Sikhs and Communism
Late Sirdar Kapur Singh
Ex-ICS, Former Member of Indian Parliament, National Professor of Sikhism
[Reproduced from The Sikh Review, August 1977]
The early infiltration of Communism amongst Sikhs and the emotional liveliness with which it has been cherished amongst many of them has aroused curiosity in the minds of intelligent observers of this phenomenon of contemporary India. Some think it to be wholly fortuitous, whereas others believe that there is a casual nexus between it and the original Sikh impulse. A large number of Sikh Communists believe that Communism is nothing but an exegesis and an extension of the Sikh doctrine, though the better informed amongst them cannot have failed to notice the deep chasm that divides the basic postulates and metaphysical doctrines of Sikhism, and the fundamental dogmas of Communism as a social and a quasi-religious theory. Be that as it may, a free discussion and dispassionate thinking on the subject is desirable.
When in 1950, in the course of a discussion on Sikhism with an intelligent Hindu friend at Shimla, I remarked to him that the Order of the Khalsa was the real prototype of the All Russia Communist Party of Lenin and further suggested that this might be the real cause and explanation of the fascination which the Comintern has exerted over a section of the restless Sikhs, my Hindu friend reacted unfavourably towards this theory and considered it similiar to a certain other contemporary intellectual movement of the Punjab which postulates that all the modern scientific theories and discoveries, so far made and yet to be made, are adumberated in the Vedas as interpreted by these gentlemen.
It was almost seven years later at the end of 1957 that this Hindu friend came across a certain passage, in an abridged publication of the monumental A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee, which runs as follows:
“The intensity of an alien intelligentsia’s hatred of the Western middle class gave the measure of its foreboding of its inability to emulate Western middle class achievement. The classic instance, up-to-date in which this embittering prescience had been justified, was the Russian intelligentsia’s catastrophic failure, after the first two Russian Revolutions in 1917, to carry out its fantastic mandate to transform the wreck of Petrine Czardom into a parliamentary constitutional state in the 19th century Western style. The Kerensky regime was a fiasco because it was saddled with the task of making bricks with straw, of making a parliamentary government without a solid, competent, prosperous and experienced middle class to draw upon. By constrast, Lenin succeeded because he set himself to create something which could meet the situation. His All Union Communist Party was not, indeed, a thing entirely without precedent. In Islamic Muslim History it had been anticipated in the slave household of the Ottoman Padishah, in the Qyslbash fraternity of devotees of Safawis, and in the Sikh Khalsa that had been called into being by a decision to fight the Mughal ascendency with its own weapons. In these… fraternities, the ethos of Russian Communist Party is already unmistakably discernible. Lenin’s claim to originality rests on his having reinstated this formidable potential instrument for himself and on his priority in applying it to a special purpose of enabling a non-Western society to hold its own against the modern West by mastering the latest devices of Western technology while at the same time eschewing the West’s current orthodox ideology.” (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Abridgement, Vols. VII-X, Oxford 1957, pp. 187-188).
Let us examine three questions, the same which the Hindu friend, referred to earlier, posed after seeing this confirmation by an European scholar, of my contention and which confirmation alone, in the eyes of this friend, conferred respectability on it. These three questions are:
(1) Were these Islamic fraternities imbued with and grounded in the same ethos as the Order of the Khalsa?
(2) Has the Order of the Khalsa common characteristics with the All-Russia Communist Party.
(3) Is Communism consistent with Sikhism?
Ottoman Slave Household’s Selfish Motive
The slave households of the Ottoman Padishah entertained sentiments of firm loyalty to the ruling Turkish family for considerations that were purely mundane and grounded in immediate self-interest. The worldly interests of each and every member of this slave household were so inalienably and inextricably bound up with the existence and continuation in power of the dynasty of the Ottoman Padishah so that the former could not exist without the latter, and in being loyal to the royal household, therefore, the slave household were being only loyal to themselves. Their loyalty, thus, had no other ideal than their own mundane interests. It clearly had no reference to anything beyond their own moderately enlightened self-interest. This type of loyalty is not rare even in the animal kingdom, and it is the general mode of social behaviour of all sane human beings. It is not infused with any self-abnegating idealism and to consider it as a prototype of the All-Russian Communist Party is thoroughly mistaken.
