When Emperors turned on Gurus

When Emperors turned on Gurus

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Parvez Mahmood traces the origins of a feud between Sikhs and Muslims in Punjab

When Emperors turned on Gurus

Guru Arjan Dev invited Hazrat Mian Mir to Amritsar for laying the foundation of the Harmandar Sahib. The two spiritual leaders, one Sikh and the other Muslim, were known to be close friends


Writing in the 11 August 2017 issue of The Friday Times about the rebellion and tragic end of Prince Khusrau, I had stated that one adverse effect of this early 17th-century filial rebellion was to transform the Sikhs ‘from a sedentary peaceful scattered group to a militant outfit’ – a development that cast a dreadful shadow as far as the events of the mid-20th century. I had promised to elaborate further upon this point and I attempt to do so now.

During the final run-up to independence, Muslim and Sikh communities in Punjab were arrayed against each other. The vast majority of the former had followed the call of the Muslim League for an independent Pakistan whereas the Sikhs had rallied behind Congress en masse for a united India. The passions unleashed by the political leaders in Punjab tragically led to a mass migration of 10 million people between the eastern and western parts of the province and the deaths of anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 people. Within a span of two months, there occurred a complete ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the East Punjab, and of Sikhs and Hindus from West Punjab.

Guru Arjan Dev

The seeds of animosity between the two communities, Muslim and Sikh, that led to the eruption of such harrowing violence were planted three-and-a-half centuries earlier by an unfortunate episode during the unsuccessful rebellion of Prince Khusrau against his father, the newly enthroned Emperor Jahangir, and nourished by bloody events during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb and later during the invasions of Ahmed Shah Abdali. As will be observed later in this article, the people of Punjab of all faiths had continued to live in peace with each other during those cataclysmic events in the 17th and 18th centuries and had suffered in equal measures at the hands of Turkic and Afghan invaders.

Many Jats were uneducated, superstitious, gullible, simple, hardworking souls whose frail social and semi-religious state rendered them susceptible to new spiritual appeals. Under the influence of saints from Central Asia and Iraq, the Jats of Punjab, who were nominally Hindus, started becoming nominal Muslims. The teachings of Guru Nanak, that included unity of God, service to humanity, rejection of caste system, adherence to truth, etc attracted both communities. Households, families and communities started becoming divided between three religions. Even now, Muslims and Sikhs from Punjab share many surnames i.e. Toor, Dhillon, Sodhi, Gondal, Bachchal, Badhana, Bajwa, Buttar, Cheema, Chatha, Bosan, Chohan, Gujral, Hinjra, Goraya and scores more, indicating common ancestors. They also share commonality of dress (especially amongst women), language, social customs and culinary preferences.

Guru Arjan had very cordial relations with Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore. The two holy men had tremendous respect for each other

The birth of the Sikh religion and Mughal forays into India occurred nearly simultaneously, the former in the last decades of the fifteenth century and the latter in the first decades of the sixteenth century. The new religion and the new dynasty coexisted peacefully for about a hundred years – up to the end of Akbar’s reign there seems to be no trace of any animosity between the followers of two religions. Babur plundered Eminabad – then called Syedpur – in 1523 and Lahore in 1524, but it was for resisting his advance and not for religious reasons. In these instances, he targeted people of all faiths. Baba Nanak and Emperor Babur may even have met in amicable circumstances. Later, Humayun met Guru Angad and Akbar met Gurus Amar Das and Ram Das for their blessings. However, one vengeful action, against Guru Arjan Dev Ji by Jahangir, poisoned this relationship for ever.

Arjan Dev became Guru in 1581 after the death of his father Ram Das, the fourth Guru of the Sikhs. All Gurus before him were non-hereditary. Arjan Dev thus created a hereditary tradition that lasted until the death of the last Guru in 1708. His father superseded two of his elder sons to appoint his third son as his successor. His promotion to the exalted position at the age of 18 was therefore quite controversial and one of his brothers even rebelled against him to form a rival sect.

Gurdwara Arjan Dev Ji in Lahore

Arjan Dev was an enterprising leader. His father had built a holy pond and called it Amritsar – ‘Nectar of Life’ – thus laying the foundation of the city of that name. Arjan Dev completed the construction of the Darbar Sahib, the holiest of the Sikh shrines. Another of his accomplishments was to collect the hymns of all the previous Gurus, add some of his own and compile the Guru Granth Sahib. He had a copy installed in the Darbar Sahib. He is also reputed to have founded the cities of Kartarpur and Jallandar.

