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by Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon.

Sikh Gurus | Martyrs | Sikh Warriors
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This page was last updated on March 13 2001.

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Sikhs constitute about 2% of the Indian population. They are clearly distinguishable from the Hindus not only in their outward form, but also in their religious, cultural and social outlook, world-view, concept of God and Gurus, language and contents of their Scripture and their idea of priesthood. Sikh Scripture, called the Granth Sahib, is the repository of the Sikh ideology. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh declared that the Granth Sahib would be the Guru after him.

The Sikhs are essentially a God-fearing community with strong and irrevocable commitment for social and spiritual elevation of all people without any distinction of caste or creed. They stand for a plural world society tolerant open, progressive and free. Throughout the entire span of their eventful history, they have struggled and fought for universal causes and have courted martyrdoms to uphold the values of truth, justice and freedom.

The life-affirming faith of the Gurus has bestowed upon the Sikhs a sociopolitical vitality to live more vigorously and abundantly as good householders and responsible citizens. It has made them more catholic in dress, diet and habit, and has filled them with a spirit of enterprise to explore the whole world for adventure and livelihood. The Sikhs have left on the Indian history a distinctive stamp of their creativity. It is due to their social dynamism that Punjab became a highly productive and prosperous region and came to acquire a pride of place in the country. It has led the other states in the agricultural revolution and has earned the unique distinction of being the food bowl of the country. With their glorious heritage of chivalry, the Sikh soldiers have made Punjab the sword arm of the country. The Sikh history, in all its varied phases, unfolds the genius of the Sikhs as a dynamic community.

Sikhism, a revelatory religion, arose in the sixteenth century as a new revolutionary ideology aimed at spiritual rejuvenation, moral upliftment and social emancipation of people. On the one hand, it confronted the dogmatism and religious hypocrisy of the priestly classes, and, on the other hand, it challenged the religio-political oppression of the contemporary rulers. Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE),' the founder of Sikh religion, stressed the unity of God and brotherhood of man. He attacked such pillars of traditional society as caste, idolatry, ritualism, asceticism and the intermediary role of the priests in man's relations with God. His spiritual thesis with an inalienable social content sought to establish equality not only between man and man, but also between man and woman.

Guru Nanak challenged the conventional yardsticks of religion and society of his times by welding the spiritual and the temporal planes of human existence into a harmonious whole. He exhorted people not to shun the battle of life, not to renounce their hearths and homes, not to retreat to the private solitude of hills and caves, but to live the life of lull-blooded householders.

As such, the realm of religion was widened to cover man's worldly concerns and social responsibilities as well. The Guru believed that religion should be an effective vehicle to promote the values of love, harmony and peace. Spiritual insight into the nature of things should lead to an enlightened understanding of the phenomenal world.

Guru Nanak aimed at a social revolution that would lead to the emergence of an egalitarian, forward-looking and just social order, with emphasis on work ethic, sharing one's wealth and contemplation of God's name in pursuit of the higher meaning of life. The Guru's gospel was not a mere system of philosophy or a set of abstract ideas concerning God and the mystery of life and death. It was a discipline, a way of life, which infused spiritual and social vitality in its followers and brought about a far-reaching transformation in their outlook. The Guru's followers were not required to chant Sanskrit hymns before stone idols, but sang hymns composed by the Guru himself in their mother-tongue. Dharamsals (later called gurdwaras) were established as the centres of the new society, which not only came to serve as repositories of the Sikh faith, hut also played a significant role in maintaining the corporate the of the community by reinforcing the notion of religious collectivism. Congregational prayers and community kitchens arranged in the gurdwaras helped in invigorating the Sikh spirit. The Guru's movement released the energies of men and women slumbering for centuries and aroused their conscience against degrading socio-religious practices and also against their abject submission to a tyrannical rule.

