For the benefit of our readers we have decided to publish extracts from “THE PUNJAB CRISIS AND HUMAN RIGHTS,” by s. Iqbal Singh of University of Chicago. Mr. Singh’s work stands out distinct as an objective and analytical study of a subject that has been distorted out of all proportions especially by those who have been laboriously endeavoring to justify the Army

Action as inevitable. Mr. Singh’s approach is none motional and solely motivated by his anxiety to sift the truth from out of the smoke and dust screen of confusing hues.

This Extract is Fifth in the Series

Historical Background

“Sikhism* . . . is among the most modern of great living religions. Though small in number, Sikhism has exerted considerable influence upon the religious life of the East, all the way from north of India to Ceylon.” Sikhism emerged out of an attempt to harmonize Islam and Hinduism, “the monotheism of the one and the mystic Pantheism of the other” at a time of great social unrest, human suffering, and religious persecution.

Guru Nanak (14691538), the founder of the Sikh religion, was born in the Hindu high caste of Bedi Kshatriyas. While still a Youngman he came to the conclusion that humanity was united under The One True God of all people. He preached that one who lived up to the best in one’s creed achieved something but of incomparably less value than the worship of the True Name. He impressed that “God was within” and that the externals of Hinduism or Islam, the main religions practiced in Punjab at the time, could not lead man to Him. Guru Nanak felt that the tyranny of the rulers and the helplessness of the people at large were due to absence of true understanding of the teachings of the religions.

Guru Nanak’s personal influence did not wither away after his death and Sikhism emerged as a distinct religion. His personal rejection of the ascetic or quietest life along with his stress on living a normal family life in this world, contributed to a distinctive Sikh way of life. His unusual decision to appoint a successor whom he regarded as the Guru, religious teacher for his followers, helped Sikhism emerge as a separate body. The first four successors of Guru Nanak, passed in peaceful development of the new religion. But each Guru added something to the separate identity of Sikhism.

The second Guru Angad (15391552) popularized a new Punjabi alphabet, called Gurmukhi, to record compositions of Guru Nanak. The new script was readily accepted for its simplicity and smaller number of its letters and phonetic suitability for expression of Punjabi sounds. The Gurmukhi characters also helped spread literacy among the people* of the Punjab and familiarize them with the teachings of the Sikhs Gurus. Guru Amar Das, the third Guru introduced many innovations such as Langar, community kitchen, where all Sikhs were enjoined to dine in the same assembly with a view to eliminating social and caste differences. This also tended to break the close affiliations of the Sikhs with the Hindus. He stood for the emancipation of women and opposed the practice of Purdah (veil), encouraged intereaste marriages, forbade Sati burning alive of widows on the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands, and advocated remarriage of widows.

The fourth Guru Ram Das founded the city of Amritsar sgn developed into the center of the Sikh faith and laid the foundation stone of Harmander Sahib, the Golden Temple. Frost after a visit to the Temple wrote: “Travelers to India find themselves drawn to two great masterpieces of architecture: the beautiful Mohammedan monument, the Taj Mahal at Agra; and the Golden Temple, in the Pool of Immortality at Amritsar. The latter is the central shrine of Sikhism, and has been called by some authorities one of the most magnificent sights in all of India. Here one finds a great pool of water over which passes a marble causeway to splendid temple with a gilded dome and many cupolas, one of those rare sights seen at intervals during life which fix themselves indelibly on the memory.”

The collections of Guru Nanak’s preachings and the succeeding Gurus were compiled by the fifth Guru Arjun into the volume, Guru Granth Sahib, to give Sikhs a holy scripture which they could understand and follow. Besides the writings of the Sikh Gurus it contains the compositions of Hindu, Muslim and untouchable saints and sages, such as Sadhna. This was in keeping with the teachings of Guru Nanak who looked upon all Godly men worthy of reverence and visited the holy places of the Hindus in India and Muslims in Arabia and Iraq. Furthermore, all the Gurus who composed the hymns included in the Guru Granth Sahib, did so under the no deplume of “Nanak,” merging their own identity to that of the founder Guru. The identity of writers other than the Gurus has been kept though.

