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Martyrdom in The Sikh Tradition (Playing the Game of Love)

Item Code: NAR966
Author: Louis E. Fenech
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Language: English
Edition: 2005
ISBN: 9780195679014
Pages: 328 (3 B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 300 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This book examines the notion of martyrdom and the role of martyrs in the religious and political history of Sikhism. It explores different approaches to the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and other prominent Sikhs. Through an analysis of Sikh scriptures and eighteenth and nineteenth century Sikh literature, this interdisciplinary study demonstrates how the Singh Sabha ‘reform’ movement and the heroism of the Akalis in the 1920s shaped historical facts and interpretations.

This book will interest scholars and students of Sikh studies, religion, and medieval Indian history.

About the Author

Louis E. Fenech is Associate Professor of South Asian History, University of Northern lowa.


I counted twenty-three 1979 calendars in that room. No-one cared what day it was, but calendars were cheap and decorative. All depicted religious scenes and included, in a generous and hospitable way, the Hindu god Krishna flirting with the milkmaids, the mosque at Mecca and Christ nailed to the cross. The Sikh pictures portrayed their Gurus and gruesome excerpts from their history: gory battle- scenes, babies being spiked on spears, severed heads and limbs and men boiling in cauldrons of oil or being sawn in half vertically. I tried to pretend the calendars weren’t there but Jungli was always drawing my attention to one or other horrendous scene, recounting their stoic exploits with pride.

There is perhaps no more inauspicious way to begin a book on the Sikh tradition than to quote from Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment, the account of her one-year affair in 1979 with a Sikh named Jungli. Two particular points make this clear. The first is that this work is a typical example of the ‘personal’ orientalism that Edward Said decries in his celebrated book, Orientalism, a discourse in which European and American authors ‘[find] in the Orient a locale sympathetic to their private myths, obsessions and requirements’. The second is that Jungli is a Nihang Sikh. Although a minuscule segment of the entire Sikh Panth at best, Nihangs are easily the most flamboyant and martial type of Sikh identity (or so they claim). Appropriating his words as authoritative makes it appear as if Jungh is, indeed, representative of Sikhs and Sikhism in general.

Having said this, however, we should also point out the particular benefits of this citation. The quotation, for example, allows one to infer the reverence for martyrs and for martyrdom within the Sikh tradition—Jungli’s Nihang background notwithstanding. No doubt even a casual observer of today’s Sikh tradition cannot avoid noting such respect and reverence as it permeates virtually every facet of contemporary Punjabi Sikh culture. But what, to my mind, adds a substantial emphasis to this point is that Jungli is quoted as having said these words in 1979, five years before the situation in Punjab took the drastic turn which made the theme of martyrdom amongst the Sikhs so memorable to many journalists and scholars of India. It was in June 1984 that Operation Bluestar commenced, in which the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, sent the Indian Army into the Golden Temple to flush out entrenched Sikh militants led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Major-General Shahbeg Singh. The Prime Minister’s decision to storm (or liberate) Harimandir eventually resulted in her assassination by two of her trusted Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984 and the widespread killing of Sikhs, especially in Delhi, the day after her death. It was this tragic humiliation which played a fundamental role in convincing many Sikhs to take to a life of militancy. This decision eventually led to the organization of militant Sikh cells in which the martyr’s appeal was paramount. A letter sent to the President of India in 1987 and attributed to the celebrated slayers of General Vaidya, Sukhjinder ‘Sukha’ Singh and Harijinder ‘Jinda’ Singh, makes this abundantly clear:

The elimination of Mr. Vaidya ... was a holy act on our difficult path of martyrdom. By performing our historic task we have reminded you that our heroes like Sukha Singh, Mehtab Singh, Udham Singh are shadowing you tyrants...We accept with great joy the penalty of death pronounced by your court of law ... by touching the sharp edge of death we are moving towards fullness. Without martyrdom the magnificent fare of life cannot come into full swing ... [the] Guru Granth Sahib instills tremendous self- confidence in us. Inspired [by this sacred text], our heroes like Sukha Singh and Mehtab Singh [were able to kill] a tyrant like Massa Ranghar and bring [his] head as an offering to the [Sikh] community. Our inspiration also stems from the same Guru Granth Sahib... Our Beant Singh and Satwant Singh [Mrs. Gandhi’s assassins] were also inspired by the light of the same Guru Granth Sahib and they went for a great deed. After them, we too had the privilege of being inspired by a ray of the same divine light and we struck General Vaidya in Pune.

In this brief excerpt employing the Sikh rhetoric of martyrdom, there are many themes which we will touch upon in this book.

In 1984 as well, some eight hundred and fifty kilometres southeast of Amritsar, another explosive affair was commencing. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Council of Hindus), a Hindu nationalist movement, launched a campaign to liberate the so-called birthplace of the Hindu god Rama in Ayodhya, the Ramjanambhumi. This decision would eventually result in the destruction of the Babri mosque on 6 December 1992 by a Hindu mob and, subsequently, riots throughout the subcontinent between Hindus and Muslims, in which thousands, especially Muslims, lost their lives.

It was principally the Ayodhya controversy and the events surrounding it which precipitated the numerous books and monographs dealing with religious nationalism in South Asia. For these scholars, the Ayodhya events as well as those in Amritsar were symbolic of the rise of religious nationalism. More often than not, therefore, the happenings in Punjab over the last two decades have found a place in their texts, sometimes forming substantial chapters within such monographs. All these texts, relying completely on secondary sources, note the reverence that contemporary Sikhs have for martyrs and martyrdom and how this has allegedly figured in the current drive (amongst some Sikhs anyway) for a separate Sikh state known as Khalistan. Indeed, there can be no doubt that the allure of martyrdom has played a major role in this effort.

Yet what is the history and origin of this tradition within Sikhism that so enraptured a large number of present-day Sikhs to end their lives in what appears to be, in retrospect, so fruitless a task? Clearly, the reference to martyrs had and continues to have an extraordinary appeal. How this developed and how it is sustained is the subject of the present book.

This book represents a revised version of my dissertation, ‘Playing the "Game of Love": The Sikh Tradition of Martyrdom’, submitted for the Ph.D. degree to the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Toronto in 1995. It was here as an undergraduate in the early 1980s that I cultivated my interest in the Punjab and the Sikh people. I was ironically first attracted to the Sikh tradition in 1984 not because of the events in Punjab at this time (of which I knew very little), but as a result of sitting in on what would be the last class that the great Indologist; A.L. Basham, ever taught. The next year, Professor W.H. McLeod, a student of Basham in the early 1960s, was appointed as a visiting Commonwealth Scholar to the University of Toronto, a fact that allowed me to further enrich my fascination for the Sikh tradition. It was in this class that I first became aware of the profound Sikh reverence for martyrdom and here that I was fortunate enough to first encounter the stirring narrative of Baba Dip Singh, the great Sikh martyr of Amritsar.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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