Monthly Archives: November 2015

In the Times of Intolerance I Invoke Tegh Bahadur

Guru Tegh Bahadur- the 9th Master of Sikhs is a very important figure in South Asian history. He stood against the rulers of his time and is celebrated as the saviour of chhoti- janju (pony tail and sacred thread), – upper caste Hindus. The rest were considered inferior and not allowed to have these identity symbols. By calling him the saviour of one particular religious philosophy, we are taking away the very essence of his deeds and the message of his martyrdom.

Rashtriya Sweyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Rashtriya Sikh Sangat –Sangh affiliated organisation want him to look like a Hindu man, who was proud of his religious identity i.e. ‘Hindu’, and he preferred being a ‘Hindu’ than converting to Islam. This binary narrative is emerging even in the historical discourse initiated by Akali Dal government in Punjab.

Let’s remember few facts;

  • Was Tegh Bahadur against Islam? No, he wasn’t.
  • Were Muslims against him? No, they weren’t.

By asking these two questions one can be able to have a better nuanced approach in looking at his life. It is well documented that Guru Tegh Bahadur, was in touch with many Muslim rulers and Sufi Faqirs. Eclectic history of Punjab says that during his Malwa visit, Tegh Bahadur was hosted by Nawab Saif ud-Din Mahmud or Saif Khan of Patiala. On the request of Guru for providing space to meditate, Saif Khan opened the mosque for him- as it is the ‘House of God’, thus open to his sages.

On the eve before martyrdom, the (Muslim) Kotwal of the jail, where he was jailed, requested Tegh Bahadur to leave and was keen to arrange his safe passage. Tegh Bahadur refused. After the martyrdom the same Kotwal joined Guru Gobind Singh’s army and trained Sikh generals to fight against the tyranny of Aurangzeb.

Post martyrdom, Jaita Rangreta- a Sikh picked up the chopped head of Guru and left for Punjab. On the way, he was given refuge and hosted by many Sufi Faqirs in their shrines. The episodes leading to martyrdom of Tegh Bahadur and eclectic history of Eastern Punjab has been fictionalized by Baldev Singh, Punjabi novelist in his novel – Panjwan Sahibzada (Fifth Son of Guru Gobind Singh). Apparently, later, on hearing about Tegh Bahadur and the challenge he posed to the tyranny of state, Bullah Shah, a Sufi Faqir, announced him to be the Ghazi of Islam. This dismisses the binary discourse proposed by the Sangh and affiliated organizations, which is now promoted as ‘true history’.

Coming to the argument of him being saviour of ‘pony tail and sacred thread’, it is a partial reflection of the history of his time. Aurangzeb gave a firman that Brahmins should either convert to Islam or accept death. Kashmiri Pandits were believably considered superior to all. He commanded them to convert to Islam. They preferred their own faith over state’s imposition and requested Guru Tegh Bahadur to take the leadership for contesting the Emperor. There are certain observations which need to be mentioned here.

  • The Pahadi kings of Himachal were all subjects of Aurangzeb, they even participated in many battles under the leadership of Mughal Emperor. Most retained their faith by allying with the throne in Delhi. Same goes for Rajputs. None faced the threat of conversion, unless they opposed the throne of Delhi. It wasn’t religion; it was the politics of that time.
  • Many Kashmiri Pandits accepted Islam much before Aurangzeb, and not through the command of sword. Sufi Faqirs through their message of love and compassion brought them in the fold of Islam. The Kashmiri Islam in its initiation is very different from the other versions prevailing in South Asia and other parts of world. It is syncretism of beliefs life Shaivaism, Advaita, Buddhism and Islam.
  • Tegh Bahadur and earlier Gurus, Masters of Sikhism were opposed to caste system which was imposed by Brahmins. They challenged it by encouraging congregations where food is shared.
  • In medieval times, many lower caste individuals converted to Islam with an aspiration that they will not be discriminated. This quote is attributed to Swami Vivekananda, and is there in the pamphlet ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity’ published by Shri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry. Not all their aspirations came true. South Asian Islam has strands of casteism and Mughals imposed the same.

It can be easily concluded that Guru Tegh Bahadur was not just saving ‘Brahmins from conversion to Islam’. Instead of being ‘clear’, History is eclectic and ambiguous. He was rather standing against the tyranny of state and its forceful imposition of a particular belief on his subjects. Let’s take a hypothetical situation- If the Emperor or State was Hindu and his subjects Muslim, Emperor or State were forcefully imposing a certain way of life on their subjects, an individual like Guru Tegh Bahadur would have stood against such repressive measures.

He never closed his doors to anyone, irrespective of the fact that Sikhs in Amritsar denied him entry to Darbar Sahib/Harimandir Sahib (popularly known as Golden Temple), after he was anointed as the Master. In the times of intolerance and hatred, I look for the legacy of Tegh Bahadur and his compassion for all.

Whenever I visit Gurdwara Sisganj Sahib in Chandani Chowk, Delhi, I get goosebumps and tears flow through the eyes. Here was a man, with poetical heart – wrote poems questioning the absurdities of human life, and there he challenged the State and asked freedom of religion and tolerance of mutually exclusive views, by giving his life. Sisganj still stands there challenging the Red Fort. No one bows while entering Red Fort, they do when they enter Sisganj.


Foreign Hand in Hyper-Masculine Sarbat Khalsa

Recently Punjab and its looneys bounced back in national media. Farmer suicides, later failure of cotton crop gathered news coverage. Connection were made with global discussion on climate change.  The failure of cotton crop is yet another slap on the face of farmers and agrarian labour, many of the suffering farmers are Sikhs, Dalits and others. Still this was not very important for Sikh experts abroad to comment on.