Angad, the second Sikh Guru, challenged the undue sanctity attached to Sanskrit and decided to propagate the new faith through the popular medium of Punjabi language. Thus, religion ceased to be a mystery hidden behind a linguistic curtain; it became a part and parcel of life, a matter of day-to-day experience. The Guru was opposed to mendicancy and parasitical living. He earned his own living by twisting coarse grass into strings used for cots, thus strengthening the concept of Work culture introduced by the first Guru

The third Guru, Amar Das, took several steps which tended to break further the affiliations of the Sikhs with the traditional Hindu society. He introduced new forms of ceremonials for birth, death and marriage. He deprecated the practice of purdah and sati, encouraged inter-caste alliances and remarriage of widows. He emphatically declared that the Sikhs who were active householders were wholly separate from the passive and recluse Udasis (a Hindu cult), whom he excluded from the Sikh society. The Guru established twenty two new centres or parishes for conveying to the people the message of Guru Nan Arjun Dev, the fifth Guru, compiled the Scripture of the new society, called the Granth Sahib, a volume of 1430 pages. Apart from the compositions of the Gurus, hymns of medieval Hindu and Muslim saints also found a place in the Scripture, which is unique for its catholicity, insight and power. Written in the Gurmukhi script, the Granth Sahib became the nucleus of the Sikh way of life and all religious observances. The Guru also built the Harmandir Sahib, the focal point of Sikh faith which also came to be known as Darbar Sahib. Apart from being the principal place of worship, it also became the rallying centre for the socio-political activities of the Sikhs. The Guru began to be looked upon by his followers, not only as Satguru (spiritual guide), but also as Sachha Padshah (true king). In the words Of Archer, "The trend of practicality and realism in his movement was proving stranger than tendencies towards the mystical and negatived." The Sikh society had developed a social identity and had become "a State within a State," which had become an eyesore for Emperor Jahangir, who looked upon it as an unwanted socio-political group. The Guru was ordered to be executed by torture. The supreme act of martyrdom of the Guru not only strengthened the faith and determination of the Community but also let an indelible stamp on the Sikh way of life.

Guru Arjun's parting message to his son and successor, Hargobind, the sixth Guru, was to begin militarization of the Sikh community. Guru Hargobind assumed Guruship with two swords girded around his waist, one symbolizing spiritual power (piri) and the other temporal authority (miri). He recognized recourse to the sword as a rightful alternative for self-defence. The Guru raised the Akal Takht (the throne of the Timeless), a seal of temporal authority, adjacent to the Harmandir Sahib, visibly symbolizing the combination of the spiritual and the empirical, stemming from the creative and life-affirming vision of Guru Nanak. In the integrated complex, the spiritual concerns of the human soul and the temporal concerns of daily life came to be taken care of. Not only Darbar Sahib, but all gurudwaras came to acquire a socio-political status. The Guru prepared the community to wage an armed struggle against the tyranny of the State. After making his preparations and testing the mettle of his men with the Mughal armies, he shifted the venue of his organisation to the out-of-the-way hill areas, where the mighty Mughal force could not throttle the young nation in its infancy. The military preparations continued unabated even in the time of the succeeding Gurus.

Moving from supreme spiritual awareness to supreme sacrifice, Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru practised his spiritual ideal to counter the forces of tyranny and injustice. The Guru offered to sacrifice his life in response to an appeal made by Kashmiri Brahmins who found themselves helpless against the State, whose entire might was turned in the direction of humiliating non Muslims and forcing them to forsake their religion or to live a life of degradation. The Guru's sacrifice to uphold the freedom of man to practise his religion is unparalleled in the annals of mankind.

