Just as the Sikhs in Bihar, Bengal, Assam, and Guwahati have identities which stand in contrast to the normative Sikh identity in Punjab, there is a substantial part of the community in the central and southern parts of India called the Dakhani (southern) Sikhs, who have evolved into identities peculiar to the region. Like in other areas, here too, Sikhs have evolved into diverse groups. Among these are the Huzoori Sikhs or the descendants of the Sikhs, who came to Nanded with Guru Gobind Singh at the beginning of the 18th century and stayed back to carry forward his religious legacy. Then, there are descendants of the Lahori Fauj, the troops of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who were commissioned by Nizam Nasir-ud-daulah in the 19th century (1829–1857). With the linguistic restructuring of states, the Nizam’s estate was divided among three states.

Nanded, comprising five districts, went to Maharashtra, Bidar with three districts to Karnataka and the remaining substantial area to Andhra Pradesh. With it, the Dakhani Sikhs too were divided into these three states, now subject to sharper local influences. In conjunction with their past histories and present circumstances, they have developed into facets of Sikh identity not always incorporated in the dominant narratives of the community.

Much light is thrown on their identity by the groundbreaking work of Birinder Pal Singh. The history of the Huzoori Sikhs is different and older than that of the other Dakhani Sikhs and is related to Guru Gobind Singh’s Deccan expedition. The tenth guru halted in Nanded on the banks of river Godavari, presently the south-eastern part of Maharashtra bordering Telangana. Birinder Pal’s research tells us that the royal party was accompanied by warriors, maintenance groups like Sikligars and Lambada/Labanas, scribes, musicians, cooks and all else required for a lengthy expedition.

Unfortunately, the guru was stabbed by two Pathan brothers in Nanded and died of his wounds in 1708. Before dying, he invested the Granth Sahib with the status of a permanent guru of the Sikh community and left it to his Sikhs to safeguard the tradition. Among the Sikhs who had accompanied him, some returned to Punjab with Banda Bahadur, the warrior-turned-ascetic whom Guru Gobind Singh inspired to return and work for the good of his people. The rest stayed back to carry forward the legacy left in their care. A small gurdwara was established in the memory of the guru.

Over the generations, these Sikhs have been acutely aware of their peculiar placement at a point in history and their duty towards conserving the new order left in their care. They feel it is their responsibility to sustain Sikhism against all odds. Interestingly, these Sikhs continue to owe their primary allegiance to Guru Gobind Singh rather than to all the ten gurus. Their traditions commemorate the guru’s life in all its diversity, in ways which might seem odd to those raised on other versions of history.

Within the gurdwara, which was raised by Maharaja Ranjit Singh between 1832 and 1837, many of the traditions followed are different from the ones prescribed by the Sikh Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee elsewhere. Guru Granth Sahib and the disputed Dasam Granth are both given a place of honour in the sanctum sanctorum, which is a violation of the Sabha rules.

Dasam Granth has been the centre of controversy in Sikh circles with debates on some of its contents and differences over its authorship. There are other practices and traditions too which are not only different but also in direct contravention of the codes currently espoused as the “correct” Sikh practice.

The head granthi of the gurdwara has to be a bachelor from among the Dakhani Sikhs, which is again a contested tradition, as Guru Nanak had emphasised the importance of grihasta (householder’s life) for all Sikhs. The ardaas is also different from the one performed in the Singh Sabha gurdwara.

On Hola Mohalla and Baisakhi, a bakra (ram) is sacrificed within the precincts of the gurdwara, which many Sikhs find completely opposed to their beliefs. The tradition of hallabol on Hola Mohalla or Holi, with Sikhs running on the roads brandishing naked swords in remembrance of their martial identity, is one of these too. The military disposition of their identity in keeping with the martial identity bestowed by the tenth guru is reflected in their total demeanour. It is also reflected in their aggressive attitude towards other communities in the face of attempts at intimidation.

Most of the skirmishes in the past have resulted from an altercation with local Muslims over the occupation of land and processions passing in front of the gurdwara. Celebrations in public areas or during parades can seem very aggressive to onlookers because of the enactment of gatka (martial drill) and the posturing of their warrior identity.

The Huzoori traditions are not the only ones that survive in Nanded. There are also Sikligars – descendants of those who crafted knives, daggers, swords, and polished and sharpened metal weapons for the guru’s army. They were of Rajput origin and had been converted to the Sikh faith by the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind (1594-1644), who first organised Sikhs into a military force. Nanded has a substantial population of Sikligar Sikhs. They too trace their history to Guru Gobind Singh’s times and take pride in their role of polishing the guru’s weapons on ceremonial occasions to date. Members of the Sikligar community were on the British radar for making and selling weapons, which were being used for anti-government and other illegal activities.

