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From Sikhs into Singhs

April 1, 2021 Authored by: Ram Swarup

Alchemy of the Changes

Lions of the Punjab by the well-known American anthropologist, Mr. Richard G. Fox, deserves attention. Despite its shortcomings of approach and perspective, it contains a good deal of interesting social data which throw light on the present Punjab situation. 

Richard Fox observes that Sikhism as we know it today is very different from what it was even at the turn of the century. “The Sikhs in the nineteenth century embraced no single cultural meaning, religious identity, or social practice, rather, an amalgam of what later reformers made into separate Hindu and Sikh cultural principles prevailed.” Today, Sikhism is identified more or less with one sect, the Keshdharis, and their practices; but, till recently, it was very much larger than Singhism both doctrinally as well as it terms of its supporters. 

At that time, the terms Sikhs and Sikhism referred to “Several cultural or symbolic identities”, and these identities also “subsumed a range of quite different religious beliefs and social practices.” The boundaries between these sects and belief were indistinct and a self-denominated Sikh might follow any identify and “an amalgam of religious and social practices.” In short, Sikhism was continuous with Hinduism and it reflected the variety of the parental Hindu society. 

Keshdhari Sikhs formed only the section of this diverse society; they were important but not dominant. 

The demand for a single identity is the requirement of dogmatic and fundamentalist faiths; the spirit of gnostic and Indic religions is different. 

The prospect for the Keshdharis appeared rather bleak when the British government formally took over Punjab. Writing in 1853, Sir Richard Temple thought that the Sikhs of Nanak “will perhaps cling to the faith of their fathers,” but he did not have the same hope for the “Singhs of Gobind,” or the Keshdharis. He found that they “no longer regard the Khalsa now that the prestige has departed from it. These men joined in thousands, and they now depart in equal number. They rejoin the ranks of Hinduism whence they originally came…” 

Winning Side 

D. Petrie, deputy of the intelligence department tells us that their fortune revived temporarily after the 1857 mutiny since they were identified with the winning side. But very soon, they were again on the wane. According to him, the younger generation began to find the restrictions imposed, by their religion irksome, and there were no longer raids, looting or reprisal to compensate for the austerities entailed by the observance of religious formalities. As a natural consequence there has been a considerable relapse of Sikhism into the Hinduism from which it sprung. By the performance of a few expiatory rites, the payment of a certain sum of money to Brahmans, and the disuse of the military surnames, the Sikh reverts as a Jat peasant into the ordinary Hindu community.”

But this process was soon reversed; they were adopted by the British for favored treatment. According to Richard Fox, this had to do with the British thinking of the day. We are told that the 19th century Europe thought racially; it thought of mankind divided into biological units; Some hardly men, others inferior and yet a minority biologically favored and born to rule. The Europeans carried this belief wherever they went. In India, the British adopted the bearded Sikhs as a “martial race”. 

The Raj forced the indigenous society to evolve according to its cultural beliefs. The Singhs were shaped in the British image and they themselves mistook this image as their true self-identity. The British implemented selective politics based on their reconstruction of Singh racial tradition. This worked upon the Sikhs as an “internalized” cultural concept. “Little did they realize that the “cultural selection” to which they were adapting themselves was a “colonial one,” a “British reconstruction.” 

Racial Thinking 

It is true that the European thinking of the day was racial and had been so for several centuries. For example, when Europe first reached American shores, there was an extensive discussion among its intellectuals about true status of the natives of the newly-discovered land. The wide consensus reached was that the natives were not human at all, but were merely humuncule, some kind of monsters or sorry creatures. 

In India itself, the British administrations, scholars and the missionaries made the Sikhs into Scythian immigrants from across the north-western borders who “have preserved inherited racial characteristics foreign to Orientals,” to put it in the language of J.H. Gordon. Yet this racial explanation in the form given by Dr. Fox is rather native. The pick-and-choose policy of the British had more to it than their current racial beliefs. The policy was based on deeper colonial calculations.

