MAZHABI SIKHS, commonly pronounced as Mazhbi Sikhs, is the name given to Sikh converts from the Chuhra community, among the lowest in the Hindu caste order. Chuhras in medieval Punjab, corresponding to Bharigis 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 Guru Nanak 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 sangat, religious congregation, and paiigat, commensality.

They received the high sounding designation of Rarighreta, reminiscent of Rarighars, Rajput converts to Islam.A special honour was earned for the community by Bhai Jaita, a Rarighreta Sikh when he boldly lifted the severed head of Guru Tegh Bahadur, martyred in the Chandni Chowk in Delhi on 11 November 1675, and brought it to Kiratpur, covering a distance of 300odd 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,” Rarighretas are the Guru`s own sons.

Upon the creation of the Khalsa in 1699, Bhai Jaita took the rites of the doubleedged sword and was renamed Jivan Singh. Several others of his caste also took khande di pdhul and joined the order of the Khalsa.The new spirit infused by khande di pdhul added to the native tenacity and hardiness of the Rarighretas as a class and during the troubled eighteenth century, they suffered and fought valiantly hand in hand with other Sikhs. Bhai Bota Singh, who with nothing but a heavy club in his hand dared flu Mughal might and proclaiming the sovereignty of the Khalsa started levying toll on the main Punjab highway, had a Rarighreta Sikh, Garja Singh, as his sole comradeinarms.

Attacked by a punitive contingent sent by the governor of Lahore, flu 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 jaihds or fighting hands, one of them consisted exclusively of the Rarighreta Sikhs. According lo Ratan Singh Bharigu, Prachm Panlh Prakash, Bir Singh, the leader of tins jaihd, commanded 1300 horse. With the virtual establishment of their sovereignty in the plains of the central Punjab, as the Siklis slowly reverted to their traditional village life, with farming as their main occupation, the Rarighreta Sikhs resumed their old role of scavenging and field labour, but they were no longer the out castes they had been.

They wore unshorn hair and abstained from tobacco and haldl meat, i.e. flesh of animals slaughtered in the Muhammadan way. They were endearingly called Mazhabi Sikhs (lit. Sikhs steadfast in their religious faith), the term Rarighreta 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. Demobilization followed the annexation in 1849 of the Sikh country to the British dominions. Many of the Mazhabi 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, Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir raised a corps of Maxhabi 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. 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 Gujrariwala 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 wilh Ramdasia (Chamar) 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 Hindus, insisted and secured the inclusion of Mazhabi Sikhs (along with Ramdasia, KabirpanthT 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