Qyslbash Loyalty Grounded in Gratitude
The Qyslbash fraternity stands on a somewhat different footing, however. Their loyalty to the Safawi dynasty originated in gratitude and was sustained by religious and national patriotism. Sheikh Saif-ud-din Izhak was a lineal descendant of Musa, the seventh Imam and forefather of the famous and fabulous Aga Khan. He was a pious Sufi residing at Ardebil, south-west of the Caspian, in the 14th century. Timur, known to Europeans as Tamerlane (Timuri Ling), (1335-1405) was so impressed by the stories of the Sheikh’s piety that he sought him at his abode, and was so charmed by the visit that, as a consequence of the Sheikh’s intercession, he released from captivity a large number of prisoners of Turkish or Georgian origin, taken in wars with Beyzid. This ensured to the Sheikh constant devotion and gratitude of these men, and this sentiment of loyalty was maintained by their descendants for the members of the Sheikh’s family in successive generations. Junaid, the great grandson of the Sheikh, married a sister of Uzan Hasan of royal family and the youngest son of this marriage, Ismail, born in 1480, was the Sufi who founded the Safawi dynasty by his assumption of royalty in 1499. Shah Abbas the Great was the greatest king of this dynasty and he was a contemporary of our Akbar the Great.
He came to throne in 1587, and Sir Anthony Sherlay, an English soldier of fortune in his service, wrote of him, “His furniture of mind is infinitely royal, wise, valiant, liberal, temperate, merciful and an exceeding lover of justice.” In 1598, he made his capital at Isfahan, where on a plateau over 5,300 feet above sea-level, a superb city grew up which early in the 17th century had a population of over 600,000 wherefrom the Iranian saying, Isfahan nisfi Jahan (trans. Isfahan is half the world). This dynasty was ended in 1736, with the accession of Nadir as the Shah of Persia, who made his acquaintance with the Sikhs after his sack of Delhi and the loot of the Peacock Throne and who correctly prophesied that “az dahani-shan bui shahanshah miayed” (trans. The Sikhs are clearly destined for being the masters of India).
The Qyslbash fraternity throughout remained loyal to Safawi rulers and they made every sacrifice possible to sustain them in power. The Safawis were rightly regarded as the national monarchs, not only in respect of origin and birth but in essence and spirit also, and it is, therefore, legitimate to assume that the loyalty of the Qyslbash was based upon national sentiment as well as communal gratitude. This is the basic characteristic of ethos of the Qyslbash loyalty to the Safawis. This loyalty was essentially personal and secondarily national, and the idealism which sustained it consisted of communal gratitude and national pride. This is the ethos, with its basic component of gratitude and patriotism.
Origin of the Khalsa Misunderstood
The Order of the Khalsa has no contingent origin as it is sometimes believed. This basic misunderstanding about the nature and aims of the Khalsa has not only misled scholars of the calibre of Toynbee, but has also vitiated the Sikh historical impulse as well as the operative attitudes of other Indians towards the Sikhs. For want of proper analysis and non-availability of meagre original documents to the scholars on Sikhism, there has been created and perpetuated the wholly false impression that Guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Order of the Khalsa to meet some historical contingency such as fighting the Mughal rulers, and the real truth, to stress which Guru Gobind Singh himself took such pains, is thus almost forgotten even by the generality of the Sikhs themselves.
Guru Gobind Singh made it abundantly clear that the Order of the Khalsa had been founded to achieve a Divine Aim, which was not contingent upon time and place. And he proclaimed it in no uncertain terms that he was doing nothing which was not logical and natural entelechy of the doctrines of Guru Nanak.
The Order of the Khalsa is, thus, a party of voluntary members, selected on the basis of ideology and strict psychological and character-qualifications relating to disposition and behaviour patterns, overriding geographical, racial and sex limitations and pledged to establish a global Society of Human Brotherhood, the basis of which is spiritual and the ground of which is material abundance. For this purpose, the Order of the Khalsa aspires to achieve control of political power. The original sources on the Sikh doctrine and a proper understanding of it leave no doubt that this is the case and it is implicit in the text of the Jap, the first chapter of Guru Granth Sahib.
Real Prototype of the Communist Party
Once the matter is put this way, it becomes plain that the Order of the Khalsa is the only and the real prototype of the Communist Party of Lenin in so far as the ethos of both the parties is concerned, and that Lenin was mistaken in his belief that his party was a unique phenomenon in the history of human societies. The differences between the nature of their respective aims and ideologies that inspire them, however, are no less striking.
The basic assumption of Marxism, which is the credo that inspires the Communist Party, is that the essence of the real is its characteristic of being perceived through the physical sense, and this is its materialism which it regards as the only true philosophy and metaphysics. Sikhism sharply joins issues with Communism on this postulate. Sikhism postulates the idea as real and more primary, and conceives of reality as ideational and not as material, and, therefore, asserts that man shall be regenerated and liberated through introversion in contra-distinction to the essential and exclusive acceptance of extroversion as the only true approach towards reality. This difference is fundamental, far-reaching and pregnant with significant practical consequences, and Sikhism will never meet on this issue: bhagatan te sansarian mel kade na hoi.
