Scroll.in – Lost in Partition, the Sikh-Muslim connection comes alive in the tale of Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana

A descendant of the guru’s Muslim disciple speaks of the importance of the rababi tradition in Sikhism

Haroon Khalid

Friday, 13 April 2018. “Why weren’t the Muslim rababi protected? They held such high status in Sikhism? Why were they allowed to leave East Punjab at the time of Partition?” I asked.

The question was directed at Ghulam Hussain. I was in his home, deep within the older part of Lahore, close to the shrine of Data Darbar, the city’s patron saint. Dressed in a white shalwar kameez and maroon waist coat, a white scarf tied around his neck, the octogenarian had only recently recovered from what had become for him a recurring sickness.

He had nevertheless agreed to my request for an interview. Behind him, the walls and cupboard were adorned with symbols of the Sikh religion, a picture of a kirpan, the Golden Temple, and numerous awards he had received from Sikh organisations over the years.

Along with them were a few Islamic symbols, including a poster with a verse from the Quran. It was February of 2014 when I met Hussain. He died in April the following year, and this was possibly his last interview.

I had searched for Ghulam Hussain for a few years, having heard that he was a descendant of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s Muslim rababi. Bhai Mardana played an important role in the development of the Sikh religion. Not only did he accompany Guru Nanak on his travels, he also played the rabab while Nanak sang his divinely inspired poetry.

Since their time, Muslim rababi had been given the responsibility of performing the kirtan at gurdwaras, till the tradition was abruptly disrupted during Partition.

From kirtan to qawwali

‘“Everyone was only concerned about their own selves at the time,” Hussain recalled. “We were Muslims, therefore we had to leave. It did not matter if we were rababi. What mattered was our Muslim identity. That became our only identity. In fact, a couple of our rababi even lost their lives during the riots.

My father-in-law, Bhai Moti, was one of them. He used to play tabla at a gurdwara in Patiala. Another rababi who used to perform at Guru Amardas’ gurdwara at Goindwal was also killed.”

He continued, “My chacha, Bhai Chand, was a rababi at the Golden Temple. He had three houses in Amritsar, all of which were three stories high. He was a millionaire at that time. He used to live in Bhaiyyon ki gali, named after the rababi family. He became a pauper in Pakistan.”

Elaborating on his Sikh heritage, Hussain said his family’s ancestral gurdwara was Siyachal Sahib, which lies between Lahore and Amritsar. His father was a giani*, one who leads the congregation in prayer, who also gave lectures on Sikhism.

“My father was the gadi nasheen of the rababi seat there, which meant I would have taken over his position eventually,” he added.

But Partition changed all that. “Not only did we lose our money, we also lost our profession,” Hussain said. “While we knew the [Guru] Granth by heart, we knew nothing about being Muslim, besides the kalma. The Muslims had no interest in our profession. Thus, we began doing odd jobs, selling samosa, kheer, meat.”

However, Hussain soon found a second calling in qawwali, after receiving an invitation to a performance of Punjabi poet Najm Hosain Syed. The baithak was part of a weekly gathering of poets who recited and sang the works of Panjabi poets such as Bhai Gurdas, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah.

“At one of these meetings, not many years after Partition, I was invited to perform qawwali,” Hussain said. “In those early days, I struggled because my Urdu pronunciation was weak. I couldn’t even read the script, having been trained in Gurmukhi.

However, I practised and gradually mastered singing in Urdu. My financial condition also began improving.”

I asked him, “How similar or different are these two traditions, of kirtan and qawwali?”

He answered, “There is an old Panjabi saying, a hundred wise men sitting together will end up saying the same thing, while in a group of a hundred fools each one will say a different thing. Bulleh Shah reiterated what Nanak said.

Guru Arjan’s and Sultan Bahu’s message is the same as that of Shah Hussain. Their kalam overlaps. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that Guru Nanak expounded the Quran. Thus, to answer your question, qawwali and kirtan are part of the same tradition**.”

A dying connection

But not everyone shares his view of syncretism.

Hussain’s son, sitting quietly with us as the interview progressed, suddenly jumped into the conversation. “A few Sikhs say Mardana was nothing but a funny character in Nanak’s Janamsakhis, who was always either hungry or thirsty,” he said.

“I would choose to disagree. It was Mardana who brought out the divinity of Nanak. It was for Mardana that Nanak turned sweet the bitter fruit of a Kekkar tree.”

Hussain had a personal story of his own about Mardana’s importance in the history of Sikhism. “Once, before Partition, my father was at Gurdwara Panja Sahib in Hassanabdal,” he said. “He was in the sacred pool taking dips when one Sikh got offended and complained to the office.

