Origin of non violence

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'Origin of Non-Violence'

Adapted from original article by Alice Basarke

As fate would have it, Mahatma Gandhi is credited with starting the non-violent movement to oust the British from India, which later was to inspire leaders all around the world, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the United States, in the liberation of other oppressed peoples. Gandhi deserves a little praise since he did have a later role in the implementation of non-violence, but he certainly was not the originator of that concept. He learnt that from the Sikhs. The Sikhs, in turn, drew their inspiration from their Gurus, two of whom had willingly and peacefully accepted execution when it was appropriate to make their point about the tyranny of the Islamic regime. Over time, when the situation deemed it necessary and appropriate, the Sikhs used the principle of non-violence again and again.

In 1861, the British introduced the Waqf Act which gave control and management of holy places back to their respective communities. The Hindus and Muslims were given control of their places of worship. But in the case of the Sikh Gurdwaras, the Act was not applied. The British knew full well that the Sikhs drew their strength and inspiration from their Scripture and ideology. They also knew that Sikhs had a long history of fighting oppression and injustice no matter what the cost. They were the very last community in all of India to be conquered by the British, years after the rest of India had already submitted. Previously, when India had been ruled by a foreign Muslim empire, only the Sikhs had dared to raise the voice of protest, and it was the Sikh community that successfully overthrew the Muslim Empire. Hence the British feared, correctly, that any threat to the continued success of their colonization would come from the Sikhs.

For well-planned political reasons, the properties of Sikh places of worship were transferred to Hindu caretakers (udasi mahants), who were paid agents of the British government. Most of these mahants had very little understanding of Sikh religion and its practices. These caretakers received their instructions from the Deputy Commissioner, a Britisher. The government needed to maintain the Gurdwaras as channels of indirect control of the Sikhs. Naturally the Sikhs were not happy with this arrangement. It was a major factor in the first uprising against the British.

At that time there was a small group of Sikhs known as the Namdharis. Ram Singh (1815-1885) was their leader. He once served in the army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In 1849, when the British annexed Punjab, his army unit was disbanded. He was further concerned at the takeover of the Gurdwaras in 1861 by the British, and the fact that under the non-democratic and brutally violent British regime, nobody was able to do anything about this. He was very perturbed at the British intrigue and duplicity all around him.

After the collapse of the Sikh state, Ram Singh turned to religion and meditation on God's name; hence the name Namdhari. Due to his intense piety, he had many admirers. His political feelings soon emerged as the main topic of his discussions. He started the non-violent movement to oust the British from India. He preached the Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, with great fervor. He asked the people to boycott all British goods:

Do not accept service with the government; do not send children to government schools; do not go to royal courts of law, but settle disputes by reference to panchayats (village councils); do not use foreign goods; do not use government postal services.

His followers spun their own cloth and dressed in pure white cotton, and boycotted all that was even remotely British. His following grew very rapidly, which alarmed the British imperialists. The East India Company had a great monopoly going. Cotton was being shipped to England, where it was processed and made into cloth. The British economy was booming. Everyone had a job. The cloth manufactured in England was shipped back to India and sold at great profit. Ram Singh's protest was a threat to the British system of exploitative profit.

In response, L. Cowan, the Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, arrested 68 Sikhs on trumped-up charges. Cowan sent a note to his commissioner, T.D. Forsythe, and without any further formality or pretense of trial, blew up 66 of the prisoners by tying them to the mouths of cannons. The other two were hacked to pieces with a sword. Forsythe then joined Cowan at Malerkotla, where 16 more Sikhs were rounded up and blasted off by cannons. Cowan explained the reason for his actions in his own words:

I propose blowing away from guns, or hanging the prisoners tomorrow morning at daybreak. Their offense is not an ordinary one. They have not committed mere murder and dacoity; they are open rebels, offering resistance to constitutional authority, and, to prevent the spreading of this disease, it is absolutely necessary that repressive measures should be prompt and stern. I act for the best, this incipient insurrection must be stamped out at once.

