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Urban Denotified Tribes: Competing Identities, Contested Citizenship

A section of the denotified, nomadic community of banjaras converted to Sikhism long ago, and has been settled in Delhi for over half a century. While tracing the recent history of this beleaguered community, this paper argues that escalating land prices were a major reason behind the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 in the resettlement colonies of Delhi. Communities such as the banjaras continue to be at the bottom of all social hierarchies in urban spaces. Their futile search for legitimate and dignified citizenship rights may lead to invention of new dangerous identities.


Urban Denotified Tribes: Competing Identities, Contested Citizenship

Meena Radhakrishna

A section of the denotified, nomadic community of banjaras converted to Sikhism long ago, and has been settled in Delhi for over half a century. While tracing the recent history of this beleaguered community, this paper argues that escalating land prices were a major reason behind the massacres of Sikhs in 1984 in the resettlement colonies of Delhi. Communities such as the banjaras continue to be at the bottom of all social hierarchies in urban spaces. Their futile search for legitimate and dignified citizenship rights may lead to invention of new dangerous identities.

I thank Nasir Tyabji for his comments on an earlier draft. This paper was presented at a seminar on ‘Cities, Social Lives and Poverty: Issues of Infrastructure, Governance and Citizenship’, Department of Sociology, University of Pune, February 2006, and in a conference on ‘Culture Matters: Understanding Development from the Perspectives of Marginal Communities’, New Delhi, October 2006. I thank members of AIDWA without whose help fieldwork in Delhi resettlement colonies would not have been possible.

Meena Radhakrishna ( is at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.

his paper looks into issues of survival and identity of two communities of people – Sikligar Sikhs and Labana Sikhs – currently living in some of the “resettlement colonies” of Delhi. These communities are believed to be offshoots of the erstwhile itinerant ‘banjara’ community.1 Banjaras were nomadic over the length and breadth of India as itinerant traders even prior to the British period. They are not a homogenous community in any sense – though some branches are still nomadic for want of land to settle in, many have settled down to a sedentary existence in a variety of occupations.

Banjaras, alongwith a large number of other nomadic and rural communities were unjustly declared “criminals by birth” by the British colonial state under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.2 Different generations and branches of banjaras were brought under this legislation at different points in time from the last quarter of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century. Jawaharlal Nehru took the initiative to repeal this law upon independence, and when they were denotified in 1952 from this piece of legislation, they came to be called “denotified tribes”. The new independent state recognised these communities as sufficiently backward to have covered them under its welfare schemes through reservations in education and employment. However, since the scheduled lists for reservations were already in place at the time of the denotification, different branches of the community residing in different parts of India were accommodated into these lists gradually, depending on the political strength of their representatives. As a result, they are listed as scheduled castes (SCs) in some states, scheduled tribes (STs) in others and more recently, as other backward classes (OBCs) in some others. However, in states like Delhi, interestingly, there are no STs, as it is argued that no “tribes” can exist in an urban space. As a result, those banjaras who live in Delhi are listed under the SC category.

Depending on the immediate cultural environment of the regions in which they settled, the banjaras adopted practices of the mainstream religions at different points in time, including Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. More recently, in the 20th century, they did this to escape the stigma of criminality stemming equally from the labels “criminal tribes” and then “denotified tribes”.3 Both Sikligars and Labanas have come from different states mainly Punjab and Rajasthan to settle in Delhi, Sikligar and Labana Sikhs were distinct groups, who converted to Sikhism long before they migrated into Delhi.4

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The influx of these communities, precipitated by violence during Partition, intensified just before and after independence in 1947.5 Mostly belonging to the substratum of the urban poor, with precarious livelihoods and living constantly on the edge, they settled in different urban clusters in Delhi till the 1970s.6 When Sanjay Gandhi evicted a large number of ‘jhuggi jhonpri’ dwellers from the main city and “resettled” them into colonies in what was then the outskirts of Delhi, a proportion of the resettled people who came into possession of small house sites were Sikligar and Labana Sikhs.7

A survey of the news coverage of the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 does not reveal one critical fact: the settled Sikligar and Labana Sikhs formed a very large proportion of those massacred during the violence in Delhi.8 The Sikhs of the higher strata were relatively unhurt, and the extraordinarily painful details of the massacre show that it was in these resettlement colonies that the majority of Sikhs lost their lives.9 The cumulative wrath of the surrounding settled communities, the reasons for which will be discussed below, combined with their considerable anti-Sikh sentiment at that time, found its target in the Labana and Sikligar Sikhs.

