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Punjab: The Knights of Falsehood


Having attained the Infinite
A Sikh reveals not his infinite powers.1

The enormity of the betrayal of the Sikh faith by the terrorists, by those who gave them their tacit or explicit support, and by those who transformed the teachings of the Gurus into a creed of hatred and indiscriminate violence, can only be understood in the context of the of the history and traditions of Sikhism, of the principles and ideals, and of the legends that have inspired and guided the Panth for centuries.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the history of the Sikhs, at least for nearly four of the five hundred years of the existence of their Faith, has been a history of warfare. But the origin and inspiration of the Faith was a doctrine of peace, and of the brotherhood of all mankind under the beneficence of the One God.

The first date associated with the emergence of the Sikh Faith is the year 1499, when, at the age of 30, Guru Nanak Dev announced his mission with his declaration rejecting religious formalism and affirming the universal brotherhood of man: "There is no Hindu, there is no Mussalman."

Even today, such an idea contains within it the potential to agitate the orthodox; in the age when it was expressed by Guru Nanak, it was nothing short of revolutionary, and could well invite the pain of death. A contemporary history, the Tarikh-i-Daoodi records the case of a Brahmin sage, Budhan, from the village of Kaner near what is now Lucknow, who was put to death by the Emperor Ibrahim Lodhi on a fatwa given by two Kazis; his crime was that he had proclaimed, in the hearing of some Muslims that "the religion of both Hindus and Muslims, if practised with sincerity, was equally acceptable to God."2 It is a tribute to the sheer spiritual force of Guru Nanak’s personality, and the purity of his divine inspiration, that he could preach his doctrine of revolutionary humanism and of absolute and unmediated devotion to the One God, across the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent and, according to tradition, well beyond, in the very heartland of Islam at Mecca, in the icy wastelands of Tibet and across the sea in Sri Lanka.

Within a hundred years, however, this unsettling faith was already being perceived as a threat to their power by the puritans both of Islam and Hinduism, and as a threat to stability and order by the imperial authority; inevitably a reaction, in this case overwhelmingly violent, began, in its turn producing a gradual but distinctive evolution in the content and character of Sikhism; an evolution that was to culminate in the militarisation of the Faith, and in the institution of the Khalsa.

The increasing intellectual ferment and the widening impact of the Gurus on the people, were noted, with conspicuous disapproval, by the Emperor Jehangir himself in his autobiographical Tuzuk-i-Jehangiri during the time of Guru Arjan Dev, the Fifth Guru, and the first great martyr of the Faith:

At Goindwal, on the bank of the river Beas, lived a Hindu, Arjan by name, in the garb of a Pir or Sheikh. Thus, many innocent Hindus and even foolish and ignorant Musalmans he brought into his fold who beat the drum noisily of his self-appointed prophethood. He was called Guru. From all sides, worshippers came to offer their homage to him and put full trust in his word. For three or four generations, they had warmed up this shop. For a long time I had harboured the wish that I should set aside this shop of falsehood or I should bring him into the fold of Islam.3

Jehangir gave Guru Arjan Dev a choice between conversion to Islam and death. He spurned the offer of a life that could be bought only with the denial of his faith. He condemned Jehangir’s bigotry and argued that his fight was not for the defence of Sikhism alone, but for the freedom of all faiths:

Hinduism may not be my faith, and I may believe not in the supremacy of the Vedas or the Brahmins, nor in idol-worship or caste or pilgrimages and other rituals, but I would fight for the right of all Hindus to live with honour and practice their faith according to their own light.4

The Emperor condemned Guru Arjan Dev "be put to death with torture". For five days he is believed to have been subjected to the most extreme physical torment; he was seated on red-hot iron plates and burning sand was poured over him; he was dipped in boiling water. In the end he was taken to the river Ravi; as he entered it to bathe his wounds, the impact of the cold water proved too much for his pain racked body, and he died a martyr for the right of all men to the freedom of belief.

This uncompromising fidelity is an essential element of the Sikh Faith; a deviation or a denial, for profit, for expediency or even out of fear for one’s own life is simply and unconditionally inadmissible. Ram Rai, the eldest son, and till then the designated heir of the Seventh Guru, Guru Har Rai, is said to have diluted the contents of a verse of the Guru Granth Sahib which he believed would offend the Emperor Aurangzeb who had asked him to explain the passage. The verse, intended to emphasise that differences in the last rites between Hindus and Muslims were of no importance, and that the fate of all flesh was the same in death, originally stated: "The dust of the Mussalman’s body finds its way into the potter’s clay; out of it he fashions pots and bricks and fires them, and when they burn, they cry out."5 Fearing the Emperor’s wrath, Ram Rai substituted the word ‘beimaan [faithless or dishonest] for ‘Mussalman’; for this transgression alone, he was disinherited by his father who declared: "The Guruship is like a tigress’s milk which can only be contained in a golden cup. Only he who is ready to devote his life thereto is worthy of it. Let Ram Rai not look on my face again."6 And so it was; never again was the Guru to see his eldest son again, and it was the younger, Hari Krishan, who was to be the next Guru.

