The Sikhs

by Patwant Singh

Published by Knopf

242 pages, 2000

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Immersed in a Sacred Pool

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman


In The Sikhs, Patwant Singh presents the history of Sikhism from the birth of its founder Guru Nanak in 1469 to the present. The cover is exquisite; a turbaned man in a shimmering turquoise pool before a turreted stone temple washed in gold. The book is accessible and covers approximately a century in each 50-page chapter. It explains all the religious, historic and culturally significant symbolism hidden in the photograph.

Guru Nanak plucked ideas from both religions flourishing in the Punjab in the 15th century. From Muslim beliefs, he accepted monotheism; from Hindu tenets, he rejected the caste system and the lowly position of women. Nanak's guru successors gathered songs and texts for a holy book, the Granth Sahib, built cities and shrines including the Golden Temple at Amritsar and organized the community. Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa Brotherhood with its five symbols of Sikh identity in 1699. The 18th century was defensive. As Sikh credibility and converts increased, neighboring Hindus and Muslims perceived them as threats. Sikh identity was strengthened by the sense of persecution, the attacks, battles and reprisals. In the 19th century, a strong leader, Ranjit Singh, took the offensive, crowning himself Maharajah of Punjab in 1801 and establishing Sikh sovereignty over territory. The British East India Company, which had been chartered in 1599, maneuvered to fill a vacuum after Ranjit Singh's death in 1839. Under the guise of protecting trade interests, the British gained control of most of the subcontinent by defensive alliances, treaties and battles, annexing Sikh Territory in 1849. In 1858, company-controlled territory was handed over to the British Crown and, for the next 90 years, India was ruled by Great Britain as a colony.

The British rule, Singh says, helped to integrate disparate groups within India and develop a national identity, which vied at all times with communal mistrust. How could representative government be organized? Would representatives be chosen by population, by religious group, by region, by language? Alliances shifted into new configurations like the colored glass bits in a turning kaleidoscope. The work of Christian missionaries, the angry government response to the return of the Komagata Maru in 1914, the Jallianwala Bugh massacre of 370 to 1000 Sikh worshipers by the British Army in 1919 and the fight for independence led by others such as Mahatma Gandhi all helped prepare the ground for demands for Indian self-government.

In the 1940s, thousands of Sikhs, unprotected by British officials, were massacred in the debates around the creation of a separate Muslim State, Pakistan. With the proposal to divide Punjab, their homeland, into West (Muslim) and East (Non-Muslim), Sikhs felt betrayed. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten "rushed" in the new boundaries that severed the Punjab in two. Thousands died in rioting in what Singh calls "mass genocide." Sikhs were driven from their homes, deprived of land, property, shrines and holy places; 40 per cent were "reduced to penury and had become refugees with the necessity of having to start life afresh." Then, in 1966, the Indian parliament partitioned the Punjab again, ostensibly to reorganize the nation along linguistic lines. Singh sees this decision as one of the "policies contrary to the national interest," and Punjab's agony as a result of "the savaging of minorities." In 1984, the Indian Army massacred 5000 civilians near the Golden Temple and then trashed the shrine. In retaliation, Sikh guards assassinated the Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi. In New Delhi, 3870 more died in days of unpoliced rioting, "an orgy of reprisal killings," which followed. Eight months later, Flight 182 went down.

As a Sikh, Patwant Singh proffers his opinions from the position of an insider who identifies himself as an Indian national. Singh tries to show all sides of the issues and points out where Sikhs too have made strategic mistakes. It is only in the last chapter, "Violence to Venality," covering 1947 to the present, that he seems to lose his objectivity. His opinions become increasingly passionate as pressures upon his people increase feelings of persecution. Others, often former rivals or enemies, pass repressive legislation that impacts negatively on Sikhs, backing them into smaller and smaller corners. "State violence" is used to enforce discrimination. Singh also cites scholars who argue for an understanding of terrorists as aggrieved people who feel they have no way to voice their needs legitimately through institutions or media. He does not argue for terrorism but implies that it is a predictable response to unresponsive systems, a logical extension of this troubled history of persecution and perceived betrayal. As well, "the word 'terrorist' was deliberately misused in the aftermath of 1984 to erase all distinctions between militant protest, the struggle for freedom, religious nationalism and self-determination."

The "Blood for Blood" rages, the emphasis on revenge and retribution, overwhelm Singh's delineation of the origins and gentle tenets of the Sikh faith. Singh's term "communalism" seems to be the worst of all possible worlds, with each group out to forward its own interests by denigrating and attacking, verbally and physically, groups which are perceived to be "other." In India, corrupt police and uncontrolled military seem to be tools used in this battle, ostensibly between faiths, which Singh sees rather as a secular struggle for power and domination.

Patwant Singh's list of other published titles suggests impressive credentials, a scholarly background, an Asian and international perspective. By delineating the atrocities committed against the Sikhs and the injustices and disrespect which sparked such retaliations as the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Singh calls for an understanding of the origins of resistance, rebellion and terrorism. Singh also points out that within the Sikh culture, there are varied political opinions and alternative solutions. Some Sikhs support the idea of a separate Sikh state, Khalistan. It seems to be Singh's position that the partition into India and Pakistan was a mistake and the further partition of Punjab a gross injustice. Another separation would only compound an already unsuccessful unworkable solution.

Patwant Singh offers vision. He is clear in his opinion about what does not work. He cites the Sardaria Commission: "... unless there is a will and commitment to work for a united country, there are real dangers that regionalism, linguistic chauvinism, communalism, casteism, etc., may foul the atmosphere to the point where secessionist thoughts start pervading the body politic."

Singh is just as clear about what has to happen before various groups can live in respect and harmony within one territory. "The ideal of good governance eludes India because the Indian oligarchy feels threatened by a just order; because the caste-bound privileged few could lose control in it, which they feel they must retain even at the expense of a strong unified state which honors its moral and constitutional obligations." Singh lists "the principles which democracies swear by: transparent governance, respect for human rights, commitment to constitutional proprieties, and accountability." He values: equality, tolerance, respect, virtue, talent, inner strength, deep conviction, sacrifice, truth, compassion, freedom of speech.

Singh's vision is based upon values that reflect a high level of moral reasoning. Rather than redrawing the lines on maps and transporting people according to their faiths to positions in front of or behind those lines, Singh imagines personal, intellectual, emotional and spiritual boundaries set by individuals within and for themselves. If one accepts that all humans are created by a supreme being, that no human is superior to another simply by right of birth, that each has a right to live for self and family without intruding upon the rights of others or being intruded upon, that police and military are under the command of strong leaders who are guided by these higher values, enshrined in a constitution not changed at whim, perhaps we can live together. It is a vision of inclusion and cooperation rooted firmly in a faith but not limited to that faith or espousing that faith for others. The boundaries, like the pilgrimage, are within. It is a vision that nations need in order to prove to the world that it is possible to live together, in spite of all the lessons of history to the contrary. This book is about The Sikhs but its implications apply to us all. The turquoise water in the sacred pool is inviting. What if we all chose to immerse ourselves into the everyday elements of earth, air and water in which we all participate, to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences? | July 2000


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.