October 21: Sardar Bhupinder Singh is 91 years old. He is also a bit of an oddity where he lives – in Kadakarapally, Kerala. He is the only one in his area to keep his hair long, wear a turban and visit the gurudwara or Sikh temple in nearby Kochi.
Bhupinder Singh is one of the few living Malayalee Sikhs of his generation, in the south-western state of Kerala. He is known in the area as “Sikh chettan” that is, Sikh elder brother, says a recent report in The Hindustan Times.
So how and when did Sikhism travel from its state of origin, Punjab, to find a home in the hearts of some Malayalis of Kerala, which is as far removed from it in physical distance, as it is in its culture.
Christianity in India took birth in Kerala, which has proudly proclaimed the existence side by side of Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Sikhism, the religion of the Sikhs, is virtually unknown to the state.
So how did Bhaskaran become Sardar Bhupinder Singh? For that one has to go back in time, to the year 1922. Mahatma Gandhi had given the call for non-cooperation against the colonial rule of the British empire in India.
Gandhi called upon all Indians to boycott British-made goods, British schools and colleges, British courts of law, titles and honours – everything British, in short.
The total withdrawal of Indian support would thus bring the British ruling machine to a grinding halt, said Gandhi. Nonviolent non-cooperation or satyagraha would achieve swaraj or self rule for the country.
Kerala, too, was affected by the non-cooperation movement. Around that time a few Sikh satyagrahis came to the Vaikkom region of Kerala during the movement to prepare langar or community meals that is an important part of their religion.
A few of them stayed back and settled down in Kerala at the end of the satyagraha. The main principles on which Sikh religion was based such as that of social equality of all people (no high and low castes), attracted some youths from Kerala who belonged to the lower and the untouchable castes. They wanted to be part of a religion that would give them some dignity.
They decided to convert to Sikhism.
This was also a period when Gandhi spoke of India’s freedom from alien rule and the freedom of the ‘Harijans’ (people of god) from the curse of untouchability in the Hindu caste system.
The other radical voice of the untouchables was that of fiery lawyer BR Amebedkar, who gave an entirely new identity to the Dalits as he coined the term.
The Dalit should no longer be willing to wait for the pity of the brahmanical system, he said, and urged them to change their religion to get back the dignity that they had been deprived of for centuries.
This was one of the main reasons behind the conversion of Bhaskaran and hundreds of others. Fed up of the daily humiliation heaped upon them by the higher castes, 300 families belonging to the backward castes, also converted.
Despite opposition from family members, Bhupinder stayed firm in his beliefs. He underwent education of the Sikh scriptures and philosophy at Lahore and Gujaranwalla in Punjab (now in Pakistan).
In 1940, he joined the British Royal Army as a technician and retired as a subedar, a non-commisioned rank in the army.
Though he married a Sikh woman, his daughters and sons preferred to reconvert to Hinduism. “When the community shrank we found it very difficult to find matches,” he states in the report.
“So none of us insisted that the second generation follow our example. Many families later converted to Hinduism. It is one of the reasons for our decline in Kerala,” explains Bhupinder Singh.
But he continues to remain a committed Sikh. He makes it a point to visit the only gurudwara in the state every Sunday – even if it means having to travel to another district, Kochi.