POPULATION of the Sikhs, small as compared to other major religious communities of India, is chiefly concentrated in the Punjab, India, although being fond of travel, Sikhs are found in nearly all corners of the globe. The community is 500 years old, but the data regarding its spread geographically and numerically in the early period of its history are scarce. There is, however, evidence to show that the founder, Guru Nanak, travelled extensively in India and abroad and that there were sangats or fellowships of disciples, established at several places in the wake of his visits.

To link these sangats to the Guru, local leaders called masandsv/ere appointed by his successors in the spiritual line. On the testimony of a contemporary Persian source, Maubid Zulfiqar Ardistani, Dabistdni Mazdhib, “During the time of each Mahal, i.e. Guru, the Sikhs increased till in the reign of Guru Arjan Mali they had become so numerous that there were not many cities in the inhabited countries where some Sikhs were not to be found.”

Emperor Jaharigir himself provides indication of the growing number of Sikhs in his otherwise hostile comment in his autobiography Tuzukifahdngin: “So many of the simpleminded Hindus, nay, many foolish Muslims too had been fascinated by the Guru`s ways and teaching….”Bhal Gurdas, Varan, XI, describing the more eminent Sikhs of the early Sikhism gives in some instances the names of their places of residence as well. Among the places mentioned in respect of the Sikhs of the period of Guru Arjan`s successor, Guru Hargobind (1606-44), arc Agra, Gwalior, U|jain, Burhanpur, Lucknow, Prayag, Patna, Rajmahal, and Dhaka.

Sikh population increased steadily during the rest of the seventeenth century as is evidenced by the hukamndmdsor letters of Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621-75) issued to sangatsin for Hung places such as Patan (Farid), in western Punjab, and Mirzapur, Banaras and Patna towards the east, and by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) to those in Bhai Rupa and Machhivara in the Malva tract of the Punjab, Naushehra in Majha, Dasuha in Doaba, Khara, in western Punjab, Dhaul in Rajasthan and Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet in eastern India. Sikhs customarily kept visiting Anandpur, which under Guru Gobind Singh had become the central seat ol the Sikh faith, in especially large numbers ors festivals like Baisakhi.

On the historic Baisakhi day of 30 March 1699, which witnessed the birth of the Khalsa, according to the Mughal ncwswriter`s report (referred to in Gh u 1 a m M u h a i y u d d i n, Td rikh i Pa njdb} 20,000 were administered the rites of the Khalsa. Subsequently, letters were, as says Kuir Singh, Gubilds Pdtshdhi 10, pp. 14051, issued to the sangats of Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Iran, Ghazm, Bokhara, Peshawar, Dera GhazI Khan. Dera Isma`il Khan, Multan, Shikarpur.Jharig Siyal, Talumbha, Kashmir, Bharatgarh.Jaipur, BIkaner, Kashi, Puri, Patna, Dhaka, etc., to come to Anandpur for initiation.

For the next sixty years, Sikhs suffered persecution and suppression. On 10 December 1710 Mughal emperor had issued a general decree for “the worshippers of Nanak (i.e. Sikhs) to be killed wherever found.” During the governership of Khan Bahadur ZakariyaKhan (1726-45) in the Punjab, special prizes were announced for the beheading of Sikhs and for information leading to the arrest of any of them. Another governor of the Punjab, Mu`inulMulk( 1748-53), nicknamed Mir Mannu by the Sikhs, enforced Zakariya Khan`s policy with such rigour that his name passed into contemporary folklore. The Sikhs called him their “sickle”, and they sang, “Mannu is our sickle; but the more it mows, the more we multiply.”

Sikhs suffered huge losses in numbers in the two ghallughdrds or holocausts of 1746 and 1762. In spite of these setbacks and relentless State repression, Sikhs did not lose their spirit of resilience, nor did they allow their numbers to dwindle hopelessly. Impelled by their example of daring in face of such heavy odds, fresh recruits were in fact always ready to join their ranks. Even after the disastrous massacre of 1762 in which Ahmad Shah Durrani had imagined he had scourged the entire race, the Sikhs recouped their military strength, attacking Sirhind within four months of the disastrous event and then challenging, in Amritsar, the Afghan invader.

The Sikh fighting force during this period of severe trial retained its essential striking strength and was able ultimately to carry its arms to distant parts. The establishment of Sikh rule under the misis or independencies over territories extending from the Yamuna in the east to the Indus in the west must have led to considerable accessions to Sikh population. Under Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), who further extended the boundaries of Sikh power consolidating it into a sovereign State, the process must have been further accelerated. It must be stated, though, that forced conversions were unknown in Sikh times and history does not record a single such instance.

No census was taken during those days and no exact or near exact figures can be computed from any sources of information available today, but a general estimate has come down the generations that Sikh population in what then constituted Ranjit Singh`s Punjab was around ten million. But with the fall of the Sikh kingdom in 1849, there set in a rapid decline in the numerical strcngh of the community. As the Punjab Administration Report for the year 1851-52 issued by the British noted: The Sikh faith and ecclesiastical polity is rapidly going where the Sikh political ascendancy has already gone.

