FACTORS IN MODERN SIKH HISTORY
Dr. Sangat Singh
I am thankful to Dr. Ganda Singh Memorial Society for
inviting me to deliver this memorial lecture.
Before coming directly to the theme of the talk today, I would like to highlight some basic facts about the Sikh history.
In the very first chapter of my work, THE SIKHS IN HISTORY,1 I made an observation : "The Hindus have learnt one thing from history that they cannot learn anything". At that time, a thought crossed my mind : What was the position of the Sikhs vis a vis their history? Do the Sikhs learn from their history? Have they learnt from it in the past? If not, are the Sikhs capable of learning from history? The basic question that ultimately boiled down was: Are the Sikhs aware of their history? These were the musing of a mature mind.
I must confess that I am not a historian in the traditional sense of the term. I taught history for a year in a college in the University of Delhi during my youth, but shortly transgressed into international and strategic studies. As such, I was deeply involved in analysing the current scene and formulating proposition for framing of policy guidelines in the making of contemporary history. I also kept myself abreast with the ongoing current developments in the Sikh situation in Panjab.
In 1980s when I was commissioned by S. Hukam Singh, founder president of Kendri Sri Guru Singh Sabha, to undertake a rewriting - mark the word "rewriting" - of the Sikh history, I was aware that the Sikhs had made history, or had played a dominant role in making of history. But they had played little role in writing their history especially in the context of the changing times and situations.2 A good General not only plans in advance, but also changes his tactics and strategies in view of the developing situation. He always has an alternate plan in case of a serious set back. The Sikh history needed a new outlook in context of the changed circumstances.
I may state here forthwith that I had a very clean objective in penning down THE SIKHS IN HISTORY. I made that explicit in the very first sentence in the preface that I was aiming at a rewriting of the Sikh history, and that too from the Sikh national perspective. The process involved reinterpretation and rewriting of the known facts of history; and giving them a consistency and orientation, so that the facts speak themselves aloud. The higher degree of analytical capacity that I had acquired as part of my official work, helped me to give the facts a sharper focus. They thought that throughout history, only individuals have propounded ideas that have moved the world, made me to persist in pursuit of my work. Now, when the end product is there, it is for others to sit in judgement over it.
This bring me to come to the fundamentals of the Sikh history.
The first thing that strikes one in the modern Sikh history is the declaration of way by Lord Dalhousie, East India Company's Governor General of India on eve of the 2nd Anglo-Sikh war in 1848; it talks of war against 'the Sikh nation'. Mark these words. Never had hitherto East India company in its various wars of aggrandisement in different parts of India confronted a nation or even a nationality, based on religious, ethnic, territorial or other considerations. The Sikhs were a nation, sui juris at that, when other parts of India were a conglomerate of regional, ethnic, religious, tribal, caste or sectional loyalties. That was an important factor that came into-play in their history.
The other was that sikhism constituted a distinct independent faith with a well developed religious thought and philosophy, in North Western parts of India. This was for the first time, after the enlightenment of Lord Buddha two thousands years back , that a faith had germinated that was based on revelation, in this case of Guru Nanak in 1499. It made Punjab, as against other parts of India, tri-religious state, with Islam, Sikhism, and Hinduism as three arms of a triangle. Whereas, the mughals (of Bahadur Shah's and later Farrukhsiyar's firmans for extermination of the Sikhs), the Afgan invaders (Cf. Qazi Noor Mohamad's JANGNAMA) and the English colonisers realised the distinct character of Sikhism, the general body of Hindus, Including their religious Maths, Centres (which had ceased to grow during the medieval period when Sikhism emerged) did not. That created problems on the 19th century onwards, with the rise and growth of Hindu consciousness, miscued as Indian consciousness. The Sikhs stood much misunderstood in Hindu eyes.
As such, two basic factors in Sikh history were, or are, one Sikhism as an independent faith, and two, Khalsa's emerging as a nation in pre-modern times. I call them basic, because these have been constant, invariable, and central to the Sikh make up or Sikh psyche,
This brings me to the modern phase of Sikh history. By common consent
it started with the annexation of Punjab by the English in 1849. The English
efforts to extend their stay in Lahore, by seeking a revision of the Treaty
of Lahore caused deep schism in Punjabi society.
