The Jat - Bhapa Syndrome

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Does Sikhism regard religion and politics as inseparable? Will Sikhism not survive unless it had political power to sustain it? These complementary propositions thrown up by Bhai Jodh Singh, in the course of a speech at a function held in the Punjabi University, Patiala, to celebrate the tricentenary of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib early in 1977, had given rise to a controversy in The Sikh Review between him and Bhai Sahib Kapur Singh. Bhai Jodh Singh had opined that State power was not necessary to sustain a religion, that association with politics (essentially a game of expediency) was baneful to religion (the concern of which was eternal verities) and that Sikhism would, therefore, benefit by being insulated from politics. Bhai Sahib Kapur Singh had, on the other hand, held that not only was political power indispensible for providing to Sikhism the much needed safeguards against extinction, its pursuits had been sanctioned by the whole tenor of Sikh tradition and thought for that very reason.

The controversy between the two stalwarts was, for the most part, bare and terse. A detailed exposition of the subject, however, came in an article, in SR’s February ’78 issue, by Mr. Iqbal Sara, who - the contents of the article, though not the author’s name, leave no one in doubt - is an acutely concerned Sikh. The article should be of interest to all thoughtful Sikhs more an account of it reflecting the percolation of the highly insidous thinking affecting the unity and integrity of the Sikh Panth, and even to deeply committed Sikhs, who should be totally immune to it, than as an exposition of the proposition, which is its subject.

Mr. Sara, who is a strong protagonist of politics being an integral part of Sikhism, interprets Bhai Jodh Singh’s view as a response to the current Sikh situation characteristic of the bhapa Sikh component of the Panth which is at variance with the aim and all ideology of Sikhism and fervently appeals to the jat and bhapa components of Sikhism not to allow their "social and trade variation" to alienate them from each other, or to "keep aloof from a common planning as a nation." In it he follows up the exposition of his propositions, he moots or accepts some very dangerous propositions which, mercifully, do not square up with the facts of history:

The differences that divide jats and bhapas are basic and ineffaceable to racial and hereditary; naturally because
(1) the jat represents Scythian ruggedness while the bhapa represents Hindu and
(ii) the jat’s loyalty to Sikhsim is complete and irrevocable, Sikhism being the only emotional refuge; the bhapas loyalty is equivocal due to his contact with the parent Hindu stock, and
(iii) the compulsion of the jat’s situation is that he should pursue politics, while the compulsion of the bhapa’s situation is that he should shun them.

Mr. Sara’s statement, charged with the darkest foreboding, however, is that the bhapa specializes in discriminating against (running down) Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This is news to any educated Sikh! Educated Sikhs, bhapas and jats both, have regretted Ranjit Singh’s aberrations - such as his eve-of-death desire to donate the Koh-I-Noor to Jagannath Puri temple and donations to hundreds of ornament-bedecked cows to Brahmins. But no Sikh has harboured any sentiment excepting pride for his political achievement.

The academic and anthropological cliches with which Mr. Sara’s propositions have been clothed imparts to them a degree of respectibility which should pose serious threat to the unity and integrity of the Panth. They are, mercifully, repudiated by the evidence provided by the history of the Sikh people.

The jat-bhapa tussle which, let us frankly admit, has already done substantial harm to Sikh thinking and institutions, and which, if not quickly scotched, may, in the course of time, give a severe set-back to the realisation of Sikh political aspirations, is the offspring of vulgar politics. (The term bhapa which originally stood for the non-jat Sikh displaced person from the Pothohar region of undivided Punjab has since acquired wider connotation and to-day virtually implies all Sikhs of non-jat origin. Sowing discord between the urban and rural protagonists of Akali politics was some pedestrian, back-row, anti-Akali politician’s answer to the Akali Dal’s remarkable strength with which no responsible anti-Akali politician associated himself, to begin with. When a jat Sikh of Ferozepur Distt. S. Sucha Singh Rode, raised the jat-bhapa cry, the reaction was unqualified denunciation by all sections of the Sikhs, but the mischief had come to be sown and has since been amply watered by the greed for economic loaves and fishes. One cannot avoid feeling that the jat-bhapa consciousness has since proliferated to responsible politicians and there has been suggestive whispering that even some Akali politicians are not immune to it. The Sikh situation today seems to be a sorry anti-climax of the glorious saga of human unification enacted on the Baisakhi day in 1699 by making eighty thousand men drawn from disparate sections - including the traditional untouchables - of a caste-ridden society put their lips to the edge of common bowls to drink the ambrosia of consecrated water.

