Farmers struggle and remembering the martyrdom of Chhote Sahibzade

Even in the most hateful regimes, there are individuals who respond to the voice of their conscience. One such individual was Sher Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, who protested against the death sentence pronounced on the young Sahibzadas

By Pritam Singh | OPINION |

It is of great historical and political importance that the historic farmers’ protest currently going on in India against the BJP governments’ agro-business market reforms in Indian agriculture has understood the significance of the martyrdom of the Sahibzadas, and the link between the current struggle and the great sacrifices of the Sahibzadas. The farmers organisations have taken a wise and important decision which might have long term implications for strengthening the farmers movement in Punjab in particular but possibly in India to honour the memory of the Sahibzdas’ martyrdom at the protest sites.

I am using the word honouring the memory and not using the word celebration which some people wrongly use in relation to the martyrdom. To emphasise the point about honouring the memory and not celebrating the day, I should mention that it was a tradition for many centuries in the areas surrounding the site of the martyrdom that people used to fast on those days and also sleep on floor and not on proper bed to remember the suffering of the Guru de lalan di (Guru’s sons). It is the nature of majoritarian Hindu bias in Indian historiography which permeates the accounts even by historians who would claim to be not so biased that the story of the Sahibzadas is largely unknown to the majority of Indians outside Punjab.

The farmers organisations, by deciding to honour the memory of Sahibzada’s martyrdom at the protest sites around Delhi, have brought to the forefront the significance of this martyrdom in Indian imagination for fight against oppression.

In the end of month of December, every year the global Sikh community honours the memory of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh who were martyred at a very young age. The youngest Fateh Singh born on 25 February, 1699 was not even seven when he was martyred on Dec 12, 1705 along with his elder brother Zorawar Singh, born on 17 November 1696, who had just turned nine. As childhood in all cultures is associated with innocence and purity, the story of children as young as the two Sahibzadas were, being subjected to brutal torture leading to death, is one of the most painful memories in Sikh history.

When we reflect on the martyrdom of the two Sahibzadas, several aspects of human history and human character come to the mind.

First let us look at some aspects of human history. Throughout human history, there has been struggle between, on one hand, those who are in power and use that power to commit atrocities on those whom they consider as their opponents, and, on the other, those who stand for the dignity of human freedom and are willing to give even their life for their faith and beliefs. In some accounts, this is described as the perpetual conflict between evil and good. In this case, Wazir Khan, the faujdar of Sirhind represented evil and the two Sahibzadas represented good. Those who are in a position of power are, most often, able to recognise the exercise of their power only through inflicting pain on those they consider as a threat –real, potential or imaginary- to their power. In some cases, the powerful are so deranged by their power that they turn sadistic – they enjoy inflicting pain on others. There are several accounts of prisoners or persons in police or army custody who are no threat to their captors but they are subjected to inhuman torture by prison officers or police or army personnel for the sheer sadistic pleasure derived by torturing them. Momentarily, those who are in power feel victorious but in the long run, humanity recognises those who bear torture for their beliefs and ideas, and dumps the torturers to the dustbin of history. Who remembers that Wazir Khan or that Qazi who was fist reluctant to pronounce the verdict of guilty on the Sahibzadas because according to his understanding of Islamic law, the boys were not guilty of any crime but then succumbed to the pressure of Wazir Khan and ordered the execution of the Sahibzadas by bricking them up alive? We do not know if there are any descendants of Wazir Khan and that Qazi but if there were to be any, they would be ashamed of family association with them. On the contrary, the Sahibzadas are remembered with love, admiration, reverence and inspiration by millions and they would continue to be remembered this way. A broad lesson of history is that evil wins momentarily but good wins eventually.

Let us now look at several aspects of human character. Let us first reflect on the conduct of the Sahibzadas who at that young age climb to the heights of wisdom, bravery, steadfastness and unshakeable faith. They were obviously conscious of the great tradition set by their grandfather Guru Tegh Bahadur who had given his life to defend the religious human rights of his ideological opponents- the Kashmiri Brahmins. It is not difficult to imagine that they were educated about their family history and the high traditions of their faith by their grandmother Mata Gujari who would have taught them about the prime need to remain firm in their belief and faith, and that remaining true to one’s faith was of higher order even if it meant giving one’s life than abandoning faith for the mere physical survival of one’s body They were young in age but mature in their understanding of their historic role. This also tells us that although there are physical and biological limits associated with age, these limits are flexible. Someone can be young but very wise and brave while someone else can be mature in age but infantile in behaviour and character.

