The Sikh Tradition of Martyrdom
Reviewed by Tharam Singh

by Louis Emanuel Fenech
Subject of a thesis submitted for a PhD degree at the University of Ontario

[Reproduced from Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Jan-Mar 2000]

The introductory chapter is devoted to the significance of the word Shahid as applied to the martyrs of Sikh history, tracing its origin to the Shahids of Islam in the persons of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, and his sons, Hussain and Hassan. The writer then states that the term had a wider application in the pre-annexation Punjab as “one of the many supernatural entities who were sought out and propitiated by all Punjab communities”, that this term was later narrowed down by the Singh Sabha to mean only the Sikh Gurus and other prominent Sikhs who were martyred for adhering to Sikh principles, or for resisting oppression.

The writer then proceeds to show how this tradition of heroism was transmitted, across the Punjab, through the medium of ballad singing (by dhadis), at Gurdwara gatherings. The tune these singers adopt is “the Var”, which is appropriately martial. “They generate a zeal which is indeed breathtaking”, and further “the songs reflect a spirit of optimism and defiance that is believed to be very much a part of the Sikh tradition.”

Next follows a strange assertion — “The vast majority of songs narrate the exceptionally powerful myth of the 18th century Khalsa, a golden age in which Sikh warriors braved hazards beyond description, to become martyrs so that all people may have the right to worship freely in an age of the most despicable intolerance.” According to this writer, then, the whole picture drawn by the dhadi singers was a “powerful myth” and not a fact of history.

He next elaborates on the use made of the term “tradition” in his dissertation :
1. The means by which Sikh belief is transmitted.
2. The Sikh ideal of martyrdom, so transmitted.
3. A particular belief held to have been handed down from the past for which there is little or no documented evidence.

He has thus reduced the whole exercise of his dissertation to the study of “a myth” and he seems to have been encouraged to approach his topic along these lines by his research guides — W H McLeod, Harjot Oberoi and Pashaura Singh.

4. As an afterthought, he adds, “this term is also used to indicate little more than a way of naming the Sikh religion.”

Allusion is made to Sikh historical references to the martyrs of Mir Mannu days. Some popular “idioms and jokes” of British days are quoted which refer to Baba Deep Singh’s deeds. The role of artists in depicting scenes of martyrdom, and of some writers like Lachhman Singh and some publications of the Chief Khalsa Diwan are mentioned, followed by a curious statement :
“It seems that accounts which deal solely with martyrdom in Sikh tradition are very few. It should not however be a cause of concern …… because any book that deals with the history of Sikhism will either include lengthy chapters on martyrs, or will allude directly or indirectly to this most popular of Sikh tradition.”

This is typical of the self-contradictory and verbose style of this writer (perhaps the result of inevitable influence of his mentors).

In summarising the subject matter of Jagjit Singh’s The Sikh Revolution, Harbans Singh’s Heritage of the Sikhs, Ganda Singh’s Short History of the Sikhs, Gupta’s History of the Sikhs, he suspects the authors of “attempting to uplift and inspire the Sikhs in this current time of crisis.”

Finally he concludes : “Though they claim to be scholarly, these texts are in fact popular, sharing an interpretation of the Sikh tradition which was forged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by the influential Sikh movement, the Singh Sabha”.

Here we have the crux of the whole argument, and the plain purpose of the exercise to propagate the now infamous thesis — that the Singh Sabha movement was started to forge a new Sikh “tradition”.

The writer then steps from one misconception to another. The Amritsar branch is called the “Sanatan Singh Sabha” (a term coined by H Oberoi) which viewed Sikhism “as a Panth among many Panths that make up the Hindu mosaic”.

The Lahore branch is termed the “Tat Khalsa Singh Sabha” and then comes the assertion: “The status of Martyrdom is awarded by this leadership to those who offer their lives voluntarily in solidarity with their group in conflict with another ideologically contrasting group.”

This ‘Tat Khalsa’ is then shown as exploiting their members for their own ends.

Conjecture is now employed : “Implied is the belief that the resolve to become a martyr flows directly from the amrit stirred by the double-edged sword — a ceremony believed to have originated with the tenth Guru.”

Note the use of the word ‘believed’. Here is the McLeod technique of casting doubts on anything and everything in Sikh history. Every student of Sikh history knows that the term Tat Khalsa originated at the time of the confrontation at the Darbar Sahib in 1720, between the Bandai Sikhs and the main body called, the Tat Khalsa. Both groups were followers of Khalsa principles. The Bandai Sikhs had fallen out of the mainstream in adopting the flowing orange coloured tunic of Banda Singh Bahadur and also in the unusual greeting to each other, “Fateh Darshan”, instead of the normal “Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh”.