He accused my father of polluting the water. My father was summoned to the office. When questioned why he had taken a dip in the water, he asked the official, ‘Who did Nanak create this pool for? To quench Mardana’s thirst.

This is, therefore, Mardana’s pool and I being a rubabi am his descendant. Now let me ask this question, who are you to claim ownership over this pool?’”

He let out a loud chuckle at the end of this story, but quickly became serious as he spoke of his visit to India and to the Golden Temple in 2005, for the first time after Partition. “I wanted to perform at the Golden Temple,” he said. “My family had performed there for seven generations.

We are the descendants of Bhai Sadha and Madha, who were appointed at the Golden Temple by Guru Tegh Bahadur. Such was our honour that we used to receive a share from the offerings at the shrine, which was then equally distributed among all the rababi families.

Throughout Sikh history, the rababis have displayed their loyalty to the gurus. It was Bhai Bavak, a rababi with Guru Hargobind, who rescued his daughter, Bibi Veera, from the Turks, when no other Sikh dared cross into their territory.”

But Hussain’s wish to perform at the gurdwara was not to be fulfilled. “Our family has a deep connection with the Golden Temple but now it has become extremely difficult for a rababi to perform kirtan there. The officials there told me only Amritdhari could perform there,” he said, referring to Sikhs who have been initiated or baptised by taking amrit or “nectar water”.

He added, “I wanted to tell those officials that my ancestors had been performing kirtan here before Gobind Rai became Guru Gobind Singh. There is no tradition of any rababi ever converting out of Islam. When the gurus never asked us to become Sikhs, then what right did these officials have?”

*Gian = knowledge with understanding – Giani – Het that has such knowledge

** Sikhi is linked to the Panjabi Muslim Sufi and Hindu Bhakti traditions

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books
Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.

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Scroll.in – United Kingdom: Sikh student ‘dragged’ out of a bar for refusing to remove his turban

The bar asked 22-year-old Amrik Singh to leave the bar because of its ‘no headwear’ policy.

Mansfield – Nottinghamshire – UK, 11 March 2018. A bar in Nottinghamshire suspended an employee on Saturday after a Sikh man claimed he was “dragged” out of its premises for wearing a turban.

Law student Amrik Singh, 22, was asked to leave the bar on Friday night as it had a “no headwear” policy, BBC reported.

He wrote on Facebook later that he had felt “victimised” and was “heartbroken”. He also posted an audio recording of the conversation he had with the head bouncer at the Rush Late Bar.

Singh has now taken down the audio clip and Facebook post, “in hopes it doesn’t effect [sic] any future proceedings”. He is heard saying in the clip that the turban is part of his religion, but he got the reply: “I didn’t think you were allowed to drink anyway.”

“I explained that a turban isn’t just headgear, but part of my religion and that I was allowed to wear a turban in public,” Singh wrote in his original Facebook post. “The bouncer ignored this and said I needed to take it off. I refused and was subsequently dragged away from my friends.”

On Saturday, the bar said on Facebook it was treating the incident “extremely seriously” and had launched a “thorough investigation”. The bar also said it had invited Singh back to “enjoy the rest of the evening”.

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Scroll.in – Congress leader Jagdish Tytler says Rajiv Gandhi travelled around north Delhi during the 1984 riots

Former Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal claimed the former prime minister had ‘supervised’ the riots

New Delhi, 29 Jaqnuary 2018. Congress leader Jagdish Tytler on Monday claimed that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi took several rounds of North Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, to assess the situation, News18 reported.

The former union minister claimed Gandhi was “extremely anguished” at the behaviour of the Congress’ Delhi MPs, who were asked to control the situation.

The Nanavrati Commission has named Tytler as one of the organisers of the riots. He is also an accused in the killing of three Sikhs outside the Gurudwara Pulbangash in his Delhi north constituency.

On Monday, Tytler also accused the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab of carrying out a “vicious smear campaign”.

Meanwhile, former Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal claimed on Monday that Rajiv Gandhi had “supervised” the 1984 riots, ANI reported.

“Jagdish Tytler has revealed that Rajiv Gandhi travelled with him across the city in 1984,” Badal told the agency. “It means that the then prime minister was supervising the killings. The Central Bureau of Investigation must look into it. It is a very serious issue.”

In April 2017, Tytler had refused to undergo the CBI’s lie detector test in connection with the 1984 riots.

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Scroll.in – Has Supreme Court censured Modi government by reopening the 1984 Sikh massacre cases its SIT closed?

It has, says the senior lawyer Harinder Singh Phoolka, who has fought for justice on behalf of many victims of the anti-Sikh pogroms

New Delhi-India, 16 January 2017. In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the Army to storm the Golden Temple to flush out armed Sikh separatists who had turned it into a fortress. Apparently angered by the assault on this holiest of Sikh shrines in Amritsar, Punjab, Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards shot her dead four months later.