Richard Fox’s explanation is on a par with Ethne K. Marenko’s who explains the largescale recruitment of Singhs in the British army in terms of harmless, perhaps aesthetic, “desire of the British to have orderly ranks of turbaned bearded soldiers, necessitating that they all be the Keshdhari Sikhs and followers of Gobind Singh.”   

Once colonialism is established and the direct display of the sword is less visible, it works through divide-and-rule – through discriminatory policies, through selective patronage; it creates privileged enclaves. In the history of colonialism, imperial power has often enlisted the support of local minorities in ruling over the majority of the nation. In India, Hindus, being the majority and forming the backbone of Indian nationalism, had to be overseered, divided, dismembered; they had to be separated from their intellectual elites and their more selective elements. Even their history, traditions, religion and intellectual and cultural life in general had to be undermined. The British set about this task in different ways all over India. The new Sikhs policy in the Punjab was part of that larger effort. 

New Role   

Once the Sikhs were picked up in pursuit of that policy, every effort was made to prepare them for a new role. A deeply ideological effort was made to give them a new self-identity supported by one which is also visible and easily recognizable. This Sikhs’ scriptures and history were re-interpreted in the light of the new task ahead. Every effort was made to utilize existing social divisions and prejudices. In an effort to detach the Sikhs from the Hindus, it was even said that they were closer to the Muslims than to the Hindus. Alfred Bingley, a high British official, described Sikhism as “Muhammadanism minus circumcision and cow-killing plus faith in the gurus.” Some modern writers love to flaunt this supposed affinity between Islam and Sikhism. 

At the time under discussion, there was great churning and stock-taking going on throughout India and there were many movements for social reform. Sikhism also was passing through the same phase. But even its desire for social reform was utilized for detaching from Hinduism. The neo-Sikh reformers talked of “Hindu accretions”, not of the equally Hindu core, character and constitution of Sikhism. Take away Advaita, Hindu Moksha, Yoga, rebirth; take away Hari, Rama, Krishna; take away the stories and characters of the Puranas and the Mahabharata from the Adi Granth, and very little remains of it and even of the gurus. 

The ideological work was supplemented by favored treatment in jobs and land grants. The career of the army was opened to the Sikhs in a big way. In 1910, they constituted one-fifth of the total army strength. All of them had to be Keshdhari Sikhs. No wonder, there was large-scale conversion and adoption of the tokens of the Keshdharis. H.O.O. Garrett, an army officer, observes about the recruitment during the First World War that “it was almost a daily occurrence for say Ram Chand to enter our office and leave it as Ram Singh – Sikh recruit.” 

The Sikhs, particularly the Keshdhari Jat Sikhs, were favored all along the line, in the army, in administrative service, in land grants. For example, in the grant of lands in the newly-opened Chenab Canal colony in 1892, Jats, who were considered good cultivators, were preferred. Of the immigrants in the new colony, 23 per cent were Jats. But of this number, 57 Per Cent Were Muslim Jats, 40 per cent Sikh Jats and only three per cent Hindu Jats. 

Transformation of Sikh Society

The combined result of British policies supported by economic and political sanctions and penalties was that the status of Hindus became depressed. Exodus from Hinduism to Sikhism began to take place on a large scale. Hindu population in Punjab began to decline sharply. For example, during 1901-11, in Jullundhar (now Jalandhar) district. Sikhs increased by 40 Per Cent, while Hindus declined by 27 per cent. In Ludhiana district, the Sikh increase was 25.5 Per Cent, while Hindus decreased by 51 Per Cent. We have the same story for the districts of Firozpur, Gurudaspur and Kapurthala state. The same movement in the same direction is visible during the next decade, 1911-21, though the tempo was somewhat slackened. 

The decline in the Hindu Jat Population reflects the same trend. In the central region of Punjab comprising the districts of Amritsar, Gurudaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, and Firozpur, during 1881-1931, the combined population of the Hindus and Sikh Jats was 88-91 Per Cent – the rest were Muslim Jats. Of the combined Hindu and Sikh Jat population, Sikh Jats were 53.36 Per Cent in 1881. They became 79.35 Per cent in 1931. Meanwhile, the number of Hindu Jats came down from 37.81 to a mere 9.37 Per Cent during the same period. 

