The Knights of Falsehood
In the summer of 1975, during my tenure as DIG [Southern Range] in Assam, I was travelling along the Silchar-Manipur border. The journey took me along what were called ‘Jeep Tracks’ which meandered through vast expanses of dense forest. To approach the occasional tribal village that lay in the area, one had to abandon even this dirt track, to wade across little streams, and to trek over stretches of trackless land. I was on a tour to inspect the police posts that had been created to provide protective cover to these villages against the extortionist gangs that frequented them at that time. Deep in the forest, as I drove past a small clearing by the roadside, I was surprised to see a small shamiana with a group of people seated on the ground in front of what looked [incredibly in those surroundings] like the Guru Granth Sahib placed on a small takht. I was travelling on a tight schedule at that time, and it was not possible for me to stop to discover what precisely was going on; but the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity did arise on my return journey the same evening. The shamiana was still there, although the group had dispersed, and, as I slowed down, I saw not only the Guru Granth Sahib ceremoniously placed on its takht, but a middle-aged Sikh, his hair in a top-knot tied up in a white dastar [half turban], sitting alone and reading aloud from the holy Book. I stopped and walked across to the Shamiana, paid my obeisance to the Guru Granth Sahib, and received kada prasad. The man read out and explained some verses from the holy Book, and I noticed that he was far from fluent in Punjabi. After he had completed the ceremonies, I spent some time talking to him and learned that he was from Orissa. He had come under the influence of a lay preacher in his village in Orissa, and his teacher had inspired him to carry the holy Granth and its message wherever he went. This he had been doing for almost twenty years. And so, in that most unlikely of places, he not only sought, but created, an audience for the wisdom of the Gurus.
I do not believe that the SGPC can, or in recent history has attempted to, convince its salaried granthis to venture into areas so remote, and, for their parochial mindset, so psychologically inaccessible. Their vision of Sikhism, though it arouses much passion in them, has been circumscribed by conflicting allegiances to region, language and caste. Despite the manifest universalism of the scriptures, despite the example of the Gurus themselves, they have chosen to equate Sikhism with Punjab; the Guru’s message with the language [Punjabi] and form [Gurmukhi] of its expression. Had Christianity similarly remained tied to the linguistic forms and cultural idiosyncrasies of its origins, it would, today, have been a small cult centred around the province of Galilee. Jesus had preached to a people within a small geographical area; he lived and died among them. But Christian missionaries carried the message of their messiah everywhere. The Bible was translated into every language of the world and transformed into the idiom of cultures that were completely alien to that of its origin.
In contrast, while the Sikhs, by virtue of their unmatched spirit of enterprise, have spread all over the world today, and while, even on the farthest shores, their devotion to their faith cannot be questioned, they have, nonetheless, failed comprehensively in communicating the message of the holy Granth to the people of their adopted lands. And now, clannish and committed to a creed of cultural exclusiveness, they suddenly find their own children turning away from the faith. This has driven them further into dogma, ritual and formalism, with an excessive emphasis on the external symbols of the faith to the exclusion of its essentials. For instance a Canadian television team sought my reactions to an outbreak of violence between two Sikh groups in a Gurudwara in Vancouver in November 1996. The clash was between two groups over the question of whether the langar, the community feast, could be served on a table to a congregation seated on chairs; the fight was bitter to the extent that kirpans were used by the adversaries.
The religious zealots who plunged the Punjab into darkness for a decade and a half in the name of Sikhism, and many of whom provided inspiration and funding for terror from these distant shores, like to describe Sikhism as a ‘world religion’. If, however, Sikhism remains confined to the people drawn from a limited geographical area, from a narrow cultural background and ethnic stock, it is the Sikh religious leadership of the latter half of this century - precisely these zealots - who are to blame for the incarceration of the wisdom of the Gurus within the constricted frontiers of their own prejudices, their intolerance, their bigotry.
The Gurus themselves had articulated a faith for all mankind; and had carried it as far as was humanly possible under the circumstances of their age. During the first twenty-three years after his enlightenment, Guru Nanak travelled incessantly, carrying his message of the equality of man and the glory of God from village to village, through towns, cities and famous pilgrimages. He is said to have covered all of Western Punjab; crossed the Hindu Kush to journey far into Arabia and debated the faith with Mullahs and Imams in Mecca and Baghdad; he traversed many of the most sacred places of Hindu pilgrimage - Kurukshetra, Benaras, Gaya, Patna - as he argued vigorously and incessantly against the caste-obsessed ritualism of the prevailing Brahmanical order; against the austerities and self-inflicted torments of yogis and ascetics; against idolatry, superstition and irrationality; and personally won over thousands of devotees through his message of liberation through devotion to the one God. He went through the deep forests of Central India, and further, along the river Kaveri to Rameshwaram, "from where he went to one Vilayat after another, whose language and customs and rules were different, but they all worshipped one and the same God".2 His travels, incredibly, are believed to have extended over Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Afghanistan and the Middle East. During his journeys to these widely dispersed areas he travelled through Ladakh and Srinagar; through Kabul and Kandahar; through Puri and Dacca and Assam.
Articulating the same comprehensive vision, the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh wrote of the One God:
It is the genius of these great souls, of all the Ten Gurus who, each in his own way, extended the Faith, that the ‘high priests’ of Sikhism today wish to bury away in the obscurity of one small part of the Indian sub-continent.
They have good reason to do so - but the reason is not the Faith. In the history of Sikhism, this ‘reason’ has threatened the Panth twice before.
