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Sikhs in the Eighteenth Century
Reviewed by Prof. Dharam Singh

by S S Gandhi
Published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar
Pages: 741; Price: Rs. 500

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

Eighteenth century, the focus of this book, is of absorbing interest and historical importance because it witnessed the end of the rule of Mughals and Afghans, the dissolution of Maratha paramountcy and the rise of Sikh power. Yet, strangely enough, it did not attract the attention of the historians it merited with the result that not many books came out focusing exclusive attention on the period. Even the few books that are available are mere sketchy narratives. It goes to the credit of Gandhi that he has been able to give us a comprehensive account of the Sikhs in the eighteenth century.

The Sikhs, being engaged in a life and death struggle during this period, could not afford to put into black and white their strivings and achievements. Another reason for the non-availability of Sikh records was the official campaign spearheaded by the Mughal Subedars such as Zakaria Khan, Yahiya Khan, Shah Nawaz and Mir Manu, that aimed at the destruction of such records. The Muslim scholars, who were often in the service of Mughal/Afghan rulers, took a prejudiced view of the Sikhs whom they regarded as mere upstarts, quintessentially inimical to Muslim rulers and the Muslim society with its political and social framework, showing utter insensitivity to the real issues which had stirred the Sikhs to rise against the Mughal and Afghan political masters. As such, their works presented a distorted or blurred picture of the Sikhs. The Hindu chroniclers or Hindu men of letters also did not care much to take notice of Sikhs’ activities, possibly because of the perception that the Sikh movement’s strength is indirectly proportional to the strength of Brahminical order in a society.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Surjit Singh Gandhi has done an excellent job. He has very patiently built up an account of the Sikhs by putting together bits and pieces of information from available manuscripts, printed works, and other contemporary/semi-contemporary historical literature.

The learned scholar begins his narrative with the martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh, which sent shock waves among the Sikhs. They were, however, clear in their minds that the fatal dagger thrust of a hired Pathan, cutting short the fabulously brilliant life of their Guru, epitomised the determination of the ruling Muslim class of which the Hindu Rajas and leaders of Hindu orthodoxy were active allies, to liquidate the nonconformist ideological challenges. The martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh was not just an empirical fact, it symbolised a unique reality that Sikhism was a fresh ideology, and an urge to establish a new society with its own social and political codes, and fight out even violently as a last resort, forces which hampered their march to these goals. This being so, the stage was set for the Sikhs to resist with physical force what the Mughal state at that time stood for. Banda Singh Bahadur was the symbol of that response. He shook the mightiest empire in the world of his time to its very foundations. Within a short time, he became the master of the territories between the Jamuna and the Satluj, yielding an annual revenue of thirty-six lakhs of rupees. He established a rule far different from that of the Mughals. It was committed to the welfare of all, irrespective of class, caste or creed. No communal group was special to him. Banda Singh proclaimed that his rule was to usher in a new era of harmony and mutual respect. He assumed royalty but did not flaunt it by sitting on a throne or by covering himself with a canopy. He issued coins, not in his name but in the name of the Khalsa. He introduced official seal, but that too was to declare that everything he had achieved was due to the grace of the Satguru. His rule, however, was short-lived, because the forces inimical to him, namely, the Mughal government, assisted by the Muslim religious elites, and Hindu political, religious, and social vested interests, combined together and defeated and executed Banda Singh in 1716. Even during this short period, the Sikhs’ awareness sharpened and they were awakened to certain new realities. They demonstrated that the invincibility of the Mughals was a myth and that they could wrest independence if they had a will. Sikhs, under Banda Singh, by launching an offensive against the Mughal rule and winning, set an example for others to follow.

Though Khalsa sovereignty was short-lived, it went down into the memory of the people as a very good model of government and of governance. This fact alone was sufficient to sustain and boost the morale of Sikhs as it was a vindication of their belief that the Sikh ideology was a sure way to raise the status of the people. No wonder they soon regrouped to wage struggle not only for their survival, but also for asserting what they stood for. For quite a long period after the execution of Banda Singh, they had to face persecution at the hands of the Mughal Subedars of the Punjab who were hell-bent to annihilate them. The author very vividly narrates all this in his work. Not only this, he also explores the reaction of the Sikhs to these penalisations, and of the specific models they evolved during the process. They cultivated a sense of Charhdi Kala. They developed a vibrant awareness of the role assigned to them by the Guru as members of the Panth. They organised themselves into Misls, voluntary organisations comprising equals — all soaked in Sikh ideology, and determined to reorganise society as per the Khalsa ideal. To successfully confront the Mughal and Afghan rulers, they evolved an organisation, Dal Khalsa, a combination of all the Misls which not only fought militarily against the enemy, but also took care that the Sikh institutions and Sikh values were safeguarded properly.

