News & View




  I S C

  Research Project

  About Us




– Raison d' etre and the elan of the Sikh Revolution –

Jagjit Singh

The Dynamics of Revolutionary Movements
The dynamics of change (motion) are different from the laws of inertia. This is particularly true of revolutions which lead to major upheavals. A great distinguishing feature of the revolutionary movements is their emotive upsurge which is surcharged more by ideological inspiration than by mundane considerations.

Commenting on the French Revolution, Tocqueville writes: ‘I have often asked myself what is the source of that passion for political liberty, which in every age has caused man to achieve the greatest results ever accomplished by man; I no longer think that the true love of liberty is even ever born from the mere view of the material comforts that it secures. That which in all ages has so strongly attached to it the hearts of certain men is its own attractions, its own charm, quite apart from any material advantage; it is the joy of being able to speak, to act, to breathe, without restraint under no sovereign but God and the law. He who desires in liberty anything other than itself is born to be a servant.’1

Lefebvre and Rude express, more or less, the same viewpoint. ‘For the last half century students have applied themselves, and rightly so, to the task of showing how the revolutionary spirit originated in a social and economic environment. But we should commit no less an error in forgetting that there is no true revolutionary spirit without the idealism which alone inspires sacrifices2 ....it needed more than economic hardship, social discontent, and the frustration of political and social ambitions to make a revolution. To give cohesion of the discontents and aspirations of widely varying social classes there had to be some unifying body of ideas, common vocabulary of hope and protest, something, in short, like a common “revolutionary psychology.” In the revolutions of our day this ideological preparation has been the concern of political parties but there were no such parties in the eighteenth century France. In this case, the ground was prepared, in the first place, by the writers of the Enlightenment.3
If this be true of the French Revolution, the role of Sikh ideology in the genesis and development of the Sikh Revolution assumes even greater significance. The need to provide ‘cohesion’ and a common ‘revolutionary psychology’ to the mutually hostile caste elements was far greater and indispensable that it was in the class society of France. Without indulging here in abstract issues, we only wish to emphasise that the primary role and importance of the ideological and emotional content of revolutionary movements are well recognized.

Revolutionary and Post-revolutionary Phases
Ideological upsurges, wherein the participants, for the time being atleast, rise above ordinary human and environmental limitations, wherein groups and classes forget their parochial narrow interests, loyalties or antipathies and make common cause for a higher objective, are a phenomenon distinct from the placid course of human history. As such, the study of the revolutionary phase of a movement should not be lumped together with that of its post-revolutionary phase in a manner so as to undermine the distinctiveness of the former. Secondly, the two phases cannot be measured by the same yardstick. To evaluate the revolutionary aspect of a movement in the light of its post-revolutionary developments would be no more valid than it would be to ascribe the rise of waves in the ocean to the very gravitational pull of the earth which brings them back to their original. Thirdly, the history of the revolutionary phase of movements should not be regarded as inconsequential, simply because revolutions, in the course of time, fall from the high ideological pitch to which they raise the people. Besides inching humanity forward towards its ultimate goal of freedom and equality, the revolutionary movements provide a perpetual source of inspiration for future efforts. This is more true of the Sikh movement, because its study shows that the Indian mind is not inherently or irrevocably committed to social reaction.

It may be pointed out here that the Sikh Revolution showed greater tenacity in retaining the social equality and political freedom it had won. The Estates-General assembled on May 5, 1789, a military dictatorship under the guise of the Directory was inaugurated on Oct. 5, 1795, and Bonaparte delivered his Coup d’ etat on Nov. 9-10, 1799. Gibbon writes : ‘At the end of the first century of the Hijra, the Caliphs were the most potent and absolute monarchs of the globe. Their prerogatives were not prescribed, either in right or in fact, by the power of the nobles, the freedom of the commons, the privileges of the Church, the votes of the senate, or the memory of a free constitution. The authority of the Companions of Mohammed expired with their lives and the chiefs of the Arabian tribes left behind in the desert their spirit of equality and independence.4 It took over 100 years for Ranjit Singh to emerge; and even under him and the Misal Chiefs ‘the free followers of Gobind could not be the observant slaves of an equal member of the Khalsa.5 If the revolutionary achievements of the French and Islamic Revolutions cannot be ignored because of their later developments, there is no reason why it should be done in the case of the Sikh Revolution.

