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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Scroll.in – Sikh body withdraws award from journalist Kuldip Nayar for remarks against Khalistan leader

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee also condemned the words he used to describe Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in his autobiography.

Amritsar-Panjab-India, 11 October 2017. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee on Tuesday withdrew an award it had given to journalist Kuldip Nayar in 2006, The Indian Express reported.

Its decision came after several Sikh groups expressed their disapproval over an article he wrote last month, comparing Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale with Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was convicted of rape in August.

The decision was made at an executive meeting in Fatehpur Sahib. The committee had given Nayar the Shiromani Patrkar Award for his writing.

“There was resentment in the community over the use of foul language against Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in an article written by Kuldip Nayar,” the committee said. “So, we have passed a resolution to withdraw the honour conferred to him in 2006.”

The committee also condemned the use of the word terrorist to describe Bhindranwale in Nayar’s autobiography Beyond The Lines. The body had declared Bhindranwale a martyr in 2003. The Sikh body Damdami Taksal, which was once headed by Bhindranwale, has called for a ban on the book.

Bhindranwale was a major leader of the Khalistan movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which has been demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs in the Punjab region of South Asia.

He was killed during the controversial Operation Blue Star inside the Golden Temple in June 1984.

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Scroll.in – How Canadian Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh has successfully battled racism with love

Jagmeet Singh is considered the frontrunner for the New Democratic Party leadership. If this happens, it would bring an unprecedented diversity to the role.

Within the space of a few moments, Jagmeet Singh became one of Canada’s most admired politicians. His cool-under-pressure reaction to being confronted by an angry heckler is just one of the reasons Singh is considered to be the favourite contender for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.

A video of the September 6 incident at Singh’s campaign event in Brampton, Ontario, went viral and has been viewed millions of times in Canada and around the world.

Moments into the event, an angry white woman interrupted Singh and shouted Islamophobic and vitriolic statements at him, and physically gesticulated, demonstrating her feeling of entitlement, to space, voice and position, in relation to others at the event.

Singh seemed undeterred by the outburst. His response to her rant was to rally his audience to help him relay his campaign message. He asked his guests to chant: “Love and courage”.

What is the nature of Singh’s call for love?

His political slogan is based on a message of universal love and courage. Singh’s message, and chant that evening, is uniquely situated among the slogans of the three other candidates: Charlie Angus “Got your back”, Niki Ashton “Building a movement, together”, and Guy Caron, “Let’s Build a Progressive and Sustainable Economy”.

The dramatic events at the September 6 meeting demonstrates something about Singh, as a person and as a candidate. It also points to new undercurrents of religion and spirituality and its role, not only in Canadian politics, but also in the leadership race for the New Democratic Party.

Singh’s campaign and potential leadership arrives in a climate of increasing hatred, fear and division. His call for universal love is coherent with Sikhism, which challenges the division between daily life and a devotional love that guides all thought and action.

How does the language of love and courage relate to a New Democratic Party trying to find its way in a shifting political landscape?

Singh’s outward appearance solicits questions from some Canadians, as in the case of the heckler, regarding his secular position: To what degree does Singh’s religion relate to his policy ideas or conduct?

Canada: Judeo-Christian values?

Canadian political institutions and traditions are imbued with Judeo-Christian values and symbols. Yet the separation of church and state maintains religion does not dictate the making of policy and law.

However, in the game of politics, courting ethno-racial, national and religious identified voters has become a central art of party campaign strategists.

Political parties of all persuasions have had to navigate this division in a variety of ways.

In Canada, the left social democratic tradition, represented now by the New Democratic Party, has had less experience with faith-based movements and the religious identity of its leaders than their Right-Wing counterparts and left-leaning parties elsewhere in the world. Singh’s leadership challenge will likely change that.

While Singh is positioned as a secular politician, his ethos, sense of justice and formation of his identity is connected to a Sikh practice.

The very essence of the message of universal love and courage is embedded in a Sikh devotion, rather than a secular idea of loving all humankind. Practising Sikhism defines a way of life – one that is contemplative, meditative and committed to spiritualism and positive actions.

The clash of civilisations

To understand the contemporary role of religion in politics, we need to look at one of our turning points: 9/11. The attacks on New York City and the Pentagon served as a marker of the time foreign and domestic policy in North America was called upon to name Islamic terrorism as a universal enemy.

Once North America and other western governments embraced the rhetoric of a civilisation divide, the psyche of liberal democratic nations split apart. The already tenuous divide between the religious and secular began to rupture further.

This reinforced a binary division and emboldened a powerful discourse of racism and Islamophobia. The basic premise is that Islam represents something universally distinct from Christian belief systems.

This discourse of racism and difference has gained strength and societal control through the election of conservative governments with moral platforms that build on fears and anxieties of susceptible citizens.

Sixteen years of corrosive discourses since 9/11 has led to: Us vs. Them, the Clash of Civilisations and racism.

