Jagmohan Singh Gill has been working on his book for 10 years. “It will take another 10 years,” he says.
Gill, 56, has been working on the history of the Sikh community in eastern India.
A Sikh himself, who was born and brought up in Kolkata, and a naturalised Bengali who speaks the language more fluently and idiomatically than many contemporary Bengalis, Gill clarifies that this history is not about Sikhs like him, whose family came to Bengal a few decades ago. “It’s about the Sikhism that grew here,” says Gill, who had dedicated his life to writing this history.
Sikh history in Bengal, for example, did not begin with people from the community coming to Kolkata and some other parts of West Bengal from the early 20th century and making a spectacular success in the transport business.
Gill’s research is about Sikhs or followers of Nanak — a distinction may be required here — who had arrived in Bengal or travelled to other parts of India, at times to the remotest corners, two or three centuries ago or even earlier.
These forgotten strands of history speak of a time when faith, as commonly practised, was not a water-tight compartment, but could be a synthesis of beliefs and ideas.
“Not everyone who followed Sikhism converted to it,” says Gill.
They practised the faith they were born to, yet kept a Guru Granth Sahib at their home and were called Nanak-panthis.
For his research Gill has travelled to many distant parts of the country.
“I always used to have a suitcase ready, till before the pandemic,” laughs the Dum Dum resident. He funds his own research. “This is probably why God did not give me children,” he laughs.
His research has thrown up startling associations. “I have come to know that Dhaniapahari near Rajgir, where the revolutionaries went before Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki tried to assassinate the British judge Douglas Kingsford, was a Nanakpanthi place,” he says.
Some revolutionaries, Ullaskar Datta being one of them, had tested out the efficacy of the bombs they had made in these areas, before the attempt on Kingsford’s life was made by Bose and Chaki.
“Dhaniapahari was a Bengali Nanakpanthi place. Lawyer Kedarnath Banerjee, a resident of Patna, had built a gurdwara there. I have gone through CID documents and Banerjee’s accounts.” The Nanakpanthi sanyasi at the gurdwara had supported the revolutionaries, says Gill.
He speaks about the Sikh community’s role in Calcutta and Bengal during the freedom struggle.
He heard many stories from his father S. Kartar Singh Gill, who arrived in the city in 1942 and worked as a taxi driver. He was a remarkable man.
Gill says he inherited his love for history, and for people, from his father.
Kartar Singh would work from the airport, the reason he became a Dum Dum resident. Later, he started a financial business, which, too, Gill inherited, and which has allowed him to follow his passion.
The family lived very close to the airport, at a time flights were so few that they were a tourist attraction and security was not such a major concern.
Gill and his friends played close to the airport ground and the ball would drop near the runway. Not very far away from where he lived were settlements of people from East Bengal or Bangladesh.
The day of an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan football match would be like war. Gill is fundamentally Bengali in another way: he has been a Mohun Bagan supporter from childhood. This did not make life easy for him always in Dum Dum.
He went to a local school and studied at Jaipuria College. “I never did well in history in school,” he says. But it was his passion. “My father, one of the founders of Dum Dum gurdwara, was my teacher,” says Gill.
“My work is ethnological,” he says. “My father was interested in all kinds of people. He was interested in the dynamics between different communities, and local history,” he adds.
Kartar Singh was always talking to people; so does his son.
Dum Dum, with its airport locality, the Jessop factory and neighbourhoods of people from East Bengal, was many worlds. Which appealed to Kartar Singh and still fascinates his son.
Kartar also spoke about Sikh experience in the city, which left a deep impression on his son’s mind. This remains an area of interest for Gill, who has written several papers and books. At the moment he is involved in at least 10 projects, but the history of Sikhism in eastern India is special.
Kartar Singh had seen the riots of the 1940s. He had seen bodies piled up. “Sikh taxi drivers had worked hard then to rescue people from hostile neighbourhoods,” says Gill.
The Sikh population in the 1920s in the city may have been only 20,000, many of whom had come to Kolkata after the British Indian Army began to recruit Sikhs, but their contribution to the city is significant, stresses Gill.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had a strong connection with the Sikh community, in the city particularly.
“In the 1920s and 1930s, Netaji would often visit the makeshift gurdwara on Bakul Bagan Road in a garage of Bhayia Mangal Singh Balachak and the Rashbehari gurdwara later,” says Gill.
S. Niranjan Singh Talib, the publisher of the first Punjabi daily in Calcutta, which started in 1930, was imprisoned after Bose’s escape in 1941 and tortured by the British in connection with the escape, according to Talib’s family members, Gill says.
After Bose escaped from India, a Sikh, Sardul Singh Caveeshar was elected president of the Forward Bloc. Bose was helped in Afghanistan and Russia by Sikh members of the Bolshevik Party. Indian National Army was founded by General Mohan Singh and was led by him before Bose took charge.
The socialist ideology is not a coincidence. Somewhere, it was a question of faith.
“Sikh ideology is close to Left,” says Gill. “It is like socialism. The only difference between the two is belief in God or the lack of it,” he adds, laughing.
“Which is why so many Sikhs were Communist-minded. My father told me that CPIleader Indrajit Gupta had once addressed a meeting at our house,” says Gill.
He is a soft-spoken man, who is always smiling, but also given to making sharp observations.
In 1994, Gill was elected general secretary of DumDum gurdwara. He is also the general secretary of Punjabi Sahit Sabha.
Gill’s quest began in earnest after he was appointed honorary in-charge, general secretary and convenor of Shiromani Committee East India Sikh Commission in 2006. This gave him the opportunity to talk to preachers, who arrived to take the message of Sikhism to various parts of India.
With them, he began to travel. “I have travelled to the most distant corners of the country in the last 20 years. I have travelled and travelled,” says Gill.
In the process he has found a wealth of evidence and resources about the reach of Sikhism through the centuries. He is interested in how this has played out in society, especially from the points of view of class and caste. He says that the first graduate from Contai in West Bengal was a Sikh, Pran Singh.
But Gill is most touched when he finds, after a long journey, in a remote village, in a home of a family that is not Sikh, a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib kept with respect. This, he says, he has come across many times. An ancestor in that family would turn out to be a Nanakpanthi.
That is proof of how well an idea travelled. It is far more alive than an edifice; proof again that faiths canco-exist. Gill is also an expert onOmichund, or Umichand, the immensely rich Sikh merchant who is usually considered treacherous for the role he played in the defeat of Sirajud-Daulah in the hands of the British. Omichund was more than that, says Gill. The business empire that he built by trading saltpetre was stupendous and worth a relook. “Besides, we have to remember, he was a businessman.”