Mazhabi

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Mazhabi Sikhs (Punjabi: ਮਜਬੀ ਸਿੱਖ) (also spelt as Mazbhi, Mazbi, Majhabhi or Majabhi) are members of the Rangretta clan who embraced the sikh faith and are mainly found in the Punjab region, Kashmir and Rajastan. The word "Mazhabi" is derived from the Urdu term "Mazhab" ("sect"), and can be translated as "the religious" or "the faithful".

Mazhabis are best known for their history of bravery, strength and self sacrifice in the Sikh, Khalsa, British Indian army and Indian army. The Mazhabis were designated as a martial race by British officials. "Martial Race" was a designation created by officials of British India to describe "races" (peoples) that were thought to be naturally warlike and aggressive in battle, and to possess qualities of courage, loyalty, self sufficiency, physical strength, resilience, orderliness, the ability to work hard for long periods of time, fighting tenacity and military strategy.

The British recruited heavily from these Martial Races for service in the British Indian Army. The British recruited heavily from the Mazhabi sikhs. On the out break of the Indian mutiny in 1857, the British immediately recruited 12,000 Mazhabis to crush the mutiny. After the mutiny, it was only the Mazhabi Sikhs who got recognition as a martial race after they took part in Younghusband’s mission to Lhasa in 1903.

History

The Mazhabi Sikhs are originally inhabitants of the old Greater Punjab which today spans into Pakistani Punjab, Its frontier province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and into Indian Punjab, including its former punjab territories of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana in Northern India including Delhi. Peshawer, Lahore and Amritsar are historical to the Mazhabis and also form the historical center of Sikhism.

Accorded a low caste status in the Hindu faith; the Rangretas were employed as scavengers, poor farmers, and landless labourers. The Sikh faith had a special appeal for the mazhabi sikha and they rapidly embraced it as it did not differentiate on the basis of caste or creed and held everybody equal. This emboldened the downtrodden to fight against injustice, tyranny and persecution.

When Guru Tegh Bahadur was killed by the Mughals in Delhi, Bhai Jaita ji (Baba Jeevan Singh ji) brought his head back to Guru Gobind Singh. Guru Gobind Singh declared that the Rangrettas (Mazhabis) were his sons, and admitted them to the Sikh faith. Originally, the term Mazhabi referred only to the descendants of these people.

Reputation as soldiers

Over the years, the Mazhabi Sikhs acquired a reputation as fine and formidable soldiers. The British recognised them as "once a redoubtable foe of the English, and now one of the finest soldiers in the British army". The Mazhabis are highly regarded for their determined resolve to complete the assigned tasks against all opposition; and were deployed in various military campaigns in India and abroad. The British were greatly impressed by their superior physique and the martial and religious fervour imparted by Sikhism.

The corps of Mazhabi Sikhs became famous for their fighting reputation and discipline. In addition to their soldiering reputation, the Mazhabis were also known for their loyalty and it was noted that during their service with the army, they never once betrayed the trust placed in them. The British noted that during the First World War, the Mazhabi Sikh soldiers reached a "remarkably high standard" and that their contribution to the war surpassed that of the Jatt Sikhs.

Major-General A.E.Barstow described the Mazhabi Sikhs as "...extremely good soldiers." and goes on to mention that the Sikh Pioneer Regiments, "...have a proud record of service in many campaigns." Historically they have fought battles for Guru Gobind Singh and the Mazhabis formed the majority of Akali Nihang ranks, even throughout the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Maharaja Ranjit Singh also enlisted them in large numbers for the existing misls, and in the irregular corps.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh's great admiration

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had a great admiration for their bravery and enlisted the Mazhabis extensivly into the Khalsa Army which he nurtured into an excellent instrument of war. Being afraid, however, to form them into separate corps, Maharaja Ranjit Singh attached a company of Mazhabis to the existing battalions (misls). During his reign, the Mazhabi Sikhs were generally stationed on the Peshawer border, where constant fighting against invading Islamic Afghan and Pashtun forces gave them the opportunity to show their bravery and endurance.

Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir raised a corps of Mazhabi Sikhs in 1851. The British also recognised the great fighting qualities and prowess of these soldiers in the Anglo-Sikh Wars. The stubborn and sustained resistance offered by them and their ability to maintain themselves frugally amazed them. The British had admiration for the mazhabi as they made capital soldiers. The The raised Pioneers were a splendid Corps and displayed remarkable valour in the field. The first world war would see a rise their enlistment numbers as the Mazhabi sikh pioneers, 23rd Sikh Pioneers, 32nd Sikh Pioneers and the 34th Sikh Pioneers were developed into three battalions each.

The mazhabi sikh pioneers performed well during the great war. The 1/34th Sikh pioneers won the title of "Royal" during the Great war. The unit armourer and blacksmith made a highly burnished screen, proudly displaying the magnificent achievements of the Mazhabi Sikh Pioneers as epitomized in their Battle Honours. The 34th Royal Sikh Pioneers presented this screen to his majesty King George V of the United Kingdom in 1933. The Mazhabis, along with the Ramdasea Sikhs, were recruited to form the Mazhabi and Ramdasea battalions, that were later merged together to form the Sikh Light Infantry in 1941 for the World War II.

Social status

The social status of the Mazbhi Sikhs has varied over time. Unlike several other Dalit groups that still practise Hinduism, the Mazhabi Sikhs have abandoned all ties with Hinduism and its traditional caste roles. During the British raj, the Mazbhis were listed as an agricultural caste on British censuses of caste populations. Historically the Mazhabi Sikhs are generally found throughout the Punjab province, however the Mazhabis are most numerously found in Ferozepore, Lahore, Amritsar and Faridkot. The Mazhabi Sikhs perform much of the agricultural labour in these areas.

In spite of the Sikhism's egalitarian tenets, many Jat Sikhs continued to look down upon the Mazhabis. In March 1966, the Federation of Mazhabi Sikhs offered to support Arya Samaj and Jan Sangh in an agitation against the formation of the Jat Sikh-majority Punjabi Suba. According to a report published in The Tribune on 16 March 1966, a spokesperson for the organization stated that "the Sikh Scheduled Castes had been reduced to a position of mere serfs by the Sikh landlords who would literally crush the Mazhabi Sikhs if Punjabi Suba was formed."

In 2005, 56 expelled employees of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee abandoned Sikhism, and alleged that they were being discriminated against because they were Mazhabis. Economically poor Mazhabi sikhs can still face discrimination and violence from Sikhs of upper castes in Punjab's rural areas.

The Government of India recognises Mazhabi Sikh as a "Scheduled Caste", as part of their official affirmative action program. The urban Mazbhis have made social and economic progress over the years, and are very active in the Panjab Akali party (Sikh nationalist party). However, poverty and illiteracy is still rampant among the Mazhabi Sikhs living in the rural areas of Punjab.

Ranghreta

Those of them who joined the new faith gained admittance along with others to SANGAT, religious congregation, and pangat, commensality. They received the high sounding designation of Ranghreta, reminiscent of Ranghars, Rajput converts to Islam. A special honour was earned for the community by Bhai Jaita, a Rarnghreta Sikh when he boldly lifted the severed head of Guru Teg Bahadur, martyred in the Chandni Chowk in Delhi on 11 November 1675, and brought it to Kiratpur, covering a distance of 300 odd km in five days. Guru Gobind Singh, coming out of Anandpur to receive him at Kiratpur, embraced him warmly, and exalted his whole tribe by conferring on it the blessing:

"Ranghrete Guru ke bete," Ranghretas are the Guru`s own sons".

Upon the creation of the Khalsa in 1699, Bhai Jaita took the rites of the double edged sword and was renamed Jivan Singh. Several others of his caste also took khande di pahul and joined the order of the Khalsa. The new spirit infused by khande di pahul added to the native tenacity and hardiness of the Ranghretas as a class and during the troubled eighteenth century, they suffered and fought valiantly hand in hand with other Sikhs.