We are now at the point of the normalisation of white supremacy. It is no longer an oddity or a left-wing conspiracy theory to discuss the presence of fascism and neo-Nazis, these are events widely circulated in our social media feeds and featured during the evening news.

Religious discrimination in Canada

Islamophobia and racism are often understood to be twinned structures of oppression. In many ways they are, but there are complex differences between them. They disseminate and exist in different political, cultural and social taxonomies.

Islamophobia operates through systems of stereotypes, often misunderstanding or misrepresenting the traditions, religious practices and customs of highly diverse ethno-national and racial communities.

Islamophobia has been manufactured in multiple ways in society through popular culture, media, policy and criminalizing targeting Islam and Muslims.

Racism is a larger systemic operation of power denigrating one race while validating or elevating another.

When the Harper Conservatives were in government, they attempted to map onto Canadian national values a form of social conservatism. This was articulated through a distinction between Canada and the “barbaric cultural practices” of others.

The clear lines that were being drawn between what Harper referred to as “old stock Canadians” during a 2015 federal leaders’ debate brought into discourse front and center the relationship between white supremacy and Islamophobia.

It connected the dots between a normative white Christian Canadian identity that could stand against the racialized others.

Now the Conservative Party has a leader who proudly accepts the label: “Harper with a Smile”.

Andrew Scheer has the support of social conservatives in the Conservative Party. He has steadfastly supported free speech over the condemnation of Islamophobia and was absent during the House of Commons vote for the Anti-Islamophobia Motion M-103, overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons.

When losing your cool is not an option

Singh said his ability to remain cool under pressure was largely owed to his experience of being a brown, Sikh and turbaned man, growing up in the 1980s in Brampton, just Northwest of Toronto.

His past experiences of religious and racist intolerance helped to fortify him against racist language and assault. In the moment in which the racist woman yelled at him, she assumed he was a Muslim. Many wondered why Singh did not attempt to correct her misconceived perception; he is not a Muslim, but rather, a Sikh.

Suggesting such a distinction in the moment, he said, would only further the misunderstanding that somehow being Muslim means such treatment is considered justifiable. His reaction, he said, should not be to proclaim his religion. By not correcting this misconception, Singh was acting in solidarity against Islamophobia.

Sikhs have been affected throughout the post-9/11 discourses of Islamophobia, mainly because of this misunderstood identity. In the US, and elsewhere, there has been a rise in hate bias attacks against Sikhs, with the 2012 Oak Creek, Wisconsin, shooting as a visible example.

While there are those who, in the similar vein as Singh, have sought to challenge Islamophobia by standing in solidarity, there have also been many instances where Sikhs in America, the UK and Canada painstakingly distinguish themselves from Muslims.

However, in countless examples, when Islamophobia is experienced in the public sphere against properly identified Muslims, there has been a lack of outcry.

In Canada, the shooting deaths in Quebec’s Sainte-Foy’s Mosque, in which Azzedine Soufiane, Khaled Belkacemi, Aboubakar Thabthi, Abdelkrim Hassane, Mamadou Tanou Barry, and Ibrahim Barry were killed, was unmistakably an act of terrorism.

Canadians across the country mourned this tragedy. And yet was it recognised as an act of terrorism against the citizens of this state?

The day-to-day effects of Islamophobia have led to many Muslims living with heightened experiences of fear and not knowing what they might encounter on a walk to school, a day at work or even waiting for a bus.

The left social-democrats of the New Democratic Party hold steadfastly to their conception of justice, fairness and equality in a secular world. The ways in which people are encountering the public today, however, is seemingly much murkier than these stark divisions.

The issues of racism, religious intolerance and social justice are not central issues for any federal political party. These issues, however, should no longer be viewed as separate from major policy platforms including health, welfare reform, employment, national defense, national security, aboriginal relations and education.

Perhaps a political leader such as Jagmeet Singh will be able to navigate these debates with an alacrity and style we have yet to witness in the Canadian political world.

Davina Bhandar, Adjunct Professor in School of Communication and Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Simon Fraser University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.
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Scroll.in – Partition love story: A Muslim woman finds love with a Sikh man, but there is no happy ending

The tale of Buta Singh and Zainab embodies the tragedy of 1947, and is calling for a Bollywood producer

Zainab and Buta Singh married in 1947 in circumstances about which there is no unanimity. It is said they, nevertheless, grew to love each other. After they sired two children, the couple was forcibly separated.

Their story is emblematic of Partition because their relationship was simultaneously warped, and redemptive, and tragic. Like Partition, it has several versions, of which two will be recounted here.

There is the version that writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia narrates in her magisterial work, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The other is narrated by eminent Hindi fiction writer Krishna Sobti to Alok Bhalla in Partition Dialogues, a collection of his conversations with writers on their experiences of the 1947 catastrophe.

In Butalia’s version, Zainab was abducted from a kafila or caravan headed to Pakistan. She was presumably passed from one man to another until she was sold to Buta Singh, a Jat Sikh from Amritsar district. Butalia does not give us the name of the village.