The commissioner T.D. Forsythe supported the action of his deputy. He wrote in a letter dated January 18, 1872:

My dear Cowan, I fully approve and confirm all you have done. You have acted admirably.

For those who may wonder just what blowing from guns means, the following graphic description is provided by Christopher Hibbert in his book The Great Mutiny, which makes clear that the British engaged in this terrorism in order to terrorize Sikhs into submission to the British Crown:

Only those with the strongest stomachs, however, could remain unaffected when prisoners were blown away from the mouths of cannon, a punishment inflicted by the British in India. This was a 'frightful sight', Dr. John Sylvester thought; and for the victims a peculiarly horrible punishment. The victim was lashed to a gun, the small of his back or the pit of his stomach against the muzzle, then 'smeared with the blood of someone murdered by a member of his race if such could be procured.' (Sylvester's diaries) When the gun was fired, the body was dismembered. Usually the head, scarcely disfigured, would fly off through the smoke, then fall to the earth, slightly blackened, followed by the arms and legs. The trunk would be shattered, giving off 'a beastly smell', and pieces of the flesh and intestines and gouts of blood would be splashed not only over the gunners but also over any spectators who stood too close. Vultures would hover overhead and with grisly dexterity catch lumps of flesh in their beaks. 'The pent up feelings of the bystanders found vent in a sort of loud gasp like ah-h!' wrote an artillery officer who was required to supervise such an execution. Then many of them came across the ditch to inspect the remains of the legs, and the horrible affair was over.

This horrendous slaughter took place on January 11-12, 1872. Cowan was right. The Sikhs were dangerous. Had they not been dealt with promptly and "sternly", they would have gone down in history as the real fathers and mothers of the nation, for the British would have been thrown out almost a hundred years sooner. Long afterwards, Mohandas Gandhi merely copied the plans of Ram Singh to earn this title. Even the boycott of British cloth was copied. The spinning of cotton, and the wearing of only white, handspun cotton, was exactly as the Sikhs had prescribed.

The second major nonviolent revolt against the British was again enacted by the Sikhs. It was known as the Singh Sabha Movement and was started in 1873, just one year after the massacre of Sikhs by the British. Due to active and aggressive intervention by the British it took some time to develop, but the Singh Sabha Movement nevertheless steadily gained momentum. British government headquarters were moved from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911. In 1914, in order to complete the secretariat complex of the new government buildings, the British demolished a wall of the Gurdwara Rakab Ganj in order to make room, without any consideration of Sikh sentiments. The Sikhs protested strongly in large gatherings all over the state. The government promised that this wall would be rebuilt after the First World War, but even this promise was not fulfilled. Sikhs were especially angered by this because Sikh contributions to the British war effort in terms of both fighting men and money had been very high, far out of proportion to their numbers in the population of India. Sikhs announced that if the government failed to rebuild the wall, they would build it themselves. This threat of Morcha (moral struggle) forced the British to construct the wall at their own cost in 1921 at the original place. This was a great symbolic victory for the Sikhs.

The early 1920s were very difficult times for the Sikhs in Punjab. In 1919, over fifteen hundred unarmed civilians were shot dead by British General Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. The Sikhs suffered great losses in struggle after struggle during this period. Thousands of Sikhs would march to the Gurdwaras in protest, and British guards defending the Hindu mahants would systematically shoot them down. Yet the waves of protesters, which included numerous women, kept on coming. Eventually, mounds of bodies piled high developed in front of the Gurdwaras, yet protesters kept on coming. The British soldiers climbed on top of the mounds and used them as firing positions to continue killing the unarmed Sikhs. The British deposed the Maharaja of Nabha because he made no secret of his sympathy for the Sikh protesters. A batch of passive resisters, who marched to Jaito to offer prayers for the deposed Maharaja, was machine-gunned by the British. At least 40 were murdered. At Nanakana Sahib, visitors to the Gurdwara were often insulted and women even raped by the mahant. The mahant had many criminal vices. However, he felt free to ignore Sikh sentiments because of the open support he received from the British. On February 20, 1921, about 150 unarmed Sikhs went to the Gurdwara early in the morning. The mahant's supporters, who had been kept in the Gurdwara to teach the Sikhs a lesson, closed the main gate behind them. They shot, knifed, and even burnt alive this group of Sikh pilgrims. When the Sikh population heard of this massacre, thousands walked long distances to Nanakana Sahib. They were forced to go by foot because train travel was prohibited to them. The Sikhs were determined to take charge of the Gurdwara and of the dead bodies of the Sikhs who had been massacred the day before.