Pulsating with human love and spiritual robustness, the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, also responded to the prime need of the hour to restore justice and harmony in human affairs. The founding of the Khalsa brotherhood by the Guru on the Vaisakhi of 1699 CE was the epitome of the mission of Guru Nanak. The Guru adopted for himself and his followers the distinctive appellation Singh(lion) who should know no fear and should bring down the arrogance of those who occupied places of power and brandished the sword of their tyranny over the heads of the helpless multitudes. The Singhs were to be saint-soldiers, combining in them the piety of a saint and the strength and sternness of a soldier. The Guru wrote to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzab, in explicit terms, that when all other means to restore righteousness fail, it is but legitimate to take up the sword. The Guru aimed at creating a nation that would be pure and strong enough to free itself from the oppression of the rulers and the priests. In the ranks of the Khalsa, complete equality was practised. All were equal, the lowest with the highest, in race as in creed, in political rights and religious hopes. The egalitarian principle introduced in the Sikh society was intended to be a complete break with the earlier religious tradition, which sanctified caste.

Guru Gobind Singh prescribed five symbols: kesh (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bangle) and kachha (short breeches). The inner unity of faith was sought to be strengthened with external uniformity. The Guru also furnished the order of the Khalsa with the institutions of Panj Piaras (five beloved ones) and daswandh (voluntary contribution of one tenth of one's income) to the exchequer of the community. The supreme acts of martyrdom of the Guru, his father, mother and four sons for the cause of righteousness left an indelible stamp on the Sikh way of life. The Guru raised tile Indian spirit from servility, inferiority, fatalism and defeatism to the dynamic idea of social responsibility and resistance against tyranny and injustice. In the words of Indu Bhushan Bannerjee, "The Guru brought a new force into being and released a new dynamic force into the arena of Indian history."3

The Sikh movement was not only an egalitarian social order, it was a plebeian political revolution as well, but the pressure of circumstances prevented it from assuming spectacular dimensions. Nevertheless, the rise of the Khalsa, the martyrdom of the Gurus, the saga of Sikh resistance to the Mughals and Afghan invaders carried a new message of hope and kindled that spark in human nature that impelled men to seek out a better and saner path for mankind. People looked with eager eyes to the rise of a messiah, who would finally deliver them from socio-political persecution of the contemporary rulers and tyranny and oppression of the invaders.

The first bid for establishing the Khalsa Raj was made by Banda Singh Bahadur. It was under his leadership that the Khalsa armies won decisive victories and shook the very foundation of the mighty Mughal empire . Banda struck coins in the name of the Khalsa Panth: " This coin is struck as a token of our sovereignty here and here after. This Divine bounty flows from the sword of Nanak (Tegh-i-Nanak) and victory and felicity is the gift of Guru Gobind Singh, the king of kings, the true master."

Banda had an indomitable spirit, but faced with the overwhelming might of the Mughal Empire, he could not succeed in liberating the country from the oppressive rule. Banda and several hundreds of his followers were arrested, but they kept their cool even in the face of death. None of them renounced his faith to save his life. They carried on the glorious traditions of sacrifice and martyrdom for the cause of righteousness, handed down to them by the Gurus. Banda deserves credit for laying down the foundations of the political sovereignty of the Sikhs.

Eighteenth century constituted a turbulent phase in the Sikh history. This was a time, when a price was put on every Sikh head and thrice it was reported to the authorities that the Sikhs had been exterminated root and branch. But the community displayed unparalleled courage, endurance and fortitude and waged a valiant struggle against the worst political persecution of Mir Mannu, the Mughal Governor of Lahore. Their unflinching faith in the ultimate success of their mission is epitomised in the well-known slogan, "Mannu is the sickle, we are the grass for him to mow; the more he cuts us, the more we grow."

The consequences of this heroic struggle, in the socio-political life of the country, were significant and far-reaching. It stemmed, once for all, the cruel and imperial tide of oppression, which had been threatening to destroy the Indian society for the past one thousand years. Apart from upholding the religious and human rights of the people, the Sikhs played the most important role in the politics of Northern India. They organised the most formidable resistance to hordes of foreign invaders, including Ahmed Shah Abdali, known to be the greatest General of the eighteenth century. All foreign invasions from the north-west were finally stopped.