Of the two elements in the old Khalsa, namely, the followers of Nanuck, the first prophet, and the followers of Guru Govind Singh, the second great religious leader, the former will hold their ground, and the latter will lose it. The Sikhs of Nanuck, a comparatively small body of peaceful habits and old family, will perhaps cling to the faith of their fathers; but the Sikhs of Govind who are of more recent origin, who are more specially styled the Singhs or “lions”, and who embraced the faith as being the religion of warfare and conquest, no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it. These men joined in thousands, and they now desert in equal numbers.

They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came, and they bring up their children as Hindus…. The first demo-graphical survey in Punjab was carried out as on the night intervening between 31 December 1854 and 1 January 1955. Detail of Sikh population was recorded only in respect of the Lahore division, “which contains the Majha or the original home of the Sikhs” and there they were found to be only about 200,000 in an aggregate population of about three million. Referring to this fact, the Punjab Administration Report for the year 1955-56 commented: This circumstance strongly corroborates what is commonly believed, namely that the Sikh tribe is losing numbers rapidly.

Modern Sikhism was little more than a political association (formed exclusively from among Hindus), which men would join or quit according to the circumstances of the day… Now that the Sikh commonwealth is broken up, people cease to be initiated into Sikhism and revert to Hindooism. Such is the undoubted explanation of a statistical fact, which might otherwise appear to be hardly credible. Besides large scale reversion into the Hindu fold, Christian proselytization, with overt government aid and encouragement, was also making inroads, especially among the backward classes.

In the `enumeration made in the Punjab including the cis Sutlej princely states in 1868, Sikhs numbered only 1,141,848. In the first regular census of 1881, the Sikh figure stood at 1,853,426. Thereafter, the decennial censuses reflected a steady increase in Sikh population. This upward trend was largely the result of the Singh Sabha reform movement launched in 1873.

The figures are: Census Population Increase per cent 1881 1,853,426 1891 1,907,883 2.9 1901 2,195,339 15.1 1911 3,014,466 37.3 1921 3,238,803 7.4 The Census Report, 1921, offers this comment: “The reason for the rapid growth of Sikhism in the last twenty years undoubtedly lies in the development among them of a strong communal feeling, their realisation of themselves as a separate political community from Hindus and the conversion to Sikhism of many of the depressed classes, who formerly swelled the ranks of the Hindus…” The Report also alluded to the problem about identifying a Sikh: “…Two of the fundamental rules required of a Sikh are that he should wear hair and refrain from smoking, and these two distinguishing features were prescribed at the census of 1891 as a definite criterion for the recognition of a Sikh where there was doubt.

They were, however, abandoned in 1911 as being unsatisfactory: it was then laid down that the statement of the person enumerated should be accepted and this rule has been retained at the present 1921 census.” This revision in criterion resulted in a larger number of Sikhs being registered as kesddhdns as against sahajdhdns. The proportion of sahajdhdns to kesddhdns in the Punjab which was .47 in 1891 and .70 in 1901, fell to .22 in 1911 and .08 in 1921. It may be noted that the modest rate of increase in the 1921 census reflects only the general trend attributable to the worldwide influenza epidemic which broke out soon after World War I (1914-18). The population of India as a whole had shown a decrease of 0.31 per cent for the decade 1911-21.

The upward pace in Sikh statistics was resumed after 1921 as is evident from the following table: Census Population Increase per cent 1931 4,306,442 33.3 1941 5,691,447 32.1 1951 6,219,134 9.2 1961 7,845,915 26.1 1971 10,378,797 32.2 1981 13,070,000 25.9 1991 17,178,080 31.4 Here, again, the comparatively low rate during the decade 194151 was owed to a very exceptional circumstance the partition of the Punjab in 1947 when a large number of Sikhs perished in the riots that preceded the events and those that followed it. These losses notwithstanding, the Sikhs were demographically consolidated in the East (Indian) Punjab in consequence of migrations from West (Pakistan) Punjab.

Barely 13.22 per cent of the population of pre Partition Punjab (1941 census), they were now 38.5 per cent of the combined population of the East Punjab and PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union). In 1956, PEPSU was amalgmated with East Punjab to from a single state the Punjab. The formation of a Punjabi speaking Punjab in 1966 by separating some territories to form the new state of Haryana and the Union territory of Chandigarh, and transferring some others to Himachal Pradesh, the percentage of the Sikhs in the new state rose to 60.22 in the census of 1971, to 60.75 in 1981 and 62.95 in the 1991 census. The increase in numbers was reflected not only in a higher percentage in the Punjab, but also in India as a whole.

The proportion of Sikh population to that of India which was 1.47 per cent in 1941, rose to 1.72 in 1951, 1.78 in 1961, 1.89 in 1971 and 1.90 in 1981. The bulk of the Sikh population of India (77.9%) lives in the Punjab. Major Sikh concentrations outside Punjab are in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, in that order. Within the Punjab, the Sikhs, by and large an agricultural community, are mostly settled in villages.

They are in a minority in all cities and towns. For example, in Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, Sikhs formed only 25.45 per cent of the population in 1971, further reduced to 21.11 per cent in 1981, and 20.29 per cent in 1991. No definite figures are available for Sikhs settled, permanently or temporarily, outside India. On a rough estimate, the number could be over a million, mostly concentrated in United Kingdom (300,000 to 600,000), United States of America (100.000 to 150.000) and in Canada (130,000 to 250,000). As a result of the preachings of an Indian Sikh enthusiast, Harbhajan Singh Puri, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan, several thousand North American whiles have also embraced Sikhism.

References :

1. Decennial Census Reports