Ram Rai, at the time of his ‘apostasy’ was in his early teens; but this was no defence in a creed that prescribed no age for courage and devotion. The Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh’s sons - Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh - were even younger when Wazir Khan, the Viceroy of Sirhind, sought to coerce them to deny their faith. They were told that their father and two elder brothers had been killed and that "Your only hope of escape now is to bow before the Viceroy and accept Islam; and perhaps he will spare your lives." When confronted by Wazir Khan the elder of the two children, Zorawar Singh, is believed to have said: "My father, the holy Guru Gobind Singh is not dead. Who can kill him? He is protected by the immortal God. If any one say that he can tear down heaven, how is that possible? Were a storm to attempt to drive a mountain before it, could it ever do so? ...When we have dedicated our heads to our father who is such a Guru, why should we bow them before a false and deceitful sinner." Wazir Khan then offered rich estates and honours to the children. And once again, the inducement was rejected with contempt. "Hear, O Viceroy, I spurn thy religion and will not part with mine own. It hath become the custom of our family to forfeit life rather than faith. O fool, why seekest thou to tempt us with worldly ambition? We will never be led astray by the false advantages thou offerest. The indignities inflicted by the Turks on our grandfather shall be the fire to consume them, and our deaths the wind to fan the flame. In this way we shall destroy the Turks without forfeiting our holy faith."7 Aged 7 and 9 respectively, Fateh Singh and Zorawar Singh were bricked up alive in Sirhind in the year 1705.

The Sikh commitment to his Faith, however, can never be reduced to mere fanaticism or to a communal arrogance that denies others their right to choose their own path of salvation, their own way of life. Indeed, some of the noblest chapters of Sikh history have been written, not on the Sikhs’ battles to defend their own faith or their own survival, but on their sacrifices for the protection of others. The circumstances of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur are known to every Sikh, though others may have forgotten this utterly selfless act. During the reign of Aurangzeb, large scale conversions to Islam were being imposed. This policy was implemented with exceptional enthusiasm by the Emperor’s viceroy in Kashmir, Sher Afghan Khan, who simply slaughtered those who would not abandon the faith of their forefathers. A group of Kashmiri Pandits met the Guru at Anandpur on the bank of the river Sutlej and told him of the reign of terror unleashed upon them. As the Guru sat in contemplation, distressed by what he heard, his young son, Gobind Rai, then aged nine, came by and asked him the reason for his preoccupation. The Guru replied, "My son, thou knowest nothing yet. Thou art still a child.... The world is grieved by the oppression of the Turks. No brave man is now to be found. He who is willing to sacrifice his life shall free the earth from [this] burden..." The child then demanded, "Who is more worthy than thou who art at once generous and brave?"8 Hearing this, the Guru sent the Kashmiris to Delhi to make a representation to the Emperor: "Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru is now seated on the throne of the great Guru Nanak, who is protector of faith and religion. First make him a Musalman and then all the people, including ourselves, will of our own accord adopt the faith."9 Aurangzeb was delighted, secure in his belief that enticement or force would eventually prevail, and once the Guru was converted, large numbers of Hindus and Sikhs would follow. The Guru then presented himself, with only five of his Sikhs, at Aurangzeb’s court. The Emperor’s blandishments, his attempts to bribe him, and eventually the most hideous tortures failed to make Guru Tegh Bahadur renounce his faith, and he was put to death on November 11,1675.

A faith such as this does not stand against any other religion; indeed, it stands above divisions of creed, of sect, or of denomination, protecting all against the absolutism or the tyranny of any one. It was for such protection, that the Sikhs armed themselves; it was for such protection that the Tenth Guru - the son of the martyred Guru Tegh Bahadur - created the Khalsa.

On the Baisakhi of 1699, the Tenth Guru called a great conclave of his disciples at Anandpur Sahib. To an audience of thousands of his followers, Guru Gobind Singh said on that day, "Let any one of my true Sikhs come forward. My sword wants a head." Most of those present reacted with confusion and fear, but one volunteer offered himself. The Guru took him into a tent and returned with a sword dripping with blood. He emerged to repeat his demand. In this manner, five men offered themselves one after the other for the supreme sacrifice. The Guru then revealed that this was only a test. Five goats had been sacrificed. The selfless disciples who had offered themselves - the panj piaras - lived. Three of the ‘five beloved’ were from the so-called Shudra caste, one a Jat, and one a Kshatriya. They received the Guru’s blessings and went on to constitute the nucleus of his new martial order - the casteless brotherhood of the Khalsa. An iron vessel was filled with water; batasa, a traditional sweet, was stirred in with a two edged sword; this was Amrit, the nectar of immortality; and as they drank of it, they were enjoined to help the poor and the persecuted, to fight the oppressor, to have faith in One God, and to consider all human beings equal.

For over a century the Sikhs had been hunted down mercilessly by the Mughals; two of the Gurus had been martyred to the faith - the second of these, Guru Tegh Bahadur, being Guru Gobind Singh’s father. But the gentle beliefs and traditions the Panth had inherited could not prepare its followers to confront the violent assaults of this tyranny. Steel was needed - in their hands and in their souls.