A significant point that emerges after studying this issue is that the concerned communities themselves, who were subjected to this selective Sikh massacre (in which the state agencies, especially the police, played a partisan role), seem to have interpreted it as an entirely “anti-Sikh” event. This is the way it was also read and publicised by the media, the wider society and the state. Significantly, they became recipients of compensation by the state for this (state supported) violence, and this helped contribute to their view that the violence against them in 1984 was an unambiguous anti-Sikh one, rather than having any other, (for instance, a caste on class) dimension. This paper engages with this confusion and sets out a few propositions to clear it to some extent.

1 Delhi, 1984: ‘Who Are the Guilty?’

The reallocation of urban space at any historical juncture in the life of a city is a complex process. During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi resettled large numbers of hutment dwellers on land acquired from the neighbouring villagers.10 Discussing the situation, Indrani Mazumdar writes,

A whole breed of property dealers, many of whom came from the dominant castes of the local villages, profiteered from this process and acquired considerable political influence over the lives of the new residents. Industrial estates were also established near these settlements, some within the parameters of the Master Plan, while others came up in unauthorised manner... The scale of movement, the direction and political correlations so establi shed can be discerned from the changing numbers of voters in the various parliamentary constituencies of the capital.11

It is pertinent to note here that the land on which these house sites were situated appreciated dramatically as the years went by, and by the 1980s the landsites were worth a couple of lakh rupees or more, depending on the location of the site.12


According to a Delhi-based news agency, when they were forced to move from the earlier resettlement colonies like Trilokpuri in 1984, the Sikligars and Labanas sold their houses at throwaway prices, some as low as Rs 30,000.13 Small dwellings that were once the home of Sikh families and which the rioters had ravaged have changed into concrete houses over the past 20 years. These plots today fetch lakhs of rupees.14

What can be reasonably surmised is that since the banjara SCs had become owners of very valuable land in these colonies, they became targets for violence, so as to precipitate mass exodus from these colonies. The question is who were the people who would gain from this? Clearly, there were social groups which would have benefited enormously from the situation, and one of these must be the land dealers and speculators. Research on the social origins of the land dealers in these areas shows that they were drawn from the dominant caste sections – jats and gujjars of the neighbouring villages.15 There were some more social groups who might have had an interest in getting the banjara settlers out, and the composition of these is indicated by two important reports on the 1984 riots.16

There were four further categories of interest groups which these reports identified as having participated in the riots in 1984: the dominant castes of the neighbouring villages: the jats, gujjars and ahirs; SCs (khatiks, chamars, purbiyas, jamadars and bhangis) in the resettlement colonies; the Congress Party leaders, local party workers and the police, also drawn from the gujjar, jat sections.

Speaking of the jat villagers, in particular from the outskirts, one of the investigative reports mentions that “most of them (were) erstwhile landowners, and their land was acquired by the government for setting up new colonies. They have become hostile to the Sikhs because they live in these colonies….”17 The reasons for the erstwhile landowners to attack new settlers were manifold: firstly, the land had appreciated in price and there was a tremendous feeling of loss at this development. Secondly, as indicated earlier, these were also the very castes from which came the land dealers and estate agents in the area, who would make big profits by buying land in distress sales, and reselling. Another report had this to say:

The participation of the jats and gujjars from the so-called urban villages of Delhi played a very strong role in adding to the numbers of rioters…and in aiding the riots, murders and looting…Most of the these villagers who once owned land in Ber Serai, Munirka and Mohammadpur (in south Delhi)…had made a tidy sum of money after their land was taken away for the urban expansion of New Delhi. The land owned by these villagers was generally of a very poor quality with no irrigational facilities. For this reason the villagers in these areas had to augment their resources through non-agricultural means, not least of them being brigandage. After their lands were acquired by the government they suddenly became prosperous and began to exert themselves politically as well. It is a known fact that if one is to make any headway in an election the gujjars and jats of these areas have to be on one’s side. Unfortunately, much of the police force which is stationed in this and surrounding area is drawn from these communities. For this reason, on various occasions there had been a noticeable complicity in these areas between the criminals and the police. This truth was brought home starkly during the recent riots.18

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These castes had not just participated in the riots in active association with the police, in some cases, the witnesses named the policemen themselves for having killed the victims.19

Land Grabbers

In other words, the role of the land speculators and agents, that of the police, and those who had “lost” their land to the government can be attributed to their being essentially the same category of people – the jats and the gujjars – who were supposedly “aggrieved” that the land they once owned was now dearer by several lakhs. They had a large hand in forcing the banjaras out of these settlement colonies. This may have had nothing to do with them being “Sikhs” on the days when these brutal massacres took place in which the men (and young boys) were especially targeted, leaving girls and widows, who were too frightened to stay on in these colonies without the menfolk.