This gave rise to two types of persons - I am deliberately using the word person, instead of Chief -one owing the fealty to the English and the other seething with resistance and revival of the Khalsa power. A pronounced feature of the latter was revival of Khalsa spirit, though it is difficult to accuse the former (those working to English designs) of being cool to the Khalsa revivalism was one of degree, depending upon one's priorities, perceptions, and situation in life. The failure of the Sikh Misls power in latter half of 18th century, constituted a material factor in inhibiting the forces of revival of Khalsa power.
Mention may now be made of the various main elements which at different times, and in different circumstances, led the forces of resistance during the 19th century. Briefly, these were Bhai Maharaj Singh, Baba Ram Singh of Bhaini Sahib, and Maharaja Daleep Singh. The fourth element, the rise of puritan Sikh revivalist movement the Singh Sabha, was the other facet of the same coin.
Since adequate attention has not been paid to the contribution of Bhai Maharaj Singh, I propose to deal with him in a bit more detail as against the other two.
A prince among patriots, Bhai Maharaj Singh spanned the transition of
the Sikh history from medieval into modern period. A saint and a religious
leader, he became a revolutionary, and laid the foundations of a Khalsa
Lehr, a people's movement, to uphold their sovereignty. Bhai Maharaj Singh's
sense of Khalsa patriotism was sharply awakened by the English designs
to extend their sway over the Lahore Darbar in suppression of the Treaty
of Lahore, 1846. Rani Jindan in desperation sought his assistance to ward
off the English machinations. Bhai Maharaj Singh, an astute man that he
was, to begin with, abdicated from the gaddi, seat of Naurangabad and
shifted to Amritsar which straightaway became the nerve centre in intense
political activity. His whirlwind tours to the villages, which took him
far and wide, exhorting the people not to let the English usurp their
freedom deeply stirred the people . This mass arousal, prelude to people's
war, was considered dangerous by the English Resident, Henry Lawrence,
who by mid 1847, firstly , wanted Bhai Maharaj Singh to wind up his Amritsar
headquarters and instead shift back to Naurangabad, and, secondly, summoned
him to Lahore to answer some charges. Bhai Maharaj Singh read through
the Resident's intentions, gave him a slip and chose to go under-ground.
In the prevailing situation, his position was like that of fish in the
This was not withstanding the English efforts to marshal Dogras and Urban Hindus, and stir up a section of Muslims including tribals against the Sikhs.
It is not the scope of this talk to go into the details of the all- pervasive influence and activity of Bhai Maharaj Singh in events forming the core of the Second Anglo-Sikh war.
Briefly, he raised the standard of revolt and raised sufficient dust about his movements to keep the English off track to avoid premature conflict; organised his own intelligence network and showed his superiority in tactical warfare; moved over to Multan for a week or so, to give sufficient impetus to the forces of Dewan Mul Raj, moved back to central Punjab and sent emissaries all over Punjab to raise a revolt; and over to Hazara by a circuitous route via Shivalik hills to tap Raja Chattar Singh (younger brother of Sham Singh Attariwala) now Governor of Hazara, to bring in a Sikh Sardar/Chief to lead the popular movement ; his travels in the countryside to raise volunteers and all the way from Rawalpindi and Jhelum districts to eventually join Raja Sher Singh's forces. These were all reflective of his deep sense of hurt at the Sikh predicament, and commitment to the Sikhs ideals. It were his presence that helped the Punjabi forces to worsen the English forces at Ramnagar. This came as a morale booster. And, finally it was his exhortation to the forces at Chillianwala, 13 January 1849, his leading the ardas, prayer before the engagement, management of food and supplies for the troops and horses, looking after the sick and wounded and participation in hand to hand fight, that made Chillianwala the most hard fought battle in British conquest of Hindustan. The English suffered the worst defeat in their history. The contemporary British chroniclers and later expert studies all agree of the English predicament. A recent study by Pakistan's Directorate of Military Operations of Chillianwala Battle Opines that had Sher Singh regrouped his forces and launched a night attack, or his father Chattar Singh joined him the next morning, results would have been different. Even then, Bhai Maharaj Singh wanted Raja Sher Singh to fight another battle at Rawalpindi or Hasan Abdal, but Sher Singh lost his nerve and surrendered (14 March 1849).
