Sindhi Sikhs in India: The Missing People – VI
Sindhi Sikhs are missing from all the studies on partition, Sindhi community and Sikhism.
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?]
Continuities and Reconﬁgurations
The four respondents cited above (Tej Kaur, Mehrwan Singh, Hotusingh and Dayal Singh) share the context of fear experienced on leaving Sindh, not merely as part of a non-Muslim minority, but particularly because they were Sikhs. At the same time, their narratives illustrate a die-hard spirit, an unsentimental view of a traumatic past, and a general refusal to dwell on that past. Towards the end of our last conversation with Mehrwan Singh, he told us: ‘Now I have a shop at Gandhi Road, Sadguru Electronics, and my sons are ﬁnancially well settled. In fact one of my daughters lives in Dubai’. In his narrative of success, Mehrwan Singh showed no bitterness at his own difﬁcult journey to India and his reduction from landowner to wireman. A proud and fulﬁlled man, like many other Sindhi refugees, Mehrwan Singh refuses to carry bitter memories, instead rising from the ashes of Partition. A similar spirit characterized Hotusingh, who laughed when we asked him if he had thought back then of returning to his motherland: ‘Arre, roti laye musibat huyi. We had difﬁculty managing [to ﬁnd] a meal. With only the clothes we had worn, where was the opportunity to look back? We received a claim (compensation) of only Rs.7, 000, but we had left so much behind. We sold our women’s jewelry, and started selling grain by buying it at a low price and reselling it’. Of his brothers, Hotusingh proudly said: ‘Sindh khan vadhik khush aahin’ (‘they are happier here than they were in Sindh’). Happiness in this context was closer to prosperity than an abstraction. Hotusingh’s narrative is illustrative of an immigrant community’s urgent need to make ends meet.
‘We ﬁnd it easier adjusting with Sindhis. After all we speak Sindhi at home. And they are very ﬂexible, they have so much faith in everything. Their attitude is jenkhe khape tainkeh manyo (believe what you will)’. Sindhis that is not a different community for us. We have been with them for years’.
Another feature more pertinent to a post-Partition context is the turning away from the Congress. The Sindhi Sikhs exhibit a severe disillusionment with the Congress’ violation of Harmandir Sahib in 1984, which led to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the backlash against the Sikh community. In Tej Kaur’s interview, she displayed a continuing palpable fear because she had been a witness to the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. While Mehrwan Singh, Hotusingh and Dayal Singh also referred to 1984 in their interviews, their articulations of the historical moment were accompanied by disillusionment and anger towards the Congress. Mehrwan Singh told us: ‘After coming to India, I was busy earning my basics, but one change I do see between my days in Pakistan and here, which is that we trusted the Congress back there. However Indira Gandhi’s decision to attack Harmandir Sahib played a role in breaking that bond’. Dayal Singh echoed Mehrwan Singh’s appreciation of the ‘government’ at the time of resettlement in India and his later antagonism towards Congress: ‘It helped us with groceries and shelter for two years. Congress was good. In fact the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] did not even exist then. However 1984 ruined everything. We lost our people and faith in the government’. Apart from the shift in political afﬁliation, what are the other ways by which Sindhi Sikhs have redeﬁned themselves? This question led us to ask our respondents whether their traditional ties with the Sindhi Hindus had remained the same after Partition, whether for instance they had continued doing business with the Sindhi Hindus? ‘Of course’, replied Mehrwan Singh. ‘Since my workplace and home are both in Kubernagarit is only natural that I would. When we came to India, we were looking for camps where Sindhis were staying’. Hotusingh expressed the same sentiments: ‘we ﬁnd it easier adjusting with Sindhis. After all we speak Sindhi at home. And they are very ﬂexible, they have so much faith in everything. Their attitude is jenkhe khape tainkeh manyo (believe what you will)’. Dayal Singh agreed: ‘Sindhis that is not a different community for us. We have been with them for years’. Thus, the physical, cultural, linguistic and occupational ties shared by the Sindhi Sikhs and Sindhi Hindus continue at a certain level although there are shifts evident in the arena of marriage. The discussion below shows the beginning of tensions among the Sindhi Sikhs due to their need to maintain a distinct and linguistic Sindhi identity on the one hand, and the normative deﬁnition of a Punjabi Sikh that pulls them towards another, more religious, identity on the other. These shifts are emergent in nature, being not as clearly marked as the shift in political afﬁliation. However, they pro-vide a glimpse into negotiations around Sindhi Sikh identity in post-Partition, contemporary India.