In one symbolic act, the Tenth Guru transformed his ‘sparrows into hawks’.

Nearly 20,000 people were received into the Khalsa fold on that day. Each Khalsa warrior would bear the name Singh - ‘lion’ - and, having received the baptism of the sword, would believe himself no less than a king. These were the Tenth Guru’s saint-soldiers, his knights of honour; their lives were consecrated to the Faith; their mission on earth was to defend Dharma.

The saint-soldier had, in fact, been the emerging ideal of Sikhism since the time of Guru Hargobind, the son of the first martyr of the Faith - Guru Arjan Dev. For the ceremonies of succession, Guru Hargobind abandoned his father’s rosary and sat on the Guru’s gaddi with two swords - which he called piri and miri -, symbolising both his spiritual and his temporal investiture. Before this, the Sikhs had been an entirely peaceful people, dedicated to the pursuit of religious truth as revealed by their Gurus. Guru Arjan Dev’s own martyrdom was the supreme demonstration of non-violent resistance to the growing tyranny of the Mughals. The Sixth Guru, however, realised that the growing intolerance of the ruling dynasty would destroy all other faiths unless stronger measures were not adopted to combat their doctrinal oppression. He commanded all his devotees and his deputies to bring him gifts of horses and of arms, instead of their customary offerings. With these he raised a force of five hundred men - the nucleus of a great army that would grow out of it to dare and to die for the Guru’s cause. He built a fortress called Lohgarh at Amritsar; and in consonance with his doctrine of piri and miri, immediately opposite the Harmandir, the symbol of the spiritual aspirations of the Sikhs, he built a second structure, the Akal Takht, to represent the temporal power of God. In the space between these, great tournaments were held and ballads and odes to martial valour were recited, transforming a people inured to submission and suffering into a congregation steeped in the spirit of chivalry.

The extent and revolutionary nature of this change caused great consternation within the Panth, as contemporary accounts record, but the transformation Guru Hargobind brought about was an idea whose time had come. Bhai Gurdas, a faithful follower of the Guru wrote:

The earlier Gurus sat peacefully in dharamsalas; this one roams the land.
Emperors visited their homes with reverence; this one they cast into jail.
No rest for his followers, ever active; their restless Master has fear of none.
The earlier Gurus sat graciously blessing; this one goes hunting with dogs.
They had servants who harboured no malice; this one encourages scoundrels.

But none of this detracts from the ardour and absolute dedication of the faithful:

Yet none of these changes conceals the truth; the Sikhs are still drawn as bees to the lotus.
The truth stands firm, eternal, changless; and pride still lies subdued.10

Through his own example, however, he never allowed this spirit to degenerate into a mere cult of martial dominance or of violence. In his personal life he observed the most spartan standards established by his predecessors and carried out the religious duties of his office with the same absolute dedication. The military ideal was, in this form, no more than a medium to fulfil and to protect the mission launched by Guru Nanak.

Precisely the same ideal was articulated by Guru Gobind Singh. In his Sawwaiyas he defines he ideal of the Khalsa:

He who repeateth night and day the name of Him
whose enduing light is unquenchable, who bestoweth not a thought on any but the one God;
Who hath full love and confidence in God,
who putteth not faith even by mistake in fasting,
or worshipping cemeteries, places of cremation, or jogis’ places of sepulture;
Who only recognizeth the one God and not
pilgrimages, alms, the non-destruction of life, Hindu penances or austerities;
And in whose heart the light of the Perfect One shineth,
He is recognised as a pure member of the Khalsa.11

Such a man, his consciousness centred solely in God, does not easily resort to violence. Only, the Guru ordained, "When all other alternatives fail, it is lawful to resort to the sword."12

When the Gurus led their Sikhs into battle, not only were they certain of the justice of their cause, but, irrespective of the conduct of the enemy, their own actions were defined by a strict code of honour. At Hargobindpur, the combined force of the Mughal Subedar of Jullundar and of Rattan Chand and Karam Chand, whose fathers had suffered defeat and death in battle against the Guru, attacked Guru Hargobind. The Mughal commander sent Guru Hargobind a message, demanding that he abandon the town to avoid a clash; the Guru, though outnumbered by a force twice the size of his own, rejected the offer with contempt, saying that he was being forced into a fight when he desired to acquire neither dominions, nor wealth. He then addressed his own soldiers, defining the warrior’s ethic. They were not to fire the first shot; nor were they to turn their back if a fight was forced on them. "Let no one kill a fleeing soldier nor the one who has surrendered. And no woman’s honour should be molested, nor women or civilian captured in reprisals or booty... We are fighting for a righteous cause - our right to live with honour and in peace - and not for the sake of self-glory, or rule over others."13 It was not in words alone but through his own actions that Guru Hargobind prescribed his code of valour. When Karam Chand was captured, one of the Guru’s followers wanted to put him to death. The Guru, however, ordered his release, saying, "It is not manly to strike at a defenceless person." Karam Chand chose to rejoin the battle once again, and was then confronted by the Guru himself. In the ensuing clash, Karam Chand’s horse fell dead, and his sword was broken into two. The Guru, however, refused to take advantage; he dismounted, threw down his own sword, and killed Karam Chand in a contest without arms.

