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The Khalsa Shall Rule: A Quick Guide To The History of Sikhism

The history of Sikhs can conveniently be divided into three parts.

The first period:

In the first hundred years, the five Gurus (Nanak, Angad, Amar Das, Ram Das, Arjan) pronounced the ideals of a new social order for the Punjab. After traveling extensively to places such as Mathura, Benares, Gaya, Bengal, Assam, Jaggarnath Puri, Malabar, Konkan, Bombay, Rajasthan, Himalayan regions as far as Ladakh, Kartarpur, Mecca, Medina and Baghdad, Baba Guru Nanak propounded a new religion which could be acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims. It was to be monotheistic, non-idolatrous, and free of many a form and ritual.

The social order was to embrace all the people, no class was to be beyond its pale, and the caste system was abolished completely in matters of social intercourse. The doors of Sikh temples were thrown open to everyone and in Guru’s langur, the Brahman and the untouchable broke their bread as members of the same family.

The code of this new order was hymns, the Granth and the Harimandar. There was wide acceptance of this message, particularly from the low caste Hindu community, because it came in a language which the common man understood, it was simple, and was propounded by the men who were sincere, simple and straightforward.

The second period:

The second period started with the sixth Guru Hargobind Singh (1595-1644 ) who built the Akal Tukht (the throne of timeless God) across  the Harimander (the Golden Temple), where, instead of chanting hymns of peace and love, the congregations heard extolling feats of heroism, and, instead of listening to religious discourses, discussed plans of military conquests.

Why this abrupt switchover to militarism?  The trouble started when Khusrau, the elder son of emperor Jahangir, rebelled against his father and sought Guru Arjan’s assistance and blessing. As the Guru had received the prince at his premises, once the rebellion was suppressed, Arjan was subjected to such unbearable torture that he died while trying to wash himself in the river Ravi.

When Shahjahan took over as the Emperor of India, the situation worsened further as he adopted far stronger measures to suppress the rebellious Sikh community once for all by rounding up more than ten thousand young suspects from all over Punjab who were straightaway ordered to be slaughtered by the butchers of Lahore.

No doubt, the sixth Guru was the first to appeal to arms, but it was the tenth Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708 ) who put the Sikh army on a regular footing, prescribing for the Khalsa five emblems (to wear their hair and beard unshorn, to carry a comb, to wear a knee length pair of breeches, to carry a steel bracelet, and to be ever armed with a saber-kirpan) and imbibing in them the martial spirit of bravery and conquest. The following slogan was virtually on the lips of every Sikh all over Punjab:

“The Khalsa shall rule
Their enemies will be scattered
Only they that seek refuge will be saved”

At the gathering of Anandpur in 1699, Guru Gobind also announced that every Sikh, male or female, would henceforth have the surnames Singh and Kaur added to their names respectively. To amplify its significance, let me define these two terms:

Singh is derived from the Sanskrit word simha, which means lion. It was (and is) commonly used as a surname by the Rajputs, Gurkhas, and many others belonging to Hindu martial classes. The distinction between Sikh surnames and those of others is that whereas all Sikhs are Singhs, all Singhs are not Sikhs.

Every Sikh woman takes the surname Kaur on baptism. Kaur was also a common surname for Rajput women and means both a princess and lioness.

The Khalsa army which was divided into more or less independent eleven Misls (mostly fighting with one another) became a formidable force because of the big void which was created in Punjab as a result of the loosening authority of the Mughal Emperor and the shattering nine invasions which were launched by the Afghan Emperor, Ahmad Shah Abdali, from 1747 to 1769.

