Monday, December 11, 2017
Gateway to Sikhism

THE SIKHS AND THE BRITISH — 1849-1920

Recently many scholars, especially in the West, have contended that the assertion of a distinct Sikh identity in the mid-nineteenth century was very largely due to advertent support extended by the British. W.H. McLeod holds that "there were several Sikh identities available during the period immediately following the 1849 annexation and one such identity (the militant Khalsa version) was vigorously promoted by the British in order to serve their own military purposes. The same identity was accepted by the stronger1 of the Singh Sabha leaders and became the focus of their reforming activities late in the nineteenth century."2 Richard Fox refers to the Sikhs in the Indian army "transmuted into Singhs by the British."3 Scholars like N.G. Barrier and Rajiv Kapur have also referred to the recruiting and organisational policy of the British Indian army as the major instrument for fostering the distinct Sikh identity. Rajiv Kapur observes : "Recruitment into the army provided strong encouragement for the development and maintenance of a separate Sikh identity."4 Barrier5 and Fox6 both find themselves caught in an intricate and incoherent analysis of the British motives in dealing with the Sikhs.

The Relevant Questions are :

Did not the Sikh leaders invoke the Sikh doctrine in the Guru Granth? Was it not inevitable for a Sikh movement, aimed at restoring the purity of Sikhism, to remove outside accretions, including Hindu influence and make the Sikh stand on their own ground unencumbered? Was it not necessary for the Sikhs to go through a discipline of education in order to equip themselves for participation in the political life? Is it right to brand the Singh Sabha leaders as loyalists and accuse them of misguiding the community to serve the ends of the British in India? Did not the Sikhs have to wage a long battle to maintain their religious institutions and practices and free their Gurdwaras from the control of the Mahants and Pujaris, who enjoyed the patronage and backing of the British? Is it right or misleading for the historians to talk of the role of the British military policy in promoting the Sikh identity and to make a complete black out of the Sikh ideology and four hundred years of the Guru period and Sikh history? How can they turn a blind eye to th patronage extended by the British to the Mahants (priests) at the Sikh temples who, because of their background, opposed the Sikh inentity tooth and nail?In deriving some of their hasty and ill-conceived inferences, the writers fail to study the subject methodically and to see the Singh Sabha Movement and its work in the background of (a) the Sikh ideology, (b) the method and history of the Sikh Gurus and the Sikh movement in the preceding three hundred and fifty years and (c) the general and overall historical prespective of ideological movements during their lean periods. Therefore, in order to make a comprehensive and methodical study of the subject, we shall divide it under the following heads : (i) the Sikh ideology, (ii) the preparatory period of educating and motivating the masses, (iii) reviving institutions and centres of the faith to re-build the Panth and its distinct identity and the final stage of political preparation and struggle, (iv) realities of the situation after the annexation of Punjab and factors hostile to Sikh identity, (v) the Singh Sabha Movement and its plan of work, activities and achievements, (vi) the preparatory stage leading to the second stage of Gurdwara Reform Movement and participation in political struggle, (vii) general historical perspective and (viii) conclusion.

First of all we shall take up salient features of the Sikh religion, especially where Sikhism made a radical departure from the earlier religious traditions.

Sikh Ideology :