By Guru Arjun’s time (15811606), Sikhism had evolved a distinctive language, scripture, ritual, communal life, and center. In 1606 Guru Arjun gave blessings to Prince Khusrau’s unsuccessful rebellion against his father, emperor Jehangir, for which he was tortured and executed (May 30, 1606). This is the beginning of the persecution of Sikhs under the Mughals. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru (16061644) grew up to be an all-round man, a saint and a warrior. On the occasion of his accession, he wore two swords as emblems of spiritual and temporal manifestations Piri and Miri. He encouraged Sikhs to bring him offerings of arms and horses in future and enrolled an armed bodyguard of fifty-two mounted Sikhs. These formed the nucleus of his future volunteer corps, and it was virtually the first step in the transformation of the Sikhs into a martial people. Ever since the time, armed Sikhs have stood guard to Harmander Sahib (The Golden Temple) and the Akal Takht as a symbol of temporal power of the Guru. Since the holy Granth was later proclaimed the Guru in perpetuity after Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last living Guru, the tradition of posting the armed guards continues to this day. The British and the Government of post independent India honored this tradition and licensed the necessary for the guard. The period of the seventh Guru Har Rai and the eighth Guru Har Krishan was relatively peaceful and uneventful during which spiritual awakening continued.

Consequent to Emperor ~Aurangzeb’s increasing intolerance towards non muslims especially on account of Hindu “‘idolatrous forms of worship,” a deputation of Kashmir Brahmans sought the intervention of the ninth Guru Teg Bahadur to end the oppressive imperial policy of forcible conversion to Islam. The Guru took up their cause and was arrested. Upon his refusal to accept conversion to Islam, he was beheaded in Delhi (November 11, 1775) in public.

Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last Guru, (16751708), completed the final transformation of the Sikhs into a martial community. He said his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur had died “to protect the frontal marks and the sacred threads of the Hindus” and that he would uproot tyranny from the land. In 1699, he inaugurated the Khalsa, the sworn brotherhood of the Sikhs. At baptism into the Khalsa, the newly initiated were required to drink the sweetened water, stirred with a double edged sword, from the same vessel, without distinction to caste, creed or social status. Sikhs were given five signs marking them off Hindu or Muslim — notably the uncut hair and the beard — and received the name of Singh, which means lion. According to Cunningham, Guru Gobind Singh caused the development of the Sikhs from “a sect into a people.”

Guru Gobind Singh lost all his four sons in his struggle for justice; the elder two, in their early teens, fell fighting against the Mughal forces (December 22, 1704) and the other two, not yet teenagers, were bricked alive and beheaded at the orders of Sirhind Governor Wazir Khan for refusing to embrace Islam (December 24, 1704). Guru Gobind Singh never returned to Punjab due to the hostility of the Hill rajas on the one hand, and the Muslim rulers of Punjab on the other and died in South India in October 1708, while convalescing from wounds inflicted by two Mughal assassins.

Guru Gobind Singh was prolific poet and author.

His writing reflect the anguish of his times and the manner in which he responded to the circumstances. His clearly visualized a politico religious role for the Khalsa. He considered justice to be birth right of man and wrote: “When all avenues have been explored, all means tried, (to secure justice) it is lawful to have recourse to arms.” One of the final acts of the last Guru was to ordain that decisions in secular affairs will be made by a Sikh congregation sitting in the presence of the Holy Granth. Their verdict, called Gurmatal would be binding on all Sikhs and an infringement of the same would be considered a sacrelige. The decision would be executed by the Panj Pyare or the Five Chosen by consensus of the Sikh assembly. From here emerged the tradition of issuance of Panchayat, or the council of five, which speaks as one and “is to be the voice of God; it gives expression to the consensus of the traditional moral order.”

Guru Gobind Singh’s contribution to Sikhism of distinctive value system and symbols is summed up by Cunnigham: “Success is not always the measure of greatness. The last apostle of the Sikhs did not live to see his own ends accomplished but he actually roused the dormant energies of a vanquished people and he filled them with a lofty although fitful longing for social freedom and national ascendancy, the proper adjuncts of that purity of worship which had been preached by Guru Nanak. . . A living spirit possessed the whole Sikh people, and the impress of Guru Gobind Singh has not only elevated and altered the constitution of their minds, but has operated materially and given amplitude to their physical frames.”

Under the command of Guru Gobind Singh’s disciple Banda Singh Bahadar (170816), the Sikhs held sway over the eastern Punjab for a brief period. The Mughal empire was yet too strong for the rising power of the Sikhs which was put to heel quickly. For the next fifty years or so, they resorted to relentless guerilla warfare to fight back the Lahore Durbar. Orders were issued to root out Sikhs. The governor, Yahiya Khan, “issued a proclamation for a general massacre of all Sikhs, wherever they could be found.” A price indeed was put upon their head, and so vigorously were the measures of prudence, or of vengeance followed up, that many conformed to Hinduism; others abandoned the outward signs of their belief, and the more sincere had to seek a refuge among the recesses of the hills, or in the woods in the south of the Sutlej. They were relentlessly hunted down by the ten thousand strong force of Central Asian Turani mercenaries in the employ of Abdus Samad Khan, who made such a clean sweep of them that “the very name of Sikh became extinct in the province of the Panjab” and in the words of Cunningham “The Sikhs were scarily heard of in history for the period of a generation.