In late 2005, more than 20 years later, the son of the Congress leader in the area repeated several times to this researcher that “the SCs of the area saved the Sikligars from being killed in 1984, as 200-300 of them surrounded them and prevented attacks from the mobs”. However, the Sikligars had another version. “It was the ‘jamadars’ (a caste included in the SC category) who primarily attacked us during the riots. It is because we work with iron, and make knives as one of the things in our profession, and we also possessed iron bars that we fought back the attackers”. Labana Sikhs had more to tell: “the Congress leaders mobilised the SCs of the area to get us killed”.20

The SCs of the area, however, are not a homogenous lot.21 “Among the scheduled caste communities living in the resettlement colonies, ...the bhangis are solid supporters of Congress(I). Information gathered by us from the trouble areas suggests that the bhangis – many of them working in the (municipal) corporation – comprised the bulk of the local miscreants.”22

On the specific role of the Congress in 1984, the PUDR-PUCL report while discussing the perpetrators of the massacres stated:

More important: in the areas which were most affected, such as

Trilokpuri, Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri, the mobs were led by local

Congress(I) politicians and hoodlums of that locality. These areas,

it will be recalled, were setup in the urban resettlement drive initi

ated by the Congress(I), and have since been active support bases of

the Congress(I). These areas have also in the recent past provided

the Congress(I) rallies in the city substantial numerical support. In

other words, there exists in such areas an established organisational

network through which masess are mobilised for demonstration of

Congress(I)’s ostensible popular support. A veteran politician based in

Delhi put in very crisply when he said that these resettlement colonies

‘are the rakhel (mistress) of the Congress (I)’.23

A newspaper report mentioned that in all public events, “it was Mongolpuri, Sultanpuri, Tirlokpuri and Kalyanpuri from where Congress(I) politicians found their crowds”.24 And it was Jehangirpuri where the mobs killed several persons of the Sikh community on the suspicion that they had not voted for the Congress(I) in civic elections in Delhi in January 1983.25 “The Congress(I) ring leaders paid Rs 1,000 to each killer as boasted by the killers themselves who invariably used to be heavily drunk before killing”.26

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Land had to be regrabbed, those who did not vote for the Congress had to be punished. An entirely unnoticed fact, however, is that one of the major reasons for the violence by the SCs and other dominant castes against the banjaras in 1984 was that the victimised communities also belonged to the SC.

2 Scheduled Castes or Sikhs?

Today Sikligars are employed in a variety of petty occupations in the informal sector: rickshaw pulling, casual wage work, casting of household iron utensils, cutting and turning iron bars in the building construction, running small shops, tailoring and so on, and evidently belong to the lower rung of the urban poor. The Labana Sikhs are, at least in one of the colonies studied, a little better off economically, and being engaged in transport of goods they sometimes own tempos and vans. The less well off continue with their “traditional” occupation of doing work with ropes and bamboos, making a variety of household goods like baskets and small items of furniture, and also weave chair seats and cots. They go on daily forays on foot or a bicycle to earn their living by selling goods already made, or offering to weave a chair or a cot for the stray customer. Apart from their traditional skills, they compete for work in the informal economy with other residents of the colonies, the khatiks, chamars, purbiyas, jamadars and bhangis who are also listed as SCs, as also with less well to do jats, ahirs and gujjars (now listed as OBCs).

It became clear during my research that the Congress was interested in developing an SC/OBC constituency in its strongholds in these resettlement colonies which does not recognise the banjara SCs. What the Congress wants to balance here are the interests of the “non-Sikh SCs” with those of the “new OBCs”. The banjara Sikhs who have dared to stay on have been relegated to the bottom of the social scale in these colonies through a unique consensus.

The Sikligar Sikhs are seen to be lower than the other SCs in the resettlement colony of Sultanpuri. The prejudice against these communities is all too apparent in the attitude of the local Congress leaders, and bitterly complained about by the Sikligars themselves. A Congress MLA in one of these colonies, himself from the SC category, belonging to the bhangi caste, is reported by the banjara respondents to have utter contempt for them, and he uses the choicest abuses, especially against the Sikligar women. He sees them as the lowest down in the social hierarchy, and does not wish to recognise them as fellow SCs either.