In the second half of the Sixteenth Century, the Panth had grown immensely, both in numbers and in its geographical spread. The Third Guru, Guru Amar Das, created a system of 22 manjis [dioceses or preaching districts] and 52 subsidiary centres, Pirhas, extending from Kabul to Bengal in order to preach Guru Nanak’s mission. His successor, Guru Ramdas enlarged the system, authorising the head of each mission, the masand, to accept contributions from the sangat [community]. The response was overwhelming, and the sangats grew enormously. Large establishments and prayer halls, elaborate dharamshalas, were constructed, and the common pool of resources for the religious and charitable activities of the sangats grew continuously. A little over a century later, followers of the Panth were spread far and wide, throughout India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
By the time of the Tenth Guru, however, the system had degenerated to a hereditary priesthood with all its attendant evils. The families of the masands controlled the resources of the sangat including the temples and the large properties attached to them, and the opportunities this control represented was a temptation they failed to resist. They abandoned the austere discipline of the faith and lived in decadent luxury, immersing themselves in the pleasures of the flesh, oppressing the people, and using their religious authority to extort all they could from the devout. The Gurus revealed to their devotees a mystical path to God based on faith, service and meditation; based, not on ritual, but on absolute devotion to Akal Purakh [the Immortal One]. The Masands, however, set themselves above the sangats, and corrupted the purity of Sikhism. Their covetousness, cruelty and arrogance grew to such an extent that they hatched conspiracies against the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who sought to curb their depravity. Of them, the Guru remarked,
The Guru dismantled the manji system, dispossessed the masands, and established the Khalsa, the community of Sikhs who were directly linked with him. The ‘purification of the world’, according to the Guru’s earliest biographer, was equated by him with the ‘removal of the masands’.6
By the late Nineteenth Century, however, the ‘leaders of the faith’ had, once again, abandoned it. The custodians or mahants, of hundreds of Gurudwaras had transformed them into hereditary fiefdoms; the tenets of the Sikh faith were openly violated; Brahmanical rituals had re-emerged; superstition, casteism and idolatry were rampant, to the extent that idol-worship was practised even within the precincts of the Golden Temple; pandits and astrologers practised their trade in Sikh places of worship; pilgrims from the ‘lower castes’ were not allowed into Gurudwaras except during fixed hours of the day. Professional priests had again transformed the immaculate inspiration of the faith into base commerce, hawking holy dispensations, peddling amulets, and offering to mediate between a gullible people and their gods - for a price.
One of the critical incidents that heightened Sikh anger against this professional priesthood occurred in the wake of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The Golden Temple, at that time, was under the administrative control of the British Government in India, and its priests were appointed by the local administration. General R.E.H. Dyer, the man who ordered his troops to open fire at an unarmed crowd - including a large number of Sikhs - in the brickwalled square at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on the Baisakhi of 1919, was one of the most hated officers in India. He compounded his offences after the massacre by using every occasion to humiliate the Indian population. Under these circumstances, the priests at the Golden Temple horrified and offended the entire Sikh community by presenting General Dyer with a Saropa - a robe of honour - and by ‘initiating’ him into the Khalsa. The entire farce of the proceedings has been captured in the following account of the exchange between the priests and the General:
The disgraceful conduct of the priests, the gross misuse of the holiest of Sikh shrines, and the visible contempt with which the General treated both, further provoked the popular indignation against the growing irresponsibility and irrelgiousity of the mahants.
The inspiration, the origin and the structure of all Sikh politics today can be traced back to the heroic movement that cleansed the Gurudwaras and the Sikh faith of this defilement. We must understand the nobility of these sources to comprehend the extent of the debasement they have undergone at the hands of the present Sikh leadership.II
Several reform movements had emerged during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, and a certain impetus for a purification of Sikh religious institutions and practices had been generated. But the first important date directly connected with what was to become the Akali Movement was October 13, 1920. Prodded by some students and teachers of the Khalsa College at Amritsar, a group of ‘low caste’ or mazhabi Sikhs went to the Durbar Sahib in the Golden Temple and made the traditional offering of karah prasad; this, however, was well before the hour at which ‘low castes’ were allowed to enter the Temple, and the presiding priests refused to accept their offering, or to say a prayer on their behalf. The devotees and their supporters protested, a fracas ensued, and a demand was made that the ‘Guru’s word’ be sought. As was the tradition, the Guru Granth Sahib was opened at random, and the first verse on the page was read.
The startling appropriateness of these lines to the issue at stake shocked the assembly; the reformists prevailed and the offering of karah prasad was accepted from the mazhabi Sikhs. The congregation then proceeded to the Akal Takht opposite the Harmandir Sahib. The priests fled in disarray, and the reformists constituted a ‘representative committee’ of twenty five Sikhs for the ‘management’ of the Golden Temple. At that time, however, the overall administrative authority over the Golden Temple was vested, not in the community or in any group of mahants, but in the Imperial Government. Exercising this authority, the Deputy Commissioner, on the following day, nominated another committee of nine members - all of whom were drawn from among the reformers - with the manager of the Golden Temple as the President.
This first success created the impulse for the Akali movement that sought the ‘liberation’ of all Gurudwaras from the control of mahants. On November 15, they formed a committee of 175 Sikhs, called the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee [SGPC], despite the Government’s announcement two days earlier of a 36 member ‘official’ committee. In order to avoid conflict with the Government, these 36 members were also included in the original SGPC.