This precipitate loss remained unnoticed partly because there was a past history of Hindus becoming Sikhs and Sikhs reverting back to Hinduism. But this time there were also some new features. The process was one-sided and the Sikhs were developing a new separative consciousness. 

Two Fronts 

There were two fronts and two movements working simultaneously. They were closely interlinked. One was to separate the Sikhs from the Hindus. The other was the conversion of the Sikhs themselves into a single category of the Keshdhari Sikhs. Increasingly the Hindus were no good except as recruiting ground for the Sikhs. And while attempts were being made to separate Sikhism from Hinduism, Sikhism itself was acquiring a new look. The Singhs were taking over the Panth and the Nankpanthis and Sahajdharis were being pushed out or were being sucked into a new self-identity. 

According to the 1891 census, the Keshdharis were still a minority of the Sikhs even after twenty years of propaganda and patronage. They were 47 Per Cent, while the Nanakpanthis, who included the Hindu Nanakpanthis and the Sahajdharis Nanakpanthis, were 53 Per Cent. But by 1931, the number of Keshdharis increased from 8,39,000 to 35,89,000 that is about four times. On the other hand, during the same period, the number non-Keshdhari Sikhs declined from 9,76,000 in 1891 to 2,84,000 in 1931, or about three times and a half. Keshdharis became 92 Per Cent and the Nanakpanthis and Sahajdharis were reduced to only 8 Per Cent of the total Sikh population.

Even in 1891, 5,79,000 Sikhs said that they were Hindu Sikhs. This was one-third of the total Sikh population. This number include not only Nanakpanthis and Sahajdharis, but 79,000 of them were also Gobind Singhs. By 1931 however they were completely wiped out and they numbered only 2000. The inner consolidation was complete. Sikhism acquired a near-identification with Singhism.

The process of conversion, however, was long and the struggle arduous and the results were meagre-for even Keshdharis could not break away from their Hindu moorings. 

Even as late as 1910, the British are pained to find that there is a considerable number of Sikhs” who, if they have not actually accepted, have never been at any pains to repudiate the contention that the Sikhs are part and parcel of the Hindu nation. About the same time, Baba Gurbaksh Singh Bedi of Rawalpindi, presided over a Hindu conference at Multan and declared that the “Sikhs were merely a section of the Hindu nation”. The Baba was severely criticized by the members of the Singh Sabhas. 

Writing his intelligence report in 1911, D. Petrie finds that there are two sections in the Sikh community, both pulling in totally different directions. “One section “favors, or at any rate views with indifference, the reabsorption of the Sikhs into Hinduism,” while the second finds a distinct line of cleavage between Hinduism and Sikhism and devotes itself to maintaining the Sikh faith in its original purity.” 

Impress of Hinduism 

He observes with pain that the orthodox Sikhs are, “brought into the world, married and buried by Brahmins,” that they flock in thousands to Hardwar and other Hindu places of pilgrimage”. He notices that the impress of Hinduism” is borne by the orthodox Sikhs whether in the army or out of it – even the army which was considered a symbol of the new orthodoxy. The orthodoxy of a Sikh was understood by the British administrators and scholars as his loyalty to his sovereign”. 

The Arya Samaj was an important constituent of the milieu of the period under discussion. So it is good. Mr. Fox brings it into the picture though he does it only peripherally. 

Today we only hear of the conflict between the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabhas. But there was a time when there was a lot of cooperation between the two. Both had a common Programme. Both were monotheists. Both denounced image-worship. Both opposed Islam and Christian missions. Both opposed caste and Purdah. Both stood for widow-marriage and women’s education. No wonder that Swami Dayananda went for the first time to Punjab in 1877 at the invitation of a Sikh leader, Sardar Vikram Singh. At Ludhiana, he was the guest of Sardar Jayamal Singh and at Amritsar of Sardar Dayal Singh Majithia. When the Arya Samaj was first started in Punjab at Lahore, its first secretary was Bhai Jawahar Singh. 