The code was elaborated even further in a bitter engagement between Guru Gobind Singh and one of his most harshest enemies, Wazir Khan, at Anandpur. One day one of the Sikhs was arraigned before the Gurus. During and after the battles this man, called Kanhaiya, had been seen giving water and aid not only to the wounded Sikhs but to the enemy also. The Guru asked Kanhaiya if the charge was true. "Yes, my lord, it is true in a sense", he replied, "I have been giving water to everyone who needed it on the field of battle. But I saw no Mughals or Sikhs there. I saw only the Guru’s face in everyone."14 The Guru blessed him and told his Sikhs that Kanhaiya had understood his mission correctly.

Over the following centuries, the Sikhs rode into battle hundreds of times, careless of death. Even their most bitter enemies have testified, not only to their courage, but equally to their unyielding sense of honour, of right and wrong, of justice. The Afghan, Ahmad Shah Abdali, who invaded India time and again in the 18th Century, laying waste large areas of the Punjab and inflicting untold atrocities on the ‘hated infidels’ was among the most relentless of these enemies. Yet even his chief chronicler, Qazi Nur Mohammad, whose writings are full of abuse against the Sikhs pays them grudging tribute.

In no case would they slay a coward, nor would they put an obstacle in the way of a fugitive. They do not plunder the wealth and ornaments of a woman, be she a well-to-do lady or a maid-servant. There is no adultery among these dogs, nor are these mischievous people given to thieving... There is no thief at all among these dogs, nor is there any house-breaker born among these miscreants.... They do not make friends with adulterers and house-breakers....15

Abdali’s armies were notorious for kidnapping and raping women during their campaigns. But the Sikh would not retaliate against even a dishonourable enemy by dishonourable means. When one of Abdali’s general, Jahan Khan was defeated at Sialkot, he fled to Peshawar, abandoning many of his relatives and dependants to the mercy of the Sikhs. And they were not found lacking in this quality. "As the Sikhs of old would not lay their hands on women," writes Ali-ud-Din in his Ibratnamah, "they sent them safely to Jammu."16

Abdali’s forces committed great slaughters among the Sikhs, torturing and executing prisoners without compunction. In 1764, the Sikhs overran Sirhind and Lahore, taking thousands of Afghans prisoner. Not a single captive was killed in vengeance. "The Sikhs," writes Forster, "set a bound to the impulse of revenge, and though the Afghan massacre and persecution must have been deeply imprinted on their minds, they did not, it is said, destroy one prisoner in cold blood."17

Their conduct won them great awe and respect. G. Forster, a British traveller who journeyed through Punjab in that age, writes,

I saw two Sicque horsemen, who had been sent from their country to receive the Siringnaghur tribute which is collected from the revenues of certain custom-houses. From the manner in which these men were treated, or rather treated themselves, I frequently wished for the power of migrating into the body of a Sicque for a few weeks - so well did these cavaliers fare. No sooner had they alighted, then beds were prepared for their repose, and their horses were supplied with green barley pulled out of the field. The Kafilah travellers were contented to lodge on the ground, and expressed their thanks for permission to purchase what they required...."18

The conditions under which the Sikhs attained such distinction, such honour, are unparalleled in the history of any other people. The pogroms, the slaughters, the unending persecution they were subjected to, particularly through the 18th Century, would have broken the spirit of most, creating the psyche of a ‘victim community’, constantly complaining of oppression, showing off their communal wounds to all who were willing to listen, bewailing their fortune, perhaps cursing and, eventually, abandoning their faith. Instead, with each new wound, they roared like the lions whose names they bore. Nothing, simply nothing could break their spirit. Whatever the Sikh may have suffered in those years - and his suffering was immense - he would not whine, or beg, or, indeed, transform his just anger into a vicious cult of vengeance.

The dying embers of the Mughal Empire, and the scourge of successive invasions from Afghanistan inflicted the greatest horrors on the Sikhs from the dawn of the 18th Century virtually to the time of Ahmad Shah’s last excursion in 1769. Almost throughout the period - though there were brief intervals of detente or of an uncertain peace - the Panth was marked out for extinction by those who controlled the volatile destinies of that age. At its peak this campaign, for instance under the command of Zakariya Khan, the Governor of Lahore representing, alternatingly, the Mughals and the Afghans, placed a price on the head of every Sikh. A graded scale of rewards was offered. A blanket for cutting off a Sikh’s hair, fifty rupees for a Sikh scalp. To plunder Sikh homes was lawful. Giving shelter to Sikhs or withholding information of their movements was a capital offence. The Governor’s armies scoured the country, returning with hundreds of Sikh captives. They were brought back to Lahore in chains and publicly beheaded at the nakhas, the horse market. Sikh men, women and children were butchered wherever they were found, and an absolute ban existed on their presence in Amritsar. Effective resistance against the overwhelming power of the government at that time was impossible, but the Sikhs invented innumerable, often quixotic, acts of defiance, heaping ridicule upon a power which, at that point of time in history, all other people accepted as absolute.