Arjan Dev had no animosity towards the Muslims. He had very cordial relations with Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore. The two holy men had tremendous respect for each other. When construction of Darbar Sahib started, Arjan Dev invited Hazrat Mian Mir to do the honour of laying the foundation stone in January 1588 because he wanted the temple to be thrown open to people of all religions, castes, creeds. It is rightly claimed by the Sikhs that “Never before and, for that matter, never after has the foundation stone of the highest religious seat of a religion ever been laid by the holy man of another religion”.

In Lahore, the Gurdwara Guru Arjan Dev Ji with Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi in the background

Arjan Dev, however, developed extra-religious aspirations too. In the words of historian William Irvine, who served in colonial India in the eighteenth century for 25 years, “Arjan laid aside the garb of a holy man and adopted the state of a grandee and was the first Guru to meddle in politics.”

Before Arjan Dev, the Gurus lived a frugal life and had no income beyond the voluntary contributions of their followers. Arjan Dev changed this and imposed a compulsory tax to be collected by his appointed collectors – who could be accused by some of coercing their followers when necessary. In effect, all of this amounted to a parallel taxation system that the Mughal court must have been aware of, though no reprisals have been recorded during the time of Akbar.

Jahangir’s reign started with revolt by his eldest son, Prince Khusrau, and Arjan Dev backed the wrong horse. While the Prince was marching with his meagre forces from Agra to Lahore, in his losing campaign against his father, he was met and blessed by Guru Arjan at Taran Taran, near Amritsar. The Guru, according to the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, “did homage to him….. made on his forehead a finger mark in saffron.”

Afghans massacring Sikhs in 1762

Jahangir treated the rebels very harshly. He blinded his son and impaled the defeated soldiers. And he didn’t forget that the Guru had sided against him. In his Tuzuk, Jahangir mentions the Guru’s reception and blessings for Khusrau as the reason for his arrest and execution. Thus the Guru was arrested and put to torture in the Lahore Fort.

Hearing the plight of his friend, Mian Mir came to meet the Guru and was deeply saddened to see his friend in such misery He found Guru Arjan calm and serene, having completely resigned himself to the will of God. Mian Mir suggested to the Guru that he would intercede with Emperor Jahangir on latter’s behalf. The Guru forbade him, saying “I can also do that, but under all conditions one must live in the will of God.”

A contemporary Jesuit account, written by Spanish Jesuit missionary Jerome Xavier (1549–1617), who was in Lahore at the time, records that the Sikhs tried to get Jahangir to substitute the torture and death sentence to a heavy fine, but this attempt failed. According to another popular tale, the Guru was drowned in the Ravi. It may be noted that the Ravi flowed along the northern wall of the Fort. A Persian source Dabistan-i-Mazahib states that Jahangir tortured Guru Arjan for public repudiation of his spiritual convictions, but the Guru refused and was executed. Jerome Xavier, in appreciation of the courage of Guru Arjan, wrote back to Lisbon: “In that way, their good Pope died, overwhelmed by the sufferings, torments and dishonours.”

Sikhs migrating in 1947, as clashes with Muslims intensified

Jahangir writes in his Tuzuk that he had the Guru put to death and had his property confiscated. Mujaddid-i-Alf Thani Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624), as a hard-line supporter of Islamic orthodoxy and a highly influential religious revivalist, had opposed Akbar’s policy of religious tolerance. He had concerns about the spread of Sikhism in Punjab. So he cheered on the murder of the Guru, thus giving it a religious rather than political colour. Guru Arjan’s memorial Gurudwara, constructed during Ranjit Sigh’s rule in between the Fort and the Alamgiri Mosque, continues to stand at the place where he is reported to have been murdered.