Overall view
One is amused to read the fable in which blind men try to make out the shape of the elephant by feeling the different parts of the animal separately. The same mistake is made by the historians who characterize the Sikh movement by emphasizing some of its aspects while ignoring others equally important. Any interpretation of the Sikh movement must attempt to find a satisfactory explanation to one and all of its prominent features. Besides, they fail to differentiate between the revolutionary and the post-revolutionary phases of the movement and try to judge the former in the light of the latter.

We have been concerned only with the revolutionary phase of the Sikh movement. It was, as we have tried to show, an organic growth. Any characterization of the revolutionary Sikh movement must attempt to interpret one and all of its important features.

Nam Dev, Kabir, Basawa, Chaitanaya and other savants repudiated, in varying accent, the caste ideology, but in no case these protests resulted in a movement aiming to cut itself completely from the caste society. The most radical departure was the one introduced by Basawa. But, his followers, the Lingayats, as already seen, got frightened, as if it were, by this very radicalism and did not pursue it to its logical conclusion. They did not want or dared not, to cut framework of the caste order.6 Consequently, Basawa’s experiment got arrested. It remained more of an accident rather than as a purposeful anti-caste movement. In fact, there was little room for any anti-caste innovation to make much headway, or even retain its anti-caste character, unless it was organized into a movement and consistently pursued with the set aim of breaking away from the caste society. It is the Sikh movement alone, which, in the medieval times, consistently planned and worked to establish the Sikh Panth outside the caste society and tried to maintain its separate identity even after the time of the Gurus.

Secondly, there is not one Indian religious movement, other than the Sikh movement, which attempted to face the political problems of the age.

Thirdly, there is no other movement of Indian origin which even conceived that the downtrodden people should be the masters of their own political destiny.

Fourthly, the Sikh movement made the maintenance of ethical standards and conduct, as integral parts of its militant programme. In fact, the movement was militarized in order to achieve the highly ethical ideals of complete human freedom and equality. In the words of Chaupa Singh, Guru Gobind Singh said : “If the Sikh spirit is retained during raj (political sway) it would be a blessing; otherwise it would be a bane. It is difficult to keep alive the Sikh spirit along with raj. The sense of discrimination is lost.6 This marriage between morality and militancy was not a mere theoretical exercise or a nominal ideal. The testimony of Qazi Nur-ud-Din leaves no doubt that the Sikh revolutionary maintained the highest standards of moral conduct.7 The author of Fatuhat Nama-i-Samadi, who otherwise calls the Khalsa wicked, haughty and ungrateful, nonetheless writes: ‘If a woman falls into their hands they look upon her as their mother.’7 a Forster states that the Khalsa derived its strength from the ‘Forbearance of sensual pleasures.’8 ‘There are few stories in Sikh history of outrage to women and torture to men such as stain the pages of south Indian history . . . .8 a As most of these revolutionaries were drawn from those segments of the population which are known to be lax in those very qualities8 b the Qazi and others praised the Sikhs, the credit for raising them to lofty ethical levels cannot be traced to any source other than the ideology of the movement itself. And, it is a feature which cannot be set aside or bypassed.

Fifthly, the manner in which the downtrodden people were trained to assume the leadership of their own revolutionary movement, and not to depend on privileged leadership, is a unique historical phenomenon in Indian history.

Last, but not the least, the revolutionary spirit, the tenacity of purpose, the spirit of self-sacrifice and comradeship generated among the revolutionaries, drawn from castes which had been opposed to each other and which had been denied by the caste ideology, the use of arms for centuries on end, could not be a chance occurrence. Abdali must have been baffled when the Sikhs rebuked his vakil who brought to them (Sikhs) his offer of a compromised peace.9 What puzzled no less a person than Abadli, the best general of the world at that time, is a knotty problem which needs to be explained.

