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

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – V

Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – V

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–Pali–Ajmer: Hotusingh’s Memories of Partition

The city of Ajmer in Rajasthan is an understudied Partition site. Sindhis who did not or could not travel by sea and land to Bombay or to coastal Gujarat, or travel by air to Delhi, took the only train from Mirpur Khas to western Rajasthan. The station of arrival was Pali; however, in the months following the refugees’ arrival, Ajmer became an important destination. The influx of refugees into Pali included both Hindus and Sikhs, and they dispersed across Beawar, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Kota, Bikaner and many other towns of Rajasthan. Economic opportunities were greater in Ajmer given its religious and historical importance. Our interactions with both Sindhi Sikhs and Hindus show that Ajmer must have witnessed a violent period in the wake of Partition. The homes of Muslims departing for Pakistan, and at times even the ones still occupied by them, were forcibly emptied by refugees from Sindh. Diggi Bazaar in Ajmer, mentioned earlier, is but one example of an area that came to be occupied by Hindus and Sikhs. However, once the refugee community acquired economic and social mobility, its members moved out to more gentrified localities such as Ajay Nagar and Vaishali Nagar. Diggi Bazaar was once again left to Muslims.

Hotusingh identifies himself as a ‘Nawabshahi Sardar’ when regional difference has a social meaning, and simply as Sindhi or Sardar when it does not.

Hotusingh Guler Khalsa, a Sindhi Sikh who settled in Ajmer during Partition, has vivid memories of the period, of the new economies of power and religion in Ajmer. Proud of his distinct identity as a Sindhi Sikh, Hotusingh also takes pride in being a part of a larger linguistic Sindhi identity.32Hotusingh sits comfortably outside the provision store his son runs in Ajmer. An eighty-year-old man, Hotusingh is one of four brothers who have an established grain-trading business in Ajmer. The brothers started the business together in the early 1950s,but now each has a separate shop run by his sons, expanding the family business to newer forms and size. Hotusingh has clear and fond memories of his early ‘Sarkar’ school in Sindh, and without noticing, he mentioned three teachers—Master Gangaram, Master Allah Rakhyo and Master Fateh Singh—from three different religions—Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism. To him they would all have been ‘Sindhis’. Hotusingh identifies himself as a ‘Nawabshahi Sardar’ when regional difference has a social meaning, and simply as Sindhi or Sardar when it does not. In more particularized contexts, he may introduce himself as a Bandai Sikh. In Sindh, his family dealt in livestock as its traditional business. Muslims worked for the family looking after the cattle, milking them and selling the milk. The family also owned land, but its cultivation was done by Muslims. Does Hotusingh remember playing with Muslim children, socializing with them? He replies: ‘Not really. Acharvanyan ha ho, we did not visit homes. But of course some of them who worked with my father would come home. There was no enmity or anything’. At the time of Partition, Hotusingh was fourteen years old. Upon asking whether he had clear memories of Sindh, he said: ‘Of course I do. Each and every thing in Sindh. I thought I would go and visit Sindh. My passport is ready, but they will not give me a visa. We saw a lot during Partition, went through a lot of fear. We came by train, and they (government officials) threw us off at Luni station. They told us to go to Jodhpur. We could not settle down in Jodhpur. I did serve under somebody for six months, but it made no sense to do naukri (service) like that’.

When asked whether as Sikhs, he and his community in particular had gone through more fearful experiences than the Hindus did, Hotusingh related the fear associated with Collector Masud. In 1947, the Hindus and Sikhs of Nawabshah had faced the wrath of an irate collector named Masud. Remaining alive in the Partition memories of Sindhis, Masud was notorious for having wreaked havoc upon non-Muslims:

We were very scared of him, when we first realized we had to deal with him. Masud was from Lahore, and legends of his cruelty had begun to spread far and wide. But I do think he was not entirely to blame. He had lost his family at the hands of Punjabi Sardars, and the man was avenging the wrongdoing he had suffered. However at that time all we knew was that our lives were in danger because we were Sardars, and nobody is going to make that distinction between us and the Punjabis. So violence did take place even in the case of Sindhi Sardars, but it was much less compared to the Punjabis, and more compared to the Vanya Sindhis.

About 300 Sikhs had boarded train at Nawabshah to leave. Collector of Nawabshah – Masud, hailing from Lahore, had instigated Muslims not to leave a single Sardar alive. 

A few months after Partition, a Muslim government official had warned the Sikhs of Nawabshah to leave as soon as they could by first going from Nawabshah to Hyderabad, and eventually boarding a train from Mirpur Khas to India. About 300 Sikhs of Hotusingh’s community and environs left by train to go to Hyderabad. The Muslims servants began looting us, left, right and center. They had been instigated to kill us. Masud had told all Muslims to not leave a single Sardar alive, but Sindhi Muslims were interested in looting, not killing. One of the servants twirled his axe at everybody, and dared anyone to touch us. He was very helpful to us. He used to call my father Mochi. He had got the news that the train we were to board was going to be ‘cut’ (i.e. its passengers would be massacred) so he frantically stopped my father from boarding. My father in turn made our community of Sindhi Sardars get down. The Punjabis did not get down. Later we found out that the train was indeed ‘cut’.