Buta Singh married Zainab. Despite the ignominy of being purchased, that too by a member of the community engaged in cleansing East Punjab of Muslims, Buta Singh and Zainab came to love each other. Two girls were born to them. Partition ostensibly seemed to have been symbolically overcome through their relationship.

But the ghosts of Partition had not been put to rest. On December 6, 1947, India and Pakistan signed the Inter-Dominion Treaty, which made it incumbent upon the two nation-states to recover as many abducted women as they could.

To implement the treaty, an ordinance was issued. Under it, a woman was deemed abducted if she had entered into a relationship with a man not belonging to her community after March 1, 1947. Search parties were deployed to track abducted women and return them to their families.

One of these search parties came knocking on the door of Buta Singh’s house. It is said his nephews had snitched on Zainab to the search squad. They thought that once Zainab and her children were packed off to Pakistan, their share in the family property would increase.

Such was the law that Zainab’s opinion on whether she wanted to leave Buta Singh, and India, was not required to be elicited. The entire village turned up to see Zainab off. She came out holding her younger child and a bundle of personal belongings.

On reaching the jeep, she turned to Buta Singh and, pointing to their older daughter, said, “Take care of this girl, and don’t worry. I will be back soon.”

Buta Singh was distraught. His anxiety was compounded when he received a letter from Pakistan. It asked him to hurry over to Pakistan as his wife’s family was pressuring her to marry.

Buta Singh sold his land to raise money and arrived in Delhi, where he converted to Islam and took on the name of Jamil Ahmed. He thought it would be easier for him to travel to Pakistan as a Muslim wishing to become its citizen.

He applied for a Pakistani passport. He waited and waited but his passport did not come. His frequent trips to the Pakistan embassy made him such a familiar figure among Pakistani officials that they granted him a short-term visa for Pakistan.

In Pakistan, Zainab’s life was threatening to take a course she had not anticipated. Both her parents were dead. Since the family had been granted a plot of land in Lyallpur in lieu of the property it owned in East Punjab, its legal heirs were Zainab and her sister.

Adjacent to their land was their uncle’s. Keen to keep all the land within the family, the uncle began to mount pressure on Zainab to marry his son, her cousin.

She resisted. Zainab’s cousin, too, did not wish to marry her, not least because she had been the partner of a Sikh. It was during the days Zainab was resisting this familial pressure that Buta Singh received a letter from Pakistan, written by a neighbour of hers, presumably at her behest.

When Buta Singh reached Pakistan, Zainab had been married to her uncle’s son. Perhaps she thought Buta Singh would never come for her.

In his rush to locate Zainab, Buta Singh forgot to report his arrival to the police within 24 hours of reaching Pakistan, a requirement mandatory even in 2017. He was arrested and produced in court. He narrated his story to the magistrate, who issued summons to Zainab.

Zainab came to the court, ringed by his relatives. She told the magistrate: “I am a married woman. Now I have nothing to do with this man. He can take his second child whom I have brought from his house…”

Hours later, in the night, Buta Singh threw himself before a running train. His body was taken for autopsy to Lahore, where a large crowd of people, some weeping, gathered to witness the man who had defied Partition, and overcome his own warped conception of women, to love – and die.

A suicide note was recovered from his body. It said he wished to be buried in Zainab’s village.

But her relatives did not allow the police to execute Buta Singh’s last wish and he was buried in Lahore. Of their love, Butalia writes:

“It was said that Zainab and Buta Singh were happy, that they were even in love. Yet, the man actually bought her, purchased her like chattel: how then could she have loved him?”

Two versions

Butalia created their story through a piecing together of newspaper accounts, documents and an unpublished memoir. Butalia could not get a glimpse into Zainab’s feelings about the two men she married.

Given the stigma associated with abduction and rape, did Zainab overcome Buta Singh’s warped notion of love because of the hope he held out to her for rebuilding her life? Was her love for Buta Singh a strategy of survival? Or was it both?

These questions are rendered redundant in the version that Krishna Sobti narrated to Alok Bhalla. Sobti did not claim to have researched the story. Her version was presumably based on hearsay. Yet, it provides a peep into the politics of remembering Partition.

In Sobti’s version, Zainab does not have a name. She is “the Muslim girl”, plain and simple. It was while fleeing a riotous mob that the Muslim girl ran into Buta Singh’s house and hid under a haystack in the courtyard.

In the evening, Buta Singh, a bachelor, returned home and noticed a chunni sticking out of the haystack. He assured the girl, to quote Sobti, “Don’t be afraid, you are safe here. Stay indoors till the riots are over.” The girl came out and began to stay at his house. Though Buta Singh cooked for her for days, they did not speak to each other.

A few days later, a child chanced upon the Muslim girl in Buta Singh’s house. The word was out. In the evening, Buta Singh returned to a clamorous crowd outside his house.

Sobti tells Bhalla:

“He defended her with great courage and warned his neighbours not to harm her. His honesty and courage touched the girl. She continued to stay with him. Soon they fell in love with each other. In any case… she didn’t have many choices.”