The institutions of Sarbatt Khalsa and Gurmatta shaped the destiny of the Sikh people in their ascent to political power during the eighteenth century, The Sarbatt Khalsa institution represented the unified corporate personality of the Khalsa, while Gurmatta signified taking decisions in the name of the Guru. Before and after the battles, the Sikhs assembled at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, performed ablutions in the sacred tank and passed regular Gurmattas (resolutions). in 1764, on the eve of Ahmed Shah Abdali's last raid, "The Sikhs passed a Gurmatta proclaiming the independence of the Sikh State."4

The Sikh gurdwaras were the centres of free thought and the integrated religio-political Sikh activities. In order to liquidate the Sikhs, gurdwaras were made the chief targets of attack by the enemy. Darbar Sahib, the headquarters of the Khalsa, was thrice attacked by Adbali, as it had become, in his eyes, a rock offence, because of what it represented of the religious and political importance that Sikhism had acquired.

Sikh confederacies, called the misls, often met at the Akal Takht at Amritsar to discuss matters of common welfare and chalk out plans of joint action against their enemies. The common bond of being the Khalsa bound them together. Each misl bore its own distinctive title and had its own Sardar, who gathered followers from local near-by villages. These misls had a great political potential, but through their internecine quarrels, they reduced each other to a state of political impotence. They were not properly organised to realize the dream of Khalsa Raj.

After a lone period of turmoil. the Sikhs rose to political power under Ranjit Singh ( 1799 CE), who ruled under the banner of Sarkar-i-Khalsa . But he did not impose Sikhism on non-Sikh subjects of his State. Catholicity of the Sikh tradition let its visible impact on his outlook and policy and enabled him to restore complete religious harmony in his kingdom. He gave complete freedom of expression and worship to all his subjects. Careers were thrown open to men of talent, irrespective of their religion, caste or class. In his kingdom, the key positions of power were shared by the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Muslims alike. He never made any forcible conversions to the Sikh faith, nor dice he make any conscious efforts to propagate his religion. In dealing with his fallen enemies, he displayed unprecedented generosity. Not only the Sikh nobles and Sardars, but also the deposed Muslim rulers were provided with jagirs and treated generously. The four decades of peace, prosperity and protection which the people or Punjab enjoyed under Ranjit Singh, makes a unique phenomenon in the annals of Indian history. During his rule, not a single person was sentenced to death, not even when he himself was made the target of attack.

Ten years after the death of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh kingdom was annexed by the British. After the loss of political power, the Sikhs had to face a multipronged attack from the Christian missionaries, Muslims and the Arya Samaj Hindus on their sources of strength, their religious places and ideology. The Singh Sabha Movement floated ha 1873, was a powerful Movement which sought to restore Sikhism to its pristine purity. With its assertion of the Sikh identity, the Movement very effectively countered the Arya Samaj propaganda that Sikhism was nothing but a sect of Hinduism. The question was laid to rest by Bhai Kahan Singh's classic repudiations in his book: Ham Hindu Nahin Hain (We Are Not Hindus), written in 1899.

The British used the gurdwaras, including the Golden Temple, as channels for the indirect control of the Sikhs. They made sure that the Sikh religious places were kept in the hands of corrupt mahants and pujaris, who were hostile to the teachings of Sikh Gurus. The Sikhs resented the misrepresentation and distortions of the Sikh tradition and identity. This resentment found expression in the form of the Gurdwara Reform Movement, which aimed at wresting control of all gurdwaras from the hands of the corrupt Hindu mahants.

In 1920, the Shiromani Akali Dal was constituted, which became the spearhead Of the struggle for the liberation of the gurdwaras loom the hands of the corrupt Hindu mahants. After tremendous sacrifices and sufferings, Akali Dal secured an undisputed and exclusive control over the Golden Temple and other places of worship in the form of Sikh Gurdwaras and Shrines Act, 1925. Liberation of the gurdwaras exploded the myth of the invincibility of the British power in India and reestablished the unique religious identity of the Sikhs. The control and management of the gurdwaras was vested in the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), a representative body of the Sikhs. The Akali Dal emerged as a formidable force and became the political party of the Sikhs.