Bravery: Bota Singh and Garja Singh

Bhai Bota Singh who, with nothing but a heavy club in his hand, dared the Mughal might while proclaiming the sovereignty of the Khalsa, started to levying a toll on Mughal passerbys on the main Punjab highway. A Ranghreta Sikh, Garja Singh, was his sole comrade in arms while the two took to reaffirming the sovereignty of the Sikhs. After they baited the Mughals by speaking in familiar terms (terms only used in a family not vulgar terms) of a Mughal's female relative they were attacked by a punitive contingent sent by the governor of Lahore, the two stood back-to-back fighting until their last breath. This was in 1739. Earlier, in 1735, when Nawab Kapur Singh, the chosen leader of the Dal Khalsa, as the guerrilla force of the Sikhs was called, reorganized the Dal into five jathas (fighting bands), one of the jathas consisted exclusively of Ranghreta Sikhs.

According to Ratan Singh Bhangu, Prathm Panth Prakash, Bir Singh, the leader of this jatha, commanded 1300 horse. With the virtual establishment of their sovereignty in the plains of the central Punjab, the Sikh's slowly reverted to their traditional village life, with farming as their main occupation, the Ranghreta Sikhs resumed their old role of scavenging and field labour, but they were no longer the outcastes they had been.

Prominence of the sect grows

They wore unshorn hair and abstained from tobacco and meat. They were endearingly called Mazhabi Sikhs (lit. Sikhs steadfast in their religious faith), the term Ranghreta gradually falling into disuse. During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Mazhabi Sikhs were freely enlisted in the Khalsa army, especially in the infantry, and were generally deployed for duty on the northwestern frontier.

About 1851, Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir raised a corps of Mazhabi Sikhs. The British recruited them for a coolie corps meant for road construction. In 1857, they were also enlisted, 1200 of them, to form the 23rd, 32nd and 34th Pioneer Regiments. Their extraordinary bravery and endurance earned them a high reputation as soldiers. They were no longer considered a criminal tribe and formed a significant component of the regular Indian army. In 1911, there were 1,626 Mazhabi Sikhs out of a total strength of 10,866 Sikhs in the Indian army.

Strong presence in the military

Thus 17 per cent of the Sikh soldiers were Mazhabis. Mazhabi Sikhs were also employed on canal digging and road construction projects in the new canal colonies in West Punjab, to which a large number of them had migrated for permanent settlement as farm hands and agricultural tenants. A number of them, mostly retired soldiers, were even allotted lands in the lower Chenab colony. This brought them a better economic and social status as a class. In the Chenab colony (Lyallpur and Gujranwala districts), Mazhabi Sikhs were officially declared to be an agricultural caste and in the census reports they were reckoned separately from Chuhra Sikhs, i.e. those who had not received the Khalsa baptism.

The Singh Sabha, launched in 1873 with the object of reforming Sikh practice and ceremonial, preached against caste distinctions and brought further prestige to Mazhabi Sikhs. Many more now opted for the rites of initiation. The population of the Mazhabi Sikhs increased from 8,961 in 1901 to 21,691 in 1911 and 169,247 in 1931. During the Second World War (1939-45). Mazhabi Sikhs along with Ramdasia (Weavers) Sikhs recruited to the newly raised Mazhabi and Ramdasia battalions, later redesignated as the Sikh Light Infantry.

Their pioneer regiments had already been amalgamated in the Bombay Engineers Group. Mazhabi Sikhs, as an integral part of the Sikh community, took an active part in the Gurdwara Reform movement and the freedom struggle. After Independence, when the Constitution of India was being framed, the Shiromani Akali Dal, in order to obtain for the Sikh backward classes benefits and privileges being provided for similar sections of the Hindu population, insisted on and secured the inclusion of Mazhabi Sikhs (along with Ramdasia, Kabirpanthi and Sikligar Sikhs) among the scheduled classes. Although this was not consistent with the basic Sikh doctrine of castelessness, Mazhabi and other backward Sikhs have benefited from the concessions statutorily provided to them in the field of education, employment and political representation.

References

1. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society. Portland, Oregon, 1974

2. Rose, H. A., A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Lahore, 1911-19

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