The villagers suggested to Buta Singh that he marry the Muslim girl, who, according to Sobti, thought he was “handsome and decent”. They married, but did not have children at the time the search party arrived at their door. We are not told how the search party sniffed her out.

In the search party were her brothers. They insisted on taking the Muslim girl back to Pakistan. Buta Singh beseeched the authorities to allow her to stay with him as she was legally married to him, of her own free will. But it was to no avail.

In Sobti’s version, too, Buta Singh followed her to Pakistan. The matter of their marriage went to court. The Muslim girl was asked whether she had indeed married Buta Singh. But she refused to speak, not even when he told her that he would die without her.

Of her silence, Sobti explains to Bhalla, “Her brothers had obviously threatened her. It wasn’t difficult to imagine her psychological condition. The court decided against him. Buta Singh was so shattered that he committed suicide.”

Politics of remembering Partition

Oral stories from the past often undergo dramatic changes as these are passed from person to person. By the time it reached Sobti, the love story of Zainab and Buta Singh had morphed into a tale extolling the ideas of Sikh valour and honour.

That Buta Singh had purchased Zainab was elided from Sobti’s version. Instead, she is said to have strayed into the house of Buta Singh the bachelor who could have done anything to her but did not. Because of his impeccable conduct, the Muslim girl fell in love with him, his handsomeness a bonus.

Their love was torn asunder because of her brothers, who shifted from India to Pakistan and returned to take their sister away, unmindful of the suffering they inflicted all around. The story of Zainab and Buta Singh in its retelling indicts the Muslims of India for partitioning the country.

This love story of the Partition era is crying out for a Bollywood producer. Though Butalia’s version is undeniably more layered and captures the heartlessness that Partition was, it is very likely that Bollywood will opt for Sobti’s version in these times of Hindutva domination.

No touch of love jihad there. No depiction of Indians being overtaken by their baser passions – rather, they are always honourable in their conduct, for which they almost always pay a heavy price. A Hindu-Muslim love relationship in 1947 had to countenance the partitioning of the country. A Hindu-Muslim love biopic must be conscious of political sensitivities.

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Scroll.in – Pakistan’s Sikh heritage could be a bridge to peace, if not bound by its hostile ties with India

Every year, thousands of pilgrims from India travel to the land of the gurus, shedding the historical baggage of the two countries.

Op/Ed, 7 July 2017. Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of Guru Nanak, stands on the edge of the Ravi river in Narowal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Surrounded by agricultural fields, it is a modest structure, a single building that houses the smadh of the first Sikh guru, with a few makeshift rooms where the caretakers live.

However, the gurdwara is slowly expanding. Plans for a langar hall (community kitchen) were being laid out when I last visited the shrine a few years ago.

With Sikh religious tourism in Pakistan seeing rapid growth in the past few years, the state has renovated several of these neglected historical Sikh shrines in collaboration with the Sikh community here.

I stood at the edge of the Ravi staring deep into the fields that lay on its eastern bank. With the arrival of the monsoon, the river was swelling. People here believe that every monsoon, the river breaks its banks and reaches the boundary wall of the shrine to offer obeisance to Guru Nanak.

A few days prior to my visit, a large snake was caught in the courtyard of the shrine. The caretakers said it, too, was there to pay homage to the guru.

Guru Nanak spent 17 years in this spot, working on his fields and taking a dip in the waters of this ancient river every day. A gurdwara was constructed here during his lifetime where every evening, kirtan (the singing of devotional songs) was performed and then langar served.

It is here that Guru Nanak appointed Bhai Lehna as his spiritual successor, calling him Guru Angad Dev, thus laying the foundation of the institutionalisation of Sikhism.

Beyond the river, somewhere deep in the fields, camouflaged by a thick cover of trees, is the most dangerous border in the world. An electric fence topped by high-powered search lights, manned by thousands of soldiers, marks this transition from Pakistan to India.

While Pakistani and Indian soldiers exchange fire regularly at the Line of Control, which divides the disputed territory of Kashmir, and the Working Boundary dividing Punjab from Jammu, the International Border remains peaceful.
However, tension looms behind this semblance of peace. Contingents of armies on both sides remain ever vigilant, aware of how fragile this peace is.

Gurdwara diplomacy

Defying this heightened sense of antagonism, hundreds of devotees gather every day at the border on the Indian side to catch a glimpse of Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, armed with powerful binoculars. Pakistan, for them, is not an enemy country but the home of Guru Nanak.

There are about 200 historical gurdwaras scattered across the country that mark important historical events in the lives of the Sikh gurus. These include the birthplaces of Guru Nanak and Guru Ram Das, as well as the smadh of Guru Arjan and that of Guru Nanak.

Every year, thousands of Sikh pilgrims from India and other parts of the world travel to Pakistan, the land of the gurus, to visit these historical sites.

These are remarkable pilgrimages that put aside the historical baggage between India and Pakistan and allow many Sikhs to reconnect with a land that is no longer theirs but continues to occupy an important place in their imagination.

