Bazaar, which has the hustle and bustle characteristic of old cities, was provided to the Sindhi refugees for resettlement. Without making it obvious, the state authorities allocated to the refugees homes that had been abandoned by Muslims who had fled to Pakistan. As for those Muslims who had not left, there was a tacit under-standing among the Sindhi Sikhs that their homes had to be made empty one way or another. Tej Kaur told us proudly that her family had made every Muslim leave, and that each Sardar evicted Muslim families and occupied their homes. Tej Kaur studied in Ajmer for one or two years, then at the age of fourteen, she was married to a Sindhi Sikh family living in Amritsar.

In 1984 her son was detained on suspicion of being somehow involved in the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The family had a restaurant near Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple). She told us that the restaurant was raided and her son arrested: ‘Andar kabja kar liya. Jaggi Moni khe khani vaya. Itni police aayi, itni fauj aayi. Batwara yaad aa gaya’ (‘They had occupied the restaurant, and took away Jaggi and Moni. There were so many police, and also army. It reminded me of Partition’).

The story of fear continued in Tej Kaur’s life, an account related to us in an animated, feisty and yet terror-filled voice.

Sindhi-Sikhs-3Settling in Ahmedabad: Mehrwan Singh’s Narration of Fulfilment

At what were the ‘outskirts’ of Ahmedabad in the 1940s and 1950s, army barracks used during World War II were offered as rehabilitation camps for the Sindhi refugees. These are now well-established colonies known by the names of Kubernagar, Sardarnagar and Krishnanagar. The Chharas, a de-notified Tribe, also live in the vicinity. Sindhi Hindus, Sindhi Sikhs, Chharas and even lower-class Muslims live in this cluster of colonies from Sardarnagar to Naroda Patiya. Mehrwan Singh has been living in Kubernagar since he left the temporary refugee camps and settled in the camp there. A proud old man, MehrwanSingh is satisfied with what he has managed to do despite Partition, and spends his oldage with his wife, reading the Guru Granth Sahib. Mehrwan Singh’s memories of the pre-Partition past are filled with pride and satisfaction. His recollections of big cities such as ‘Lahore, Multan, Hyderabad and Nawabshah’, the environs of his childhood, and the proximity of Nawabshah to the holy city of Amritsar, ‘which was only 30 kilometers away’, evoke for Mehrwan Singh images of a fortuitous, social and geographical location. Although it is difficult to say when Mehrwan Singh’s ancestors adopted Sikhism, his own mythology suggests that it might have been at the time of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb:

When Aurangzeb wreaked havoc upon the Sikhs, the Sikhs began hiding in secret places. That was four or five centuries ago. Guru Gobind Singh decided to increase the number of Sikhs, and he said I will create a new jati. I don’t know exactly, but I am the fourth or fifth generation of Sindhi Sardars in my family. As such we are no different from Sindhi [Hindus] in terms of our former caste.

Referring to the trading middle castes in Sindh, Mehrwan Singh told us that ‘we were the same as Ahujas and Chawlas. In fact my mother was a Nagpal’. And pointing to his wife, he said: ‘She is a Jethra. She is from Hyderabad’. He himself belonged to a landowning family that would have been sufficiently well off to have hired agricultural laborers or haaris rather than work the land themselves. Mehrwan Singh told us: ‘We were zamindars. Muslim haaris tilled our land. We would divide the harvest between us. I remember Muslim women would take me in their lap like I was their son’. A glow of warmth suffused his face when he remembered that as a little boy he would play on the farms, and the Sindhi Muslim families loved him as if he was one of their own. According to Mehrwan Singh, he was ‘13 or 14 years old at the time of Partition. I took a train from Nawabshah to Karachi, and then a steamer from Karachi to Bombay. The conditions under which we took the steamer were frightening. It cost us Rs19.50. We were more than ten people traveling on the basis of a single ticket. We would take turns, so for instance, one person would leave luggage, bring the ticket and another one would have a turn’.

Upon asking whether his immediate or extended family had witnessed any violence in the process of leaving Sindh, Mehrwan Singh responded: ‘Asaanjo ker muo na’ (‘None of “ours” was killed’). He clarified that the Sindhi Muslims had actually extended help to the departing Hindu and Sikhs at the time of Partition. Those Muslims were shareef, he said, good and dignified people. They were courteous and respectful, ‘adab’ and ‘izzat deendha huya’.

‘Had he had experience of Muslims who were not courteous and respectful?’ we asked. His response reiterated a familiar story among Sindhi refugees that attributed violence to ‘baahir ja Musulman’ or ‘outsider Muslims’: ‘The ones who came from here—Hindustan to Sindh, they wreaked violence’. He continued: ‘Meanwhile, my family had arrived in Jodhpur by train. All safely, about 300–400 Sardars from my community. So from Bombay I went to Jodhpur, only to proceed further up to Amritsar. I stayed in Amritsar till 1957’. In Amritsar, Mehrwan Singh, not unlike millions of Sindhis, moved from being the son of a zamindar to doing ‘labor work’: ‘We could have taken up agriculture, but the news about being offered land in Alwar, Rajasthan, came too late. By then everyone had dispersed’. Eventually the family moved to Ahmedabad because it had better arrangements for rehabilitation:

We also came to know that the government provided compensation of land and property to the refugees. I have to say that Nehru’s government did a lot for us. My family managed to get a house after putting a request for a claim for the property we lost in Sindh. It was nothing compared to what we had lost. But in Kubernagar there were so many of our people that it was good to live here. I trained myself as a wire man, got a license in 1960 and that’s what I did for the rest of my life.

Look at these wires (pointing to them), I was in charge of the whole Kubernagar area when I was appointed as a wireman in 1960. Since then I have lived in Kubernagar. From zamindar to laborer to wireman, there were many hardships. You know I rode a bicycle for twenty years and my earning was Rs400 per month. (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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