Bhai Maharaj Singh, like a true patriot that he was, chose to escape, to fight a lonely battle, and carry on the war of liberation. He now moved over to the thick jungles in the interior of Jammu and sent his followers to contact like-minded people in various regions to gauge their feelings. He made an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap Maharaja Daleep Singh who was about to leave Lahore in exile. He busied himself in making arrangements for a general rebellion, or a people's war, and even sought assistance of Amir Dost Mohammad of Kabul and Pathan Chiefs in the North West. He sought assistance of cross section of people. After despatch of these letters, he left on a secret tour of Majha and Doaba to raise resources. He said that "There will be another National war; let all the true Sikhs rise on the day fixed."
When all the arrangements had been made for a revolt at two cantonments on the night of 3 January 1850, Bhai Maharaj Singh was arrested on the information of a Muslim informer. This was on 28 December 1849. Surprisingly, he and his companions were not armed. Even a Skirmish would have given him a better place in history and build up folk literature around his personality. In the words of Mr. Vansittart, Deputy Commissioner, Jalandhar, who effected the arrests, Bhai Maharaj Singh "is not and ordinary man. He is to the natives what Jesus Christ is to the most zealous of Christians," There was a reward of Rs. 10,000 on his head.
It was considered too dangerous to put Bhai Maharaj Singh to trial. That would only have tended to aggravate feelings, and English were not ready for that. He was quietly deported under Regulation III of 1818 to Singapore, and lodged in a strong Fort with windows blocked out, in the process making it a dark cell. He remained calm and serene, and passed in to history on 5 July 1856, unwept, unsung, unhonoured. The people back home were kept in the dark about the fate of this brave son of Punjab.
The English, to stamp out the Sikh inner consciousness and cravings of their rule over Punjab, manoeuvred with new management of Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar to drop the singing of litany RAJ KAREGA KHALSA from the maryada, code of rituals, it daily followed in the sanctum sanatorium. The practice continues ever today.
Baba Ram Singh (he succeeded Bhai Balak Singh of Hazro in 1862) was another
multifaceted personality. He was conscious of the deception by which the
English had annexed Punjab, and also of the general moral, social and
religious degeneration all around. He launched a movement for religious
reform and revival. He wanted his followers to strictly follow the Khalsa
rahat, code of conduct. He administered amrit to both the sexes together,
introduced a number of social reforms, and set an elaborate missionary
work. He believed that the Adi Sri Guru Granth Sahib if the real Guru
and condemned Sodhis, Bedis, Bhallas, who claimed the status of guru,
as impostors. He wanted to consolidate the Sikh power for political ends.
He advocated Swadeshi and boycott of western goods and ideals; he was
far ahead of his times.
The opening of butchers shops sellings kine flesh in Amritsar caused deep resentment both against the butchers and the English overlords. Under misdirected Brahminical zeal for protection of cow. Baba Ram Singh's followers in 1860s killed some Muslim butchers in Amritsar. The authorities at first interned Baba Ram Singh, but later kept him under surveillance. This was upshot of political backlash, his Namdhari of Kuka movements was taking. In 1872, when some of his hot headed followers, against his express wishes and advice, attacked Malaud and Malerkotla, the Deputy Commissioner Ludhiana, in disregard of orders of his superiors, and without a fair trial, below 49 of arrested Namdharis by guns; another was cut to pieces. Baba Ram Singh was deported to Rangoon where he died in 1884.
