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The Sikhs of Assam

Himadri Banerjee is holds the Guru Nanak Chair in Indian History at Jadavpur University's Department of History. His primary area of interest is Sikhs and Sikhism in eastern India. He is on the advisory board of The Sikh Review.

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 traditon 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 whom 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 generalisations 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.