Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom is usually interpreted as an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the Kashmiri Pandits threatened with forced conversion. As such, it is a classic Hindutva proof of the Hinduness of Sikhism, though it is also a classic neo-Sikh proof of the “secularism” of Sikhism (“showing concern even for people of a different religion, viz. Hinduism”). However, this whole debate may well rest upon a simple misunderstanding.
In most Indo-Aryan languages, the oft-used honorific mode of the singular is expressed by the same pronoun as the plural (e.g. Hindi unkâ, “his” or “their”, as opposed to the non-honorific singular uskâ), and vice-versa; by contrast, the singular form only indicates a singular subject. The phrase commonly translated as “the Lord preserved their tilak and sacred thread” (tilak-janjû râkhâ Prabh tâ-kâ), referring to unnamed outsiders assumed to be the Kashmiri Pandits, literally means that He “preserved his tilak and sacred thread”, meaning Tegh Bahadur’s. It would already be unusual poetic liberty to render “their tilak and sacred thread” this way, and even if that were intended, there is still no mention of the Kashmiri Pandits in the story.
This is confirmed by one of the following lines in Govind’s poem about his father’s martyrdom: “He suffered martyrdom for the sake of his faith.” In any case, the story of forced mass conversions in Kashmir by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is not supported by the detailed record of his reign by Muslim chronicles who narrate many accounts of his bigotry.
Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom in 1675 was of course in the service of Hinduism, in that it was an act of opposing Aurangzeb’s policy of forcible conversion. An arrest warrant against him had been issued on non-religious and non-political charges, and he was found out after having gone into hiding; Aurangzeb gave him a chance to escape his punishment by converting to Islam. Being a devout Muslim, Aurangzeb calculated that the conversion of this Hindu sect leader would encourage his followers to convert along with him. The Guru was tortured and beheaded when he refused the offer to accept Islam, and one of his companions was sawed in two for having said that Islam should be destroyed.
At any rate, he stood firm as a Hindu, telling Aurangzeb that he loved his Hindu Dharma and that Hindu Dharma would never die,-- a statement conveniently overlooked in most neo-Sikh accounts. He was not a Sikh defending Hinduism, but a Hindu of the Nanakpanth defending his own Hindu religion. However, even Tegh Bahadur never was a warrior against the Moghul empire; indeed, the birth of his son Govind in the eastern city of Patna was a souvenir of his own enlistment in the party of a Moghul general on a military expedition to Assam.
Though Govind Singh is considered as the founder of the Khalsa order (1699) who “gave his Sikhs an outward form distinct from the Hindus” he too did things which Sikh separatists would dismiss as “brahminical”. As Khushwant Singh notes, “Gobind selected five of the most scholarly of his disciples and sent them to Benares to learn Sanskrit and the Hindu religious texts, to be better able to interpret the writings of the gurus, which were full of allusions to Hindu mythology and philosophy". Arun Shourie quotes Govind Singh as declaring: “Let the path of the pure [khâlsâ panth] prevail all over the world, let the Hindu dharma dawn and all delusion disappear. (…) May I spread dharma and prestige of the Veda in the world and erase from it the sin of cow-slaughter.”
Ram Swarup adds a psychological reason for the recent Sikh attempt to sever the ties with Hindu society and the Indian state: “‘You have been our defenders’, Hindus tell the Sikhs. But in the present psychology, the compliment wins only contempt -- and I believe rightly. For self-despisement is the surest way of losing a friend or even a brother. It also gives the Sikhs an exaggerated self-assessment."
Ram Swarup hints at the question of the historicity of the belief that “Sikhism is the sword-arm of Hinduism”, widespread among Hindus. It is well-known that the Sikhs were the most combative in fighting Muslims during the Partition massacres, and that they were also singled out by Muslims for slaughter. The image of Sikhs as the most fearsome among the Infidels still lingers in the Muslim mind; it is apparently for this reason that Saudi Arabia excludes Sikhs (like Jews) from employment within its borders. Yet, the story for the earlier period is not that clear-cut. Given the centrality of the image of Sikhism as the “sword-arm of Hinduism”, it is well worth our while to verify the record of Sikh struggles against Islam.
In the Guru lineage, we don’t see much physical fighting for Hinduism. Guru Nanak was a poet and a genuine saint, but not a warrior. His successors were poets, not all of them saintly, and made a living with regular occupations such as horse-trading. Guru Arjun’s martyrdom was not due to any anti-Muslim rebellion but to the suspicion by Moghul Emperor Jahangir that he had supported a failed rebellion by Jahangir’s son Khusrau, i.e. a Muslim palace revolution aimed at continuing the Moghul Empire but with someone else sitting on the throne. Arjun refused to pay the fine which Jahangir imposed on him, not as an act of defiance against Moghul sovereignty but because he denied the charges (which amounted to pleading his loyalty to Jahangir); it was then that Jahangir ordered a tougher punishment. At any rate, Arjun was never accused of raising the sword against Jahangir, merely of giving temporary shelter to Khusrau.
