Happy 542nd Birthday!
by TAREK FATAH
This week millions of Sikhs and their friends around the world are celebrating Gurpurab, but few outside India know the significance of this day or its history.
It’s the 542nd birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith and one of the greatest symbols of pluralism and tolerance in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi may epitomize India in the West, but he is just one of the many towering figures of history that have shaped the land, its culture and its religions. Poets such as Tagore and Iqbal immortalized India in verse while emperors like Asoka and Akbar ruled over dazzling domains that stunned the visitor.
Among the great philosophers and thinkers that India gifted to the world are two men who tower above the rest- Buddha and Guru Nanak, the founders of Buddhism and Sikhism. While Buddha is well known in the West as a result of his creed and followers, Guru Nanak, whose birthday we celebrate today is yet to be discovered.
Let this Muslim introduce you to the man who founded the world’s youngest religion, Sikhism and who had a profound role in shaping my Punjabi heritage, alas, one that was torn to shreds by the bloody partition of India in August 1947.
Today, the place where Guru Nanak was born in 1469 is a city that was ethnically cleansed of its entire Sikh population during the bloodbath of 1947. Nankana Sahib, a place where the Guru spent his childhood with Muslim and Hindu friends is a Bethlehem without Christians; a Medina without Muslims.
For a few days the town will bustle with Sikh pilgrims from all over the world, but soon they will depart and nary a turban will be seen until the Sikhs return next year.
The city of Nankana Sahib lies near Lahore, my maternal ancestral home, where my mother and father were born. My mother told me how she as a Muslim girl grew up with Sikh neighbors and how she was part of the Sikh family’s celebrations at the time of Gurpurab and how she would travel with her friend to Nankana Sahib. Decades later she would still recall her lost friend who left Pakistan to seek refuge across the border. Today Nankana Sahib celebrates, but there are no Muslim girls accompanying their Sikh friends. None.
It is sad.
Sad, because Sikhism and Guru Nanak were intertwined with Islam and Muslims. The Guru’s closest companion was a Muslim by the name of Bhai Mardana. It is said when Mardana was dying, the Guru asked him, how would you like to die? As a Muslim? To which the ailing companion replied, “As a human being.”
Five hundred years later, a border divides Muslim and Sikh Punjabis. A border where two nuclear armies and a million men face each other. As a Muslim Punjabi I feel the British in dividing Punjab separated my soul from my body and left the two to survive on their own. Muslim Punjabis lost their neighbours and family friends of generations. Most of all they lost their language that today languishes as a second-class tongue in its own home. We kept Nankana Sahib, but lost the Guru.
However, the tragedy that befell the Sikhs was far more ominous and deserves special mention. For Sikhs, the Punjabi cities of Lahore and Gujranwala, Nankana Sahib and Rawalpindi were their hometowns and had shared a history with their Gurus. With the 1947 Partition, not only was Punjab divided, but the Sikhs were ethnically cleansed from Pakistan’s Punjab.
As a result of the creation of the Islamic State of Pakistan, the Sikhs lost absolute access to the following holy sites: Gurdwara Janam Asthan, the birthplace of Guru Nanak, in Nankana Sahib; Gurdwara Punja Sahib in Hasan Abdal; Gurdwara Dera Sahib in Lahore, where the Fifth Guru, Arjan, was martyred; Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak died; and, of course, the Memorial to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Emperop of Punjab, in Lahore.
When the killings and cleansing of 1947 ended, not a single Sikh was visible in Lahore. Of course, Muslims too were chased out of the eastern parts of Punjab, but they were not losing their holy places of Mecca or Medina.
Even though we Muslims despair the occupation of Jerusalem, we still have the comfort of knowing that Muslims still live in and around the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
But what about the Sikhs?
To feel their pain, Muslims need to imagine how outraged we would feel if, God forbid, Mecca and Medina were cleansed of all Muslims and fell under the occupation of, say, Ethiopia. How can we Muslims ask for the liberation of Muslim lands while we institutionalize the exclusion and ethnic cleansing of all Sikhs from their holy sites inside an Islamic state? Muslims who cannot empathize with the loss of the Sikhs need to ask themselves why they don’t.
Before 1947, Punjabi Muslims did not consider Sikhism as an adversarial faith. After all, from the Muslim perspective, Sikhism was the combination of the teachings of Sufism, which was rooted in Islamic thought and the Bhakti movement, an organic link to Hindu philosophy. It is true that Moghul emperors had been particularly vicious and cruel to the leaders of the Sikh faith, but these Moghuls were not acting as representatives of Islam. Not only that, the Moghuls inflicted even harsher punishments on their fellow Muslims.
With the creation of Pakistan, the Sikhs lost something even more precious than their holy places: diverse subcultural streams. One such stream flourishing in Thal region (Sind Sagar Doab) in what is now Pakistan, near Punjab’s border with Sind and Baluchistan, was known as the “Sewa Panthis.”
The Sewa Panthi tradition flourished in southwest Punjab for nearly 12 generations until 1947. This sect (variously known as Sewa Panthis, Sewa Dassiey, and Addan Shahis), is best symbolized by Bhai Ghanniyya who, though himself a Sikh, aided wounded Sikh and Muslim soldiers alike during the Tenth Sikh Guru’s wars with the Moghuls. Sewa Panthis wore distinctive white robes.
They introduced a new dimension to the subcontinental religious philosophies. They believed that sewa (helping the needy) was the highest form of spiritual meditation – higher than singing hymns or reciting holy books. The creation of Pakistan dealt a devastating blow to the Sewa Panthis and they never got truly transplanted in the new “East” Punjab.
The organic relationship between philosophies and land, indeed, requires native soil for ideas to bloom. Other such sects and deras (groups) that made up the composite Sikh faith of the 19th and early 20th centuries included Namdharis, Nirankaris, Radha Soamis, Nirmaley, and Sidhs – all were pushed to the margins, or even out of Sikhism, after the partition.
The tragedy of the division of Punjab is best captured in a moving poem by the first prominent woman Sikh/Punjabi poet, novelist, and essayist Amrita Pritam, “Ujj akhaan Waris Shah noo” (An Ode to Waris Shah), which she is said to have written while escaping in a train with her family from Pakistan to India. Pritam wrote:
ujj aakhaN Waris Shah nuuN,
kithoN kabraaN vichchoN bol,
tay ujj kitab-e ishq daa koii aglaa varkaa phol
ik roii sii dhii punjaab dii, tuuN likh likh maare vaen,
ujj lakhaaN dhiiaaN rondiaN,
tainuN Waris Shah nuN kahen
uTh dardmandaaN diaa dardiaa,
uth takk apnaa Punjab
aaj bele lashaaN bichhiaaN te lahu dii bharii Chenab
(Today, I beckon you Waris Shah,
Speak from inside your grave .
And to your book of love, add the next page .
Once when a single daughter of Punjab wept, you wrote a wailing saga.
Today, a million daughters cry to you, Waris Shah.
Rise, O friend of the grieving; rise and see your own Punjab,
Today, fields lined with corpses, and the Chenab flowing with blood.)
As I celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak I read some profound words of wisdom he left for his Muslim friends. He wrote:
Make mercy your Mosque,
Faith your Prayer Mat,
what is just and lawful your Qu’ran,
Modesty your Circumcision,
and civility your Fast.
So shall you be a Muslim.
Make right conduct your Ka’aba,
Truth your Pir, and
good deeds your Kalma and prayers.