Lest We Forget

Guru Nanak Dev Ji was a reformer. He was born at a time when parts of India were either under the influence of Muslim rulers or existed in a mosaic of small states. To him, there were no barriers of race, class, caste, creed or colour that existed during his period. Actually in the present day scenario, he can be termed as a cosmopolitan, way ahead of his time. Sikhism was based on this important ideology wherein people from all backgrounds were united and integrated under this faith. Guru Nanak also preached love, peace and the universal brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of one God. However, when the followers  of this faith were being persecuted continuously by the Mogul rulers, they resorted to military means to oppose their oppressors. After the death of Banda Singh Bahadur, Sikhs were scattered all over to fend for themselves and as stop gap arrangement, joined the local governments ; but eventually Sikh Misls came into existence and they all opposed the Mogul empire militarily under different Misl leaders. This period was the watershed in the history of Sikhs. Since Guru Nanak Dev did not observe the rules of caste, Guru Gobind Singh gave ‘Singh’ as the last name to all the Sikhs to remove the distinction on the basis of caste or class as was prevalent in the society. This principle is however slowly fading out as more and more Sikhs are reverting back into the pre-Sikhism Hindu ideology, and associating themselves with their race, class or caste names, a trend which was discarded by our Gurus.

Even though the Sikh faith vis-à-vis other religions is still very young, it is making its presence felt not only in India but in various parts of the world. Guru Nanak’s birthday was celebrated for the first time in the White House in Washington. The President of USA was present on the occasion during 2009. The followers of this faith who are less than 2 percent in India stand out in many fields. The Sikh community has been able to produce a President, a Prime Minister, an Air Chief, an Army Chiefs, Governors, successful businessmen, writers, sportsmen, artists and so on. While Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian to be elected to the US Congress; in Canada and UK they are producing Ministers and important dignitaries not only at the provincial level but at the federal level too.The individual leadership provided by the heads of different Misls, however, could not be sustained for very long by their respective successors or heirs. After the death of Jodh Singh, son of Jassa Singh, the family failed to elect or amicably appoint the leader who could take charge of the Misl but instead allowed Ranjit Singh to annex the Misl due to family feud over the leadership issue. Likewise leadership crisis emerged in other Misls. The Sikh empire created by Maharaja Ranjit Singh could not be carried forward by his heirs due to dynastic feuds. When Ranjit Singh died in 1839, the Punjab began to fall into disorder as there was a succession of short-lived rulers from within the family.  Kharak Singh, Ranjit Singh’s son, who succeeded Ranjit Singh was poisoned in which Naunihal Singh, his own son, was the suspect. After Naunihal Singh succeeded, he too died immediately under mysteries circumstances . And then, when Sher Singh succeeded Naunihal Singh, he was reportedly killed by his own cousin.  Duleep Singh (born 1837) at the age of only six was then proclaimed as Maharaja (more like a symbolic head) after death of Sher Singh in 1843, but he was too young to govern the Sikh empire.  On account of such developments within the family circle, Sikh empire was all set to collapse as the allies were dithering on account of poor leardeship. During the First Anglo-Sikh war (1845-46), the Sikhs after giving a stiff resistance initially, were made to cede some valuable territory (the Jullundur Doab) to the East India Company. Also Maharaja Gulab Singh, the ruler of Jammu and esrtwhile ally of Ranjit Singh, was allowed to acquire Kashmir from the Sikh kingdom by a large cash payment to the East India Company. Then at the end of the Second Anglo-Sikh war in 1849, the entire Sikh empire, the foundations of which were raised by various Sikh Misl leaders, collapsed and was annexed by the British rulers from Duleep Singh, the younger son of the Maharaja. Sikhs ruled the region for almost 100 years including under Misl leaders and as part of the Sikh empire. While the Misls dominated the region for almost 60 – 70 years under respective leaders, Sikh empire under Ranjit Singh dominated the region for almost 40  years (1810 to 1849).  Jassa Singh Ramgarhia including his son were part of the movement wherein they ruled  and dominated different territories in the region for nearly 50 to 60 years (around 1760 to 1816). Interestingly, the Marathas continued to rule their region for more than hundred years, from 1680 to 1817, however after the death of Shiva Ji in 1680, their most capable leader they too lost to the British in 1817. While Sikhs and Maratha played important role in uprooting the Moguls rulers from India, they both succumbed to the British. While Marathas were conquered in 1817, Sikhs were defeated in 1849 by the British.

Unlike Hindus, Sikh faith was formed on a caste-less society. But going by the mindset of caste system, some historians are still projecting the Sikhs from this perspective. Rattan Singh Bhangu has stated that Jat Sikh came from humble or low-status backgrounds (as given in p 136 of “When Sparrows Became Hawks” by Purnima Dhavan). Nothing very strange as many other chiefs or rulers including Nadir Shah of Iran, President Abraham Lincoln of USA came from a very humble backgrounds. But what is more important is that in their new faith, the chiefs of all the Misls created a higher status for themselves and for the entire community. Actually Sikhs were able to navigate difficult times and created a higher status for themselves in the eyes of the world. They are now known all over the world and holding many high and sensitive positions in various walks of life, both in India and abroad. Describing an episode by the joint forces of Ramgarhia, Karorsinghia, Dallewalia and Nishanwalia who raided Chandausi in the upper Gangetic plainson January 14, 1785, Dr. Purniama Dhavan writes that despite their modest territories and resources in that arid part, they wrecked havoc on the areas they raided in the distant regions and made their presence felt. Ratan Singh Bhangu further claims that only Sikhs were given sovereignty by the Guru that even the so called nich jat or low-status Jats were turned into warriors, since the high-caste Rajputs were supposedly full of pride. And it is true as Purnima Dhavan states that God only grants martial characteristics to those who are capable of pursuing them through hard times. Lower-status identity was replaced with higher-status warrior identity of the Khalsa through the successful appropriation of elite warrior norms of honor, valor, and the application of divinely sanctioned violence.

In the words of 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth, people who make history leave footprints even on the sand of time. Since the impact of their acts is so strong in the minds of future generations, such hazy footprints cannot be easily obliterated. The achievements of Sikh Misls during the eighteenth century cannot be confined to the formation of Sikh empire only; instead it needs to be viewed in the light of liberating the region from the Mogul / Muslim rulers as well.  The future of their actions is our present today. Lest we forget, Jassa Singh was one of them and despite many odds like other Sikh Chiefs, contributed immensely in the history of Sikhs.