All those interpretations of the Sikh movement which do not cover all these issues and fail to take an overall view are inadequate. For example, the military struggle of the movement for religious and political freedom and for a plebian mission is a major fact of Sikh history which cannot be ignored. Some historians have tried to explain it on the assumption that the militarization of the movement was due to the influx into it of a large number of Jat elements. Besides being factually incorrect, it is a very lopsided approach (for a detailed treatment of this topic see appendix A). Mere presence and the prowess of the Jats does not explain the ideological and the ethical content of the movement. The Rajputs and other militant segments of the population, including Jats of other regions, were no less martial than the Jats of the central Punjab. Then, why the Sikh movement alone in India took the revolutionary direction and the ideological line it did ? The Jats are well known for their internecine and inter-clannish quarells,10 and have rarely shown, on their own, any proclivity for idealistic or deeply religious pursuits.11 What had inspired them to combine to fight and suffer relentless persecution for a noble cause? What made the Khatris accept the leadership of the Jat Masands, and the Jats the leaderships of carpenters and Kalals? Prior to joining the Sikh movement, the Jats of the central Punjab, like their brethren elsewhere, had never fraternized with village menials and the out-caste Chuhras. And they reverted, more or less, to the same position when their revolutionary zeal was over. What made them fraternize with the village menials and Rangretas in the Khalsa Dal?

Only one Interpretation
There is only one interpretation which explains satisfactorily all the important features of the Sikh movement. It is the Sikh Guru who initiated the movement, determined its ideology and goals, carefully organized and nursed it for a long period of about two hundred years (i.e., starting from the missionary tours of Guru Nanak to the death of the last Guru), prevented deviations from its ideological line, gave a continuity to the movement, and finally set it on a course so that it should, in their absence from the scene, follow their guidelines on its own. All evidence leads to this conclusion. There is no other interpretation which explains all the main features of the movement in a better way.

It would be repetitive to go over all these points. We need refer briefly only to a few of them.

Max Weber writes: “Rebellions by lower castes undoubtedly occurred. The question is : Why were there not more of them, and, more important, why did the great, historically significant, religious revolutions against the Hindu order stem from altogether different, relatively privileged strata and retain their roots in these?”12 A few stray instances of unorganized sporadic revolts by lower castes in a vast country like India, and over a long period of history, are not unlikely. But, there is a difference between sporadic revolts and a revolution. The question is whether there was any consciously organized protest, movement or revolt against the straight jacket of the caste system led by the castes adversely affected by it? Compared to slave insurrections in other lands, there is not much evidence of a Sudra uprising, initiated and led by them and having the collective interests of that caste as its aim. None of the followers of the medieval schools of Bhakti attempted to found a society outside the caste order. This is very significant. Whatever the reasons, the caste ideology had thrown such a spell on its victims, and the unfortunate Sudras were bound, hand and foot, to such an extent, that they never tried to shake off their shackles in any organized manner. Thus, all liberal social movements started at the top and came downwards to the masses, and not vice-versa. With this background, one may justifiably presume that the Sikh movement could not be an exception to the rule. Any hypothesis to the contrary will have to be established and not assumed.

There is another circumstance that favours the above conclusion. Not only did the ideological movements usually start with the upper strata of society, these also took a longer time to infilterate into the masses. It is recognized that the idealistic content of the French Revolution was prepared by the ideals of the political writers of the Enlightenment which were widely disseminated because of the printing machine. Rosseau’s Social Contract appeared in thirteen French-language editions in 1762-3.13 But it was the elite and the middle classes who were the first to be influenced by these ideas — because they were more literate than the commoners. In India, there was no press in the medieval times and there was no organized party, the like of ones in modern times, which undertook to educate the masses on radical ideological lines. This may be one reason why the enlightened classes. We find that in the list of prominent Sikhs mentioned by Bhai Gurdas, the number of Sikhs from commercial castes exceeds the one from other castes. Out of the commoners, the peasantry left to itself was, somehow, more immune from ideological influences. It is the castes lower than the peasant who became the followers of the Radical Bhaktas in larger number than the peasants.