Sikhism is a revelatory religion, which revolted against the religious hypocrisy of the Brahmins and the political oppression of the contemporary rulers. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion stressed the unity of God7 and the brotherhood of man.8 He attacked such pillars of the Hindu society as caste,9 idolatry,10 ritualism,11 asceticism12 and intermediary role of the priests13 in man's relations with God. His spiritual thesis, with an inalienable social content, sought to establish equality not only between mand and man but also between man and woman. He welded the spiritual and the temporal planes of human existence into a harmonious whole and brought about reconciliation between the religious and the secular means for achieving the best results in human affairs.14 The Guru's followers were not required to chant Sanskrit Shalokas before stone idols but sang hymns composed by the Guru himself in their mother tongue. They came to have different places and modes of worship. It was not an easy task to confront the dogmatism of the priest-dominated and caste-ridden Hindu society. The Guru brought about a far-reaching transformation in the minds of the people through the institutions of Shabad, Sangat, Pangat, Guru-Ka-Langar, Guru and Dharamshal. The three cardinal principles of Guru's teachings were : 'Kirt Karo' (earn your bread though hard labour), 'Vand Chakko' (share you earning with others) and 'Naam Japo' (always remember God). This resulted in building a separate and self-reliant community with new beliefs and institutions.The process of separation was carried forward by the second Sikh Guru Angad. He introduced the Gurmukhi script, in which he compiled Guru Nanak's and his own compositions. The Guru was opposed to mendicancy and parasitical living. He earned his own living by twisting coarse grass strings used for cots. The third Guru Amar Das took many steps which tended to break further the affiliations of the Sikhs with the Hindus. He introduced new forms of ceremonials for birth, death and marriage. He deprecated the practice of 'Purdah' and 'Sati', encouraged inter-caste alliances and re-marriage of widows. He declared that the Sikhs who were active house-holders, were wholly separate from the passive and recluse 'Udasis' whom he excluded from the Sikh society. The Guru established twenty two new centres or parishes (Manjis) for conveying the message of Guru Nanak to the people. The centres were supposed to cater both to the religious and the empirical needs of the people. Guru Ram Das, who succeeded him as the fourth Guru, acquired the site of the present city of Amritsar which became the religious capital of the Sikhs. He had a tank dug around which bazars or trading centres were established.

Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru, took some very important steps for fortifying the Sikh identity. He raised the Harmandir and gave to the Sikhs a central place and shrine of their own. This was to wean away Sikhs from Hindu institutions like those at Hardawar, Varanasi, etc. He also gave the Sikhs a scripture of their own in the form of Granth Sahib, which they could read and understand. They did not require the help of Brahmin priests to read out Sanskrit texts from the Vedas or the Upanishads, which they did not understand. It was Guru Arjan, who very clearly and emphatically declared that the Sikhs were an independent community :

"I do not keep the Hindu fast,

nor the Muslim Ramadan,

I serve Him alone who is my refuge,

I serve the one Master who is also Allah,

I have broken with the Hindu and the Muslim,

I will not worship with the Hindu, nor like

the Muslim go to Mecca,

I shall serve Him and no other,

I will not pray to idols nor say the Muslim prayer;

I shall put my heart at the feet of the One

Supreme Being;

For we are neither Hindus nor Mussalmans"15

Guru made, for the principles of his religion, the Supreme sacrifice of his life and became the first martyr in Sikh history. Guru Arjan's son and successor Guru Hargobind started military preparations. His resort to arms was in keeping with the last instructions of his father. Guru Nanak too had rejected Ahimsa as an inviolable religious doctrine. Facing the Harmandir, Guru Hargobind build the Akal Takhat, a seat of the temporal authority as distinct from Harmandir Sahib, clearly signifying that the Sikhs owed their primary allegiance to God. He also set up two flags fluttering before it as visible symbols of Miri and Piri, i.e. the temporal and the religious authorities. The concept of Miri and Piri was the natural and inevitable outcome of the doctrine of the combination of the spiritual and the empirical laid down by the first Guru. That this combination is fundamental to the Sikh doctrine is clear from the fact that in Sikhism the insignia for Piri or spiritualism is a sword and not a rosary. Many of the misunderstandings by scholars of Sikhism or its history are due to their failure to have an adequate knowledge of the Sikh ideology. This lack of knowledge or sometimes bias is quite apparent among scholars drawn from pacifist or dichotomous religions.The ninth Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur suffered martyrdom to counter the forces of tyranny and injustice and to uphold the freedom of man to practice his religion. He demonstrated that to lay down one's life in defence of righteousness was a paramount religious duty. When a report was sent to Emperor Aurangzeb that the Guru was organising a people (Millat), he offered to the Guru that if he confined his activities to prayers and preachings, he would be given grants for the purpose, provided he gave up his political activities. But the Guru declined the offer.16 The inspiration stemming from the creative vision of Guru Nanak reached its climax under the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. The ideal of Saint-Soldier implicit in the Miri-Piri doctrine of Guru Nanak fructified in the creation of the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh.

