This story is about the plight of those people from the Khalsa Panth who according to some accounts, took to weapons manufacturing on the order of the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in order to defend the country. Even three centuries later, they are longing to return to the mainstream. Far away from education and development, this Sikligar Sikh community is forced to lead a life hidden along the far flung villages of the hilly jungle terrain of the Satpura.
Khaknar tehsil, Madhya Pradesh—Khaknar tehsil, situated in the tribal belt of Burhanpur district in south western Madhya Pradesh, serves as home to the Sikligar Sikhs. Behind the lone petrol pump located along the main road of the tehsil is a half beaten track leading towards the hills of Satpura. Twenty six kilometers further down this path, after crossing thick jungles and valleys, Pachauri village becomes visible sitting atop Satpura’s hills. Amid 100 families residing in the village only 500 people belong to the Sikligar Sikh community. Staying here for the last 46 years, all these Sikhs are masters in the craft of making country guns, revolvers, self loading rifles (SLR) and other deadly weapons.
This community, crafting guns from iron for generations for their livelihood has not only had to endure social neglect but has now come under the scanner of security agencies. If the intelligence wing of Madhya Pradesh police is to be believed then the Sikligars are the primary suspects in the manufacturing of illegal country made weapons, huge caches of which have been confiscated in the tribal belt of the state recently. It is noteworthy that during the arrest of Sikligars in the past 2 years, Madhya Pradesh police have claimed for the first time that these people illegally manufacture and supply weapons to arms smugglers and militant groups. Madhya Pradesh ATS (anti-terror squad) believes that country made pistols and revolvers retrieved from 18 SIMI (Student’s Islamic Movement of India) activists, arrested in the state in June 2011, had been manufactured by the Sikligars.
In June 2011 police raided Sikligar Deras in Burhanpur after 10 SIMI activists were arrested in neighbouring Khandwa district. In the meantime, Jaspal Singh, son of the state president of all the deras in Sikligar, Sardar Prem Singh Patwa, was arrested on murder and terrorism charges. In a talk with Tehelka, Prem Singh says, “Our main protest is against the branding of our children as collaborators of terrorists. We are Khalsa Sikhs, willing to lay down our lives for our country, how can we help terrorists? They can slap arms act on us because we manufacture arms, but we started doing so for defending this country.”
The arrest of Sikligars from Pachauri village is not new. In a raid conducted in 2002 the local police had arrested five Sikligars. These also include the priests of the village Gurdwara. Atiq Singh, one of those arrested during the raid, alleges that on many occasions the police arrested people from his community on fabricated charges just to win accolades. He says, “In 2002, the police who came to raid came disguised as buyers. Our community is so illiterate and backward that we couldn’t recognise the police. We are poor people who just wanted to sell our goods and get paid. Then the police started beating us up, and arrested the priest of our Gurdwara, Gyani Takdir Singh and Gyani Deewan Singh, who were walking by at that time.”
The Sikligar community outraged at the arrest of its religious heads protested against this police operation but all the five arrested Sikligars, along with the priests, are still being tried under the Arms Act. In May 2003, a few months after this incident, the entire Sikligar community of Pachauri upset at the continuing arrests of its members surrendered before the Madhya Pradesh government.
After talking to the Sikligars, it is apparent they need to be provided with some alternate means of employment. Prem Singh says, “Our people have no other skills to earn a livelihood. We have made thousands of requests to the government but they have made no effort to align us to the mainstream. We are forced to make weapons to feed our children.” Following a Madhya Pradesh High Court’s order all charges against Jaspal Singh, of being associated with terrorist groups, have been dropped. But for Prem Singh it is just a new beginning of an old fight.
During the course of this conversation all the families of Pachauri village have gathered around the main chaupal. Pointing towards the village children, Prem Singh says “We don’t want our next generation to make weapons. You see for yourself, even after this legal battle my son has been restrained by the authorities from entering the village and is still being charged under Section 302. Sikligars have never been involved in any violent crime. We only made weapons, and sold it to whoever wanted to buy. Because all we know is to make weapons.”
For the last decade the Sikligar Sikhs of Burhanpur have been pleading with the authorities to be connected to the mainstream society. But Indian politicians and administrative staff who heap praises on the ‘hardworking Punjabi Sikhs’ in international seminars of Indian expatriates are indifferent to these neglected Sikhs, forced to live in the darkness of their villages amid wild forests.