Soon after, public enthusiasm for the Akali movement resulted in several Gurudwara’s being surrendered into their care. However, the more strongly entrenched priests, particularly in the larger and ‘wealthier’ Gurudwaras, resisted fiercely. At Tarn Taran, a group of Akali volunteers was attacked by priests, and two of them died as a result. A greater horror was to follow. At Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, Narain Das, the wealthiest of the Mahants with a number of charges of immorality and corruption against him, hired a group of 400 goondas and criminals and armed them to the hilt to protect his ‘right’ over the Gurudwara and the immense jagirs [estates] attached to it. Even before the SGPC had given a call for agitation at Nankana Sahib, unarmed jatha of 150 Sikhs who arrived at the shrine were trapped within the sanctuary, fired upon with guns, attacked with swords and spears, and some of them were tied to trees and burnt alive. They perished to the last man.
The slaughter shocked the Sikhs so deeply that they permanently added a new passage to their Ardas or daily prayer which contains a recital of the greatest deeds of sacrifice in their history. The passage invokes God’s blessings for "...Those who sacrificed themselves for the dignity of the Gurudwaras."
The SGPC peacefully protested the massacre by appealing to all Sikhs to wear black turbans, and these became the symbol of the Akali movement, and, eventually, of defiance of British authority. Though the perpetrators of the Nankana Sahib massacre were divested of control over the shrine, and subsequently brought to justice [Mahant Narain Das was sentenced to life imprisonment, some of his associates were hanged], the Government appeared, to range itself staunchly against the Akalis after this point. Several Akali leaders were arrested and sentenced to long and utterly unjustifiable terms of imprisonment. A Custodian was appointed to oversee the affairs of the Golden Temple, and the keys of the Tosha-Khana [Treasury] of the Temple were confiscated. A wave of protests made the Government relent three months later. But soon after, the Government began to arrest Sikhs carrying a kirpan of more than nine inches length, for wearing the black turban of the Akalis, and for failing to pay punitive fines imposed on several mutinous villages.
The agitation came to a head once again over the controversy relating to the Guru ka Bagh, a large estate attached to the Gurudwara at Ajnala some 20 kilometres from Amritsar. Its mahant, Sundar Das, had already agreed to hand over the Gurudwara and its properties, but encouraged by the Government’s attitudes, he subsequently rescinded on part of his commitment and refused to hand over the land that comprised the Guru ka Bagh, essentially a plantation of kikar trees that supplied the Gurudwara’s free kitchen with firewood. He objected to the Sikh’s cutting wood from the Bagh, and the police, backing him to the hilt, arrested five Sikhs of their own accord on August 9, 1922. Undeterred, the Sikhs continued to cut firewood from the Bagh. They continued to be arrested, and at this point, the Akalis decided to organise a more systematic protest by sending jathas of a 100 volunteers every day to the Bagh in a completely non-violent protest. The first jatha, constituted entirely of ex-Army veterans, was arrested. But after this, a policy of cruel and systematic beatings was resorted to. Small groups of volunteers would walk up to the police contingent; they would be clubbed down brutally; others would carry them away even as another group of volunteers offered themselves up to the police. A contemporary description by an Englishman, C.F. Andrews, who was witness to these proceedings is perhaps the best account of the nobility of what the Akalis volunteers suffered and achieved each day over the next month.
So moved was the Congress leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya when he witnessed these great events that he declared: "I cannot resist asking every Hindu home to have at least one male child initiated into the fold of the Khalsa. What I see here before my eyes is nothing short of a miracle in our whole history."10 Mahatma Gandhi described the Akali movement as the "First decisive battle for India’s freedom."11
This was, indeed, the Akalis’ finest hour.
The Guru ka Bagh impasse was resolved by the British with a face saving compromise. The Bagh was ‘leased’ from the mahant by Sir Ganga Ram, an influential citizen of Lahore, and he wrote to the police that he required no police protection. Thereafter, the Sikhs were not impeded in their use of the Bagh.
The Akali movement, however, soldiered on for another three years against sustained British repression. By the end of it, 400 Sikhs had lost their lives, between 30,000 and 40,000 were sent to jail, and punitive fines of over Rs 15 lakh had been imposed.
In the end, however, the Sikh Gurudwaras Act was placed on the Statute Book on July 25, 1925. A central Gurudwara Board - later re-christened the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee [SGPC]-, elected by the Sikhs, was to be the custodian of all important places of worship.III
In this victory were the seeds of all future strife. A monolithic centralised bureaucracy, with extensive powers, large properties, and substantial funds under its control, came into being. Its development inevitably followed the imperatives of power; and the Akalis, as its primary architects, have been continuously associated, not only with every aspect of this unfortunate evolution, but with its extension into the conflict ridden sphere of secular politics in Punjab.
The contours of this perversion were visible in the earliest stages, especially to those who were associated with its noblest phase. Master Tara Singh, one of the prime movers of the original Akali movement wrote:
Unfortunately, soon after Independence, Master Tara Singh himself succumbed to the seduction of the politics of ‘strife and falsehood’.14 He was not the only one.
It seems to be the destiny of every great movement in India to succumb to the pettiness and banality of the more vigorous and less scrupulous elements in its leadership. India has before it the catastrophic example of the Congress Party which, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision - a moral and political ideology that had no historical precedent - mobilised millions of Indians, educated young men, civil servants, humble urban workers and poor village folk, to unimaginable sacrifice. Today, what was a great and revolutionary institution has become the very epitome of corruption and vice.
