The Saga of Sikh Resistance

published on February 4, 2010


                                                           Sheena Krishnan*                   

  The history of the Sikhs forms one of the many sagas of Hindu resistance against the alien forces sworn to debilitate and devastate the culture of the Hindustan. In an age of Universal Church and Universal Empire, it might be quiet natural that its exponents and advocates did their level best to embrace the entire world within their political bounds adhered to the religious ideology they were subscribed to. But the price the other communities had to pay for these fanatical orgies is something that shudders our conscience. Thus says one of such fanatic dictates:

Fight those who believe not in Allah and the last Day and do not forbid what God and his messenger have forbidden – such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book – until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled. (Repentance 9: 25)
Humiliate the non-Muslims to such an extent that they surrender and pay tribute. (Repentance. 29)

Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. (Repentance. 5)   

Total elimination of those who did not believe in Allah or his Prophet being the sole motto of the Islamic tenets the Islamic followers resorted to Jihad i.e., the holy war to convert or kill so as to bring the entire world under their universal church. Indeed in a system wherein Church and imperialism joined hands one may find it difficult to distinguish between religion and polity. But the devils did their work and those stamped as infidels or unbelievers of Islam continued to be slaughtered down the centuries. Thus an enlightened Muslim scholar sarcastically says:

What is Allah’s cause? It is simply killing infidels. And what is an infidel?
He or she is someone, who denies Muhammad; … So fond is Allah of murdering the unbelievers to glorify himself and Muhammad. (Anwar Shaikh, Islam : Sex and Violance, Cardiff, 1999, P. 114.)

   This having been the basic tenet and attitude of Islam and its followers to other religions and cultures one could easily assume the fate of the non-Muslims of the places where the Islamic ascendancy came into vogue. And the more the non-Muslims turned unyielding more was the gravity of persecution with the result that the history of the non-Muslims the world over turned out to be the story of bloodshed. .

    Perhaps Indians were the most cursed scapegoats of Islamic tyranny. As testified to by clear and unmistakable evidences, the Muslim administration in India turned out to be the worst hell to the Hindus with their different streams of thought whom the former disparaged Kafirs. Of them the valiant groups like the Rajputs, the Sikhs and the Jats were the worst hit, each of them facing more or less equal tyranny. The heinous treatment meted out to the peace loving and pious people of India convinced them that their suffering in silence would only spell their doom. Accordingly many communities came up with strong resistance, ready to sacrifice their life to defend themselves and their traditions.

    This write-up is on the saga of the long drawn resistance and the indescribable story of the intolerable persecutions the proud Sikh community underwent during the Mughal rule. Indeed there is no other community like the Sikhs which bristles in martyrs who stood the Islamic violence. Had James Todd come across the pathetic story of these people too who suffered for upholding their principles he would definitely have left behind a twin to his famous Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. So much is the story of the Sikh bloodshed that beggars description!                
     The Sikh tradition of martyrdom started with Guru Arjun Dev, who proved the first Sikh victim of the communal frenzy of Mughal emperor Jahangir, an orthodox Sunni Muslim. So much was the Guru concerned of the doom of his coreligionists at the hands of the Mughals that he started the tradition of sacrifice in Sikh religion to save themselves from the Mlechhas (Mlechha in Sanskrit means foreigner). Jahangir hated the charismatic Arjun Dev who proved a bulwark against the Islamization of Punjab, and spearheaded the Sikh community, propagating its ideals. The ideals of the Sikhs fell in with those of the Hindu community in general, their religion itself being an offshoot of the latter. It is actually the Guru-sishya tradition of Hinduism that culminated in Sikhism, the word Sikh itself having semantically evolved through the words, Sishya – Sikha – Sikh. Let the renowned historian Sardar K. M. Panikkar speak here about the Hindu character of the Sikh creed:

Nanak, a mystic singer and follower of Ramananda and Kabir, had founded a priest sect which preached monotheism and recognized no distinction of caste. Slowly, this small community, recruited mainly from the Jat cultivators of Punjab, assumed martial character. Amritsar, their headquarters, became a local capital, and Guru Har Gobind called himself, Sacha Padshah, donned full armour and went about with a large armed retinue. The Sikh religion in spite of its original priest character had from the beginning a nationalist tinge. Nanak himself bewailed the fate of the Hindus by singing:

     Ye perform Hindu worship in private,
     Yet oh my brothers, you read the books of the
     And adopt their manners.

