Sandeep Singh: The Forgotten Banjara Sikhs of Bhagindi

“No one is here to motivate our youngsters. If there is someone who can guide our children, we will make it big.”  

Sandeep Singh
August 12, 2021 | 3.5 min. read | Original Reporting

On August 15, India will celebrate its 75th year of independence. The constitution called for justice and equality for everyone. However, one only has to look to Bhagindi village of Punjab’s Mohali district to see how India has failed to fulfill the promise of equality for marginalized communities in the country.

Bhagindi is just 12 km away from Punjab and Haryana’s joint capital, Chandigarh. While Chandigarh is highly developed, growth has not reached the village and its Banjara Sikh community.  

This village of nearly 400 people just has a primary school, but no hospital. Residents cross the monsoon river to reach other villages, attend school, buy groceries, get medical treatment, work, and enter the city. All the villagers are labourers and only two of them have Group D government jobs. There is no public transportation available to and from the village.

Bhagindi’s entire population had originally moved from Rajasthan to Punjab roughly 150 years ago escaping persecution. A nomadic community, Banjaras were listed as a criminal tribe by the British in the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The act would not be repealed until August 31, 1952, which is marked as Liberation Day by impacted tribes. 

Sardara Singh, 77, is a long-time resident of the village. He was the first villager who went to study beyond primary school. He shares that he studied up to class 10th and used to walk 12 km every day to attend school. 

The majority of villagers work as labourers in nearby farmhouses which have been built by the elites of Punjab. Those farmhouses are used as retreats and for entertainment by the rich, but these villagers see them as employment providers.  

“A lot has changed within the last 70 years,” Sardara says, “when I was just seven there were only 11 homes. We used to live in huts. Our profession was to ferry things on camels. Now rich people from outside have built farmhouses here and our people benefited as they got employment out of it. Due to the recent farmhouses, the government has also started caring about roads.”

Hazara Singh, 55, explains the limited job opportunities for the residents here. 

“Most of us work as labourers. Some go to work in the jungle and others go to the city. Forget about travelling abroad for work like many other Punjabis, our people have not even crossed Chandigarh, Ludhiana, and Ambala for work,” he goes on to add, “we are teaching our kids to train as welders and other skilled labour.”

A few villagers do own agricultural land. However, it is not easy to protect crops from wild animals with limited resources, Sardara says. 

“People go crazy watching peacocks and swamp deers here but we get sad seeing them as they destroy our crops. We can’t even harm them as it’s illegal to kill them.” 

Villagers have seen some improvements over the year, alongside the roads to service rich farmhouses. 

“The entire village was dependent on one well to drink water. Then the government dug up a borewell which provides us fresh water to drink,” Sardara explains. 

However, critical infrastructure is still missing which becomes even more noticeable during the rainy season.

“Whenever the monsoon rains come we can’t go to the city for work as the monsoon river swells. We have to wait for two hours for the water to recede. Even if someone falls ill during the rain, we can’t take them to hospital due to the overflowing river. The biggest problem is that there is no doctor in our village” 

Poverty and limited means have not stopped the Banjaras from practicing Sikhi. They are building a Gurdwara whose construction work has stopped due to a shortage of money. In the entire village, the majority of people are Keshdari Sikhs who tie turbans, with the kids wearing patkas.

Rajinder Singh, 23, is the president of the village’s Gurdwara. He works as an attendant in the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER). He is the first graduate from the village and studied at Panjab University’s evening department.

“We started building a Gurdwara by raising money from within the village and outside of it. To save money, we had started working on it during the lockdown so we did not have to spend on labour. But we need money to complete this. In our village, 80 percent of Sikhs keep their hair.”

He has seen firsthand the plight of his fellow villagers. According to Rajinder, if SGPC or any trust starts supporting them, perhaps it may change the future of residents.

“No one is here to motivate our youngsters. If there is someone who can guide our children, we will make it big.”  

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Sandeep Singh hails from Machhiwara, Punjab. As an independent journalist, he has worked with many prominent Indian news organizations. Sandeep has been following the farmer’s protest in Punjab since its onset and traveled with them to Delhi. He spends most of his time at the Singhu border protest site. You can follow Sandeep on Twitter @Punyaab


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