The names of Bota Singh and Garja Singh are now part of Punjabi legend, and will inevitably provoke a smile even as they inspire great respect. These two Sikhs set out to scorn Zakariya Khan’s authority ; they made it a practice to slip into Amritsar and to bathe in the holy sarovar at the Harmandir, and then to disappear into the forests around Tarn Taran. But this game of hide and seek did not satisfy them for long. So they planted themselves on the Grand Trunk Road, near the Serai Nuruddin, and started demanding a toll tax from all who passed, at one anna per cart and one paisa per donkey-load. Despite all Zakariya Khan’s ordinances and laws against the Sikhs, no one dared to refuse; and no authorities intervened. Quite disgusted with this lack of spirit, Bota Singh wrote a contemptuous letter directly to the Governor, informing him of his decision to impose a private tax on a public road. Incensed, Zakariya Khan sent out a force of a hundred horsemen to arrest the two renegades; in an act as noble as it was apparently futile, Bota Singh and Garja Singh challenged them and died fighting. Their sacrifice became part of the folklore, of the collective consciousness of the Sikhs, who found in it the inspiration to continue to fight a vast power which they gradually whittled away, in part with their arms, and in part with their laughter. The spirit of Bota Singh echoed through the Punjab in the derisive doggerel:

Chithi likhai Singh Bota, hath hai sota;
Vich raah khalota; anna laya gadde nu, paisa laya khota;
Aakho bhabhi Khanan nu, yun aakhe Singh Bota.19

[Bota Singh wrote a letter;
He stood, staff in hand, in the middle of the road
charging an anna for a cart, a paisa for a donkey;
Call the Khans ‘sister-in-law’, so said Bota Singh].

Another notable martyrdom was that of Taru Singh who was arrested and brought to Lahore on charges of treason. He was asked to embrace Islam and, on his refusal, it was ordered that his hair be scraped off his scalp. His taunting reply was that the hair, the scalp and the skull have a natural connection, the head of man is linked with life, and he was prepared to yield his breath cheerfully. The Governor’s orders were then carried out in detail. His hair was mercilessly scraped off with his scalp, and he was executed.20

Such acts of reckless courage became a commonplace, and a contemporary Muslim writer speaks of the innumerable, and fruitless, attempts by Sikhs to resume their pilgrimage to Amritsar:

Sikh horsemen were seen riding at full gallop towards their favourite shrine of devotion. They were often slain in the attempt and sometimes taken prisoner; but they used on such occasions to seek instead of avoiding, the crown of martyrdom... No instance was known of a Sikh taken on his way to Amritsar consenting to abjure his faith.21

Not everything the Sikhs did fell into the category of these quixotic acts of provocation. They were eventually to undermine and gradually destroy the authority of the Mughals and the Afghans throughout the Punjab; and the primary tactic of this achievement was a pattern of guerrilla warfare that they perfected precisely in this period. As the Afghans under Nadir Shah and later his successor Ahmad Shah Abdali swept across the Karkoram to plunder the whole of North India down to the Mughal capital time and time again, they found little resistance from the ‘great powers’ of the age. Instead, it was the numerically insignificant and politically powerless Sikhs who made life nigh impossible for them.

Denied a permanent home on pain of death, with their every village and dwelling destroyed by the Mughal armies, the Sikhs had taken to living a nomadic life in the forests on the foothills of the Himalayas. When Nadir Shah’s loot-laden army, on its return from Delhi, entered the Punjab, the Sikhs swept out of their hiding places and continued to plunder his baggage train all the way to the river Indus. Immensely harassed, and deprived of a substantial quantity of his loot, Nadir Shah is said to have asked Zakariya Khan about the identity of the ‘brigands’ who had dared to attack his army. The Governor replied, "They are fakirs who visit their guru’s tank twice a year, and after having bathed in it they disappear." "Where do they live," enquired the Shah. "Their homes are their saddles," replied Zakariya Khan. Hearing this, Nadir Shah is said to have prophesied, "Take care, the day is not far distant when these rebels will take possession of your country."22

Before that day came, however, the Afghans were to sweep across the Punjab another eight times under the leadership Ahmad Shah Abdali. The Sikhs continued with their campaigns of harassment against the invader. Contemporary accounts describe both the immense plundered wealth the Afghans sought to carry away, the enormous strength of the forces, and also Sikhs who tormented them to the very limits of the Punjab.

Abdali’s own goods were loaded on twenty-eight thousand elephants, camels, mules, bullocks and carts, while two hundred camel-loads of property were taken by Mohammed Shah’s widows, who accompanied him and these too belonged to him. Eighty thousand horses and foot followed him, each man carrying away spoils. His cavalry returned on foot, loading their booty on their chargers. For securing transport, the Afghan king left no horse or camel in any one’s house, not even a donkey.23

A Maratha account describes the Sikh onslaught against this bloated confusion of men and spoils that was marching triumphantly home.