In essence a religious-political nexus, that has been the cause of so much bloodshed in history, also forms the basis of the centuries-old conflict between the Sikhs and the Muslims. The Guru’s martyrdom had far-reaching consequences. It transformed the Sikhs into religious soldiers. The course of history, therefore, changed irrevocably due to one fatally myopic action of Emperor Jahangir. It caused a breach that kept becoming wider and more violent until the militant character of Sikhism was formalised by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 by the founding of the Khalsa movement as a response to the bigoted policies of Aurangzeb. The tactless handling of resurgent Sikhs by Mughal rulers post-Akbar and governors ensured that relations between the Muslim rulers and Sikhs remained bitter.

Akbar is known to have maintained excellent ties with the Gurus. Here he arrives to meet Guru Amar Das

Guru Arjan had instructed his successor to resist the Mughals by force. Sporadic clashes between Mughals and armed Sikhs started taking place in the province. Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru, took a stand against the policy of forced conversions by Aurangzeb. He was called over to Delhi and asked to renounce his religion. On his refusal, he was tortured to death. The next Guru, Gobind Singh, revolted against the Mughals and created the Khalsa movement which was essentially an armed insurgency. He also institutionalized the 5 K’s: symbols of the Sikhs – Kesh (uncut hair), Kara (a steel bracelet), Kanga (a comb), Kaccha (cotton underwear) and Kirpan (steel sword) – that persist to this day. He was murdered in treachery, probably on the orders of the Emperor. The Sikh animus against Muslims was now going to be solidified.

During the 18th century, major atrocities against the Sikhs were committed by Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali and his governor of Lahore, Mir Mannu. The Darbar Sahib was destroyed twice and thousands of Sikhs were killed. However, the strength of the Sikhs kept gaining momentum and they were able to inflict several defeats even on Mughal armies. Their various armed groups, called ‘Misls’, ruled different parts of Punjab from the 1760s, ultimately uniting and seizing power under Ranjit Singh in 1801.

Strikingly, whilst the history books are replete with instances of friction between the Sikhs and the Delhi-based Emperors or their governors at Lahore, there is no indication that the relations between the local Punjabi adherents of the two religions became unbearably sour. In fact, they continued to live in the same villages and towns as neighbours, friends and, in some cases, as relatives. Even now in foreign countries, the Punjabis, irrespective of their religion, form better friendships with each other than with other nationalities. It is true that they lived separate lives and never intermarried, yet they there were no organised or sustained violent clashes between them. Even during the rule of the 19th-century Sikh Empire in Lahore, there were a very few instances of mosque desecration but no bloody reprisals occurred against the local Muslims. The rule of Ranjit Singh has been cited for religious tolerance and he had many Punjabi Muslims in important civil and military positions.

The Muslim rulers and their governors up to the end of the Mughal period were all of foreign origin and they exploited the population without regard to their religious orientation. Perhaps, then, for the Muslims of Punjab to express some sort of kinship to these rulers was misplaced. They overlooked the fact that men like Emir Timur, Nader Shah and Ahmed Shah Abdali killed and looted Indians without asking them about their faith. Similarly, for the Sikhs to regard the local Muslims as heirs to the invaders from the lands beyond the north-west was an unfortunate distortion of facts.

It is therefore tragic that these communities clashed so violently during the final stages of the independence movement, resulting in mass migration and massacres. Had they showed maturity and far sightedness, they could have stayed together in a united Punjab. The events of 1984 in India, when once again the Darbar Sahib was violated and Sikhs were massacred, show that Sikhs once again made a bad choice.

Significant populations of non-Muslims in Punjab would have made Pakistan a pluralistic society and perhaps played a role in keeping the forces of religious extremism in check. Without doubt, an enterprising Sikh community would have contributed much to the economy of the country. A united Punjab would have preserved the integrity of its river and irrigation network, apart from keeping Kashmir firmly with Pakistan.

But events have followed a course that has been detrimental to Sikhs and Muslims alike in Punjab. Unfortunately, history cannot be reversed.

(Originally published in The Friday Times;Pakistan and is reproduced herewith the permission of the writer)

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

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1 COMMENT

  1. ‘There occurred a complete ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the East Punjab, and of Sikhs and Hindus from West Punjab.’ I would not call this ethnic cleansing, as the inhabitants of Punjab- Hindu, Skh, Muslim have nearly the same ethnicity. The people of Punjab, of India and Pakistan are nearly the same people, except that millions got converted from Hindus to Muslims. Hindus and Sikhs are even more similar, or the same.
    The Partition was a division on religious lines.

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