The assassination set off a pogrom against Sikhs, especially in Delhi. Nearly 3,000 Sikh men, women and children were killed in what is widely seen as a state-sponsored massacre, with the police colluding with murderous mobs. Yet, 34 years later, there has been little justice for the victims.

New investigation

Last week, however, the Supreme Court ordered a new investigation into the massacre. It decided to set up a three-member Special Investigation Team to look afresh at 186 cases that have been closed by another three-member SIT appointed by the Narendra Modi government in 2015.

The government’s SIT was to examine the evidence in criminal cases relating to the 1984 carnage and, if needed, reopen cases that the Delhi police had not investigated or had closed for lack of evidence. It looked at 293 cases and decided to seek trial in 12. As many as 241 cases were closed, reportedly without investigation.

In August last year, the Supreme Court appointed a supervisory committee to examine whether the SIT’s decision to close the 241 cases “was correct or not”.

“We have perused the report of the supervisory committee,” the court said in its order last week. “On perusal of the same, we find that the SIT has not done further investigation in respect of 186 cases. Regard being had to the nature of the case, we think it appropriate that a fresh SIT should be constituted for carrying on the further investigation.”

This raises the question: how effectively has the government’s SIT done its job?

H S Phoolka, a senior lawyer who has represented many victims of the 1984 carnage, argues that the Supreme Court’s intervention was necessary. “The government’s SIT did not do its work properly,” he alleged, speaking to Scroll.in in his chambers at the Delhi High Court.

“It was originally set up for six months. It has been three years but they have concluded the investigation in only 12 cases. In only 12 cases, the SIT has held that there is sufficient evidence to go for trial.”

It was because of the SIT’s low success rate, Phoolka said, that the matter went to the Supreme Court. “The SIT itself told the court that out of 293 cases, they have closed 241 and 12 will go for trial,” he said. “Hence, the court appointed a supervisory panel of two retired Supreme Court judges.

They went through the SIT records and submitted a report in which they mention that 186 cases have not been investigated by the SIT. The court decided that they will not send these cases back to the SIT since they had not done anything…[and] decided to appoint its own SIT.”

What does the Supreme Court’s intervention mean? “This is an expression of no confidence in the Union government’s SIT by the Supreme Court,” Phoolka said. “The SIT was not interested in the case. One of the judges [on the SIT] was also the president of a district consumer forum at the time [of the carnage]. They took the matter lightly.”

Lack of evidence

The SIT, however, dismissed the allegation that it has not done its work competently. “It is not that the cases were summarily closed,” said Rakesh Kapoor, a retired district and sessions judge who is one of the SIT’s members.

“These cases were investigated. The SIT scrutinised them and came to the conclusion that further investigation was not warranted because of lack of evidence.”

Phoolka rejected the contention that cases cannot be prosecuted because of an apparent lack of evidence. He pointed to cases reopened in 2005 that resulted in the conviction of five people in 2013, including a former legislator.
“That conviction was why there was a demand, since evidence is available, that the other 1984 cases should be reopened too,” said Phoolka. “It is for this purpose that the Union government formed the SIT in 2015.”

As to the argument that the Supreme Court has shown a lack of confidence in his team, Kapoor said, “The SC order, in fact, says the SIT is functioning very well. The new SIT is not a reflection on the working of the earlier SIT.”

Phoolka, meanwhile, is confident about the new SIT making progress where the old one did not. “The head of this new SIT, Justice Dhingra, had sent Congressman H K L Bhagat to jail,” Phoolka said.

Shiv Narayan Dhingra, as an additional sessions judge in Delhi in the 1990s, had conducted trials in several cases relating to the 1984. He is said to have been so tough with the accused, The Times of India reported that Bhagat, a former Union minister, asked for his case to be transferred from Dhingra’s court.

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Scroll.in – How Pakistani Sikhs fleeing the Taliban made the city of Nankana Sahib a cultural hub

Pakhtun Sikhs have revived many festivals that had not been celebrated since Partition

Nankana Sahib-Panajb-Pakistan, 8 January 2018. The only time I attended Guru Gobind Singh Jayanti celebrations at Nankana Sahib was on January 10, 2011, a few days after the assassination of Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab. In an empty ground next to Guru Nanak Janamasthan Gurdwara, the city’s Sikh community had organised a cricket tournament.

Sikh boys, almost all of them of Pakhtun descent, sat near the edge of the ground, watching the final match. Another group of boys sat on a raised platform, giving live commentary of the match over a loudspeaker.

An assortment of vendors, mostly Muslim, looked on, joined by other members of the local Muslim community. There was a separate tent for women.

