1674: Guru Tegh Bahadur

Add comment November 11th, 2014 Headsman

The early religion of Sikhism was led by a succession of 10 Gurus.*

The Mughals executed the ninth of those Gurus on this date in 1674.

Guru Tegh Bahadur (the name means “Hero of the Sword” and was earned in youthful battles against those same Mughals) was acclaimed above 20-odd other aspirants after the previous Guru died saying only that the next guy was in the village of Bakala.

Guru from 1664, he’s noted for founding the holy city of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab. And it was his lot to lead a minority faith during the reign of the Aurangzeb, an emperor notorious to posterity for religious dogmatism.

He’s known best as a persecutor of Hindus: knocking over temples to throw up mosques, forcing conversions, and implementing sharia. But Aurangzeb knew how to get after all kinds.

Considering the going sectarian tension between Hindu and Muslim in the environs, there’s a good deal of touchy historical debate over just how to characterize Aurangzeb’s policies. This site is entirely unqualified to contribute to that conversation but suffice to say it was not an ideal moment to adhere to an alternate faith.

The circumstances of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s capture, and his subsequent execution in Delhi, are similarly obscured by hagiography. Aurangzeb, who spent his reign at virtually continual war, must surely have seen in the Guru’s capital city — which also welcomed Hindu refugees fleeing the Mughals’ abrogation of their rites — a nest of rebellion. Putting its leader to death when he too refused conversion would have been right in character; no less understandable is the Guru’s remembrance as a martyr to religious liberty, and not only the liberty of Sikhs but Hindus, Buddhists, and any other comers.

Tegh Bahadur’s nine-year-old son Gobind Singh succeeded as the tenth and last Guru. It was he who laid down the “Five Ks” — five articles that a faithful Sikh should wear at all times. Thanks to the parlous state of security vis-a-vis the Mughals, one of those items is the Kirpan, a dagger or small sword that continues to vex airline security agents down to the present day.

* Ten human Gurus: the tenth passed succession to the perpetual “Guru Panth” (the entire community of Sikhs) and “Guru Granth Sahib” (a sacred text).

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1989: Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh, assassins of Indira Gandhi

1 comment January 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1989, the last hangings at Delhi’s Tihar Jail dispatched two Sikhs for the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) was the daughter and political heir of Jawaharlal Nehru and one of the postwar world’s more remarkable political biographies.

Never averse to breaking a few eggs, Gandhi led her country (sometimes autocratically) for four terms from 1966 to 1984, sandwiched around a stint under a legal cloud for political corruption.

She backed East Pakistan’s breakaway from India’s neighbor and rival, but also negotiated a Kashmir settlement with her Pakistani opposite number; oversaw the Green Revolution; pushed ahead with a nuclear weapons program; maneuvered between American and Soviet foreign policy.

The omelet that cost her life was the June 1984 Operation Blue Star, when she had the Indian military storm a Sikh shrine that armed militants had turned into a virtual fortress, even using tanks and artillery in the shrine’s residential area.

Although the operation “worked,” hundreds — maybe a thousand or more — lost their lives and the shrine itself suffered heavy damage.

Sikhs were incensed — including, apparently, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, two Sikh bodyguards of the Prime Minister who probably ought to have been reassigned. Maybe that’s just hindsight speaking, after they took the opportunity afforded by an escort assignment on Halloween 1984 to suddenly gun down their charge.

Beant Singh was shot down on the spot by other guards, but Satwant Singh was arrested.

He and Beant Singh’s uncle and alleged inciter Kehar Singh would later stand trial for their lives — but not before the assassination triggered an apparently government-blessed four-day anti-Sikh pogrom. The disturbing orchestration and four-figure body count of this infamous affair remain sensitive subjects on the subcontinent to this day, especially insofar as nobody has ever been punished for it.

The accused assassins were not so lucky — although they were more than content to accept martyrdom for avenging Operation Blue Star.

I have no hatred for any Hindu, Muslim, Christian, neither hatred for any religion. After my Shaheedi, let no Sikh throw any rock at any Hindu. I am not in favor of any retaliation or bloodshed over my Shaheedi. If we do create bloodshed, then there is no difference between us and Rajiv Gandhi. I am proud of the task that I did! I do ardas in front of Waheguru! If I am blessed with a human life, then give me a death of the brave when I am hanged. Forget one life, if I could I would give up a thousand lives to kill dushts like Indira Gandhi, and laugh as I become Shaheed by hanging.