Reconciling Language and Religion
It would appear that language and religion are two discrete ingredients of identity. How-ever, languages also come with claims of sacredness. The Punjabi language and the Gurmukhi script have come to represent the institutionalized nature of Sikhism in the twentieth century, the multilingual nature of the Guru Granth Sahib and its followers not-withstanding. The Guru Granth Sahib contains a mixture of several languages, including Persian, Urdu, Brajbhasha, Marwari and Marathi. The plurality of languages is matched by the Sikhs’ plurality of caste, region and religion. However, the construction of Sikhism today has effected a synonymy between Punjab and Sikhism in the general perceptions of both Sikhs and others. A demographic relationship between the language and people in Punjab has also played a role. For someone like Tej Kaur, who has lived in Amritsar all her life, there were compelling reasons for giving up Sindhi and speaking Punjabi instead: ‘We were told not to speak Sindhi. Aap Sardar ho, Punjabi mein baat karo, they told us’. ‘Who said this?’ we asked. ‘Jats in Punjab’. The contexts of power-sharing and political representation implicit in these deﬁnitions play a signiﬁcant role in determining who is a legitimate Sikh and who is not.
Mehrwan Singh’s words, ‘Sindhi ta pahenji bhaasha aaahe’ (‘Sindhi is, after all, our “own “language’), and Dayal Singh’s assertion that his family prefers to intermarry with Sindhi Sardars, ‘otherwise who will remember this sweet language’, point to language as an important source of identity and memory.
The generation of respondents above seeks to retain its linguistic–cultural identity of being Sindhis without compromising the Sikh religion. Inasmuch as this involves knowing the Gurbani and committing to memory parts of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sindhi Sikhs acquire knowledge of the Gurmukhi script with great felicity and also speak and under-stand Punjabi. Hotusingh referred to this as a recent phenomenon, saying: ‘Now we can speak Punjabi as well. Haane galayein vathun ta’. However, his generation also ﬁnds a highly emotive charge in their mother tongue, Sindhi. Mehrwan Singh’s words, ‘Sindhi ta pahenji bhaasha aaahe’ (‘Sindhi is, after all, our “own “language’), and Dayal Singh’s assertion that his family prefers to intermarry with Sindhi Sardars, ‘otherwise who will remember this sweet language’, point to language as an important source of identity and memory. In the event of our respondents being unable to achieve this balance, in other words being unable to ﬁnd grooms and brides within the Sindhi Sikh community, we asked them if they would consider marrying their children to Punjabi Sikhs or Sindhi Hindus. The answers were quite telling; we quote Dayal Singh as a representative voice: ‘The Punjabis think they are superior to us, probably they are. I see my granddaughters following “their” culture. Sindhi Sardars are peaceful and simple…. Punjabis are more violent, abusive, and show-offs’. However, if forced to choose between a Punjabi Sikh and a Sindhi Hindu, he responded after a meaningful pause: ‘Punjabi Sikh. Because Sindhis are not Sikhs’. Through social and occupational transactions, the Sindhi Sikhs (at least of the generation we interviewed) continue to be members of a larger linguistic identity; however, there are forces of homogenization of their religious identity that are pushing them in another direction. Marriages and procreation rites increasingly lean towards ‘Punjabiﬁcation’,so that the good tidings of an engagement are announced by Sikh greetings such as ‘Bole sonihal’ (‘Whoever utters shall be happy’) popularized by Guru Gobind Singh and denoting religious fervor among Sikhs. Moreover, Sindhi laadas (folk songs) are tending to be replaced by Punjabi folk songs. These examples from the post-Partition generation represent a tiny, but signiﬁcant, linguistic–cultural shift in the Sindhi Sikh identity. This phenomenon is so far only a trend, and is not backed in this paper with methodological inquiry. Based on our more systematic observations of the Partition generation, we believe they have, by and large, fond memories of being Sindhi in Sindh and practicing Sikhism as a religion shared with Sindhi Hindus. The bonds of language, neighborhood, occupation and history between Sindhi Sikhs and Sindhi Hindus continued through the refugee camps and post-Partition lives. And, yet, it is true that the Sindhi Sikhs faced more challenges in making a safe departure from Sindh. It is also true that both Hindus as well as Sikhs have had to tailor their religious identities to align with textualized versions of their religions. Partition is an important (albeit not exclusive) context to such forms of redefinition.