What is, however, interesting is that these banjaras do not see themselves as SCs either, which they are, in the administrative sense. The SC category seems to have got appropriated by the Congress for its own electoral constituency to such an extent that many of these banjaras in many cases are not even aware that they belong to the reserved category. A situation has been created where the obtaining of certificates, which will give them this status, has to be done with the consent of the local Congress leaders. Needless to say, this has become a very important instrument in the hands of the Congress for patronage, punishment and


exclusion. The general strategy is to treat them as “Sikhs” rather than SCs, so as to obscure their reserved status in their own perception and in the perception of the world at large.

Children Targeted

Keeping banjara children systematically out of schools through harassment means that there will be no competition from the next generations of these communities for government jobs. Their children are not welcome at the municipal schools of the area. This researcher repeatedly came across complaints from the parents and children of the area that they are hit and beaten by the other children of higher castes in school (the children particularly named jat children as their tormentors) and that their hair coiled up in ‘joodies’ is brutally pulled by these children and the higher caste teachers. The teachers hit and abuse the banjara children, do not check the bullying faced by them by the other children, and in one case were reported to themselves regularly lock the banjara children in the school toilet for the entire length of the school day.27 The banjara children do not go to schools run by Sikh trusts either, and when they do, it is to the “afternoon shift” of the gurdwara run schools; the morning shift is especially for the children of the higher stratum Sikh children.

As a result of all these factors, there is a widespread inclination in the community to firstly, keep the children out of school, and secondly, train the children in traditional skills to ensure some secure living in the future. Amongst the many banjara youth in one of the blocks of Sultanpuri, I did not find a single young man or woman who had studied beyond the first standard. A Jagjivan Ram school being run by the Congress representative there does not cater to the banjara SC children. There is in fact considerable hostility towards the youth when they engage in occupations other than iron-rope work. From childhood, Sikligar children in particular are encouraged to work on the traditional occupations with their parents. I was told that the parents would rather do that, than expose the children to the harassment at school, hostility in the informal job market from other competitors, and the real possibility of total unemployment. This is an insidious cycle, which prevents the Banjaras from taking any advantage whatsoever of the reservation system.

The Sikligars and Labanas have not got absorbed in the mainstream Sikh community either.28 In fact, the Sikh community in these colonies is deeply stratified, both as banjaras and as Sikhs. There are separate gurdwaras they have built for themselves in the colonies where they reside. In one colony where there were mazhabi Sikhs also in sufficient numbers, apart from Labana and Sikligar Sikhs, there were three gurdwaras in the same street, belonging to the three “Sikh” communities.29 The Sikligars and the Labanas do not have social interaction and intermarriage between themselves, let alone with the “jat Sikhs” and other higher stratum Sikhs.30

A sight that is striking is the number of banjara Sikh youth who have cut off their hair and beards. On being asked, they just said, “After 1984…”, and their voices trailed off. Equally striking is the reaction to this fact by the non-banjara Sikhs. Rather than recognising that this is a defensive act because the banjaras were amongst the main victims of the riots in 1984, and also a sign of their feeling of continuing vulnerability, there are hostile views regarding the cutting off of the hair and beards amongst the nonbanjara Sikhs. The opinions broadly fall into three categories: “Because they are not as committed to Sikhism as they ought to be”; “The youth have done it ‘out of fashion’ which shows lack of respect for Sikhism”; “At least after they have been compensated for the riots by the state, they should start behaving like Sikhs (and grow back the hair and the beards).”31

These three kind of reactions are significant, for all in effect deny the banjara Sikhs being “proper Sikhs”. In the last view, it is further implied that once the state has recognised the fact of their being harmed “as Sikhs” during the riots, they should start follow ing the mainstream ways of Sikhism. Because the upper stratum of Sikhs have had less experience of the kind of physical violence that faced the banjara Sikhs, they are unsympathetic to the “hue and cry” being made over the issue again, especially after the compensation has already been given. Tilak Vihar is the colony where victims from Trilokpuri and Kalyanpuri in east Delhi and Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri and Nangloi in west Delhi were allotted ‘janta’ flats by the Delhi Development Authority in 1985. Some of the remarks I heard regarding Banjara Sikhs in Tilak Vihar from the non-banjara Sikh residents staying near Sultanpuri were very similar to the responses of the non-Sikh residents near Tilak Vihar.32

3 Shifting Identity or ‘Rebirth’?

It is well known that one of the agendas of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is “reconversion” to Hinduism of those who had converted to Islam or Christianity. In the case titled “Hindu Identity Reclaimed” in western Uttar Pradesh, the following is reported by an RSS linked organisation, the Sewa International:

A Samskar Kendra [an activity of the Sewa Bharati, meant to help children develop character] had been opened… in Braj. On the first day, when the teacher asked the children’s names, one replied, Mahmood, another Rashid, and so on. The teacher was surprised, since Nagla was predominantly a locality of the Hindus. How could there be so many Muslim boys? It came out that a certain Moulvi [a Muslim preacher] had been visiting the area from time to time, and it is he who had named the children. Hindu priests had hardly ever come to them. Even dead bodies were disposed of in the Muslim fashion. Such was the state of affairs in this hamlet. The people belonged to the Ghumantu (nomadic) banjara caste and tradi tionally lived by cattle-rearing. They had no contact at all with Hindu society. This had encouraged the Moulvi. After activities of Sewa Bharati started, things changed. Children got new names. The lifestyle of the people too began changing. Children began to take an interest in learning. They were gradually introduced to tenets of Hinduism.33

And again,

The pradhan [chief]…said, Because of Sewa-karya [the work of Sewa Bharati], in our locality the fanaticism of the Muslims has subsided. ... The elder from…Basti said with folded hands, [If] Sewa Bharati had not reached our Basti, many of our people would have been converted to Christianity, as there were none to guide us. He continued, After Sewa-karya started, a temple has come into being. Daily pooja [prayer service] takes place in the temple with Arati. Because of this, the feeling of Hindutwa in our households has been awakened. All this is the contribution of Sewa Bharati.34

These are not isolated cases of conversion of vulnerable and erstwhile nomadic communities like banjaras. The banjara Sikhs

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in the resettlement colonies studied are also being manoeuvred by the Hindutva bodies in a variety of ways to barter protection with political support. One poignant reason that a young banjara Sikh respondent gave for not growing his hair and beard was that he wanted to look like “any other plain SC”. Another articulated quite openly that in his case cutting off of the hair and the beard was preparatory to his “rebirth as a Hindu”. I was told by several older banjara Sikhs that there is an unspoken pact between the BJP and the Sikh banjara youth: if they work for the BJP, they will be allowed to stay settled on the land they own in the resettlement colonies. Most important, they may be spared a repeat of a 1984.35

There is another process of collaboration and co-option in evidence. A link between the police and an emerging section of banjara powerbrokers is very apparent. The jat and other communities who were active in the 1984 riots still have a strong association with the police, whose ranks are still drawn in these areas from the same castes. They exhibit tremendous anger and hostility at the banjara Sikhs being their companions in the reserved category. 36 The police use the fiction of inherited criminality of the denotified tribes to justify the fact that “from each of the Sikligar families, a youth is in prison”.37 There are self-styled banjara ‘pradhans’ in the resettlement colonies, who are in reality police informers. They are extremely influential with the police, and if defied, can slam any one into jail for an indefinite period. They also “rescue” those already jailed from the police for a price from the hapless families of the jailed person, which is then shared with the police.38

In the three cases that I came across, all such pradhans were active supporters of the BJP.39 They parade these banjaras at BJP rallies for a sum of Rs 50 per head which the party allocates per colony, reminiscent of the way the Congress used the settlers of these colonies for its own political melas and events. In the face of utter impoverishment, it is a lot of money per individual, and it is eagerly and gratefully grabbed. The banjaras are clearly on their way to becoming fodder for political recruitments, to serve a variety of fascist political ends.40

4 Conclusions

The “anti-Sikh” violence that visited the Labanas and Sikligars in resettlement colonies in Delhi in 1984 had some other dimensions to it. This can be understood by studying the social composition of those who were involved in perpetrating the massacre. A scrutiny of the situation in these colonies today throws some light on what happened in 1984. If one predominant reason has to be given for the large-scale violence in these colonies in 1984, it will not be anti-Sikh sentiment prevailing at that time: the main reason for the violence points to the fact that land prices in resettlement colonies (which had been at the periphery of Delhi 10 years earlier) had skyrocketed by the 1980s, and vulnerable sections occupying valuable land had to be pushed out. The pressures on the banjara Sikhs in these settlements today have in fact intensified as the land they possess has further appreciated tremendously. The land speculators, the original landowners, the police, the Congress leaders – all largely belonging to the jats and the gujjar castes – along with aggrieved SC sections took advantage of the anti-Sikh sentiment in 1984 to exterminate the banjara Sikhs.

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Further, if social attitudes of the jats and SCs of the area today are any indication of the way they regarded the banjaras in the 1980s, there was a lot of offence, resentment and a sense of grievance caused by the banjaras’ reserved status as SCs. The banjara communities were probably regarded by the “established” SCs with much hostility and perceived as much lower than themselves in the social and caste hierarchy. Moreover, the real competition that the new generations of the banjaras would offer them in both the informal sector and the government jobs is a cause for much disquiet and hostility today, and perhaps was so in the 1980s as well. The willingness of the SC communities to be used by the jats and gujjars (in the Congress and out of it) to execute the massacres can be explained by the profoundness of this anxiety among their members in resettlement colonies.