Ultimately, this organisation emerged as the vanguard both in the military and social fields. So that its decisions might not be taken impulsively in contravention of Khalsa moral parameters, the Sikhs organised Sarbat Khalsa, an organisation in which all the Sikhs, including the members of Misls, could participate. It took unanimous decisions in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib often in the space between Sri Akal Takht Sahib and Sri Harmandar Sahib. These were called Gurmattas and were regarded by the Sikhs as sacred and, hence, to be faithfully followed. With all these institutions and with the grit and the high spirit accompanied by the lofty targets, the Sikhs at long last succeeded in overthrowing the Mughals as well as Afghans even though the latter were led by Ahmed Shah Abdali, the ablest military commander of the contemporaneous world. Ahmed Shah Abdali’s attempts at establishing Afghan rule in the Punjab and his hegemony over the rest of India were frustrated and the Sikhs established their principalities both in cis-Satluj and trans-Satluj Punjab — which accounted for over half of the Punjab. Not only this, they carried their forays into Indo-Gangetic Doab and considerably weakened the Mansabdars and other officials of the Mughals from which they found it hard to recover.

In this context, they raided Delhi fourteen times, proclaiming thereby, that the Khalsa power was the supreme and that its writ must be complied with without demur. At all-India level, they did destroy the prestige of the Mughal empire which was considered unchallengeable till then. However, they failed to evolve any suitable pan-Punjab model of governance which could appropriately replace the Mughal administrative apparatus. Like Marhattas, they were more interested and involved in the affairs of their homeland. All the same, they stopped forever the entry of invaders from across the Hindukush into the Indian subcontinent. The author discusses all these facts in detail and very appropriately, in sections bearing headings such as, Penalisation — A March Towards Sovereignty, Misl Polity and Organisation, The Sikhs and Indo Gangetic Doab. Prof Gandhi has been able to successfully present the matchless character of the Sikhs, moulded by innumerable sacrifices, untold hardships, and their impeccable faith in Khalsa ideology.

The learned scholar has taken up many controversial points for discussion. Almost in every chapter, he poses questions before him and then proceeds to give his answers based purely on academic research. He has been competently successful in bringing out the heroic tradition of the Sikhs and their ability to administer the country to the satisfaction of all the citizens of the State without any prejudice and bias even against those at whose hands they had suffered immensely.

Apart from the successful struggle against the Mughal oppressive state, hand in glove with the parochial Muslim and Hindu political and religious elites, the eighteenth century is significant in the life of the Sikhs from religio-social point of view as well. At the spiritual level, Panth and Granth acquired unquestionable supremacy over the mind of the Sikhs. Sikh heroism was crested with spiritual glory. Martyrdom became a tradition. However, institution of Gurdwara fell into the hands of Hindu priests, or those who were nurtured in Hindu traditions, with the result that the institutions which were expected not only to educate the people in Sikh teachings but also to present an ideal pattern of Sikh way of life, began to function like Hindu temples, and Sikhism began to be projected as a modified version of Hinduism, or at best, its militant form. Caste considerations began to stalk the Sikh society. The Sikh orders, Udasis and Nirmalas, deviated from the pristine objectives of projecting Sikhism in its unalloyed form. In the economic sphere, when the Sikhs came to settling down, they established themselves as peasant proprietors or as feudal chieftains — the development which clashed with egalitarian spirit of Sikhism. All this has been meticulously brought out in the last section of the book entitled, What Happened to Sikhism. The author also discusses the initial encounters of the Sikhs with the British Imperialism.

Surjit Singh Gandhi’s Sikhs in the Eighteenth Century has struck me as a work of outstanding merit, speaking high of author’s erudition and his remarkable patience in piecing together the information that he gleaned from different sources available at different places in different languages — Persian, English, Punjabi, Urdu, Marathi, and Hindi. The book is well-researched, highly readable and of immense academic value to any researcher of Sikh history.

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2 thoughts on “History of the Sikhs in 18th century

  1. The martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh was nothing to do with fighting the Mughal empire per se, but rather, the Guru supported the ‘wrong’ brother during the war of succession of Jahangir and his brothers, so ultimately anyone who was involved with the ‘enemy’ brother during the war of succession was killed by the new emperor. Although it is commonly stated as a war against the Sikh creed, it was nothing of the case. In fact, it was Akbar (Jahangir’s father) who provided land and finances to enable the Sikh religion to flourish.

  2. I do not think you have your information correct.
    1. At the time of Guru Gobind Singh’s death, the issue of succession wasn’t as hot. Azam Shah was already dead and Kam Baksh was much weaker than Bahadur Shah I.
    2. The succession war was between progeny of Aurangzeb (1618-1707) and not of Jehangir (1569-1627).
    3. Guru Gobind Singh “supported” the “right” brother, as Bahadur Shah was the ultimate ruler after Kam Baksh was killed in 1709.
    4. To know about the “war on Sikh creed” please read a little more about the nakshbandis and the role they played in virtually all wars of succession to the Mughal throne.
    5. Of course Akbar provided the land (no finances) for the city of Amritsar at nominal rate, but his son, Jehangir, also martyred Guru Arjan and incarcerated Guru Hargobind.
    6. And Jehangir’s son, Shahjehan, fought many battles with Sikhs in Guru Hargobind’s time right from the year 1627, when he ascended the throne.

    I do not think you have the facts right to challenge what the reviewer says.

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