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The Sikhs today are a people with a distinct identity and culture with their holy places spread all over India—the historic India bounded on one side by the Himalayas, and on the other, the Indian Ocean. The largest concentration of their holy places is in what Akbar called the land of the five rivers, which today is divided between India and Pakistan. The influence of the Sikh Gurus, especially of Guru Nanak Devji, was considerable over the entire territory, whose eastern border was broadly marked by the river Yamuna. It spread in the region between the foothills in the north, the marshes of the Indus river in the south, and the desert in the south-west. In the years when the British ruled India this was the land of Punjab and Sind, with Delhi being its southern-most town.
The Sikhs were recognised as a distinct group of people in India by the colonial government from the earliest times. Even before Maharaja Ranjit Singh had established the Khalsa Raj at Lahore, English visitors to India had remarked on Sikhs being distinct from all other social groups in India.
Ranjit Singh’s rule ensured that the identity of the Sikhs as rulers of Punjab was set. They were also known to be skilled at battle and adept at dealing even with powers that were much stronger than them. A short history of Ranjit Singh that was reported in the Delhi Gazette on the eve of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 is most instructive about the special qualities of the Sikhs that the British were noticing. Wrote the Delhi Gazette: “The Ruler of Lahore (i.e. Ranjit Singh) is called Sokerchuckea by his countrymen, from the name of the village in which his grandfather, a Sansee Jāt of the humblest origin, was born about the year 1730. This person, whose name was Churrut Sing, amidst the anarchy which prevailed in the Punjaub, joined a band of professed robbers in 1755; and soon rose by his courage and talents to be a formidable commander of outlaws. Having entered into a league with the Zeemendars of Goojarwalla, a fortified place within thirty miles from Lahore, he made it his headquarters and the depository of his Booty. In 1761, Khwajah Obyd, the Governor placed in Lahore by Ahmud Shah Abdalli, marched with a force to chastise Churrut Singh, and the Seik confederacies with which he generally acted in concert” (sic). The Delhi Gazette noted that Charat Singh was able to best the Afghans in 1761, who had just defeated the mighty Marathas at the Battle of Panipat, with just 3,000 men. It then recorded that Charat Singh was succeeded by his 10-year-old son Maha Singh, whose early death resulted in his 12-year-old son Ranjit Singh taking charge, to soon transform his holdings into a grand kingdom headquartered at Lahore. The Gazette reported that these were the “followers of Guru Govind” (sic). By 1805, Ranjit Singh was a sovereign ruler under whom, reported by The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, were “27 independent Chiefs and 32 Jageerdars with their contingents of Horse and Foot. His own Force, besides 10,000 Cavalry, consisted of 300 Artillery men and five Battaliions of Sepoys, drilled after the English fashion” (sic).
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The spectacular setting of Gurdwara Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand.
The early 19th century was a time when the British were busy belittling the culture and traditions of India. However, their response to the Sikhs was different and quite respectful. In 1838, when the East India Company’s Army of the Indus was assembled to invade Afghanistan it was given instructions to not kill bullocks while crossing Sikh territories. “The Sikhs do not like bullocks being killed”, the written order from the government to the army commanders explained.
Social factors played a role in developing a Sikh socio-cultural identity: fear of missionary activity and opposition to the coeval Arya Samaj.
A few years later, after the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh empire began to disintegrate. As the British inched towards establishing control over the Sikh empire, they were countered by a hostile conglomeration of Sikh chiefs bristling with aggressive intent. Hostilities in the First Anglo-Sikh War broke out in 1845; by early 1846 the Company’s armies had got the better of the Sikhs, who were compelled to sign the Treaty of Lahore. In this treaty the British talked of a separate “Sikh Nation”. In its context, the Governor-General of India addressed the Sikh empire at a Darbar held in Lahore on March 9, 1846: “For forty years it was the policy, in Runjeet Singh’s time, to cultivate friendly relations between the two Governments, and during the whole of that period the Sikh Nation was independent and happy” (sic). The peace didn’t last long—disaffection with British meddling led to open revolt and the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49). Thereafter, the British established their paramountcy over the Sikhs and annexed the Punjab.
The mutiny by the Sepoys of the Bengal Army in the summer of 1857 saw a number of Sikh princes helping the British suppress the mutiny. This episode is frequently referred to as one in which the Sikhs sided with the British. Facts from the ground suggest something entirely different. In June 1857, the 12th Native Infantry that rebelled had a number of Sikhs in its ranks. The dispatch from Jhansi noted that the Sikhs “cannot always be relied on”. On June 4, 1857, the Sikhs of Colonel Gordon’s ‘Sikh Regiment of Loodianah’, then based in Benares, mutinied. Though it was explained by the Lahore Chronicle that this mutiny was “under duress”, for two of the Sikhs who were guarding the treasury at Benares refused to join the mutiny and shooed away the mutineers who had come to loot the treasure. “As a corps they were loyal”, concluded the Lahore Chronicle.
