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.

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