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ARTICLE: The Sikh enigma

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Guest Punjabi Nationalist

ARTICLE: The Sikh enigma


By Hafizur Rahman

Except for periodic though regular visits by groups of Sikhs to their

shrines in Pakistan, we in this country, and particularly in Punjab,

which was their home before Partition, rarely get to see any member of

this virile community, what to say of sitting down and talking to

them. My own dear friend, Gurdial Singh, with whom I can only

correspond, lives in Chandigarh and we haven't met since 1945. Because

Indian newspapers are not available, all that we come to know about

the Sikhs is through books. They come out rather well in these books,

whoever the authors.

Before Partition, the areas of Rawalpindi and Lyallpur (now

Faisalabad) had become exceedingly prosperous because of the Sikhs'

industriousness and spirit of enterprise. Otherwise too, they made

life in the united Punjab more colourful by their merry abandon, their

friendliness and their devil-may-care attitude to the problems of


The younger generations in Pakistan know very little about the faith

and social pattern of the Sikhs. Of course there are written accounts

regarding Partition, especially in school and college textbooks,

describing the Sikhs' murderous propensities in which we conveniently

forget to tell our children that the Muslims were as thorough in

killing the Sikhs in West Punjab as the Sikhs were in hacking Muslims

to pieces across the new border. However, one hopes that is past

history now.

The new generations also do not know that the Sikhs believe

unalterably in the Oneness of God (they call Him Rabb) and abhor

idolatory of any kind. Like Islam, Sikhism ordains that there shall be

no separation of one's faith from politics, and that has been one of

their problems, just as it is of the Muslims. However, over the

centuries, society got so constituted in Punjab that there grew a

divide between the Sikhs and the Hindus on the one hand and the

Muslims on the other. Mughal repression was partly responsible for

this historical gulf. It comes as a great surprise to most young

people when they are told that the foundation stone of the Golden

Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism's holiest shrine, was laid by Mian Mir,

the saint of Lahore.

The conclusive history of the Sikhs is contained in Khushwant Singh's

voluminous book on the subject though it doesn't cover recent events.

However, books written over the last decade or so vividly describe how

the Sikhs of Indian Punjab grew out of their ages-old antipathy

towards the Muslims and, instead, began to make their Hindu

compatriots the target of their hate.

This was a result of the widespread feeling among them that the Indian

government gave them a raw deal despite their heroic role in the two

wars with Pakistan and their remarkable success in converting the

state of Punjab into the granary of India. From this resentment

emerged the demand for a separate Sikh homeland, "Khalistan".

Much more violent than this demand was the insurrection of the Sikhs

in Punjab and gory attacks on the Hindus. This culminated in the

Indian army's incursion into the Golden Temple to flush out terrorists

in which the charismatic leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale lost his

life, followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by

her Sikh bodyguards, the retaliatory killing and burning by the Hindus

of over 3,000 Sikh citizens in Delhi, and the shoot-to-kill police

action against Sikh militants in Punjab. It is widely believed that

relations between the Sikhs and the Indian government can never again

assume the old pattern of affectionate official indulgence towards the


As stated above, those interested in the Sikh question have to read

books to understand its various facets. For example, Mark Tully's

Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle, (Jonathan Cape) is the story of

the rise of Bhindranwale and the graphic day-to-day, almost

hour-to-hour, account of the army action in the Golden Temple and what

followed. The book leaves one with the conclusion that although the

terrible happenings were born of the Sikhs' feeling of deprivation,

the failure of Mrs Indira Gandhi and her government to take timely

measures led to the violent agitation and the gory developments.

I remember how, at that time, most Pakistanis could not appreciate the

Sikhs' anger and violent reaction to the Indian army's raid on the

temple. They only understood when I drew a parallel about the possible

desecration of the Khana-i-Kaaba by armed men. Personally I always

felt that had Mrs Gandhi been more of a stateswoman and less the

impulsive politician, she could have avoided the bloodshed and also

prevented Bhindranwale from becoming a hero of youthful Sikhs. Before

his death in the Golden Temple, Bhindranwale had become the idol of

almost the whole Sikh nation, including senior military officers and


I was a witness to the scene on the steps of the Punjab Assembly in

early 1947 when Master Tara Singh waved a naked sword in the air and

said about the impending creation of Pakistan, "Over our dead bodies!"

The very same Master Tara Singh is reported to have said to the Indian

government in the early fifties, "If you are true nationalists, then,

for the sake of the nation, you must let the Sikhs live honourably.

You will err in attempting to extinguish, in the name of nationalism,

their distinctive identity." This cause of identity was later taken up

by many Sikh intellectuals.

It is not generally known in Pakistan that as an aftermath of

Operation Blue Star to flush out Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple,

there was mutiny in a number of Sikh regiments. Even senior Sikh army

generals, known for their outstanding war service, were disenchanted.

When her bodyguards shot Indira Gandhi dead, they shouted that they

had done their duty as Sikhs. Both were killed immediately by security


Short of Khushwant's History of the Sikhs, Ram Narayan Kumar's The

Sikh Struggle (Chanakya Publications, Delhi) is a useful book if one

wants to be acquainted with the birth of Sikhism, the life of its

founder, Guru Nanak, the respective contributions of his twelve

apostles, its transformation from a peace-loving community to a

militant force and its trials and tribulations in Mughal times.

On the other hand if someone is interested in how the Sikh

insurrection in East Punjab was quelled, Joyce J.M. Pettigrew's The

Sikhs of the Punjab (Zed Books) draws a graphic picture of not only

the police action but also of the heartbreaks and the tragedy and the

indiscriminate torture and killing of innocent villagers and their

dear and near ones that went into it. She has culled all her

information from personal interviews with the affected families. There

is a startling sentence in the book about the view of some Delhi

high-ups at that time that a war could be started with Pakistan in

order to finish the Sikh problem on the way!

I have mentioned these three books because I happened to have read

them. But there are many more, and still more are destined to be

written because the Sikhs are a fascinating subject any day, quite

apart from what they have gone through in recent times. Anyway, we in

Pakistan can only know them through books.

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