It was the objective of the Sikh society or Khalsa to restore justice and harmony in the prevailing state of affairs. He created the Khalsa, a disciplined body of Sikhs, and conferred upon them a distinct look. He gave them a martial name 'Singh' (Lion) and prescribed five kakars including kirpan and unshorn hair. In fact, the rule about keeping unshorn hair started a debate and those wanting to shave hair and to follow Hindu customs were automatically excluded from the Sikh society.17 The symbols strengthened religious discipline, gave external uniformity to the Sikh faith and served as aids to the preservation of the corporate life of the community. It is very important that the egalitarian principle was an accepted and practiced norm of the Sikh society. It is note-worthy that four out of the five Piaras (Beloved ones), who offered their heads to the Guru and were baptised were Shudras. He intended to make a complete break with the past religious tradition through the introduction of Nash doctrine involving Kirtnash, Kulnash, Dharamnash, Bharamnash and Karamnash, i.e. the giving up of all those beliefs, ideologies and practices that came in the way of the sole worship of the One Supreme Being. The creation of the Khalsa was a unique phenomenon in the annals of mankind. It was the epitome of the Sikh movement. There is no evidence, whatsoever, to suggest that there was any other Sikh identity or society promoted by the Gurus or in existence in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The Guru raised the Indian spirit from servility, inferiority, fatalism and defeatism to the dynamic ideal of responsible reaction and resistance against tyranny and injustice. The supreme acts of martyrdom of the Guru, his father, mother and four sons for the cause of righteousness left an indelible stamp on the Sikh way of life. It is sheer idleness to think or suggest that the deep seated moral conditioning formed by the longest chain of martyrdoms could just be re-created or affected by any wishful self-interest of the British or any other ruler. Such artificial creations of religious identity are unknown to history.

During his life time Guru Gobind Singh chose Banda Singh Bahadur to conduct the final phase of the Sikh struggle against the Mughal Empire. It was under his leadership that the Khalsa armies won decisive victories and shook the very foundations of the mighty Mughal Empire. Banda struck coins in the name of the Khalsa Panth. The inscriptions on the coins are significant :"This coin is struck as a token of our sovereignty here and here after. This divine bounty flows from the sword of Nanak (Tegh-i-Nank) and the victory and felicity is the gift of Guru Gobind Singh, the king of kings, the true Master."19This coin itself clearly signifies that in the consciousness of the Sikhs of those times, there was a complete unity of spirit and ideology between the first and the last Gurus and in fact among all Gurus. It clearly shows that the concept about differences in the ideologies of the first and the tenth Master is a figment of later arm-chair or partisan writers unknown to the Sikhs or people of the earlier centuries. Banda Bahadur's seal also depicted similar thought i.e., "Degh-the kettle for service, Tegh, the strength of the sword arm, and Fateh, the resultant victory, received by Guru Gobind Singh from Guru Nanak."20Under Banda's inspiration, Sikhism became popular with the people of Punjab. About one lac persons embraced Sikhism. Banda and several hundred soldiers of the Khalsa army who were arrested, kept their cool even in the face of death. None of them renounced his faith to save his life.21 They carried on the glorious tradition of sacrifice and martyrdom for the cause of righteousness handed down to them by the Gurus. Their blood created fertile soil for sprouting the seeds of Sikh glory. The Sikhs confronted the hordes of Persian and Afghan invaders with the same religious spirit. This was a time when a price was put on every Sikh head and thrice it was reported to the authorities that the Sikhs had been exterminated root and branch.22 The imperial order for the elimination of Sikhs was directed at the destruction of the Nanak panthis.23

It did not declare them as Sikhs or Singhs or the Khalsa. This clearly indicated that there was no question of any multiple identities among the Sikhs in the eighteenth century. The clear teachings of the ten Gurus and the fire of suffering and persecution had welded the Sikhs with a unity of ideals, ethos and practices entirely different from those of the Hindu society with which they were surrounded. The Bani and the Nash doctrine created the wall of division, between them and persecution and suffering cemented the internal cohesion of the community as a distinct society. There was only one community of Nanakpanthis, Sikhs or Khalsa whose sole founder was Guru Nanak. The definition of a Sikh was very clear, without any scope for ambiguity. There was no question of any multiple identities among the Sikhs.

