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Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood


Naam yun pasti mein balatar hamara ho gaya
Jis tarah paani ki teh mein taara ho gaya1

The ceremonies that mark the turn of a century are a momentous rite of passage for all people; for the Sikhs, however, they have a unique significance. Guru Nanak announced his divine mission in the year 1499. In 1599, Guru Arjan Dev commenced the first compilation of the Adi Granth. A hundred years later, in 1699, the Khalsa was constituted by the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

In the year 1999, Sikhs all over the world will celebrate the completion of half a millennium of their Faith, and three centuries since the creation of the Khalsa. Throughout that year, prayers and devotional hymns will echo everywhere; great processions will march through the streets carrying the Guru Granth Sahib on richly decorated palkis, in a ceremonial reaffirmation of the tenets of Sikhism and of the piety of the Sikh people.

But if this is all that happens, it would be no more than an hollow ritual.

There is an abiding crisis in the Panth; and if it is not addressed, Sikhism will go the way of all faiths. Its institutions will grow, eventually to extinguish its inspiration.

Every great religion of the world has, as its fountainhead, a remarkable mystical insight, a revolutionary spiritual intuition which is then expressed in a mission to reinterpret and re-evaluate the events of history, and to recast the structure of society, the relationships of man and man, in the context of a new and enlightened perspective. It is this uncorrupted spiritual power alone that is the essence of all religions. It is this power that inspires millions to acts of great sacrifice, setting them on the path of selfless service, and creating in them the hope and possibility of spiritual salvation. It is this power, again, that welds large masses of human beings into religious communities. Out of this fusion of energies, great wealth, great institutions and infrastructure, and a new and great power, comes into being.

Unfortunately, the fact that power originally emanates from a religious or spiritual impulse, or from the institutions associated with religion, is not, and can never be, an adequate guarantee against its subordination for egotistical or evil purposes. There is, thus, in the history of every religion, a continuous struggle to harness the immense energies of faith for conflicting ends - both good and evil. In this process, every religion acquires a corrosive crust of the inessential, often of elements inimical to its basic character. From time to time, this cancerous residue of the exigencies of politics and history has to be scraped away in order to restore the essential radiance of the faith.

All over the world today, we can see the manifestations of enormous religious ferment. Materialism and modernity, as ideologies, have tapped immense energies, imbuing entire societies and cultures with a dynamism that is attained only rarely in history. They have, however, failed to fulfil critical needs in the life of man. Religious fundamentalism has been the predominant and confused reaction to this failure.

But fundamentalism itself, far from being a solution, is nothing more than an admission, often violent and destructive, of failure. It is inspired, not by a positive conception of the religious enterprise, but by frustration at the inability to cope with an unfamiliar and volatile world in which the sheltered certainty of stagnant societies - and the security of its traditional power brokers - is threatened. That is why the symbols and images associated with fundamentalism across the world are representations of violence and oppression: social and ‘moral’ codes imposed through cruel and public punishment: flogging, maiming, execution; violence against the designated ‘enemies of the faith’ as defined by xenophobic fanatics; and terrorism, with an underlying thesis that the conflict of ideologies can, perhaps must, only be resolved through an eventual ‘clash of cultures,’ a great inter-continental war in which one, and only one, ‘absolute truth’ - and its adherents alone - will survive.

Nothing in the world could be further divorced from the essence of any religion. The one thing every religious prophet has realised, without exception, is that there are no ‘Final Solutions’ to the suffering and the strife of the human condition. The slaughter of the populations of entire continents, and the imposition of a single religious form and ideology [itself an impossibility, if only because of the essential anarchy of the human mind] on all surviving mankind is hardly a route to spiritual emancipation; nor is it in consonance with the teachings of the prophets of any faith.

The spiritual life is a constant struggle for conquest, not of an external enemy, but of the bloated and vainglorious self. This is the greatest and most difficult adventure any human being can embark upon; and it requires a courage and a discipline that is extremely rare. It is easier to pursue political power by all available means, and to impose norms and standards on others through the terror of the whip and the gun.

The Panthic codes and their imposition through terror, the creed of hatred and violence that dominated Punjab for ten long years is just such an escape from the challenge of the true religious enterprise. What the terrorists did was not only wrong, it was unconditionally evil. The movement for ‘Khalistan’ - a State to be ruled according to the ‘values of Sikhism’ [though it was created out of the murder of everything the Faith stood for] was spearheaded by those whose interests were inexorably connected with the institutions and infrastructure, the wealth and power, that had grown out of an association with the religion and the community. They fed on the commerce of faith; it was its capital, its infrastructure and its power that they sought to command, not its essence.

