In 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur opposed Emperor Aurangzeb over the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits.
The Guru was imprisoned and executed under Mughal orders, in the place where now stands the Gurdwara Sis Ganj, opposite the Red Fort in Delhi.
His martyrdom stands as a towering symbol of the protection of human, civil and religious rights, in an era when no formal institution to safeguard these existed anywhere in the world.
The turmoil from despotism continued into the next century.
Fast-forward to 1739: Persian tyrant Nader Shah completed his India invasion at the Battle of Karnal.
In 1761, Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali crushed the northern expeditionary forces of the Maratha Empire at the Battle of Panipat. Abdali’s troops apparently captured women in India and began transporting them back to Afghanistan as war booty.
A devastating war: Ahmad Shah Abdali crushed the Maratha forces in the battle of Panipat. (Photo: India Today)
Till that time, the Sikh Misls, or brigades, had maintained a distance from the two warring sides.
But when families of the victim women pleaded for their help, they organised themselves militarily for what came to be known as the great rescue.
Under the generalship of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, designated as Sultan-ul-Qaum, the Khalsa brigades broke the back of Abdali's troops at the River Sutlej in Goindwal, rescued 2,200 women and gallantly escorted them back to their families.
Fast-forward to 2019.
In a cruel irony, a chief minister is heard saying, some make jokes that brides can be brought in from Kashmir now as a solution to his state’s skewed sex ratio.
Matters of taste: Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar clarified that his views on Kashmiri women were misrepresented. (Photo: ANI)
As his comments sparked anger, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar issued a clarification, stating he had been misrepresented.
But, his denials aside, an unusual phenomenon occurred in neighbouring Punjab.
In the Sikh majority state, bordering Jammu and Kashmir, the faith’s highest seat of temporal authority, the Akal Takht, stepped in with a rare statement that revived memories of the Sikh tradition from the past centuries.
Let’s read some excerpts from the strongly-worded media release:
“God has given equal rights to all human beings. It’s a crime to differentiate against anyone on the basis of gender, caste or religion,” noted Giani Harpreet Singh, the Jathedar or the head of the Akal Takht. “The kind of commands given by elected representatives on social media against Kashmiri women after the removal of special status under Article 370 are not only defamatory but also unforgivable,” the Jathedar thundered.
He named no political leader but issued a pledge to protect Kashmiri women, recalling how mobs had attacked Sikh women in 1984.
“Kashmiri women are part of our society. It is our religious duty to defend their honour. Sikhs should come forward to protect the honour of Kashmiri women. It is our duty and it is our history,” Giani Harpreet Singh declared.
Reaching Out: Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh met Kashmiri students on Eid and assured them of their safety. (Photo: Twitter/@capt_amarinder)
This week, Punjab’s chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh also issued a similar assurance of safety as he hosted Kashmiri students in his state for Eid celebrations.
As a learner of history, my snap reaction to the two gestures was a “wow”.
After all, an Akal Takht Jathedar, who is an appointee of the Badal-controlled Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), appeared to have exercised autonomy from alleged political pressures. His appeared to be an unusual departure from the coalition interests of Punjab’s Akali family, often accused by critics of subjugation to the RSS.
Also, the Jathedar had invoked the glorious record of the Khalsa warriors who delivered to humanity in the face of worst adversities.
On his part, Captain Singh, from the seat of power he holds, also came forward with a bold tweet when social media is largely swamped by toxicity and religious hate.
Indeed, their messages received instant appreciation from a large part of the Sikh community.
Their statements also gave us — and perhaps every other linguistic, cultural and religious minority — an opportunity to scan the horizon with our binoculars.
Remember, the Sikhs have had their share of similar experiences with Indira Gandhi.
Punjab saw it first: During 'Operation Blue Star', terrible blackouts were seen in Punjab. (Photo: India Today)
The lockdown in Kashmir before the Modi government announced its decision over the fate of Kashmiris isn’t new in India.
A similar communications blackout was ordered across Punjab before the military stormed the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) complex in June 1984 under Gandhi’s rule.
There was no barrage of private television stations back then. But the state was as capable of racially profiling every turbaned or initiated Sikh as a suspect via malicious propaganda in newspapers and through wire services.
Many political and strategic experts agree that the same state power, under different dispensations, successfully infiltrated every top Sikh institution and seminary inside and outside of Punjab by the 1990s. Drugs, apostasy, female foeticide and a culture of debauchery through booze-and-gun songs took a heavy toll on the Sikh way of life in the faith’s heartland, post-militancy.
Courts and human rights organisations, national and international, were flooded with complaints of grave police atrocities against Sikh youth from the 1980s to the 1990s.
Wire services brazenly carried stories that read “so-and-so suspect militant has been killed in an encounter. His identity is yet being ascertained.”
No questions were ever answered.
In 1984, numerous Sikh women were violated and thousands of Sikh men were butchered in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
But it took 34 years to secure one major conviction — that of Sajjan Kumar in 2018.
The only one so far: In the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the first conviction came after 34 years, with the verdict on Sajjan Kumar. (Photo: ANI)
It’s indeed a healthy practice to scan the horizon with our binoculars, as Jathedar Harpreet Singh and Captain Singh did. But it’s also pragmatic to examine our own backyard.
Successive governments still face momentous challenges from the past four decades.
On the religious side, especially, the real controllers of religious power have become more powerful at the cost of Punjab’s interests. In their political role, they can often be seen tapping treasury benches in obsequious acknowledgement of ultra-majoritarian proclamations as edicts now.
Singh Sahib Giani Harpreet Singh Ji and Captain Amarinder Singh, thank you for your inspiring gestures.
It’s a job well done.
But as the saying goes, let’s also fix our own house on a priority basis.
And that’s doable.