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ASSAMESE SIKH COMMUNITY


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Respected Sir,

I am sending some details about a community which

really needs help from all organisations and Sikh

forums..Hence sending it to you too. Anticipating some

ways through which you could also help. Hoping to hear

from you very soon.

thanking you,

Yours Sincerely,

Indu Kaur

Sub: Assamese Sikhs of Assam

Respected Sir,

Sat Sri Akal,

I would like to bring into your kind notice about a community who are staunch Sikh by religion but on the verge of losing their identity due to challenges they have been facing both socially and economically.

Sir, India is a vast country and so are the problems of its Citizens. Some of the communities have been able to place their grievances before the country and the Government in a proper manner and have been able to get the redressal. But at the same time there are certain groups and communities, who are so small in size that their presence and existence have been almost, unnoticed. The Assamese Sikh Community of Assam is one such community, which is there in the northeastern state for more than two centuries yet their existence has almost been ignored by the successive Governments. I am giving here a brief history as to how the Assamese Sikh s have come into existence and about their present status.

The History:

“Although it is very difficult to locate the exact year in which the State of Assam came into contact with Sikhism, it has been held by B.P.L.Bedi in his work “ Guru Baba Nanak” that Guru Nanakji visited Assam in the first decade of the 16th century A.D and had visited the Kamakhya temple. His religion being a proselytizing one, it was but natural that he had footed through the dense forest tracts of Assam and met various tribes in course of this journey. Nanakji must have diffused his message—the message of love and unity and gospel of universal tolerance amongst the populace.

After Nanakji, the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur stepped in, he came along with the Mughal forces commanded by the general raja Ram Singh in 1670 sent by Emperor Aurangjeb to launch a full scale invasion of Assam to avenge an earlier defeat at the hands of Assamese. General Ram Singh possibly believed that the presence of Guru in the Mughal ranks might serve as a moral booster to them in their fight against the Assamese.

Guru Tegh Bahadur and Ram Singh reached Rangamati and then came to Dhubri where the first Gurudwara was established by the Mughal soldiers offering five shieldul of earth each as a memorial of Guruji’s maiden visit to the land.

The Sikhs however began to settle permanently only after the battle of Hadirachaki. The Ahom ruler Chandra Kanta Singha built up defences at Hadirachaki with armies under the command of the Sikh general Chaaitanya Singh, the Ahom general Charu, the Muslim general Mirdaulla and another Assamese general Krishnaram. It is said that the Punjan ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh dispatched Chaitanya Singh to Assam in command of 500 soldiers to render military help to Chandra Kanta Singha. General Chaitanya along with his army fought gallantly against the Burmese in a pitched engagement at Hadirachaki and laid down his life for the cause of Assam. Chaitanya, on the eve of the battle said to the Ahom King “ Moharaj, I shall lay down my life along with my army for upholding your cause.” This poignant saga has been clearly mentioned in the monumental novel ‘Monomati’ written by Rajani Kanta Bordoloi, a leading novelist of repute. True to his words Chaitanya kept his promise. Assam remembers him with gratitude and honour even to day.

Following the decade at Hadirachaki and the loss of her dear husband in the thick of the battle, Chaitanya’s widowed consort, accompanied by the remainder of the Sikh forces, proceeded upstream by the Brahmaputra and via Kajalimukh, passed through the Kapili river and the Titiamari Khuti, and encamped at Chaparmukh in the Nawgaon district. They carried with them a few copies of the religious scriptures, two cannons and a number of swords (Kripans). Thses articles have since been carefully preserved in the Gurudwara Mataji, Chaparmukh Singh Gaon, Nagaon (Assam). This Gurudwara Mataji the second historical Gurudwara in Assam.

The Sikhs first settled at Chaparmukh and later on they moved to Barkola, Hatipara, Lanka (all in Nowgaon district of Assam). The largest numbers of Assamese Sikh families (about 150 families) now live at Borkola. It is popularly believed that the first Sikh Sardar who came to Borkola to reside was Sardar Ram Singh. The Population of Assamese Sikhs in the State is at present about 5000.