Hatred fuelled by decades of state propaganda is put aside as various communities intermingle, each humanising the other.

Perhaps these pilgrimages are more important for Pakistan than for the Indian Sikh pilgrims. It allows the country to reclaim some of the history it had to abandon after Partition. It reminds the country that it is home to diverse religious traditions, possibly paving the way for a multi-religious society some time in the future.

Muslim Pakistani traders who have never interacted with a Sikh or a Hindu find themselves haggling with these pilgrims all of a sudden, realising they are not the demons they had imagined them to be all these years.

The media reports these events, raising awareness about these historical characters that have otherwise been left out of the national discourse. The increasing inflow of religious tourists is also a blessing for the abandoned Sikh shrines.

In the past decade or so, numerous gurdwaras have been renovated and handed over to the Sikh community. This gurdwara diplomacy has the potential to bring the people of the two countries together and also ensure the religious freedom of minorities in Pakistan.

Held hostage by politics

It is perhaps because of the significant role these pilgrimages play that they often fall prey to the age-old narrative of hostility between India and Pakistan. When tensions between the two countries rise, there is a significant fall in the number of Sikh pilgrims traveling to Pakistan.

According to media reports, Indian authorities barred Sikh pilgrims from visiting Pakistan twice in the last month. In the first week of June, hundreds of devotees were reportedly stopped from attending a gathering at Lahore Dera Sahib to commemorate the assassination of Guru Arjan.

Later in the month, another group of Sikhs was stopped from traveling to Pakistan to mark the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the leader of the Sikh Empire, the reports said.

On the other side of the border too, there are media reports accusing Pakistan of foul play.

Soon after the Indian Army’s “surgical strike” on militant launchpads on the Pakistani side in September, which Islamabad continues to deny, the Indian state alleged that Pakistani authorities had refused to trim the elephant grass at the border close to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib, stopping hundreds of devotees from making their darshan.

Every other year, talk about a peace corridor to be constructed at Kartarpur Sahib surfaces. For several years now, the Sikh community has been lobbying for this corridor that would allow Indian pilgrims to travel to the shrine without a visa, an idea that has been warmly received by officials in both governments on several occasions.

However, the proposal sinks each time the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan hits a new low. It is in such antagonistic times that these gurdwaras and pilgrimages can play an important role in lowering tensions. Which makes it all the more petty that Pakistan’s Sikh heritage is still held hostage by India-Pakistan politics.

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 – Canada: Palbinder Kaur Shergill is the first turbaned Sikh woman judge of provincial Supreme Court

She has represented the interests of the Canadian Sikh community in many cases, including on the right of Sikh students to wear the kirpan in schools.

Vancouver-British Columbia-Candada, 24 June 2017. Indian-origin Palbinder Kaur Shergill on Friday became the first turbaned Sikh woman judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Canada. Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould announced the appointment on Friday under a new judicial application process that was introduced in October last year.

Shergill has been appointed with immediate effect, as sitting Justice EA Arnold-Bailey retired on May 31. She has represented the interests of the Canadian Sikh community in many cases, including one dealing with the right of Sikh students to wear the kirpan in schools.

Welcoming the decision, World Sikh Organisation President Mukhbir Singh said, “The appointment of Justice Shergill is another milestone for the Sikh community in Canada. It is a matter of great pride that today we have the first turbaned Sikh appointed to the judiciary in Canada.”

Shergill migrated to Canada with her parents from Rurka Kalan in Jalandhar at the age of four. She grew up in Williams Lake, British Columbia, and received her law degree from the University of Saskatchewan and now lives in Surrey.

A news release by the department of justice, Canada, said that before being appointed Supreme Court justice, Shergill practised as a lawyer and mediator with her law firm. She was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2012 and is a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for Community Service.

Justice Shergill has been involved with many legal and non-legal organisations, including the Cabinet of Canadians, the Trial Lawyers Association of BC, and the Canadian Bar Association, said the news release.

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Scroll.In – After the Manchester attack, this Sikh taxi driver offered free rides to anyone in need

Singh is part of a community that has been offering great support

UK, 25 May 2017. A J Singh, a taxi driver in Manchester, put a “Free Taxi” sign on his car moments after Monday night’s devastating terror attack at the Manchester Arena.

He spent the entire night helping those who were stranded or separated from their loved ones, and drove many to the hospital.

“I just heard the news and thought Manchester needs our help. As a Sikh, we are meant to help the community when it’s needed…I’ve had people who needed to find loved ones, I’ve dropped some off to the hospital.

They’ve not had any money, they’ve been stranded; there’s no transport in Manchester. All the roads are closed, it’s really hard to get around,” he told Channel 4 News.

Shaken by the attack, he is part of a large community that came to the aid of those affected by the bombing in Manchester. Another cab driver, Sam Arshad, told his colleagues at StreetCars Manchester to give free rides to anyone in need.

There were also many gurdwaras offering food and accommodation to people seeking safety. Messages on Twitter were circulated using the hashtag #RoomForManchester by people offering their homes and hotel rooms as well.