This is a growing realisation everywhere among those who have the deepest interests of religion at heart. Even in a nation created out of fundamentalism, this is a message that is finding a constantly increasing and receptive audience. In Iran a prominent dissident, Abdolkarim Soroush challenges the tyranny of the Islamic clergy on precisely these grounds. "Islam, or any religion," he states, "will become totalitarian if it is made into an ideology, because that is the nature of ideologies... The clergy earns its living from religion. If your interests are secured through religion, then you will defend your interests first and religion will become secondary."2

This is the key to understand why religious institutions and those who control them have seldom pursued or promoted truly radical spiritual ends. The conservative impulse, the outward form and power of religion, communal conformity, and a numerical expansion of those who submit to their authority in the name of faith are the features essential to the expansion of their influence; these, consequently, constitute the core of their concerns, and of any ‘reforms’ that emanate from the ‘church’ - the institutions of organised religion.

"It is curious," Macauliffe remarks, "that the greatest religious reforms have been effected by the laity. The clergy, apart from their vested interests, are too wedded to ancient systems, and dare not impugn their utility or authority."3

Guru Nanak, Gautam Buddha, Mahavira Jina, the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ - of all the founders of the great religions that dominate the world today, none was attached to the established institutions of religion; none was a member of the orthodoxy or the religious leadership of the prevailing faith that they eventually sought to reform, challenge or supplant. Men such as these do not set out to create new religions or establish new churches. Their mission is fundamentally inimical to the dogma and ritual that inevitably stifle the mystical faculty in any formal religious order. They challenge orthodoxies and force people to think for themselves. They address their message to individuals, emphasising meditative practices, a profound effort to understand the human condition, an intense subjective striving to encounter the divine, and to express its will through their own lives.

The leaders of ‘churches’, of organised religious communities, prefer the unthinking and submissive herd. Their interests are best served by larger numbers, visible rituals and symbols that create distinctions between the followers of their order and those of other sects and creeds. This is true of the religious establishment even in a faith, such as Sikhism, which sought to destroy all distinctions of creed and of sect, creating an unvarying criterion to judge all men: their deeds and their devotion to God.

This indeed, is the reason why religious orthodoxies have often been the most unyielding opponents of popular education and of progress that would directly empower people. The educated do not make a good ‘flock’; they are not good milch animals; and they do not lend themselves easily to being fleeced.

In this regard, the impact of democracy on religions, certainly in the euphemistically labelled ‘developing countries’, has been altogether negative. The need for herds, rather than a thinking congregation, has become even more acute among the ‘leaders’ of third world democracies than it had ever been before. It is amazing that even in the imperial ages, even under harshly repressive and orthodox regimes, the religious rebel makes his presence felt - often with disastrous results for himself - with far greater frequency than has been the case in democratic India. All religions have been transformed into ‘holy cows’ today, and religious discourse is severely circumscribed by the fear of ‘offending the sentiments’ of highly volatile masses, who have no interest or understanding of such discourse, but who will run riot and kill with absolute abandon on the command of manipulative and highly politicised leaders.

These developments and the attitudes that they engender lie completely outside the sphere of true religion - for all true religion encourages its adherents to greater learning and conscious discrimination, insisting that they discover the truth for themselves rather than have it rationed out by clerical intermediaries - and are in fact an oppressive and unscrupulous subordination of the religious enterprise to politics.

In the age when Guru Nanak enunciated the principles of the Sikh faith, Europe was also experiencing an era of religious ferment. The Church had created a vast and despotic secular empire out of its religious authority; Christ’s message of peace, humility and brotherhood had been transformed into a doctrine of political strategy and conquest; and the priesthood sold ‘dispensations’ to the rich to free them of the burden of their sins. Gradually a powerful voice rose against this subversion of the true teachings of Jesus Christ, eventually to develop into the Protestant movement which created a schism in Christianity. In Germany, at the Diet of Spires in April 1529, a small group within the assembly of religious and secular leaders issued a formal ‘Protestation’ which stated, "in matters which concern God’s honour and salvation and the eternal life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God himself."4

This is an essential principle of the religious enterprise in any faith. The priests and religious leaders, the institutions, the shrines, all these are only instruments to mobilise or to harness the energies of individuals towards spiritual emancipation; and they are always secondary to the actual undertaking, which is the individual’s quest for, and his accountability to, God.

