By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
At the inauguration of the construction of a temple in the name of the Hindu mythical god Lord Rama in the ancient Northern Indian city of Ayodhya on 5 August 2020, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not simply lay the foundation stone for a place of worship, but literally changed the course of Indian history.
Accordingly, the events that took place last week in Ayodhya in the presence of ‘holy men’ from all corners of India need to be less understood through the lens of religion and much more in terms of politics and the rise of a new and altogether more sinister Indian nationalism commonly referred to as the Hindutva.
Modi is the consummate showman and he certainly did not disappoint on this occasion. Dressed with the characteristic saffron coloured ‘hazuriua’ of Hindutva nationalism along with a silver cap and lengthened beard to match, he performed sacred rituals beginning with a dramatic full-length prostration before the alter. In doing so, he hammed the final nails in the coffin of the beleaguered claim of India secularism. If life was difficult for minorities, secularists, environmentalists, leftists, and feminists, before this event, then my fear is things will become much worse.
The truth is that despite his dramatic gesture of faith, ironically, it is not certain that Modi, a lifelong servant of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), really takes religion that seriously! Indeed, there is a mistaken view that the RSS is interested in promoting faith. The RSS is in fact an umbrella organisation which incorporates well organised groups such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its youth wing, the paramilitary outfit called the Bajrang Dal, and of course Modi’s very own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And it was a Hindu volunteer army known as ‘Karsevaks’ who on 6th Dec 1992 violently and illegally demolished the Babri Masjid which had stood on that spot for over 500 year. Following what can only be described as an act of brutal barbarism violence and bloodshed ensued Muslims protesting at this action, being the main victim.
The VHP justification for their action was that the site had previously housed a temple in the name of Rama. It was destroyed in 1528 at the command of the then Mogul Emperor, Babur and a Masjid was built on that sight. In September 2010, the High Court of Allahabad upheld the VHP claim and awarded the site of the central dome for the construction of a Rama temple. Muslims were also awarded one-third area of the site for the construction of a mosque. Both sides, unhappy with the decision, appealed leading to Supreme Court. The court gave its judgement on 9 November 2019, which was to overturn original decision and to order the entire site (2.77 acre land) to a trust to build the Hindu temple. As a gesture to the Muslims, it also ordered the government to allot a five-acre plot in a different place to reconstruct the Babri Masjid.
So, what has all this to do with Sikhs one may ponder? As one of India’s many minorities Sikhs are rightly concerned by state sponsored destruction of not only an ancient historical building, but the principal of secularity and ultimately democracy. In some sense, for very particular reasons, the future of Sikhs, who are a tiny minority in India, is even more threatened than, for instance, the Muslims of India who make up a sizeable minority. The threat to Muslims is simple; the RSS constructs a narrative of them as being the ‘other’, as an alien wedge, as the remnants of the Mogul empire, as non-indigenous people. And so, the expectation on them to learn to live as second class citizens to ‘leave’, often expressed as ‘go to Pakistan if you are not happy’.
Sikhs, on the other hand, have no such home to go to and therefore are totally dependent on the patronage of the majority Hindu community. As a consequence, because the Hindutva ideologues know this, they are ‘dealt with’ in a completely different way. The narrative being constructed by the RSS for Sikhs is that they are loyal Indian nationalists who have fought for India against Afghan marauders in the guise of Ahmed Shah Abadli and Ahmed Shah Durrani, and the Moguls from the 16th to 18th Century and the British in the 19th and 20th Century.
One might think, what’s so threatening about this? What is wrong with the embrace of the RSS? Quite simply, the ‘embrace’ is not genuine and the truth aim is to crush the Sikhs out of existence. The real agenda for the RSS is to incorporate Sikhs and Sikhism and present them as essentially the militant wing of Hinduism. No doubt they will be happy to promote the stereotypical outward image of the ‘loyal’ Nihangs, who in turn will be happy to provide justification for the Hindutva narrative.
At the Ayodhya ceremony, Narendra Modi made two very specific references to Sikhism. First he referenced Guru Nanak and Kabir by claiming they were inspired by Rama. ‘Thousands of years ago’, he suggested, ‘Rama was an inspiration to the ancient India’ and that he ‘was inspiring India through Tulsi, Kabir and Nanak in the Medieval era’. ‘Tulsi’s Rama was with form (sagun) while Nanak & Kabir’s Rama was formless (nirgun)’. The second reference, in what was clearly a cleverly choreographed section, claimed that ‘Guru Gobind Singh has himself’ paid homage to Rama in the form of a scripture called ‘Gobind Ramayana’.
