The Sikhs of Nepal

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Nepali Sikhs

There are over 3,000 Sikhs living in Nepal now, about 90 percent involved in the transport business and the others selling automobile spare parts. They live in Dhangadi, Birgunj, Palpa, Syangja, Butwal, Bhairahawa, Pokhara, and Janakpur, where branches of the then New Road-based Nepal Public Motor Service were established. About 80 Sikh families reside in Kathmandu, many of them in Kupondol, close to the gurudwara. Every Saturday, they congregate there to help with the community kitchen, and to listen to bhajans, kirtan, and readings from the Guru Granth Sahib.

Over forty years after, Sardar Pritam Singh arrived with the first truck in Kathmandu, he still commands the respect of a community that has been instrumental in developing the transportation sector in Nepal. “I came to attend a wedding at the India-Nepal border when a friend of mine suggested that I start off in transport here,” says Pritam Singh who came to Nepal from a pioneering trucking family from Jammu and Kashmir state in India. “When I saw the difficult terrain, so similar to my home state, I knew it wouldn’t be easy.” A year later, in early 1958, the then 21-year-old Pritam and his younger brother Darshan arrived with three trucks. Ferried from Patna, each set of wheels set in a barge, the vehicles were driven over cart tracks from Raxaul Bazaar to Amlekhgunj and then severely tried on the dusty, unmetalled road from Amlekhgunj to Kathmandu, a distance of a little over 100 km. It took them more than a week.

Others soon followed—relatives, cousins, and like-minded youths. “I liked the place. I thought I’d stay for a couple of years,” says Mahinder Singh who came two years later. A BSc graduate from Jammu Kashmir University, the 63-year-old driver and transport entrepreneur has been here for forty years.

“It is this belief(sikhs become successful through transport business)that has made it possible for Sikhs all over to adapt easily to new environs and to spread all over,” says Rupy Singh, a pioneer of pre-school education in Nepal. “My brother-in-law Pritam Singh and my husband Darshan, were, in a way, repeating history. Their father and uncle, before them, had led the Sikh community from the Pakistan part of Poonch to the Jammu and Kashmir side of Poonch during Partition and started the transport business there.”

Before the family bought a part interest in the new Modern Indian School in Kathmandu in 1978, the Sikh community was devoted almost exclusively to the transport business. In fact, no other community had any significant part in this sector, and an entire generation of Nepalis learnt to drive trucks and buses, and to clean and maintain vehicles from the Sikhs.

The services of Pritam Singh’s family’s fleet of 300 have been solicited by the police, the army, the food corporation, and even by King Mahendra. “Whenever King Mahendra and his entourage wanted to go to Chitwan or other places connected by road, we supplied the vehicles. We only charged for the fuel,” says Singh, whose community of transporters was instrumental in supplying construction material to vital projects like the east-west highway, and the Sunauli-Pokhara and Narayanghat-Butwal roads.

“We transported construction material for the Trisuli hydel project and started the first bus service from Kathmandu to Pokhara in the early 70s,” adds Mahinder Singh. “It was extremely hard work. Earlier, there were no cranes. When a truck got into a ditch, 50 or 60 people had to extract the vehicle, part by part, with jute rope.”

Increasingly, younger Nepali Sikhs are opting out of the transportation business and heading west for MBAs, PhDs and IT training. The transport trade is now dominated by unions and the involvement of Sikhs is on the wane.

The community today owns 700-800 vehicles. Sardar Pritam Singh, whose son runs a garment business, has about 25 vehicles which he has trained the local staff to operate and manage. “The country has looked after us. The locals, the government and the palace were cooperative when we came,” says a reflective Singh who switches easily from English to Nepali, and Punjabi to Hindi. “But times have changed. We’re older. There are some local problems. Owing to citizenship problems, we can’t register property in our names but have to rely on the goodwill of friends. There’s too much risk involved. Even getting a driving licence is a problem—one has to be a citizen.” Almost 98 percent of Sikhs in Nepal live in rented apartments. Despite a generation having grown up and been educated in Nepal, insecure families are returning to Jammu and Kashmir. Says Pritam Singh, “We’re a working class people. We’re only here to work, I mean hard, sincere work. Not imports and exports.”