Towards a Conclusion
It is time to ask whether the Sindhi Sikhs’ experiences of displacement, exile and rehabilitation are similar to those of other refugees from Sindh. Were their negotiations with citizenship different from those of Sindhi Hindus, who strained to assimilate themselves into mainstream versions of Hinduism? Has the rupture between region and language effected by Partition contributed to fragmentation, ambivalence or a re-alignment of identity among Sindhi Sikhs? From our encounters with the Sindhi Sikhs’ memories of Sindh, their narratives of departure from Sindh and arrival into India, we suggest that the archive of Partition is both enriched by new knowledge and supported by observations made earlier on the Sindhi experience of Partition.
The Sikh element among the Sindhi migrants shows that while Sindh did not witness the intensity of physical violence that Punjab experienced, the Sikhs in Sindh felt more vulnerable than the Hindus. The Sindhi Sikhs’ experience of resettlement and challenges of starting life anew are not markedly different when compared with their counterparts amongst the Sindhi Hindus. The unsentimental outlook that made Sindhi Hindus simply get on with life without dwelling upon the Pastis also a feature of the Sindhi Sikhs’ experience of post-Partition resettlement. However, it is in the arena of religion that we ﬁnd divergence. We observe that just as Sindhi Hindus found it culturally and psychologically imperative to adopt textual and mainstream versions of Hinduism after Partition, Sindhi Sikhs were pulled in the direction of mainstream Sikhism identiﬁed with the Punjab region. The nature of negotiation, and the respective consequences, may be different, but are beyond the scope of this paper. Finally, identities are experienced locally and contextually.
The Sikh element among the Sindhi migrants shows that while Sindh did not witness the intensity of physical violence that Punjab experienced, the Sikhs in Sindh felt more vulnerable than the Hindus. The Sindhi Sikhs’ experience of resettlement and challenges of starting life anew are not markedly different when compared with their counterparts amongst the Sindhi Hindus.
The generation aged in its twenties and thirties may ﬁnd their ‘Sindhi’ identity more relevant in some contexts than their ‘Sikh’ identity. And if the constant questions about who is a Sindhi Sikh become tire-some, it may just be easier to appear to be a Punjabi- or Hindi-speaking Sikh. However, it is important for us to know that it does not have to be and was not, historically, only one or the other identity. It is possible to imagine other permutations and combinations in such a situation. For instance, substituting ‘Sikh ‘with ‘Muslim ‘or ‘Sindhi’ with ‘Bangla ‘might also throw light on another set of ruptures and classiﬁcations that characterize twentieth-century identity formation in South Asia. Practices of ‘seeing ‘others acquire an imperceptible grammar. Whether all such classiﬁcations that take ‘more ‘or ‘less ‘bits of people’s lived realities produce exclusion is not the point; rather, they point to the limits of language that often fail to keep pace with, as it were, spillover effects of identity. Partition and its attendant events, or rather the making of nations and the attendant divisions, reconﬁgured identity formation in India. With movements occurring along the lines of region, nation and religion, ruptures have come to characterize certain relationships. (Concludes)
Rita 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
Click here for Part-I, Part-II , Part-III , Part-IV and Part-V