Accompanying Modi’s speech we have in the character of the controversial and disgraced former head of Takht Patna Sahib, ‘Giani’ Iqbal Singh. As well as attending a bhog of an Akhand Path organised by Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, an affiliate of the RSS, he performed ‘ardas’. Additionally, Iqbal Singh was one of a handpicked rabble of turbaned ‘Sikhs’ invited to Rama Temple stone laying ceremony. Here he also made remarks to the effect that Guru Nanak Sahib and Guru Gobind Singh — through the house of Luv (Bedi) and Kush (Sodhi), Rama twin sons — were descendants of Lord Rama.
With some significant exceptions, most notably, a muted response from the Jathedar of Akaal Takht Giani Harpeet Singh who talked about the BJP needing to rebuild specific historic Sikh shrines, and tacit support from some Sikh deradars (godmen), he has been roundly condemned from Panthic Sikhs across the world for his remarks. In his defense, ‘Giani’ Iqbal Singh has made reference to various Sikh texts associated with the Nirmala tradition, such as the so-called ‘Dasam Granth’ allegedly written by Guru Gobind Singh and the ‘Suraj Parkash Granth’ written by Kavi Santokh Singh. He also stated that as a student of the Damdami Taksal (a religious seminary that alleges to have been established by Guru Gobind Singh) and members of the Nihang order, everything he said about the link between Lord Rama and the Sikh Gurus he had learnt from these institutions.
Though the controversy over the authenticity and veracity of ‘Dasam Granth’ has been rumbling on for many decades, the events surrounding the Ayodhya ceremony have once again opened up a deep division amongst Sikhs. It is not my intention to enter this debate here, suffice to say, these tensions can be traced back to the late part of the 19th and early 20th century with the emergence of the Tat Khalsa and later the Gurdwara Reform Movement and the Singh Sabha Lehar who challenged the hold that Udasi mahants (clergymen) or managers appointed by the British, had on key Sikhs Gurdwaras. For a more detailed exposition of this period please have a look at Harjot Oberoi’s book, ‘The Construction of Religious Boundaries. Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition’.
The defense that was offered by Iqbal Singh and defenders of the Nirmala tradition seems to be based on 3 key arguments: First, that Guru Gobind Singh ji’s writings not only makes reference to the Hindu mythological texts but provides and exegesis of these, so it must be true; Second, that Guru Granth Sahib ji, too, makes reference the ancient Sanatan texts and characters within it such as Rama, Sita and Lazshman; Finally, that historically, the Sikhs fought the Moguls, whose aim was to destroy Hinduism and that this is most powerfully illustrated in the sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bhadur ji to protect the Hindu faith symbolized in the form of the ‘tilak’ (sacred mark) and ‘janju’ (sacred thread).
Let us consider each one of these propositions:
‘It is all written in the Dasam Granth’ – Even if we accept that the ‘Dasam Granth’ and more specifically the ‘Bachitar Natak’ is the work of Guru Gobind Singh ji, there is also a view taken by some of the Nirmala Sants, most notably the current head of Damdami Talksal Baba Harnam Singh Dhumma, that a very significant proportion of the text is a simple translation. Their argument is that this was designed to serve as a reference text in order to help with the understanding of the Guru Granth Sahib, which, as noted earlier, does make use of words and narratives contained within the ancient Hindu canonical texts, namely the Vedas, Bhagwad Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharat. They also are at pains to establish a key distinction between the Guru Granth Sahib as the living guru and therefore final arbiter of Sikh beliefs and the multitude of reference texts that developed both during and after the Guru period.
The key point to note here is the distinction between the Hindu cannon referred to above and, which is all based on mythology and the fact that the Sikhs Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak, are historical characters. Therefore, it is absurd to make any link between Rama and his twin sons Luv and Kush and Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, it’s like comparing apples with oranges! Put another way, how is it possible for a mythological character to give birth to a real breathing living physical human being?
If for one moment one accepts that Rama existed in physical form and his life, as recounted in the Mahabharata and in the Ramayana has a factual base, according to calculations using astrology, estimates are it was written sometime between 7000 – 4000 BC (though most scholars based on textual analysis suggest it was written around 1000 BC). Now, because of our ability to sequence the human Genome, and with the exponential increase in data sets from across the world, current estimates are that most human beings across the world have a common ancestor. In other words, it makes no sense to talk about Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh having a lineage to Rama as if there is only one singular track; the truth is that many millions of people both in the region will have ancestry linking them to most other families. Moreover, if one accepts that Rama was a real person, then, one has to ask from whom did he descent? And the answer is that all human ancestry can be traced back around 200,000 years to Africa.