...when the front division of Abdali’s army under Prince Taimur was transporting the plundered wealth of Delhi to Lahore, Ala Singh, in concert with other Sikh robbers, had barred his path at Sanawar (between Ambala and Patiala) and robbed him of half his treasures, and again attacked and plundered him at Malerkotla. So great had been the success of these brigands that rumour had magnified it into the prince’s captivity and even death at their hands.24

When Abdali followed, the Sikh bands slew his guards and pillaged his baggage time and time again. He arrived in an evil temper at Lahore, and failing to lay his hands on the elusive Sikhs, he spent his fury on the city of Amritsar. The Harmandir was blown up and the sacred pool filled with the entrails of slaughtered cows. This only made the Sikhs his most implacable enemies; they tormented him every time he returned, and were to eventually block his access at the Jhelum itself when he came for his ninth looting spree in 1769.

Their repeated success against the great armies of the Afghans was a consequence of the transformation that their faith, and the persecutions that it had been subjected to, had imposed upon them. Dispossessed of all that could bind or weaken them, their lives forfeit by their very faith, they learned to live and fight as only a people with the deepest convictions, and nothing to lose, can. An English Adventurer, George Thomas gives a vivid sketch of their ways of life and warfare:

After performing the requisite duties of their religion by ablution and prayer they comb their hair and beard with peculiar care, then, mounting their horses, ride forth towards the enemy, with whom they engage in a continued skirmish advancing and retreating, until man and horse become equally fatigued; then they draw off to some distance from the enemy, and, meeting with cultivated ground, they permit their horses to graze of their own accord, while they parch a little grain for themselves, and after satisfying nature by this frugal repast, if the enemy be near, they renew the skirmishing; should he have retreated, they provide forage for their cattle, and endeavour to procure a meal for themselves... Accustomed from their earliest infancy to a life of hardship and difficulty, the Sikhs despise the comforts of a tent; in lieu of this, each horseman is furnished with two blankets, one for himself, and the other for his horse. These blankets which are placed beneath the saddle, with a gram-bag and heel ropes, comprise in time of war, the baggage of a Sikh. Their cooking utensils are carried on tuttoos [ponies]. Considering this mode of life, and the extraordinary rapidity of their movements, it cannot be a matter of wonder if they perform marches, which to those who are only accustomed to European warfare, must appear almost incredible.25

Abdali was to desecrate and destroy the Harmandir thrice. On every occasion, even as his forces departed, the Sikhs would rebuild it. Even when he sought to make peace, or arrive at some terms of agreement with the other people of the lands he had plundered, he never forgave the Sikhs; he left his own son, the Prince Taimur, to govern the Punjab and to exterminate the Sikhs; they were chased down and killed wherever they could be found. Two great slaughters, remembered by the Sikhs as the chotta ghalughara and the wadda ghalughara were inflicted on them by Abdali. Up to 40,000 Sikhs died in these two incidents alone, most of them non-combatants - the aged, women and children.

Despite all these atrocities, despite his the unlimited cruelty and his immense power, in all the years that the Punjab was part of Ahmad Shah’s ‘Empire’, he could never contain the Sikhs; indeed, his hold over the entire region was never more than tenuous. A contemporary commentator describes the situation:

The Shah’s influence is confined merely to those tracts which are covered by his army. The Zamindars appear in general so well affected towards the Sikhs that it is usual with the latter to repair by night to the villages, here they find every refreshment. By day they retire from them and again fall to harassing the Shah’s troops. If the Shah remains between the two rivers Beas and Sutlej, the Sikhs will continue to remain in the neighbourhood, but if he passes over towards Sirhind the Sikhs will then become masters of the parts he leaves behind them.26

Every calamity only strengthened the irrepressible spirit of the Sikhs. When the survivors of the wadda ghalughara assembled in the evening for their community prayer, one Sikh is said to have risen to say, "No harm done, Khalsaji! The Panth has emerged purer from the trial: the alloy has been eliminated."27 Within four months of the great carnage, the Sikhs had inflicted a severe defeat on the Governor of Sirhind. Four months later, they were celebrating Diwali in Harmandir which the Shah had demolished, and were fighting pitched battles with him again, forcing him to withdraw from Amritsar under the cover of darkness.

Out of all this adversity the Sikhs shaped a philosophy of life tinged with a grim humour that taught them to laugh at their misfortunes, at their enemies, and at themselves. Mir Mannu was the instrument of one of the most sustained and cruel campaigns to crush the Sikhs. The Sikhs composed a doggerel about him - and about themselves:

Mir Mannu is our sickle,
We the fodder for him to mow,
The more he reaps, the more we grow.