Ultimately, Ranjeet Singh of Sukerchakia Misl, Gujranwala, succeeded in conquering Lahore on 7 July, 1799, and thus, he became the Maharaja of Punjab at the age of 18, and effectively ruled his vast kingdom for 40 years up till 27 June 1839. Despite his slight stature and spare frame, Ranjeet Singh was a superb horseman, and a lover of beautiful things – handsome men and beautiful women. It would seem that Kipling wrote the following lines for Ranjeet Singh:

“Four things greater than all things are
 Women and Horses and Power and War”

An anecdote told in Punjabi circles to this day relates a dialogue between Ranjeet Singh and his wife Moran. She commented on Ranjeet Singh’s ugliness and asked, “Where were you when God was distributing good looks?”

“When you were occupied with your looks, I was busy seeking power,” answered the monarch.

A Frenchman, Jacquemont, who visited him, wrote, “His conversation is like a nightmare. He is almost the first inquisitive Indian I have seen, and his curiosity balances the apathy of the whole of his nation.”

When Fakir Azizuddin, his foreign minister, praised him for his broad mindedness, the Maharaja replied, “God wanted me to look upon all religions with one eye, that is why He took away the light from the other.”

Primarily his Court reflected the secular pattern of the state. His Prime Minister, Dhian Singh, was a Dogra, his Foreign Minister, Azizuddin, was a Muslim, his Finance Minister, Dina Nath, was a Brahmin. Is it not stunning that a small principality around Gujranwala was enlarged by him to a state of over 200,000 square miles, so much so that his territory extended to the borders of China and the limits of Afghanistan, with all of Multan, and the rich possessions beyond the Sutlej.

“What does the red colour stand for?” asked Maharaja Ranjeet Singh when he was shown a map of India. “Your Majesty,” replied the cartographer, “Red marks the extent of British possessions.” The Maharaja scanned the map of India with his single eye and remarked:

“Ek roz sab lal ho jaiga” – one day it all will be red.  It took only ten years for the Maharaja’s prophecy to be fulfilled as by the spring of 1849, the map of nearly the whole of India had become red, because the Sikhs on February 21, 1849, lost the most crucial Battle of Gujrat. To mark the end of the Kingdom of the Sikhs, a darbar was assembled in the Lahore Fort where Maharaja Dilip Singh handed over the Koh-Noor Diamond and stepped down from the throne – never to sit on it again.

The third period:

The third period relates to the recent history starting with the partition of India and the migration of Sikhs to the Western World.

The role of the Sikh leadership, particularly of Master Tara Singh, at the time of partition in 1947, was quite unfortunate, if not outrightly stupid and disgusting. Although Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah made very liberal offers to the Sikhs, but like Nehru and Patel, Master Tara Singh too thought that Pakistan would not be able to survive as a sovereign entity for more than six months, so why align with a losing side?

Had the Sikhs acted more prudently, neither they would have been reduced to negligible significance (leading to their inability to do anything substantive and worthwhile even when their most sacred religious place, the Golden Temple, was sacked by the Indian army through Operation Blue Star in 1984), nor Pakistan would have had to remain 24 hours occupied with the Kashmir problem, nor more than 20 lakh innocent people would have been slaughtered on both sides of the border.

All said and done, the Sikhs, as a people,  are quite brave, enterprising and energetic, and have performed fairly well in whichever country they settled after migration from India. Their success story in Canada is particularly very impressive, where a turbaned Sikh, Harjit Singh Sajjan, is currently the Defence Minister. A 38 year old lawyer, Jagmeet Singh, has been elected leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, and being a rising star, he is likely to be a big challenge to the present incumbent for the prime minister’s slot in the next elections.

Though Sikhs are just 1.4 percent of the total population, they now are a major political force, in fact, the power brokers. Another Sikh, Bob Dhillon of Calgary, is the biggest Indian origin landlord in North America. His company has assets worth $1.2 billion. Moreover, Herb Doman, the lumber tycoon, has amassed one billion dollars from his initial investment of ten cents, and the executive chairman of Forts Healthcare is the world’s richest Sikh, with assets of $2.6 billion.

The author is a former Member of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan, who writes on mostly unknown
facets of history. Email: [email protected]


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