But, historically, this anti-climax is a very recent phenomenon. Individual Sikhs have been conscious of one another’s diverse social origins. But this consciousness had never determined the election of leaders, or a course of action. Administrative set-ups in all Sikh organisations, including the Sikh princely states, represented the most refreshing phenomenon of complete emotional integration of the Sikhs. The Singh Sabha, the Chief Khalsa Diwan, the Akali Dal High Command and their local set-ups demonstrated total absence of discrimination between one Sikh and another on the basis of his social origin. Inhibitions as to inter-social group marriages did by and large exist - thanks to political instability all along, which checked the growth and proliferation of Sikh doctrine. But the Sikhs drawn from different social groups mixed freely and dined together. The only exception to this general rule occurred in the sphere of relations between the Sikhs drawn from sweeper community and other Sikhs. But this, too, is of a comparatively recent origin and the Sikh religious elite have always unequivocally condemned discrimination against the so-called low caste Sikhs. In 1920 by which time Brahmanism had eaten deep into the tissues of Sikhism, leaders of the Singh Sabha movement wrested the right of admission into the Golden Temple for low caste Sikhs from un-willing hereditary custodians of the shrine in a most dramatic manner. This, however, has no direct bearing on the subject of the present discussion which is concerned with an entirely new kind of a fissure in the Sikh Panth. The dominant impression which the reading of the history of the Sikhs gives is that the Sikhs have lived and acted like one people, and if on any occasion there was lack of complete unity among them this did not arise from diversity of social or race loyalties.

If the differences that divided the components of the Sikh Panth were really ineffaceable, how was such a remarkable cohesion achieved? Besides, Sikhs drawn from different vocational and social backgrounds had developed common traits, common skills and even common physiognomy. To take, by way of illustration, just one quality of character - courage and stamina for physical suffering, which together constitute valour - this was shared by all Sikhs irrespective of their social backgrounds, and showed up in the field of battle, in the struggle for Gurdwara Reform, during which Sikhs non-violently suffered heinous physical torture - the degree of which made Father Andrew of Shanti Niketan exclaim that he was seoing innumerable Christs suffering crucifixion - and, lately, in the Sikhs’ resistance during the 1946-47 communal riots in the north-western Punjab and the Frontier Province (where the Sikhs were overwhelmingly outnumbered by their Muslim persecutors) and during the tribal invasion of Kashmir. In the course of last sagas of sublime resistance to brute force, the male members of a predominantly business and priestly Sikh community fell fighting against rioters and invaders, and its female members saved their honour by jumping into wells and streams and burning themselves alive. The Sikh daring showed up dramatically in Haripur Hazara (N.W.F.) where a several thousand strong Muslim mob consisting mainly of Frontier-tribesmen menacingly marched to a gurdwara, after the Friday prayer, and was met outside the gurdwara by a score of Sikhs - drawn from business community - with unsheathed kirpans. In Hazara, the Sikhs were not even 5% of the population.

Political acumen, military skill and aptitude for business management too were shared by all Sikhs irrespective of their social backgrounds. The Sikh political organisation in the period immediately succeeding the Guru era took the shape of mutually independent confederacies - designated Misls - which were led by, among Jat Sikhs, Ramgarhia and Ahluwalia Sikhs. All Sikhs acknowledge Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as their uncrowned king and Hari Singh Nalwa, a Khatri Sikh, was one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s most daring and skilled generals. The Sikh steel magnate, S. Inder Singh, was a Ramgarhia, and Sir Sunder Singh Majithia, a jat, was the envy of many a businessmen in the sugar industry.

The fact of the matter is that the Sikh Panth is the diverse cross-section of tyrannised Indian populace fused into unity and raised to greatness by the electrifying gospel of Guru Nanak - Guru Gobind Singh and the proud historical heritage this gospel’s effect on the people begot. The Panth’s individual constituents, whatever their racial traits and hereditary attributes, had existed for centuries; but as the doyen of Sikh history, Dr. Ganda Singh (a jat Sikh, by the way) is in the habit of pointing out, they never threw up a single leader of any note for centuries. With the Guru’s magic touch this mass of men became a community of saints, soldiers and martyrs, which has given birth to innumerable heroes and has become a massive reservoir of collective energy. How many other communities have converted deficit areas into surplus ones? Which other communities have built bridges over big rivers like the Godawari by voluntary labour and voluntary material contributions? The study of the history of the Sikhs leaves no one in doubt that the Sikh Panth’s extraordinary prowess and greatness is the gift of the Guru’s teachings and personal example - of courting a martyr’s death by torture, of sacrificing own life for securing to others their rights and of sacrificing own family and worldly possessions for principles - and not of the racial and hereditary traits of its constituents. The crux of the proposition is that the achievements of the Sikh people were the achievements of one people prompted by the same collective impulses and aptitudes and inspired by the same collective aims.

