In May 2004 Manmohan Singh became India’s Prime Minister. When a person becomes PM it is natural for papers to show pictures of his immediate family. Mumbai’s papers showed his brother, Surjit Singh Kohli and father K Kohli. I wondered! This meant that the PM’s surname too was Kohli (caste Khatri or Kshatriyas) but for some reason he had decided to omit it. People called him India’s first Sikh Prime Minister. This confused me even more because neither did my next-door neighbor Vikas Kohli sport a turban nor was he a Sikh.
When I asked 74-year-old Punjabi mother about this contradiction she said in Punjab there was a tradition where the first son was made a Sikh, dedicated to the Army. My next question to her was why did the Punjabis dedicate their first son to the Army? She did not have an answer. Here is what I discovered.
After reading Veena Talwar’s book and three others I have come to the following conclusion. Am willing to stand corrected and would be keen to know a different view.
According to volume 7 of the History & Culture of Indian People published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan - "Disciples of Nanak called themselves Sikhs derived from the Sanskrit word sishya, meaning a learner or a person who takes spiritual lessons from a teacher. The public called them Nanak Panthis or Sikhs. Panth literally means path or way and it has been traditionally used to designate the followers of a particular teacher or of a distinctive range of doctrine”.
"Singh means devotee". However, today Singh has come to mean Lion & has come to be associated with fighting classes throughout North India esp. in undivided Punjab (modern day Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh). The change was brought about the British. One of the principal changes that the British made after the 1857 mutiny was a reduction in the number of Bengali soldiers because it is they who were involved in the mutiny. They were replaced by Sikhs & Punjabi Muslims who had supported the British during the mutiny.
Veena Talwar wrote in Dowry Murder, "By the late 19th century, Punjabis made up 57 infantry units & Bengal (included Bihar & Orissa) fewer than 15". For details read book ‘Thoughts on Pakistan’ by Dr B R Ambedkar in Great Men of India section.
W H Mcleod wrote in his book, Who is a Sikh, "Appreciative of the strength of opposition encountered during the Anglo-Sikh wars & as a result of the assistance which they received from the Sikh princes during the Mutiny, Sikhs were easily accommodated within the British theory of the martial races of India & Sikh enlistment increased steeply. For the British, martial Sikhs meant Khalsa Sikhs, and all who were inducted into the Indian Army as Sikhs were required to maintain the external insignia of the Khalsa". The British paid their soldiers very well, allotted them agricultural land & pension. Other castes like Khatris, Aroras & Ahulwalias did not want to loose out economically so they made the first son a Sikh meaning they had to grow hair etc.
Further Veena Talwar wrote, "To prevent the sort of mutiny they experienced from sepoys in 1857, the British organized religiously segregated regimental units from the alleged martial races, Sikhs, Pathans, and Rajputs etc. This severely restricted Hindus of other castes particularly Khatris, who had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's forces. Khatris were arbitrarily lumped together by the British as trading castes. Many families got around this artificially imposed caste barrier by raising one or more son as Sikhs, chiefly by having them adopt the name Singh and grow hair/beard to match".
The maximum number of followers of Khalsa were Jats who as we know are tall, sturdy and big built people. (Jats are found in modern day Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh). Because of reasons listed in the preceding paras other castes like Khatris made one more sons a follower of Khalsa. Today sons of such Sikhs are considered to be followers of Sikhism while sons of the brothers who did not become Sikhs called Monas are considered to be followers of Hinduism.
The Punjab terrorism problem in the 1980-90’s resulted in a deterioration of Hindu Sikh relations. Sometime around 1985 I remember my Delhi cousins telling me of the problem this created for the families of two elderly cousin brothers one of whom was a Hindu and another a Sikh. This happened because one of their forefathers wanted to avail of the economic benefits offered by the British to followers of Khalsa and decided to become a Sikh.
Impact on Names - today anybody with a Turban has Singh as his middle name or last name. Two people with the same surnames could be Hindu & Sikh. Let me explain. My first boss was born Sukhwinder Chadha & has a turban. Due to the resurgence of Khalsa he wrote his name in Inter office memos as Sukhwinder Singh Chadha to show he is a Sikh but signed cheques as Sukhwinder Chadha because that was the name as it appeared in his birth certificate.