The Congress’ involvement can be at least partially explained by its desire to strengthen the constituency which had voted for it in the 1983 civic elections. This constituency had been created in the first place by handsomely compensating those castes whose lands had been acquired for establishing the resettlement colonies. The systematic violence itself was possible because of the Congress’s organisational network which already existed among these castes, with the local leadership also drawn from amongst them.

Sikligar and Labana Sikhs’ isolation from the mainstream Sikhs and their resulting social and political vulnerability must have been clear to all concerned, including the police. In any case, the police carried monstrous caste prejudices against the banjaras, including resentment at their reserved status. The stigma of criminality attached to the banjaras as denotified communities gave them a further handle.

As land prices in the resettlement colonies spiral due to an expanding, urbanising and industrialising city, political parties like the BJP can offer “protection” to the increasingly vulnerable residents like the banjara Sikhs. For the price of unquestioned political support, they promise to insulate them from being coerced into selling out, or evicted, and in extreme cases from being killed. The Sikligars and Labanas respond to this hideous situation by being prepared to give up their Sikh identity in order to survive.41

The Argument

The question of identity ought to be studied at two levels: the markers forced upon a group of people by the state (or society), and the identity the group adopts for itself. Today, urban denotified tribes like the banjara Sikhs are among the lowest in all hierarchies, social, political and religious. As culturally and socially uprooted people, they are defenseless against the state machinery’s labels which have served as negative identities at different historical points in time (criminal tribes, denotified tribes, scheduled castes, other backward classes42). They have tried being Sikhs (and Muslims and Christians elsewhere.) All these possibilities of a self and a collectivity have failed them, and ironically, when the “identities” were bestowed by the state, much violence was visited upon them.

These acutely marginalised and brutalised communities are susceptible to invention of new dangerous identities in addition to those generated in the past by the state and society’s practices


and laws. Such identities are highly fluid and changeable, and other for survival, manipulating any which way a hostile system. the people in question are learning to negotiate their complex The “rebirth” as fascists is likely to be their next choice, after the and very vulnerable situations through switching from one to the many deaths in a single lifetime.


1 According to an often quoted source, labanas and Sikligars are just other names for the banjara community. Those who are called banjaras in the eastern districts of Punjab are called Labanasin the “Punjab proper” Sher, Sher Singh, The Sikligars of Punjab, (Sterling Publishers, Delhi, 1966 ), preface, p 5. Further, “Ethnically the Sikligars, the lambadis, the Labanas, the vanjaras …are one and the same people… (but) by the passage of time their social separation has attained the status of separate castes or tribes. Ibid, p

214. Recently, the newly formed All India Banjara (Gor-Banjara) Kranti Dal asserted that the Sikligars were a part of the banjara community, http://www.

2 For details on the history and politics of this legislation, see Radhakrishna (2001).

3 This is true of other erstwhile nomadic communities as well. Many of them are settled in towns and cities of India. In fact, it has been found in interviews by this researcher that because of the prejudices against nomadic communities, both owing to their nomadism, and their supposed criminality, conversion to the religion of the majority group in the vicinity is seen as “facilitating” a sedentary existence.

4 The recent writings on these communities trace their conversion to Sikhism to the Guru Gobind Singh era (1666-1708). “When Guru Gobind Singh founded the Khalsa with the title of Singh, Kirpan or sword was one of the requirements of the faith. This rejuvenated the (ironshmith) craft of the Sikligars, who were the traditional sword makers. The Sikligars had roaring trade, patronage and appreciation as armourers during this period.” A large number of Labanas, engaged in their traditional work with rope and bamboos, also converted to Sikhism during this period. See Sher (1966), p 12.

5 Before Partition, the Sikh population was only 1.2 per cent of the total population of the city. Though the comparable figures after 1947 are not immediately available, by 1984 the Sikh population had increased to 7.5 per cent, an estimated 5,00,000 people. Most of this increase happened in the post partition period. See PUCL and PUDR (1984).

According to Sher Singh Sher, an anthropologist, many Punjabi Sikligars of West Pakistan also settled in Delhi after the Partition of India in 1947. He studied as many as 3,500 Sikligar Sikhs in various makeshift colonies of Delhi in the 1960s. See Sher (1966).