The contrary view is not only not consistent with the conclusions which emerge from the study of the history of the Sikhs, it is positively insidious and fraught with serious consequences for the unity and integrity of the Sikh people. What damage it can do is dramatically illustrated by Mr. Iqbal Sara’s article, Mr. Sara is a deeply committed Sikh who, inspite of his deep sincerity, has been affected by the distortions traded in the course of jat-bhapa controversy. So overwhelming is the impact of these distortions that he has felt persuaded to regard Bhai Jodh Singh as more a representative of the bhapa Sikh stock than Master Tara Singh - and this inspite of the clear phenomenon of the urban Sikhs having been solidly behind Akali politics, the main plank of which has been that religion and politics are inseparable.

The dissection of the Sikh Panth into its so-called racial-social constituents in the name of academics, history or anthropology is a sinister exercise. One would be strongly inclined to think that this is being designedly popularised by agencies matching the C.I.A. in their astuteness, enemically disposed to Sikh aspirations, which aim at subverting the Sikh thinking to bring about the organisational disintegration of the Sikhs who unitedly constitute a major political force. No amount of fervour for a belief that politics and religion are separable in the Sikh scheme of things can make up for the lack of a belief in the one-ness of the Sikh people and the equally important belief that the good of the Panth can be ensured by putting the right Sikh in every place in the Panthic dispensation irrespective of what his social or vocational background is.

We have been vaguely debating the propositions that religion and politics in Sikhism are inseparable and that political power is essential for the survival of Sikhism. It may do us a world of good to clearly analyse our aims and the means we need to adopt for attaining these. If we want political power (a means) to ensure survival of Sikhism (an end), will our aim not be defeated by driving a wedge of the type of the jat-bhapa wedge in the ranks of Sikhism - which will greatly weaken it?

To attain political power, we must have the capability for effective political struggle. And the most important factor conducive to the subsistence of such capability will be our unity, involving complete emotional integration, as a people. Our unity as a people was - historically - an accomplished fact till recently. But now a growing awareness of jat-bhapa discordance has begun to cause potentially dangerous seams in the structure of the Panth. With what ominous portents for the unity and integrity of the Panth, the jat-bhapa awareness is fraught is indicated by the fact that such a well-meaning Sikh as Mr. Sara has been affected by it so profoundly that he has not only accepted the jat-bhapa discordance as a fact of life, he has also felt impelled to an academic basis for it which does not square up with the facts of the history of the Sikhs. What is more dangerous about the jat-bhapa awareness is that it has the potentiality of completely eroding Sikhism’s vital defence mechanism.

The enemies of Sikhism could not have wished it to be in a worse situation than it is in. There already is a tendency among Sikhs to delink Sikh nationalism or social organisation from Sikh formal discipline - to say nothing of other Sikh spiritual and social commitments, such as Amrit, recitation of scriptures and social service (sewa). So a jat Sikh, according to Mr. Sara, would still be a Sikh when he has shaved off because he has nowhere else to go to. This is a highly damaging trend of thought. Sikh formal discipline not only binds the Sikhs together into a well-knit socio-political entity, thus furnishing a solid basis for Sikh nationalism, it also is the source of strength to individual Sikhism, being a continuous exercise in loyalty and a factor which keeps a Sikh close to the fountain of his spiritual inspiration. This should explain why the Sikh drawn from agriculturist stock is so different from and superior to a Hindu or Muslim drawn from the same stock. It is inconceivable that without the Sikh formal discipline, the Sikhs would be an effective socio-political entity. There, thus, can be no Sikh politics without the Sikh form. And how does the jat-bhapa awareness affect the Sikh form?

Our argument will be better followed if we recapitulate the principal aim of all our socio-political activity. This is the preservation of Sikhism, that is, the Sikh ideology with all its adjuncts of philosophy, ethical values and organisation. If we want to be true to this sovereign aim, the Sikh socio-political organisation - let us call it "Panth" - should not be substituted for the totality of the Sikh ideology of which Sikh organisation is just a part. What is extra-ordinary about Sikhism is its philosophy and ethical values which invest the Sikh organisation with a unique form and content. Sikhism stands for the full allround growth of human personality within a social organisation which is committed to the defence of the legitimate rights of all. The awareness of jat-bhapa discordance - a mere illusion - can be fatal to the attainment of this sovereign aim.

