It was wonderful to read the article ‘Remembering the Centenary of the Re-Entry of Dalits into the Golden Temple of Amritsar’ on The Wire. It was an event that was witnessed by my great grandfather Ruchi Ram Sahni (1863–1948).
In his diaries, The History of My Own Times, which he started working on at a very young age and which culminated in more than 12 volumes, he writes extensively on Sikhism, the Akali Movement and the events that he witnessed of the peaceful manner in which ordinary Sikhs went about preaching non-violence while, at the same time, protecting the religion that they had embraced.
The stories based on his own personal experience and events in which he participated are fascinating. While describing the same event mentioned in the said article, when Dalits were not allowed to offer karah parshad at the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple of Amristar), he provides a number of examples of how inclusive Sikhism as a religion is.
He writes how the tenets of Sikhism—of service before self, compassion and inclusion—are essential components of the teachings of Guru Nanak. Even though the Sikh Gurus were martyred at the hands of the Mughals, the inclusive nature of Sikhism has allowed a bonding among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.
As he says in his diary,
“In one respect, Sikhism occupies a unique position among the religious faiths of the world. I do not know of another faith where one would find a long and unbroken line of as many as ten prophets, each bearing witness to the central truths preached by his predecessors but each adding and unfolding new and previously unsuspected aspects of the truth. The result is a grand edifice, complete in itself and suited to the manifold needs of men and women in all grades, states and conditions of life.”
Ruchi Ram Sahni brings out well the democratic aspects of the Sikh faith because of which princes and peasants could offer obeisance side by side. While doing kar seva himself, he saw Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala carrying loads of mud on his head with countless ordinary people at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. All were considered equal “united in a common service, and all ennobled because it was service in the cause of the Panth.”
He also notes how the sacrifices and sufferings of the Khalsa in the Guru-ka-Bagh struggle inspired so many to spend the next decade on social reclamation. Some leaders went to the neighbouring villages to estimate the effort that would be needed to end untouchability in Sikhism. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) took a solemn vow to do so and also sought to bring backward castes amongst other communities under the rubric of Sikhism.
Writing about his own personal experience, Ruchi Ram Sahni says in his book, Struggle for Reform in Sikh Shrines:
“My only excuse for undertaking to write a history of the recent Akali movement of my own time is that some of the happenings, as I saw them with my own eyes, were almost unique in the history of the world, excepting, of course, the Sikh history itself. I saw on these occasions the commonest man drawn directly from the lowest ranks of the community rising to great heights of idealism and acting the part of heroes. In saying this I am not conscious of being guilty of exaggeration. Rustics coming straight from the fields in response to an inner call and inspired with the fervour of religious enthusiasm, played a part in a non-violent struggle of which anyone might well be proud. In a very real sense they were making history. I wish to record my personal testimony of such sufferings borne with the inspiring word Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru Ji, on the lips by hundreds of men, day after day, at Guru-ka-Bagh, suffering ordeals which I have not heard of being borne by the members of any other community at least within our own times. I say this with all sincerity and with absolute truth. Mahatma Gandhi himself could not have expected more faithful followers to carry out his non-violent non-co-operative struggle in the face of the gravest provocation.”
Sahni goes on to say that there was no doctrinal rigidity in the early days when the Sikh Gurus moved freely amongst the people and inspired so many – not just Sikhs but Hindus and Muslims as well – by their simplicity, sincerity and strength of faith. He recounts how the Sufi saint, Mian Mir of Lahore, laid the foundation stone of Darbar Sahib on the invitation of Guru Arjan Dev. Moreover, the Granth Sahib itself included the theistic insights of many Muslim saints at the instance of the fifth Guru.
In the summer of 1922, when the SGPC decided to clean the tanks around Harmandir Sahib and set up a special karsarovar (service of the tank), Sahni, one of the volunteers, writes that not only did pious Sikhs participate in this karsarovar, but tens of thousands of Hindus did as well along with a few hundred Muslims.
“On one day a party of a couple of hundred Muhammadans after saying their namaz in the adjoining Guru-ka-Bagh marched to the sacred tank and joined in kar sewa. All who joined in the sacred work took their food in the Guru-ka-langar close by. It was a sight for the gods to see.”
And we must not forget that almost a hundred years later, Sikh jathas came from Punjab to start a langar for the peaceful protesters at Shaheen Bagh. Solidarity, selflessness and compassion are some of the enduring teachings of Guru Nanak and one needs to remember these virtues at this time when people are being divided on the basis of their religion.
Neera Burra is a sociologist and has recently edited a book titled A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab. Ruchi Ram Sahni 1863–1948 was published by the Oxford University Press, New Delhi, in July 2017.