The Akali Dal directed the next phase of its struggle towards the freedom of the country from the foreign yoke. It was a pioneering role, out of all proportions to the small number of the Sikhs. The first two revolts against the British, Kuka revolt and Ghadr rebellion, were almost wholly manned by Sikhs. Out of 2,175 martyrs for the country's freedom, 1,557 or 75 % were Sikhs. Out of 2,646 sent to Andamans for life sentence, 2,147 or 80 % were Sikhs. Out of 127 Indians, who were sent to the gallows by British, 92 were Sikhs. In the Indian National Army, led by Subhash Chander Bose, 60 % of the soldiers were Sikhs. Thus, the battle for the country's freedom was won with the Sikhs in the forefront. All Sikh agitations, whether social, religious or political were launched from the platform at the gurdwaras.

On August 15, 1947 as India celebrated its independence, Punjab witnessed only bloodshed and tears in the wake of partition. The Sikh population was vivisected almost in the middle. As a result, the community suffered greater losses than the Hindus and Muslims. Almost 2.5 % of the Sikh population was brutally massacred in the communal holocaust by Muslims. Nearly

40 % of the Sikhs were forced to abandon their homes and hearths, and became refugees. Economic interests of the community were also jeopardised. About 70 % of the fertile, irrigated and rich lands of the community were left in Pakistan. The Sikhs were also deprived of many historic shrines and holy places which were left in Pakistan.

Before independence, the Indian National Congress had consistently propagated a federal structure for the free India with unilingual states and had pledged constitutional safeguards for the minorities. The Congress, in its annual session at Lahore, in 1929, passed a resolution, which said that "no future Constitution would be acceptable to the Congress that did not give full satisfaction to the Sikhs." In July, 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru declared at a press conference on the eve of the All India Congress Committee meeting at Calcutta that "the brave Sikhs of Punjab are entitled to special consideration. I see nothing wrong in an area and a set-up in the north wherein the Sikhs can also experience the glow of freedom."

It was in this background and on the basis of the promises made to them that in 1947, the Sikhs threw their lot with the other people of India, hoping that the assurances extended to them would be fulfilled and they would be able to maintain their identity and safeguard their interests in the future. After independence, the Indian leaders adopted a basically unitary form of constitution, thus flouting their promises made to Sikhs. In protest, the Sikh representatives in the Constituent Assembly refused to sign the new Constitution. The Congress also failed to chalk out a uniform domestic policy in relation to linguistic provinces. Out of the 14 recognised languages in the Indian Constitution, 13 states were formed on a linguistic basis. Only the Punjabi speaking state was not formed, because of the fear of the Sikh majority in the state.

Punjabi Suba was formed in 1966 after a hard and protracted struggle put up by the Akali Dal in which about 60,000 people had to court arrest. The demand of a Punjabi speaking State conceded grudgingly did not prove a final and lasting solution to the problem. It was nothing more than a crippled sub-State, not equal in political status and powers with the other states. It was mercilessly deprived of its vital economic resources, its capital and other vital limbs, including the Punjabi speaking areas. Sections 78 to 80, ingeniously incorporated in the Punjab Reorganisation Act of 1966, empowered the Centre to have a tight grip over irrigation and hydel power in Punjab. Their development and distribution have also been kept in tight Central control, even though these are exclusively state subjects in the Indian Constitution.