This caused a setback to the Namdhari movement, which politically was an expression of pent up feelings against the English machinations in the annexation of the Punjab. Religiously, the Namdhari movement, even under Baba Ram Singh, had developed certain peculiarities, and despite his protestations, in his letters from Rangoon jail that he was not a Guru, his over-enthusiastic followers raised him to that level. Overall, the Namdhari movement under Baba Ram Singh was like a whirlwind which affected certain pockets only and had limited impact on the general body of the Sikhs.
Maharaja Daleep Singh was, another character who kept alive the resistance in Punjab. He had been converted to Christianity in 1853. But under the influence of his mother, Rani Jindan, who joined him in another decade, he gradually became conscious of his Sikh heritage. But it was not till mid-1880s, his meeting with his cousin, Thakar Singh Sandhawalia, that he decided to be rechristened a Sikh. His being baptised as a Sikh by the Sikh troops in Aden, and his attempts to come back to India, to be amidst his people, caused misgivings to the British. His falling fowl of the treatment meted out to him, travels to Russia to seek assistance for revival/ restoration of his rule over Punjab, and eventually settling down in Paris, were ramblings of an awakened mind; these were put to rest in 1893.
An indirect impact of the Kuka movement and Maharaja Daleep Singh's yearnings for restoration of his rule over Punjab was that no Sikh could send his child to London for higher studies, say, for studying Bar-at-law. During the 19th century, Muslim community from Punjab produced half a dozen Bar-at-Laws, who played an important role in the socio-religious movements and judicial administration of Punjab. The Hindus too had their quota in late 1890s, but no Sikh, not even from Malwas which had a longer interaction with the English, could do so, may be for fear of being tainted for disloyalty, or joining the hostiles.
The first Sikh youth to complete Bar-at-Law was not till the end of the first decade of the present century. By the time, the socio-cultural movements among the Sikhs had far advanced , to buttress the traditional Sikh leadership : it did not permit the induction of people with higher education. I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that was the main reason why the Sikh leadership remained in the hands of semi-educated, semi-literate persons as against that of the Hindus or the Muslims. Another possibility was that the Sikh movement, especially in the wake of Gurdwara reform movement, had become rural. But that did not prevent the aristocracy, the Chief Khalsa Diwan and the Sikh National Party from playing a leading role till the death of Sunder Singh Majithia. The rural-urban divide became operative only in 1960s after the eclipse of Master Tara Singh. Anyhow, I am liberty of throwing up some ideas, and it shall be open especially for the upcoming scholars to dilate upon them.
Mention may now be made of the rise of the pure Sikh revivalist movement,
the Singh Sabha (s), in 1873. It aimed at revivalism of Khalsa spirit,
and restoring Sikhism to its pristine purity. The Singh Sabha was to shun
The Singh Sabha instantly caught the imagination of the literate sections of the community. It, however, became a movement with the upcoming of Prof. Gurmukh Singh of Oriental College, Lahore, as the moving spirit. Sri Guru Singh Sabhas mushroomed all over the province. Prof. Gurmukh Singh was a puritan and brooked no deviation from the egalitarian Khalsa spirit. This, at times, brought him into conflict with the Amritsar wing of Singh Sabha. A Khalsa Diwan established in 1883 to oversee the functioning of Singh Sabhas was followed by another one at Lahore in 1886, which became the focal point of Sikh revivalism.
The acute personal differences of the three prominent founders of Singh Sabha played havoc with the movement. Sardar Thakar Singh Sandhawalia dreamt of driving the English out re-establishing the Khalsa raj; Kanwer Bikram Singh of Kapurthala was a pure revivalist, while Baba Khem Singh Bedi was anxious to get himself recognised and worshipped as Guru. After the death of Kanwar Bikram Singh in 1887, Baba Khem Singh Bedi ganged up the Singh Sahibs of Akal Takht and Sri Harmandir Sahib and the other historic shrines to issue a hukamnamah (on 18 March 1887), to excommunicate Prof. Gurmukh Singh from Panth. Though it had no impact on the functioning of Prof. Gurmukh Singh for rest of his life for another decade, it showed the extent factionalism could go and fracture the Sikh corporate body.