Satwant Singh in court

The killers were then and are still held in high regard by many Sikhs. (Satwant’s fiancee even married his picture.)

Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi followed her as head of state — and followed her fate when he was assassinated by Tamil terrorists in 1991. The Nehru-Gandhi family remains a powerful force in Indian politics.

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1716: Banda Singh Bahadur

2 comments June 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1716, legendary Sikh warrior Banda Singh Bahadur attained his martyrdom.

Born Lakshman Dev, the man who would become Banda Bahadur went on a spiritual wandering jag as a young man and chanced to be plucked out of hermitage by Sikh guru Gobind Singh.

When this guru’s efforts to make inroads for Sikh interests with the new Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah foundered, the converted hermit (now returned to the martial exercises of his caste) was tasked with a punitive expedition against one of the more obnoxious governors.

The zealous general did his mentor one better, attracting thousands of sympathetic followers and carving out a Sikh kingdom in Punjab in the early 1710s.

This proto-state (forerunner of an actual state in the next century) was in due time outmuscled by the Mughals, capturing the rebels’ last redoubt by means of a perfidious assurance of leniency that would not be forthcoming. Not at all.

The captured were marched back to Delhi, along with the pike-mounted heads of their fallen comrades, and there subjected to grisly mass executions.

British diplomats making nice with the Mughal court at the time recorded the scene.

The great rebel Guru (Bandu, the Sikh) who has been for these twenty years so troublesome in the province of Lahore, is at length taken with all his family and attendance by the Subahdar, or Viceroy, of that province. Some days ago they entered the city laden with fetters, his whole attendants which were left alive being about 780,* all severally mounted on camels, which were sent out of the city for that purpose, besides about 2,000 heads stuck upon poles, being those who died by the sword inb attle. He was carried into the presence of the King, and from thence to a close prison. He at present has his life prolonged with most of his officers, in hopes to get an account of his treasure in several parts of his kingdom, and of those that assisted him, when afterwards he will be executed for the rest. There are one hundred each day beheaded. It is not a little remarkable with what patience they undergo their fate, and to the last it has not been found that one has apostatised from the new formed religion.

Their captain’s turn finally came this date when — spurning conversion to Islam, as had his fellows — he saw his son slaughtered before his eyes, then was hacked limb from limb.

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1716: 100 Sikhs per day for a week

1 comment March 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1716, the Mughal Empire began disposing of 700-plus Sikh prisoners taken in its grueling campaign against Banda Singh Bahadur by beheading them 100 at a time in Delhi.

The peacable-at-first Sikhs had been a thorn in the Muslim Mughal rulers’ side for a century, militarizing in response to heavy official persecution. (The kirpan, the ceremonial dagger Sikhs still wear as a religious tenet, dates to this period.)

The Mughals finally succeeded in overcoming Banda Bahadur, who sacked a Mughal provincial capital and maintained a rival kingdom in the Punjab,

His 700 doomed adherents were borne into Delhi in a procession along with the heads of slain companions mounted on pikes, and Banda Bahadur himself carried in a cage. British envoys John Surman and Edward Stephenson described in a dispatch to the mother country (available in Early Records of British India) the fate of these unfortunates.

The great rebel Guru (Bandu, the Sikh) who has been for these twenty years so troublesome in the province of Lahore, is at length taken with all his family and attendance by the Subahdar, or Viceroy, of that province. Some days ago they entered the city laden with fetters, his whole attendants which were left alive being about 780,* all severally mounted on camels, which were sent out of the city for that purpose, besides about 2,000 heads stuck upon poles, being those who died by the sword inb attle. He was carried into the presence of the King, and from thence to a close prison. He at present has his life prolonged with most of his officers, in hopes to get an account of his treasure in several parts of his kingdom, and of those that assisted him, when afterwards he will be executed for the rest. There are one hundred each day beheaded. It is not a little remarkable with what patience they undergo their fate, and to the last it has not been found that one has apostatised from the new formed religion.

According to the obviously partisan source sikhism.com, one of the prisoners was a teenage boy whose “mother appealed to the Emperor that her son should be set free because he was not a Sikh, but the boy replied that his mother was lying, that he was indeed a Sikh, and that he must be executed in the same way as the rest.”

* Surman and Stephenson may have been mistaken about the exact count of prisoners.

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