Bangalore: South Indian Sikhs? The description may seem unfamiliar. While Sikhs are overwhelmingly associated with Punjab, much less known are those from the community who made their home in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra centuries ago.
For instance, there are around 25 Sikligar families tucked away at the rear of a redeveloped slum in the peripheries of this city. Their present state, as that of other Sikh groups like Banjara, Lubana and Satnami, leading socio-economically marginalised lives and mostly outside Punjab, has prompted initiatives for the uplift of these "forgotten Sikhs".
The process of blending into southern India for the Sikligars began at the time of 10th Sikh Guru Gobind Singh, who came to the Deccan and passed away in 1708 at Nanded (Maharashtra).
"The resilience of these people in the face of centuries of vicissitudes and hardship is remarkable," Harminder Singh, secretary of the Karnataka Sikh Welfare Society (KSWS), said.
Sikligars came to southern India as expert arms-making camp followers of the tenth Guru. Sikligar is a compound of the Persian words `saiqal` and `gar` meaning a polisher of metal.
Famed for their weapon-making skills, the Sikligar continue with their traditional occupation to eke out a precarious living, crafting kitchen implements. To compound their current distress, they are mostly illiterate.
They are categorized as Scheduled Castes in the census of India.
The Bangalore-based KSWS provides scholarships to Sikligar children to acquire formal education. Older Sikligars are encouraged to join Punjabi learning classes to wean them away from illiteracy.
Amardas Singh, 23, is a Sikligar beneficiary of the KSWS scholarship programme with a job in the financial sector.
"Education will definitely help improve our condition," he says, "but with youngsters less inclined to the life of an iron smith, the craftsmanship coming down from our forefathers may be lost."
Amardas also points to the need to upgrade Sikligar skills, citing the case of the kirpan, the small sheathed dagger carried by observant Sikhs.
"The kirpan industry in India is quite hard hit by competition from cheaper kirpans made in China. If our artisans had the finance to upgrade their skills and equipment, we could compete better," Amardas says.
Another group of Sikhs came to the south early in the 19th century when the Nizam of Hyderabad raised a Sikh contingent in his army. The Sikhs stayed back and their descendants are known as the Dakhini or southern Sikhs.
There is a community of Ahom converts to Sikhism from the time of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur`s travel to Assam. Agrahari Sikhs, also known as Bihari Sikhs, have lived for centuries in Bihar and Jharkhand.
Banjaras are a nomadic tribe who traditionally travelled with merchandise and are found across a large swathe of northern India, as well as in the south. Sikh Banjaras too travelled with armies of the past supplying them with provisions.
Sikhs comprise more than 60 percent of the population of Punjab.
But Sikh scholar Chiranjiv Singh speaks on the question of Sikhs born and bred among a culture distant from the Punjab region, the home of Sikhism. From a Punjabi Sikh family, Chiranjiv served as a senior Indian Administrative Service officer of the Karnataka cadre. Steeped in Kannada culture, he has made Bangalore his home.
Chiranjiv is of the view that non-Punjabi Sikhs and Sikh tribes, whose numbers together are said to be larger than Sikhs in the Punjab, "should be left free to chart their own future, independent of the lead of Punjabi Sikhs."
India`s awesome diversity of people coupled with its unique history of coexisting identities have helped evolve a dynamic process of interchange between different cultures and ethnicities.
The relations of Sikhs of Punjab vis-a-vis other Sikhs is one complex part of this process, especially in the context of the depressed social and economic situation of the latter.
"They should be liberated, so to speak, from the hold of the Punjabi Sikhs," says Chiranjiv adding, "Sikhism, which was a movement of subalterns for freedom from the inequities imposed by the social system, would thus be returning to its origins."