ਸੋਚੈ ਸੋਚਿ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜੇ ਸੋਚੀ ਲਖ ਵਾਰ ॥
ਚੁਪੈ ਚੁਪ ਨ ਹੋਵਈ ਜੇ ਲਾਇ ਰਹਾ ਲਿਵ ਤਾਰ ॥
ਭੁਖਿਆ ਭੁਖ ਨ ਉਤਰੀ ਜੇ ਬੰਨਾ ਪੁਰੀਆ ਭਾਰ ॥
ਸਹਸ ਸਿਆਣਪਾ ਲਖ ਹੋਹਿ ਤ ਇਕ ਨ ਚਲੈ ਨਾਲਿ ॥
ਕਿਵ ਸਚਿਆਰਾ ਹੋਈਐ ਕਿਵ ਕੂੜੈ ਤੁਟੈ ਪਾਲਿ ॥
ਹੁਕਮਿ ਰਜਾਈ ਚਲਣਾ ਨਾਨਕ ਲਿਖਿਆ ਨਾਲਿ ॥੧॥
Sochai Soch N Hovee Jae Sochee Lakh Vaar ||
Chupai Chup N Hovee Jae Laae Rehaa Liv Thaar ||
Bhukhiaa Bhukh N Outharee Jae Bannaa Pureeaa Bhaar ||
Sehas Siaanapaa Lakh Hohi Th Eik N Chalai Naal ||
Kiv Sachiaaraa Hoeeai Kiv Koorrai Thuttai Paal ||
Hukam Rajaaee Chalanaa Naanak Likhiaa Naal ||1|| (SGGS, p1)
‘It is written in the Guru Granth Sahib ji’ – Yes, it is true that through the Guru Granth Sahib ji, references are made to Hindu mythological figures and text, but the important question to ask is in what way? At the very outset of Japji, Guru Nanak ji lists the 4 main ritual practices that were deployed for achieving enlightenment or realizing the ultimate truth, of which can be found in the Sanatan texts.
Any reference to Hindu mythological text, characters or stories in Guru Granth Sahib ji must be read in the context of a total rejection of the belief systems associated with sanatam dharam associated with such matters as birth, death, spirit, soul, mind, social order and so on. Indeed, in confronting the Pandit’s who wanted Nanak to participate in the ritual initiation ceremony of placing the thread around the body and taking Bhai Mardana, a so-called ‘low caste Muslim’ as his life-long partner, Nanak makes a clean break from the Brahmanical order.
ਦਇਆ ਕਪਾਹ ਸੰਤੋਖੁ ਸੂਤੁ ਜਤੁ ਗੰਢੀ ਸਤੁ ਵਟੁ ॥
ਏਹੁ ਜਨੇਊ ਜੀਅ ਕਾ ਹਈ ਤ ਪਾਡੇ ਘਤੁ ॥
ਨਾ ਏਹੁ ਤੁਟੈ ਨ ਮਲੁ ਲਗੈ ਨਾ ਏਹੁ ਜਲੈ ਨ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਧੰਨੁ ਸੁ ਮਾਣਸ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਜੋ ਗਲਿ ਚਲੇ ਪਾਇ ॥
ਚਉਕੜਿ ਮੁਲਿ ਅਣਾਇਆ ਬਹਿ ਚਉਕੈ ਪਾਇਆ ॥
ਸਿਖਾ ਕੰਨਿ ਚੜਾਈਆ ਗੁਰੁ ਬ੍ਰਾਹਮਣੁ ਥਿਆ ॥
ਓਹੁ ਮੁਆ ਓਹੁ ਝੜਿ ਪਇਆ ਵੇਤਗਾ ਗਇਆ ॥੧॥
Dhaeiaa Kapaah Santhokh Sooth Jath Gandtee Sath Vatt ||
Eaehu Janaeoo Jeea Kaa Hee Th Paaddae Ghath ||
Naa Eaehu Thuttai Naa Mal Lagai Naa Eaehu Jalai N Jaae ||
Dhhann S Maanas Naanakaa Jo Gal Chalae Paae ||
Choukarr Mul Anaaeiaa Behi Choukai Paaeiaa ||
Sikhaa Kann Charraaeeaa Gur Braahaman Thhiaa ||
Ouhu Muaa Ouhu Jharr Paeiaa Vaethagaa Gaeiaa ||1|| (SGGS, p471)
SIKHI OFFERS CLEAN BREAK
If we cannot establish the fact that Sikhi offers a clean break from the Santan tradition, then it would be difficult to oppose the arguments made by Modi, Iqbal Singh and the RSS.