Traditionally, on Guru Gobind Jayanti, mock battles are enacted to honor the warrior spirit of the tenth and last Sikh Guru. But in Nanakana Sahib, they had organised a cricket tournament. One of the organisers, a young Pakhtun Sikh, said they wanted to have tournaments for hockey, volley ball and other sports too, but there was not enough time.

Many of the Sikh boys lived in Gujranwala, Sialkot and Lahore, some studying and others engaged in business, and they had returned to Nankana Sahib for the festival. A few days later was the winter festival of Lohri, after which they would go back.

In the couple of years before 2011, Nanakana Sahib, about an hour’s drive from Lahore, had emerged as the centre of the Sikh community in Pakistan. A handful of Sikh families had moved to the city from tribal areas along the country’s northwestern frontier following the wars of 1965 and 1971, when members of the community were attacked by jingoistic mobs who took them to be representatives of the belligerent Hindu/Sikh neighbour they were fighting.

A few more families arrived after the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, in 1992, led to attacks on several Hindus and Sikhs as well as their places of worship around Pakistan. The arrival of most Sikhs who now live in Nankana Sahib, however, was precipitated by the Talibanisation of the northwestern frontier region during the 2000s.

Hundreds of Sikh families had for generations lived peacefully in the tribal region. Even the riots the accompanied the Partition and burned the social fabric of Punjab did not affect them. But when the Taliban took control of their homeland, they demanded jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims living in a Muslim state.

The consequences of failing to pay the tax were severe. In 2009, the Taliban destroyed the houses of 11 Sikh families in Orkazi Agency for refusing to pay jizya. In 2010, Jaspal Singh, a young man from Khyber Agency, was beheaded after his family failed to pay the hefty amount demanded.

In Nankana Sahib that day, I was introduced to a 16-year-old boy. His family had come from Khyber Agency, he said. “We had a small cloth shop at Ghariza, Jamrud, set up by my grandfather,” he added. “One day, these men with long beards and modern weapons came in a jeep and parked in front of our shop.

I was there with my father. They told my father that if we wanted to continue working there we had to pay them two crore rupees within a month. We knew it was time to leave. We locked our shop and house and left that very night.”

There were many such stories. Forced to abandon their homes and property overnight, hundreds of Sikh families from the tribal areas settled in cities with considerable Sikh population, Peshawar, Hassanabdal and Nanakana Sahib.

In Nanakana Sahib, the Sikh population went from a few families at the turn of the century to a significant minority of a few thousand people in 2011.

Togetherness brought a sense of empowerment, such as they had perhaps never experienced before. Sikh festivals which had been confined to prayers inside a gurdwara became major public events. There was a heightened sense of Sikh identity, particularly among the youth who took the lead in reviving religious traditions that had been abandoned for generations.

The cricket tournament on Guru Gobind Jayanti was part of this religious revivalism.

I returned to Nankana Sahib for the Lohri celebrations. Gathered in the courtyard of Gurdwara Patti Sahib, young Sikhs threw sticks into a fire as they sang and danced. I was told this too was a recent phenomenon.

In popular imagination, Nankana Sahib remains associated with Guru Nanak Gurpurab, the celebration of the birth of the first Sikh guru which is attended by thousands of people every November. But thanks to the efforts of young Sikhs whose families have been forced to settle in the city, Nankana Sahib is now also home to many other festivals that had not been celebrated since the Partition.

Haroon Khalid is the author of 3 books, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.

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Scroll.in – Why Hindus cannot be seen as a religious minority in Kashmir (or anywhere else in India)

Population is not the only criterion.

Op/Ed, 24 December 2017. The Supreme Court this month heard a petition asking for a minorities commission to be set up in Jammu and Kashmir.

The plea, filed by Ankur Sharma, a lawyer in Jammu, contended that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians were unable to access benefits meant for minorities in the state where 68.3% of the population is Muslim.

Sharma’s plea came after a lawyer-leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, Ashwani Kumar Upadhyay, petitioned the apex court to direct the central government to confer minority status on Hindus in seven states, including Jammu and Kashmir, and a Union Territory.

On the advice of a bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Upadhyay later withdrew his petition and approached the National Commission for Minorities, which is reportedly considering the matter. Central to both cases is this question: can the majority community be seen as a religious minority in any part of the country?

A community’s minority status is relevant mainly for accessing specific welfare schemes. This should not be a bone of contention: the Supreme Court has already ruled that such schemes launched by the Centre are for national-level minorities while local schemes would cover the state-level minorities.

In Jammu and Kashmir, Sharma argued that in the absence of a minority commission in Jammu and Kashmir, “crores worth aid are being given away to a certain community, which is the majority Muslim community, in an illegal and arbitrary manner”.

No matter how they are designated in the state, Muslims, as a national minority, would continue to be beneficiaries of central minority welfare schemes.