It would be futile to wait for another Guru Nanak, or some other messiah to appear today to show us the way, to purify the religions of the world. Such an expectation is a denial of individual responsibility, a misunderstanding of religion, and in Sikhism, heretical. The Tenth Guru explicitly vested all responsibility for the defence of the Faith in the Panth, the community itself; and this meant not just a defence against the threat of physical extermination by hostile armies, or the defence of the shrines of Sikhism against attack and desecration; it implies, possibly more importantly in the current context, a defence against the insidious distortion of the Faith from within.

No Sikh institution or organisation with pretensions to represent the Panth has shown itself to be equal to this task today. It is each Sikh in his or her individual capacity who will have to undertake this onerous responsibility; but the path, the direction and the method are quite clearly defined. In his final testament to his followers, shortly before his death, Guru Gobind Singh had said, "Let him who desireth to behold me, behold the Guru Granth. Obey the Granth Sahib. It is the visible body of the Guru. And let him who desireth to meet me diligently search its hymns."5


There are many obstacles, however, that must be removed before this search commences. The Sikh people have been subjected to what, for lack of a better expression, can be spoken of as an extended process of ‘pygmification’ - the progressive shrivelling up of attitudes, perspectives and horizons which has made them less than what they were, and infinitely less than what they could have been. This is true of all of India, of course; but the fall of the Sikhs has been both greater and more distressing because centuries of continuous struggle had transmuted them into a stronger people. That strength was visible in their adaptation to the circumstances created by Partition. It was visible in the Green Revolution, in the great economic success that is Punjab, in their vigour, their humour, the sheer intensity of the lives they lived. It was equally visible as they travelled all over the world and made a success of their lives - on the material scale - in the harshest and most hostile environment.

And yet, wherever the Sikhs have gone in the last half century, they have carried the pettiness of the Gurudwara politics of the Punjab countryside with them; their tunnel vision has made their faith an adjunct to their cultural identity - and this identity has been dominated by caste, by narrow parochialism, and by a corrosive bitterness that they have nursed and cherished, like a prized possession, in the depths of their hearts. They peopled a world of their own invention, so full of conspiracies and betrayals that these became parts of their owns lives. A philosophy of failure and persecution was built around a melange of grievances - a few that were real, no doubt, though essentially secular, but most that were demonstrably imaginary.

So, we discover that a proud, a noble, and immensely courageous people - or at least a substantial number among them, including all their most prominent leaders - began to perceive and project themselves as habitual victims; to wear their ‘wounded’ hearts constantly on their sleeves .

In the eighteenth century, when the Sikhs were numerically a negligible minority in Punjab, they dominated its politics, creating a powerful, just and secular empire under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. But today, with a majority of more than 60 per cent in the state, they have taken on the injured, whining tone of an ‘oppressed minority’ that goes against the grain of everything that Sikhism has ever propounded.

I have travelled across India, and every town and every city that I visited, however small or however remote, had a Sikh population and at least one Gurudwara with its nishan sahib flying proud and high. No Sikh in India can honestly claim that his community is prevented from worshipping according to its beliefs, or from proselytising its faith. Nowhere in India, before 1984, had I heard of Sikhs being victims of a communal carnage. In employment, if anything, there was a bias in their favour; their reputation for hard work and enterprise was valued everywhere they went. Their representation in the services was, and remains, disproportionately high relative to their population. Their collective standard of living is uniformly better than any other community in the country. But above all these is the respect and the honour the Sikh has always been given in India. The Sardarji jokes notwithstanding - and most of these were put out by the Sikhs themselves - in a public place or in a crisis most Indians will prefer to approach a Sikh for information, for assistance, or for services offered; in their eyes, the Sikh turban still represents strength, honesty and fairness.

And yet, in a nation where the very idea of communal majorities is being reduced to a mockery from day to day, the image of a ‘persecuted minority’ has been irresistible to a growing number of Sikhs. In a nation where the Brahmins are themselves rapidly acquiring the status of a victim community, the Sikhs still seek to discover a ‘Brahmanical conspiracy’ in every aspect of their lives.

It was against this mindset that the twin tragedies of 1984 - Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots - came as a virtual fulfilment and affirmation of a worldview that had been nurtured for close to five decades. Many Sikhs, even among those who did not share this worldview, seized upon these events as the defining circumstance of their lives.

