A HISTORY OF THE SIKHS Vols. I & II BY KHUSHWANT SINGH Oxford India Paperbacks, Second Edition, 2004 ISBN 019567308-5 & 019567309-3


The Princeton University Press originally published this well known work on Sikh history in 1960’s. Oxford University Press brought out an Indian edition of the books in 1977 followed by a Paperback edition in 1991. A corrected reprint appeared in 1999 that has gone through several impressions. The present edition has been brought up to mid 2004 – an important landmark in the unfolding of the history of the Sikh people when one of theirs, Dr Manmohan Singh, was selected to lead the Government of India, the most populous democracy in the world, as the Prime Minister.

Born in 1915 in a well to do Sikh family, Khushwant Singh received his higher education at King’s College and Inner Temple, London. Trained as a lawyer, he set up his law practice in Lahore, now part of Pakistan, but as he says in his autobiography [Viking, 2002] he wrestled with the nagging question – ‘Is there anything creative in practicing law? Don’t I owe more to one life I have than making money out of other people’s quarrels?’ and soon gave it up for an avocation that he loved – writing.

Khushwant Singh is possibly the most well known among the contemporary Sikh writers. He has been an eminent journalist having been the editor of Illustrated Weekly of India and of the daily Hindustan Times. His column “With malice towards one and all’ is avidly read by millions of Indians. He repertoire is pretty diverse and even though he makes no pretensions to being a faithfully observant Sikh [he frequently asserts to being an agnostic], his writings whether fiction, humor, journalistic or in any other genre bear an unmistakable stamp of his Sikh upbringing and his sense of understanding of the Sikh scriptures; their history, their struggles, their aspirations, their strengths, their inherent weaknesses, their enigmatic responses, their sacrifices, their idealism, their incompetent leadership, their love of life and buoyancy of spirit in adversity and suffering. He is at his best, though sometimes harshly critical and occasionally wishfully speculative, when writing about or relating to Sikhs.

In compiling his history of the Sikhs, the author has taken pains to research a very wide range of resources in Gurmukhi, Persian and English including writings by Westerners and Muslims – several of them giving contemporaneous accounts of events as evidenced by them or reflective of their partisan positions. His detailed footnotes lend credibility to his reconstruction of the events and the Appendices provide some useful information on certain aspects related to Sikhs and their faith.

The author displays a deep understanding of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and his comment on the much debated question regarding transformation of Sikhism from a pacifist to a militant tradition during the later Guru period is perceptive and possibly more realistic when he says, “the only change Gobind brought in religion was to expose the other side of the medal. Whereas Nanak had propagated goodness, Gobind Singh condemned evil. One preached the love of one’s neighbor, the other the punishment of transgressors. Nanak’s God loved His saints; Gobind’s God destroyed His enemies” [p.88, volume I]. His translation of selected passages from the Sikh scripture is faithful and provides a sampling of the language, metaphor and flavor of Sikh thought [Appendix 5, Vol. I].

The first volume covers the period from the birth of Guru Nanak in 1469 to the death, of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839 C. E. Khushwant Singh sees this period of Sikh history as “the story of the rise, fulfillment, and collapse of Punjabi nationalism.” [p. Viii, Preface] The thread of this thought continues in his presentation through the volume starting with the argument that by end 15th century the hold of orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism had been weakened by the Bhakti movement leading to some initiatives at rapprochement with Islam [p.24]. In this environment it was left to the Sikh Gurus “to harness the spirit of tolerance and give it a positive content in the shape of Punjabi nationalism” [p.14] and the Guru’s ideal that there is no Hindu or Muslim gave birth to this shared consciousness and Punjabi national identity. He also calls Guru Nanak as the “first popular leader of the Punjab in recorded history” [p.48]; the non denominational anthology of Sikh scripture a symbol of the new social order for the Punjab [p. 97] and Guru Arjan’s supreme sacrifice providing the seed of the Punjabi nation [p. 62]. Later Guru Gobind Singh whose “writings and pronouncements bore a note of buoyant hope” [p.96], became the “beau ideal of the Punjabis” [p.95]. Thus “within the Punjab its [Sikh faith’s] appeal was irresistible. It had all the elements of a national faith [of all Punjabis]”.