However, when the British learned of the massacre they quickly ordered their army to occupy the Gurdwara before Sikh protesters could arrive, in order to protect the mahant's interests. They had no intention of turning the Gurdwara over to the Sikhs. The Sikhs, determined to sacrifice their lives if necessary, organized themselves into Jathas or groups. They pressed forward, group after group, in spite of army threats to gun them down. Finally the soldiers yielded, unable to face killing so many innocent Sikhs. The mahant and his men were not harmed, but rather taken into custody by the police. Sikhs took charge of the Gurdwara and of the corpses of the massacred Sikhs which were partly burnt and scattered everywhere.

On November 22, 1921, the British confiscated the keys to the Tosha Khana, a fortified room which contained many valuables from the Harmandar Sahib complex in Amritsar. The Sikhs protested and hundreds of them, including Baba Kharak Singh, the leader of the movement, were sent to jail. The government finally agreed to hand back the keys if a representative of the Sikhs was sent to the office of the Deputy Commissioner in Amritsar. The Sikhs declined the obvious pretense. They demanded that, since the keys had been stolen by the government, they should be returned in the same way with the British representative bringing the keys to the Harmandar Sahib complex. At last, on January 17, 1923, in spite of the British claim of total control, a representative of the empire returned the keys in person to the Akal Takht. This was an incredible victory by the Sikhs, the fruit of their sacrifices.

Yet the British failed to handle their power tactfully and appropriately, even after it became apparent their control over the Sikhs was slipping. Even though many Gurdwaras had already been brought back under the control of the Sikhs, Guru Ka Bagh was still controlled by a mahant. The government felt he could be used to defeat the Sikhs. The British invited a confrontation by encouraging the mahant to prohibit Sikhs from obtaining wood from Guru Ka Bagh. Wood from Guru Ka Bagh had been used as fuel for cooking Langar in the Gurdwara at Amritsar for more than three centuries, since the time of the Gurus. Of course, the Sikhs asserted their right to cut wood for Langar, the free community kitchen. The British sent a heavy force to murder the Sikhs. Sikhs with hands folded and heads lowered suffered cruel and merciless beatings. Several were trampled alive by horses. Many more were shot dead. Government medical facilities barred entrance to the wounded, forcing Sikhs to treat themselves in the field. Amputations of crushed limbs were conducted in the open. These activities continued not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Participants claimed seeing small rivers of blood flowing across the ground, with sounds of human wailing filling the air. And yet the Sikhs kept coming. Winston Churchill described the massacre:

A monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation in the annals of British history.

Father Andrews, a Christian missionary brought over during the British Raj in a concerted attempt to spread Christianism, witnessed the event. He cried when he saw the cruelties being inflicted on the unarmed, hymn-singing Sikhs and declared:

I see hundreds of Christs being crucified every day.

This statement of Father Andrews shook the British leadership back in Britain to its core. Madan Mohan Malviya, a top Hindu leader and protector of the Hindu faith, said:

The freedom movement has been born at Guru Ka Bagh. It will lead to freedom for the whole of India. Each family in India should make a child adopt the Sikh faith.

Moti Lal Nehru, father of Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, said:

I salute the Sikhs who are fighting for freedom.

Dr. Saffudin Kitchlu commented:

Our Sikh brothers have taught us the way to achieve freedom. No power can stop us now, from becoming a free nation.

Mohandas Gandhi, who did not participate in the Guru Ka Bagh event, telegrammed from afar his "congratulations" at the thousands of Sikh casualties:

Congratulations! The first battle for Indian freedom has been won.