The attack left 22 dead and at least 59 injured when a 22-year-old suicide bomber, whos name is believed to be Salman Abedi, allegedly deployed a bomb outside the venue of an Ariana Grande concert. There were about 21,000 people in attendance.

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Scroll.in – A Partition tragedy: Buried in an ancient Lahore graveyard is a Sikh man known as a martyr to love

Boota Singh was a resident of Ludhiana district of Punjab.

My friend and guide, Iqbal Qaiser, and I walked aimlessly around a section of the Miani Sahib graveyard in Lahore looking for one particular burial spot.

It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. Spread over an area of 1,000 kanals (125 acres), this graveyard, the oldest in the city of Lahore, is estimated to contain more than three lakh graves.

We drove within the graveyard, negotiating early Sunday morning traffic and family members who had come to pay homage to their deceased ancestors. Vendors sitting at corners sprinkled fresh water on their rose petals.

Fragrant tendrils of smoke from burning incense sticks scattered in the air. Life moves at its own leisurely pace at Miani Sahib, while Lahore, encroaching upon it from all sides, bursts with energy.

The entire history of the city of Lahore can be narrated through the graves at Miani Sahib. At one end of the graveyard, in an empty plot cut off from the rest, is the mausoleum of Gul Begum, a concubine of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Just at a little distance from there is the grave of Dullah Bhatti, the rebel zamindar of Pindi Bhattian, who revolted against Emperor Akbar. Driving on we found ourselves facing the entrance to the shrine of Ghazi Ilmuddin, a vigilante who murdered the Hindu publisher Mahashe Rajpal in 1929 for publishing a blasphemous book on the Prophet of Islam.

Qaiser remembered that the grave we were looking for was somewhere behind this shrine. We stepped around numerous mud graves, most of them unmarked, trying to look for any signs.

We walked over to a middle-aged man fixing a mud grave. “Do you know where Jamil Ahmad is buried?” asked Qaiser. When the man expressed his ignorance, Qaiser added: “He is also known by the name of Boota Singh.”

Post-Partition repatriation

Boota Singh was a resident of the district of Ludhiana in East Punjab, now in India. During the riots of Partition, when Muslim families were being murdered and chased out of East Punjab, he saved the life of a young girl called Zainab, who had been separated from her family.

He married her and they soon had two daughters, Tanveer and Dilveer Kaur.

Almost a decade after Partition, the Indian and Pakistani governments decided to return the women separated from their families at the time of Partition, who now lived across the border from them.

It was around this time that state authorities picked up Zainab along with her younger daughter, Dilveer, to be returned to Pakistan. Her family had settled at a small village called Nurpur, near the border, on the outskirts of Lahore. This is where Zainab was repatriated.

Taking his older daughter with him, Boota Singh went to Delhi where he tried to get the authorities to bring back his wife and child. When he was unsuccessful, and without many other options, he decided to convert to Islam and enter Pakistan to get his wife and daughter back.

That is how he became Jamil Ahmad. Crossing the border illegally, he reached Nurpur. Here, however, Zainab’s family members beat him up and handed him over to the state authorities.

Legal hearings followed in which Boota Singh claimed that he had come for his wife and if she could appear in court once, she would testify in his favour. Eventually the Lahore High Court summoned Zainab.

The case had caught the attention of the public by now. There was much interest about what Zainab was going to say. Zainab arrived at the High Court, surrounded by her family members, and wearing a burqa.

Not only did she refuse to go back to Boota Singh, she also requested the court to take away her younger daughter who had been living with her. There is much speculation as to why Zainab testified the way she did, the most popular one being that she was under pressure from her family members.

The romantics who later made movies and wrote books about their love story simply could not imagine any other option.

‘Leave now’

Before my visit to Boota Singh’s grave, I had decided to visit the village of Nurpur and see if anyone there remembered the story. On a hot sunny afternoon, Qaiser and I walked into a barber’s shop.

A ceiling fan creaked as it rotated. An old man sat next to us reading the newspaper, while the barber was busy trimming the beard of a younger man.

“Have you heard about the incident of Zainab and Boota Singh?” asked Iqbal Qaiser. The barber stopped his work. The old man put down his newspaper, while the man sitting on the barber’s chair turned around to see us.

“Why are you asking?” asked the barber.

“We are journalists,” said Qaiser. “We were hoping to meet someone from Zainab’s family and find out about their side of the story. Much has been said about them especially in Indian Punjab. We want to find out if they have anything to say about the whole episode.”

The barber said: “You are our guests so we cannot be rude to you but I have to warn you. Please don’t repeat this story in front of anyone from the village. Zainab’s family still lives here and is sensitive about the issue.

If they find out that both of you are sniffing around God knows what they will do to you. It is my suggestion that you kindly leave the village without asking any more questions.”

We listened to his advice.

However, I did not give up the attempt to connect with someone from Zainab’s village. For months I looked for someone from Nurpur. I did find a few, some who even agreed to help me contact someone from Zainab’s family.

