MAZHABĪ SIKHS, commonly pronounced as Mazhbī Sikhs, is the name given to Sikh converts from the Chūhṛā community, among the lowest in the Hindu caste order. Chūhṛās in medieval Punjab, corresponding to Bhāṇgīs of the Hindi-speaking regions, were the village menials who received customary payment in kind at harvest time for such services as sweeping and scavenging. They lived in separate quarters, sequestered from the main village population, and were allowed neither instruction nor entry into places of worship. They were the "untouchable" class, for a mere touch by anyone of them "polluted" members of the upper castes. With the advent of Islam, some of them sought amelioration of their social status in conversion gaining the title of mihtar, Persian for chief, but the bulk still remained in the Hindu fold. The teachings of Gurū Nānak and his nine spiritual successors, with their rejection of distinctions based upon caste or birth and their emphasis on equality of all human beings, had a special appeal for them. Those of them who joined the new faith gained admittance along with others to saṅgat, religious congregation, and paṅgat, commensality. They received the high-sounding designation of Raṅghreṭā, reminiscent of Raṅghaṛs, Rājpūt converts to Islam. A special honour was earned for the community by Bhāī Jaitā, a Raṅghreṭā Sikh when he boldly lifted the severed head of Gurū Tegh Bahādur, martyred in the Chāndnī Chowk in Delhi on 11 November 1675, and brought it to Kīratpur, covering a distance of 300-odd km in five days. Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, coming out of Anandpur to receive him at Kīratpur, embraced him warmly, and exalted his whole tribe by conferring on it the blessing : "Raṅghreṭe Gurū ke beṭe," Raṇghreṭās are the Gurū's own sons.
Upon the creation of the Khālsā in 1699, Bhāī Jaitā took the rites of the double-edged sword and was renamed Jīvan Siṅgh. Several others of his caste also took khaṇḍe dī pāhul and joined the order of the Khālsā.
The new spirit infused by khaṇḍe dī pāhul added to the native tenacity and hardiness of the Raṅghreṭās as a class and during the troubled eighteenth century, they suffered and fought valiantly hand in hand with other Sikhs. Bhāī Botā Siṅgh, who with nothing but a heavy club in his hand dared the Mughal might and proclaiming the sovereignty of the Khālsā started levying toll on the main Punjab highway, had a Raṅghreṭā Sikh, Garjā Siṅgh, as his sole comrade-in-arms. 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 Nawāb Kapūr Siṅgh, the chosen leader of the Dal Khālsā, as the guerrilla force of the Sikhs was called, reorganized the Dal into five jathās or fighting bands, one of them consisted exclusively of the Raṅghreṭā Sikhs. According to Ratan Siṅgh Bhaṅgū, Prāchīn Panth Prakāsh, Bīr Siṅgh, the leader of this jathā, commanded 1300 horse.
With the virtual establishment of their sovereignty in the plains of the central Punjab, as the Sikhs slowly reverted to their traditional village life, with farming as their main occupation, the Raṅghreṭā Sikhs resumed their old role of scavenging and field labour, but they were no longer the outcastes they had been. They wore unshorn hair and abstained from tobacco and halāl meat, i.e. flesh of animals slaughtered in the Muhammadan way. They were endearingly called Mazhabī Sikhs (lit. Sikhs steadfast in their religious faith), the term Raṅghreṭā gradually falling into disuse.
During the reign of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh, Mazhabī Sikhs were freely enlisted in the Khālsā army, especially in the infantry, and were generally deployed for duty on the north-western frontier. Demobilization followed the annexation in 1849 of the Sikh country to the British dominions. Many of the Mazhabī soldiers, no longer content with their former station as village menials, resorted to highway robbery, theft and dacoity so that the British government declared them to be a criminal tribe. About 1851, Mahārājā Gulāb Siṅgh of Jammū and Kāshmīr raised a corps of Mazhabī 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 Mazhabī Sikhs out of a total strength of 10,866 Sikhs in the Indian army. Thus 17 per cent of the Sikh soldiers were Mazhabīs. Mazhabī 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 Chenāb colony. This brought them a better economic and social status as a class. In the Chenāb colony (Lyāllpur and Gujrāñwālā districts), Mazhabī Sikhs were officially declared to be an agricultural caste and in the census reports they were reckoned separately from Chūhṛā Sikhs, i.e. those who had not received the Khālsā baptism. The Siṅgh Sabhā, launched in 1873 with the object of reforming Sikh practice and ceremonial, preached against caste distinctions and brought further prestige to Mazhabī Sikhs. Many more now opted for the rites of initiation. The population of the Mazhabī Sikhs increased from 8,961 in 1901 to 21,691 in 1911 and 169,247 in 1931. During the Second World War (1939-45), Mazhabī Sikhs along with Rāmdāsīā (Chamār) Sikhs recruited to the newly raised Mazhabī and Rāmdāsīā battalions, later redesignated as the Sikh Light Infantry. Their pioneer regiments had already been amalgamated in the Bombay Engineers Group.
Mazhabī Sikhs, as an integral part of the Sikh community, took an active part in the Gurdwārā Reform movement and the freedom struggle. After Independence, when the Constitution of India was being framed, the Shiromaṇī Akālī Dal, in order to obtain for the Sikh backward classes benefits and privileges being provided for similar sections of the Hindus, insisted and secured the inclusion of Mazhabī Sikhs (along with Ramdāsīā, Kabīrpanthī and Siklīgar Sikhs) among the scheduled classes. Although this was not consistent with the basic Sikh doctrine of casteless ness, Mazhabī and other backward Sikhs have benefited from the concessions statutorily provided to them in the field of education, employment and political representation.
Parkāsh Siṅgh Jammū