As for directing the state government to establish a minorities commission, the court pointed out that it does not have the power to do so.

Since Jammu and Kashmir does not fall within the purview of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, a state minorities commission must be set up through legislation by the Assembly or an administrative order by the government.

Hindus as a minority

Upadhyay’s petition directly asks for recognising Hindus as a religious minority in certain states. If the petitioner’s idea has his party’s support it is intriguing.

Two decades ago, as chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities, I personally prepared a special report titled “Hindu Minorities in India”, written after visiting the states concerned and hearing local Hindu leaders.

My report, recommending state-level minority status for Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir, Lakshadweep, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Punjab, was endorsed by the Commission and submitted to the central government, then led by the BJP. But it was pooh-poohed by the party’s stalwarts and cold-shouldered by the government.

In the Constitution, Article 29 proclaims that “any section of citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have a right to conserve the same”.
Article 30 recognises the right of a religious or linguistic minority to establish and administer educational institutions. Read together, the two provisions may be taken as the constitutional charter for religious and linguistic minorities at all levels.

The Constitution does not specify a mechanism for identifying groups of citizens covered by either of these provisions. The National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, confined in application to religious minorities, does not list them either; it only states that for the purposes of the Act the word “minorities” means communities “notified as such” by the central government.

A notification issued under this provision in 1993 proclaimed Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Parsis as minorities.

The Jains protested against their exclusion and, on taking over as the Commission’s chairman, I took the position that since the Constitution and the laws bracket Jains with Buddhists and Sikhs, the government had two options: either drop Buddhists and Sikhs from the list or to extend it to Jains.

Fifteen years later, the government went for the second option – on the persistent demand of some Jain leaders, the 1993 notification was modified to include their community among the minorities.

Population not the only criterion

If population is to be the sole yardstick to accord minority status at state level, Hindus are a minority in Christian-dominated Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland; Sikh-dominated Punjab; Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir and Lakshadweep as I pointed out in my report of 1998.

Upadhyay, in his petition, additionally counted Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur among Hindu-minority states, which is questionable. Hindu are less than 50% in these states but so are all other communities, and the difference in population between Hindus and Christians is miniscule.

Population, however, is not the only criterion for a religious community to be seen as a minority.

A 1977 report of the United Nations Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities defined minority as “a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in a non-dominant position, whose members – being nationals of the State – possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if not implicitly, a sense of solidarity directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language”.

If each of these criteria is to be meticulously applied, Hindus, the national majority, would not be seen as a minority anywhere in India.

The legal position is that the National Commission for Minorities too has no power to declare any community to be a minority; it can only make a recommendation in this regard to the government.

My 1998 report remains on record and, considering it, the Centre or a state government may take whatever action they deem fit in respect of state-level Hindu minorities. No well-wisher of the community needs to go to the apex court or the minorities commission for this purpose.

Tahir Mahmood is a professor of law, former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities and ex-member of the Law Commission of India.

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Scroll.in – Why India should not bother to ask Britain to apologise for Jallianwalla Bagh

If we are talking massacres, the British colonial administration oversaw millions of starvation deaths from the 1860s

Anjali Mody

Op/Ed, 10 December 2017. On a visit to India earlier this week, London mayor Sadiq Khan called for Britain to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the killing of over 1,000 peaceful protestors by the British Army in a walled public garden in Amritsar in 1919.

Khan is not the first to make such a statement. In October, the Labour Party MP for Ealing-Southall, Virendra Sharma, had submitted an “early day motion” calling on the British government to formally apologise in Parliament and commemorate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre with a memorial day.

Calls for an apology for what is widely regarded as one of the most barbaric attacks on Indians by the British colonial administration come every few years. Each time a head of government or the queen visits, the question of whether they will or will not apologise gets aired.

In recent years, prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron and the queen have all visited the memorial at Jallianwala Bagh and expressed sorrow, even shame, but not apologised.

And they were right not to. Apologising for historic wrongs is an empty gesture. And apologising for historic wrongs that the people on whose behalf you are apologising do not even know about is a bit of a joke.

Should Britain apologise for Jallianwala Bagh, most of its population is likely to say “sorry for what?”

Why only Jallianwala Bagh?

Besides, the history of the empire is strewn with bodies. The question could be asked, why only Jallianwala Bagh?

After all, if we are talking massacres, the British colonial administration oversaw millions of starvation deaths from the 1860s onwards. These thoroughly avoidable deaths were the result of state policy.

In years when there was sufficient rice to continue exports to Britain, colonial administrators ideologically wedded to the idea that market forces would solve the problem, that providing relief work promoted laziness, and the Malthusian theory that famines are a way of population control, caused millions to starve to death in eastern and southern India.