And all Abdali’s depredations were reduced to the couldn’t-care-less adage:

Khada peeta Lahe da
Rahnda Ahmad Shahe da.
[What we eat and drink is ours
The rest is Ahmad Shah’s]

The braggadocio of the Nihangs, even today, reflects the linguistic peculiarities that emerged out of the attitudes of irreverence and audacity forged in those trying times. A single Sikh describes himself as a fauj [army], or as sava lakh [a hundred and twenty five thousand]; when he goes to urinate, he says he is going ‘to see a cheetah off’; when he defecates he announces that he is going to ‘conquer the fort of Chittor’, or to ‘give rations to the Kazi’; coarse food like gram is ‘almonds’, onions are ‘pieces of silver’; a one eyed man earns himself the name Lakhnetra Singh, the lion with a hundred eyes; and death is simply an order to march.

All this was soaked into the culture that was the Punjab, into its language, into the collective consciousness of the Sikhs. It was what gave them the power to create a kingdom for themselves; and the strength to bear its loss. It gave them the courage to fight every enemy; and the large heartedness to be just even with those who gave them no justice. Themselves the victims of the worst kind of tyranny, the Sikh misls [or independencies within the Panth] that established their power after they had stemmed the Afghan tide, and the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, gave all faiths complete freedom and made no distinction among their subjects on grounds of religion or of caste. In times of distress they helped all without discrimination. In 1783, when a severe famine hit the Punjab, the Sikh chiefs enlarged their langars so that all the poor and the need could be provided for. A report quoted in the Gazetteer of the Montgomery district says of the Sikh Sardar of the area: "The famines of 1783 occurred in Budh Singh’s time. He is said to have sold all his property, and to have fed the people with grain from the proceeds."29

Such generosity, such empathy with the suffering of others, was possible because Sikhism, despite the unbalanced attention its turbulent history of conflict has received, was not, and was never meant to be, a creed of war or violence. The Khalsa certainly took up arms; but it did so, not because these were in any way connected to the core of his religious beliefs, but to protect that core.

It would be inappropriate to attempt to define what constitutes that core, or in any way to circumscribe the message of the Gurus within what would be no more than a partial and imprecise interpretation. There are certain features of the essential teachings of Sikhism, however, which concern us here, and which are beyond the realm of controversy or of exegetic dispute. We shall highlight only some of these here.

The Sikh Gurus offered a conception of God as Truth, without form or aspects - nirguna - and beyond human comprehension. Yet He is given to man as a presence, revealed through creation and through his infinite grace. Whatever we do, our awareness of this presence must be constant; and this awareness must inform and be reflected in all our actions. Religion is not a turning away from the world, not a denial or a renunciation, but a life in God’s presence - realised through absolute and constant devotion, and through the repetition of the many names of the One God. Most of the religions of the world deny in absolute terms the possibility of a valid vision other than their own; some admit to a formal concession or to a condescending ‘tolerance’. But the Sikh Gurus recognised the potential of other living faiths, though they resolutely rejected their failings; this noble quality of wisdom and understanding, of the acceptance of the truth and of whatever was valuable in other religions is consecrated in the Adi Granth; side by side with the word of the Gurus, one finds the wisdom of Hindu and of Muslim saints. In this, the Guru Granth Sahib is unique in all the scriptures of the world. And its message is for all men without distinction or prejudice, for all men are in the protection of the One God. There is no space in this conception for distinctions between man and man, for prejudices of caste, colour or creed; nor any space for superstition, for bigotry or for ritual.

All men belong to You.
You are the support,
You stretch your protective hand.30

And the essence of religious conduct is defined in terms, again, of the equality of man, and of the realisation of God within the normal duties and activities of the world.

Religion consisteth not in mere words;
He who looketh on all men as equal is religious.
Religion consisteth not in wandering to tombs or places of cremation, or sitting in attitudes of contemplation;
Religion consisteth not in wandering in foreign countries or in bathing at places of pilgrimages.
Abide pure amid the impurities of the world; thus shalt thou find the way of religion.

There is, thus, in Sikhism, no denial of the diverse and often conflicting variety of life. Indeed, there is an explicit rejection of all asceticism, of the ritual piety, and of all the ponderous, sombre and oppressive features associated with most religions where the wrath and the vengeance, and not the grace, of God is the axis of human destiny. Rejecting the Brahmanical credo of asceticism and the severities of Islamic Puritanism, Guru Nanak wrote,

One sings religious songs, though he possesses no divine knowledge,
A hungry Mullah turns his home into a mosque,
An idler has his ears pierced - and so becomes a yogi!
Another embraces the life of a mendicant to shake off his caste
. 32

So again, austerities are ridiculed by Guru Gobind Singh:

Swine eat filth, elephants and donkeys bespatter themselves with dust.
Jackals live at places of cremation;
Owls live in tombs, deer wander alone in the forest, trees ever die in silence;
The man who restraineth his seed should only have the credit of the hermaphrodite

Sikhism is a vigorous, earthy, dynamic faith; a faith that gives man concrete guidance by which he may live in the real world; its truths are tangible, its methods eminently practicable. An energetic and deeply religious people have translated its essence into the spirit of laughter that permeates the culture, the music, the dances, and the way of life of the Punjabi, the colours and flamboyance of the clothes they wear, their indefatigability, their unyielding courage.