Let it be clear that nothing can ever justify these two acts of utter barbarism. The nation and successive governments have sought the Sikh people’s forgiveness for Blue Star, but the principal perpetrators of the ‘84 riots still walk free. The entire Indian people, and the State will have to clear this hideous stain; and this can only be done by punishing the guilty without fear or favour. But while it is incumbent on the Government and its agencies to ensure that justice is done, it is the Sikh community and the families of the victims of this carnage who will have to discover in themselves the largeness of heart and the endurance of faith to give their lives a direction beyond this tragedy.

The malevolent shadow of Blue Star, and of the ‘84 riots, cannot be permitted to darken the Sikh imagination in perpetuity, to cripple the Sikh people, to warp their perspectives for all time to come. Many horrors were inflicted on the people of Punjab during the decade of terror - and these were certainly among the greatest - but those who have travelled through Punjab, through its countryside and its villages, in the past few years will discover that the common people - of all faiths - have moved on. They have come to terms with their losses, rebuilt their lives, and recovered, once more, the irrepressible spirit associated with their culture and their faith.

Unfortunately, the very people who were responsible for the genesis of the tragedy in Punjab still have a vested interest in keeping these wounds alive; in constantly reviving a partial and selective memory of suffering; in reinforcing the image of the Sikhs as a victim community to provide a self-perpetuating justification for retaliatory violence; in recreating the ghetto mentality that will allow these leaders to consolidate their power over the Panth, and the state.

If the Sikh people are to free themselves of the self-inflicted slavery of their minds, if they are to reverse the processes of their ‘pygmification’, if they are to restore themselves to their rightful stature as inspired leaders and complete human beings - Guru Nanak’s conception of mard-e-kamil - they will have to reject, not only this doctrine of failure and infirmity, but equally the leadership and the institutions that propagate and perpetuate it.

The Sikhs are a vibrant and ambitious community, eager to carve out a place of honour for themselves among the people of the world; and Sikhism is a dynamic, forward-looking faith that can help them take the lead in strengthening India by bringing castes and communities together, by emphasising the essential unity between all people, and by transcending even the boundaries of contemporary nation states to bring all of humanity into the ambit of the ‘service’ enjoined by the Gurus. Their faith is not merely a doctrine for a small community confined to a limited geographical area in the Indian sub-continent, or to those who trace their roots to it. It is a universal doctrine which can benefit all mankind. Their leadership has conveniently forgotten or ignored it, but the Sikh people must now recall and fulfil Guru Arjan Dev’s injunction to reject the prejudices that yoke their Faith to their own culture and community, and to translate the Guru Granth Sahib into all the languages of the world, so that "it might spread over the whole world as oil spreads over water."6

And lest their loyalties still remain bound to a narrow cultural identity, lest they feel that in doing this they would offend against the Faith, let each of them return to its source, the Guru Granth Sahib, and they will discover that the entire spirit of Gurudwara politics militates against the teachings of the Gurus. People in progressive religious societies around the world are increasingly questioning the authority of priesthoods in order to embark on a truly spiritual quest; and the present Sikh leadership is doing everything in its power to create a priesthood in a faith that explicitly prohibits such an institution.

The world is rapidly moving into a millennium where the constant acceleration of the pace of change will simply leave behind those who fail to cope with it, those who merely wait for history to apply the necessary correctives to their inflexible mindset. The Gurus showed us a path, a path from which the Sikhs have regrettably strayed, which can quickly bring them to the level of the advanced societies of the world. A path of progression on which their success will be measured, not only in material terms or as a physical transformation, but in the qualitative change of perception that will make every Sikh everywhere in the world a symbol of strength, of freedom, of trust, of courage, of enterprise, of an open, constantly seeking mind, of independence, and of horizons that extend into the infinite.


1. As the water resembles a star in the depths of a narrow well, Even so, in our darkest hour, was the refulgence of our glory. - Sheikh Mohammad Ibrahim Zauq, Kulliyat.

2. "Iranian thinker gets both bouquets and brickbats," The Times of India, July 15, 1997, p. 14.

3. Macauliffe, Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors, Vol. 1, S. Chand & Co., 1963, p. liv.

4. "Protestantism", Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, Compton’s New Media, 1996.

5. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. V, p. 244.

6. Suraj Parkash, Ras III, cited in Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. viii.







Copyright © 2001 SATP. All rights reserved.