THE MAKING OF THE SIKH EMPIRE
A Review by Gen Dr. Kulwant Singh
Author: Bhupinder Singh Mahal
Publisher: S.Tallim & Co
Pages: 229; Price: Not mentioned
The book titled “The Making of the Sikh Empire”, The role of Banda Bahadur and the Missals, deals with Sikh history of 18th Century, specifically from 1709 Banda Bahadur’s entry into Punjab till 1811 when Maharaja Ranjit Singh became the undisputed Raja of Punjab. It is authored by Bhupinder Singh Mahal, a regular columnist to newspapers and journals on Diaspora Sikh affairs in Canada and a well-known social worker based in Canada. He is known to have played a pivotal role in eliminating barriers to achieve equality for all Canadians. Based on a vide range of references, this book interestingly gives a different perspective on the history of the Sikhs of 18th Century. The author claims to have made a critical analysis of the role played by both Banda Singh Bahadur and Misls. According to author, since both of them have been overrated; an effort has been made in the book to put things in the right prospective.
The book is divided into three main parts –first few chapters are factual details of Sikh history, in very brief, with some details of Sixth Guru’s concept of Miri and Piri and change of Sikh Psyche from purely religious to include military component after the martyrdom of 5thsikhth Guru; the second part pertains to Banda Bahadur, and the concluding part to the role of Sikh misls.
The author has relied a great deal on sources of prominent Persian, British and other writers, often quoting them in the main narration and footnotes. These quotations make up the basis of author’s argument to prove his point, giving authenticity to the text and much needed references to read and research further. We need to keep in mind that Persian and British writers have had distinctly biased and prejudiced views on Sikh history. The author has, somehow, overlooked Rattan Singh Bhangoo’s account of 18th Century Sikh history, contained in “Sri Gur Panth Prakash”, (1841) translated in English by Professor Kulwant Singh and published by Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh.(2003) It is known to be one of the primary sources of Sikh history.
It will be worthwhile to see what prompted the author to write this book, and research, which is different from the existing work of the period. In author’s own words “Vaguely I recall two family historians tell me that one of our forefathers was a Sardar in the Singhpuria misl and how the missals lived on pillage; undermined one another; colluded with enemy and so on .That was my prompting to explore the missal period. The more I read and researched, the more I became convinced of the extent to which we have romanticized Banda Bahadur and the misl period” (Preface). This thinking of author about Banda Bahadur and missals appears to have a bearing on the book which gives a diverse point of view of Sikh history of 18th century. The author projects this view point by making a selective use of references from the diverse secondary sources of Sikh history.
It is interesting to note how the author looks at Banda’s achievements and his commitment to his Guru and the Sikh cause in particular. A reader who is not well-versed with Sikh history, particularly of the turbulent and very trying period of 18th century, is likely to carry an impression that Banda Bahadur was a cruel and barbarous leader who failed to live by his commitment and ethics set by his Guru. Such an impression is created by some quotations which are part of whole. In such cases, tendency to be selective creeps in when trying to prove a point. To illustrate it further - author quotes Syed Mohammed Latif -“Banda attacked several other towns before wreaking havoc on Sirhind. He punished the city in vindictive and barbarous manner. He commanded it to be fired and all inhabitants to be put to death (and) corpse of Wazir Khan was hanged on a tree” (page 58). Yet another quote is form J.D. Cunningham, (History of the Sikhs), “However, the killing fields of Samana, Sirhind, and Saharanpur, attesting to indiscriminate slaughter of citizenry, is certification of Banda’s betrayal of the instruction of Guru Gobind Singh” (Page 6o). What made Banda to punish evil doers, the way he did? Quoting from Dr Gopal Singh’s “History of the Sikh people” the author states that Guru had expressed his grief in the words that “the tyrannous rule (of Mogul) be destroyed, root and branch. The city of Sirhind will be completely ruined, brick clashing with brick” (page 47). Banda was “fired by a furious religious zeal and burning spirit of retaliation” (page 49) to avenge the brutal murder of Guru Gobind’s father and young sons. When Banda reached Delhi after almost a year after leaving Nanded-“The Sikhs of the city who lent him financial support warmly received him and devout Sikhs “abandoned their hearths and homes in their hundreds in Majha, Malwa and Doaba, and marched out to join Banda’s forces” (page50).
He concludes Banda Singh Bahadur’s portrayal by saying that Banda’s loyalty to Guru is clear at the time of his execution. He quotes again from Dr Gopal Singh’s work “In the face of death, Banda Bahadur redeemed himself. The Mogul ruler offered to spare his life if he embraced Islam and renounced his Sikh faith. He refused to betray the religion of the Sikh gurus. He was dismembered limb by limb, his eyes “cut out of their sockets”, his torso “torn by red hot pincers” and yet he “bore his tortures with utmost equanimity and poise of mind and soul” (page69). Not only Banda, all of his 740 followers preferred to die rather than accept Islam. In author’s words-“captives were offered reprieve if they renounced their faith and embraced Islam. None betrayed their Khalsa vows, each choosing death” (Page 59). After dilating upon Banda Singh Bahadur’s total role, author states that Banda’s achievement remains much short of what the historians claim. He sums up-“From an objective and impartial stand point, Banda had no burning vision inside him to spawn and establish Khalsa raj. He was not a worldly man and he did not fully comprehend the scope of temporal power (concept of ‘miri’ dealing with governance). He was primarily a warrior, a soldier par excellence” (page 62). About Banda’s much talked about land reforms, after the peasants’ uprising and redistribution of land after abolition of Zamindari-author observes-“Even though the rapture was brief, the peasants learnt what it means to enjoy political freedom”(page68)
The author feels, “Sikh historians write glowingly about Banda, the quintessential military tactician, an abolitionist of Zamindari (land-owning families), a man who shook the Mogul empire and glorified his victorious campaign against Mogul authorities and his enduring a tortuous death with great fortitude. Muslim historian, Syed Mohmmad latif in particular, portrays Banda as an enemy of Islam, someone remembered as a “monster” for his “malicious and cold-blooded atrocities” (page 65-66).While assessing Banda’s atrocities, we need to keep in mind the constraint under which he performed. His army had very few well-trained soldiers. Bulk were volunteers, ill equipped (some carried deadly agricultural implements as weapons) who joined him on Guru’s mission to punish the evil-doers, and to take revenge of centuries of atrocities they had suffered at the hands of Moghuls.
An objective assessment of Banda during a short span of seven years must not be confined to a small geographical area that he captured, his agricultural reforms which came to naught after his arrest, his stepping into domain of Piri, his inability to pay obeisance at Golden Temple and excesses committed by his army and so on (all discussed in detail in the book). Banda’s main contribution lies in his successful execution of campaigns on appointment by Guru as a “military commander of punitive expedition”... ,“To wreak vengeance on the Turks” (48) with Banda, leading from the front, ensuring series of Moghul defeats of their strong holds, culminating at Sirhind, strategically important city with large military contingent (only next to Lahore),which shattered the foundation of Moghul empire. Some historians claim ‘it was the beginning of the end of Mogul Empire’. Total victory of Sirhind was a great morale booster for the Sikh army, which kept them motivated to rise again when driven to jungles and hills after the mass killings of Sikhs after Banda.
While arriving at a balanced evaluation of Banda Bahadur’s role, one should not lose sight of the mandate of the tenth Sikh Guru to Banda Bahadur and judge him on the basis of the fulfillment or failure of his mission to accomplish the assigned task while not extenuating him from the violence and slaughter that he perpetrated on the Muslim populace of his targeted seats of Moghal Power. Irrespective of the detailed narration of Banda Bahadur’s acts of reprisal against his enemies and Muslim populace so meticulously enumerated in this work, his allegiance and commitment made to his Master should remain the touchstone to measure his performance and ascertain his place in Sikh history. Did Banda flinch from the mandate of the Guru and did he swerve from the covenant that he made with Guru. On this account, the author’s opinion about Banda redeeming himself by sacrificing his own life and that of his companions, despite all sorts of tortures and temptations, is a travesty of truth, Sikh history needs to be a studied within the parameters of Sikh ethos, and Sikh warriors’ contribution measured through their allegiance and commitment to their ideology. By making a selective use of references and by studying Banda Bahadur’s campaigns in isolation of Sikh Guru’s mandate to his chosen protagonist seems to be belittling both Banda Bahadur and distinctive character of the Sikh history. Banda Bahadur, despite the violent aspects of his campaigns, continues to remain a venerated and hallowed Sikh warrior among the galaxy of Sikh martyrs in the annals of Sikh history. That is his image which remains etched in the collective consciousness of the Sikhs despite the hair-splitting accounts of scholars such the present one about the violent aspect of his campaign. Moreover, what is the magnitude of his violence as compared to the brutal acts of Mughal and Afghan invaders such as Babur, Jahangir, Aurangzeb and Ahmed Shah Abdali against the Sikhs, their Gurus and their sacred shrines. Seen in the proper perspective of Mughal-Sikh confrontation and commitment to the Sikh ideology, there is hardly any romanticisation or undue glorification and edification of Banda Singh Bahadur. His place in Sikh history is secure as it is well-deserved and legitimate. In his zeal to hunt for details about the nitty-gritty of Banda’s campaigns mainly from the Persian and English Colonial sources and completely ignoring indigenous sources of the Indian/Punjabi primary sources of Sikh history, the author seems to have missed the wood for the trees and reduced a committed Sikh religious crusader to an unprincipled ruthless killer devoid of any ideology and commitment to his chosen cause. Instead of acknowledging his seminal contribution to Sikh history and India’s history and whose campaigns have been instrumental in dismantling the strongest pillar of Moghul empire setting in motion the process of decline of this mighty empire, his accomplishments have been made a ‘footnote’ to the history of his illustrious life,but his military reprisals against the worst tyrants have been “burnished and gloriously expanded” by the author.
Similarly, in the last part of the book, the central idea remains that the misls had made little contribution towards nation building or Sikh empowerment. In author’s words- “The notion of missals as nationalist or the architect of Sikh empowerment and nation building are a widely held opinion....Their own interest governed the missals. Each carved out its own fiefdom with no inclination to found a polity. At the best of times, they were scattered tribal oligarchies, autocratic and even despotic with not a hint of national fervor” (Preface). However, in the same breath, he acknowledges in his own words-“It is an irony that the areas that Sikh missals (confederacy) shed their blood to wrest control from the Afghans, Marathas and the Moguls including but not limiting to Gujranwala, Sialkot, Gujrat, Sargodha, Kasur, Pakpattan, Multan and Bhawalpur – are lost forever by being made an integral part of Pakistan”(page18). Linking author’s view of Misls shedding their blood to wrest control from foreign invaders, Khushwant Singh is quoted by the author “The misl period witnessed resistance led by the Sikhs against the invaders and build up(perhaps unconsciously) the notion that the Punjab would be better off if it were ruled by Punjabis rather than remain a part of kingdom of Kabul or the Mogul empire”. Commenting on Khushwant Singh’s views the author plays it down and states-“Khushwant singh has casually exaggerated the exploits of the misls” (Preface). Commenting on Abdali’s ambition to establish his authority over Punjab, he observes-“However, the emergence of Maratha power in northern India and the rise of Sikh Misils in Punjab thwarted his dream of supplanting Mogul rule. Although he managed to crush the Marathas for the last time, his nemesis, the Sikh misils, quashed his ambition of hegemony over Punjab”. How should the reader respond to these self-contradictory statements and paradoxical views. The Sikh Misls which are dubbed as “scattered tribal oligarchies” also become Abadali’s “nemesis” which ‘quashed his (Abdali’s) ambition of hegemony over Punjab. But he fails to explain their successes in chasing away a mighty invader who had even humbled the well-organized and professional Maratha Army. How could they and did become Abdali’s ‘nemesis’, if they were just scattered oligarchies?
The author briefly sums up the origin of ‘Jathas’ (which ultimately shaped the Misils) and their unification in 1733 under an outstanding Sikh leader Kapur Singh. “He was to merge the various Sikh bands (jathas) into “a central fighting force consisting of two divisions”: the Budha Dal commanded by himself and Tarun Dal consisting of a number of youthful jathedars.(Page73).In October 1745, “Sarbat Khalsa resolved to merge the small jathas into twenty-five sizable regiments”, confirmed “Kapur Singh as overall commander of the army and named some of the regimental commanders”. On defeat of Slabat Khan, Sikhs assembled at Amritsar to celebrate Baisakhi in 1748. The meeting of Sarbat Khalsa resolved to merge the sixty-five independent jathas into one army, the Dal Khalsa and divided it into eleven Misls, under the supreme command of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. The twelfth Misil was the Phulkian misil but it was not part of the Dal khalsa(page77).
The author has discussed each misl in detail, including their weaknesses and strengths, starting from their inception, reaching the zenith and downfall. Narration of each misl is like a story, easy and enjoyable to read with plenty of historical details, supported by references. Author misses out on some important events such as capture of Red Fort on 11 March 1783 by Baghel Singh, assisted by others. The author argues that the misl leaders were driven by their own interests. They united with each other when it suited them, and as one body only if the Panth was in danger (proclaimed by Sarbat Khalsa) and when their own existence was at stake. In author’s words-“Therefore, to all intents and purposes, they were engaged in plain banditry except when the Sikh collectivity was in harm’s way and they assembled before the Sarbat Khalsa to unite for a common cause or against a common foe. This dual role made the misil leaders bandit-warriors” (page80). Contrary to his own views here, the author further says -“Emboldened by their conquest, the misl leaders broadened their horizon. Each secretly dreamed to wrest control of Lahore from Mogul rule, wishing to free the land of their Gurus from the hands of foreign rulers”. Once again, the author acknowledges the role of Misls in uniting the Sikhs-“The Sikh missaldars promoted the Khalsa creed with the result that Sikh peasants vacated their service to imperial agencies and threw their lot with their community and faith”. (page 83)
The author has quoted Sikh, Hindu and Muslin authors, the contradictions throughout the narrations are obvious and often the reader has to draw his own inferences. To get a balanced view and to see if the Sikh soldiers of missals indulged only into banditry, robberies, looting, and marauding forgetting the Sikh ethics, we need to look elsewhere beyond this book. The author has missed out on, perhaps, the most authentic eye-witness account of Noor Mohammed who accompanied Abdali on most of his missions. In “Jang Namah”, eye-witness account of Noor Mohammed, praising the character of Sikh Soldiers of misls as against looters and robbers, says-“Besides their fighting, listen to one more thing in which they excel all other warriors. They never kill a coward who is running away from the battlefield. They do not rob a woman of her wealth or ornaments whether she is rich or a servant (“Kaneez”). There is no adultery among these dogs, nor are they mischievous people. A woman, whether young or old, they call a “Burhi”. The word Burhi, means in Indian language, an old lady. There is no thief amongst these dogs, nor is there amongst them any mean people. They do not keep company with adulterers and house thieves though all their acts may not be commendable”. Commenting on their fighting skills, Noor Mohammed says- “Truly, they are lions in battle, and at times of peace, they surpass “Hatim” (in generosity). When they take the Indian sword in their hands they traverse the country from Hind to Sind. None can stand against them in battle, howsoever strong he may be. When they handle the spear, they shatter the ranks of the enemy. When they raise the heads of their spears towards the sky, they would pierce even through the Caucasus (in the process). When they adjust the strings of the bows, place in them the enemy- killing arrows (and) pull the strings to their ears, the body of the enemy begins to shiver with fear. When their battle axes fall upon the armor of their opponents, their armor becomes their coffin....The body of every one of them is like a piece of rock and in physical grandeur every one of them is more than fifty men.” Do men with such impeccable credentials deserve to be labelled as bandits? Warriors and Sikh crusaders with highest standards of personal integrity, moral character and exceptional bravery have been turned into bandit-warriors by the author despite the testimony of a Muslim Qazi and an eye-witness who could not help admiring them even in his contempt for them.
An objective assessment reveals that missals, despite their inter- missal rivalries, their leaders promoting their self interest; remained a potent force, fired up by missionary zeal, speedily recovered following every defeat. After Banda’s shattering blow, they kept on eroding Moghul rule slowly and gradually, at the same time continued Jabbing at Abdali whenever an opportunity presented, ultimately making Punjab liberated after 800 years of foreign rule.
According to Author’s own admission in his narration of each Sikh Misls’ history, the majority of the founders of these Misls namely Chhajja Singh (Bhangi Misl), Jai Singh (Kanaihya Misl), Khushal Singh (Ramgharia Misl), Kapoor Singh (Singhpuria Misl), Korara Singh (Karorsinghia Misl), Tara Singh Gheba (Dallewalia Misl), Hira Singh (Nakkai Misl), Jassa Singh Ahluwalia (Ahluwalia Misl), Ala Singh (Phulkian Misl) and prominent Misl Chiefs like Charat Singh (Sukarchakia) and Dasaudha Singh (Nishanwalia Misl) were baptised Sikhs. Yet he doubts the Sikh character of the Missal Sikhs and dubs them as bandit - warriors who lived by loot and pillage. He fails to take any notice of two famous genocides of Sikh history known as Chhota and Wadda Ghallughara in which all these Missal Chiefs and their forces fought valiantly against the Moghal and Afghan forces. Do bandit chiefs ever fight unitedly against a foreign invader under a religious standard? As in his biased assessment of Banda Bahadur, so in his evaluation of the role of Sikh Missals, he has erred on the side of foreign invaders. Spurred by a random remark of one of his forefathers about the modus operandi of organized Sikh bands and excited by his zealous hunting for details about their feudal and tribal indiscretions, he chooses to ignore their permanent allegiance to Akal Takht and about sinking their individual ambitions in favour of their ideology. Because of the power vacuum due to the fast crumbling Moghul empire and increased Afghan invasions, an atmosphere of almost complete anarchy and chaos prevailed in the region during the Misl Period. A popular maxim of these times sums up the tone, temper and spirit of those times. It runs like this, Khadha Peeta Lahey da, Baki Ahmad Shahay da. (What ever has been consumed is profitable, rest belongs to Ahmad Shah Abdali.). In such an environment of insecurity and near total collapse of law and order, loot, plunder and pillage were order of the day. The Sikh Missals or their Sikh Jathas provided security of life and limb under the “Rakhi” system for a consideration. Moreover, neither Sikh members of these militant bands were given any salary nor did there exist any professional service rules. Whatever booty landed into their hands after executing a campaign was distributed among the combatants according to their status and performance. These Jathas survived and maintained their muscle power partly on the voluntary contributions of village households, partly on arbitrary imposition of levies and partly on the spoils of their exploits. Despite these constraints, they rose to the occasion in moments of crisis employing the same tactics to loot and plunder the front or rear baggage of the notorious Afghan plunderer as well as fight against the combined forces of Mughal, Afghan and other collaborators. The making of the Sikh empire owes its existence to these Misls and their making a clean sweep of the Mughal occupants and Afghan invaders.
The author in his assessment of Sikh Missals, as in his assessment of Banda Bahadur, has once again failed to sift the grain from the chaff and turned the whole history of the Sikhs on its head. “History”, according to the author himself is “a catalogue of noteworthy events, a kaleidoscope of victors and the vanquished” but his own account appears to be an account of juicy anecdotes about the so-called bandit warriors, rather than a narration of either “noteworthy events” or contribution of “the victors and the vanquished.” What makes the history of a nation is the sum total of its racial, ethnic, religious, ideological, civilizational and ideational attributes rather than on account of the daily vicissitudes and idiosyncrasies of its individual participants. These temperamental indiscretions deserve to remain at the “footnotes” of history rather than taken as a history of a nation. Author’s attention is invited to a stanza in T.S.Eliot’s philosophical poem “Gerontion” and he is requested to introspect on the concept of history and its complexities:
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear.
Historical personages and historical events need to be analyzed and evaluated in the context of their locale, timing, situational circumstances and the prevailing socio-political and religio – civilizational background. A piecemeal analysis and arbitrary formulations on the basis of a selective choice of data are likely to make a work less credible and less authentic. Moreover ,an author of a published work must be sensitive to the full conotational impact of some words before using these in a work of history.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2014, All