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 response from nearly 150 residents of a slum settlement in the Tamapur neighbourhood. The cry and the shots, fired from a licensed, double-barrel, 12-bore rifle are repeated thrice.
The Sikhs are in the midst of the traditional jayakara ceremony with which one Sardar welcomes another. But 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.
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). In the 17th century, when the Sikh guru Hargobind Saheb needed weapons for his army, fighting the Mughals, he sent his men to seek out this tribe and bring them to Punjab.
The community became disciples of the guru, who bestowed on them the title of ‘Sikligar’, from the Persian ‘sakalgar’ or ‘polisher of metal’.
For nearly 300 years after the guru’s death, the Sikligars led secluded lives, earning a living making weapons. But after the 1857 uprising and the British government ban on the manufacture of arms, the Sikligars’ lost their livelihood.
“Most families moved into the jungles to sell arms secretly,” says Harjeet Singh Bavri, 37, a Sikligar metal-welder from Jalgaon. Those who quit the arms business were left making a living as blacksmiths. Over the past decade, this isolation has begun to lessen and mainstream Sikhs have begun reaching out to them.
The biggest 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 build. Education, is another big change wrought by the NGOs.
In the Sangat Sahib dera in Bhusawal, 20 km east of Jalgaon, 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. There is much more that needs to be done still, say activists.
In more distant villages such as Chalisgaon, for instance, Sikligars are struggling with abject poverty. Akhar has now begun building concrete homes for them.