It’s unfortunate that we call it the Sikh Empire; I prefer to call it the Punjabi Empire

Editor’s Pick | Pakistan | 15 May 2017 | Asia Samachar |
CUCUMBER IN A SANDWICH: At the Indo-Pak border, standing at Ganda Singh Wala (Pakistan), a village named after a Sikh; I looked towards Hussain Wala (India), a village named after a Muslim. Twenty kilometers behind me was Kasur in Pakistan, the town of Baba Bullhe Shah and ahead of me was Faridkot in India, the town of Baba Farid. Even the great Punjabi Sufi Saints stand divided by the line. Between the power-play of Indian National Congress and Muslim League, the Punjabis in the partition of 1947 were reduced to a mere cucumber in a sandwich.
“LOST HERITAGE The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan” by Amardeep Singh

An alternative voice, firmly seated in Singapore, Amardeep Singh, 51, has been taking photographs that explore sociology, anthropology, ethnology and cultures for over 10 years. His images are an attempt to make sense of the dynamic chaos of our time, and his mandate, as he sees it, is to chronicle and document history on the brink of oblivion.

Throughout his career, he has been especially interested in the ways in which power is exercised and the resulting — often perverse and unforeseen — consequences that follow.
The author of Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan talks to The News on Sunday on the occasion of Islamabad Literature Festival in Pakistan (ILF) 2017 about the ‘accidental treasure trove’ that culminated into this magnum opus.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Sikhs had a visible presence in pre-Partition days in northern Punjab. What are your findings?

Amardeep Singh: While Sikhs had a substantial presence in Rawalpindi and Hazara, they could be found all around (what has now become) Pakistan, before Partition. Could you imagine Sikhs living in an area as far-flung as Quetta? When I went there researching towards my book, I found streets that bore their names and shops with inscriptions in Gurumukhi. In other words, Sikhs spread far and wide in those times. Their remnants are not just the mohallas and neighbourhoods in Rawalpindi city alone, but can be found in villages with Sikh appellations all across Punjab. If you go deep into Rawalpindi district, for example, you come across villages like Dera Khalsa and Toa Khalsa. Likewise, you come across Toba Tek Singh and Jhanda Singh near Jhang.

If you acquire a map of India, you’ll discover the overlay of the Sikh Empire that was formed in 1799 and lasted till 1849. (It’s unfortunate that we call it the Sikh Empire; I prefer to call it the Punjabi Empire!) It was for the first time that in 2000 years of successive invasions, the people of Punjab had risen to create an Empire. The Empire had more than 50 per cent Muslims in the army. How could an empire function as a Sikh Empire when it had a predominant Muslim population? It was a secular Empire, so to speak.

The British named it the Sikh Empire because of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. To call it Sikh is akin to calling Akbar’s empire Islamic. Akbar was a Mughal emperor; to equate Mughal with Islam would be a fallacy.

TNS: Tell us about the Sikhs who stayed behind, in Pakistan.

AS: Having travelled extensively through Pakistan and having known my history backwards, I’ve found the answer to the question: “Who do you define as a Sikh?” Interestingly enough in Pakistan, a Sikh is not necessarily somebody who wears a turban. He is a believer of monotheism, and of Guru Nanak’s philosophy. The very word ‘Sikh’ means ‘learner’ or shishaya. He’s someone with the mindset of a learner. When Pakistan was carved, the entire Sikh community moved away. But there still are 13-14,000 Sikhs living in Pakistan even today who wear turbans and beards. They are not Punjabi. Punjab was soaked in a bloodbath on both sides — Muslims were massacred in East Punjab while Hindus and Sikhs were slaughtered in West Punjab. The Sikhs survived in the Federally Administrered Tribal Areas (Fata). If you come across a Sikh in Punjab, Pakistan, today practicing hikmat or selling cloth, rest assured he’s not Punjabi. He speaks Pushto at home because sanguinely, he’s not Punjabi. He’s come to Punjab for economic reasons. As a rationale, Sikhism originated to cleanse the society, and began to spread once it gained momentum like any other religion. It went down south to Multan from where it entered Sindh via Shikarpur.

Sikhs also left Sindh and Balochistan around Partition but those who stayed behind are thriving today. They are practicing their faith freely. It would be wrong to say that you can’t practice your faith in Pakistan. They don’t call their darbars gurdwaras anymore, and inside their temples you’ll find multiplicity. On the one hand you’ll find Ubero Lal from the local folklore while on the other, you’ll come across Nanak who is idolised, and a couple of Hindu gods of the Gangetic Belt. It’s a porous belt where the fulcrum of faith remains Guru Granth Sahib. The turbanless Sindhi Sikhs have adapted to the local customs. Because of the umbilical cord being severed, they are compartmentalised. They greet you with Waheguru instead of Namaste. When they wake up in the morning, they recite Sikh prayers, and in the evening, they ardas with Sikh prayers again.

Sikhism was in reality, an all-embracing thought that a lot of people, irrespective of the turban, adhered to — what you find living and breathing in Pakistan today.

Those who left for India from Sindh assimilated into the popular Hindu mainstream. Those who we call Khalsas because of their beards and turbans had to go to different regions where they dispersed, and were forced to maintain their identity through their language and culture. When Punjab was divided the Sikhs had at least the Golden Temple as an anchor to hold on to. They made the temple the apex of their faith. The Sindhi Sikhs also known as Nanak panthis had nothing to cling to. When they crossed over they started to forget the Sikh values.


Excerpt from “The Sikh identity is in a state of transition” by Aasim Akhtar in Pakistan newspaper The News On Sunday on 14 May 2017. For the full story/interview, go here.

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