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Transformation of the Sikh into a militant, fighting community

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Founded at the end of the 15th century by Guru Nanak, the Sikh religion spread among the Jat peasantry and other lower castes of the Punjab. The transformation of the Sikh into a militant, fighting community was begun by Guru Hargobind (1606-45). It was however under the leadership of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the 10th and last Guru of the Sikhs, that they became a political and military force. From 1699 onwards Guru Gobind Singh waged constant war against the armies of Hindu hill Rajas supported by Aurangzeb.

Although there had been some clashes between the Sikh Guru and the Mughals under Shah Jahan, there was no clash between the Sikhs and Aurangzeb till 1675. In fact, conscious of the growing importance of the Sikhs, Aurangzeb had tried to engage the Guru and a son of Guru Harkishan remained at his court. After his succession as Guru in 1664, Guru Tegh Bahadur journeyed to Bihar and served with Raja Ram Sigh of Amber in Assam. However, in 1675 Guru Tegh Bahadur was arrested with five of his followers, brought to Delhi and executed. The official explanation for this as given in some later Persian sources is that after his return from Asam the Guru in association with one Hafiz Adam, a follower of orthodox Muslim Sheik Ahmed Sarhindi had resorted to plunder and rapine, laying waste the whole province of the Punjab. According to Sikh tradition, the execution was due to the intrigues of some members of his family who disputed his succession and by others who had joined them. But we are also told that Aurangzeb was annoyed because the Guru had converted a few Muslims to Sikhism. There is also the tradition that Guru Tegh Bahadur was punished because he had raised a protest against the alleged religious persecution of the Hindus in Kashmir by the local Mughal governor. The Sikh tradition gives the name of Mughal governor as Sher Afghan but the Mughal Governor in Kashmir till 1671 was Saif Khan. The persecution of Hindus is not mentioned in any of the histories of Kashmir including the one written by Narayan Koul in 1710. In fact, Saif Khan is famous as a builder of bridges. He was a humane and broad-minded person who had appointed a Hindu to advise him in administrative matters. His successor after1671 Ifthikhar Khan was in fact anti-Shia but there are no references to his persecuting the Hindus in Kashmir.

It is not easy to shift the truth from these conflicting accounts. Sikhism had spread to many Jats and artisans including some of the low castes who were attracted by its simple egalitarian approach and the prestige of the Guru. Thus, the Guru while being a religious leader had also begun to be a rallying point for all those fighting against injustice and oppression. The action of Aurangzeb in breaking even some temples of old standing must have been a new cause of discontent and disaffection to which the Guru gave expression.

While Aurangzeb was out of Delhi at the time of the Guru’s execution, acting against rebel Afghans, the Guru’s execution could not have been taken without his knowledge or approval. For Aurangzeb, the execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur was only a law and order question but for Sikhs, the Guru gave up his life in defense of cherished principles.

Whatever the reasons, Aurangzeb’s action was unjustified for any point of view and betrayed a narrow approach. The execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur forced the Sikhs to go back to the Punjab hills. It also led to the Sikh movement gradually turning into a military brotherhood. A major contribution in this sphere was made by Guru Gobind Singh. He showed considerable organizational ability and founded the military brotherhood or the ‘Khalsa’ in 1699. Before this Guru Gobind Singh had made his headquarters at Makhowal or Anandpur in the foothills of the Punjab. At first the local Hindu hill Rajas had tried to use the Guru and his followers in their internecine quarrels. But soon the Guru became too powerful and a series of clashes took place between the Hill Rajas and the Guru who generally triumphed. The organization of the ‘Khalsa’ further strengthened the hands of the Guru in this conflict. However, an open breach between the Guru and the Hindu hill Rajas took place only in 1704, when the combined forces of a number of Hindu Hill Rajas attacked the Guru at Anandpur. The Rajas had again to retreat and they pressed the Mughal government to intervene against the Guru Gobind Singh on their behalf.

The struggle which followed was thus not a religious struggle. It was partly an offshoot of local rivalries among the Hindu Hill Rajas and Sikhs and partly an outcome of the Sikh movement as it had developed. Aurangzeb was concerned with the growing power of the Guru and had asked the Mughal Faujdar earlier “to admonish the Guru”. He now wrote to the governor of Lahore and the Faujdar of Sirhind Wazir Khan to aid the hill Hindu rajas in their conflict with Guru Gobind Singh. The Mughal force assaulted Anandpur but the Sikhs fought bravely and beat off all assaults. The Mughals and their allies now invested the fort closely, when starvation began inside the fort, the Guru was forced to open the gate apparently on a promise of safe conducted by Wazir Khan. But when the forces of the Guru while crossing a swollen stream Wazir Khan’s forces suddenly attacked. Two of the Guru’s sons were captured and as per Sikh tradition on their refusal to embrace Islam were beheaded at Sirhind. The Guru lost two of his remaining sons in another battle. After this the Gurung Gobind Singh retired to Talwandi and was generally not disturbed.

it is doubtful whether the dastardly action of Wazir Khan against the sons of the Guru was carried out at the instance of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb, it seems was not keen to destroy the Guru and wrote to the governor of Lahore “to conciliate the Guru”, When the Guru wrote to Aurangzeb who was in the Deccan apprising him of the events, Aurangzeb invited him to meet him. Towards the end of 1706 the Guru set out for the Deccan and was on the way when Aurangzeb died. According to some, Guru Gobind Singh had hoped to persuade Aurangzeb to restore Anandpur to him.

Although, Guru Gobind Singh was not able to withstand Mughal might for long or to establish a separate Sikh state, he created a tradition and also forged a weapon for its realization later on. It also showed how an egalitarian religious movement could under certain circumstances turn into a political and militaristic movement and subtly move towards regional independence. [Source: NCERT]

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