HOJAI: Emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Sikh kingdom might have never imagined that descendants of 500 Sikh soldiers whom he had sent to Assam to fight Burmese invaders in 1822 would mitigate recurring annual floods 195 years later with Sikhism’s essential free kitchen or ‘langar’ at Barkola village in central Assam’s Nagaon district.
“Barkola village is situated a bit upland because of which it becomes an island every year during floods. When neighbouring villages get inundated, residents come in boats to seek shelter in the four gurdwaras and schools of Barkola. We provide free food to the victims in the langars of the four gurdwaras of the village. As government relief comes late and in scant amount, we villagers ourselves share whatever food we have. We survive because of this cooperation,” said Kartara Singh, president of Nanak Sahi gurdwara in the village.
Located some 15 km south of Nagaon town, Barkola boats 10,000 residents out of which 2,000 are Sikhs, mostly Dalit Mazhabis. Tiwa and Koch tribals, Assamese Dalit communities such as Hiras and Kaibartyas and OBC Nath Jugis make up rest of the population.
Prolonged isolation from Punjab has made the Sikhs closer to Assamese communities that with other Sikhs.
“We speak Assamese, call ourselves Assamese Sikhs and intermarry with Assamese Hindus. The then Punjab chief minister Giani Jail Singh along with Surjit Singh Barnala had visited Assam in 1975 to meet us. Learning that we can’t speak Punjabi, he had requisitioned Siromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) of Amritsar and sent one Giani Bhajan Singh of Anandpur Sahib to teach us Gurumukhi script in 1979. He married a local Assamese Sikh woman, lived with us for 30 years and died recently after retirement,” Kartara Singh added. However, since then the SGPC has not assisted the Assamese Sikhs in the maintenance of gurdwaras or development of the community kitchens.
Narrating the history of the Assamese Sikhs, Assamese Sikh Association general secretary and principal of the lone higher secondary school in Barkola, Pratap Singh said: “Ahom king Swargadeo Chandrakanta Singha requested help from Maharaja Ranjit Singh to fight Burmese invaders in Assam. Some 500 Sikh soldiers fought the Burmese in Hadirasokhi in Goalpara out of which only a dozen survived. They sailed across Brahmaputra in a boat through its tributary Kopili to Chaparmukh in Nagaon district. Of the survivors, one Subedar Ram Singh left Chaparmukh for Barkola, married a local Assamese woman and established our roots. From Barkola, few families established communities in Helem in Sonitpur district, Hathipara in Nagaon district and Lanka in Hojai district.”
Over the years, the Assamese Sikhs have assimilated into the Assamese identity so much so that till 1980s, they used to call the gurdwaras as ‘naamghar’ or traditional Assamese temple. The village also has its share into Assamese nationalism.
“Three sons of Barkola, Chandan Singh, Karam Singh and Banindra Mazumdar laid down their lives during 1983 Assam agitation. All of us took out silent marches during that period. The men were all geared up to fight against illegal immigration of Bangladeshis. They were all agitated. We spent sleepless nights,” Harbansh Kaur added.
However, the village still feels neglected despite contributing top police officials, army officers and Assamese language literatures.
“We have been demanding construction of embankment along the Kopili river as permanent solution to provide relief to us from recurring floods. Work began but has remained incomplete for the past 30 years,” Pratap Singh added.
Facing inundation of agricultural fields every year, the village has lost its expertise in making the famous ‘Barkola jaggery’.
“Sugarcane cultivation has massively reduced due to recurring floods. Our jaggery was famous throughout Northeast. Now, most people are indulged only in rice and vegetable cultivation. Some 80% of Barkola residents are cultivators and the remaining 20% have government jobs,” said Dakhinpat Gaon panchayat president Tutumoni Saikia Laskar.
Though the Assamese Sikhs have been included in the minority board and get some benefit of government schemes, their demand for Assamese Sikh Development Council for the past 20 years has been ignored.
“We are too scattered and too divided politically to matter as an electorate,” Pratap Singh added.