It would not be out of place to mention here that under the auspices of the Assamese Sikh Association, and able leadership of Sh Dhyan Singh President of the Association, the work of renovation of Gurudwara Mataji has been taken up with kind donations from gurpremi sadh sangat at the birthday anniversary of the ninth Sikh GuruTegh Bahadur sahib who visited Assam is being celebrated every year at this historical Shrine.

The companions whom Chaitanya had left behind subsequently married Assamese women and got fused with the central drift of assamese life and culture. The process of assimilation was so decisive as to have made them embrace their land of occupation as their homeland. They have played significant role in their efforts to defend and serve the cause of the State at various levels from time to time.”

The Assamese Sikhs have their own Gurudwaras but they have been maintaining fraternal cohesion and amity with the people of other religious persuasions in their neighbourhood. Their intimate participation in all Assamese festivals and institutions like Bihu, the birth and death anniversaries of Shankar dev and Madhav dev, Rang utsav, weddings and other festivals speak eloquently of their integrated life with the mainstream of the Assamese people.

The present Status of the Assamese Sikhs have been described well in the following article:

Sikhs who enjoy doing bihu, not bhangra..By Parbina Rashid

WHO says one has to know Punjabi or bhangra to be called a Sikh? Here is this community in Assam, which enjoys doing Bihu, has no knowledge of Punjabi language or culture yet follows Sikh teachings with rigidity, which is no way less than the Sikhs in Punjab. Displaced from their place of origin centuries ago, this community of Assamese Sikhs living in a remote area of Nowgoan district are often dubbed and ridiculed by their counterparts here as 'second-class Sikhs'.

A whopping number of about 10,000 Assamese Sikhs are mainly concentrated in Nowgaon district. Their turbans may not go well with their Mongoloid features and sparse beards, and may even fetch them belittling remarks from other Sikhs yet they remain a proud race. "Our forefathers came to Assam centuries ago to rescue the Assamese people from foreign invasion and that makes us feel proud. As far as our religion is concerned, we have been following it with utmost devotion," says one of the Assamese any of the families in Borkola and you are likely to hear this line over and over again: "when Giani Zail Singh visited Borkola in 1975, he was surprised at the way we are following the Guru Granth Sahib."

And these Sikhs don’t feel nostalgic about being away from Punjab, its culture and its people. "We are Assamese who are following the Sikh religion. We have adopted this place as our own, as we have been living here for generations."

So let not appearances throw you off gear as you enter the house of one of these families. You are not likely to be greeted with a glass of water or soft drink but with a sarai containing betel nut and paan — the traditional offering made by the Assamese. Even the lady of the house looks like just any other Assamese married women — adorned with sindoor and clad in mekhla – chaddar, the traditional Assamese dress — till your eyes rest on the tiny kirpan tucked under the chaddar.

Then come the male folk and you heave a sigh of relief — some similarities at last — the turban and the beard (though sparse) is there. But even with them you will not be able to strike a conversation in Punjabi. And what is more, their names also have an Assamese accent to it.

As you take a peep into their customs, you realize that they have not only assimilated themselves into the Assamese society to a large extent but have also remained loyal to their religion. They celebrate both Magh Bihu and Lohri, which fall on the same day — January 13. With equal enthusiasm they celebrate both Gurpurb and Shankar Dev's tithi as well as participate in Bohag Bihu and Durga Puja, the two most widely celebrated festivals of Assam.

"We have never felt that we are not a part of the Assamese society and at the same time we have been faithful to our religion," says S. K. Singh, president of the Assam Sikh Association. "But it hurts us when we are called ‘duplicate Sikhs’ or ‘second class Sikhs’ by our counterparts in Punjab," he adds.

"In fact in some respects, we are more staunch than the Punjabi Sikhs," says Jaswant Kaur. "We may not speak the language but we follow our religious book very seriously. Most of us are amritdharis, as it is our custom to partake of amrit before we get married," she adds. And they are proud of their heritage too. Visit any of the families in Borkola and you are likely to hear this line over and over again: "when Giani Zail Singh visited Borkola in 1975, he was surprised at the way we are following the Guru Granth Sahib."