Coming back to the misconceptions of the writer, here is another sample: “The Tat Khalsa interpretation of the Sikh tradition placed the Khalsa Sikh identity above all others.” “The Tat Khalsa aligned accounts begin by characterising the period of Guru Nanak, the 15th and early 16th centuries, as one of tremendous political chaos, an age in which oppression, decadence and tyranny had free reign.” (sic)

A few pages (50-54) are devoted to the significance of the theme of fearlessness found in Guru Nanak’s bani, and its interpretation from different view points, those of Nirmala and Udasi Sikhs and those of the Singh Sabha “tradition”. The writer clearly endorses the Gurmat view when saying, “the same courage, defiance and fearlessness with which Guru Nanak challenged the Lodis and the Mughals, become embodied in his immediate successor, Guru Angad.”

A correct account of the difficulties and harassment encountered by Guru Tegh Bahadur from the day he assumed Guruship is given (pp. 71-72), but then the writer goes completely astray in backing his story with quotations from the discredited creations in the Bachitter Natak.

Similarly, the views of Guru Gobind Singh are quoted from the Bachitter Natak and Chandi Charitter to present a most distorted philosophy of the Guru. Misquotation of the names of three of the Panj Piaré of Guru Gobind Singh (p. 87) seems to have gone unnoticed by the writer’s guides. He displays ignorance of history again on p. 89, in saying, “The two young sons of the Guru, with their grandmother, were captured by a Mughal force.”

Chapter four of the thesis is called The Indian Environment, and is nothing but a restatement of Oberoi’s Construction of Religious Boundaries, with its emphasis on the “Sanatan Sikh tradition”. It bases all its arguments on extracts from the Bachitter Natak and the Chandi Charitter stories that have now been proved to be authored by a Brahmin poet of the Guru’s court. The other ‘authority’, the author of the Suraj Parkash, was a Nirmala Sikh with strong leanings towards Hinduism. This chapter cites “evidence” gathered by Oberoi to substantiate his “theory” that the “early brand of Sikhism believed in the worship of Sakhi Sarwar, Gugga Pir, Khwaja Khijr, Ghazi Miyan, Durga, Kali, etc., and in propitiating, choorels, bhoots, prets and the spirit of Baba Deep Singh, Ali and others.”

In the 5th chapter, he views all activities of the Singh Sabha and the work of writers like Bhai Vir Singh, Bhai Kahn Singh and others as inspired by the “Tat Khalsa tradition” that promoted the spirit of martyrdom amongst its followers. He says, “It will be shown how these zealous educated Sikhs used the well-known legends of martyrs ….. to perpetuate their interpretation of the Sikh religion.”

So the whole of Sikh History is viewed by this writer through the McLeodian viewing-glass to present a distorted picture of ordinary events. Here is a sample of the ‘scholarly’ conclusions of the ‘learned’ author :
i) Contemporary history books are giving a chapter on Sikhism itself and no longer mentioning Gurmat as a subheading under Hinduism.
ii) The Singh Sabha was the one that created contemporary Sikh tradition.
iii) The “Sanatan Sikh tradition” allowed for a variety of Sikh “tradition”.
iv) Members of the Lahore Singh Sabha were known as the “Tat Khalsa”.
v) These groups showed a bourgeois interest in education and so established the Khalsa College.
vi) Guru Arjun must have been induced to include the vars in the compilation of the Adi Granth, because they could be used to attract the warlike jats to Sikhism.
vii) “One might infer that Bhai Veer Singh completed the work (of his book) in 1914 to inspire Sikhs to enlist for up coming First World War.”
viii) Ditt Singh, to overcome the pride and arrogance of “contemporary Sikhs” (the Amritsar Singh Sabha), campaigned with Gurmukh Singh for the creation of educational institutions.
ix) The Chief Khalsa Diwan (1902) championed the interpretation of the Sikh “tradition” that was inspired by members of the “Tat Khalsa”.
x) Martyr rhetoric was used by the Chief Khalsa Diwan to help further “Tat Khalsa” goals.

In the 6th chapter, The Gurdwara Reform Movement, the writer follows closely the lopsided hypothesis put up by Oberoi and others that the Tat Khalsa definition of Sikhism dominated all other traditions, and the writer puts in his own proposition — that this group utilised the “powerful rhetoric of martyrdom” to advance its own interpretation of Sikhism.

The so-called research in this chapter is confined to a restatement of the well-known and discredited theory of Oberoi, McLeod, Pashaura Singh, Gurinder Mann, that the Singh Sabha Movement and its successor, the Gurdwara Reform Movement, depended for their success on the sacrifice and martyrdom preached by the Tat Khalsa groups in the Singh Sabha and later in the Chief Khalsa Diwan.



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