After a long period of turmoil, suffering and persecution, the Sikhs rose to political power under Ranjit Singh, who ruled under the banner of Sarkar-i-Khalsa. It was at this time that Hindus swelled the ranks of the Khalsa in the hope of temporal gains. The population of the Sikhs, which at one time was reported to be not more than twenty thousand in the 18th Century now rose to the peak figure of 10-11 lacs in the times of Ranjit Singh.24 It was not so easy for these converts of convenience to shed some of their beliefs and practices. Ranjit Singh had to spend most of his time in conquering and consolidating territories. The result was that the Sikhs had hardly any time to set their house in order. It is evident that the large scale increase in the Sikh population was due to the new entrants who had flocked to new faith not out of conviction but to put up an appearance of closer ties with the people in power.25 There began a new phase of Sikhism with new entrants to the Sikh fold. Their ways and customs were still over-laid with Hinduism. It was very easy for them to slide back into their old faith when power did not rest with the community. This was the first time in their history that the Sikhs could be divided into two categories, the first consisting of those who nursed their traditional culture and carried in them the spirit to suffer and sacrifice for a righteous cause and the second comprising the new lot with hardly any strong commitment to the faith. During the Guru and the post-Guru period there is no evidence, whatsoever of the so called "multipile identities". During the phase of struggle and persecution in the 18th century, when to be a Sikh was to invite death, the Sikhs never had any ambiguity about their identity or ideals created by the ten Nanaks. And both for the insiders and outsiders there was a single community or society they had created. They kept the torch of Sikhism ablaze through tremendous suffering and sacrifice.

Post-Annexation Period :

With the fall of the Sikh kingdom the new entrants to the Sikh fold started wavering in their loyality to Sikhism. The Sikhs had hardly had peace for one generation, some of these new entrants reverted to Hinduism and its old prejudices and practices.26 Still there were many for whom the border line between Hinduism and Sikhism became very thin and vague and they kept unsurely on the border line between Sikhism and Hinduism. In their outlook, character and behaviour they stood clearly apart from the main segment of the Sikh society who had a clear identity. The latter traced their lineage from the Guru period and had inherited the glorious tradition of martyrdom for the cause of righteousness. With the emergence of the British as the new rulers, the relationship between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs underwent a complete change. In Punjab the Hindus, who had looked upon the Sikhs as their protectors against the Muslims and were partners in power during the years of triumphs under Ranjit Singh, showed hardly any commitment towards Sikhism that had successfuly fought battles for liberty and freedom of the land and its people. With both the Muslim threat and the Sikh kingdom gone, the external pressures that had held them seemingly close to Sikhism disappeared. They had to redefine their mutual relationship. Apart from this, the role of some members of the Hindu elites during the period of annexation a point which we shall detail later on, was far from creditable and created some gap between the two communities. It is note worthy that the Hindu Dogras and Purbias during the crucial Anglo-Sikh Wars deserted the Khalsa army. On the other hand, the Muslim part of the Khalsa army fought against the British till the end.27 Tears at the defeat of Sarkar-i-Khalsa were shed by Shah Muhammad, the celebrated Muslim poet.

