by Shashwati Talukdar
Our hosts from the Jalandhar countryside were very keen we go to the fair at the Gurudwara in Beggowal, a place to which they had contributed handsomely. And indeed it was a handsome building. A fair was in progress, complete with neon squirrel light displays, and seva in the form of food and water.
Beggowal is predominantly a Lubana village, as is the Gurdwara. And even a lazy researcher’s go-to, ie. Wikipedia, tells you that they were a nomadic people who became sedentary in the 19th century (Lubana.com has a brief outline of all the possible histories of the Lubanas). Interestingly, they seem to have become Sikhs in large numbers around the 1880s. So what was happening in the 19th century that could possibly explain all this?
A possibility from my engagement with a previous project suggests itself. The 18th century was a rather tumultuous time in the sub-continent. Not the least due to the coming of the railways in the wake of seemingly inevitable march of British Colonial progress. Nomadic peoples paid dearly for this particular political and economic reality. First, the coming of the railways destroyed (a detailed account of what happened to the Koravas in Madras Presidency is a good example) the livelihood of nomadic traders. Second, a system of colonial laws and economic arrangements created conditions such that many communities were unable to sustain themselves. They were increasingly marginalized socially and legally. Finally, the growing suspicion of nomadic communities and their criminalization with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, threw entire communities into a crises at the stroke of a pen. And many communities sought to escape their marginalization by transforming themselves. I do not know if the Lubanas were ever notified under the Criminal Tribes Act, but it was certainly the context of their lives in the late 18th century.
A second reality that was brewing in mid-19th century Punjab was the promotion of the idea of Sikhs as a martial race (in contrast to the rebellious Santhals, who got notified as a Criminal Tribe). A result of the changes after the first wars of independence in 1857, and the participation of Punjabi Sikhs in that particular conflict. This opened up career paths in the British Indian army. An attractive option in a world where traditional livelihoods were increasingly in jeopardy.
Whatever the reasons, the Lubanas seem to have, by and large, adapted very successfully to all the challenges and opportunities that presented themselves. And if our hosts were any indication, this was a community that hadn’t lost its ability to be successful. The Gurdwara they had funded was very well appointed, and the fair was not lacking for any up to date decorations, state of the art sound systems or any other arrangement you need for a large scale celebration.