Secret History of Sikhism

I am travelling to Ludhiana in a car arranged for my colleague and me to attend a conference organised by Oreteam. I have started from my home in Faridabad, situated at the south east fringe of Delhi to pick up my colleague from his locality in the North West corner of the city from where we head straight for the highway which will take us to Punjab. We are in bit of a rush because both have to be seated in the dais in the opening session of the conference.  I am a bit stressed because I will be using the journey to mentally compose my speech. How I wish I could write also in a speeding car. We are shooting through the National eight lane highway at a breakneck speed of 100 kmph. We are not to stop for breaks because of the time constraints; though the road is smooth and wide, there are numerous toll plazas which are stalling an uninterrupted run every now and then. There is nothing called countryside in India anymore; everything looks like the extended city. There are gated colonies of high rise apartment homes, midpoint resting spots which are actually designed like a cocktail of a shopping mall, a restaurant complex, a party venue and an amusement park. These pieces of architecture seem to have captured the entire length of the highway; my eyes strain for the want of sights of lush green fields. I am a bit mistaken because lush green will not be there for this is a period between harvests; the kharif is cut and the ravi not sown in yet. This is the time of festivals, especially the death and dark ones of bhoot chaturdashi and karwa chauth; the deathly pall of shorter days, descending smog and the imminent winter is fought with celebration of light. Firecrackers go up to brighten up the mood here and there. The frequency will increase as the days draw nearer the dark moon of late autumn.

 We have travelled over two hours from Delhi now and we stop just short of the Punjab border. The driver grows nervous; he wants to know the exact location of the toll plaza. The Punja police is ever suspicious and the sight of a young man as our driver moving about uncertainly is likely to invite some gruelling bout of interrogation. The entry point to Punjab has none of the automated toll collections of the modern plazas; it is still guarded by a manually operated heavy iron beam tied to a palm rope. Sandbags abound the place with a trench and then a small paved road beyond which further inside the ground sit the collector. The rates are exceptionally high, one has to spend Rs 250 for a single day’s halt in Punjab. The eyes are suspicious as ever before, it seems that though the terrorism is dead in Punjab, the paranoia of the authorities still smart from its impact. I am delighted to see a truck pass me by carrying passengers instead of goods and the truck is full of Sikhs. Sikhs had become rare in Punjab cities and when I visited Amritsar in the late 1990’s I was quite surprised to see the city purged of Sikhs except inside the walls of the Golden Temple.  

 The world inside Punjab seems to be up for a battle with the encroaching and all-consuming post liberal economy. Here fields abound, they are not yet planted with the mustards that would grow into a delightful riot of the yellow but the fallows are furrowed, the stubbles of sugar cane are carefully collected and stowed away and some fields are indeed green with potato, turnips and lentils. Punjab is also India’s most industrialized state; its industrial base is not the domination of heavy industries but of the light and small scale, the precision and the specialized. Ludhiana is home to hosiery and bi cycles, agri-machinery and auto parts, of electrical goods and sports goods. Ludhiana is also home to Lala lajpat Rai and the medieval saint and composer Bulle Shah. It is the centre of Punjab that cracked the Mughal Empire and established a confederacy of clans in the same way that it has been right since the battle of the Ten Sudas in the 4 BCE. Ludhiana is the spot around which Tagore wrote his famous poem on the militarization of the Sikhs under their tenth Guru, Govind Singh.

  Ludhiana is Punjab’s largest city and has been the centre of power in the days of the British East India Company. It has been ruled by Sikh Chieftains and the Ramgharia Sikhs are especially powerful here. The last mentioned are usually the so-called “lower caste” Sikhs, a religion that does not believe in the caste system. But among the Sikhs, because of their overwhelmingly Jat background, being a land owner is of prime importance, being a carpenter is not. Jats are themselves a set of tribespeople who straddled the plains of Northern India as herdsmen. They captured lands and became rulers in small patches of land and quickly adopted the chieftain system of “self rule”. A related laity of the Gujjars remained nomadic and hence less powerful and poorer than the Jats. Sikhs are overwhelmingly drawn from the Jats. The Jats, despite their attachment to Sikhism are conscious of the Hindu varna system; they relate themselves to the Kshatriyas and consider them to be above the Brahmins, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. Thus while they would love to own farmlands, factories, shops and transport, they loathe to be workers in these; they want to be the rulers who make thers work for them. In such a scheme of things, the Ramgharias who work with their hands are looked down upon.