Winston Churchill, who had excoriated Colonel Reginald Dyer, on whose orders soldiers had opened fire at the crowd in Jallianwala Bagh, pursued the same policy in 1943. Grain exports to Britain continued while over 3 million people died, most of them in Bengal.

Simply because there is no memorial to those millions dead, and their deaths are not directly linked to the movement for independence, does not make them less historically significant. In today’s parlance, they would be termed genocides.

Understanding colonial history

Yet, the past cannot be undone. But it can be understood.

British universities have produced some of the most interesting recent histories of the empire. But the majority of Britons who study history only in school have little opportunity to benefit from their understanding.

Despite changes to the school curriculum in 2014, students in Britain learn very little about colonialism and the empire, not least because the segments on colonialism are not mandatory. Like other countries, school history lessons are used to fortify national myths.

Hence, the great age of the Tudors and Britain’s heroic role in the World Wars and in the defeat of fascism remain the focus.

But even in teaching the wars, the fact that 2.3 million Indian soldiers fought or served on the British side, that 89,000 of them died in the Second World War, is not something that figures in school history lessons.

Why would this part of the story, which locates British Asians within the grand national narrative, and contributes in principle to national cohesion, be ignored? Could it be because by acknowledging that colonial subjects died for Britain, more uncomfortable questions about the empire might pop up?

An apology for Jallianwala Bagh, one terrible event, also skirts more uncomfortable questions about the nature of colonialism and of the British Raj. It gives the appearance that one event was an aberration. It is, in short, a cop out.

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Scroll.in – The revolutionary Udham Singh is just one of the many faces of Punjabi identity

The colonial era saw two Punjabs, one revolutionary, the other loyal to the crown. The identity has fragmented further since then.

Op/Ed, 24 November 2017. Facing murder charges, Udham Singh was presented in a court in London in 1940. On March 13 that year, he had shot dead Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of Punjab on whose watch the Jallianwala massacre had taken place.

Twenty-one years ago on April 13, 1919, soldiers of the British Army in India had opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protestors in a walled public garden in Amritsar and killed over 1,000 of them. The lieutenant governor had called it “correct action”.

Udham Singh, a revolutionary inspired by the Marxist Ghadar movement of Punjabi Sikhs against British rule and by Bhagat Singh, sought to avenge the massacre. After killing O’Dwyer, he courted arrest.

At the court, a copy of the Granth Sahib was presented to him so he could take oath before the trial. Turning it down, he offered to instead take oath on Waris Shah’s Heer-Ranjha, the fabled love story of Punjab, a copy of which he had already procured from a gurdwara.

Much like Bhagat Singh before him, Udham Singh became a symbol of the Indian nationalist struggle. During the trial, he noted his name to be Ram Mohammad Singh Azad to emphasise how all the major religious communities of India were fighting for the country’s independence.

On one hand, Udham Singh through his Marxist political leanings had an international revolutionary outlook that he wanted to channel into the Independence struggle, which he refused to view through narrow communal or ethnic lens, as had started happening in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

On the other hand, he was still rooted in Punjabi cultural ethos.

Shah’s Heer-Ranjha, now widely known because of its frequent references in the Indian film industry, is a Punjabi folk story, deeply ingrained in its culture and also one of the most important symbols of Punjabi identity.

While Udham Singh wore his Indian identity beyond the confines of any ethnic or religious group, by choosing to take his oath on the Heer-Ranjha, he also depicted his proud Punjabi identity. For him there was no conflict between these two identities.

Revolutionary Punjabi identity

All symbols of Punjabi identity are revolutionary in essence: Heer, who revolted against the institution of marriage and chose her true love; Ranjha, who rebelled against the institution of religion when it tried to take him away from his true love.

The Punjabi Sufi poet Shah Hussain blurred the distinction between the devotee and the divine, challenged conventional religion in favour of unrestrained religiosity, expressed through dance and music, an individualistic act of rebellion.

Similarly, the Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah spoke vehemently against religious clergy, Hindu and Muslim alike. The truth lies within you, he insisted.

Every January during the festival of Lohri, Punjabis celebrate Punjabi folk hero Dullah Bhatti, a landlord from Pindi Bhattian who took up arms against the mighty Mughal emperor Akbar to protect the revenue from his land. Any discussion on Punjabi identity is incomplete without Guru Nanak, who sought to dissolve fixed religious identities.

I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, he reiterated. And there is, of course, Guru Gobind Singh who sought to fight for the honour of his people against the Mughal emperor Aurganzeb, the Guru Gobind Singh who could inspire a sparrow to defeat a hawk (as a famous pre-Partition Punjabi verse goes).