Conversely there is another Chadha, school friend Vineet Chadha who is considered as a Hindu because he sports no turban. Non-Jat Punjabis with turban meaning Khatris etc invariably put Singh as their middle or surname because they have to prove they are Sikhs. Here is another example.
A girl I was looking to marry had the surname Batra. When she went to her father’s place she used her Dad’s email id whose name was J Singh (he retired from the Indian Air Force). I was confused. I asked her whether she was a Batra or a Singh (not that I had a problem with either). However, she never told me how father & daughter could have different surnames. Since her father sported a turban he was considered a Sikh. To know the answer read next para.
Impact in Indian Armed Forces by Sandy – “I cannot help but give a input on Sikhs. This is based on my interaction with the armed forces for the past 21 years. I joined NDA at the age of 18. Before I joined I used to think that Sikhs are one community without any caste bias. But I was wrong.
After joining the services I realized that the Sikhs are more divided on caste lines than Hindus. The Jat Sikhs consider themselves to be superior to others. The Sikhs who have surnamescommon with Hindus e.g. Chawla, Arora, Kohli etc. are called "Bhapaa" sikhs or the trading (read Baniya) Sikhs and are considered inferior as compared to Jat Sikhs who are basically Zamindars or Landlord Sikhs. (* Tells you how that happened).
Another sect/caste of Sikhs, which are considered even lower than "Bhapaa" Sikhs are the "Majhabi" Sikhs who are basically SCs in the Sikh community. Their parental/ancestral occupation was of sweepers/garbage lifters. Even the British encouraged this caste system by having the Infantry units segregated on caste lines. When one says he is from Sikh regiment, it means that he is basically a Jat Sikh.
However, when a Sikh soldier belongs to Sikh LI (Sikh light infantry), he is a "Majhabi" Sikh. A Jat Sikh would be seen dead rather than join a Sikh LI unit. You will find hardly any Jat Sikh officers in Sikh LI regiment. Only
Hindu officers would be heading the "SikhLI" units. That is why the non Jat Sikhs never reveal their surnames for the fear of being ostracized / ridiculed in the Sikh community. They always suffix their first names with 'Singh',
Unlike a Khatri or Arora caste who needs to prove that he is a Sikh a Jat has no such compulsions. A Jat Sikh has Singh as part of his name e.g. super cop K. P. S. Gill. However, note that S stands for Singh but is silent.
* ‘The British passed the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900. This piece of legislation created a favored, dominant, agriculturalist class i.e. Hindu & Sikh Jats and Muslim tribes and non-agriculturists were Hindu Brahmins, Khatris and Banias. This act made tribe & caste the basis of land ownership. The act was not done out of concern for peasants but to pacify the landowning classes and deflect a rebellion and to aggravate/exploit any tension that existed between Hindus & Muslims so as to keep their own grip on Punjab. Peasant discontent was converted into fresh & deep religious antagonisms that smoldered dangerously in 1907 that eventually resulted into the flames that ravaged Punjab in 1947.
British sought to anchor itself in Punjab by playing the distinctions between Hindoo and Mahomedan while nurturing the Muslim and Sikh Jats as loyal subjects.
Friends what was the impact of this, some thoughts – it created two classes of people the agriculturists & others dividing society in the process, meant that Jats only owned land in modern day Punjab, wrongly branded the Hindu as a greedy moneylender thereby increasing friction in society. These divisions contributed to the full blown communal incidents that partitioned Punjab in 1947 on religious lines. Two recent implications of this Act. One of the reasons why the Punjab terrorist problem of the 1980-90’s in India started was because the Jat Sikh farmer refused to let the govt give Haryana’s farmers the waters of the Bhakra Nangal Dam (constructed between 1955-60). Two the 1900 Act resulted in the non-agriculturist class migrating to urban areas. So today you find other caste as Khatris & Aroras in mainly urban areas and Jats owning nearly all the agricultural land in Punjab’.
The above gives you an important effect of the British decision to allow only Khalsa Sikhs to be employed by the Indian Army. I believe that the British deliberately did this to drive a wedge between Hindus & Sikhs using modern day connotations. The famous divide & rule policy.
To read more on the Impact of British Rule in Punjab then in same section read
1. How the British created the Dowry System in Punjab.
2. State of Education in Punjab before British