The revocation of this hukamnamah at the World Sikh Sammellan in 1995 showed that the head of Akal Takht or for that matter, of other historic shrines, are not infallible. They played a faux pas in 1919 and initiated General Dyer and Capt. Briggs into Sikhism in utter violation of fundamentals of Sikhism. Again , in 1980s the Akal Takht Jathedar played havoc with Sikh political institutions by simulated dissolution of various Akali Dals, and later formation of a United Akali Dal, without at first bringing about the unity in political outlook of the various constituent units. This strand of irresponsibility has now continued for over a century . The present Jathedar of Akal Takht, Bhai Ranjit Singh, in his wisdom, has, however, decided not to interfere in the political processes of the Sikh set ups which remain divided as ever.
The first quarter of 20th century saw the culmination of both the resistance
and the revivalist movements. The anouncement of Secretary of State, Edward
Montague, in August 1917, epitomised the former, while the Sikh Gurdwara
Act 1925, epitomised the later.
The resistance to British rule had many facets in various parts of India, to wit, the agitation following partition of Bengal, the activity of trio Bal-Pal-Lal (Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai), the revolutionaries starting with Khudi Ram Bose overflowing to Bhagar Singh-Sukhdev -Rajguru, the Home Rule Movements of Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
In Punjab, Sardar Ajit Singh and Ghadrite revolutionaries, who were overwhelmingly Sikhs, played a prominent part. It were the revolutionaries who shook the foundations of the British rule, and brought about a realisation of the futility of British continuing their overlordship, paving way for August 1917 declaration.
During this crucial period, M.K. Gandhi, who later was acclaimed father
of 'our nation', whatever that meant, at first by Subhash Chandra Bose
in 1944 and later by Jawaharlal Nehru in December 1946, was serving as
recruitment sergeant for First World War, and earned the title of 'Kaiser-i
Hind' for his services while Jawaharlal Nehru, in the words of his latest
biographer, American Professor Wolpert, was busy in his post adolescent
cravings and mischief mongering.
The Sikh revivalist phase matured into the movement for reform of Gurdwara administration, and their liberation from the Hinduised practices and management. During this period, the Sikh movement attained a rare degree of unity and oneness, as was demonstrated by the failure of British administration to find even one, a single, Sikh to Side with them over the Sri Harmandir Sahib keys issue. The Sikhs had attained their objectives by 1922, but their lack of application and lack of ability to analyse and take hard decision, made them to unnecessarily prolong the movement. The subsequent Guru Ka Bagh Morcha, Nabha abdication and Jaito Morcha, agitation, were unnecessary and proved injurious.
Right from day one of Gandhi's intervention in Nankana Sahib tragedy down to his being shot dead, he emitted total hostility to Sikhism and Sikh ideals. It is surprising, the Sikh leaders never paid attention to his numerous utterances, much less read his inner mind. This resulted in the Sikh leadership's totally atrophying their movement.
Gandhi was told on the day one itself that his references to the Sikhs as Hindus was offensive to the Tat Khalsa and the whole Sikh movement, but he never desisted hurting the Sikh sentiments, much less atone for his action of omission and commission. His telegram to Baba Kharak Singh on victory over keys Affair, 'First battle of India's freedom won, Congratulations", was fraudulent in character, and did not make a dent in his outlandish assessment of the Akali movement, or Sikhism as part of Hinduism. He sowed the seeds of schism in the Gurdwara reform movement; later, Punjab Governor, Hailey, worked upon that lead. The Sikh leadership's deference to him after he fired his salvos on Nabha affair only showed their lack of discernment, what was good or bad for them. Similarly, Baba Kharak Singh's claiming on the one hand the position equivalent to that of president of USA, Germany or France in his capacity as head of SGPC, and, on the other hand, accepting the position of President of Punjab Congress, was anomalous, to say the least, and tended to atomise the Sikh position.
