How a farm protest helped turn group of Dravidians from TN into Sikhs

They say faith can move mountains. For Supreme Court lawyer Jeevan Kumar, a Dravidian from Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi, the tailwind for his final push to the summit on a long expedition of faith came from the unlikeliest of places: the site of the farm protest at Singhu on the Delhi-Haryana border in 2021.

The 51-year-old, who was always fascinated by the tenets of Sikhism, was at Singhu along with a few others from his native state to show solidarity with the protesting farmers, most of them Sikhs from Punjab.

What was meant to be a march against farm laws turned out to be an exploration of what he calls Sikh fortitude. He saw in the farmers' steadfastness an extraordinary sense of purpose strengthened by their faith. He found them as rooted to the soil as their beliefs were. He knew he must belong.

how a farm protest helped turn group of dravidians from tn into sikhs

Three years later, Jeevan Kumar is Jeevan Singh Malla. He wears a turban and recites the Gurbani. He has converted his house at Korampallam into the "School of Miri Piri" (School of Politics and Culture), where Tamil Sikhs occasionally meet for discourse and prayers.

He runs the Bahujan Dravida Party (BDP), which has fielded Tamil Sikhs in seven Lok Sabha seats of Tamil Nadu, and 40 others in constituencies spread across other states. Malla is contesting Punjab's Hoshiarpur reserved constituency.

The law graduate had first visited a gurdwara in Punjab in 2019 to become a Sikh, only to be told to return in six months. "I was asked to first grow a beard and hair'," he recounts with amusement.

how a farm protest helped turn group of dravidians from tn into sikhs

Today, his state has about 25 practicing Tamil Sikhs and many others who are learning about the faith.

Tamil Sikhs pray at gurdwaras in Chennai and Rameswaram. Malla's organisation, Tamil Sikhs Brotherhood and Education Foundation, plans to build a gurdwara in Thoothukudi, formerly Tuticorin. "Before that, we want to spread the message of the Gurus on eradicating caste from society," says the lawyer.

Discrimination in Tamil Nadu's caste cauldron is one of the reasons for many being drawn to Sikhism. Scheduled Castes like Pallar and Vannar bear the brunt of caste bias, sometimes facing harsh treatment from even their own.

"Being a Sikh, I am not identified by caste anymore," says Malla.

how a farm protest helped turn group of dravidians from tn into sikhs

Electrical engineer and Delhi-based law student Selva Singh, who is from Thoothukudi, says the message any faith sends out is more important than the rituals associated with it. "The focus is to spread the word of Sikh Gurus to create a casteless society," says the 27-year-old.

Malla was once captivated by Buddhism. But as he drifted towards the Sikh faith after listening to Osho's discourses, he realised that becoming one wouldn't be easy.

"Sikhs in Punjab were least interested in conversion. Even after being associated with them since 2015, they weren't forthcoming in preaching the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, Ravidas or Sant Kabir," Malla tells TOI.

how a farm protest helped turn group of dravidians from tn into sikhs

The political ideology of Kanshi Ram's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) seemed to fill that void for Dravidians aspiring to be Sikhs. Many of them were BSP members before they parted ways, triggered by Kanshi Ram's successor, Mayawati, dropping Dravidian icon Periyar from the party's pedestal.

"All of us subscribed to Kanshi Ram's ideology of empowering common people," says Asiriyar Shanmugasundam Singh, a physics teacher who takes classes on ideology at Malla's School of Miri Piri.

Malla and his supporters organised three rallies linking Periyar and Kanshi Ram between Erode, the birthplace of the father of the Dravidian movement, and Pirthipur Bunga in Punjab, where the BSP founder was born. That was between 2018 and 2021.

Little did they know that everything would fall into place in Singhu.

"We are also from farming communities. We were excited to see how the Sikh farmers were fighting for what they believed in. Sikhs consider farming a form of worship," says Korkai Palani Singh, hailing from Kariapatti in Virudhunagar district.

how a farm protest helped turn group of dravidians from tn into sikhs

Palani Singh owns some farmland in Kariapatti, but discrimination within the local community wouldn't let him live in peace. "After I took Amritdhari and converted to Sikhism, I am just a Sikh and not identified by any caste," he says.

Chennai resident Seetha Kaur, BDP's nominee for the Tenkasi seat, says Sikhism has empowered her as a woman. "Wearing my khalsa attire, I walk with pride and courage. Sikhism treats women like queens while men are kings. The religion has given me equality like none other," says Kaur, born Hindu in Tirunelveli and married in a Christian family.

Tamil Sikhs Brotherhood and Education Foundation has translated the book Captivating the Simple-Hearted, an explainer of the Sikh movement, into a Tamil tome titled Kuruthiyil Pootha Malargal. "The book captivates people facing caste discrimination," says Malla.

More translated works are in various stages of completion. "Our prayers are now in Punjabi," Malla tells TOI. "But we are translating these verses into Tamil."

CRPF DIG Kewal Singh taught the Gurbani to a batch of Tamil Sikhs when he was posted in Chennai in 2022. Eight were initiated into the faith as part of the Amritdhari ritual.

Tamil Sikhs have also been making themselves available for people in need. They visited strife-torn Manipur to provide relief and toured southern Tamil Nadu after floods ravaged the region last Dec.

"With the help of our friends in Punjab, we mobilised Rs 30 lakh worth of relief materials during floods in southern Tamil Nadu. Some from Punjab also joined us when we distributed relief materials in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi. We felt like one among them, proud Sikhs," says Seetha Kaur.

(With inputs from IP Singh in Jalandhar)

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