Takhat Singh Joone, a man in his 60s, lovingly strokes his handmade muzzle-loader gun and, peering through his foggy spectacles, proudly declares, “We have a glorious past.”

Sadly, he remarks, a significant portion of that history is now overshadowed by the poverty that plagues his tribe. Instructing his grandson to clean the gun and return it to its place in his room, Takhat Singh reveals that he used to possess a licence for it, but the police have refused to renew it.

As Takhat Singh hammers iron sheets into swords, daggers, and kitchen implements, he gestures towards his old hut as if it were a symbol of the harsh living conditions endured by his tribe for centuries. However, their situation changed when a rich man arrived with assistance and constructed new, comfortable houses for them.

In 2008, Takhat Singh himself relocated just a few inches away from his old dwelling. He moved to a one-room-kitchen cement house that proudly displays the emblem of Forkel Aid, a UK charity founded by Surender Singh Nijjar, a Sikh non-resident Indian businessman. This positive change in living conditions has only occurred in the past six months.

Conditions at Dera 

In this dera located near Nagpur, consisting of approximately 150 households, the prevailing conditions remain unchanged. The residents are trapped in a cycle of poverty, struggling to make ends meet with no opportunities for employment, no financial resources, and no access to education.

According to Bharat Singh Tak, the sole educated individual in the community and a science graduate, only a handful of houses are situated on legally owned land. The majority of the houses are built on encroached land. Bharat Singh Tak also holds a position as a member of the local gram panchayat.

Takhat Singh, whose surname Joone is perhaps indicative of his family being the oldest here, says, “I’ve deliberately kept the old structure as a reminder of our plight.” 

His father, Khadak Singh, turned 100 years old in the same place. Looking through his thick glasses, a cheerful Takhat Singh sets aside his work and expresses his sadness that the trade no longer brings in enough income to cover his expenses. The  Talegaon dera is located in the Wardha district, off National Highway 6, about 100 km from Nagpur. The people residing here belong to a tribe called Sikkalgar. The name "Sikkalgar" is believed to have originated from Persian and was given to them by one of the 10 gurus of the Sikhs because they are skilled in manufacturing and polishing iron weapons.

Sikh tribe of Sikkalgar 

Takhat Singh, a member of the  Sikkalgar tribe, follows the Sikh traditions and proudly wears the five articles of faith known as the five ks: kesh (uncut hair), kangha (a wooden comb), kirpan (a ceremonial dagger), kachcha (cotton undergarments), and kada (a steel bracelet). Though devoted to the teachings of the gurus and the Granth Sahib, Takhat Singh is illiterate and lives in poverty, like the rest of his tribesmen in this ghetto.

According to Bharat Singh, they are categorized as Nomadic Tribes but are too small in number and lack the political power to benefit from any government support. Nevertheless, the hardships they face have not diminished the pride and self-esteem of Takhat Singh, an elderly member of the community, nor have they affected the younger generations, as he informs, “We are the descendants of Guru Gobind Singh’s artillery men.”

In 2008, as the Sikhs prepare for the Guru-ta-Gaddi celebrations in Nanded, the Sikkalgar tribe finds themselves stuck in a different era. They live in secluded areas spread throughout central and eastern Maharashtra. Bharat Singh, surrounded by the Sikkalgar families working on shaping raw iron strips, confidently states, “We’ll all be there for the tercentenary celebration,” Bharat Singh says, as the Sikkalgar families sit hunched outside their huts, bathed in sweat, giving shape to the raw iron strips.

Craftsman of swords and spearheads 

According to Takhat Singh, although the memories are unclear, he believed that their ancestors were brought from Rajasthan by the Sikh gurus due to their exceptional skills in crafting swords and spearheads. 

When Gurudwara Hajoor Sahib was established in Nanded, several hundred Sikkalgar families were brought there. At that time, Nanded was a part of the Nizam of Hyderabad's estate. It is possible that the Sikh gurus called upon the services of these sword craftsmen due to the perceived threat from the Muslim Nizam. Over time, as their numbers increased, the Sikkalgars had to rely on themselves for their livelihood.

“Our ancestors would buy iron strips in Hyderabad, turn them into swords and daggers, and sell them in the villages around Nanded,” Takhat Singh recalls.

According to Bharat Singh, the Sikkalgars had to flee Nanded during the communal riots in 1947-48. They dispersed throughout Marathwada and Vidarbha, and local farmers would hire them to safeguard their fields. He asserts that despite being very poor, their honesty and character have always remained intact.

To sustain their livelihood, they continue to rely on their centuries-old trade of selling swords, daggers, and guptis. Youngsters aged between eight and 15 are the ones who promote their merchandise on the highway and at the Talegaon bus stand.

Interestingly, the Sikh gurus' most trusted lieutenants have found themselves in the disfavour of the local police. Nanak Singh, a 38-year-old member, mentions that each one of them has cases registered against their names. However, the Sikkalgars do not hold any grudges against law enforcement officers.

The diligent Sikkalgars yearn for a chance to escape poverty and embrace a brighter future. Their spirits remain hopeful as they eagerly await an opportunity that will enable them to transcend the boundaries of time. Despite their challenging circumstances, these hard-working individuals strive for a better life, longing for the day when their fortunes will finally change.


 *Based on an article by Jaideep Hardikar, published in Emgoline on 28th October 2008 

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