 When I was in my master’s programme I wrote a term paper on the Punjab terrorism for Prof Nirmal Singh, himself a Sikh. I read almost every material on Punjab and collated a wonderfully fat booklet which I insisted was almost a dissertation. In it I wrote how the Central Government and the entire institution of the State was against the poor Sikhs. Prof Nirmal Singh was very angry, he stammered with rage at what I thought would mightily flatter him. He gave me the grades but said that never before he was so unhappy to be generous towards such a poor understanding of the Punjab affair. The Sikhs, he told me loathe to work with their hands and as long as they belie this essential ingredient of modern capitalism, they are bound to be left behind by history. A Sikh never steps on his field to pull out weeds, he never sows, and if he ever does plough he is atop a tractor which he drives more like a vehicle. When he has a washing machine, he is too proud to hand over this articulation of a new technology to his wife to wash clothes and he is too conscious of his status to do to the same; hence he makes lassi, Nirmal Singh was now barking at me. He was an insider of his community and sometimes, insiders are more intolerant of their ilk, so I deduced. I have known anti-Islamic fundamentalism among many a Muslim friend, I am myself insanely angry with Hindutva. Indian secular liberals more often than not turn against their own societies and societies turn against the liberals through assertions of ethnicity and religious fundamentalism. Sikh militancy, much like the later day Islamic terrorism and Hindu nationalism, was a reaction of a society against the forces of newness of which they had little cultural cognition and far less capabilities of social adaptation.

 Today as I drive through Punjab, the words of this ageing professor ring in my ears. I do not see Sikh prosperity any more as I would in my younger days, which is about four decades ago. I see cities dirty, unplanned, gawky, dusty, as if some force has abandoned it leaving its spaces to be occupied by vagabonds. Ludhiana looks every inch a vagabond city, vandalized by high rise hotels, hospitals and shopping malls. Hindu assertion is everywhere; hospitals are crowned by temple like spires and large images of demon like Goddesses pressed into the concrete. Hindus did not worship idols till as late as the 12th and 13th century. Idol worship was a near monopoly of Buddhism. I cross the Buddha nala, the stream which runs parallel to the Sutlej, which was once wide enough for the barges to reach the hinterland. The land of five rivers had an active riverine trade and the name of Buddha means that this area must have been tied to the Silk Road which went through the Buddhist Ladakh and present day Afghanistan. Sikh fortunes swelled by controlling the prime mode of production, which by the time Sikhs rose as a political force had become agrarian land. Recall that Nanak was a salt trader and not a landowner. It was on the might of food production that the Sikhs actually asserted their political freedom as well. On the foundation of food production, Sikh power rose to build fantastic real estates like the gurudwaras. Sikhs transferred profits from land into retail businesses, repair shops and the retail. Think of a factory, a shop or a transport; these were the ‘new lands” of which Sikhs became owners. Besides driving, Sikhs did not wish to involve their “bodies”. Hence they were not among the engineers or doctors, or scientists or craftsmen.

 If the Sikhs at all did involve their bodies, they did so in fighting. In their mind, they were the Kshatriyas and according to them that was the highest rank of the four varnas. So they loved the army and they also loved martyrdom. Bhagat Singh is everywhere etched along the concrete bases of traffic circles. Together with Sukhdev and Rajguru, these etched figures are of men hung to death. Before the Punjab crisis broke out, the Sikhs demanded better representation in the army. In a free competitive recruitment system, this could only mean that there is a Sikh reservation in the Indian army! Nothing could be more preposterous.

 Sikhs were always a minority of Punjab. Being only a quarter of its population, Sikhs ruled over the Hindus and the Muslims. They were an open religion, so open that Sikhism began to be identified with Punjabiyat. Despite strong Muslim and Hindu presence, Punjab culture came to be associated with Sikhism. I can sense the growing cosmopolitanism of Ludhiana; Biharis speak Punjabi with their accent, Marwaris never speak in any language other than Punjabi and this Punjabi written in Gurmukhi script is essential to Sikhism. No wonder the Sikhs were hopping mad when Hindi and the Hindus raised their heads in assertion. The division between Haryana and Punjab is less of a division between the Sikhs and the Hindus; it is more of a division between the Vedically rooted Sikh who are the people of the book and the people of informal religion, the Gujjar vagabonds of the Harappa civilization. Gujjars used to adapt to Sikhism through the cult of Gurudom which defines the Nirankari sect today.