For them tragedies matter only when it comes to matter of faith. In an article published on Round Table India, they chose to argue that “As clearly, it is not possible for Sikhs to live within the Indian state as legitimate citizens without compromising their dignity, their religion, their life, or their struggle to survive.” The authors pointed out historical references of victimization of Sikhs by Indian state, which were indeed interesting and relevant. But what they failed to question or reflect on was:

Like it is  impossible for Sikhs to live in Indian state as they say- it is impossible for Dalits of Punjab to stay within the framework of officially endorsed Sikhism as it is dominated too much by Jatt Sikh narrative. The writers haven’t told us anything about how caste system within Sikhism forced many other communities like Ramdassiyas, Ravidasiyas to have separate Gurudwaras or Ravidas Mandirs both in India and abroad. There is a history to it which is as important as subjugation of Sikhs.

Lack of inclusionary spirit in mainstream Sikhism which is forcing many to move out of Sikhism and Dera Sachkhand Balan – propagators of Saint Ravidas’ teachings have declared that they should not be identified as Sikhs, many have moved towards Dera Sacha Sauda for similar reasons. While we may judge Ram Rahim Singh the way we want, but he did open the space for Dalits of Malwa towards the Dera. Radha Swami Dera is attracting a lot of followers for the same reason. Many are choosing Sufi Islam in Jalandhar and finding it better than mainstream Sikhism, whether it is Murad Shah in Nakodar or other Dargahs.

Coming from Jalandhar, seen with my own eyes and heard from my own ears of what the saviours of Panth think of Dalits. Their slangs for Ravidassiyas are still fresh in memories.

It is important that we should not get into this victim narrative and reflect on what went wrong. The atrocities done on Sikhs by Indian state are unjust, so are atrocities committed by Jatt Sikhs on the others. The arrest of Sarbat Khalsa leadership under sedition charges calls for condemnation. As by jailing these loonies, who were neither in three nor thirteen of Punjab politics, the corrupt Badal government has brought them back to fame.

It is easy for these panthic (theologians) academicians abroad to tell us what it means to be Sikhs in Punjab after doing field visits here and there.

Sarbat Khalsa in Punjab has proved my hypothesis correct: The number of Communist Parties in India is at par with number of Shiromani Akali Dals in Punjab and Muslim leagues in Pakistan. All these Shiromani Akali Dals even if they decide to come together to contest elections, they will not be able to win a single seat like left and Islamic parties.
And this whole Panthik drama has been sponsored by Sikhs from western countries who want to flaunt themselves to be more Sikh than even Baba Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. In Punjabi, we have saying for such people -ਨਵੇਂ ਨਵੇਂ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਨ ਹੋਏ ਹਨ- they have newly accepted the faith and will wear it on sleeves.

A murderer has been declared as Jathedaar of Akal Takht- the highest spiritual and political authority of Sikhism.The government has been informed of dire consequences for its failure to punish those who are responsible for discretion of Guru Granth Sahib. All of it is funded by the dollars from western countries. If anyone is happy, it is Simranjit Singh Mann who lost lustre in Punjab politics and was last found throwing mud in ecologically insensitive project- Satluj -Yamuna Canal. 

The continuation of hyper masculine narrative is interesting – in Sarbat Khalsa not a single resolution was passed condemning Caste System in Sikhism. Sarbat Khalsa is as much as the product of history as it is the contemporary caste politics of Punjab.

Questions of Bapu Surat Singh, speaking against 1984 genocide and fake encounters, opposition to Badal clan’s hold on Sikh institutions and Punjab’s economy is more relevant than ever, protesting against tyranny is must. For that one doesn’t need to do this hyper masculine carnival.

Last but not least, dare to get into the debate of my identity to issue a rebuttal. Nanak to Gobind Singh- all Sikh Gurus and Bhagat Sahiban (medieval saints) and Sufi Pir (Masters) are collective heritage of Punjab. As many Sikh clergy men loudly say- Guru Granth Sahib is the light to entire humanity and teacher to all. Therefore, the matter concerned with Guru Granth Sahib is not contracted to Sikhs and Sikh clergy alone, it is on entire  humanity to be considerate of it. That space needs to be created in the discourse. More than anything, this matter is concerned with my own homeland and identity and I too need to tell my side of the story.

I would like to end the note with a poem of my favorite poet in Punjabi- Sukhpal, which was published on this blog last year in June.

me and Nanak

I overheard unsettling words about him

To keep his honor Nanak

I chose to be armed

But his honor needs no guard


All those who talk about him

I listen to them all

worshipers, scholars, followers and militants

But his own words remain unheard


He was nothing

Neither Muslim, Hindu nor Sikh

I want an identity, a religion

It is must for me


He prefers drowning in rivulets

and loves nomadic life

I chose to close the door

and held the booklet of his hymns


According to his word, I believe in the unity of God

But for me, mankind is not one

The unweary wanderer is saddened


all because of me


I’m trying to be his student (Sikh)

He is waiting for me to evolve as Nanak. –Sukhpal, Punjabi Poet

From the book ‘Rehann Kithaao Naahi/ ਰਹਣੁ ਕਿਥਾਊ ਨਾਹਿ’ -Punjab 1978-1993

My humble attempt to translate the poem of my favorite poet Sukhpal, who wrote this poem during the dark period of Punjab. Lets revisit Nanak, and listen to his words again on the eve of Operation Blue Star. Do share your thoughts on translation