Wednesday Books: Trials of the turbaned warriors

Click to follow
The Independent Culture




BOTH OF these books, and the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition which opens tomorrow, commemorate the 300th anniversary of one of the defining moments in Sikh history - the creation of the Khalsa, or the Order of the Pure, by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. As a result, a religious movement first begun in the late 15th century to provide a more humane and liberal environment for its followers took a military turn. Sikh males, bearded and turbaned, assumed the surname Singh - or lion - and became among the greatest warriors not merely of the subcontinent, but of the world. Sikh females assumed the surname Kaur - or princess - and were, at least in theory, guaranteed equality with their menfolk.

Sikhism represented an attempt to ameliorate the cruel and chronic effects of caste and privilege in India. In its purest form, it advocated democratic decision-making, individualism and the rejection of feudalism and tyranny. So it provoked disapproval and, at the worst, persecution at the hands of those who dominated the social and political structure. As an embattled minority in a country where the overwhelming majority remained Hindu and where Muslims, through the long years of Mogul supremacy, exerted a powerful influence, the Sikhs were necessarily resilient, and well able to defend themselves.

Perhaps inevitably, Patwant Singh's history of his people has many of these characteristics embedded in it. This makes it a sometimes inspiring, sometimes pedestrian, but often a painful read - most notably in the account of the atrocities inflicted on Sikhs during their many conflicts with those whom they saw as their enemies or who hated them in turn.

Merely within the last 90 years, Sikhs have suffered and died in their hundreds of thousands - as targets of the brutal Brigadier General Dyer during the 1919 Amritsar massacre, as some of the main victims of the horrifying massacres that accompanied Partition in 1947, and as co-religionists of the bodyguards who assassinated Indira Gandhi in 1984. As a result of the vengeance of mobs after this last event, it has been estimated that nearly 4,000 Sikhs were killed or burnt to death in Delhi alone.

Small wonder that the Sikhs, traditionally vulnerable to the hatred of both Hindus and Muslims, became increasingly associated with their British overlords after their defeat by the East India Company's forces and the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. During the great sepoy rebellion, or Mutiny, of 1857, Sikhs played a notable part in crushing the revolt. Their zeal owed at least something to their instinctive opposition to the mutineers' rash decision to invite the elderly and reluctant Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah II, nominally to lead the uprising after the fall of Delhi.

As the power of the British Raj increased to subcontinental hegemony, the role of the Sikhs became more significant, especially in the army. Seeing them as the most loyal of the "martial races", the British used them as the Viceroy's bodyguards. This tradition, inherited by India's post-Partition prime ministers, was to lead directly to Mrs Gandhi's death.

Yet despite their extraordinary contribution to the British military presence in India; and despite the fact that from 1914 they were awarded roughly half of the Victoria Crosses won by men in the Indian Army, the Sikhs never surrendered their integrity. They played a heroic part in nationalist agitation against British rule, and went to prison and even to execution in far larger numbers proportionately than other groups. They were also heavily recruited into Bose's ill-fated Indian National Army of liberation during the Second World War. At the end of the century, they remain a proud and independent people, several millions of whom live overseas, principally in Britain, the US and Canada.

Patwant Singh has also contributed a chapter to the beautifully produced V & A publication, The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms. The book is a visual delight. Its editor, Susan Stronge, has written the chapter on arts at the court of one of the greatest of Sikh rulers, the maharajah Ranjit Singh. The illustrations in this chapter alone are enough to send the reader scurrying to South Kensington. Among the works shown are the Koh- i-nur diamond in its original setting, the golden throne of Ranjit Singh, a blue wooden Mogul casket inlaid with ivory and tortoiseshell, some exquisite early 17th-century glazed floral tiles from Lahore monuments, an elaborately decorated nine-pounder howitzer of the type used so effectively against the British during the Sikh Wars, a gold overlaid steel casket, and some lovely fragments of Kashmiri and Punjabi carpets with rich, plum-coloured backgrounds. In other chapters, fine Sikh paintings demonstrate the cultural depth and subtlety of a people who were able to combine extraordinary courage and military expertise with profound humanity and great artistic sensibility.

The reviewer's book `Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present' is published by Fontana