Sikhism denies Communist Theory
The Communist postulate on this issue implicates another significant and far-reaching proposition of Communism, which regards all movement as real, which generates the assumption that human history is conditioned not by ideas or man-made laws, but by the economic organisation of the society, which in turn is based on the mechanism of production and exchange of goods. This is the Marxian interpretation of history. Sikhism denies this proposition and considers its apparent plausibility as naive and superficial, generated by absence of a profounder critical faculty and intuition. It is not true that all history is economic history, that all intellectual, political and social changes can be explained as consequences of changes in material production, and that “the class struggle” that have determined the past of mankind, will determine the future until all classes have been eliminated giving birth to some utopia on earth, and Sikhism, therefore, refuses to allow its social and political organisation and conduct to be determined and deflected by this erroneous mode of thought, and the Order of the Khalsa, thus, can never countenance the all too familiar institutions of dictatorship without popular support, without an independent legal system, and without the free competition of ideas and the sharp assault of free criticism, which errors are the warp and woof of a communist system.
Again, the Order of the Khalsa and the Communist Party are separated by a moral abyss that is unbridgeable. The “immoralism” of Communism is its basic postulate, whereas the Order of the Khalsa attaches fundamental importance to the ethical character of the means than even to the ends themselves, and the Order of the Khalsa regards ethical values, howsoever dimly perceived in different societies and ages, as absolute and not relative and compromisable.
Brainwashing and Physical Regimentation
Lastly, the Order of the Khalsa was intended to be an elect body, a political and spiritual aristocracy on account of its regenerated character, and liable to persecution because of its pugnacious distinctiveness and refusal to compromise, pledged to reform and regenerate a deeply corrupted and unconverted world by example and precept, by persuasion and control, but never through coercion and regimentation of the mind and body, and this also places Communism and Sikhism poles apart.
Thus, Sikhism, and the Order of the Khalsa, which is pledged to propagate Sikhism and to ensure its prevalence, considers the worship of man and man’s collective achievements, whether this appears as Communism or nationalism, as the most serious challenge to the true Religion, the protection of which is the main objective and aim of the Khalsa.
What is it then that has made it possible for communist ideas to obtain a hold on a section of the Sikhs ?
Two Reasons for Communism’s Appeal
There are two reasons, one occidental, and the other emotional. Ever since the middle of the last century, when the Khalsa lost its sovereignty to the new-low diplomacy of the European adventurers, there has been a natural and deep-rooted restlessness and frustration in the Sikh heart. Not that the occidental was basically immoral or unmoral just like the Communist Party, the Sikhs, only after they met with political disaster at his hands, not in the battlefield but on the more slippery ground of political trickery. To Dr Wolff, who visited Lahore in 1832, Ranjit Singh said, “You say, you travel about for the sake of religion, why then do you not preach to the Englishmen in Hindustan, who have no religion at all?” When Dr Wolff repeated this to the Governor General Lord William Bentinck at Shimla, he observed, “Alas, this is the opinion of all the natives about us, all over India.” In reply to a question by Dr Wolff, “How may one come nigh upto God?” the Maharaja replied, “One can come nigh unto God by making an alliance with British Government as I lately did with Laird Nawab Sahib (the Governor-General) at Ropar.” (Joseph Wolff, DD LLD, Travels and Adventures, p. 375).
Nucleus of Sikh Communists
This insight into European political character, however, could not save the Sikhs from being enslaved as the rest of India had already been done. But the Sikhs, in their heart of hearts, never reconciled themselves to the loss of their sovereignty, without which the Order of the Khalsa cannot make any progress towards fulfilment of their divine assignment, their final goal. The dawn of the 20th century found a band of Sikh immigrants to North America organised into the well-known Ghadar Party, the Party of Mutiny against subjugation, and as such, on the eve of the World War I, a number of them landed on Indian soil with the object of ousting the British hold on the country. The attempt proved abortive and most of these revolutionaries ended their lives on the gallows, or in infernal lands of Andamans. The last words of these Sikhs in their last moment on earth are recorded :
“The Khalsa shall guide the destinies of mankind, and eventually there shall remain no opposite camp. For, all shall realise, after bitter frustration, that there is no redemption except in the Way of Life that the Khalsa upholds.”
“This is pre-ordained that the Guru’s Army shall control and guarantee the welfare of the whole of India. Then indeed, the New Era of peace and prosperity for mankind shall dawn.”
[Raj karega Khalsa, aki rahe na koi, khuar hoi sab milenge, bache saran jo hoi.
Dilli takht par bahegi ap Guru ki phauj, raj karega Khalsa vadi hoegi mauj.]