However all of them eventually backed out after getting in touch with her family. The family was completely averse to talking about the matter even almost seven decades after the incident.

Dejected, Boota Singh jumped in front of a train and killed himself. His last wish was to be buried in Nurpur, the village of his beloved, but that was not to be. Zainab’s family would not allow such a breach of their honour. Boota Singh was buried at Miani Sahib. His legend however was only beginning to grow.

His grave became a shrine for young lovers. He was called Shaheed-e-Mohabbat. Fresh flowers were brought to his grave every day. His followers wanted to solidify his mud grave and construct a brick shrine around it. However there were others who were vehemently opposed to any such glorification of a Sikh.

They would come in the night and destroy his grave. Boota Singh’s supporters would construct the grave again in the morning. For many days after Boota Singh’s death this tussle continued before it eventually died a natural death. Boota Singh’s grave remained a mud grave and no shrine was constructed over it.

“Perhaps the grave has been razed to make way for new graves,” said the custodian of the graves at Miani Sahib. “As you can see there is a dearth of space here.”

Qaiser asked, “What is the average life of a grave here?”

The custodian replied: “For a mud grave about 50 years to 60 years. It really depends. Graves only remain alive till the point visitors come to it. They die when the visitors stop coming.”

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 – ‘Death holds no fear for us’: A Sikh soldier’s insights into the horrors of World War I

Jangnamah, a genre of poetic writing, can also be a rich historical resource, as a work from WWI reveals

Published 10 April 2017

Nand Singh, an Indian poet and soldier who witnessed World War I fighting under the British in Aden, opens his Jangnamah Europe verse with the assassination of the Shehzada of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Serbians.

His poem then goes on to talk about the events which led to the German invasion of Belgium and how “the compassionate British Government, stood with Belgium and France against the arrogant Germany who broke all the agreements”.

Nand Singh’s work and other Jangnamahs of the British period in Punjab are valuable literary and historical narratives providing rare subaltern perspectives about the colonial wars and conflicts.

Even prior to World War I, Punjabi soldiers had fought under British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war, Anglo-Egyptian war, Second Opium war, Boxer Rebellion in China and multiple campaigns in the North West Frontier.

There was very little documentation of this period “from below”, and of this limited historiography Jangnamah poetry holds a vital but largely forgotten position. Nand Singh finished Jangnamah Europe on June 7, 1919, and is arguably the first work in Punjabi discussing the European and Middle Eastern people, empires and politics.

Jangnamah, a genre of historical poetic writing which documented the events of a war, entered Punjab in the late 16th century as a literary response to the Persian epics.

It found patronage in the hands of Punjabi Muslim poets like Maulvi Rukundin, Hamid and Shahjahan Muqbal who honed this craft commemorating the 7th century Islamic wars of Karbala, Badr and Uhud.

Afghan invasions, the crumbling Mughal Empire and rise of the Sikh power in late 18th century created another period of great turmoil and conquest in Punjab. This brought war as a tangible phenomenon to the Punjabi poet and led to a renaissance in the Jangnamah literature.

It shifted from religious metaphorical style to a historically accurate poetic description of war as witnessed by the contemporary poets.

The Magnum Opus of this genre is about the final war of the Sikh empire of Punjab. Jangnamah Hind Punjab, or Singhan Firanghian (Sikhs and British) as it is variously titled, was composed by Shah Muhammad, a Punjabi Muslim from Gurdaspur in the central Punjab.

It chronicles the events which built up to the First Anglo-Sikh war in 1845, from the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the treachery and politics that followed in his court and finally the battle which the Sikhs lost.

In the British Raj, specifically during the mutiny of 1857, defeated Sikh chiefs heralded the British call to “retrieve their characters” by taking service in the British Indian Army. Most of those who signed up subsequently served in the North West Frontier, which remained the constant theatre of war under the British.

The bleak, bloodthirsty passes inspired a great deal of poetry ranging from the romanticised ballads of Rudyard Kipling to the folk Pashto legends of Malalai of Maiwand, who died rallying the Afghan Ghazis to fight the “British infidels” in the battle of Maiwand during the second Anglo-Afghan war.

At least half a dozen Jangnamahs were composed in this period; the most notable are the ones about the siege of Delhi during the Mutiny and the expeditions of Chitral, Tirah and Malakand in the North Western Frontier during the last decade of 19th century.

Havildar Nand Singh, who composed the Janganamah Europe giving an empirical account of the First World War was a Sergeant in the Malay State Guides. His regiment was raised in 1896 with its headquarters in Taiping, Malaysia. It had its origins in the Perak Sikh police force and composed mainly of Punjabi Sikh and Muslim soldiers.

The Guides had offered overseas service multiple times but it was not until World War I that the regiment was baptised by blood in Yemen. On September 26, 1915, they left Taiping to join the Aden Field Force.

Nand Singh talks about the recruitment that how everyone from the weaver, the bard to the teacher, the clerk and even Pundits and Maulvis were drafted into the service and trained in digging bunkers, shooting rifles and saluting the officers.