The fate of the Akali Dal is no different. The sacrifices of thousands of faceless volunteers, simple folk drawn from the villages of Punjab, over a five year struggle became the ‘capital’ that their leadership set about to exploit. The Gurudwaras became seats of an unbridled machtpolitik. Commitment to the restoration of the faith dissolved in the face of the flood of opportunities that confronted those who could capture and hold the SGPC; what was to be a ‘Parliament of the Sikhs’ became an arena of intrigue, manipulation and the unashamed quest for personal power. The Gurudwaras became mere property - though property of great, indeed immeasurable, value - and naked struggles for their control ensued.
Religious rhetoric was the essential currency of this commerce. But as the counterfeit of political sloganeering postured as spiritual instruction, the message of the faith was corrupted; fanaticism, exclusiveness and formalism have supplanted the purity that was the objective of the Akali movement. Caste, faction, region and sect have become the dominant themes in a religion that mandated the equality of man, in a faith that exposed the absurdity of the artificial barriers that formal religions erected, in a Panth whose Gurus spoke to all mankind without discrimination. Religious formalism and an obsessive focus on the outward symbols of Sikh identity dominated all discourse, as the leadership sought to impose uniformity, conformity , ‘religious discipline’ - and to secure the submission of the Panth, not to the will of the Gurus, but to their own.
The new masands had commandeered the Faith.
Tracing out the impact of the SGPC on the religious life of the Sikhs, one commentator observes:
But this recent perversion is far more dangerous, far more insidious than anything that preceded it. The power of the masands and the mahants of the past, tyrannical though it may have been, was widely dispersed and personalised. This is what made it possible, eventually, to dismantle their authority when their personal venality and injustice, and the distortions to which they had subjected the faith, were evident to the community.
With the creation of the SGPC, however, a central authority has come into being in Sikhism for the first time since the Gurus exercised direct control over their devotees; unlike them, however, its basis is not an overpowering moral authority, but a ‘democratic’, or rather, more accurately, ‘majoritarian’ process, dangerously based on selective suffrage that, by its very constitution imposes an exclusionary definition on the Panth. The question ‘Who is a Sikh?’ is no more a question of faith, of devotion, of religious practices, or of spiritual conversion; it is subject to the legislative authority of this ‘elected’ agency, and its criteria are the external symbols of identity of the dominant section of the Faith.
As time passed, moreover, a sustained, and at least partially successful effort has been made to elevate this body, originally charged only with the responsibility of overseeing the day to day administration of Gurudwaras, to the state of a ‘supreme religious council’. What we have been witnessing over the past seventy two years, in other words, is the creation and consolidation of a ‘Church’ around the Sikh Faith, complete with its own ecclesiastic empire, its own episcopal hierarchy, and its own canonical dogmas.
We are witnessing, to put it simply, a process, albeit incomplete, of the ‘semitisation’ of the Sikh faith.
The first signs of this process were visible in the restrictive and exclusionary definition that was imposed on Sikh identity. Well before the Sikh Gurudwara Act was passed in 1925, the SGPC constituted by the Akalis at the beginning of their campaign for the liberation of the Gurudwaras had already settled the question for itself. When the first elections for this SGPC were held in 1921, voting was restricted to Khalsa Sikhs and all elected members were required to bear the ‘Five Ks’ of this order. However, the British authorities evidently diluted this occlusive definition, and the Act of 1925 described a Sikh as ‘a person who professes the Sikh religion’, who affirmed that he ‘believed in the Guru Granth Sahib’ and in ‘the Ten Gurus’ and who also declared that he had ‘no other religion’. The key phrase in this statutory declaration was the last clause, which created some problems, especially among the Sahajdhari Sikhs and the Udasi sect [from among whom the traditional mahants had earlier been drawn] many of whom regarded themselves as being both Sikh and Hindu. However, the admissibility of the Sikh sects other than the Khalsa order - such as the Sahajdharis, the Udasis, the Nirmalas, the Sewa Panthis, the Namdharis, the Nanakpanthis - was neither questioned nor restrained, at least initially. In actual practice, however, the Akali prejudice persisted and these groupings were progressively marginalised; only those who declared their commitment to the Khalsa order and strictly adopted its outward symbols have ever been able to secure effective participation in the affairs of the SGPC. The rest had to content themselves with the role of worshippers and even today cannot aspire to any influence in decisions relating to the Panth.
More ambitiously, the SGPC, soon after its creation by statute, set about to define an ‘approved’ body of practices and beliefs; a ‘definitive’ Sikh dogma. A sub-committee was constituted in 1925 itself, and after successive drafts and delays, the ‘authorised’ canon was published in 1950 under the title Sikh Rahit Maryada. There have been several Rahits, or statements of principles, in Sikh history, and it is in this background that this document should be understood. The very first of these came into being sometime after the Tenth Guru, and is said to be based on the sermon that Guru Gobind Singh delivered at the Pahul or initiation ceremony that inaugurated the Khalsa on the Baisakhi of 1699, in which he defined the essential elements of the Khalsa way of life. Several Rahit-namas, or manuals of religious principles, date back to the eighteenth century, and contain wide variations, both in terms of length and of the principles enunciated. They all include a statement both of some of the general principles that are acceptable to all Sikhs, such as belief in the Akal Purakh, the One God, veneration of the persons of the Gurus and the Adi Granth; and the rules for personal behaviour for a Khalsa Sikh. In this latter part, there is a strong emphasis on "features which express the militant aspect of the Khalsa identity, features which so obviously reflect the social constituency of the Panth and the experience of warfare which it encountered during the eighteenth century."16 A number of prescriptions and taboos, including bars on association with a variety of ‘reprobate groups’, many of which are now completely ignored, were an integral part of these Rahit Namas.