He also attributes the growth of Punjabi consciousness to the evolution of one common language by end 15th century among the medley of people of various ethnicities who over the centuries had come to live in that part of the world [p.13]. The Granth written in the language and idiom understood by peasants became the most powerful tool for spreading Sikh Gurus’ message [p. 59] and speculates that Guru Arjan accepted only such versions of saint-poets compositions as could be easily understood by Punjabis to be included in the Granth [p.309, Appendix 2].

Banda’s revengeful destruction of life and property of Mughal officials following the Guru period turned Muslim peasants against Sikhs causing this tide of growing Punjabi consciousness to be somewhat stymied [p.118-9]. A troubled century or so later, Ranjit Singh provided a great boost to Punjabi identity when he put “the restless energy of Punjabis to conquer neighboring countries” [p. 187]. Ranjit Singh period is depicted as the high point of bonhomie generated by Punjabi nationalism.

This hypothesis of the author about the emergence, rise and fall of Punjabi nationalism in tandem with selected phases of Sikh history is interesting though not convincing. The word Punjab does not occur anywhere in the Sikh scriptural literature. In his group of compositions known as babarvani, Nanak has lamented upon the suffering inflicted on ‘Hindustan’, not Punjab, by the foreign invaders. Gurus also established sangats in places as far apart as Kabul and Dacca and made visits to several places outside Punjab during their ministries. Punjab however was the center of their laboratory where their thought inspired peasantry disenchanted with capricious rulers; corrupt officials and an exploitative clergy to bring about major social transformation leading to the eventual dismemberment of a decaying Mughal empire. The emergence of Sikh rule was the outcome of these forces rather than the product of rise of Punjabi nationalism. If the nationalistic ideal was indeed the driving sentiment, it seems to have taken leave for most of the 18th century. It also dissipated soon after Ranjit Singh’s passing and has continued to elude Punjab since then. The author’s sentiment of referring to Ranjit Singh’s rule as Punjabi empire [e.g. p.265] is not shared by the British who referred to them as the Sikh Government in their treaty documents [Appendix 7].

There are a couple of errors; one could be typographical. The chart on page 51 indicates that Guru Har Rai was the son of a daughter of Guru Hargobind. The text on page 67 however correctly says that he was son of Gurditta, the eldest son of the 6th Guru. The other instance is on page 45, note 38. Whereas Guru Nanak mentions five stages or successive steps in one’s spiritual development, the author has left out the third stage termed by the Guru as saram khand. Even though this error is not material to his account of Sikh history the author’s comparison with the four stages in Sufi thought makes it important that the position be clarified.

The theme of the second volume is “Sikh struggle for survival as a separate community” starting with resistance to British expansionism against the Sikh kingdom followed by the experience of being dominated by majority community since then – the majority Muslim dominating during the British period and threat of absorption by Hindu majority in post independence India.

The ten-year period after death of Ranjit Singh ending in annexation of Sikh kingdom by the British highlight the inability of Ranjit Singh’s family, his council of ministers and Sikh nobility to pull together to face the challenge of British expansionist designs. The tale is one of intrigue and treachery where any semblance of shared interest in continuity of Punjabi rule in preference to being ruled by a foreign people became an easy casualty to personal and sectarian ambitions. Recognizably the motivation and methods used by the key players are reminiscent of the happenings in earlier history of Punjab when the foreign invaders succeeded in defeating the Punjabis and establishing their rule over them.