One distinctive aspect of the work is that the poet repeatedly returns to talk about the misery and longing of the women left behind in their homes.

For them, both local officials and Germans turn villainous, they lament the local police constable who threatened their sons with false accusations to force them to enlist and loathe the Zaildar and village heads who ‘took’ their sons, brothers and husbands away from them.

With the progress of war they start receiving messages of soldier’s deaths from Regimental stations and they moan and wail at Germany for its cruelty, for killing their sons in the unheard lands of France and Basra.

In contrast to most other Jangnamahs of this period his tone is not of flattery, for example he uses word Sahib once only for Lord Kitchener. However, he recurrently stresses “Namak Halali” (loyalty) whether it be of the 14th Sikh Regiment who fought almost to their last man at Gallipoli or as a virtue for new recruits to uphold.

His work thus provides a measured outlook of the war and an insight into what Regimental honour and loyalty meant to the native soldiers.

Adulation is more frequent in British-sponsored works like Qasim Ali’s Zafarnamah-i-Kabul which is considered a rendering of the first Afghan war which favours the British to counter the popular Jangnamahs of this war composed by Hamid Kashmiri and Mohammad Gholam Gholami.

Similarly, the Jangnama of Chitral, in which Subadar Wadhawa Singh of 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment sketches the dramatic murder of the ruler of Chitral by his brother Amir-ul-Mulk, the siege of the fort and then finally the relief under Major General Sir Robert Low, also suffers from a British eulogising style.

It was presented by the poet to his Colonel S V Gordon in 1896 and seems to have then been used as an instrument to firm the fidelity of the native troops.

Nand Singh discusses multiple theatres of action ranging from Gallipoli, Kut-al-Amara and Baghdad to the battle of Verdun on Western Front.

He vividly describes his own regiment’s multiple confrontations in and near Aden and their bravery which won a Military Cross, an Indian Order of Merit, eight Indian Distinguished Service Medals and praise and appreciation from Major General J M Stewart, General Officer commanding the Aden Field Force.

Even the war’s end did not bring relief for Nand Singh and his fellow soldiers. When the guns and artillery were silenced they continued to lose their lives as they were struck down by the influenza epidemic which eventually claimed the lives of an estimated 14 million Indians (not just soldiers). Nand Singh writes:

“With the telegraphs of armistice, nemesis changed its face/ The deadly fever spread, it takes a man’s life faster than the bullet’s pace”

In 1914 the Guide had initially refused to mobilise. The reasons have been variously linked to the seditious Ghadarite influence, the Komagata Maru incident, and sympathy of Muslim soldiers with Khalifat Movement.

Although they did eventually renew their offer the British were ever mindful of this reluctance and disbanded the regiment in 1919.

The soldiers were either absorbed into other regiments or returned to Punjab with gratuity and pensions. Nand Singh most probably returned home having proved his ‘Namak Halali’ but ironically with a seditious label.

The beauty of the Jangnamah narrative is that it reveals the soldiers’ courage in its most naked form, celebrating their ability brave fear and continue against the odds. Nand Singh sustains this tradition and writes:

“Death holds no fear for us, what honour is it to fall abaft holding the Saber fine?

After raising the Sarkar’s rifle, what honour is it to fright and whine?

Die thyself or kill thy enemy, what honour is it to war without all thy might?

After enlisting on the rolls, what honour is it to fear the death or even its sight?

Seeking to prove the loyalty, what honour is it hold back from the battle field?

Never keep the trader’s heart, what honour is it to blame the fate and yield?”

Raman Singh Chhina is working on an anthology of native histories about the colonial conflicts in the Indian subcontinent. He is a graduate from Delhi Technological University and works as a Credit Risk Analyst. His major interests lie in Public Policy and Socio-Political History. [centre/italics]

This article first appeared on
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Scroll.In – Ontario passes motion describing 1984 anti-Sikh riots as ‘genocide’, India dismisses move

The central government has rejected the ‘misguided’ motion, said MEA Spokesperson Gopal Baglay.

Toronto, 7 April 2017. India on Friday rejected a motion passed by the Ontario Legislative Assembly describing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide”, reported PTI. The motion, which was moved on Thursday, was passed with 34 Members of Provincial Parliament voting in favour and only five against it.

“We reject this misguided motion which is based on a limited understanding of India, its constitution, society, ethos, rule of law and the judicial process,” Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Gopal Baglay said. The Centre’s views on the motion have been conveyed to the Canadian leadership, he added.

The motion was passed by MPP Harinder Malhi belonging to the ruling Liberal Party of Ontario. The motion said the Legislative Assembly of Ontario should seek to condemn all forms of violence, hatred, prejudice, racism in India and other parts of the world, “including the 1984 Genocide perpetrated against the Sikhs throughout India”.

Several Sikhs, who had gathered in the gallery of the Legislative Assembly, cheered and shouted slogans as the motion was passed, ANI reported.

The riots had broken out on 1 November 1984, after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. During the riots, as many as 2,433 people had died in Delhi alone.

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