 And it was natural that the Mughals and their Emperor Jahangir had sworn to annihilate the entire Sikhs with their Guru. The Mughal Emperor’s hatred of Guru Arjun Dev was beyond all limits as known from the Tuzak-i-Jahagiri, autobiography of the former wherein he writes:

…in Goindwal, on the banks of river Beas, there lives a Hindu,  named Arjun in the guise of a Pir or Sheikh. He has captured the fancy of many simple hearted Hindus and even the ignorant and foolish followers of Islam by his ways and manners and he had loudly sounded the drum of his being a great holy and worldly leader.  For three or four generations of spiritual successors, he has been flourishing. Many times, it occurred to me to put a stop to this vain affair or to bring him into the fold of Islam.

   Convert or perish thus became the Emperor’s policy to the Guru. Jahangir saw in Prithia, the latter’s elder brother the Jude too conspire with the Mughal officials against Guru. Prithia was already irritated at his having been deprived of the Gurugaddi which his father Guru Ramdas gave to Arjun. And from the Guru’s side the help he extended to Jahangir’s eldest son, Prince Khusro, led to the immediate provocation. The Guru had sheltered Khusro whose revolt against Jahangir, some time after his enthronement, was completely suppressed. The Guru who was all mercy readied himself to save Khusro from the Emperor’s wrath. Having applied the sacred vermilion (tilak) on Khusro’s forehead and praying for his well-being, the Guru arranged for Khusro all helps including financial to go to Kabul. Knowing this, an enraged emperor decided stern action against the Guru. Declared an accomplice of Khusro and political offender, the Guru was arrested on 24 May, 1606 A.D on Jahangir’s order and was brought to Lahore where he was asked to pay a fine of rupees two lakhs. The Guru’s refusal to be financially penalized was met with one of the usual Islamic modes of torture.  Seated in a vessel of boiling water and hot iron bars, his naked body was bathed from above with hot sand poured all over. Seeing him still unyielding, the Mughal vultures threw him to river Ravi to drown. Even amidst these tortures the Guru remained patient and calm. So adamant was he in his faith that he took all these tortures as sacrifice to the lord almighty at whose feet he sacrificed his life, uttering “Sweet to me is your doings, oh Lord!, l seek no other boon rather than your name”. The Guru, though through torture, thus attained the eternal beatitude on May 30, 1606 A.D. Thus had begun the unending saga of the Sikh martyrdom.

       The next in the line of Sikh martyrs was the ninth Guru, Tej Bahadur, the youngest son of Guru Hargobind Sahib and the father of last (tenth) Guru, Gobind Singh. Here the Mughal villain was Aurangzeb, disparaged world over as the “bigoted Calvin of Muslim India”. A staunch Sunni Muslim who could not tolerate the growth of any other religion, Aurangzeb was sworn to uproot all the non-Muslims and destroy their culture.  An iconoclast number one and demolisher of many Hindu temples, he imposed many restrictions on Hindus including depriving them of all positions under his government. His collection of Jeziah and pilgrims tax from non-Muslims was widely condemned by many and questioned boldly by a few like the Maratha chieftain Vir Sivaji who spearheaded the Hindu nationalism, digging the grave of the Mughals.1