This Punjabi identity was deeply rooted in Bhagat Singh. He makes references to this Punjabi culture, to the revolutionary politics of the Sikh gurus in his collection of essays. Udham Singh, also a proud Punjabi, was following in his mentor’s footsteps.

The fragmentation

However, in the colonial era, soon after the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-1849), a new Punjabi identity was forged, the loyalist, pro-empire Punjabi. This image was reinforced during the 1857 war when a Punjab-dominated British Army helped defeat rebels in Delhi and other parts of North India.

Many Punjabi ethnicities and communities were honoured as “martial races”, a title that bestowed upon them a higher position in the race hierarchy and implied that they were loyal to the British.

The colonial era, therefore, saw a conflict between these two Punjabs. One was revolutionary in its essence, the Punjab of Dullah Bhatti and Ahmad Khan Kharral, another landlord who fought against the British during the 1857 war, leading one of the only major rebellions from the province.

The other was the Punjab of chiefs and aristocrats who had been given the titles of Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur and Sardar for their loyalty to the crown.

The former Punjab was further fragmented in the early 20th century as education and urbanisation spread throughout the province. Punjabis were no longer Punjabis but Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fighting for recognition from the British state.

Urdu became the symbol of the Muslims while Hindus fought for the right to use Hindi. Punjabi remained confined to the Sikhs, who eventually emerged as the sole inheritor of this Punjabi heritage.

This conflict between Muslim Urdu and Hindi for Hindus aggravated after the creation of India and Pakistan, as Pakistani Punjab emerged as the symbol of Pakistani nationalism.

Urdu became the language of the Punjabis, keeping up with colonial tradition, while Punjabi symbols such as Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Guru Nanak and Heer-Ranjha slowly started receding to the periphery.

On the other side of the border, as Punjab was further carved up making it a Sikh dominated state, a new Punjabi identity emerged that was synonymous with the religious identity.

While symbols of Punjabi identity were appropriated, they became relics of the past, out of sync with the contemporary Punjabi identity. It is this latter Punjab that both India and Pakistan would rather deal with.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail

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Scroll.in – Flyers in a New Jersey city call Sikh mayoral candidate a ‘terrorist’

Ravinder Bhalla said it was troubling, but ‘won’t let hate win’.

5 November 2017. Flyers labelling a Sikh mayoral candidate in a New Jersey city as a terrorist were spotted on car windscreens on Friday, just days before the November 7 election.

The flyer says in a large red font over Ravinder Bhalla’s picture: “Don’t let terrorism take over our Town!”

Bhalla, a lawyer, was the council president for the city of Hoboken in 2011-’12, and is now a Councilman-at-Large.

“There’s been an undercurrent of racism I’ve seen in this campaign,” Bhalla told New York Daily News. “That sort of whispering campaign has come to the surface now, where people have the audacity to send a flyer like that.”

He said his daughter asked why people were attacking him because he wears a turban. “That’s a hard question to answer to a little girl,” Bhalla was quoted as saying.

On Twitter, he wrote it was troubling, but “we won’t let hate win”.

“I want to use [the] incident to affirm the value of living in a diverse community where we’re judged by content of character, not by colour of skin or how we worship,” he said in a series of tweets. “At a time when President Donald Trump is seeking to divide us, it is critical we come together as a community and stand up for American values.”

Election rival Michael DeFusco, who was initially linked to the flyer, called it “racist, “disgusting and gutter politics at its worst”. He said he had asked the police to investigate into the matter.

DeFusco had recently filed a complaint accusing Bhalla of conflict of interest. The allegation appears on Friday’s flyers as well.

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Scroll.in – The indomitable queen: As the Sikh Empire crumbled, only one woman scared the British

Even in defeat and exile, the rebellious Maharani Jind Kaur refused to play the docile role that the British expected of her.

Book excerpt, 12 October 2017. It is known despite the heavy precautions taken by [Major G H] Macgregor to vet the letters and information being passed to her that either through her servants or by secret communication Jind Kaur was aware of how the war in the Punjab was going.

Not only that but she managed to slip out letters to her sympathisers. She also managed to send messages to Chatter Singh and Mulraj during the month of March 1849 at least once. These messages were, unfortunately for her, intercepted.

Two horsemen were seen one day crossing into the Punjab on March 1, 1849. Their eastern Indian features marking them out as different and their movements seen as suspicious, they were pursued. One managed to escape but one was captured and arrested. Papers were found on the man along with two amulets.

A letter secreted inside jewellery was a common form of carrying confidential information. The amulets carried a letter each for Mulraj and Chatter Singh.

They were dated two months to the date the horseman was captured, around the time it would take a horseman travelling from Benares, so the letters were presumably written early in January, prior to Chillianwala. Frederick Currie had no doubt the letters came from Jind Kaur.