The SGPC’s Sikh Rahit Maryada, as the new canonical version, was intended to supplant all these and to assume the status of the exclusive moral reference for the entire Panth. In this it was unique, as it purported to speak, for the first time, for all Sikhs rather than for the Khalsa alone. What it did, in fact, was simply exclude all those who failed to conform to the Khalsa order. "A Sikh," it stated, "is any person who believes in Akal Purakh; in the ten Gurus (Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh); in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, other writings of the ten Gurus, and their teachings; in the Khalsa initiation ceremony instituted by the tenth Guru; and who does not believe in any other system of religious doctrine."17
The radical deviation from the definition of the Act of 1925 is obvious and in keeping with the original inclinations of the Akalis. Over the years, however, this is the definition that is being progressively applied, though the SGPC Act has not been amended to incorporate this change. The influence of the Sikh Rahit Maryada, however, is evidenced by the fact that, the Delhi Gurudwara Act of 1971 included, in its definition of a ‘Sikh’, a clause mandating the keeping of ‘unshorn’ hair, and required an affirmation that the person was a ‘keshdhari Sikh’. The SGPC, of course, did not frame this Act, nor was the Akali Dal in any position to steer it through Parliament; but their ideological constructs had, evidently, prevailed completely.
The SGPC, moreover, gradually extended the authority of various Sikh religious institutions, particularly the Akal Takht, to cover issues that go well beyond questions of religious belief and practice. For instance, the direct intervention of these institutions in secular politics through the instruments of hukamnamas and the power to declare individuals tankhaiya or apostate. A variety of the Committee’s public pronouncements, activities and resolutions, such as the resolution of 1980, which declared that the Sikhs were a separate ‘nation’, have tended to exacerbate the polarisation of communities, and to create political crises and confusion in the minds of Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike.
Unfortunately, the complete absence of any challenge or resistance to this jurisdictional rampage from within the community has allowed the SGPC, for over seven decades now, to consolidate its power over all matters relating to the Sikh Panth and their religious institutions and practices. At the same time, the Committee has acquired an overwhelming, though sadly, perverse and destructive, influence over the political destiny of the community and has grown into an authoritarian agency that tolerates no dissent; its heavy hand has been felt even by a number of devout scholars whose interpretations of the scriptures and of Sikhism have deviated from theirs.
This transformation goes well beyond mere politicisation of religion. It strikes at the very roots of Sikhism, distorting fundamental beliefs and imposing forms that were anathema to the Gurus. The Sikh faith, even under Guru Gobind Singh, could not be identified with the Five Ks and with the Khalsa. It was a spiritual discipline and a mystical method for human emancipation and the realisation of God, and its message was directed to the entire human race, irrespective of religious denomination, of social grouping, or of any formal or material distinctions that create divisions between man and man. The Guru Granth Sahib is the testament, not only of the Gurus, but some 30 others, including Muslim and Hindu sages; when the construction of the Golden Temple first began, it was a Muslim saint, Mian Meer, who laid its foundation stone; the symbolism of the four doors facing the four corners of the earth, essential to the design of the Sikh Gurudwara, is that all men, irrespective of origin, caste, or creed, could enter there; it is this exalted and infinitely tolerant faith that the SGPC attempts to confine in the straitjacket of its exclusionary definitions and its dogmatic codes.V
Lest we lose sight of it, it is essential to re-emphasise the point that the Akali Dal is at the root of all this. To speak of the SGPC is, at all times, to speak of the Dal [though the converse may not be true] since the Committee has been in Akali control without interruption right since its creation in 1925. The common Sikh, blinded by the sheer radiance of what the Akali Singhs had achieved in the 1920s, could see no deceit in those who adopted their garb and who spoke in their name. In election after election, the Akali candidates were returned to power, even as the SGPC’s authority expanded to include hundreds of Gurudwaras, thousands of employees and a range of issues well beyond anything the masands and mahants of the past could have presided over.
But the ambitions of the Akalis expanded much faster, and could no longer be satisfied by the Gurudwaras that they held captive. Another more valuable prize lay suddenly within their reach. The state Legislature appeared to be a legitimate goal, and the springboard which they believed would propel them into it was already at their command.
Unfortunately, the democratic system proved a stubborn impediment in this enterprise. The moral authority and pervasive influence of the Congress Party in pre-Independence India, on the one hand, and the communal appeal of Jinnah’s Muslim League, on the other, precluded the possibility of the Akalis making any significant dent in the political configuration of undivided Punjab through the electoral process. In any event, they had little more than their ambition to offer the people; in secular politics the Akali position has been consistently devoid of programmatic content or a coherent ideological vision. Under the circumstances then prevailing, it was impossible for them even to attempt to establish their exclusive hold on the votes of the Sikhs who constituted a little over 12 percent of the population of Punjab; a strategy of alliance with the Congress was, consequently, adopted, and the Akalis threw their weight behind the national movement for Independence.
Even after Partition, however, the electoral odds remained strongly skewed against a ‘Sikh’ party. Not only were the Sikhs still a minority, constituting 33 percent of the population, but even among them the appeal of the Akalis was far from universal. Two strategic alternatives confronted the party at this stage. It could have chosen to widen its political appeal by divesting itself of its communal character, to extend its social and ethnic base and to transform itself into a political party for all Punjab; or it could simply diminish the electoral spectrum to cover the limited space it believed it could dominate. The former alternative would have required immense sagacity, political courage, and patience; the groundwork for the latter had already been prepared, the requisite tactics had been evolved and tested during the Gurudwaras Agitation of the 1920s, and as an option it was in perfect conformity with the narrow parochialism of those who were in the ascendant in the Akali party at this stage.