      Aurangzeb, already irritated at the nationwide sojourn of the Guru which earned him the required charisma to popularize the Sikh cult got further enraged when the latter decided to extent protection to the Kashmiri Pundits who had long been the victims of Islamic persecution. These Saraswat Brahmins of Kashmir approached Guru, requesting him to protect them from the Mughal governor of Kashmir, Sher Afghan who took to brutal massacre to convert them to Islam. Hearing their plight the Guru, unmindful of the dangers involved, had decided to protect these orphaned lot who knew not how to fight, but only to learn and teach.2 Peeved at these developments, Aurangzeb sent his emissaries to Anandpur to summon Guru to the imperial durbar.  Complying with the summons, the Guru with his companions proceeded to Delhi on 11 July, 1675 A.D but only to be arrested and imprisoned at Sirhind. On 6 November, 1675 A.D., Guru was brought before Aurangzeb who asked him to embrace Islam. Finding the Guru and his three companions unbendingly adamant in the Sikh faith, Aurangzeb ordered them to be executed in the most barbarous manner. The three followers were brutally done to death one by one. Bhai Mati Das was sawed alive into two parts. Bhai Sati Das was wrapped in cotton wool and set ablaze. Bhai Dyala Ji was thrown into the boiled water. Despite the sight of these inhuman torments meted out to his disciples, the Guru remained undaunted. The ocean calmness of the Guru surprised Aurangzeb who asked him to perform some miracles if he wanted to escape. But seeing him still unheeding the Mughal fanatic ordered to decapitate the Guru.  Chandni Chowk at Delhi proved the Golgotha. On 11 November 1675 that doyen of manhood and piety was beheaded amidst horrors beggaring description.3. It was the horrible night when even silence remained silent. Lakhi Shah, a Sikh devotee, took the beheaded body of Guru to his home in a cart covered with heavy cotton bales. He cremated the body and then set his house afire to save himself from the wrath of Mughal Fafnir4. Bhai Jaita, a lower caste Rangretta, brought Guru’s head to Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib.  Guru Gobind Singh gratefully hugged Jaita, thanking him for his valour and steadfastness to the holy tradition. The head of Guru Tegh Behadur was cremated according to the Sikh customs at Anandpur Sahib, on 16 November 1675 A.D amidst the vast sea of humanity, assembled to bid him their adieu in tears. “His execution was universally regarded by the Hindus as a sacrifice for their faith.  The whole of Punjab began to burn with indignation and revenge”.5 The Guru thus died a martyr for the protection of “the frontal mark and the sacred thread of the Hindus” as his son Guru Gobind Singh later wrote in his autobiography, Bachittar Natak.

       The time Guru Gobind Singh bristled with blood baths. The Mughal audacity reached its all its recklessness, taking an unprecedented number of Sikh lives. The martyrs now included none other than the Guru’s four sons whose gruesome murder still remains the most notorious example in the history of fanaticism and bigotry. Gobind, who had to feel the full weight of the Mughal tyranny, was the tenth in the pontifical succession of the Panth founded by Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind succeeded his father when he was but a child. But right from his accession he was the determined enemy of the irascible Mughal Emperor who butchered his father Tej Bahadur for pleading the cause of the Hindu minorities of Kashmir, the Pundits. Naturally ever since he became the Guru his followers were in incessant wars with the Mughals wherein many flowers of martial heroism paid with their lives. Realizing the need of imparting his followers a martial spirit and commitment to the Sikh cause, the Guru took a step “the significance of which but a few at the time would have understood”. It happened on 30 March 1669, when Aurangzeb was trapped in the labyrinth of the Mughal-Maratha conflict. Taking this opportune moment, Guru Gobind established the Khalsa, transformed the Sikhs into a militant group with every member of the community swearing to renounce life, family and honour in service of the Panth if called to do so. As his power grew he came into conflict with the Mughal governments of Sirhind and Lahore leading to many post-Khals wars among which the battles of Shahi Tibbi and Sirsa of 1704 loom important. Many Sikh heroes renounced their lives and amidst the ensuing confusion Guru’s two sons, nine year old Jorawar Singh, Fateh Singh, seven, and Guru’s mother Mata Gujri got separated from him. Gangu, an old servant of Guru, turning a turncoat, handed over them to the military commander of Morinda, who in turn brought them before Wazir Khan, the Mughal Subedar of Sirhind. When the children refused to embrace Islam, Wazir Khan “bricked in” them alive at Sirhind on 27 December 1704 A.D.  Shocked at the news of the martyrdom, Mata Gujri collapsed to death. In the battle of Chamkaur Sahib of 1705 A.D., three of Guru Gobind Singh’s dearest friends and his remaining two sons Baba Ajit Singh and Baba Jujhar Singh fought to martyrdom. Finding himself reduced to a helpless position by the Mughal army, the Guru wrote the letter entitled Zafar Nama or the epistle of victory wherein he proudly asked the emperor: “What is the use of putting down a few sparks when the flame is burning more fiercely than ever?” Though a Pathan sent by Wazir Khan stabbed Guru Gobind to death the flames he lit soon devoured Punjab, the Mughals’ home province.