Tegh Bahadur’s son and successor, Govind Singh, only fought the Moghul army when he was forced to, and it was hardly to protect Hinduism. His men had been plundering the domains of the semi-independent Hindu Rajas in the hills of northeastern Panjab, who had given him asylum after his father’s execution. Pro-Govind accounts in the Hindutva camp equate Govind’s plundering with the Chauth tax which Shivaji imposed to finance his fight against the Moghuls; they allege that the Rajas were selfishly attached to their wealth while Govind was risking his life for the Hindu cause.
The Rajas, after failed attempts to restore law and order, appealed to their Moghul suzerain for help, or at least to the nearest Moghul governor. So, a confrontation ensued, not because Govind Singh had defied the mighty Moghul Empire, but because the Moghul Empire discharged its feudal duties toward its vassals, i.c. to punish what to them was an ungrateful guest turned robber.
Govind was defeated and his two eldest sons killed in battle; many Sikhs left him in anger at his foolhardy tactics. During Govind Singh’s flight, a Brahmin family concealed Govind’s two remaining sons (Hindus protecting Sikhs, not the other way around), but they were found out and the boys were killed.
The death of Govind’s sons provides yet another demythologizing insight about Govind Singh through its obvious connection with his abolition of the Guru lineage. A believer may, of course, assume that it was because of some divine instruction that Govind replaced the living Guru lineage with the Granth, a mere book (a replacement of the Hindu institution of gurudom with the Book-centred model of Islam). However, a more down-to-earth hypothesis which takes care of all the facts is that after the death of all his sons, Govind Singh simply could not conceive of the Guru lineage as not continuing within his own family.
After his defeat and escape (made possible by the self-sacrifice of a disciple who impersonated the Guru), Govind Singh in his turn became a loyal subject of the Moghul Empire. He felt he had been treated unfairly by the local governor, Wazir Khan, so he did what aggrieved vassals do: he wrote a letter of complaint to his suzerain, not through the hierarchical channels but straight to the Padeshah. In spite of its title and its sometimes defiant wording, this “victory letter” (Zafar Nâma) to Aurangzeb is fundamentally submissive. Among other things, Govind assures Aurangzeb that he is just as much an idol-breaker as the Padeshah himself: “I am the destroyer of turbulent hillmen, since they are idolators and I am the breaker of idols.” Aurangzeb was sufficiently pleased with the correspondence (possibly several letters) he received from the Guru, for he ordered Wazir Khan not to trouble Govind any longer.
After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Govind tried to curry favour with the heir-apparent and effective successor, Bahadur Shah, and supported him militarily in the war of succession. His fight was for one of the Moghul factions and against the rival Moghul faction, not for Hinduism and against the Moghul Empire as such. In fact, one of the battles he fought on Bahadur Shah’s side was against rebellious Rajputs. As a reward for his services, the new Padeshah gave Govind a fief in Nanded on the Godavari river in the south, far from his natural constituency in Panjab. To acquaint himself with his new property, he followed Bahadur Shah on an expedition to the south (leaving his wives in Delhi under Moghul protection), but there he himself was stabbed by two Pathan assassins (possibly sent by Wazir Khan, who feared Govind Singh’s influence on Bahadur Shah) in 1708. His death had nothing to do with any fight against the Moghuls or for Hinduism.
So far, it is hard to see where the Sikhs have acted as the sword-arm of Hinduism against Islam. If secularism means staying on reasonable terms with both Hindus and Muslims, we could concede that the Gurus generally did steer a “secular” course. Not that this is shameful: in the circumstances, taking on the Moghul Empire would have been suicidal.
In his last months, Govind Singh had become friends with the Hindu renunciate Banda Bairagi. This Banda went to Panjab and rallied the Sikhs around himself. At long last, it was he as a non-Sikh who took the initiative to wage an all-out offensive against the Moghul Empire. It was a long-drawn-out and no-holds-barred confrontation which ended in general defeat and the execution of Banda and his lieutenants (1716). Once more, the Sikhs became vassals of the Moghuls for several decades until the Marathas broke the back of the Moghul empire in the mid-18th century. Only then, in the wake of the Maratha expansion, did the Sikhs score some lasting victories against Moghul and Pathan power.
We may conclude that Ram Swarup has a point when he questions the Hindu attitude of self-depreciation and gratefulness towards the Sikh “sword-arm”. Sikh history has its moments of heroism, but not particularly more than that of the Marathas or Rajputs. And like the Rajputs and Marathas, Sikhism also has a history of collaboration with the Moghul throne.