A gunshot pierces the air on a dark night in Jalgaon City in northern Maharashtra.
A young man shouts: “Jo bole so nihaal…”
“Sat Sri Akaal!” comes the thundering response from nearly 150 residents of a small slum settlement in the city’s Tamapur neighbourhood. The cry is repeated thrice; so are the shots, fired from a licensed, double-barrel, 12-bore rifle.
This traditional Sikh greeting means “Blessed is the person who says ‘God is the ultimate truth’.”
The Sikhs in this settlement are in the midst of the traditional jayakara ceremony with which one Sardar welcomes another. But, as the gunshots indicate, this is not a typical ceremony, and these are not ordinary Sardars.
These are Sikligar Sikhs, a community of Sardars that believes in the teachings of Guru Nanak, keeps their hair uncut and wears their turbans high, but has almost nothing else in common with the mainstream Sikhs from Punjab.
They don’t even speak Punjabi. Their language is Sikligari, a blend of Punjabi, Marwari and the local languages and dialects of the regions in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana where they are settled.
The Sikligars were originally a tribe of ironsmiths from the Marwar region (now in Rajasthan) known for their mastery in polishing weapons. In the 17th century, when the Sikh guru Hargobind Saheb needed weapons for his army, which was fighting the Mughals, he sent his men to seek out this tribe and bring them to Punjab.
There, the community mastered the art of making weapons, adopted Sikhism and became disciples of the guru, who is said to have bestowed on them the title of ‘Sikligar’, from the Persian ‘sakalgar’ or ‘polisher of metal’.
In the early 1700s, the Sikligars followed Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, to Nanded in Marathwada, from where they gradually dispersed into deras or settlements across the neighbouring states.
For nearly 300 years after the guru’s death, the Sikligars led secluded, nomadic lives, earning a living doing what they knew best — making weapons.
Then came the 1857 uprising and the British government ban on the manufacture of arms. Overnight, the Sikligars lost their livelihood.
“Deprived of our ancestral profession, most Sikligar families moved deep into the jungles to make and sell arms secretly,” says Harjeet Singh Bavri, 37, a Sikligar metal welder from Jalgaon who now also works as an activist within his community.
Those who quit the arms business were left impoverished, eking a living as blacksmiths on the outskirts of towns and cities. They had little access to schools or gurudwaras and, according to many Sikligars, were marginalised as lower-caste.
Over the past decade, this isolation has begun to lessen as urbanisation expanded the towns and small cities outside which they had settled, and mainstream Sikhs from Punjab, Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi have begun reaching out to integrate this forgotten arm of their community and pull them out of poverty, illiteracy, neglect and crime. The impact of these initiatives is now starting to bear fruit.
The biggest visible change in the Tamapur dera over the past five years is the cluster of 30 brick-and-cement houses that Bangalore- and Mumbai-based non-profit organisation Akhar Seva of Humanity has helped its residents build.
“Six years ago, we lived in crude tin huts and did not even have a gurudwara,” says Barkat Singh Bavri, 58, the Tamapur priest who now presides over a small, one-room gurudwara built in the centre of the dera, the residents of which are all members of his extended family.
In the early 1970s, the Bavris of Tamapur quit illegal weapon-making and turned to the welding business. Their success is stamped on the intricate iron grilles across Jalgaon’s doors and windows, but the community still remained largely unlettered.
“Now we really want to change this. A few years ago, we wouldn’t bother to attend school regularly, but now we want to study so that we don’t remain backward,” says Jagat Kaur, 17, a Class 12 student who, with the help of Akhar volunteers, completed a needlework course last year and plans to enroll in a teacher-training course next.
Education, in fact, is the biggest change wrought by the NGOs working with the Sikligars.
In the Sangat Sahib dera in Bhusawal, a town 20 km east of Jalgaon, all 25 brick homes are clustered around a single-storey institute where Akhar offers children free after-school tuition.
Here, as in Tamapur, all children below the age of 15 are enrolled in Marathi or Hindi municipal schools, with younger ones now being enrolled in English-medium schools. “Two years ago, we began sending preachers to Jalgaon to teach youngsters how to read the Guru Granth Sahib,” says Kulwant Singh, president of the Mumbai chapter of Akhar. “Today, these children are taking over the duties of priests in their gurudwaras.”
“We want to ensure that the next generation marries later, has fewer children and has more working and earning women,” says Rai Kaur Andhrele, 23, a first-year BA student who was married at 15, is a mother of two and is now being trained by Akhar to teach in the Bhusawal dera school.
Though the change is beginning to take effect, there is much more that needs to be done, say activists.
In more distant villages such as Chalisgaon, for instance, Sikligars are struggling with abject poverty. Here, families make kitchen knives, sickles and metal trays for a living, earning just enough for the day’s food, wearing donated clothes and living in crumbling plastic-and-bamboo shanties. Akhar has now begun building concrete homes for them.