Originally a nomadic people, they were forced to settle down following the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 passed by the British. They could not venture beyond a prescribed area and had to periodically report to the local police. After Independence, The Criminal Tribes Act was repealed in 1952. Through this, the tribes were denotified and henceforth came to be called Denotified Tribes.

Today, they come under the larger group of DNTs. Most of them still make only temporary arrangements to stay in tents or shanties and travel to nearby areas on bicycles to sell their wares. From making and maintaining weapons, they have whittled down to collecting scrap from junkyards and converting it into rough knives and utensils or sharpening kitchen knives and repairing locks and keys.

In Nanded, some of them have also found employment in Huzoor Sahib for cleaning and polishing Guru Gobind Singh’s weapons. These Sikligars have had neither the resources nor the inclination to educate their children or to improve their status in life and can be counted amongst the poorest.

In 2005, a national commission was set up to look into the poor living conditions and dismal levels of education among the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. Several subsequent commissions have worked towards improving their situation. In consideration of the recommendations, in 2014-2015 the central government implemented pre-and post-matric scholarships and arranged for the construction of hostels for DNT students. Since Sikligars fall within this category, some of them are using the facility for educating their children. However, lack of awareness is a drawback which prevents the full utilisation of the meagre facilities available.

Another lot which traces their history to Guru Gobind Singh’s time is the Labana or the Banjara Sikhs, a class of travelling traders and carriers of merchandise, who carried food, ammunition and armaments for the guru’s marching army. Due to the British policy of disallowing floating populations, they eventually had to leave their traditional occupation and instead take up agriculture. Many of them were not Sikhs and have converted to Sikhism only recently.

Traditionally close to music, they are being trained in Sikh seminaries in and around Nanded to do kirtan. Many of the kirtaniyas now come from the Banjara community. They are inspiring others from the community to make the shift too, for the respectability and financial security it begets them. Unlike the descendants of Huzoori Sikhs in Nanded, Hyderabad is home to the descendants of the contingents of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army, which arrived there around 1830–1832 to help with civil unrest in the Nizam’s kingdom.

Chandu Lal, an influential minister in the Nizam’s kingdom, solicited a Sikh contingent from Punjab to consolidate his own power amidst the Arab and Rohilla troops in the Nizam’s army. They were called the Lahori Fauj and numbered around 1,500 men. Since it was a goodwill mission, their salaries were paid by Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself. The Nizam gave them around 200 acres of land to establish a cantonment on the peripheries of Hyderabad. The Jamait-i-Sikhan, as the contingent eventually came to be called, gradually became so powerful that they replaced the elite Arab force in all the ceremonies and even in transporting the royal revenues to the treasuries. They also helped in establishing law and order in the area, thus earning the goodwill of both the local administration and the people.

As stories go, one Sikh soldier in a village was enough to deter miscreants and criminals. These soldiers were also not afraid of the Nizam, or his other troops, as they owed allegiance to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is said that they once inserted a farman (royal edict) by the Nizam granting a jagir (fiefdom) to them, and pressed the trigger because they would not accept any favours from anybody other than their king. Birinder Pal Singh provides insights into the lives of these Sikhs, who have remained outside the purview of the community for long.

It appears that many of these Lahori Fauj Sikhs settled around the gurdwara they built in Barambala in Hyderabad. Their descendants continue to stay here and a recent survey shows that there are nearly 550 households of these Dakhani Sikhs here. The Dakhani Sikhs have also settled in areas like Gowliguda, Ameerpet and Rahmat Nagar (Guru Ramdas Nagar). Among these, Gowliguda in the centre of the city has the biggest Dakhani Sikh settlement.

A majority of these Sikhs are from low-income strata living in clusters. Only a few have the preferred government jobs, while most of them are self-employed. Many of them work as drivers, either on self-owned three-wheelers or cabs or in government or private-sector offices. Some hold lower-level positions in the police, work in offices or own petty businesses too. A secondary occupation for some is moneylending. Considering their low financial status, their clients are either people who take small loans for short periods or they act as moneylenders for other people. Some of them also mediate in property disputes, particularly in Hyderabad.

Their old reputation of people who “traditionally tamed marauders and miscreants comes in useful here”. Although many of the Sikhs from the Lahori Fauj married local women, the women were first baptised into Sikhism as a pre-condition for the Sikh marriage. Hence, a big majority of women in the community across generations are Sikhs by religion. This, however, does not reduce the local cultural influence on the community.

Birinder Pal Singh’s data reveals that most of the women do not know Punjabi and if they do try to speak, it is in combination with other languages like Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and Telugu depending on their place of residence. Most of the women wear sarees except while going to the gurdwara. Most families eat local cuisine. Despite these cultural dilutions, the men in the community keep hair and all the kakars (the five K’s) even though all of them have not taken amrit. They are very proud of the fact that they are conserving the spirit of Sikhism which even people in Punjab do not do.

Excerpted with permission from The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition, Manpreet J Singh, Bloomsbury India.