In 1982, the Akali Dal decided to launch the Dharam Yudh Morcha a fight for righteousness and justice. The basic issues of the Morcha were related to the prevention of the digging of the unconstitutional SYL (Satluj Yamuna Link) canal, redrawing at Punjab's boundaries, restoration of Chandigarh to Punjab, retuning of center - state relations and greater autonomy far the State as ensured in the Anadpur Sahih Resolution. The Anandpur Sahib resolution had a mass appeal as more than two lake people courted arrest in a peaceful manner. As many as twenty six rounds of negotiations were held between thc Akali Dal and the government. But the Government failed to arrive at a negotiated settlement. The political and constitutional processes were completely scuttled. By mounting an army attack, code - named Bluestar Operation (June 6, 1984) on the Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib), the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs, the Government added a new dimension to the crisis. The massacres of the Sikhs at the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination in Delhi and many other cities and towns of India deepened the crisis still further. It has been revealed that the Congress played a direct and decisive role in planning and organising the orgy of violence. As per reports, around three thousand Sikhs lost their lives in Delhi alone in the mindless violence. Thousands were rendered refugees, many of them for the second time since l947. More than 50,000 Sikhs migrated to Punjab in search of safety, after having lost their homes amid hearths in Delhi mad other parts of India. Even after a lapse of thirteen years, the men guilty of anti--Sikh massacres have not been punished. These traumatic events caused a sense of deep hurt, humiliation and alienation of the Sikh community.

Soon after the Bluestar attack, the Government launched the second phase of the military action under the code-named Operation Woodrose. Thousands of Sikh men, women and children were rounded up on the suspicion of being "terrorists." A circular (No. l 53) was issued in the July ( 1984) issue of Bat Cheet, an official magazine, circulated throughout the army, directing the array personnel to keep track of all amritdhari (initiated) Sikhs, who were to be treated as suspects. Both the operations Bluestar and Woodrose, were conducted in the midst of a rigid press censorship and a blanket ban against international pressmen and human rights organisations entering the State.

Assault on the Darbar Sahib was preceded and followed by the enactment of black laws in relation to Punjab. The Government of India passed the National Security Act, 1980; the Punjab Disturbed Areas Ordinance, 1983; The Armed Forces (Punjab and Chandigarh) Special Powers Act, 1983 and the Terrorists Affected Areas (Special Courts Act), 1984. These acts gave sweeping powers to the police and army to curtail even the right to life. After acquiring arbitrary powers, the army swept through the Punjab countryside throwing thousands of Sikhs into jails without the right of bail. Hundreds of detainees languished in the Jodhpur jail for several years without trial and without any charge against them. As the repression continued unabated, there were numerous instances of Sikh youth entering the camp of militants or going abroad either to save their skin or to seek revenge for the death and disgrace of their near and dear ones.

Even after the gruesome events of 1984, no political solution was found to the problem. As the Government resorted to unbridled repression, the aggrieved Sikh youth took to armed resistance against tyranny and injustice The Sikh community suffers from intense feelings of deprivation and injustice The political stalemate in Punjab Continues. After having created a semblance of what it calls peace and public tranquillity through repression, the Government no longer thinks creatively of political and judicial solutions to the problem. By and large, the approach of the media has also been partisan to take into account all aspects of the multidimensional problem historical, socio-economic, political and ideological. They have focused only on the law and order aspect, deliberately ignoring a careful examination of the issues and processes that have compounded the problem.

In free India, the basic issue faced by the Sikhs has been that of preserving their distinctive socio-religious and political identity. In a pamphlet, Harchand Singh Longowal, the Dharam Yudh Morcha dictator, expressed the Sikh apprehensions in these words: "India is a muiti-lingual, multireligious and multi-national land. In such a land, a microscopic minority like the Sikhs has a genuine foreboding that like Buddhism and Jainism earlier, they may also lose their identity in the vast ocean of the overwhelming Hindu majority."7

The community feels that in the current socio-political milicut Sikh traditions, values, culture and identity are seriously threatened. They are keen to salvage their socio-political identity and want to grow to their true and natural stature according to their inherent genius. The Sikhs visualise a land of freedom, equality and justice, a land of men and women with faith in God and faith in man, where human personality is not suppressed but respected, where divinity in man is not obscured, where spiritual and moral values are duly recognised and the individual is accorded an ultimate intrinsic Worth. Though currently living in the midst of an immense historical crisis, the community continues to have an indomitable will to face all odds. It has an unswerving faith in its future.
"Abstracts of Sikh Studies" by Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

Dr. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon is a Professor of History at Punjab University Chandigarh., as well as founder of Institute of Sikh Studies

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