The British officers in Punjab, though, were not so sanguine. They apprehended a massive uprising from the countryside, reported the Lt. Governor. The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce of June 8, 1859, reproduced in detail the memorandum written by R. Montgomery, the Lt. Governor of Punjab. The Sikhs in the countryside were “known to be in a feverish state”, he wrote. “The country was drifting towards rebellion, as was evident from two partial insurrections, which actually did take place”. The only way to calm the population, in his opinion, was to threaten Indians to the utmost and demonstrate to them the power of British arms by ruthlessness towards anyone suspected of rebellion. This was by way of approval of the massacre of unarmed sepoys of the 26th Native Infantry, which was undertaken personally by the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, a Mr. Cooper, with the help of troops at his command. The sepoys, along with their families, had taken refuge on an island in the river Ravi, where Cooper had them killed.
Devotees at the Golden Temple: Sikhs were considered as a distinct people by the British from their first encounters.
The subsequent increase in the number of Sikhs recruited in the army had much to do with the British recognition that the Sikhs did not follow the caste system because of the teachings of their Gurus. By the First World War, almost half of the British Indian Army was made up of Sikhs. In the meanwhile, a number of social factors also played an important role in firming up a distinct Sikh social-cultural identity. The fear of proselytisation in missionary run schools resulted in the Sikhs coming together in the 1870s in the Singh Sabha movement, to start schools in which Sikh scriptures were also taught along with the course of instruction prescribed by the government. The coevally developing Arya Samaj movement was told quite clearly that Sikhs were different from Hindus. Hum Hindu Nāhin (‘We are not Hindus’) was the title of the influential book penned by Kahn Singh Nabha in 1899. Nabha based his arguments on the demonstrable differences between the practises of Hindus and those of the Sikhs. There may be a lot of overlap between the two, but despite the easy osmosis between the two traditions, Sikh traditions were distinct.
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One of the earliest assertions of this distinction was visible when the British town-planners of New Delhi demolished the walls of the Gurdwara Rakabganj at the foot of the Raisina Hill in order to ensure symmetry to the roads leading to the Viceroy’s Palace. The uproar among Sikhs was sufficient to convince them that the need for symmetry was not as important as keeping the Sikhs in good humour. A few years later, Ripudaman Singh, the Maharaja of Nabha, paid to have the walls of the gurdwara restored. Few remember that this was part of Ripudaman’s act of defying the British, which added towards his forcible removal from the throne by the government. A Company strength troop, armed with light artillery and an armoured car, came from Ambala to Nabha to force his abdication and he was taken away overnight to Dehradun.
A similar popular upsurge was seen in the early 1920s, when the British hesitated in removing the corrupt Hindu mahants who controlled gurdwaras in Punjab. They agreed to remove the mahants and hand over the gurdwaras to the Sikhs only when the officers of the army informed the government that its hesitation was adversely affecting Sikh soldiers in the army.
As India entered the age of electoral politics, the Sikhs, through the Akali Dal, asserted their distinction. In the Punjab of those times, in the context of the communal award, the Congress came to be known as the party of the Hindus and the Akalis as representing the Sikhs. In the run up to the first elections that were held in 1936-37, the Congress and the Akalis decided to not contest against each other. But there was one exception—the Sarhali seat. Here, the young Akali Partap Singh Kairon decided to challenge the Congress candidate, the much respected, and rich, Baba Gurdit Singh Komagata Maru. Jawaharlal Nehru visited Sarhali to campaign for their 70-year-old candidate. But it was Partap Singh Kairon who won with a handsome majority. Later, when the Akali Dal would insist that the interests of the Sikhs were different from that of India, Partap Singh would leave the Akalis, join the Congress and play a transformative role in developing Punjab.
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The Akali insistence on identifying Sikhs as different from Indians played out through their insistence in the mid-1950s that Punjabi was a language of the Sikhs. This was in response to the Arya Samaj claiming that Hindi was the language of the Hindus. Partap Singh Kairon, by this time, was the chief minister of Punjab and he would have none of this communalism. He harshly put down both language movements. At the same time he also ensured that the lower courts and district administration switched to Punjabi as its primary language in the Punjabi-speaking districts. He also ensured that government holidays on the basis of religion were abolished. His principle was simple: either everyone celebrates a religious festival or no one does. He insisted that the Sikhs, while being distinct, were primazrily Indians. That is how the Sikh identity has continued to be till today.
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(M. Rajivlochan is professor of history, Panjab University)