The symbiotic relationship with the SGPC was exploited to the hilt, as an agitation for a ‘Sikh homeland’, the Punjabi Suba [initially ‘Sikh Suba’, though the more ‘moderate’ nomenclature was generally accepted in the early stages of the movement itself], was launched from the Gurudwaras of Punjab. The focus of the progressively strident Akali-SGPC political rhetoric from this point on was on the alleged threats to the ‘Sikh identity’ and the ‘victimisation’ of the community by a Hindu majoritarian conspiracy headed by the ‘Hindu Party’, the Congress. The selective manipulation of Sikh history and Sikh religious symbols, both through the agency of the Gurudwaras and on secular platforms, was not only an essential part of the agitation, but its primary tactic. A refusal by the Centre to concede the Punjabi Suba demand was described by Master Tara Singh as "a decree of Sikh annihialtion."18 A number of leaders successively undertook ‘fasts unto death’, among them Master Tara Singh and later the man who was, by turns, both his protege and his rival, Sant Fateh Singh; they read out the Ardas [the prayer that recounts, in brief, the great deeds of courage and sacrifice performed by Sikhs heroes through history], swore that they would not give up their fast till their objective was achieved, all within the holy precincts of the Golden Temple. Without exception, having received sufficient publicity and having sufficiently agitated the minds of their followers, they broke their fasts and their oath. At one point of time, several leaders, lead by the ‘moderate’ Sant Fateh Singh, camped inside the Akal Takht, an unprecedented act [and one that was only to be repeated decades later by Bhindranwale and his gun toting followers] and declared that they would immolate themselves if their demand for a Sikh majority state was not conceded; Agn Kunds, ceremonial platforms for their funeral pyres, were constructed within the sacred precincts of the Golden Temple, on a building near the Akal Takht. No self-immolation was ever attempted; this was just another ruse to excite public passion. The Agn Kunds were eventually demolished by the police.
With such unconscionable manoeuvres, the Akali leaders did succeed in arousing Sikh sentiments to the point where the Centre was forced to concede their demands; in the process, however, they also gave justification to a spiral of competitive communalism among Hindu fundamentalist groups. Groups connected with the Arya Samaj and the Jana Sangh launched rival campaigns to "save Hindi", and exhorted Hindus in the Punjab - virtually all of whom were Punjabi speaking - to register themselves as Hindi speaking in the Census of 1961. Inflammatory, and in the social context of Punjab, ludicrous, slogans rang out: "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan" on the one hand, versus "Dhoti, topi, Jamuna paar" [Those who wear Dhotis and caps, the Hindus, should be sent across the Jamuna]. Communal tensions mounted, and riots between Hindus and Sikhs were reported for the first time in history.19
This was only more fuel in the fire; the duplicity of the Hindu communalists, the false declaration by large numbers of Punjabis regarding their spoken language, confirmed the Akali thesis of Hindu treachery in the minds of the more gullible among the Sikhs. And this was a thesis that would serve their ends again and again, decades after the Sikh majority state had been carved out in 1966, right into the present.
Once this basic premise of a ‘Hindu’ or ‘Brahmin’ ‘conspiracy’ had been installed, everything was automatically transformed. Every demand, whether it was for the completion of the Thein Dam, for higher support prices for wheat, for the transfer of Chandigarh, for the renaming of a train, or for the settlement of the innumerable nagging problems between the Centre and State Governments, became a ‘Sikh grievance’. Every failure to concede such a demand was part of the Brahmin conspiracy to ‘oppress’ or ‘humiliate’ or ‘wipe out’ the Sikh community and Sikh identity. Conversely, in case something was conceded, it was a demonstration of ‘Hindu cunning’, an attempt to deceive and defraud the ‘Sikh people’. And if any Sikh raised his voice against this chicanery, he was an ‘enemy of the Panth’. Virtually every leader of note in Punjab has, at one time or another in the past decades, been declared a Tankhaiya, the equivalent of an excommunication, for ‘betraying the Panth’. This, incidentally, is as true of the Akali leaders as it is of the leaders of other parties. Indeed, the frequency with which Akali leaders are charged with apostasy is possibly higher, because any faction of the Shiromani Akali Dal which temporarily controls the SGPC loses no time in using the privileges of office to ‘excommunicate’ some of their immediate rivals in the other factions, or in the rapidly multiplying splinter Dals.VI
That this entire charade is prompted by pure cynicism, and not even in part by basic religious sentiments and commitments, is not only evident in the pattern of subterfuge and broken religious oaths we encounter, but in the entire range of actions this political leadership has adopted. A comprehensive survey of these is neither possible nor appropriate here [though a scholar who undertook such a study would do the Sikh community, and indeed, all of India, a great service in exposing these patterns of communal brinkmanship] but a few outstanding examples of deceit can be mentioned.