The settlement of this community in Assam can be traced back to the third Burmese attack when King Viswanarayan Singh of the Ahom tribe sought Maharaja Ranjit Singh's help to defeat the Burmese army. It was around that time when 500 soldiers were sent under the leadership of Chetan Singh. They crossed the Brahmaputra and Kalang rivers and reached Chaparmukh. After defeating the Burmese, most of them settled there. General Chetan Singh died in the war but his wife who is known as 'Mataji' survived. Most of the Sikhs of Assam are descendents of Mataji and considered as upper class Sikhs for their pure lineage. There is yet another branch of Assamese Sikhs which is not so pure in its lineage. One Ram Singh who went to Assam in the year 1823 got married to an Assamese girl and settled in Borkola.

Mataji Gurdwara in Borkola village is the most popular Sikh shrine in this region. The site where a gurdwara now stands in Dhubri district was visited by Guru Teg Bahadur. The local Sikhs are full of the miracles he performed during his stay there. However the ultimate pilgrimage for them still is the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

By and large an agrarian society, the new generation of Assamese Sikhs has come out of its shell to take up responsible positions in government and private sector. They are now teachers, businessmen, and officers in the civil services. Though now they have begun picking up jobs in other parts of the state, they are still plagued by feelings of insecurity. And this is the reason behind the formation of the Assam Sikh Association.

"We are the smallest minority community in the region but we have not been granted minority status so far," says S. K. Singh. " The association is going to demand minority status and along with that representation in local bodies and state assembly," he adds.

Till they get this status, Assamese Sikhs have a tough fight ahead to assimilate into the local society and also to prove to the Punjabi Sikhs that they too are respectable Sikhs.

SRI HIMADRI BANERJEE who holds the Guru Nanak Chair in Indian History at Jadavpur University's Department of History has been closely monitoring this minority Community fears that if proper care and support is not given by the Government this historical Community may even go extinct. His primary area of interest is Sikhs and Sikhism in eastern India. He is on the advisory board of The Sikh Review —He writes-

The Sikhs of Assam Sikh-Diaspora (Yahoo! Groups), Aug. 25, 2003

I recently visited two villages in the India's eastern state of Assam. The villages are well known for their local Sikh population. They represent an interesting segment of Sikh tradition (10,000 Sikhs) outside Punjab, which differs, not only from the Punjab's Sikh tradition but also from the patanaiya Sikh tradition (4,000 Sikhs) of nearby Kolkata. The former compared to the latter is economically better off and has gradually assumed a local profile. They participate in gurpurabs [birth and death anniversaries of Sikh gurus], baisakhi [the harvest festival] as well as Assamese festivals. They speak Assamese and generally follow the local code of conduct regading marriage, food, social discipline, and dress. They, however, are no less aware of their Sikh identity and do wear the five Ks. Their gurdwaras (often called namghars) follow some of the Sikh rituals as well as try to make room for the local style of worship.

I came across at least three distinct trends among Assamese Sikhs.

i. A sizable section of them nowadays show their keenness to learn more about the Punjabi Sikh tradition, e.g. learning to read Punjabi in order to gain direct access to the sacred text. This leaning toward Punjabiyat is increasingly coming to the forefront. Earlier this was not that popular, particularly among those who have long left their ancestral villages and have settled in distant urban areas of Assam and beyond. Perhaps they unconsciously claim a superior status relative to their Assamese Sikh forefathers. Recently, this point was repeatedly articulated by residents of Chaparmukh village. It creates a sharp differentiation within the community. Their readiness to follow the Punjabi Sikh model reminds us of the Sankritisation model suggested by Professor Srinivas nealy four decades ago. The rich marry their daughters to Bihari Sikhs. The rest marry their daughters locally.

ii. A small section - albeit part of what appears to be a growing trend - does not keep kes [unshorn hair] subsequent to marriage with Assamese women and identify themselves as Assamese rather than Assamese Sikhs.

iii. The majority, however, identify themselves as Assamese Sikhs and are not all that attached to the Punjabi Sikh tradition. They claim to be sons of the soil (Assam) and, therefore, do not feel much affinity toward the Punjab.