The Sikligars came to Burhanpur in 1966 after being displaced from Maharashtra. In 1968 the Madhya Pradesh government issued an order allowing them to legally stay at Pachauri hill with immediate effect. For the last 26 years these Sikligars staying in Satpura’s jungles, only 26 kilometres away from the main city road, are still waiting to get electricity and clean water. Jatan Singh who has been the president of the Forest Protection Committee of Burhanpur forests for the past two decades says even after the mass surrender of the whole village to the authorities, there has been no change in their condition. Terming administrative apathy as the primary cause for the Sikligars to carry on the weapons trade Jatan Singh says, “Our village has been declared a sensitive area and our people are detained repeatedly. We have laid down our arms and surrendered. We have been asking for some rehabilitation policy for a long time but the government paid no heed. If the government had rehabilitated us with an alternate source of livelihood and assured our children’s education we would have escaped this vicious cycle, since we have no alternative we have to make and sell weapons to feed ourselves”.
This plight of Sikligar Sikhs is not only restricted to Pachauri village of Burhanpur. The total population of this Khalsa Panth, falling under other backward tribes, is around 50 lakh in India. A large section of this population is engaged in making iron goods for household use. Only a small section of this community engages in making weapons. Around 5000 Sikligars, manufacturing weapons ranging from country made pistols to double barrel rifles, reside in four districts of Madhya Pradesh. The people of this weapon manufacturing Sikh community, residing in the tribal districts of Khargone, Burhanpur, Badwani and Dhar, have been illiterate for decades.
One of the oldest residents of Pachauri Reval Singh Juneta informs that besides lacking education and employment, their village has now become a social outcast. He says, “Our children want to study in the city, but nobody is willing to accept them outside the village. Initially it was the stigma of being weapons manufacturers, and now we are being associated with terrorists. Even if we want to enter the mainstream, how do we accomplish that? Gradually people have started thinking of us as criminals and now there is no place for us in the mainstream.”
However, according to Madhya Pradesh police the Sikligar Sikhs are the prime suspects in the fast expanding illegal arms trade in the state. The arrest in February 2012 of Sikligar Bahadur Singh in Indore serves as the latest example. Bahadur Singh, native of Palsud village of Barwani district, was arrested by Indore police on 28 February 2012 for trafficking country made pistols. Sources say that during interrogation, Bahadur told the authorities he did not remember the exact figure but he had been manufacturing and selling thousands of weapons in the districts of neighbouring Rajasthan. In August 2011, two Sikligar Sikhs Gurudev Singh and Gurbaksh Singh were arrested from Khargone district for illegal trade of 11 country made pistols.
Superintendent of police Avinash Sharma, who besides cracking down on Sikligars has also been working towards their rehabilitation, says the Sikligars are unaware about the end user of their weapons. “Although these people say they want to be rehabilitated, whenever we try to provide them with an alternate source of employment they go back to weapons manufacturing. Actually this business is a source of easy money for them and they are reluctant to leave it. A country made pistol manufactured at the cost of Rs 250 is sold between 5000 to 10000 rupees. After that they are not concerned whether it is used by a terrorist or a thief. And their weapons go through so many middlemen before reaching the end user it is impossible to trace it back to the manufacturer,” says Sharma. Regarding the rehabilitation schemes for the community, he says a survey is being carried out in the affected districts to ascertain the current situation of the Sikligars. About initial results Sharma says, “In some cases we have also seen young children learning the trade of weapons manufacturing.”
Sikligars say the government never took their problems seriously. Under a dim Pachauri sky and far away from administrative discussions, Gyani Takdeer Singh, a Gurdwara priest, shows an old letter written to the chief minister. He says having written numerous letters to the administration he is yet to receive even a single response from them. He hands over a copy of an old application written in broken sentences to Tehelka and says, “We are so illiterate we can’t even convey our thoughts. For what crime of ours is this country punishing us? We started manufacturing weapons to save this country from foreign invaders on the command of Guru Gobind Singh. Besides this Sikligars have never been involved in any criminal activity. The same society for which we have changed the ways of our generations now associates us with smugglers and weapon traffickers.”
While leaving Pachauri the children of this forgotten Khalsa Panth accompany us to the outskirts of their village. They want to study. While the children of these forgotten people wait for their education, the community awaits a better future.