The British looked upon the Sikhs as enemies and initiated a policy aimed at the suppression of the 'War-like Sikhs", with the help of an army of occupation comprising 60,000 soldiers and and a police force of 15,000, largely manned by the Panjabi Muslims.26 Special precautions were taken in policing the Majha area, where Bhai Mehraj Singh and Narain Singh were reported to be active.29 The royal house of the Sikhs was completely destroyed. It is well known that Maharani Jindan, called the "mother of the Khalsa", whom the British considered to be the root cause of all trouble, was treated very shabbily and was forced to leave the country.30 The minor Maharaja Dalip Singh was made to resign "for himself, his heirs and successors, all rights, title and claim to the sovereignty of the Punjab or to any sovereign power whatever."31 The 'Koh-i-Noor', considered by Dalhousie as a historical emblem of conquest in India, was presented to the Queen of England.32 The Government confiscated all the valuables, including the antiquest of the Sikh Raj from the Toshakhana of the Maharaja and also the estates of all those chiefs who had fought against the British in the two Anglo-Sikh Wars.33 Some of them were exiled from Punjab and others were kept under surveillance in their own houses. They were not allowed to keep arms in their possession.34 Forts and defensive fortifications-practically every Sikh village had defensive bastions—were levelled. All military grants to the Sikh Jagirdars were abolished.35 Henry Lawrence, as head of the Board of Control, responsible for the administration of Punjab, recommended slight leniency towards the Sikh nobility. He thought and argued that it was most impolitic and dangerous to deprive them of their rights unfairly. But, he was over ruled by Governor General Dalhousie, who in pursuance of his Imperialistic policies thought that the "Jagirdars deserved little but maintenance."36 Henry Lawrence tendered his resignation over this issue.Nearly, 50,000 Sikh soldiers were disbanded.37

Hardly a tenth of the old army of Punjab was taken into the British pay. Although the term 'Sikh' was used for the re-employed soldiers few were in fact Sikhs. They were largely Punjabi Muslims, Gurkhas and Hindustanis of the Durbar army. The British officers looked upon the Sikh soldiers with suspicion. They were called, "dirty sepoys."38 and many officers wished them to cut their hair "forgetting that the essence of Sikhism lies in it locks."39 D. Petrie, an Assistant Director, Criminal Intelligence Government of India, in a Confidential report on the 'Development of Sikh Politics (1900-1911)', wrote :"The British adopted a very strict and rigid policy detrimental to the growth of Sikhism. After annexation, the Golden Temple Amritsar, alongwith 6 other Gurdwaras and the Gurdwara at Tarn Taran were practically controlled by the British authorities through a Manager of these Gurdwaras appointed by the British Government. The waqf Act of 1861 gave the control and Management of the holy places of the Hindus and Muslims to the communities concerned but in the case of the Sikh Gurdwaras, the Act was not applied on political grounds. The properties of places of worship were transferred and given over to the Udasi Mahants and others, throughout the Punjab."40 A significant blow was given by the British to the Sikh religion when they conferred proprietory rights on the temple Mahants, Brahmans, Udasis or Nirmalas,41 most of whom had Hindu learnings and hardly understood or had faith in the Sikh religion and its practices.

This was an extremely subtle method by which the British sought to secure the undoing of the ideological base of the Sikhs. A committee of nine Sikhs with a Government nominated Sarbrah as wardon as its head was appointed. After 1883, however, the committee was quietly dropped and the whole control came to be vested in the Sarbarah who received his instructions from the Deputy Commissioner.42 The government wanted to maintain the Gurdwaras as channels of indirect control of Sikhs.The British rule dealt a severe blow to the socio-economic condition of the Sikhs. Thousands ofSikh soldiers were rendered jobless. Because of earlier wars and consequent disturbances, the lot of the peasantry was no better. Instead of the Sikhs, Hindus were preferred in the civil services. Most of the jobs in military and police were given to the Punjabi Muslims. Out of the eleven Extra Assistant Commissioners, appointed by the Board of Control, only one was a Sikh.43

The Christian Missions which came to be established in Punjab, also generated a feeling of hatred and hostility towards the Sikhs. The Charter granted in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth of England to a Colonising Company spoke of "duties higher than those of Commerce."44 If merchants must buy and sell, they must also convert. Religious imperialism was the first phase of British Colonial imperialism. Christian Missions worked under British political wings. The Missionaries established their centres at Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Batala,45 Ludhiana and Lahore,46 all areas of dense Sikh population.47 Many Sikh students studying in Missionary schools began to despise the religion of their forefathers.48 Some of them cut their hair and beards. The conversions of Maharaja Dalip Singh and Raja Harnam Singh of Kapurthala were serious and deliberated blows at the roots of the community. Further, the growing success of Missionaries in their evangelical work, with the support of the Government, was an overt measure against the Sikhs. Sir John Lawrence used to make annual contribution of Rupees five hundred towards missionary activities.49 Some of the Missionaries openly condemned the Sikh institutions, tradition and Gurus. They called the Guru Granth a "heathen scripture".50