One can imagine the immeasurable pain caused to Guru Gobind Singh when he would have heard the news about the two Sahibzadas being tortured to death. And it is here that Guru Gobind Singh rises to those heights of character that are rarely ever witnessed in human history. There was not even one instance in his life where he had retaliated either himself by harming an uninvolved Muslim civilian or hinted about the need to retaliate this way to any of his followers. There must have been explosion of anger amongst his followers against Wazir Khan but the high moral values the Guru had inculcated among his Sikhs acted as a powerful constraint against any unethical retaliatory behaviour against the family or relatives of Wazir Khan. No doubt, later on, Banda Bahadur led the attack on Sirhind and one of his commanders, also named Fateh Singh, killed Wazir Khan in one of the battles.

Even in the most hateful regimes, there are individuals who respond to the voice of their conscience. One such individual was Sher Mohammad Khan, the Nawab of Malerkotla, who protested against the death sentence pronounced on the young Sahibzadas in spite of the fact that his brother had been killed by Guru Gobind Singh’s forces. He argued that his brother had died in a battlefield and the young Sahibzadas were totally innocent. That one brave act of kindness by the Nawab of Malerkotla has earned him a high place in history, and it is good that the Sikh community has never forgotten that humane intervention by the Nawab of Malerkotla. That gratitude to the Nawab of Malerkotla is so deeply embedded in Sikh consciousness that even during the mad days of 1947 partition violence, no Muslim was ever harmed if he/she entered the territory of Malerkotla. It is due to this that despite the barbaric ethnic cleansing that took place in both West Punjab (against Sikhs and Hindus) and East Punjab (against the Muslims), Malerkotla remains a Muslim majority city in Indian/East Punjab. From the Malerkotla constituency, it is always a Muslim who is elected to the Punjab’s state assembly and, sometimes, finds berth in the Punjab Cabinet.

Then there is the despicable character of Gangu Brahmin who had served the Guru’s family primarily as a cook for decades and at a crucial moment when Mata Gujri and the Sahibzadas took refuge in his house at his own request, he betrayed them to the local police leading to the arrest of Mata Gujri and Sahibzadas. His character shows how greed can lead human beings to the act of betrayal.

In contrast with Gangu Brahmin’s act of betrayal, is the act of deep loyalty of Baba Moti Ram Mehra who displayed an exemplary character. He arranged to serve milk to Mata Gujari and the Sahibzadas in the Thanda Burj (Cold Fort) where they were imprisoned. When Wazir Khan came to know that Moti Ram Mehra had served milk to Mata Gujari and the Sahibzadas, he ordered his arrest along with that of his mother, wife and a very young son. Moti Ram Mehra defended his action as morally correct for which he along with whole family was tortured to death.

Similarly was the great character of Diwan Todar Mal who paid with gold coins the land for cremating the bodies of Mata Gujari and the Sahibzadas.

In our memory and historical texts, Wazir Khan and Gangu Brahmin are treated with contempt while we honour the young Sahibzadas and also Nawab of Malerkotla, Baba Moti Ram Mehra and Diwan Todar Mal. This way of remembering has another significance in the current Indian and diasporic context where Hindutva ideologues are trying to appropriate Sahibzadas martyrdom as a weapon against Islam and Muslims. Contrary to the Hindutva narratives, one of the villains in this case was a Brahmin Gangu and one of the defenders of the Sahibzada was a Muslim Sher Mohammad Khan, the then Nawab of Malerkotla.

The current farmers struggle is, in different ways, carrying on the same legacy of fighting for justice against injustice, and the role of many individuals in strengthening or sabotaging the struggle would be similarly remembered as the role of individuals who sided with tyranny or opposed it at the time of the martyrdom of the Sahibzadas.

Pritam Singh is Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University, UK

* This is the opinion of the writer/s and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



BJP’s farming policies: Deepening India’s agrobusiness capitalism and centralisation (Asia Samachar, 18 Oct 2020)


ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |