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Compulsions of Indian DEcolonisation
and the Khalsa Ethos

Gurtej Singh

There is a measure of self-created difficulty in the Hindu understanding of the mission of the Gurus which found fulfilment in the creation of the Khalsa in 1699 CE. Philosophically, it is centred around the failure to comprehend the basic Sikh doctrine of absolute unity of Guruship, the concept of miri-piri, and the prophetic nature of the Sikh faith. Except in abnormal circumstances, it is possible to relate the Hindu response to Sikhism within these parameters. However, there are times when it cannot be restricted to just these considerations. In the modern age the requirements of the so-called struggle for freedom dictated Hindu antagonism to the Khalsa ethos.
This becomes clear on following the history of the early part of this century when the Indian scene was humming with intense religious activity. Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism were all under the spell of revivalist movements. In the present century, Hindu reaction to the Khalsa ethos becomes intelligible only in the context of the Hindu religious and nationalist revival. It will be remembered that eventually, M K Gandhi’s strategy for mobilising anti-imperialist forces leaned heavily on religious and caste considerations. That is why it had an urban bias, particularly in the matter of entrusting leadership responsibilities. It is, therefore, essential to comprehend the impact of politics on the Hindu mind of the years when the movement for freedom was being thought of.

After the East India Company surrendered territorial possessions in India to the British Crown by the Government of India Act of 1858, it became apparent that the British Empire in India would be extinguished at some not too distant a date in the future. Both the principal communities, Hindus and Muslims, started making preparations for aiding this development and claiming the political inheritance. The nature of preparation varied according to the eventual aim of the parties concerned. Since the Muslims wanted nothing more than their due share of the sovereign power, they concentrated solely on arousing national consciousness amongst the incoherent mass of Muslims spread far and wide throughout the territory of India. The Hindu leadership had a more ambitious design. It aimed at controlling the destinies of all other nations, particularly the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Dalits and the Tribals. Both hoped to realise their goals with the aid of the incumbent British power.

Of the two, the task of the Hindus was more difficult. Assumption and retention of hegemony over others required demonstration of physical might. It had to at least convincingly demonstrate that such might was potentially inherent in the Hindu nation.1 This necessitated the conjuring up of a militant philosophy from somewhere in the past. That was a tall order. The past, for over a millennium was heavy with only one memory, namely that of the most passive form of abject slavery. An equally formidable task was that of reconciling this with the essential precondition of harmony with the outgoing British empire and its vital interests. The present exercise will, perhaps, help us in understanding how these insurmountable difficulties were smoothed over.

Mahadeo Govind Ranade was the first person to seriously take up the impossible task of rediscovering a glorious past which was sufficiently recent and viable and fulfilled the precondition of not offending British sensibilities. In 1900 CE his Rise of the Maratha Power was published. It is a short treatise of one hundred and thirteen pages. This book was later reprinted by the Publications Division of the Government of India in 1961. On the basis of this work Justice Ranade was acclaimed by the grateful Hindu nation as “a builder of modern India.” The book itself was hailed as “a pioneering work.” The dust-cover of the book also claimed, and very rightly so, that it “has influenced all later study of Maratha history, as well as the approach to the understanding of India as a whole.” It went on to claim that “it is therefore rightly considered a classic”, which presumably justified its publication under Classics of Indian History and Economics.

This book is most unusual as a work of history, in that it does not contain a single footnote.

Such appears to have been the convincing power of this champion of the Marathas that though he contradicted many established facts of history, his book was accepted as the gospel of truth and “a model for historians”. He made the rewriting of history such a simple proposition that a whole tribe of “national historians” came up to follow his example in modern India. It includes those who have gone to the extent of proclaiming the Taj Mahal as well as the Qutb Minar to be Hindu monuments. The achievements of Ranade were none the less remarkable, as he was able on many scores to get his mere assertions accepted by historians as true history, although these often militated against known facts. Some examples will be relevant here.

Ranade is of the opinion that the success achieved in this regard by the Marathas was made possible by “a general upheaval — social, religious and political — of all classes of the population”2 in Maharashtra. He assumes that the Maratha uprising was preceded by a revolution in religious awareness. In evidence he quotes the work of saints of Maharashtra and tries to impart to it the character of a coherent movement over a long period of time. Theoretically this kind of moral and religious awakening was a necessary precondition of the sort of political awareness being thrust upon the Maratha consciousness. Tagore approved of Ranade’s work and also adopted some of his more important assumptions. The result is greatly misleading. By a stroke of the pen, the intermittent and protracted (over two centuries) marginal effort of locally influential individuals with mutually exclusive objects of worship and aiming only at limited reform, is converted into a widespread concerted movement providing a religious, social and political base for heralding the Maratha (or the Hindu) nationalism in which all classes are supposed to have participated. Even Muslims, against whose rule the Maratha polity was so heavily biased and against whom this “national uprising” is supposed to have taken place, are represented as fully aiding the effort. The never-ending and the never-to-end caste wranglings between the prabhus and brahmins were ignored. The dalit suppression was not mentioned and the hatred of Muslims, an integral part of Maratha political sensitivity, in a way the mother of Maratha undertaking,3 was conveniently forgotten.
Tagore’s adoption of Ranade’s assessment is dishonest on two counts. The obvious one is that he tries to denigrate the real revolutionary work of the ten Nanaks over two and a half centuries by cleverly differentiating the work of the Tenth from that of the other nine and thus ostensibly disturbing the continuity so that the only real model of consistent and coherent moral and religious revolution in India may be eclipsed in comparison.

Ranade goes on to assert, “mere freebooters and plunderers never could have obtained success ... It was a higher moral force which brought out all the virtues of the best men of the nation.”4 In the brief preface to his work, he claims that he set out to establish that the Maratha effort needs to be looked upon as a concerted and deliberate attempt by the “Hindu nationality to assert its independence” for which purpose they promoted a “common patriotism”.

There is, of course, nothing in Maratha history to suggest that conscious nation-building was contemplated at any stage. Qanungo recalls “... the sins (that) the great Shivaji ... committed” included, “indiscriminate plunder of the weak and the helpless in the Mughal territory ...”. Hindu temples in neighbouring territories were often plundered by the Marathas. In 1791 CE for instance, the Marathas raided and destroyed the Sringeri temple and badly damaged the image of the presiding deity Sarada. Renovation later is attributable to the generosity of Tipu Sultan. To quote Qanungo again, “The Peshwa regime had not even the saving grace of Shivaji who had shaken off his old robber-mentality after he set himself up as an independent ruler. But loot was the breath of Maratha nostrils, and his insatiable avarice was for Paika (paisa, pice), the cry for which runs through every despatch from the extent of the Peshwa Daftar to their officials in Northern India.”5 Raghunath Rao wrote home while on military expedition in the north of India that the country of Jats had been rendered “be-chiragh.” Ill-treatment of Shudras and the promotion of Brahmins throughout the Maratha rule is smoothly glossed over by Ranade. Had they planned a national uprising, the Marathas would have certainly tried to set their house in order so as to ensure internal coherence. Abroad they would have tried to get the support of the Rajputs, the Bundelas, the Jats and the Sikhs. Ranjit Singh tried to form a confederacy of the known Indian powers, including the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the King of Nepal and several Rajput princes against the British at the height of the Khalsa Raj. The Marathas, on the other hand, drove their own allies into the enemy camps. Shujaudaullah went to the fold of Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nana Fadanvis drove the Nizam to the British.

Even at the early stages of their history it is common to see Marathas serving under Muslim princes engaged in exterminating local Hindu rulers. We have Shahuji now fighting for Nizamshahis or Adilshahis, now against them and now with the imperial forces of the Mughals. It is rather difficult to read high patriotic motives in such political opportunism with which Maratha history is replete. It is difficult to come across such examples in the history of the Sikh struggle.

The performance of the Marathas in the field of internal administration was no better and does not appear to have been inspired by any higher consideration than that of greed. They had no equivalent of the Sikh Rakhi system in which protection from plunder was guaranteed in return for nominal tax. Their revenue collectors became feudal tyrants. “Intoxicated by power and greed” they created a situation in which “a shameless policy of loot and blackmail” came to signify the Maratha rule. To quote Qanungo again, “The peasantry counted the days of the fall of the Maratha and their deliverance from misery.”6

Ranade is most partial to Shivaji. He notes that his ambitious plan of building a personal kingdom was preceded and accompanied by marauding expeditions throughout the Deccan. This he sees as a successful attempt at conjuring up a resistance movement to Muslim imperialism. Shivaji’s submission to Shahjahan is characterised as a piece of brilliant diplomacy to save his father from the Bijapur kings. His surrender to Augangzeb’s general is likewise termed “the most politic course”.7 Incredibly again, another object of the surrender is made out to be to effect by peaceful means the objects he had in view” and to develop social relations with the Rajput nobles at the court of Aurengzeb. His captivity and deportation is simply referred to as “this visit to Delhi”.

It is possible to similarly demonstrate on how weak a wicket he is when talking about the long religious upheaval which is supposed to have preceded the Maratha political movement.

The baton was taken over by a more capable man.
Rabindera Nath Tagore’s understanding of Sikh ethos and his elucidation of the Maratha history in comparison to Sikh history, likewise makes interesting reading. He unhesitatingly accepted most of Ranade’s exposition of Maratha history. His views on the Sikh and Maratha histories are contained in a paper he contributed to the Modern Review, Calcutta, in April 1911 under the heading The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Power. It had been written earlier in Bangla and was translated for publication in this journal by the well-known scholar, Jadunath Sarkar. The following aspects of the writing may be noted before an analysis is attempted :

– Though the title of the paper is The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Power, it is actually a very detailed and in its own way, a very penetrating, but nevertheless very subjective comparison of the author’s understanding of the Sikh and Maratha situations. It is significant that Tagore, who is not known as a historian and to whom no significant work of history is attributed, chose to express an opinion on a subject of history.

– If language and approach are an indication, the author clearly set out to emphasise the “fall” in relation to Sikh history and to emphasise the perceived superiority of the Maratha ethos. For Maratha history, his sole authority is obviously Ranade, though he also does not acknowledge any work, or give a single footnote in his essay.

– Though the paper is so obviously contrary to facts that it does not profit even a casual reader of Sikh history, it is all the same taken up by an eminent scholar for translation. He also gives comments favourable to the author’s theme and later adopts most of his conclusions. Later on a school of historians of the Sikhs from Bengal crops up to sustain the conclusions, drawn here by the two stalwarts.

– The conclusions reached by him were adopted as axiomatic truths by influential political leaders like M K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. These later became the creed of the Congress Party, which has stuck to them to this day. Gandhi also accepted Tagore as his “divine teacher” (gurudev). In post 1947 India, a serious bid has been made, particularly by the Congress Party to rearrange contemporary Sikh history in conformity with these preconceived notions. A question to be asked is, whether Tagore took it up as a project or did it later become a model to be followed at the intellectual and the political levels ?

– Tagore for the first time felt that the abolition of personal Guruship was a retrogressive step. It involved the bestowing of Guruship upon Guru Granth and the Guru Panth (or the collectivity of the followers). This unique event in the history of faiths has generally been favourably commented upon. Though many historians accepted several of his formulations, they felt compelled to ignore this one in particular.

– This essay, coming so close to the beginning of the Sikh revolutionary activity, can be considered a calculated and deliberate diatribe against militarism. At about the same time Tagore composed his Jan-gan, later to be adopted as the national anthem of India, to eulogize George V as the “god of India’s destiny”. Within less than two years he is selected for the Nobel Prize for literature. In the background of the English dread of western style revolutionary activity in India, are we not entitled to read all these circumstances as interconnected ?

We may now approach the paper in the light of the above background. In the fitness of Tagore’s scheme of things, Guru Gobind Singh comes in for a lot of adverse criticism, in particular for the creation of the Khalsa. He is the target. He is supposed to have “checked the work of preaching the religion... and made it his life’s mission to form the Sikhs into a strong body.” It is disapproved of in harsh language, “this is not the work of a religious teacher.” According to Tagore, under the Guru, the “chief aim was changed ... to the public defence of their own community from destruction and oppression.” In incredibly abusive tone the author asserts that the Guru had an “intense longing to be liberated from earthly enemies” and a “blind desire to serve the temporary needs of a sect.” He imparted “martial qualities” to the Sikhs and consequently, “here their progress ended”. Since “he left the seat of the preaching Guru vacant” and caused the great truth to be “confined to a book... the Sikhs very rapidly became greedy and uncontrollable.” Referring again to the creation of the Khalsa, he writes, “thus he called in the human energy of the Sikhs from all other directions and made it flow in a particular direction only.”

We only have to look closely at the history of the Sikhs since 1699 CE to see how wrong these formulations are. There was a sudden outburst of spiritual activity immediately after the creation of the Khalsa. For the first time in Indian religious tradition, ordinary men and women stood up for their religious affiliations to the extent of becoming martyrs for the faith. For the first time in history the word ‘martyr’ was Indianised. It was at least a seven decade long festive celebration of the highest spiritual elevation of the human thought. It was one long victory-march of the ethically developed human being. Almost every Sikh man and woman of the age was a fine example of what a God-oriented human being should be. Bota Singh and Taru Singh were made of common clay but the life sprinkled into their hair by the Tenth Nanak’s Khande di pahul was not extinguished either “by fearful odds” in the thousand fields of battle all over the Punjab, or in the medieval Mughal torture houses where severance of head was routinely accepted as an alternative to abandoning commitment to Ultimate Truth.

Tagore failed to realise that fighting for righteousness and combating oppression was just another mode of salvation made available to a believing Sikh by the Guru. It was full-fledged spiritual activity. In legitimising the use of force under certain circumstances, the Guru was merely replacing meditation and rosary with war cry and spear as instruments of spiritual advancement. That was perfectly compatible with the two centuries old Sikh religious practices.

He appreciates that both Guru Gobind Singh and Shivaji were contemporaries and both reacted to the harsh policy of Aurengzeb. He admires Shivaji for his “pure ideal”. Similar action of the Guru under the same circumstances appears to him to be “desolatory as he was chiefly inspired by revenge and self-defence”. He failed to understand that the basic political aim of the Gurus’ preachings throughout had been to empower the most backward, the most deprived of the peoples and to raise them to human dignity. In contradistinction to Shivji’s striving for a personal rule, the Sikh movement was truly universal, democratic and proletarian in character.

Tagore differs from Ranade in that he believes that both the Sikhs and the Marathas failed in the final reckoning. Shivaji’s experiment failed because the “road” had not been “opened for spreading the idea among the general public of the land.” And because of “our mutual separation” that is because “in our society there are endless differences — in religion, work, food, pleasure, social intercourse, everywhere we have diversity”. In contrast, the Guru “totally rooted up the caste system which was a strong obstacle” and yet when after establishing complete unity, he took the next step which Shivaji had taken without achieving such unity, he somehow, according to Tagore, ended up merely converting, “this spiritual unity of the Sikhs into a means of worldly success” and “dwarfed the unity... into an instrument of political advancement”. Tagore could not or would not realise that the political advancement sought by the Guru was that of the people at large and not personal or dynastic and did not pertain to a particular caste or creed, locale or even time.

The above discussion leaves no doubt that the ultimate purpose of R N Tagore in propounding this thesis was three-fold. For one it was to enable the British to chalk out their own schedule for the decolonisation process in India, undisturbed by western style revolutionary activity. It served to make their remaining stay comfortable and free of violence. Secondly, it eliminated Sikhs and Sikhism from providing a model for the free Indian society, which had already been conceived in the womb of time. Thirdly, he charted out a “non-violent” course of action for the future freedom-seeker with the reward of hegemony over other nations thrown in as an expected courtesy measure by the grateful British. He thus provided several vital clues for the struggle for India’s independence to Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. For once Gandhi was telling the truth when he acknowledged Tagore as “gurudev”. The British in India were no less grateful. Their expression of gratitude came two years later in the form of the Nobel Prize. Incidentally, his writing of the Jan-gan in praise of the British sovereign and its adoption as the national anthem by the Indian National Congress, also stand explained to a very large extent.

It is possible to cull some indications about the true nature of India’s high profile “non-violent struggle for independence” from the works of the two persons mentioned in this paper. Does it not appear to become a clever exercise in collaboration ?

It would have been best to bury the past and let bygones be bygones, but for the fact that these formulations are still relevant and it is possible to demonstrate a visible link between Tagore’s diatribe against the conferment of Guruship on Guru Granth and the state sponsorship of many living individuals laying spurious claims to inheriting the mantle of Guruship in recent times; as also with Hindu mob attacks on gurdwaras and the desecration of the Sikh scripture. There is also a correlation between his disapproval of the profound Sikh concept of miri-piri and the destruction of the Akal Takht by the armed forces of the Indian State. In the tercentenary year of creation of the Khalsa, the Sikhs must sit up and remove the impression that half-truths parading as the only constructions which can be placed on the mission of the Gurus and Guru Khalsa Panth, are based on gross misunderstandings or motivated perceptions of perverted patriots, misguided scholars and self-seeking and communally inspired politicians. The true import of the basic Sikh doctrines and their eternal efficacy, which, in one way or the other, is recognised by all major religious traditions, including the Hindu, needs to be emphasised. For instance, Srimadbhagwatgita’s doctrine that it is the first duty of an elevated soul to fight for the establishment of Dharma, comes within a visible distance of the essence of the Sikh doctrine of miri-piri.

References & Notes

1. At the Simla Conference, the British Administration was under great pressure to hand over India to the Hindus because they had been the most organised and had periodically brought thousands of agitating people to the streets. This continued until the Muslims demonstrated their clout by the celebration of the Direct Action day.

2. Mahadeo Gobind Ranade, Rise of the Maratha Power, The Publications Division, Delhi, April 1961, p. VIII.

3. Hatred of Muslims was so widely prevalent in the regions of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra that it had become — and remains — an essential attribute of an orthodox Hindu. It permeates literature and inscriptions alike. Ganga Devi’s Madura Vijayam or the following epigraph from the Andhra region are good examples. It (the epigraph) reads, “the earth was engulfed in the ocean of darkness of the Turushka rule. Adharma... flourished... unchecked. The cruel wretches... many of their victims died of terror at the sight of their vicious countenances... To these despicable wretches wine was ordinary drink, beef the staple food, and slaying the Brahmins the favourite pastime.” Cf S R Sharma, The Founding of Maratha Freedom, Orient Longmans Limited, Bombay, 1964, pp. 51-52.

4. Ranade, op. cit., p.86.

5. K R Qanungo, Historical Essays, Shiv Lal Agarwal and Company, Agra 1968, pp. 243-44.

6. Qanungo, Ibid., p. 248.

7. Ranade, op. cit, p. 47



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