6 In 1966, they were found to be repairing old buckets and making iron baskets for keeping utensils, iron ladles, iron sieves, knives, latches, sickles and spades. Many had taken to the working on the iron component in the construction of buildings, as large scale construction was going on in the capital in the 1960s. They reportedly went and worked on contract for turning, bending, biding, cutting and joining the iron bars, iron plates and sheets. They were also found to be “malnourished, very poor, underweight, in reed portable huts, (they) keep going back to the adjoining villages and enjoy a change…” see Sher (1966), pp 243, 246.

7 “The expansion of ‘jhuggies’ generated various resettlement schemes. The record of policy in such resettlement programmes is testimony to the declining status of workers and the poor of Delhi in the eyes of the city’s planners. Where initially, 80 sq yards per unit were the norm for resettlement in the 1950s,by the late 1960s, and the 1970s, it had been reduced to 25 sq yards. By the 1980s, it was increasingly being reduced to flats of just 12 sq yards. Such resettlement took place in phases, of which the emergency alone saw the removal of 1,53,310 households from jhuggies and relocated in the wild lands of the periphery.” Mazumdar, Indrani, Unorganised Workers of Delhi and the Seven day strike of 1988, as retrieved on October 1, 2005.

8 “Two thousand people out of the 3,000 Sikhs which were killed selectively belonged to banjara community.” Haribhau Rathod’s submission in Parliament, Lok Sabha, Synopsis of Debates, Proceedings other than Questions and Answers, Wednesday, August 10, 2005.

9 In the better to do areas, the property of the Sikh residents was attacked. However, grievous physical hurt or killings were rare in the middle class or elite colonies.

10 “The period during the emergency alone saw the removal of 1,53,310 households from jhuggies and relocated in the wild lands of the periphery.” Mazumdar, Indrani.

11 Ibid. 12 Interviews with residents in the resettlement colonies of Trilokpuri, Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri and Tilak Vihar in November 2005.

13 Delhi Newsline, August 9, 2005. A DDA survey shows that the number of original allottees in resettlement colonies decline from 50 per cent to 37 per cent in the 1990s. See Mazumdar.


15 Mazumdar, Indrani, op cit.

16 These are studies by citizens’ groups, one by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and the other by Citizens for Democracy. These two groups visited the affected areas and tried to pin down the culprits.

17 Citizens for Democracy, Truth about Delhi Violence – Report to the Nation, New Delhi, January 1985, http://

18 See PUDR and PUCL (1984).

19 Citizens for Democracy (1985).

20 In the 1980s, among the SC communities living in the resettlement colonies, the valmikis were pre-dominantly supporters of Jagjivan Ram, while the bhangis were solid supporters of Congress(I). Work by other researchers shows that the bhangis, many of them working as a group – comprised the bulk of the local miscreants.

21 “As for the scheduled caste communities who were displaced due to the acquistion of land for urban expansion those from the valmiki community utilised the benefits of the reservation policy and came into the city where they found jobs (in the government sector). The bhangis went into the municipal corporation, while the third-major group, the dhanaks, considered the lowest caste, are engaged in a variety of odd jobs.” See PUDR and PUCL (1984).

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 The Statesman, November 5, 1984.

25 The Statesman, November 5, 1984.

26 See Citizens for Democracy (1985).

27 Interview with Labana and Sikligar Sikh parents and children, Sector 23, Rohini, Delhi in November 2005.

28 Even after almost three centuries of conversion to Sikhism, it appeared that as late as the 1960s, “ most of the Sikligars observe(d) their tribal ceremonies…” This included rejection of dowry in favour of brideprice, “which is hated in the Sikh religion” see Sher (1966), p 231, 225. That they still do not observe the Sikh rituals has been recorded of banjara Sikhs in other states like Madhya Pradesh as well. “There are about 70 tandas of vanjara Sikhs in Burhanpur tehsil of Khandwa district.. I believe vanjara Sikhs belong to a tribal culture like the adivasis and very few of them follow the Sikh way of life… The vanjara womenfolk are totally ignorant about the Sikh way of life.” Virk, H S 1999, My Encounter with Vanjaras, World Sikh Times, aguru/07.html as retrieved on September 10, 2005.

29 Mazhabi Sikhs are those who have become Sikhs from the ranks of the chamar or jamadar sections. The banjara Sikhs were ambivalent about their status: some denied that the mazhabi Sikhs were Sikhs at all. Others denied that they came from the chamar or jamadar sections.

30 “Although ethnically the Sikligars,…the labanas, the vanjaras… are one and the same people, yet they do not intermarry as by the passage of time their social separation has attained the status of separate castes or tribes. So much so that some of them do not admit even their ancestral relationship with one another but this can be ascribed to their ignorance of their origin” Sher (1966), p 214.

