When a small Sikh community thrived in an Iranian border town


In the early 1930s, when Reza Shah Pahlavi toured Iran’s easternmost outposts on the border with India, he saw a group of turbaned men with long beards. floating dressed in white dresses. As the story goes, he asked locals about the Turbaned Men and they were told they were Zahids, or holy men of Hind. The small town, then called Dozdaab, was renamed Zahedan – the city of holy men.

Dozdaab, or Zahedan, is found in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan (the official spelling in Iran). There is some confusion over the original name of the city. “Dozd” means thief in Farsi, while “aab” means water, which some people believe the name means “water thief”. Others said the place was once notorious for thieves from the part of Baluchistan that was under British control. According to this account, the name is a Baloch word meaning the outpouring of water.

While some scholars in South Asia and Iran say that the Sikh community started coming to the small town in the early 1900s, the historical records of the Sikh community in Iran date back to the early 1920s. world, German and Ottoman agents had penetrated deep into Persia and had their eye on the Indian border. Alarmed by the possibility of an invasion of India, British leaders began to build a strategic rail link from Quetta to Iran. It was around this time that enterprising Sikhs began to settle in Dozdaab.

“The railway from Quetta to Zahedan was one of the reasons for the development of the Dozdaab (Zahedan) settlement,” Iranian scholar Farideh Okati wrote in a 2015 article for Iranian Journal of Language Problems. “The Indians, especially the Sikh workers, who built the railway were somehow involved in the establishment and development of this city by building their homes there and starting new businesses.

The first wave

When rumors of opportunities in what was still known as Persia spread to Punjab in the early 1920s, a group of enterprising families from villages near Rawalpindi decided to try their luck in the country. These families will later be joined by relatives who fled the violence that preceded and accompanied the partition of India in 1947.

Other Sikhs who chose to settle in Zahedan were part of the British Indian Army. When some British forces left Mandatory Iraq for India via Persia, a few years after the end of World War I, some Sikh soldiers received trucks for repair. These decommissioned soldiers then became truckers, transporting fresh produce to Zahedan from the Punjab.

“My two grandfathers, maternal and paternal, were truck drivers bringing vegetables from Punjab to Zahedan,” said Runjeet Singh, who was born in Zahedan and is now a retired professional living in the UK. Her parents were born in the Iranian border town and were married in the gurudwara. They left for Tehran when Runjeet Singh was one year old.

“Drivers and traders, who transported or traded goods, spices and other products, such as pistachio between Iran and India in the early 20th century, gradually decided to reside in Iran and doing their job in this country, ”Okati wrote. .

Zahedan Gurudwara, one of the city’s most unique monuments, was built in 1921. It was the first Sikh temple in West Asia. Over time, the city has become a point of entry for Sikhs to Persia, with a significant number of immigrants settling in Tehran.

Zahedan’s community was mostly made up of traders, but some members started money lending businesses. Over time, the Sikhs monopolized the auto parts trade. In the 1930s, an area in the center of what was still a small town was known as the Sikh Bazaar.

A 2001 report in The gallery mentions an entrepreneur named Sahib Singh, who created the Hind-Iran bank. The bank had extensive operations in Iran and India, but was liquidated in the late 1950s.

Given the affection the Pahlavis had for the community, the Sikhs were granted Iranian citizenship without much hassle. Members of the community still speak of the last Shah with great admiration and respect. Before the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in ​​February 1979, the Sikh community in Iran numbered 5,000 people.

In Zahedan, the community has also succeeded in developing good relations with the Sistanis and the Baloch. At its peak, the community numbered 500 people in the Iranian border town.

Islamic revolution

The Islamic Revolution, which began in 1978, deeply affected the Sikh community. In December 1979, the famous journalist and writer Pranay Gupte was in Zahedan when pitched battles broke out between the Sistanis and the Baluchis.

In a report filed for The New York Times on December 24, 1979, Gupte wrote: “Sikhs were needed by the Baluch and Seistani, as well as all those the government of Tehran sent here, for the Indian immigrants run all the auto parts and car parts stores. other major consumer supply companies in town. . Sikhs were also money lenders, and until the ban on alcohol ordered by Ayatollah Khomeni, they ran the six wine shops in Zahedan.

When the violence reached its peak, the community closed their businesses and used the gurudwara as a sanctuary. The community has received assurances from both sides that it will not be harmed.

In his dispatch, Gupte wrote that the Sikh community welcomed everyone to the gurudwara, offering visitors “hot milk flavored with spices and pistachios”. Kirpal Singh, a community leader, told the reporter that Sikhs stay away from local Zahedan politics. “We are only around 220 people, so what other choice do we have than to be on good terms with everyone,” Gurudwara school principal Phula Singh told journalist. “Our social life is limited to our own community. We deal with Baluchis and Sistanis during working hours. But after that we come to our home and deal only with other Sikhs. It has been like this for over 50 years.

After the fighting ended, some Sikhs left Zahedan for Tehran and migrated out of the country. “Some of the Sikhs left this city and also the country right after the revolution because they were afraid of losing their jobs, or that the new situations and conditions in the country might affect their ways of life,” Farideh Okati wrote in his article from 2015..

More than 20 families remained in Zahedan, but they were subject to new laws and regulations imposed by the Islamic regime. Some young Sikhs were drafted into the military and forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq war.

Since Sikhs in Iran are Iranian citizens, their sons are still required to serve in the armed forces for a period ranging from 18 months to two years. However, Sikhism is not recognized by the government as a minority religion. Iran only recognizes Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians as official religious minorities. Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution recognizes the members of these three religious groups as “people of the book” and allows them “to exercise religious freedom“.

According to the 2016 census, 40,551 Iranians observed other religions, while 124,572 others did not declare their religion. The Sikh community belongs to the category of 165,123 citizens who are not part of the “religious functionality” of the country. A Zahedan community member who spoke to the writer on condition of anonymity said Sikhs faced no form of discrimination in the country, but added that they discouraged their children from marrying non- sikhs.

Declining community

At the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Iran in 2001, Zahedan was home to around 20 Sikh families. Local estimates in 2021 place it at 10 families. The city’s gurudwara is still functional and is also used by Indian diplomats and their family members in Zahedan. The consulate, which is located near the gurudwara, provides consular services to four Iranian provinces.

Young adults in the now tiny community of Zahedan often seek business opportunities in Dubai or the West, while students seek admission to universities in Western countries. There is also a small community of Zahedan Sikhs in the UK.

Research by Iranian academics suggests that the community is likely to disappear within a few generations. A major indication of this is the small number of Sikh children in the city. The gurudwara school has very few students in its three classes, and local reports indicate that it is not well maintained. “At present, as almost all of the young people have moved to India or other countries to complete their studies or for any other reason, and have not returned to Zahedan as residents, there is no had new marriages, so no more children in Sikh society will need this school, ”Okati wrote.

Efforts are being made by the Sikh diaspora and the Indian government to ensure that the Zahedan gurudwara is taken care of. However, as Iran continues to face Western sanctions and political instability in the wider neighborhood, Zahedan is a far cry from when the Punjabis believed it was a place where “the money was flowing.” from the sky “. It is only a matter of time before the Sikh community disappears from the town which received its current name because of them.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He is Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.