The word ‘Lavanik’ in Sanskrit is used for a salt merchant. In all obvious prospects, the Labana society is said to have received its name from this word as its members dealt in with salt. The term Lobana or Labana therefore appears to have been derived from the two words- LOON (salt) and the BANA (trade). Nonetheless, the tribe did not deal in salt only but other goods as well which includes cattle, grains, oil seeds and low-priced ornaments like ear jewelry and brass rings. For carrying out their trade they travelled to distance places and due to their peripatetic life-pattern, they were also called ‘banjaras’. According to Gurmat Parkash, a magazine published by Sri Gurdawara Prabandhak Committee, the word Lobana also refers to those who wear iron dress (Loh baana), i.e. military clothing.
Labana is a tribe with significant populations in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttaranachal, Chandigarh, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of India. They speak Punjabi, Lubanki, Hindi and its various dialects. Different views are prevalent about their origin. Historians have traced their lineage to Chauhan or Raghuvanshi Rajputs, to Gaur Brahmins of Pilibhit and Ranthambore and even to Suryavanshi and Chandravanshi Kshatriyas. Leaving aside the discussion of their origin, it appears to be more appropriate to regard the community as a sub-division of the great Banjara tribe. For all practical purposes, Labanas have nomadic roots and therefore some workers also relate them to the Lambada or Labada tribe of Andhra.
The Labanas are well-known in the history of the north India in general and that of the Sikhism in particular. The Labana community is known for its hard work, handiness, simplicity, religiosity, courage and loyalty to the Sikhism. They were attracted by the high ideals of the Sikh Gurus and were drawn to the centre stage in the service of the Gurus right from the beginning. The first prominent Labana to be fascinated by the Sikh way of life was Saundhe Shah who came in contact with Guru Angad Dev Ji. He was followed by many others like Baba Hasna and Baba Takht Mal who served the fifth and sixth Sikh Gurus. When, after the death of Sri Guru Harkrishan Ji, confusion about the identification of his successor erupted it was Makhan Shah, a great Labana merchant, who could recognize Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji from among several impostors. Another Labana Sikh, Lakhi Shah, did valuable service to Sikhism in 1675 by cremating the headless body of Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji after his execution in Delhi by putting his own house on fire (Presently Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib in Delhi is on the site). It is said that his services were highly appreciated by Guru Gobind Singh Ji. The Labanas also actively participated in the battles fought by the tenth Guru. There were many brave Labana sikhs in the period of Guru Gobind Singh Ji and to name a few famous ones:
Bhai Mani Singh, Bhai Bachittar Singh, Bhai Udai Singh, Bhai Dyala Ji and Bhai Maha Singh.
Bhai Bachittar Singh was the one who attacked a drunk and mad Mughal elephant at Guru Gobind Singh’s command. Even later on, the Labanas gave financial and military support to Banda Bahadur on his arrival in Punjab. They joined Banda’s army and took active part in the battles fought by him. During the misl period, the Labanas joined the services of various misldars. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had also recruited them into the Khalsa Army and they proved to be excellent militia and distinguished themselves by their fearlessness and sincerity towards the faith and the empire. During the eighteenth century, the Labanas began to follow a settled way of life. Many among them took to agriculture and gradually became peasant-proprietors. In the early nineteenth century, the Labanas had established their own important villages. It is well established that wherever the Labanas settled they mainly named their villages as Tandas. Tanda in Lubanki dialect means a travelling body. In Jammu province, the Labanas had several hamlets each called Tanda like Tanda Burj and Tanda Soal. Besides this, several important labana villages in Jammu region are Kirpind, Dablehar, Khour Deonia, Chak-Ram-Chand, Pangdour, Kotli, Manghal and many more. In this way the Labanas replaced their nomadic and pastoral life by settled way of life. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Labanas at some places owned not only parts of villages, but also entire villages and even groups of villages.
Under the Sikh rule, majority of the Labanas continued their former occupations on traditional pattern. Bulk of them earned livelihood as professional carriers and only some of them as traders. Cattle-trade was also prevalent among them. Like the other trading communities the Labanas also harvested profits from the expansion of trade. Thus their financial position gradually improved. The improvement in their economic condition paved the way for upward social mobility among them. At the commencement of the British rule also, scores of labanas continued to be essentially engaged in carrying hereditary trade by means of large herds of laden bullocks. Nevertheless, the number increased of those engaged in agriculture. They proved to be industrious cultivators and in the beginning of the twentieth century agriculture became their main occupation. Nonetheless in their spare time, they still made ropes, grass mats and traded in cattle. Next to agriculture came the military service. The Labanas being men of good physique and compelled by economic factors turned to military services. Their services in the army and other paramilitary forces proved very helpful for uplifting their social status. British records show that the Sikh Labanas showed deep interest in the army and took freely to military services. By the early 20th century, the Sikh Labanas multiplied their number in the army.
Recognizing the valuable services rendered by the Labanas, separate companies were created for them in the Pioneers. The Labanas showed great bravery in the First World War and a number of them were honoured with distinguished Indian service medals. They were imbued with a spirit of martial zeal and possessed most of the qualifications required in infantry soldiers. In fact, they took pride of their military services and were famous for their fearlessness and loyalty. The British officers used to say that the Labanas, the hereditary carrying class, had always done well as soldiers. Besides, many Labanas also achieved the highest native officer ranks. Companies of Labana Sikhs also fought in the Second World War (some joining Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army). At present also, numerous labana youths are serving in army and have sacrificed lives for the country. According to a rough estimate by the author in his own village (Makhan Pur, Bishnah) two youths, on an average, are in army from each Labana family. Captain Bana Singh of R.S. Pura has been awarded ‘Parm Vir Chakra’, the highest gallantry award which demonstrates the spirit of courage and valour in the community.
It may sound unusual but the fact is that the Labanas not only belong to Sikhism but to Hinduism and Islam also. The Labanas of Jammu, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh however are mostly Sikhs. They have several sub castes like Ajrawat, Azrot or Ghotra, Chanaina, Sujlana, Maniani, Multani, Dalta, Pelia, Parwal, Khasarya, Wamial or Mathaun, Wamowal, Narowal, Padurgi, Palsiya, Tadra, Vakhil, Lalia, Nanaut and many more. These names were said to have been derived from places of their settlement, occupation and religious ceremonies.
The social health of the community has not been much promising. In ninetieth century, the literate Labanas constituted only one percent of the whole community and their women folk were almost hundred percent illiterate but today the rate of increasing literacy among them is even more in comparison to many other agriculturist tribes. Despite this pace, the clan is still far behind in literacy norms and as a remedy deserves more consolidated efforts for overall fortification of the multitude. A few educated and meritorious Labanas are no doubt employed in government services in civil administration, along with the army and the police. Bibi Jagir Kaur, erstwhile minister in Punjab government and the first woman to become president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Prof. Bhajan Singh, Late Prof. Sukhdev Singh and Bhai Harjinder Singh Shri Nagar Wale (raggi) are the most outstanding personalities of this Sikh sub-community. It is appreciating that the Government of India has included the community under OBC (27% reservation), its inclusion, however, in the ‘weak and under privileged class’ in J&K (with overall reservation of just 2% shared by several communities) needs to be thoughtfully readdressed and reservation allocation be enhanced for the betterment of the labana community in particular and the socially backward society as a whole.
(The author is a Lecturer in Botany)