Eight years later the British rule was challenged by mutiny of Muslim and Hindu troops. Commenting on the developments Khushwant Singh writes, “- – very soon it became plain that there was little identity of purpose between the Muslim mutineers and the Hindu. The Muslims sought the restoration of Muslim rule; the Hindu hoped to put the Marathas back into power” [p.101] Sikh soldiery did not mutiny, for as the author says “- – the one people who could be expected to turn a deaf ear to appeals to restore Mughal or Maratha rule were the Sikhs” [p.103]. As it turned out Sikh support proved crucial in the survival of British hold over India and the revolt collapsed. Even though the author has not said as much, there seems little doubt that short of restoration of their rule, any other outcome could only have been worse for Sikhs. The episode thus foreshadows the nature of the three-way struggle between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs that was to dominate Punjab politics for the next ninety years under British watch.

In the years that followed the three communities were soon jostling for space under the new dispensation. New challenges emerged and the Sikh leadership labored to carve out a separate Sikh identity to counter moves by the Arya Samaj and wrest control of their Gurdwaras languishing under management of hereditary priests. Sikhs also got involved in the movement to gain freedom from the British and made disproportionate sacrifices. Their leaders however could not come up with a viable strategy to secure their political future as a vibrant and ambitious minority community thinly interspersed in Muslim or Hindu majority areas, absent the British. The author has narrated the torturous story of their role in this struggle and has bemoaned inaptness of Sikh leadership for their bumbling in several situations.

With the British departing, Sikh leaders decided to throw in their lot with Hindu majority India. Partition of the country and its consequential forced migration of minorities across the new borders affected Sikhs the most adversely. The author has eminently documented their loss of life, property, fertile lands and access to some of their holiest shrines and historical sites. He has also analyzed how the political discourse became more complex as the Indians progressed in their self-governance. A variety of linguistic, cultural, caste and class group interests started to exercise increasingly important influence on the emerging political paradigm already deeply influenced by religious considerations. The ensuing political dynamics and machinations by various interest groups brought Sikhs face to face with a series of intractable problems. Repeated elusion of their solutions reinforced Sikh mistrust of Hindu intentions and their quest degenerated into a separatist, fundamentalist and violent struggle. Summing up this phase the author strikes a sad, despondent, reflective note and surmises that quality of Sikh leadership was vulgarized and went into steep decline after partition of Punjab and over time barely educated and/or self-serving men captured the leadership; Sikhs lost sight of the cherished ideals taught by the Gurus. He concludes by saying, “At times it appears that perhaps the Khalsa have run the course of history prescribed for them and that their Gurus in their inscrutable wisdom have given them leaders who will fulfill their death wish” [p.417].

Even though criticism of Sikh leadership may seem justified in certain specific instances one is left wondering about the potential significance of their decisions on the course of Sikh history in the last 150 years. The question that could a minority placed precariously at the intersection of Hindu and Muslim divisive ambitions have escaped the fate that befell Sikhs on India gaining freedom, has not been raised. Likewise one fails to detect any clue to a coherent political strategy that may have helped Sikhs to “feel the glow of freedom” that Nehru, who led the newly independent Indian state for 18 years, had so loftily assured but failed to deliver.

For this edition the author has added an epilogue to provide an insight into happenings of the last two decades by collating extracts from media reports and published documents. In his final summing he has enumerated some of the continuing social problems among Sikhs, taken note of changing demographics in Punjab due to influx of Hindi speaking farm workers from other states and catalogued some Sikh successes in India and in the Diaspora. He is understandably pleased with the elevation of Dr Manmohan Singh as the Prime minister of India and concludes saying, “Thus the year 2004 saw two Sikhs at the helm of country’s affairs – a notional fulfillment of the prophecy raj karega khalsa – The Khalsa Shall Rule”. That is the inimitable Khushwant Singh one liner signing off for now.

In the end I may add that a brief account of the Sikh story in some other parts e.g. Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Deccan, Afghanistan, Iran, East Africa and the Far East where Sikh communities developed and have lived for a century or longer, some going back to the Guru period would have further embellished this work. All in all Khushwant Singh has captured the essence of the Sikh story with great sensitivity and feeling enriched by his deep insight into Sikh thought, tradition and culture.



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