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The Sikhs of North-East

A new project in Amritsar and the North-East traces the migration trajectory of Sikhs from Punjab to Assam

Axomiya Sikh women wear ‘salwar-kameez’ to the ‘gurdwara’, but dress up in the Assamese ‘mekhela sador’ regularly. Photo  courtesy Pranjal Kumar Rabha and Minakshi Bujarbaruah
Axomiya Sikh women wear ‘salwar-kameez’ to the ‘gurdwara’, but dress up in the Assamese ‘mekhela sador’ regularly. Photo courtesy Pranjal Kumar Rabha and Minakshi Bujarbaruah

Often, signage act as more than mere markers. Sometimes they hold clues to histories embedded within the location that they contain directions to. A stark example of this is one particular signage in Chaparmukh, a village in upper Assam’s Nagaon district. It states: “Gurudwara Mata Ji. Established 1820"—with details in both Assamese and Gurmukhi. A closer look reveals a rich history of the 10,000-plus strong community of Axomiya Sikhs, that first made the state its home in the 1800s. According to Prof. Birinder Pal Singh of Punjabi University (Patiala) and author of several books on the community, Axomiya Sikhs are believed to be the progeny of soldiers sent by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to support the Ahom king, Chandrakanta Singha in 1820.

While it was men who formed a chunk of this migration, references are made about Mata Ji, the only woman to have come with this group. She was wife of the army commander, Chaitanya Singh, who died in the war at Hadira Chauki. “Mata Ji’s gurdwara was constructed in 1820, and it contains a chakki (flour-mill) and two of her guns," he says.

It is such significant images, besides recorded oral testimonies, and a detailed report, which are being showcased as part of the winter festival at Majha House, a new cultural space which opened in Amritsar in March. This presentation will also be made at the Assam State Museum, Guwahati, on 27 November.

The project, titled The Assamese Sikhs: Negotiating Transitions, was initiated this year by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) in collaboration with Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Germany, and Majha House. It all started when C-NES’ managing trustee, Sanjoy Hazarika, decided to explore the theme, “north-east-meets-north-west". A similar idea had been on the mind of Preeti Gill, founder, Majha House, as well. Her background in publishing, with both Zubaan and Kali for Women, had taken her extensively across the North-East, where she worked on projects related to women and conflict. “That’s when I realized that linkages could be made between the North-East and north-west of Punjab, both being vulnerable borders, and home to people living on the margins," she says.

The research for the project has been spearheaded by three young women, based in Delhi, Assam and Punjab respectively. For Niyati Singh, a development consultant based in the national capital, The Assamese Sikhs marks a milestone. “Sporadic efforts have been made in this field, but not one which links the shared histories and experiences of Punjab and Assam, particularly related to the Partition, post-Partition violence and the insurgency," she says. The findings are a result of focus groups interviews and created in and around Amritsar, Chandigarh, Patiala, Guwahati and villages of Borkola, Hathipara and Chaparmukh. “The first strand of migration to the northeast, of course, happened with Guru Tegh Bahadur, and subsequently followed by that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. Another strand was that of the Dalit Sikhs, or Mazhabi Sikhs, who were brought in by the British, and settled in Guwahati and Shillong. They worked as safai karamcharis," says Niyati Singh.

For Minakshi Bujarbaruah, a freelance researcher based in Assam, who works extensively on issues of marginalized identities and alternate sexualities, this project is revelatory about the syncretic nature of the community’s culture. “They don’t know how to speak Punjabi or write Gurmukhi, but speak Assamese fluently; and also celebrate Bihu with great enthusiasm," she says. According to Prof. Pal Singh, this stems from the Axomiya Sikhs’ commitment to the local culture and language. It is also due to the fact they are primarily agriculturalists, and the rural structures inhibit exposure.

A visual documentation also reveals interesting facets of this cultural amalgamation. One telling image is from the home of Amar Singh, a gaon-burha, or village headman of Borkola, where a living room features a framed photo of the Golden Temple alongside the Axomiya jaapi, or hat. While he speaks fluent Assamese, his wife can be seen clad in a cotton mekhela sador. Then, there is a mention of Nand Singh, a police officer, who has authored 15 books, and has a Sahitya Akademi Award for contribution to Assamese literature to his credit.

Having said that, the community has managed to diligently hold on to the tenets of Sikhism related to rites of passage, birth, marriage and death, which the researchers deem significant. For instance, every household still has the nishaan sahib, or the yellow cloth as a marker of Sikh identity, outside homes. “In fact, we found out that the Assamese Sikh community follows some of these tenets more rigorously. There, you have to be an Amritdhari (someone who has been initiated into the Khalsa) to get married—something which is not practised so strictly in Punjab," says Simran Kaur, a young student and founder of Soch to Sach initiative, who has led the qualitative research across Punjab.

The research also unveils distinctions within the Sikh community in Assam itself, which is divided into two veins—the Axomiya Sikhs and the Punjabi Sikhs. “The latter came to the region in 1947 as traders and businessmen and are well versed in Gurmukhi. They consider Axomiya Sikhs inferior to them, often calling them ‘Duplicate Sikhs’ due to their ignorance of the language," says Pal Singh. “But this sort of mindset is tragic. It is not religion, but politics, that emphasizes on language, and such views should be reformed."

The project will enter its second phase, post-November, and will take on a more visual nature, with a documentary being planned in the future. “The idea is also to encourage interaction among youth of both communities," says Niyati.

The Assamese Sikhs: Negotiating Transitions is on till 30 November at Majha House, Amritsar, and will be shown at the Assam State Museum, Guwahati, on 27 November.

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