These Sikhs have likely been in Assam for two hundred years or more. According to their tradition, their forefathers came from Punjab on an invitation from the Ahom king to defend Assamese liberty against the Burmese and laid down their lives at the battle of Hadirachaki (1820-1822). Those who survived did not return to the Punjab but married Assamese women and increasingly identified themselves as Assamese Sikhs over the last two centuries. Their history, which is primarily based on oral tradition, needs further corroboration before it can be accepted, as we understand history today. It is possible that their origin lies not in Punjab but Bihar, which might constitute a Bihari-Sikh root. They regard themselves distinctly as Assamese Sikhs and do not generally belong to the Punjabi Sikh community of Assam many of who are jats [landowner caste] and ramgharias [skilled caste]. The two Punjabi Sikh communties associate with distinct organizations and mainatin separate identities.

The Assamese Sikhs speak Assamese, marry local girls from their own communities (generally Punjabi-speaking Sikhs do not give their daughters to them). I asked some of them why the Punjabi Sikhs do not give their daughters to them. They told me that they do not regard them as their equals. There is a sharp break so far as their physical structure is concerned. The Punjabi Sikhs are well-built while the Assamese Sikhs have slighter physiques. The Assamese Sikhs are mainly rice eaters while the Punjabi Sikhs primarily eat wheat. Assamese Sikhs are often closer to local Hindu rituals relative to the Punjabi Sikhs.

Of course, these generalizations do not hold for all the Punjabi-speaking Sikhs. Those who have long been here, say those who settled here during the twentieth century, particularly the ramgharias who have long been associated with the local flourishing technical aspects of tea industry, have become closer to Asaamese culture compared to the jats of the region. The ramgharias maintain separate gurdwaras in Jorhat, a place situated nearly two hundred miles from Guwahati, the capital of Assam.

When I first reached one of these Assamese Sikh villages, I was surprised to discover that these men had maintained their Sikh identity over the centuries despite the tremendous distance from the Punjab and the prevalent non-Sikh culture around them. I found many who are confident of their Sikh identity. It is, therefore, unfortunate that Assamese Sikhs who have maintained their identity should still be referred to as kacha [incomplete] Sikhs by a section of Punjabi Sikhs of the region.

Considering all circumstances, problems, constraints and challenges the Assamese Sikh Community has been facing for ages and in the danger of getting extinct, I have taken this task on myself to bring the facts into the limelight so that Government, people and organizations come forward to help and rescue this microscopic minority Community. I think that the following steps could be taken immediately in favour of the community:

1. Granting of the Status of Minority and Scheduled Caste, which the community deserves badly for upliftment of their status socially and economically.

2. Financial support to educate the new generations of Assamese Sikhs on Sikhism in Assamese language

3. Organization of Excursion tours to Punjab and other parts of the Country for the Assamese Sikhs so that they learn and identify themselves with the history and teachings of Sikhism.

4. To teach Gurmukhi language to Assamese Sikhs so that they are able to read and write the language in which the religious scriptures are written.

5. Maintenance of the historical Gurdwaras of Assam, which could be important tourist destination for the Sikhs Living outside Assam.

May I therefore request your good office to help this microscopic minority and neglected community to come out of imminent danger of getting extinct and so that this historical community can stand on its feet to serve the country like any other citizen of India.

Anticipating an early response.

Yours Sincerely,

Indu Kaur

My Postal address:

C/O S. Shamsher Singh ADC

Bordoloi Nagar,

Near Arunachal Circuit House,

Tinsukia-786125

Assam

Ph: 0374-2303048/2301717/ 9435036905

e-mail: indusing@yahoo.co.in/ si2r@hotmail.com

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