He had, he explained, shown them to Mr Bowring, his assistant, who had seen many of the Maharani’s letters she had sent to the previous Residents and knew her writing nuances. Bowring was positive these were genuine.

The letter, a diatribe rather than any discussion of plots and intrigue, allowed Jind Kaur to vent her anger and frustration at the British for her incarceration and encouraged Chatter Singh to humiliate the British prisoners already taken.

“By the grace of the holy Guru, written by the Maee Sahib to Chattar Singh

I am well and pray for your welfare also. A hundred praises on your bravery. I am unable to bestow sufficient commendation on it; as long as the earth and heavens exist, so long shall people continue to utter your praises. You have settled matters with the British, right well.

They quake and tremble through fear of you and have lost all their ascendancy. They have abandoned eating their food, and their tongues falter. Be confident and firm. The English have no troops, so exert yourself to the utmost.

Give the British, whom you have taken prisoners, one hundred blows each a day; blacken their faces; and placing them on donkeys, parade them through your camp; cut off their noses also; by these means, in a short time, not one of the British will be left in the land.

Do not interfere with the Hindostanees, but proclaim, by beat of tom-tom, that all who will enter the Maharajah’s service shall be rewarded.

Collect together 1000 or 2000 able bodied men, and having disguised them as fakeers, send them across [to Calcutta]. Instruct them to watch the British during the day and to kill them at night.

The British have no troops in this part of the country, certainly not more than 1000 or 2000 men, and at night are accustomed to sleep with no one near them. Be confident. The British do not molest me at all, being afraid to do so…”

The other letter being addressed to Mulraj was a copy of the above. The intervening time between her writing the letters and the horsemen messengers being captured had seen the fall of Multan and the battles of Chillianwala and Gujrat, bringing an end to the war and making the message redundant.

A further letter from her to Sher Singh was also intercepted. In this she informed Sher Singh there was a crore of rupees hidden at Sheikhupura which he could use to pay his troops. This money was shortly confiscated by the British.

These intercepted letters, sent to the government on March 19, ten days before annexation ended any little chance of leniency by the British government and in fact provided the excuse for further drastic action against her. The decision was taken to put the Maharani under official incarceration.

The immediate pretext though would be an incident relating to one of her servants who managed to escape the strict guard and disappear.

This, it was decided, was a trial run for the Maharani herself to escape British custody and Macgregor immediately sanctioned the transfer of Jind Kaur to the fortress of Chunar, the usual jail for state prisoners, the move taking place on 6 April.

Realising she would probably spend the rest of her days in the prison, and with no expectations of release despite the legal efforts of Newmarch, Jind Kaur looked to other means of escaping British custody.

The ladies of the time normally were in purdah (face veils), and thus the Maharani was never asked to show her face on arrival at Chunar and the days after. Occasionally her voice was heard, but in recent days the guards had noticed it had taken on a different tone, attributed by the person under the veil to a cold she had contracted.

In fact Jind Kaur had escaped. One of her servants, known by the name Seenawallee, meaning seamstress, who was allowed in and out of the prison had exchanged clothes (and face veils) and taken her place while the Maharani in her servant’s clothes had walked out of the fortress.

The plan had nearly come to grief; one of the guards had initially challenged the “seamstress” and refused to allow her to leave the fortress but had been convinced by her other servants that she had always had the right to enter and exit the fortress to visit her mistress.

She was challenged again by the guards on the outer gate but the Havildar had shouted out all was fine. The next day Seenawallee (or what appeared to her but was another servant) appeared again asking for entry to the fort so that the guards’ suspicions were put to rest.

As the real seamstress took the place of the Maharani in her cell, Jind Kaur was already well on her way north to Nepal. The charade continued till the 19th, when her servants, confident that her royal mistress had a good start, made public their ruse.

The escape prompted much speculation in the papers. Some, refusing to believe in the servants’ accounts, speculated she had escaped even earlier during the preparation for her removal to Chunar.

According to the story written by the Benares Recorder, she had escaped the same afternoon as her arrival on the 6th and that she had very definitely reached Chunar.

Others speculated she had escaped several days after being transferred. The matter would prove unresolvable due to the face veils she and her accomplices had always worn. Jind Kaur had coolly left a note in her cell:

“You put me in the cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by my magic…I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away, understand well, that I escape by myself unaided…

When I quit the Fort of Chunar I threw down two papers on my gaddi and one I threw on the European charpoy now don’t imagine, I got out like a thief.”

Jind Kaur travelled rapidly under the disguise of a pilgrim, crossing 480 km and the border and reaching Kathmandu by the 29th of the same month, where she applied for sanctuary.

Excerpted with permission from The Second Anglo-Sikh War, Amarpal Singh, Harper Collins.

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