During the period 17081765 Sikhs suffered two Ghallugharas, or holocausts, one in June 1746 and the other in May 1762. Ahmad Shah Abadli sacked and occupied the city of Amritsar in early 1757 with great loss of Sikh lives. Baba Deep Singh, first head of the Damdami Taksal, the Sikh seminary of which Sant Bhindranwale was the fourteenth chief, led poorly armed peasants to free the Golden Temple of the Afghans and in the process kept “his tryst with death.” The death of Baba Deep Singh and others galvanized the Sikhs who during the next thirty years waged a successful irregular war against the Mughals and succeeded in establishing numerous autonomous areas under different misals by the end of 1760s. These areas were consolidated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a united Sikh state by 1799 which lasted till the British defeated the Sikhs and assumed full control of Punjab by mid nineteenth century.

The capsule account gives some idea of Sikh aggregative personality: that of ever readiness to fight perceived injustice, intense pride in Sikh symbols of valor and sacrifice, doggedness and  perseverance in adversity, and participatory mobilization to defend its cause whatever the price. Relating the above derivation to contemporary events, Sikhs with about 1 percent population of undivided India (until 1947), mobilized’ to notable proportion for the Indian freedom struggle as shown in Table 1.

Cunningham classic account of the warfare and intrigue through which Sikh power was established in the Punjab is permeated with the recurring theme of the development of the Sikhs from “a sect into a people” under Guru Gobind Singh and from a people to a “nation under Ranjit Singh.” Cunnigham was more impressed by the differences than by the similarities between Sikhs and Hindus, when he remarked that “it has been usual to regard the Sikhs as essentially Hindu, and they doubtlessly are so in language and everyday customs … yet in religious faith and worldly aspirations, they are wholly different from other Indians and they are bound together by a community of inward sentiment and of outward object unknown elsewhere,”

Sikh consciousness consolidated progressively as a result of series of events during the last century. To state a few Sikh opposition to cow slaughter resulting in blowing up individually of sixty five Sikhs by the British Deputy Commissioners of Ludhiana and Ambala; Sikh renaissance in the form of Singh Sabha movement and Chief Khalsa Diwan in the last_ quarter of the 19th century,  successful agitation over Colony Bill 1907 which resulted in withholding sanction to the Bill by Lord Minto, massive Sikh participation in the passage of Gurudwara Act of 1925; institutional manifestation of Sikh aspirations in the form of Sri Gurudwara Probadhak Committee and Akali Dal, which according to Brass provided critical arena for Sikh mobilization, successful Akali morcha during the 1950s and 1960s for creation of Punjabi linguistic state; growing revivalism among the Sikhs since 1970s; continuing large scale protest for greater political and economic autonomy in the early 1980s and after the 1984 events, demand for a homeland among growing number of Sikhs.

*According to Encyclopedia Americana, Sikh religious teachings are broadly similar to those of Christianity. Besides Oneness of God, its principle tenets are: Equality of mankind; Equality of religions; Universal brotherhood; Equality of man and women, In contradistinction to Hinduism, it rejects ritualism, caste system and eliminates priest between men and God.

*As a result of the introduction of Gurumukhi, literacy among Sikhs grew at a notable pace, so that by 1911 Sikh women in Punjab had a higher literacy percentage (1.7) than either the Muslim (.2) or Hindu women (.7). Literacy among Sikh males (9.4) was comparable to the Hindu males (9.5). (Census of India, 1921, Vol. XV, Punjab and Delhi, 1923:292).

Table 1

Sikh Mobilization for

Indian Freedom Struggle

Until 1947

Total               Sikhs                       Percent

Prisonterm                              2125                1550                            15%

over 1 year

Deported                                 2646               2147                            80%


sentence                                  127                  92                                80%

Sources: Kamath, M.V. in Shourie’s The Punjab Tragedy, pg. 150; Also Swamy, S. in The Illustrated Weekly, May 13, 1984, p. 11.

Article extracted from this publication >>  October 18, 1985