May 25, 2020
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A Proud Covenant

Despite some lacunae, this history of the Sikhs is gripping

A Proud Covenant
The Sikhs
HarperCollins Not Mentioned
PATWANT Singh describes in stirring detail the events of March 30, 1699 in the settlement of Anandpur, against a backdrop of Fort Keshgarh and the mountains beyond, that were to become the defining moment for all Sikhs. It was the auspicious day of Baisakhi and the warrior-poet Gobind Singh, tenth and last of the Sikh gurus, after years of blood-soaked confrontation with Mughal forces, decided to recast the identity of his followers into an enduring mould. In a series of dramatic and symbolic movements, he baptised the Sikhs into a brotherhood which he called the Khalsa, or "pure ones". He decisively announced that the age of living gurus was over: "In each of you the whole brotherhood shall be incarnated. You are my sons, in both flesh and spirit." The final ceremony of initiation into the faith was simple but it electrified the congregation. Into an iron bowl of water Guru Gobind Singh added sugar, then stirred it with a double-edged sword to the recitation of hymns compiled in the Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs. "This magical mix of sweetness and steel which he called amrit," writes Patwant Singh, "has continued to be given to all baptised Sikhs ever since."

Three hundred years later, as Sikhs prepare to commemorate the foundation of the Khalsa, the run-up to the event has been less than edifying, wholly devoid of that simple "mix of sweetness and steel" that lies at the heart of Sikhism. A long and ugly battle among the Sikh leadership, principally over control of rich gurudwara treasuries, has led to the expulsion of Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has been plagued by embarrassing charges of promoting the political interests of his son and other kin. Even Lata Manges-hkar has found it politic to feign illness and flee from the tercentenary stage, reportedly over her performance fee.

The history of the Sikhs cannot be told without a discussion of the caste system and it is as well that Patwant Singh starts his with an analysis of Brahminical control over Indian society. The advent of Sikhism in the 15th century—the word Sikh deriving from the Sanskrit shishya, or disciple—with Nanak, the first guru, was essentially a revolt against caste, idol worship and gender inequality. Yet, if at the very outset Pat-want Singh points out that even after 2,000 years of Indian history "the Brahminical order has not only survived but spread with unerring purpose" he is also honest enough to deplore at the end of the book "the ersatz attitudes (among Sikhs) that threaten to form a casteless faith into a caste-ridden one." As examples he quotes the growing distinction between Jat and non-Jat Sikhs, regional divisions in the community and, worse of all, prejudice against Mazhabi Sikhs—the lower castes who converted to Sikhism. With outspoken candour, he places part of the blame at the doorstep of the two main Sikh bodies of political control, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Prab-andhak Committee (SPGC) which have persistently promoted the interest of the Jat Sikhs against non-Jat Sikhs. What he does not explicitly point out—although it's clear from a close reading of the text—is that throughout history the dharma of the Sikh brotherhood has been shiningly upheld when under attack. This is as true of the survival of Sikhism under the early Afghan raiders, the Mughals, the British, all the way down to the brutal machinations of Congress politics that resulted in Operation Bluestar and, later, the killings of the Sikhs in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination. But in times of peace Sikh society tends to show signs of reverting to pre-Sikh configurations. And when in power Sikh politicians are just as venal as any other.

An important trait of Sikhs is their remarkable prosperity. There are few who are desperately poor. This is partly due to the egalitarian underpinning of their faith, partly because of their intrinsic propensity to succeed. It's also the result of an early investment in agriculture that turned Punjab into India's bread basket. But the Green Revolution of the '60s has petered out. Unemployment has steadily risen, and a bankrupted treasury is open to pillage by the profligacy of political handouts. A closer scrutiny of these problems might have informed us where Punjab—and the Sikhs—might go from here.

Nevertheless, Patwant Singh marshalls 500 years of history with astonishing clarity and ease. It' a fascinating chronicle of a courageous, resilient and colourful people.

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