The Guru Ka Bagh massacre, which occurred at the center of the Sikh religion in Amritsar, is widely recognized as the turning point in India's struggle for Independence. In this charged atmosphere the Sikhs continued their struggle to regain control of the Gurdwaras.

During the course of the Guru Ka Bagh struggle, Sikhs were involved in another confrontation elsewhere. On October 30, 1922, an incident occurred which shook India to its core. Sikh prisoners seized by the British during the peaceful Guru Ka Bagh struggle were being transported by train out of the area. The British refused to feed these prisoners and they were starving, locked inside the railway cars. The train carrying them was to pass through Punja Sahib, a Sikh holy place. The Sikhs requested that the British stop the train at this place so they could feed the prisoners, at Sikh expense and with food served by the Sikhs themselves. The British refused. In response, several Sikhs sat directly on the railway tracks in the path of the train, in order to force it to stop.

Amazingly, the British still refused to stop the train. But the Sikhs did not budge. The train crushed two people before coming to a halt at orders of the conductor. The Sikhs achieved their goal of distributing food to the starving prisoners, of course, at great sacrifice.

By 1925, the British were forced to pass the Sikh Gurdwara Act and return control of all Gurdwaras to the Sikhs. In the last five years of agitation, 30,000 men and women had gone to jail. 400 had been killed and over 2,000 seriously wounded. The political results were far reaching.

The struggle for independence continued, and Sikhs made a tremendous contribution. Before independence, the Sikh community was only 1.1% of the the total population of India, yet what they achieved is nothing short of phenomenal. In total, 2,125 Indians were sentenced to prison terms at least one year in length due to their participation in the freedom struggle. Of that number, 1,550, or 75%, were Sikhs. In total, 2,646 Indians were deported (exiled). Of that number, 2,147, or 80%, were Sikhs. In total, 127 were given formal death sentences (many more were killed extrajudicially). Of that number, 92, or 80%, were Sikhs. Given these facts, it becomes clear Gandhi was given credit for the freedom movement only as a revision of history by the overwhelming Hindu majority, long after Independence had been won. There is simply no question that the freedom struggle was conceived by, led by, and followed by, Sikhs.

Finally, with the outbreak of World War II, the British relented and agreed to grant India its independence, in return for Indian support during the war. The Sikhs readily agreed. Close to 90,000 Sikhs sacrificed their lives fighting for the Allies against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, again far out of any proportion to their numbers in the Indian population (the entire American loss during WWII was only 400,000, in a population orders of magnitude larger than the Sikhs). Several British warships were named in honor of the Sikh contribution. Mohandas Gandhi, however, refused to participate. When confronted with the fact that the Axis powers were engaged in large-scale genocide, Gandhi commented that while he could not stand by and watch such atrocities, he also would not oppose them, so the only solution was to contemplate suicide. However, Gandhi never actually followed through with killing himself in the face of the Axis threat.

On January 30, 1948, Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu terrorist, Nathuram Godse, who shot him three times in the chest for not being pro-Hindu enough, even though Gandhi was a Hindu and had done much to ensure the Hindu low castes would never be able to escape to a different religion like Sikhism, Christianism, or Muhammedanism. At a time when low castes desired to convert to other religions because of their extreme poverty and poor treatment under the Hindu system, Gandhi initiated policies whereby some government benefits would be targeted specifically to low castes. In this manner, Gandhi was successful in keeping the low castes in their hierarchical place, because converting to a different religion by definition removed a person from any caste, and thereby barred them from receiving desperately needed government aid. Perhaps Gandhi's greatest contribution to the freedom struggle was his numerous symbolic fasts, where he would sit in a room and starve himself with the thought that this would bring support to the movement, while unarmed people were dying in large numbers outside.

Gandhi's name has since been trumpeted throughout India and later throughout the world, yet the Sikhs have been virtually forgotten. Many people have never even heard of them. The time has come to give credit where it is due. The concept of nonviolence, which has led to extraordinary changes across the globe, originated with the Sikhs.

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