    Another important martyr was Banda Singh Bahadur. A saint by name Madho Das, he took sword on the advice of Guru Gobind Singh to avenge the Mughal cruelties. Baptized according to Sikh tradition, he was renamed Banda Singh Bahadur. Coming to know the plight the Sikhs suffered from the Mughals, Banda decided to fight the mlechha hordes to the last and proceeded to Punjab from Nanded. Almost fifteen operations which took the life of many Muslims including Wazir Khan brought under his heels many places. The battle of Gurdas Nangal (1715 A.D) which lasted for eight months left the men of Banda with no supply of provisions. Forced to eat their horses, mules, oxen, grass and leaves, they were compelled to surrender on 17 December 1715 A.D. Banda along with 740 Sikhs were sent to Delhi in a procession, the heads of 2000 Sikhs hanging in front of the procession. All suffering and steadfast in their faith, they sang Gurbani all their way to Delhi where they were asked to embrace Islam. Their denial was followed by the most gruesome massacre in Indian history. 150 Sikhs were put to sword every day in front of Banda. On 19 June, 1716 A.D. Ajay Singh, Banda’s four year old son was cut to pieces before his eyes.  What followed was most heinous. The heart of his son was cut out and thrust into the mouth of Banda whom the fanatics garlanded with his son’s veins cut and pieced together. Banda was finally brought before Farukh Siyar, the Mughal emperor who asked what kind of death he would like to choose. “The same as the emperor would for himself”, replied Banda. An enraged Farukh Siyar ordered his immediate execution. The Muslim hawks prayed upon the helpless Banda. Their swords pierced into his eyes, plucking them out one by one in the characteristic Islamic style. Then his arms, legs and the rest of his body were axed to pieces finally to be beheaded. An unmoving but obstinate Banda remained in his ocean calmness throughout till the butchers took out the last ray of his life.

  The history of the Sikhs thus bristled with the stories of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to protect their faith. Being one of the main streams of the Hindu society they saw their responsibility to protect their faith fulfilled up to the hilt. So heroic were these people that with whatever little weapon at their command they fought to the last. True, the hazards were unimaginable. Yet they would not decline the long cherished values of their religion, culture and motherland. May their noble souls rest in peace!

1. Sivaji wrote to Aurangzeb: It has come to my ears that on the ground of the war with me having exhausted your wealth and emptied the imperial treasury, Your Majesty has ordered that the money under the name Jasiah should be collected from the Hindus and the imperial needs supplied with it. .. . How can the royal spirit permit you to add hardship of the Jaziah to [the grievous state of affairs of the poor Hindus]? The infamy will quickly spread from west to east and become recorded in the books of history that the Emperor of Hindustan coveting the beggars bowl takes Jesiah from Brahmins and Jain monks, yogis, sannyasis, bairagis … etc. … If you imagine piety to consist in oppressing the people and terrorizing the Hindus, you ought first to levy Jaziah from Rana Raja Singh, who is the head of the Hindus. Then it will not be very difficult to collect it from me, as I am at your service. But to oppress ants and flies is far from displaying valour and spirit. I wonder at the strange fidelity of your officers that they neglect to tell you the true state of things but cover a blazing fire with straw. (K. M. Panikkar, A Survey of Indian History, Bombay, 1977, pp. 174-175)

2. See M. P. Ajithkumar, India-Pakistan Relations: The Story of a Fractured Fraternity, (Gyan Books, New Delhi, 2006) for a detailed study of the persecutions the Kashmiri Brahmins underwent.   

3. Gurudwara Sis Ganj stands at the place where the Guru Tej Bhahdur had his martyrdom.

4. Gurudwara Rakab Ganj stands at the place where Guru’s body was cremated.

7. G. C. Narang, Transformation of Sikhism, p. 116

* Author is Assistant Professor of History, Govt. College for Girls, Chandigarh. 

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