By the time the Gurdwara Act was adopted in 1925, the Sikh movement had splintered, causing untold mischief and hardship. It needed a Herculean effort and Socratian wisdom to push it out of the morass. The Sikhs lacked both. With Master Tara Singh's coming on the top in 1930s with Congress leadership's blessings, the leadership passed on to mediocre hands. Even Baba Kharak Singh who had sought to give the events a constructive turn on the eve of Lahore Congress in 1929, became crazy, peevish and negative in outlook and behaviour.
The Sikhs were in a soup , and one wonders whether they have come out of it even today.
Some thoughts on the Sikhs and Gandhi in the context of India's struggle
With the August 1917 announcement there was really no movement for India's independence. It was all for placements.
The Muslim League had gained its position at the Lucknow Congress in 1916, and thoughtfully ran no anti-imperialist struggle. No one suffered a scratch, much less going to goals. The Congress under Gandhi's leadership ran three movements by fits and starts. The first one, non-cooperation movement 1920-22 was for placement of Gandhi's at the centre stage in the Congress and saw its seizure by him; the second, Civil Disobedience Movement 1930-32 was more with a view to erode the popularity gained by the revolutionaries than against the British : Bhagat Singh, at the time, had gained an advantage over Gandhi in popular estimation and third, the Quit India Movement 1942, was upshot of Gandhi's misreading of Hindu religious literature, especially Gita, to stab the British in the back when in trouble at the height of the War. Lord Krishna had ran away with the clothes of naked Gopis bathing in the pool of water, and dictated terms to them from an unequal position. Gandhi's move boomeranged, in the process strengthening Jinnah and the Muslim League.
The Satyagraha against the Rowlatt Bills in March-April 1919 had helped to launch Gandhi into the Indian polity. The Punjab administration was aghast at the turn the events had taken at Amritsar, and wanted to teach the people a lesson. Baisakhi, 13 April, was at hand. The Administration hired one Hans Raj, a caste Hindu, to lure the people to Jallianwala Bagh, a closed square with a narrow entrance. It was all a contrived affair. When General Dyer arrived there, Hans Raj was seen talking to the Inspectors of CID (Central Intelligence Department), and disappeared. M.K Gandhi who was entrusted by the Congress to conduct an enquiry came upon the evidence, but he chose to put a veil over it, as, meanwhile he had built up his leadership on the blood of martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh. For Gandhi, to expose Hans Raj's role meant giving away the mileage he had gained. To Gandhi, this type of method was not unjustified, as in his reading of Hindhu Shastras, the Devas (gods) had defeated the Asuras (titans) by dubious means, and so had Pandavas defeated Kaurvas in Mahabharta war.
Gandhi was a scheming and brainy bania, trying to act as a Brahmin. The mantle of Hindu revivalism of Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab brands, had fallen on his shoulders. He personified atavistic nationalism of the Hindus. If the British by granting separate electorate had taken religion into politics into religion. The Sikhs had already won separate electorate in Punjab. Gandhi felt aghast, especially at the Sikh assertion of being an independent faith. Even after the adoption of Gurdwara Bill in 1925, he wrote a scurrilous piece terming Guru Gobind Singh as "a misguided patriot", and casting aspersions on the originality of the mission of Guru Nanak. (He repeated these writings after a lapse of 17 years in 1942.) But with what results? There was widespread condemnation of Gandhi's views but the Sikh leadership did nothing to cut umbilical chord that bound it to the Congress or Gandhi.
At the All Party Conferences in 1927-28, the Sikhs did not do their home work. Their advocacy of joint electorate was based on a wrong premise, of their constituting 25 per cent of the voters in the then restricted franchise. It never occurred to them that their advantage would disappear into thin air, once adult franchise was introduced.
At the Lahore Congress 1929, Gandhi hoodwinked Tara Singh with a lollipop. The Congress leaders had promised to adopt a resolution not to accept a constitution that was not acceptable to the Sikhs. Instead, Gandhi used all his wile to draft an omnibus type one, that Congress would not accept a constitution that was not acceptable to the minorities - the Sikhs, the Muslims, and others. Tara Singh, an ordinary Graduate, without any analytical capacity, was in for such lollipops (till