The episode of Satnami revolt is very illustrative. Besides the Sikh movement, it was the only armed uprising of the peasants and the lower castes who had been indoctrinated by the Bhakti ideology of human freedom and equality. The outbreak started with a hot dispute between a Satnami cultivator and a foot-soldier and soon took the form of a war of liberation. The rebels fought desperately with the Imperial forces sent against them but were overpowered. The points to be noted are that nothing was heard of the Satnami resistance either before this uprising or after it. The Bhakti ideology had awakened a spirit of equality and freedom among the plebian Satnamis, but this had not been organized into a militant movement. There is no evidence to suggest that the Satnamis, before this outbreak, had ever conceived of challenging the Mughal authority. The result was that, without a determined leadership that would set goals, make a plan and preparations, and create a military organisation, the newly aroused spirit of the Satnamis found expression and ended just in an ephemeral flare-up. Without a guiding spirit, the Satnamis could not give a permanent revolutionary shape to their fervour. The conclusion is plain that without the initiative, ideology, leadership and guidance of the Sikh Gurus, the Sikh movement would have fared no better than the Satnami wave.

It was in 1633 A.D. that Guru Hargobind declared that he would wrest sovereignty from the Mughal and ‘bestow this all on the downtrodden and the helpless.14 Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa in 1699 in order to capture political power for a plebian mission. This egalitarian political aim could not be born out of the hierarchical caste society, or out of the Indian Muslim polity, which had politically dominated the non-Muslims and had come to regard a Muslim Emperor as ‘Zillullah’, the shadow of the Divine Being.15 The Indian masses had been mentally immobilized by the caste ideology to such an extent that they had ceased even to entertain such ideas. Nor was such a radical programme on the political horizon or agenda elsewhere at that period in the world; because the American Revolution was essentially a war of independence, and the French Revolution started in 1789. Obviously, such a radical objective, which the Gurus set before the Sikh movement, could not but be the Gurus’ own, impelled as they were by their inner urge.

Originally, the initiative was all along that of the Gurus. Later, it was their ideology which determined the goals, the direction and the character of the Sikh movement. Certitude of faith is a characteristic expression of the mystic experience. The Sikh Gurus were deeply convinced that to bring about total human freedom and equality was God’s own Mission and that they were the instruments for that purpose. “I express that ideology, O Lalo, as the Lord’s words come to me.” 16 “As God spoke to me I speak, On this account I have come into the world, . . . seize and destroy the evil and the sinful.”17
The disciplines of history and sociology might be precluded from taking cognizance of the mystic experience, but these cannot escape taking into account the ideology and the convictions that inspired the pioneers, who were not only the initiators and leaders of the movement but were its actual planners and directors. It was the deep conviction of the Gurus that their ideology was the right one as it was dictated by God Himself. This lent firmness to their resolve to shape and give direction to the movement the way they did it. It was also their faith that all of them were pursuing the same mission. This lent firmness, conviction and continuity to the movement.

It would be wrong to read Indian history of the medieval era in the light of the developments in Europe, especially of the French Revolution, in the corresponding period. There the writings of Enlightenment had rudely shaken old faiths and beliefs, and the ideas of freedom, equality and class interests had come to the fore. Above all, there was no caste in Europe. In India, the caste excluded the development of any movement based on values of human freedom and equality, and also of a movement requiring the cohesion of different castes, even for common class interests. If utter humiliation imposed by religious persecution and foreign domination could not bring the Hindus to react together, what else could? Leaving aside the attempts to gain or retain feudal power, and the stray reactions of individuals or groups, the stark reality of Indian history is that, once the Mughal power was established, the only organized movements directed against Mughal religious persecution and political domination as such, were those of the Marathas and the Sikhs. Even the Maratha movement, though it had an undertone of Hindu national sentiment, was based primarily on regional Maharashtrian nationalism. Shivaji was prepared to come to terms with the Mughal rulers provided his Maratha domain was not challenged. Moreover, the rise of the Marathas under Shivaji was a middle class movement (i.e., it was led by them and the political power was captured by the Prabhus and the Brahmins), and it was favoured by historical and geographical conditions which could not be reproduced elsewhere. On the other hand, what distinguishes the Sikh movement particularly is its pronounced plebian character, and it had to struggle against more adverse circumstances, being located in the heart of the Mughal empire. The Sikh movement was also not a Hindu sectarian movement; and there is no basis to suggest that the Sikh movement was built upon, or catered to, the Punjabi regional sentiment. The Sikh ideology was universal and not sectarian or regional. Of the five Beloved Ones (Panj Pyaras), four belonged to places outside the Punjab. More than half of the population of the Punjab had embraced Islam and was moved by its religious loyalties to support Muslim rule. Also, there is not a single instance when the people of the Punjab made a common cause as Punjabis. Therefore, it would be a travesty of facts to trace the genesis of an exceptional movement solely to such cause (e.g., the religious persecution by the Mughal government and the economic distress of the people), which were operative throughout the country, without taking into account the one special factor that made all the difference. This was the Sikh ideology and the tenacity with which it was pursued. The Sikh movement was the product of the impact of this ideology on the environmental conditions. The followers of the Gurus were also initially drawn to them purely from religious motives. It is due to the deep commitment of the Gurus to the revolutionary cause that they channelized the religious faith in them of their followers into a course which aimed at achieving political freedom and capturing political power for plebian objectives.

The Sikh ideology not only inspired the movement, it was the mainstay of its revolutionary phase. It is this ideology which attracted and held together, for a higher purpose, elements drawn from mutually hostile castes. It is the inspiration of the Sikh ideology which distinguishes those guerillas, who carried on a relentless warfare to the point of being virtually exterminated a number of times, from those Jat and other elements, who joined the movement when it seemed to succeed and left the moment it had hard times. Bhangu makes a clear distinction between such Jats and the Khalsa. Latif writes: .... it is acknowledge on all hands that the conversion of bands of undisciplined Jats (given to rapine and plunder or to agricultural pursuits) into a body of conquerors and a political corporation, was due entirely to the genius of Govind, whose history is closely interwoven with that of the Sikhs as a nation. It was because of its deep commitment to plebian political objectives that the movement pursued the armed struggle to its bitter end until its aims were achieved. This was why the movement, though hard pressed, rejected a number of offers of compromised peace by Abadali, who could not comprehend that in this case he was not pitted against feudal lords who could either be crushed militarily or be brought to terms. Here, he was face to face with an ideologically surcharged mass movement committed to achieve its own plebian objectives; in which there was no room for compromise with feudalism or autocracy and whose ranks were being replenished from its inexhaustible mass base. And, as and when the ideological hold weakened, the movement started disintegrating. Even during the post-revolutionary period itself, it was the Akalis, who represented the Sikh ideals, who provided some sort of a cementing force among the warring Missal chiefs. The military successes of Ranjit Singh elated the Sikhs for a time and generated some sense of nationality among them. But, when they suffered defeat at the hands of the British, the Khalsa, who had waged relentless guerilla warfare against the Mughals, found it difficult even to retain the consciousness of their identity. It was because the Sikhs had cut themselves adrift from their true ideological moorings, and what substituted these, the Khalsa nationalism, was too newly-born and short-lived to sustain them.

Propulsive Force
There is an innate spark in human nature which yearns for freedom and equality, and it works wonders when it is ignited and properly organized. The Gurus ignited this spark. In Cunningham’s words : ‘The last apostle of the Sikhs did not live to see his own ends accomplished, but he effectually roused the dormant energies of vanquished people and filled them with a lofty although fitful longing for social freedom and national ascendancy, the proper adjuncts of that purity of worship which had been preached by Nanak. Gobind saw that was yet vital, and relumed it with Promethean fire.18

The Sikh movement derived its strength also because its aims corresponded to the aspirations of the masses. The ideology of the movement had greater appeal for the common peasants and the lower castes who were increasingly drawn into it as the revolutionary struggle progressed. As already pointed out, the success of the Sikh movement depended upon the strength it derived from the masses. Abadali’s greatest lieutenant, Najib-ud-daulah, ‘openly admitted himself beaten at the hands of an entire nation at arms and in jubilant spirits and nascent energy, “increasing like ants and locusts.”19 This is how the vanguard of Sikh guerilla revolutionaries succeeded in involving the masses in their struggle. It was not a war carried on by mercenaries or feudal levies. It became a people’s war. This fact alone should be enough to highlight the plebian character of the movement.

It is, however, not to be lost sight of that it is the religious faith of the Khalsa in the Gurus that sustained the movement throughout its struggle, especially during its critical periods. Tocqueville wrote : ‘It is not always be going from bad to worse that a society falls into a revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complain, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened... Feudalism at the height of it power had not inspired Frenchmen with so much hatred as it did on the eve of its disappearing.20 Elaborating this point Rude writes: ‘Tocqueville’s comments are illuminating because they remind us that revolutions—as opposed to peasant rebellions or food riots—seldom if ever, take the form of mere spontaneous outbrusts against tyranny, oppression or utter destitution; both the experience and the hope of something better are important factors in the story.21 The Sikh Revolution was not inspired by any hope of reform or concession held by the Mughal government. It was sustained by the hope that the Guru’s word that the Khalsa must triumph in the end would come true.22

The Sikh ideology sparked the innate human longing for freedom and equality. The masses were further aroused because they saw in the Sikh ideology the fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations. The content of ‘liberty and equality’ was not left vague, as it was in the French Revolution; it was well defined from the plebian point of view. It was the first time in Indian history that the downtrodden were given the call to capture the political power in their own hands. The faith in the Sikh religion and in the Gurus provided both the inspiration and the steel frame-work. Genuinely held religious convictions sink deep into the human mind. These factors resulted in a formidable combination. It propelled the movement to continue the armed struggle against such heavy odds that no human calculations could normally hold out even a ray of hope for its success.

Such were the raison d’ etre and the elan of the Sikh Revolution.



1 TocquevilIe, p. 177
2 Lafebvre, p. 50
3 Rude, p. 74
4 Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, LI (Nizami, p. viii); Ashraf, K. M.: Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan, pp. 28-29
5 Cunningham, ‘p. 160
6 Rehtname, p. 117
6a Tara Chand: Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, p. 117
7 Jangnamah of Qazi Nur-ud-Din, Cited by Gupta:History of the Sikhs, i, p. 290.
7a Cited by Gurbax Singh; Punjab History Conference (Sept 1972) Proceedings. p. 50
8 Forster, Vol. i, p. 333; Ahmed Shah, Sohan Lal, Ali-ud- din and Ganesh Das cited by Gupta: A History of the Sikhs, i, p. 195.
8a Griffin: Rajas of the Pun jab, p. 17.
8b Ibbetson; Punjab Castes, sec 424; Gazetteer of the Lahore District, 1883-84, pp. 66-68
9 Calendar of Persian Correspondence, ii, p. 35
10 Indubhusan, Vol. Two, p. 40; Ibbetson:Punjab Castes, sec. 424; Griffin, L.H.: The Rajas of the Punjab, p. 17
11 Jullundur District Gazetteer, 1904, Part A, p. 121; Crooke, W.:Races of Northern India,’ p. 93; Gurgaon District Gazetteer, 1883-84, p. 41
11a Dabistan (Punjab Past and Present (1969) pp. 51-2)
12 Max Weber, p. 17
13 Rude, p. 35.
13a. Rose, Vol. ii, p. 419; Vol;. iii, p. 306
14 Gurbilas Chevin Patshahi, p. 293
15 Ashraf, p. 31
16 Guru Granth, p. 722
16a Macauliffe, v. pp. 300-301.
16b. Ranade, pp. 39-40
17 Ibid, p. 31.
17a. Bhangu, pp. 95, 309-310. Abdali recognized that for the complete reduction of the Sikh power it would be necessary to wait until their religious fervour had eveporated (A.C. Banerjee, p. 91).
17b. Ibid, pp. 305, 376.
17c. Latif, p. 271; Polier cited in Punjab Past and Present (Oct. 1970), p. 249
18 Cunningham, p. 75
19 Chahar Gulzar-i-Shujai, 545a, cited by Gupta:A History of the Sikhs, i, p. 281; Calendar of Persian Correspondence, ii, pp 110, 238-9
19a. Prinsep, p. 23
20 Tocqueville, cited by Rude, pp. 69-70
21 Rude, p. 70
22 Bhangu, pp. 303-305


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2009, All rights reserved. Free Counters from SimpleCount.com