31 Interviews with non-banjara (Jat) Sikhs of Sultanpuri and Tilak Vihar, November 2005.

32 “The (banjara Sikhs) after moving to Tilak Vihar stay in housing where they do not have to pay electricity and water bills. Look at us, we the middle class get a bad deal everywhere.” “They are sitting on property worth lakhs for having lost just one member of the family. Had this member been alive, he would have been worth much less. Some families have become so well off because more than one member was compensated for though only one member died”. “They have sold off their flat (in Tilak Vihar) for a gain and moved elsewhere, perhaps wanting to claim another round of compensation by squatting elsewhere.” “These people are not Sikhs. They are so dirty that it is difficult to go past them without holding up your nose.” “They are bringing a bad name to our religion, look at the kind of criminal acts they engage in: stealing and drinking, smack, prostitution, spreading AIDS and all that.” “They like to be by themselves and stay away from our gurdwaras not because we exclude them. They have separate gurdwaras near their own houses because of their own convenience so that they can visit it quickly without wasting time.”

33 as retrieved on February 4, 2005

34 Ibid.

35 There is evidence elsewhere that the settled banjaras, when they have converted to religions other than Hinduism, become targets during times of communal tension. “Mahmooduz Zafar Rahmani, former chairman of Tanda municipal board declared that ever since BJP government has taken over in Gujarat… the members of Sangh parivar have started harassing…Muslim Banjaras. They are being forced to change their religion, their lands are being grabbed and they are being pressurised to change their names. He has requested the president and the prime minister to intervene immediately in this matter and order the government of Gujarat to change their attitude in this respect and give these Muslim banjaras all those legal rights which are enjoyed by their Hindu brethren.” http:// as retrieved on November 23, 2005.

36 The jat police personnel at the Sultanpuri police station said of the banjara Sikhs: “These rascals are sons-in-law of the government! (implying that they get special treatment from the government as SCs or OBCs). But we will make sure this is going to amount to “undigested ghee” (implying that the police will not allow these communities to benefit from the reservation system).

37 The sub inspector , the beat constable and other police personnel in Sultanpuri police station are perceptibly hostile to the banjara Sikhs. “ They got killed in 1984 because they were criminals. Not a single Sardar (upper stratum Sikh) got killed during the riots.” “They have no other work apart from goondagardi (loafing). You cannot go to their habitation after 7 pm if you have a watch on you, or have Rs 20 on you, or wear a gold chain. Iron work is just a blind for crime. In reality all of them are into smack peddling, and the women into prostitution.”

38 Interviews with residents of Rohini, Sector 23, Delhi, November 2005.

39 One such police informer from Sultanpuri, a Sikligar woman, disclosed that she could not deal with the very hostile local (SC) Congress MLA and the police, and finally decided to work for the BJP instead for “better protection”.

40 This is not a new or unique trajectory. While they face unspeakable brutality at the hands of the settled communities, there is already evidence that the settled “hinduised” denotified tribes were used in the largescale violence against the Muslims in the recent communal riots in Gujarat.

41 There are other political parties who are noticing this tendency. “Former SGPC president and Akali MLA Bibi Jagir Kaur today demanded that 11 crore “Sikligar and Wanjara” Sikhs belonging to nomadic society in 22 states of country should be brought into Sikh mainstream and a Sikh mission set up for them.” The Tribune, Chandigarh, August 31, 2001.

42 Recently, a new label was promised to them. Both BJP and Congress offered to get them the scheduled tribe status in case they were voted to power. The Tribune, Chandigarh, October 17, 2002; The Tribune, Chandigarh, June 23, 2002.


Citizens for Democracy (1985): ‘Truth about Delhi Violence Report to the Nation’, January, New Delhi, from

Mazumdar, Indrani: Unorganised Workers of Delhi and the Seven Day Strike of 1988, from http://www.india labour

People’s Union for Democratic Rights and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL and PUDR) (1984): Who Are the Guilty? Report of a Joint Inquiry into the Causes and Impact of the Riots in Delhi from October 31 to November 10, New Delhi, from Religion – Communialism/2003/who-are-guilty.htm.

Radhakrishna, Meena (2001): Dishonoured by History: ‘Criminal Tribes’ and British Colonial Policy, Orient Longman, Hyderabad.

Rathod, Haribhau (2005): Submission in Parliament, Loksabha Synopsis of Debates, Proceedings other than Questions and Answers, Wednesday, August 10.

Virk, H S (1999): ‘My Encounter with Vanjaras’, World Sikh Times, from aguru/07.html

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