Master Tara Singh, the leader of the Akali Singhs in the Gurudwara Movement, and one of its most respected leaders at the time of Independence, in a moment of truthfulness, confessed to his true motives for starting the Punjabi Suba agitation: "Unless I keep my turbulent followers occupied by one agitation or another, they either fall apart and quarrel among themselves or try to pull the leadership down." To hold the Sikhs in one’s charge, he added, "one needs to live and act as dangerously as to keep the throne of Afghanistan."20
This ‘living dangerously’ is what the Akalis have been doing since Independence, to the lasting detriment of Punjab, the Sikh community, and the nation at large. The entire history of Akali politics since independence is nothing more than a continuous experiment in political adventurism. None of the grievances they persistently harp on are really anything more than a ploy to harness the energies, occupy the minds and secure the volatile loyalties of their ‘turbulent followers’. Consequently, on every opportunity that they have been in a position of power, they have failed consistently even to pursue, leave alone secure, any of the ‘objectives’ they claim to be so essential for the Sikh Panth. There have been five Akali Governments in Punjab since 1966 [the last of these is presently in power] though none of them has completed a full term. On at least two occasions, they have shared power with a coalition at the Centre while the same coalition ruled the state. Not a single ‘Sikh grievance’ was even addressed during these periods.
The Congress is said to epitomise the ‘Brahmanical conspiracy’ that the Akalis have blamed for the consistent ‘humiliation’ and ‘persecution’ of the Sikhs. But innumerable Akali leaders have found it convenient to change sides and join the Congress when their personal interests so dictate; most of them also eventually find their way back into the Akali Party; their rhetoric on both sides of the fence remains startlingly violent, alternatingly attacking ‘communal’ Akali politics and the ‘Hindu Congress.’ A prominent example of this two-faced opportunism is provided by a leading Akali, Hukum Singh, who wrote in 1952: "Pandit Nehru is, to say the least, the spearhead of militant Hindu chauvinism who glibly talks about nationalism, a tyrant who eulogises democracy and a Goblian [i.e., like Goebbels] liar - in short, a political cheat, deceiver and double dealer in the services of Indian reaction."21 Hukum Singh was soon to join the Congress Party, and eventually became Speaker of the Lok Sabha.
That their motivation was nothing more than an unadulterated appetite for political power, moreover, is supported by the fact that, while they focus their entire energy and attention on targeting the Congress, their only significant electoral opponent in the state, and while they never tire of harping on the ‘treachery of the Hindus’, they have no qualms whatsoever in sharing power with the very parties that they have so frequently described as Hindu communalists - the Jan Sangh, the Jan Sangh-dominated Janata Party, and now the Bharatiya Janata Party. Evidently, the whole ‘Hindu oppression’ rhetoric is nothing more than a convenient political sleight of hand.
How a proud and martial people such as the Sikhs came to voluntarily cast themselves in the role of habitual victims and complainers is incomprehensible. The spirit of the common people, far from being broken even after a decade and a half of terrorism, is more than robust and irreverent. But the demoralised and unconscionable men who project themselves as the ‘leaders of the community’ seem to revel in their posture of pathetic paranoia, even though it degrades the entire Panth in the eyes of the world.
Decades of this unscrupulous manoeuvring, however, still failed to provide the Akalis with a stable majority in the Punjab. On the rare occasion that they did succeed in controlling a simple majority in the state legislature, uncontrollable internecine quarrels, factionalism and eventual defections have brought down their governments prematurely. While they choose to blame the Congress(I)’s machinations for ‘engineering defections’, the truth is that the very strategy that led to their success is what underlies their failure.
The trifurcation of Punjab into Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and a Sikh majority province - with more than 61 per cent Sikhs in its population - did not provide the Akalis with the captive electorate they had hoped for. Despite their pretensions of ‘representing’ the entire Panth, the Akalis have never succeeded in either safeguarding the interests, or winning the trust of all Sikhs - and they have very certainly alienated most non-Sikhs. This has had a clear and consistent reflection on their electoral performance. Even when they were riding the post-Emergency Janata wave in the Assembly Elections of 1977, they secured barely 31 percent of the vote - almost 3 per cent less than the Congress (I) - to capture 58 seats in the 117 member house, their best performance till then. Through the late Sixties [after the Sikh majority state came into being in 1966] and the Seventies, their share of votes remained well below 30 per cent. In the 1980 Assembly Elections, at a time when they were embarking on their most reckless adventure with religious extremism, they secured a bare 26.9 per cent of the vote. Clearly, even at the best of times for them, more than half the Sikh population had unequivocally rejected their ideology, their methods and their programmes. That is why they were never able to do better than to cobble together unstable coalitions in Punjab; coalitions that inevitably come apart as a consequence of the inherent contradictions and pressures of mutually exclusive and intrinsically antagonistic communal groups sharing power.VII
Their manifest frustration in this situation, and their complete inability to evolve a more broad-based programme, to grow out of their bigoted mind-set, to speak to all the people of Punjab, is what led them into their greatest act of betrayal. Suddenly impatient with democracy, their own vision utterly clouded by communalism, yet chafing under the unwillingness of the majority of Punjabis to co-operate with their duplicity, they gave the state - and indeed the faith as well - over into the hands of the terrorists.
They were not alone in their betrayal. They were, of course, the first to play the communal card during the Punjabi Suba agitation, and their politics retained a principally communal complexion during the decades that followed. But all other parties took their cue from them and progressively tailored their public pronouncements and projects to conform to the tone and texture of competing religious communities - though this rhetoric was nowhere reflected in the relationships between Hindus and Sikhs at the popular level. The state has been impressively free of major incidents of communal rioting; and it is notable that, even when terrorism achieved its apogee, not a single incident of communal rioting was noted in all of Punjab.