Indeed, I came across an interesting angle in a short video by a ‘Giani’ Tejpal Singh, Chairman of Akaal Ustat Trust, Kurukshetra. Astonishingly and somewhat naively, Tejpal Singh appears to suggest the Modi’s and Iqbal Singh’s reference to link between Rama and our Gurus is to be welcomed as not only is it mentioned in Guru Granth Sahib, but it could also attract those who follow the Sanatan faith towards Sikhi!
Not only is this a dangerous argument that could further embolden the RSS, I find his argument to lack any substance on two counts. First, what is the point of drawing people towards Sikhi by presenting Sikhi as an extension of their existing belief system? Secondly, as I have mentioned earlier, making reference to a belief system does not mean that one is sanctioning this. Indeed, one of the clever ploys that the RSS deploy is to take extracts from Gurbani and present this as proof.
In the video, (https://www.facebook.com/100042261031285/videos/302462757839090) Tejpal Singh deploys this very tactic by quoting a few selected lines shabad by Guru Nanak Dev ji in Ramkali (SGGS, p953). By doing so he actually suggests Guru Nanak must have had some faith in the Ramayana but as the rest of the shabad clearly sets out, Nanak’s intention was to condemn the ritualistic, superstitious practices associated with those characters as well as setting out clearly the uniqueness of his path.
ਸਹੰਸਰ ਦਾਨ ਦੇ ਇੰਦ੍ਰੁ ਰੋਆਇਆ ॥ ਪਰਸ ਰਾਮੁ ਰੋਵੈ ਘਰਿ ਆਇਆ ॥ ਅਜੈ ਸੁ ਰੋਵੈ ਭੀਖਿਆ ਖਾਇ ॥ ਐਸੀ ਦਰਗਹ ਮਿਲੈ ਸਜਾਇ ॥ ਰੋਵੈ ਰਾਮੁ ਨਿਕਾਲਾ ਭਇਆ ॥ ਸੀਤਾ ਲਖਮਣੁ ਵਿਛੁੜਿ ਗਇਆ ॥ ਰੋਵੈ ਦਹਸਿਰੁ ਲੰਕ ਗਵਾਇ ॥ ਜਿਨਿ ਸੀਤਾ ਆਦੀ ਡਉਰੂ ਵਾਇ ॥ ਰੋਵਹਿ ਪਾਂਡਵ ਭਏ ਮਜੂਰ ॥ ਜਿਨ ਕੈ ਸੁਆਮੀ ਰਹਤ ਹਦੂਰਿ ॥ ਰੋਵੈ ਜਨਮੇਜਾ ਖੁਇ ਗਇਆ ॥ ਏਕੀ ਕਾਰਣਿ ਪਾਪੀ ਭਇਆ ॥ ਰੋਵਹਿ ਸੇਖ ਮਸਾਇਕ ਪੀਰ ॥ ਅੰਤਿ ਕਾਲਿ ਮਤੁ ਲਾਗੈ ਭੀੜ ॥ ਰੋਵਹਿ ਰਾਜੇ ਕੰਨ ਪੜਾਇ ॥ ਘਰਿ ਘਰਿ ਮਾਗਹਿ ਭੀਖਿਆ ਜਾਇ ॥ ਰੋਵਹਿ ਕਿਰਪਨ ਸੰਚਹਿ ਧਨੁ ਜਾਇ ॥ ਪੰਡਿਤ ਰੋਵਹਿ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਗਵਾਇ ॥ ਬਾਲੀ ਰੋਵੈ ਨਾਹਿ ਭਤਾਰੁ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਦੁਖੀਆ ਸਭੁ ਸੰਸਾਰੁ ॥ ਮੰਨੇ ਨਾਉ ਸੋਈ ਜਿਣਿ ਜਾਇ ॥ ਅਉਰੀ ਕਰਮ ਨ ਲੇਖੈ ਲਾਇ ॥੧॥
Sehansar Dhaan Dhae Eindhra Roaaeiaa || Paras Raam Rovai Ghar Aaeiaa || Paras Raam returned home crying. || Ajai S Rovai Bheekhiaa Khaae || Aisee Dharageh Milai Sajaae || Rovai Raam Nikaalaa Bhaeiaa || Seethaa Lakhaman Vishhurr Gaeiaa || Rovai Dhehasir Lank Gavaae || Jin Seethaa Aadhee Ddouroo Vaae || Rovehi Paanddav Bheae Majoor || Jin Kai Suaamee Rehath Hadhoor || Rovai Janamaejaa Khue Gaeiaa ||Janmayjaa wept, that he had lost his way. Eaekee Kaaran Paapee Bhaeiaa || Rovehi Saekh Masaaeik Peer || Anth Kaal Math Laagai Bheerr || Rovehi Raajae Kann Parraae || Ghar Ghar Maagehi Bheekhiaa Jaae || Rovehi Kirapan Sanchehi Dhhan Jaae || Panddith Rovehi Giaan Gavaae || Baalee Rovai Naahi Bhathaar || Naanak Dhukheeaa Sabh Sansaar || Mannae Naao Soee Jin Jaae || Aouree Karam N Laekhai Laae ||1|| (SGGS, p971)
As for the argument that the Sikh Gurus were in fact ‘Desh Bhagats’, defenders of Bharat and the Sanatan Dharam, as, if you like the best example of what a true Hindu can be, is quite common in RSS literature.