It was the remnants of these Sikh revolutionaries that constituted the nucleus of the now powerful group of Sikh Communists. They established contacts with the Comintern in the early twenties of this century, with the avowed object of securing foreign aid and help for freeing India from the foreign yoke, since the Comintern was the only organisation then outside India which promised such help readily. This brought some of the most ardent and sincere, not necessarily politically wise, of these Sikhs under the spell and discipline of the All-Russia Communist Party and the relationship thus forged has endured.
Emotional Appeal Twofold
The emotional reason for the hold of the communist idea on a certain section of the Sikhs is twofold. The similarity of the Order of the Khalsa and the All-Russia Communist Party of Lenin has already been suggested. The attraction of self-sacrificing work in a dedicated spirit, as is demanded of a communist fieldworker, comes natural to a Sikh since it gives him ample opportunity of releasing the impulse of self-abnegation in the service of fellow beings generated by the Sikh teachings and which Guru Gobind Singh harnessed to the Order of the Khalsa. By working as a loyal and devoted member of the Communist Party, this class of Sikh, feels that he is loving Sikhism and the teachings of the Gurus in practice in the manner that Guru Gobind Singh enjoined. Secondly, this Sikh is not attracted by what Marx said, or by what the party dogma of the moment is. What fascinates him and ensures his devotion to the Party is what he thinks lies behind it, its essential humanitarianism. To be a champion of the oppressed and the under-privileged is the basic Sikh motivation, and the shibboleths of the communist parties are admirably designed to appeal to this sentiment.
These are the basic reasons that underlie the hold of the communist idea and the influence of the Communist Party amongst a considerable number of Sikhs, though it cannot be denied that with the lapse of time and persistent indoctrination, there has come into existence a top layer of Sikh communist leadership that is fully aware and that enthusiastically accepts the real hiatus that separates the teachings of the Gurus from the dogmas of Communism, but he finds it in the interests of the cause to maintain the pretension that by being a communist he is no less a Sikh. He is shrewd enough to realise that the main function of political ideas is to express in effective and pungent manner the political attitudes which some group of people feel that it must consolidate within itself, foster in a society at large, and set up against those of its opponents, and that without this deep co-ordination of belief no common action for great ends is possible. He is, therefore, keenly aware that if he brings out too clearly the deep chasm that separates Sikhism from Communism, the Sikh communist workers will either become non-communist or what anthropologists call, poly-religious. For this reason, and knowing that moral scruples are uncommunistic he never attacks or repudiates Sikhism openly in accordance with the guidelines given by the Communist comrades from Moscow direct, directing the Sikhs turned communists not yet to undo the Sikh mark from their faces and to observe Sikh religion’s symbolism carefully and diligently so as better to misguide and ensnare the Sikhs. Here it is worth noting that the prominent Sikh religious symbolism, unshorn hair and uncut beard are anathema to genuine communists as symptomatic of bourgeois decadence. Le Parisienne Libre, Paris (as quoted in the Indian edition of Reader’s Digest of March, 1975, p. 30) remarks that:
“It is amusing to note that although Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Yeidel are among the world’s most famous bearded men, many communist countries consider beards as anti-social, an obvious sign of bourgeois decadence. The Rumanian Government it seems, recently decreed the need for a special permit to wear a beard. Three groups are considered legitimate: being an actor playing the role of bearded character, having an excessively receding chin or scarred chin. The situation has reached such a point that those men who are permitted the imperialist bourgeois provocation of having hair on their chin, must carry a special card like a Driver’s Licence, which they are obliged to have with them at all times and must show when challenged by the authorities.”
Now, polyreligiosity describes a social condition in which history and myth have lost their dramatic characters, their capacity to impose obligations and compelling images, and, thus they no longer provide a basis for continuity of conviction and behaviour. A polyreligious Sikh is shorn of the very advantage which he has as a fearless and self-sacrificing revolutionary, and he, therefore, becomes a useless member of the Communist Party. He is a great asset only if he retains his pristine Sikh impulse intact as his motivating force in action and at the same time owes willing allegiance to the Party.
The analysis alone seems to offer an explanation of the pains which the Sikh communists have taken during the last quarter of a century to win and retain an effective share and position in the Sikh political and religious societies and institutions.
Those well-informed in the subject know that in Sikhism, the supreme, all overriding value is religion. That which opposes or hinders the religious dimension of man, is pure evil: jalau aisi rit jit main piara visrai, while for Communism the first priority is to destroy and suppress all religions and religious attitudes, as Lenin points out in his essay, On the Importance of Militant Materialism, wherein Lenin resolutely condemns “any conciliatory attitude towards religious ideology.”