Wednesday 16 November 2011

A History Of The Sikhs, Vol I: 1469-1839 by Khushwant Singh – Book Review

Khushwant Singh’s A History Of The Sikhs has been on my reading list for many, many years. Recently I took the plunge and ordered both volumes. Auspiciously, Flipkart delivered them on the eve of Gurpurab. I had expected something on the lines of Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, one of my favourite books, but I turned out to be wrong. A History Of The Sikhs is written in very simple English, without any literary embellishments, as befits straightforward history telling. Very well researched, over one fourth of this four hundred page tome is taken up with appendices, a lengthy bibliography and a detailed index. In the main body of the book, footnotes take up a sizable part of each page.

Sikhism was born out of the conflict between Islam and Hinduism in late-medieval India, when there was a desperate need for a bridge between the two faiths. Nanak was a unique individual who, unusually for Indians of his time, was well-travelled and curious to know more and more. On the foundations laid by Guru Nanak, various Gurus developed the nascent faith through sacrifice and fortitude. Until I finished this book, I had no idea of the amount of bloodletting and massacres that accompanied the growth of Sikhism. Some of it reminded me of stories of the growth of Christianity and its martyrs and saints. The Mughals who followed Akbar started a policy of persecuting the Sikhs. After the murder of the fifth Guru Arjun Mal by Emperor Jehangir, his successor Gurus slowly turned the community towards the path of militancy. Starting with Guru Hargobind, Guru Har Rai, Guru Hari Krishen and Guru Tegh Bahadur, Sikh militancy and fortitude grew. It was Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, who formally created the Khalsa and prescribed five emblems (Kes – unshort hair and beard, Kangha – comb in the hair to keep it tidy, Kach – knee length trousers. Kara – a steel bracelet, Kirpan – a short sabre) for each Sikh. Sikh resistance to persecution was now formal.

Before he was assassinated, Guru Gobind Singh charged a mystic named Lachman Das to continue the resistance against the Mughals. Renamed Banda, Lachman Das achieved great success and the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah had to order a general mobilisation of forces to counter Banda who outlived Bahadur Shah. However, Bahadur Shah’s successor Jahandar Shah wore Banda’s forces down and captured him. Torture and execution followed as was the norm for captured Sikh leaders.

The Sikhs and the Marathas contributed to the decline of the Mughals. After the Mughals became weak, the Great Persian ruler Nadir Shah invaded India, lured by its fabulous wealth. Nadir Shah’s invasion broke the back of Mughal rule in India. On his way back to Persia, Sikh bands plundered Nadir Shah’s baggage trains which were loaded with loot. The Sikhs liberated many Indian prisoners who were being taken to Persia by Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah was followed by the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani (also called Abdali) who invaded India nine times. Initially, Abdali’s main enemy was the Mughal ruler who for a brief period took assistance from the Sikhs in fighting Abdali. However, Abdali’s fifth invasion was meant to crush the Marathas who were helping the Mughals fight the Afghans. The Marathas were trounced by the Abdali’s Afghans in Panipat on 14 January 1761. The Sikhs stood by and watched. Muslims of northern India, the Rohillas and Shujauddaullah, the ruler of Oudh helped the Afghans. It was indeed a period of shifting loyalties.

After a while, the Sikhs became powerful and soon they were the most prominent power in the Punjab. Until the Sikhs became powerful, the tortures visited on Sikhs were abominable – entire villages burned and pillaged, mass public executions, usually at the horse market, victims, despatched from this earth with blows from wooden mallets, children of leaders like Banda hacked to death in front of their parents. The Harimandir at Amritsar was blown up so many times and the sacred pool filled with the entrails of slaughtered cows. Each time the indomitable Sikhs would clean up and renovate the Harimandir and the sacred pool. Abdali’s sixth invasion led to what the Sikhs call the Vadda Ghallughara, the great massacre, when in February 1962 a fleeing group of 30,000 Sikhs were attacked and most of them were killed. Within a few months of the massacre, the undaunted Sikhs had inflicted a defeat on the Afghan faujdar of Sirhind and by that autumn, they had cleaned up the Harimandir in time for Diwali. The Chhota Ghallughara or lesser massacre had taken place in June 1946 shortly before Abdali’s first invasion. The Sikhs had killed the brother of Lakhpat Rai, the Mughal Viceroy, in the course of fighting. In retaliation, around 7,000 Sikhs were rounded up and killed.