Nonetheless, the politics of alternating communal incitement and appeasement was adopted by all parties, as they competed not only for the popular vote, but equally for a role in, if not control of, the religious affairs of the Sikhs through the SGPC. The ‘secular’ parties, including the Congress (I) and the ‘atheistic’ Communist parties, have consistently sought a role in the SGPC, and their campaigns and candidates have in no way been qualitatively different from those of the Akali Dal. A similar approach characterised the sphere of ‘secular’ politics. The Congress (I) Government that was installed in Punjab in 1972, for instance, gave enormous priority and publicity to the extension and re-construction of the Guru Gobind Singh Marg, a 400 kilometre long highway linking Anandpur Sahib to Damdama Sahib, and the erection of pillars with the Guru’s writing inscribed on them along the way. Kirtani darbars, religious congregations, major Sikh festivals and commemorative celebrations were regularly organised by the then Congress (I) leadership, and a number of institutions and colonies had their names changed to those of various Sikh saints and martyrs. Evidently, this could only give a fillip to revivalism and further excite the religiously charged atmosphere in the state. The dubious role of the Congress (I) in the emergence of militancy has been substantially documented in the media and in the existing literature on Punjab; it need not concern us here.
The role of the entire Punjab leadership in this context, irrespective of party affiliations, was a betrayal of public trust - and this must be made abundantly clear - but the treachery of the Akalis - and with them of the SGPC - was the greatest. They had the institutions of Sikhism in their control; the hearts and the minds of millions [certainly the more gullible] of Sikhs, who believed that the Akalis spoke for the Faith, were open and vulnerable to them; to have placed this immense trust, this sacred responsibility in jeopardy for a purely political gamble is what is unforgivable.
In some measure, however, it was also inevitable. The process of the transformation of the Gurudwaras into instruments of political propaganda, the distortion of the faith, the cynical exploitation of its symbols, the mingling of its history and tradition of sacrifice and suffering with a contemporary pseudo-history of deprivation and tyranny created an automatic spiral towards extremism; if the Akalis themselves had not led this descent into darkness, the initiative would simply have passed into the hands of those who adopted the most extravagant postures of religiosity, of those who most vigorously fanned the prejudices and communal hatred that had already been aroused. This, indeed, is what did eventually happen; and even when it did, the Alkalis failed; far from resisting, far from awakening to the error of their ways, far from reanimating their forgotten commitments to the Panth, they allowed themselves to be swept away in the whirlwind of their own sowing.
It was the factional struggle within the Akali Dal that resulted in a sudden escalation of fundamentalist rhetoric in 1978. Not only did this culminate in a rupture of the ruling Akali Dal-Janata Party coalition [in September 1979], it led to the adoption of a more than habitually strident posture by one of the factions, and the demand for the recognition of the ‘Sikh nation’, variously interpreted from time to time according to the exigencies of the situation, became the core of all subsequent political discourse. This platform was carried into the electoral struggle for control of the SGPC as well, though the extremist faction met with defeat in the SGPC elections of 1980.
It was in 1978, again, that the clash between the Sant Nirankaris and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha - Damdami Taksal combine took place. The rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Damdami Taksal commenced with this event, in which his group lost two men, and the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, eleven - the transformation of Bhindranwale and his Damdami Taksal into a militant organisation, and the emergence of the Babbar Khalsa from Akhand Kirtani Jatha sympathisers, are directly connected with this incident.
Bhindranwale was bitterly critical both of the coalition Akali Government in the Punjab and of the SGPC, and his speeches are full of derogatory references to those who had ‘defiled’ the Gurudwaras with their ambitions. Nevertheless, an unholy symbiosis emerged between the agitational politics of the Akali Dal and the increasing virulence of communal secessionist groupings. No word of condemnation from the Dal was forthcoming in the face of a mounting wave of murder and extortion, of the continuously intensifying extremist propaganda; on the other hand, as the misuse of Sikh shrines grew, a swell of Akali agitations and demands coalesced perfectly with the surge of violence and anarchy that was to envelope all of Punjab. The nahar roko agitation, the Dharam Yudh Morcha, the "do-or-die" call to the Sikh masses and the recruitment of shaheedi jathas [suicide squads], the rasta roko, the rail roko and the kam roko movements, the threat to disrupt the Asian Games at Delhi, each of these were orchestrated in a reflexive synchronicity with incremental terrorist violence.
And then, in 1982, when Bhindranwale moved into Guru Nanak Niwas within the Golden Temple Complex, when the holiest of the Sikh shrines was turned into a safe-haven for terrorists and criminals, when the SGPC was repeatedly asked by the Government to ensure that criminals were not allowed to misuse the hallowed sanctuary, the SGPC representatives and Akali leaders flatly and repeatedly denied the presence of militants or of fire arms in the complex. When Bhindranwale moved from Guru Nanak Niwas into the Akal Takht, a senior Akali leader justified this action on the grounds that it was ‘necessary for his safety’.
No ground was sacred, no event immune from the corrupting opportunism of these ‘leaders’ of the Sikh community. In September 1982, 34 Akali workers arrested during the Dharam Yudh Morcha were killed when the bus transporting them collided with a train at an unmanned railway crossing in Tarn Taran. With full knowledge of the truth, the Alkalis chose to project this as a deliberate act of murder by the State, and the last rites of those who had died became an opportunity for a violent demonstration in front of Parliament in which another four lives were lost.
By late 1982, however, the vortex of violence had reduced the Akali leadership to humble submission to the terrorist fiat, and complete irrelevance in the political processes within the state. This remained true even after the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, when an Akali government struggled impotently to contain an increasingly criminalised terrorist movement supported and funded openly from abroad. For over a decade, the deafening death-rattle of the Kalashnikov precluded all meaningful political dialogue. The Akalis were trapped in a cage of blood; and it was of their own making.
NOTES & REFERENCES