Being Sindhi, Being Sikh: Dayal Singh on Partition and After

The refugee colony of Pimpri near the city of Pune is one of the thirty settlements pro-vided to the Sindhi community at the time of Partition. Over the years, well-to-do Sindhis have either moved out or have sought to buy and claim legal ownership over the houses they occupy. It is easy to forget that among the thousands of Sindhis living in Pimpri, some are also Sikhs. Like the Sikhs of Kubernagar (in Ahmedabad) discussed earlier, the Pimpri Sikhs’ lives also overlap with the Hindus, and yet a distinct sense of being Sikh characterizes many, especially a respondent named Dayal Singh. His Sindhi is peppered with English.

Dayal Singh considers himself a representative voice of the Sindhi Sikhs, at least in the Pimpri Chinchwad areas of Maharashtra. Given his commitment to chronicling the com-munity’s growth (or lack of it), and mediating social events such as marriages and divorces, births and celebrations, it is quite likely that his self-perception is reinforced by the community’s willingness to see him as a leader. A proud Sindhi Sikh in his mid eighties, Dayal Singh feels strongly about his linguistic as well as his religious identity, which for him are inseparable. One among seven siblings, Dayal Singh is an example of gurdinno, a child ‘given to the Guru’. He told us he is the first Sikh in his family: ‘My three sisters died unexpectedly, and my mother said, the next child will be given to the Guru, and he will be a Sikh. Luckily, I was the next born. The rest of my six siblings (three sisters, three broth-ers) are Hindus, but we all share the same strong belief in Shri Guru Granth Sahib’. Dayal Singh was brought up as a Sikh, but his Hindu sisters were married to Sindhi Hindus. Dayal Singh raised his children as Sikhs and arranged for them to marry Sikh spouses. Having said that, however, Dayal Singh stated that there was little dividing the Hindus and Sikhs: ‘See, in 1947, in Pakistan there were just two categories, Muslim and non-Muslim, we belonged to the latter. As for the Hindus and Sikhs, we didn’t know the difference. In Pakistan in our colony, 15 percent were Sindhi Hindus and Sikhs, the rest were Sindhi Muslims. We (Hindus and Sikhs) used to go to the same tikaana. An occasional visit of a Muslim neighbor was also not a surprise to us.’

Dayal Singh was brought up as a Sikh, but his Hindu sisters were married to Sindhi Hindus. Dayal Singh raised his children as Sikhs and arranged for them to marry Sikh spouses.

In the years of his youth in Dunho Bubur Loy in the Khairpur district of Sindh, Dayal Singh has distinct memories of the sprawling date farms his family owned. As was the case with most Sindhi Hindus and Sikhs, the farms were cultivated by Muslim haaris. At Partition, Dayal Singh’s family received only Rs1,400 in exchange for its rice crop. He added: ‘Muslims knew that that was a pittance but there was little we could do about it. We were hearing stories about the violence wreaked upon the Sardars, so we had to leave somehow’. Nevertheless, his family continued to believe that things would settle down and avoided making a decision about leaving Sindh. However, ‘two days before we decided to leave Pakistan, a few Sindhi Sikh families were attacked and killed. That was an unavoidably alarming situation for us. We had to take a decision. And the violence was not just physical (but also verbal and emotional). Muslims started misbehaving with our sisters and daughters. They started harassing and abusing us. The more sure they became of their authority, the more insecure we were’.

Fourteen-year-old Dayal Singh travelled from his village to the nearest city of Sukkur in October 1947, from where he took a train to Karachi. He travelled disguised as a woman because the times were dangerous, especially for Sikhs. ‘My long hair helped me in this’, he said laughing. From Karachi he boarded a steamer to the port of Bombay. After arriving in Bombay, many more locations followed; he moved from Bombay to Deolali Campin Nashik, then to Ulhasnagar and eventually to Pimpri Camp where we met him. Dayal Singh has seven daughters and a son, and they are married and settled in Sindhi Sikh families. Having retired from his construction business, Dayal Singh devotes all his time to community service, especially connecting Sindhi Sikhs for matrimony. His disapproval of those who marry outside Sikhism is well known, and the Hindu–Sikh duality that characterized his own life and that of his siblings is perhaps not acceptable to him anymore. And yet it would be a simplification to assume that the religious identity of Sikhism now pre-vails entirely over the linguistic and cultural identity he shared through the years of Partition and afterwards. As we describe later, Sindhi Sikh families have divergent responses to identity in the post-Partition period. (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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