Khushwant Singh tells us that the story of the Sikhs is the story of Punjabi nationalism and consciousness and it is easy to see why it should be so. Other than the Sikhs who were all Punjabis, no other Punjabi community, neither the Hindus nor the Muslims, carried with them a Punjabi identity. Finally when Ranjit Singh created his empire, it was an inclusive one and Punjabis of all faiths were welcome in it. At the height of its power, the Sikh Kingdom under Ranjit Singh included Kashmir and Ladakh.

Even though the Sikhs fought to clear Punjab of all outsiders such as the Mughals and the Afghans, they never considered joining up with the Marathas to fight the British. During Ranjit Singh’s time, a Maratha – Sikh alliance did appear to be a faint possibility, but neither party was willing to take the first move. It is tantalising to imagine what could have happened if such an alliance had been worked out and used to fight the British. No, let me not digress and travel to a dream world – there was no such alliance. In fact, even when Ahmad Shah Abdali was fighting the Marathas during the Third Battle of Panipat, in which the Marathas were trounced, the Sikhs were only curious bystanders. The Sikhs even fought brief battles with the Gurkhas. Khushwant Singh does not bother to explain the obvious – that at that point in time, there was no concept of Indianness anywhere in the sub-continent.

I found Khushwant Singh’s descriptions of Ranjit Singh and his empire to be fascinating. The parallels between Ranjit Singh and Emperor Akbar are too obvious to be ignored. Akbar was an illiterate man who enjoyed beauty, music and literature. So did Ranjit Singh. Just as Akbar was of a short stature and non-descript appearance, Ranjit Singh too was not famous for his looks. Khushwant Singh describes him as a man of medium height, slight stature, spare frame, wiry as though made of whipcord, with dark-brown complexion, one eyed, his face pitted with small pox scars. To top it all, he had a long grey-beard. We are told that once Ranjit Singh’s Muslim wife Mohran asked him, ‘where were you when God was distributing good looks?’ When you were occupied with your looks, I was busy seeking power,’ answered the monarch.

If you wish to read a very good biography of Akbar, you could turn to Dirk Collier's The Emperor's Writings, which was published very recently.

Like Akbar, Ranjit Singh was also a superb horseman who usually spent 10 hours of the day in the saddle. Ranjit Singh too did not let matters of State prevent him from enjoying women, he had many wives. Unlike Akbar though, Ranjit Singh was a hypochondriac who was constantly on the lookout for cures and medicines. To know more about this fascinating ruler, please read this wonderful book.

Sikhism sought to be a faith which did not have many of the faults which Hinduism had. How far did the Sikhs succeed in this endeavour? A pointer to this would be the fact that after Ranjit Singh died, four of his wives committed sati. Khushwant Singh (quoting other sources such as the Lahore Akhbar) describes Ranjit Singh’s funeral thus: ‘Having arrived at the funeral pile made of sandalwood, the corpse was placed upon it. Rani Guddun sat down by its side and placed the head of the deceased on her lap; while the other ranis with seven slave girls seated themselves around, with every mark of satisfaction on their countenances. ......... The Brahmins performed their prayers from the Shaster ........the priests of the Sikhs did the same from their holy scripture called Granth Sahib and the Mussalmen accompanied them with their Ya Allah! Ya Allah! The prayers lasted nearly an hour. ........... At 10 o’Clockm nearly the time fixed by the Brahmins, Koonwa Khurruck Singh set fire to the pile and the ruler of the Punjab with four ranees and seven slave girls was reduced to ashes.

I found this banal description incredibly saddening. Ranjit Singh was a great ruler and Sikhism was meant to be a simple religion without unnecessary rituals, still eleven women had to be killed on Ranjit Singh’s funeral pyre! I think I’ll need a lot of light reading before I tackle Volume 2.

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