Arya Samaj and Singh Sabhas

But after the initial cooperation between the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabhas the two, however, parted company. In the language of Dr. Fox, the Arya Samaj was “proclaiming a Pan-Hindu set of beliefs, inclusive of the Sikhs, that the British feared was subversive.” They feared that the two might come together against the colonial rule and, in fact, the Arya Samaj, with its more radical Programme, may even altogether “take over” the Singh Sabhas: this worry made them support the Singh Sabha’s separatist Programme in a big way. To the author, the two groups represented the “lower middle-class consciousness”, whatever this may mean; and the split between them might still “not have succeeded without the support of British authorities and without subsidy of gentry and princes”. 

More Radical

The author also raises another important question. He finds Arya Samaj “more radical, or anti-colonial, in beliefs and in class origins of its leadership than was the Singh movement”, it had “even earlier than the Singhs come to oppose the British”; its constituency, namely the Hindus, were also “In the most economically distressed areas”; in short, all the ingredients of a revolutionary situation-an impoverished constituency, a radical philosophy of anti-colonial protest – were there. Yet why did the Aryas fail to make the same impression as the Singh Sabhas did?

The Puzzle is easily answered. The Arya Samaj was more than a reform movement; it stood for the consolidation of the Hindus which had grave political implications for British Colonialism. So the British came with a heavy hand on the Arya Samaj movement. It could not cope with the heavy odds. 

For the same reason, it failed to penetrate the rural areas and canalize the developing social and economic unrest; for unlike the Singh Sabhas, its urban “Hindu meanings had never been supported, selectively maintained, trumpeted; and realized in the rural areas by the colonial power itself.” Making the point still clearer, Richard Fox says: “Singh reformist movement captured radical rural protest because the identity promulgated had been previously constituted and subsidized by British colonialism, whereas the more revolutionary and anti-colonial Programme of the Aryas had not.”

There was an added reason for the comparatively poor showing of the Arya Samaj. Due to centuries of repression, Hindus had become passive. Even during the period under discussion, Hindus as such were kept out of the army. Richard Fox comments that “the Indian army recruited no Hindu regiments or companies as such; as far as the military was concerned. Hindus did not form a single “class” for purposes of recruitment. So there was no incorporation of an identity and therefore nothing equivalent to the martial Singh symbolism for Aryas to develop into anti-colonial collective action”. Such Hindus as were recruited had only a caste identity which, in fact, worked, as it was meant to do, negatively on the concept of Hindu consolidation. The weakness of the Arya Samaj, in quite a measure; reflected the weakness of the larger Hindu society. 

But considered on a limited plane, did the Arya Samaj really fail? The answer depends on the way one looks at it. The Congress adopted the plank of the Arya Samaj minus its concern for Hinduism. Its reformist Programme and its message of Swadeshi and Swarajya became part of the national consciousness, but its feeling for Hindu consolidation suffered a great decline in prestige. In due Course, due to many forces at work, even Hindu self-identity or self-designation became unfashionable and something “communal” and “reactionary”. The separatist movement had to be wooed and this wooing became part of the national political reflex and wisdom. It was hoped to meet the phenomenon of rising Muslim consolidation under the League by self-liquidation and self-fragmentation by the Hindus. After independence, this phenomenon became even more pronounced. 

Loyal Note

Richard Fox tells us how the Singh movement, starting on a loyal note became increasingly restive, how it made use of growing rural unrest for consolidating its power. The communal consciousness of separation over which the British first presided, threatened to boomerang; it created a new pressure-power well represented in the army. The Singhs felt that their rewards were not commensurate with their loyalty. In 1920s, their dissatisfaction brought them into open conflict with the British authorities – a conflict which the author, with obvious hyperbole, calls the third Sikh war. 

In a certain sense, the Singhs became anti-British but they had also developed a separatist consciousness getting alienated from the mainstream. Now the question is whether they will shed their separative consciousness. Will they realize that what once might have made some sense makes no sense any longer? Will they find their roots again or will they be satisfied with the artificial identity imposed on them in a certain phase of history? This is the main question Richard Fox provides no answer to it. India will have to find its own answer. 

(Articles published in The Times of India, on October 20-22, 1986)

[Source: Ram Swarup, Hinduism and Monotheistic Religions, pp. 291-301]


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