The Administative Report (1849-51) noted : "The Sikh faith and ecclesiastical policy is rapidly going where Sikh political ascendency has already gone These men joined (Sikhism) in thousands and they now desert in equal numbers. The sacred tank of Amritsar is less thronged than formerly, and the attendance at annual festivals is diminishin yearly. Initiatory ceremony for adult persons is now rarely perfromed. Gurmukhi is rapidly falling into desuetude. The Punjabi as a spoken language is also losing its currency and degenerating into a merely provincial and rustic dialect."51 A series of discreditable manouevres, interference with the local customs, feverish activity of the Christian missions and the attempts to Westernise the Sikh culture filled the Sikhs with alarm.

Sikhs and Mutiny :- During the Mutiny of 1857, the Muslims sought the restoration of the rule of Muslim princes and rulers and the Hindus hoped to put the Maratha rulers back into power. The princes of the two communities had a unity of purpose in putting up a xommon front against a common enemy, the British. Because of the earlier British repression of the Sikhs, they were too disorganised to think of putting up a united leadership to reclaim their lost kingdom. The community was leaderless.52 Moreover, the situation in the Punjab was quite different from the one that prevailed in the rest of India. An important and the main factor was that the Sikhs had nursed a serious grudge against the Purbias and the Dogras who, despite the Sikhs having never given them any cause for offence, had by their betrayal and other overt and covert acts, helped the British during the Anglo-Sikh Wars and later in the annexation of Punjab. The British used this Sikh grievance and consequent "natural hatred" towards the Purbias. Kavi Khazan Singh in his work, 'Jangnama Dilli', written in 1858 mentions that the Sikh participation against the Purbia soldiers was in reaction to their boast that they had vanquished the Sikhs in 1845-46 and in 1848-49.53 Another contemporary observer noted : "The animosity between the Sikhs and the Poorbias is notorious. The former gave out that they would not allow the latter to pass through their country. It wa, therefore determined to take advantage of this ill-feeling and to stimulate it by the offer of rewards for every Hindoostance sepoy who should be captured."54 The bitter memories of Purbia cooperation with the British were so fresh in the minds of the Sikhs that any coalition between the two became impossible. The people who now claimed to be fighters for freedom were the same who, eight years earlier, had actively helped the British to usurp Sikh sovereignty.

The pleas of Purbias were so hollow and incongrous with their earlier conduct that they fell on deaf ears of the aggrieved Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims whose independence they had helped the British to rob. Besides it is a well accepted view that the risings in 1857 were just revolts by the princess to regain their feudal or territorial rights. It was far from being any ideological struggle, or for any common Indian interest. In this context, the Sikhs in the background of their rule in Punjab and egalitarian tradition could hardly be expected to side with Muslims and Hindu princes to regain their kingdoms, nor could religious taboos which affected Hindu and Muslim sentiments, against many of which the Sikh Gurus had led a crusade, could in any measure inflame Sikh sentiments. It was on account of all this that the Punjab was not affected by the rebellion which convulsed the rest of northern India. Punjabi Mussalmans turned a deaf ear to their Hindustani co-religionists' exhortation of 'jihad' against the pig-eating despoilers of Islam. Punjabi Hindus and, with greater reason, the Sikhs refused to listen to the belated appeal to save Hindu Dharma from beef

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The etymology of the term 'gurdwara' is from the words 'Gur (ਗੁਰ)' (a reference to the Sikh Gurus) and 'Dwara (ਦੁਆਰਾ)' (gateway in Gurmukhi), together meaning 'the gateway through which the Guru could be reached'. Thereafter, all Sikh places of worship came to be known as gurdwaras.
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