The Sikhs may, at times, have been somewhat lax in their practice of the tenets of their faith. Even in war, despite their glorious traditions, there have been horrifying deviations from their codes of chivalry. Individual Sikhs and Sikh armies have certainly, on occasion, been guilty of cruelty, even of barbarity. No Sikh, however, would feel even the slightest tinge of pride in a victory, however, great, that was tainted by the slaughter of innocents, by savagery, even by low cunning; and whatever the oppression they may have been subjected to themselves, no Sikh will offer a justification for these. The collective consciousness of the community, their sense of identity can never be defined in terms of anything but the noble traditions reflected in their scriptures, and in the traditions they themselves value the most.

Those who have been guilty of betraying these traditions, of bringing shame upon the Panth by their actions, have sometimes acted in the name of the Panth, and in the purported defence of the Panth. Their claims, irrespective of the intensity of their subjective convictions, and irrespective of their own personal suffering or sacrifice, must simply be rejected; for they cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Gurus.

The terrorists almost destroyed not only the spirit of Punjab, but the essence of Sikhism itself. This essence was threatened, not only by their acts of indiscriminate and unprovoked violence, by their cruel debauchery, but equally, more insidiously and constantly, by all those who still seek to impose a hideous conformity in the name of the Faith; by those who seek to transform the message of the Gurus into the very mirror image of the religious absolutisms, the ideological tyranny and bigotry that it set out to free mankind from; by those who have compromised the vitality and dynamism of the Panth through a tragic adoption of the ghetto mentality, the ‘minority community’ syndrome, the eternally whining, complaining tones of a defeated people in a time and an age when the Sikhs have more achievements to their credit than they have had at any other time in history.

Sikhism is a large hearted religion; it is a religion, equally, for the large hearted. Those who seek to mangle it in order to fit into their own constricted vision, their own withered, hate filled hearts, speak, not for Sikhism, but for an unnamed and malevolent creed to which Sikhism has ever been, and will ever be, an unrelenting enemy.


1. Bhai Gurdas, Var 12, p. 15. Cited in, Trilochan Singh, Guru Nanak: A Biography, Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Delhi, 1969, p. 156.

2. Tarikh-i-Daoodi, Trans. Sir Henry Elliot, Volume 4, pp. 464-65, cited in Dr Gopal Singh, History of the Sikh People, World Book Centre, 1979, p. 45.

3. Cited in Dr Gopal Singh, History of the Sikh People, World Book Centre, 1979, p. 191.

4. Cited in Dr Gopal Singh, History of the Sikh People, World Book Centre, 1979, p. 258.

5. Guru Granth Sahib, Asa Di War, M1, p. 466.

6. Macauliffe, Max Authur, The Sikh Religion: Its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors, Volume IV, p. 310.

7. Ibid., Volume V, pp. 195-97.

8. Ibid., Volume IV, pp. 371-72

9. Ibid., p. 372.

10. Varan Bhai Gurdas 26: 24, cited in W.H. McLeod, Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 23-24.

11. Macauliffe, op. cit., Volume V, pp. 314-315

12. Zafarnama, cited in J S Grewal & S S Bal, Guru Gobind Singh: A Biographical Study, Department of History, Panjab University, 1967, p. 118.

13. Singh, Dr. Gopal, A History of the Sikh People: 1469-1988, World Book Centre, 1979, p. 226.

14. Singh, Harbans, The Heritage of the Sikhs, Asia Publishing House, 1964, p. 40.

15. Singh, Khushwant, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 1: 1469-1839, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 160.

16. Cited in Harbans Singh, op.cit., p. 61.

17. Forster, G., A Journey from Bengal to England through North India, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Persia into Russia, 1783-1784, Volume I, London, 1798, p. 279. Cited in Khushwant Singh, op. cit., p. 157.

18. Ibid., p. 326. Cited in Khushwant Singh, op. cit., p. 177.

19. Cited in Dr Gopal Singh, op. cit., p. 376.

20. Ibid., pp. 376-77.

21. Malcolm, Sir John, A Sketch of the Sikhs, London, 1812, p. 88, quoting a contemporary Muslim writer.

22. Singh, Khushwant, op. cit., pp. 125-126.

23. Tarikh-i-Alamgir Sani, cited in Khushwant Singh, Ibid., p. 144.

24. Gupta, H.R., History of the Sikhs, cited in Khushwant Singh, Ibid., p. 144.

25. Francklin, William, Military Memoirs of George Thomas, Hurkaru Press, Calcutta, 1803, p. 71-73.

26. Singh, Harbans, op. cit., p. 60.

27. Singh, Khushwant, op. cit., p. 165.

28. Ibid., p. 140.

29. Singh, Harbans, op. cit., p. 67.

30. Guru Granth Sahib, Asa 49, M5, p. 383

31. Ibid., Suhi, M1, p. 730.

32. Ibid., Sarang, M1, p. 1245

33. Loehlin, C.H., The Granth of Guru Gobind Singh and the Khalsa Brotherhood, Lucknow Publishing House, 1971, p. 24.







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