Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol II: 1839-2004 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

The second volume of Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs picks up the story where it was left off at the end of the first volume – the death and funeral of Ranjit Singh. The sad notes continue. The regicides amongst Ranjit Singh’s seven sons which followed demise demonstrated how far the Sikh community and its rulers had moved away from the ideals preached by Guru Nanak. Power mattered and nothing else. Kharak Singh, Ranjit Singh’s eldest son and Kharak Singh’s son Nao Nihal Singh had to be cremated within hours of each other, their consorts performing sati. Ranjit Singh’s second son Sher Singh and his young son Pratap Singh were slain by Ajit Singh Sandhawalia and his uncle, the Sandhawalias being distant relatives within the royal family. The only gallant notes at that point in time come from the brave General Zorawar Singh who served the Dogras and led successful campaigns to Ladakh and Tibet. I had no idea till I read this book that Indian rulers had clashed with Royal Chinese troops in Tibet. And won most of their battles!

The Sikh army saw repeated mutinies, but performed excellently against the British during the first and second Anglo-Sikh wars. In fact, it performed so well during the Battle of Ferozeshahr during the first Anglo-Sikh war that the British Indian army took such a beating and ‘the fate of India trembled in the balance.’ However, the Sikh army had its share of traitors and Tej Singh who arrived with fresh troops and guns did not deliver the coup de grace. Instead, he silenced his guns and gave the British a reprieve. The next battle at Sabraon turned out to be India’s Waterloo, mainly on account of the role played by traitor Lal Singh. The Second Anglo-Sikh war also saw the Sikhs achieve a grand victory at Chillianwala, but they failed to follow up with decisive action.

After the British took over the Sikh Kingdom, a miracle took place. Enemies were converted into friends within a very short period, mainly on account of the excellent administration by the British backed by a sense of fair play. Canals were dug and deserts made to bloom. Wealth increased and the Sikhs became loyal foot soldiers of the empire. So much so that when India erupted in mutiny in 1857, the Sikhs were loyal to the Brits and practically saved the Empire. The opportunity of paying back the Mughals for the religious persecution they had suffered, especially the murder of Guru Tegh Bahadur by Emperor Aurangzeb, was only an added bonus. It was hardly surprising when after the mutiny the Sikhs were designated as a martial race and given special treatment while races such as the Bengalis who had helped the British defeat the Sikhs in the two Anglo-Sikh wars, were considered non-martial. Punjab became even more prosperous and loyal to the crown.

Another side effect of the British patronage of the Sikhs was that it prevented many Sikhs from reverting to Hinduism. Great care was taken to ensure that Sikh religious sentiments were not hurt, especially for those serving in the army. In fact, once enlisted, Sikhs could not cut their hair short or give up the outwards characteristics of Sikhism!

Most Indians would have heard of the Akalis and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, but how many of us know how control of Gurudwaras used to be with Udasi mahants and the Akalis had to fight to gain control of their holy places? Do read this book to find out more. It’s worth it.

When the First World War erupted, the cream of Sikh youth went off to fight for the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia and various other fronts. The British were grateful, but also cautious since the Ghadr movement was also on. Migrant Sikhs shocked by the racist treatment they received in Canada and the USA, returned to Punjab to fight for its independence. The Punjabis were however not ready for an independence struggle and many of the Ghadr activists were turned over to the police.

One good thing about Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs is the little snippets of information which are slipped in, which totally distort one’s understanding of a particular subject. For example, one gets to know that Kaiser’s Germany had plans to send large shipments of arms to support the Ghadr movement. However, the internecine quarrels between Indians dampened that enthusiasm. One Dr. Chandra Kant Chakravarty misappropriating a large amount of money provided by the Germans and sending them fictitious reports of his achievements dampened it even more.

During the Second World War, the Japanese initially treated defecting Indian soldiers poorly and with contempt. So much so that Captain Mohan Singh was forced to dissolve the INA. It was later revived when Subhas Chandra Bose arrived on the scene. By that time, the Allies had knocked the stuffing out of the Nipponese who had lost some of their swagger. However, the INA’s performance was poor on the whole, Khushwant Singh tells us.

Partition affected the Sikh community adversely, much more than the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab. The labour government partitioned Punjab on the basis of population and not property ownership. ‘The Radcliff award was as fair as it could be to the Muslims and the Hindus. The one community to which no boundary award could have done justice without doing injustice to others were the Sikhs. Their richest lands, over 150 historical shrines, and half their population were left on the Pakistan side on the dividing line.

The best bit about the second volume is Khushwant Singh’s description of how the movement for Khalistan gained momentum and secessionism gained ground. The demand for a sovereign Sikh state had always existed. Some of those agitating for a Punjabi Suba from the time of India’s independence, which ultimately resulted in the creation of three states, Punjab, Haryana and Himchal Pradesh, did have an independent Sikh state in mind. However, it was the appeasement of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale by Indira Gandhi and her man in Punjab, India’s future President Giani Zail Singh, which fanned the flames of secessionism and led to Operation Blue Star and calamity. Khushwant Singh’s description of Operation Blue Star does not tally with the popular understanding of how Operation Blue Star unfolded. No, the Indian army did not rush into the Golden Temple without preparation and suffer huge casualties. Far from it, we are told that ‘many months earlier, the army had been instructed to keep itself in readiness to move to the Golden Temple whenever ordered to do so. A replica of the Temple complex had been prepared at Chakrata (near Mussoorie) to familiarize besiegers with its layout, entrances and fortified positions. Information of the strength of Bhindranwale’s fighters, their dispositions and the kind of weapons they possessed had been gathered by the intelligence agencies of the police and the army.’ I won’t divulge more except to say that when Sikh peasantry around Amritsar started to converge towards the Temple carrying whatever rustic weapons they could find, army commanders decided to finish off the task during the night of 5-6 June. ‘They threw in all they had: their commandos, frogmen, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tanks.’ Khushwant Singh tries to sound neutral and unconcerned, but his anger at the turn of events is evident. Do please read this book for a blow by blow account of how this attack unfolded and ended.

Khushwant Singh does not tell us about army casualties, though he does say that in the aftermath of the attack on the Golden Temple, around 4000 Sikh solders deserted their cantonments in various parts of India, slew their officers and fled towards Amritsar. Many were arrested. Some were killed. Just as riveting as the build-up to Operation Blue Star is the description of how Khalistani terrorism took deep roots in Punjab, till KPS Gill uprooted and destroyed it.

The only bit I didn’t like about A History Of The Sikhs is that Khushwant Singh’s description of the various battles fought by Sikh soldiers could have been better. The descriptions are detailed and good, but one misses the thunder of hoofs, the clash of steel, the euphoric scream of the victor or the knotty feeling of defeat in the tummy. I guess good history telling can do without all this and each of the two volumes of A History Of The Sikhs is excellent reading despite the lack of drama depicted from an infantry-man’s shoulder, the sort of stuff one finds in world-class history books such as Andrew Wheatcroft’s Enemy At The Gate which revolves around the Battle of Vienna (1682) where the Ottoman Turks were defeated at the gates of Vienna by a coalition of European powers. But still......

Khushwant Singh ends the book on a positive note commenting that in 2004, two Sikhs were at the helm of affairs in India, with Manmohan Singh holding fort as the Prime Minister and Montek Singh Ahluwali serving as the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, a notional fulfilment of the prophecy - Raj Karega Khalsa – the Khalsa shall rule.

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