 Ludhiana looks like a false city; giving an impression of a city which has been orphaned, abandoned and now taken over by the attackers. It is a Sikhless city, it is thus a rulerless city.  It is a cultureless city, colourless in that culturelessness. Punjab separatism cost Punjab dearly; how I wish they had not assassinated the Prime Minister, a sin which they will have to pay for by a complete decimation of their culture and community. Sikhs are nowhere in Ludhiana today; there is an odd guard here, a hotel steward there, but no more are industry conferences attended by the turbaned handsome self-assured six footers. I see the list of participants, Garg, Jain, Agarwal, Singhania, Taluya, Modi, but where are the Barnalas, Singhs, Dhillons and the Sidhus? Punjab without the Sikhs is Punjab without its owners, deserted and discarded.

 The conference has begun and I am pretending to take notes of the proceedings. I am sharing the dais with the leader of the chamber of commerce. He has begun his speech. Nothing is right in Punjab for industries to grow he says; it is located so deep in the interior, so far away from the ports, electricity is expensive for industry because it is so cheap for the farmers. This man who calls himself as the general secretary of his association is angry why farmers must get all the subsidized electricity while the industry suffers. Oreteam’s data clearly shows that the industry is in fact growing in Punjab, with surplus electricity left over from the declining activity in the farm sector. Punjab is prosperous because of its farming; were it not had been for its farming, Punjab would not have been the oasis of high consumption and high development. The industrial base of Punjab emanates out of the profits from farming. I mentioned these in my expert comments at the end of the presentations. Strange are the ways of the Marwaris; they want to destroy the prosperity of their clients! It never really occurred to me that the Marwaris almost invisibly manages to take control of the intermediates of economic production; in Punjab they started controlling steel, which is the major input material for castings and forgings. This community played around with steel, made things very difficult for the Punjabis to run their businesses and soon industry stopped growing in the state. Slowly, these industries were taken over by the Marwaris and soon after profits sucked out and units became lifeless corpses. The entire synergy between agriculture and industry snapped and no one had any clue. Sikhs incompletely identified the problem and turned against all Hindus.

 Farmers suicides are rising in the state; especially those of the Sikhs. Drug addiction has now invaded Sikhs as an epidemic taking up the space left vacant by terrorism. Once they wanted to kill us and now they wish to kill themselves. Drugs and suicides. No more the Takht to die for, no more the Indian Army to be monopolised as the Sikh’s innate right to martyrdom. The Sikh civilization seems to have ended; in a bid to save face due to the loss of factories and farms, Sikhs would migrate frantically to “Umrika” or “Kanaada” but now they reproduce there and become citizens in the West. The West demands uniformity and thus the Sikh is at the verge of losing the beard and the turban especially if France passes its law. Teg Bahadur is a joke, the guru who had told Aurangzeb, why do you want only by braid of hair? Why not also take my head which bears it? Ask one, get one free !! What an end to this stout pride, this self-confidence of a race!

 To my mind, the secret problem of Punjab lies in its industrialization; in agro processing and in its engineering goods. In either case the Marwaris have played havoc with Punjab. In agro produce, they managed to monopolise the wholesale buying and in agro produce they managed to monopolize the supply of steel. This was exactly the way the Marwaris destroyed Bengal just before the Partition. In undivided Punjab, it was the Sindhis and then the Gujaratis. I am intrigued at this strange behaviour of the bania community. Why do they destroy on those who they feed? perplexing attitude, curious ideology. I remember that in a class III primer I read that once Emperor Ashoka was furious with the Jains. I used to imagine that this was a typical Buddhism versus Jainism thing but now I think that Ashoka’s sensibilities revolted at this strange habit of the Jains. With Independence, both Islam and Sikhism felt threatened as civilizations; Muslims wanted their “vilayat”, or the seat of moral power, or literally place of moral authority. Sikhs initially were not separatists for they believe in making home out of any place they inhabit. No wonder then we have gurudwaras wherever the Sikh goes, a gurudwara is much more than a place of worship, it is literally the gate of the guru, where you come never to be sent back empty handed. Jahan par savera basera wahin hai is a verse from the Granth Sahib. Jains are interesting; jahan par basera ho, lootera wahin par. The business of the Jain is to cut the branch in which he sits; no wonder then the ballad of Kalidasa was written in the Gupta age, an era when the bania would be emperor to India.

