It is a pleasure to write an introduction to an anthology which offers so much valuable information on some crucial events in Sikh history. I came in contact with the author only recently when he offered the manuscript for publication. I was deeply impressed by the wealth of information it contains, and which needs to be shared with the public. I consulted my colleagues, Dr Kirpal Singh and Prof Prithipal Singh, both doyens of Sikh history. They pointed out that S Harbans Singh Noor had brought out certain facts, which were not known even to most historians, and supported the proposal for publication of the book.
Born in 1926, S Harbans Singh Noor graduated from Panjab University, Lahore in 1943, to enter publishing and journalism career. He retired in 1984 after 26 years of service with the United States Information Service (USIS), New Delhi – 16 years as Editor (Chief of Punjabi Press Unit) and last 10 years as a Cultural Affairs Specialist (Chief of Programme Development and Research Unit – a mini Think Tank). In the latter capacity, he edited and produced a number of thematic portfolios and articles on international economic and political relations, and American life and letters, for use by intellectuals participating in various seminars, organised by the USIS in different parts of India and other countries in North-East Asia. He earned a special award for preparing a comprehensive book on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, which was distributed by the Agency in Several Countries of the world.
It is indeed gratifying to note that after retirement he has decided to use his rich background in the service of the cause of Sikh history. While developing a comprehensive chronology, Timelines of Sikh History (1469-1984) as a research tool, he has published several articles on the internet. The present collection represents a very presentable sample of the rich treasure he has accumulated over the years.
As the title of the book indicates, it is not a systematic account of any particular period of Sikh history. The author has selected some special events on which he had clues, which deserve highlighting; but are not known to many. For example, in the very first essay, in order to show ‘how far ahead of his time Guru Nanak was in crusade for human rights and social justice’, he offers a cursory glance over Europe of Guru Nanak’s time. He draws attention to widespread religious intolerance among Roman Catholic Christians and the Protestants, burning of thousands of innocent men and women on charges of heresy or witchcraft, the large scale expulsion of Muslims from Spain, and Jews from several countries of Europe, corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, the sale of indulgences by Popes, etc.
Martin Luther, contemporary of Guru Nanak in Europe, ‘triggered the Reformation movement’, by challenging the authority of Popes. On human rights, religious freedom, universal brotherhood or the unity of God, his record was no better than that of Popes. “In 1521 he declared that heresy should be subject to no physical penalty. Ten years later he assented to the death penalty for blasphemy.” He even defended the atrocities committed by rulers saying, “The fact that rulers are cruel... and wicked, does not excuse tumult and rebellion. To punish wickedness does not belong to everybody, but to the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” ‘Historians estimate that over 75,000 peasants were killed in 1525.’ And they were not wicked, but poor peasants who raised their voice against tyranny.
“Originally Luther was against violence and tolerant towards the Jews, hoping to attract and convert them to Protestantism. But later, incensing that the Jews had not followed his brand of Christianity, he outlined eight actions to be taken against them :
– Burn all synagogues;
– Destroy all Jewish homes;
– Confiscate all Jewish holy books;
– Forbid Rabbis to teach on pain of death;
– Forbid Jews to travel;
– Confiscate Jewish property;
– Force Jews to do physical labour;
– And in case the preceding restrictions proved insufficient, expel all Jews.”
On one occasion, Luther said, “I would threaten to cut their tongues out from their throats, if they refuse to acknowledge the truth that God is trinity and not unity.”
Another celebrity of this age in Europe was Niccolo Machiavelli who preached that ‘politics must be held completely independent of morality’ and ‘that it is necessary to learn how not to be good.’ It is S. Harbans Singh Noor who has perhaps for the first time pointed out the huge contrast between the values preached in Europe and the teaching of Guru Nanak, based on unity of God, brotherhood of mankind, and emphasis on moral and moral life.
In the 2nd Chapter the author shows that religious intolerance had assumed alarming proportions in India also. He cites the little known case of Yodhan, a Brahmin youth who was awarded death penalty in an assembly of Muslim Ulema, for no other crime than saying, “Religion of Musalmans is true, and so also is that of Hindus.”
The contrast lies in the fact that Guru Nanak did not side with the tyrannical rulers. He condemned oppression and social injustice in no uncertain terms from whatever quarters it came.
In the chapter on Bhagat Kabir, the author has pointed out that Ramanand was not Kabir’s guru, since he is not mentioned in any of his compositions. In Eastern values, concealing one’s guru is considered unethical conduct, unthinkable in case of Kabir. He leaves no doubt about it when he says :
“Make the Lord your companion
And be free of joy and sorrow.
He was not born as Dashrath’s son,
Nor did he kill the King of Lanka.”
The author also convincingly refutes the false propaganda that Guru Nanak was disciple of Kabir.
In the 4th Chapter, the author traces the origin of the Masand System, and its laudable performance in the initial stages. The Gurus constantly watched their performance. When, however, corruption crept into the system, Guru Gobind Singh abolished it, and punished the culprits. Their authority was eventually passed on to the sangat or the Khalsa created on the Baisakhi day of 1699 CE.
Chapter Five is an illuminating account of Guru Gobind Singh’s last journey. The author discusses Guru Gobind Singh’s meeting and negotiations with Emperor Bahadur Shah. In a scholarly analysis of the events enumerated in the chapter, he comes to the conclusion that blame for assassination of Guru Gobind Singh squarely falls on the Emperor Bahadur Shah himself.
It is not my intention to discuss the contents of all chapters. The ones dealt with above are a sample. The role of Rani Sada Kaur in the building of Ranjit Singh’s Sarkar-i-Khalsa, has not received due attention from historians. The account of the death of Prince Nau Nihal Singh, leaves no doubt that it was murder and not the result of an accident. The author has exploded the myth that Duleep Singh embraced Christianity of his own free will. He shows how the missionary John Login systematically brain-washed the child prince with encouragement from the British authorities and collaboration of a Brahmin Bhajun Lal. One thing that needs to be noted in this whole unfortunate episode is that religious education of Duleep Singh had been completely neglected on the Sikhs’ side. Even when he was shifted from Lahore, no Sikh agreed to go with him to impart religious instruction to the prince. As a result, the child was an easy prey to the conspiracy to convert him to Christianity.
In one of the chapters, the author brings out the bravery and commitment of the common mass of Sikh soldiery and the treachery of the Brahmin Commanders sold to the Britishers.
The account of the Mutiny of 1857 is very revealing. Sikhs are often blamed for its failure. In a masterly analysis of the events described in this chapter, the author concludes that Sikhs as a community did not side with the British. It was only some Sikh chiefs in the cis-Satluj territories, who provided some help to them, since they were bound by treaties. It needs to be noted that these chiefs were on the side of the British even in the Anglo-Sikh Wars.
Happily the author has included a chapter on high Sikh character as a Sant Sipahi, and records the eulogy paid by an enemy like Qazi Nur Muhammad.
In the end, I must say that the ‘dots’ in Sikh History selected for the book, are especially well-picked. The author has done full justice to each topic, and has set new standards for depth of study and critical analysis. I am sure both scholarly and common readers will enjoy reading this book. This anthology is a real contribution in the study of Sikh history for which I congratulate the author. I also hope that this book is only the first of series of similar works expected from him in the future.
I also wish to record my appreciation of the Institute of Sikh Studies for deciding to publish this valuable collection.
Editor, Abstracts of Sikh Studies
October 18, 2004