The link of the rural Sikh with Sikh orthodoxy is already weakening due to lack of religious education. The better educated urban Sikh, who is the major bulwark of Sikh orthodoxy, who feels acutely concerned over his rural brother’s drift and who could be made to stem that drift, is denied the opportunity of doing that by a conspiracy of circumstances - not the least potent of which is jat-bhapa disaffection - which makes even the most well-meaning Sikhs play the game of the enemies of Sikhism.

The urban Sikh’s credit with his rural brother is being undermined. He is being excluded from positions from which he could influence his rural brother by even well-meaning Sikhs who are unable to resist the dictates of bias or personal advantage of which people with weaker commitments to Sikhism but potentially more helpful in elections must be patronised. The wedge of mutual suspicion excludes the urban Sikh from the Panth’s effective counsels, which should be guided by sincerity and earnestness alone if Sikhism is to survive and prosper. This give rise to frustration among the urban Sikhs who thereafter seek fulfillment in other creative pursuits. They, of course, remain firmly committed to Sikhism. But their creative faculties which could have enriched Sikhism and helped re-establish rural Sikh’s link with Sikh orthodoxy are devoted to the service of other causes. The losers in this process are Sikhism and its collective aims. Its less educated adherents become indifferent to Sikhism due to lack of knowledge of its power and excellence, and its educated adherents become indifferent to it due to lack of opportunities for mending its defence and making it an effective and a vigourous ideal-based organisation. Hence the observation that the enemies of Sikhism could not have wished it to be in a worse situation.

There is, however, no need for us to be depressed. The respect, among all sections of Sikhs, for all those institutions which bound us into a strong cohesive whole - the Guru Granth Sahib, that mystic entity "Panth", the Sikh formal discipline, every Sikh shrines, a common history, etc., - is intact. We have had remarkable resilience and capacity to survive and overcome crisis. We rose from ashes within ten years of the Wada ghalukara (major massacre of Sikh people) - which was considered by contemporary political observers to have wiped us off - to challenge our oppressors. Ideologically, we had very nearly been finished when our activist remnants retrieved the mass of Sikhism from indifference and prostration to enact sagas of unparalleled non-violent struggle for the reform of the Gurdwara management. We shall surely overcome the latest crisis and the neo-costeism in our ranks. But to overcome it we have to know the nature and ramifications of the crisis and what remedial action is needed to overcome it.

We have analysed the implications of the mischief. We may now consider how we can effectively combat it. We may straightaway recognise that the remedial action has to be three-fold (i) securing repudiation of any type of casteism by the Sikh collective conscience by mass education; (ii) placing in positions, from where opinion and conduct of large numbers of Sikhs can be influenced, only those Sikhs whose living is exemplary, whatever their social backgrounds, and (iii) small but highly significant changes and adjustment in our individual lives.

All Sikhs must be reminded that Sikhism not only unequivocally condemns casteism, it seeks positively to obliterate it by making the Khalsa initiates drawn from different social backgrounds and strata drink amrit by putting their lips to the edge of the same bowl. The sermon at the initiation ceremony expressly proclaims that admission into the Khalsa brotherhood is destructive of previous (i) religious (ii) family and (iii) caste affiliations. The Guru declared in very clear terms that the Khalsa "is my body and life". The Khalsa, therefore, is as much a unity as the Guru’s person.

Hours of sermons cannot achieve as much as the example of a person who commands envy - a person in authority, or one who commands admiration on account of sweetness of manner, strength of character or intellectual attainment. The commanding officer in the army, an executive in a civilian or business establishment, a capable teacher in an educational institution inevitably influence the style of living of the ranks, the subordinates and the pupils. We should certainly be advancing the interests of Sikhism by placing in position of influence and authority good, sincere, competent Sikhs in Sikh institution in total disregard of their social backgrounds and holding out such Sikhs elsewhere as worthy of our admiration, and envy irrespective of which stock they hail from. The criterion in selecting Sikhs for Panthic counsels should be their moral, intellectual and spiritual attainments, and not which group they belong to.

Individual Sikhs have an equally vital role to play in preventing the growth of casteism in the Panth. While they banish all group considerations in arranging their relation with other Sikhs, dramatic results could be achieved by small changes and adjustments. Until a few decades ago, hardly any Sikh attached to his name his caste name -Sethi, Sandhu, Grewal, Sidhu, Bajwa. Shedding these caste name would once again unite all Sikhs into a single homogenous body. Similarly shedding of village or city names from our names would banish regionalism from amongst us.

We have observed how, by nourishing divisions in our ranks, we shall be achieving exactly the opposite of political power, which may be essential for our survival. It is in this context that we have to view the "jat-bhapa" syndrome, which is an evil omen charged with dark forebodings for all that we Sikhs have achieved - and stand for.