 The Sikhs felt their problem but could really never articulate the same. A race of chieftains, Sikhs loathe to accept any other as emperor; Independent India was the strongest Empire they faced and it was also the one that decimated them the most. Sikh pride was hurt and in that sense of hurt they really never tried to excavate the material bases of their power. Interestingly, Bhagat Singh’s bravado at the gallows far outshone his real worth for the future of India; namely his writings on socialism or the material bases of power. For most Indians, Marxism meant a downgrading of one’s status to the next rung of poverty, Indians have never realized that a far greater truth of Marxism lies in its thesis of the material context of things and the invariability of dialectics as a law of nature. Had Punjab taken Bhagat Singh more seriously they would have looked towards the material reasons for the undermining of their civilization and the role of the unscrupulous Jain in the entire scheme of things. The Hindutva assertion in Punjab is going on everywhere and I observe amusedly that this is now the turn of the Punjabi Hindus to protect Punjabiyat from being smothered by the destructive influence of the Marwaris. Monica is receiving SMSs on her mobile taunting the secretary of the association’s efforts at delivering his speech in Punjabi. The crowd has very few Sikhs and they are sitting close to me and they are not the ones fiddling with their mobiles.

 Sikh separatism has been a failure of Sikh intellectualism; a group which relies so much upon the bodily force, deriving masochistic pleasure out of martyrdom loses its mind. Whoever said that the mind and body were inseparable is wrong. Sikhs thought very little, reacted too fast. They lost the sense of their doom; assigning their civilizational problems upon the Indian democracy, the Indian nation-state. Khalistan is a strange demand; for the Sikhs think that the world is their home, they must live like family amongst the local people. Sorry, not merely family but like the head of the household. Elders would say to us that if you are to take a taxi, go for a Sardarji driver, we were sure to be fine in their care. Sikhs loathed the Muslims for their demand for Pakistan, seeking a separate and a fixed homeland was completely anomalous to the Sikh ethos. Yet they did suddenly seek their own territory, a sign that they were already being pushed to a cubby hole by the march of times to which they could never adapt. Then they attacked the Empire by pressing bullets into the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. And then they were just over; the Sikh riots in the language of Malcolm Gladwell were the tipping point. Sikhs were destroyed, looted, burnt in the fiercest genocides of recent times. The Partition was repeated. Sikhs silently suffered an epidemic of mental distress. They lost in body and in mind. Most were unable to put their worlds together again; Sikhs never admit this but they were literally disbanded. They were no longer capable of any kind of intellectual thought. A small brand of youngsters tried to restore hurt souls through pop music; some film makers like Yash Chopra and Karan Johar tried to project the Punjabi in her never say die spirit. But these are lies; I now know in Punjab that cinema is a damned lie.

 No one speaks this out in public that Punjab leads the country in drug addiction and in farmer suicides and also in migration out of the country. It is a spent force and along with it we are losing its poetry, its wisdom, its courage, its myths and its history. Punjab is a challenge for the Indian intellectual.

 We are driving away from Punjab. My heart is heavy. I pass Sirhind, Khanna, places of Sikh victory, over the Mughals, over the Afghans. I pass shops decorated with Chinese lights and Korean LEDs, all decked up for the Karwa Chauth, yet another festival which is so quintessentially Punjabi Hindu. The car stops again at the state border, many cars stand in queues, some are playing cheap Punjabi pop in their music systems, and some are sitting inside their airconditioned cases. The dignified Sikh officer in a white turban and the equally self-respectful Sikh driver in his livery drive in beside my window. I glance surreptitiously, the last of the Mohicans I feel, a race of the chieftains may end soon.  

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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