Take for the much quoted and praised text ‘Sahib-E-Kamal Guru Gobind Singh’ written Daulat Rai. Seen to be a defender of the Guru against attacks from some Hindu activists in the late 19th Century, Daulat Rai, who was a leading light in the Arya Smajh (a Hindu reform movement) argues in his book that Punjabis and Hindus were humiliated and degradaded to the extent that their ancestors were subjected under Mughal rule and that it was the Khalsa, as shining example, who liberated Hindus from the “Mughal invaders kill Hindus by the thousands, looted their properties and carried away men and women as slaves in the thousands”.
So whilst the Arya Smajist were seeking to construct a different kind of nationalism based on the Ayryan myth, which itself is highly problematic, the RSS has always focussed on the notion of the Hindu civilisation, though both use the ancient mythological texts, and the Vedas in particular to make their case and attempts are regularly made to unify the two organisations.
And so the Sikhs and the Khalsa, in particularly, are essentially presented as a military wing of Hindus, who organised resistance against the Mogul oppressors. There is much that could be said to refute this total distortion of Guru Tegh Bhadur’s intentions, which were not some petty nationalism, but to oppose oppression and stand up for human rights and freedom of thought and belief, something that the VHP clearly didn’t think was important when they destroyed the Babri Masjid.
As for the general suggestion that Sikhi was born to defend the Santan traditions, I would simply say, then where were the RSS when Sikhs were being hunted down and murdered in the thousands in fake police encounters by the Indian state from 1984 to 1996? Where were the RSS when, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in Oct/Nov 1984 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi and other parts of India? The answer is that they were instrumental in the genocide. There are many other historical examples where Muslims stood side by side with the Sikh Gurus against the oppressor and where the Hindus betrayed the Gurus.
The obliteration of holly sites is not new; world history is littered with such examples. Though religion is often the lens through which these actions are seen and justified by the destroyers, in truth politics is always the root cause. The destruction of the 500 year old Babri Majid under the notion that a past wrong was put right is but another example of the triumph of the blind and dangerous forces of nationalism.
Ram Janmabhoomi (literally, “Rama’s birthplace”) is, in fact, an imaginary place that is referred to in a mythological text as the birthplace of Rama, believed to be the seventh avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. In some senses the point was not about building a temple in the name of Rama but the symbolic erasure of the Babri Masji, thereby turbo charging the destructive Hindutva narrative. A narrative that is seeking to contract an imaginary Indian identity in a vast country of almost 1.5 billion people, many belief systems, languages, ethnicities and histories.
Sikhs, with a population of 25 million in India, are but a tiny drop in this big ocean, but it is in maintaining the principle of plurality that is the best guarantor of the future of Sikhs and Sikhism. But I fear, unless we see a change of policy, then no doubt the ‘Karsevaks’ of the VHP will turn their attention to historic Sikh shrines. But their job will be much easier as they will simply re-purpose these by placing Hindu idols and integrating Hindu ritualistic practices. The response of the Akaal Takht, the supreme body of the Sikhs, has so far been lukewarm and unless a stance is taken against what is clearly a deliberate and well-choreographed strategy to incorporate Sikhs into the Hindutva project, the future of Sikhs, alongside other minorities in India are surely in peril.
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.email@example.com]
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Dangerously biased verdict on fate of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya – ASC (Asia Samachar, 17 Dec 2020)
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