Bluestar Baby Boomers – Newslaundry

Published by Newslaundry:



Part I

Every time the topic of Operation Bluestar is touched upon in my family, one aspect which always dominates the discussion is my father’s chilling recollection of the events that unfolded in the scorching hot first week of June, 1984.

Then a young Flight Lieutenant in the Indian Air Force, trained to fly supersonic jets, my father had taken the abrupt and surprising decision of side-stepping to helicopters. The unit to which he got posted bore the proud history of being raised in the “resplendent heights of Leh” – it comprised of the rugged Cheetahs and Chetaks, and had been stationed in Jammu since long. He was regularly sortieing to the Siachen glacier, where the Indian government had got embroiled in a messy cartographic skirmish a year earlier.

As he returned from one of the trips, the commanding officer directed him to take a Chetak (the Cheetahs were better suited to the dizzying altitudes of Siachen) and head towards Amritsar.  He landed in the city on June 5. Around a dozen helicopters from various units had descended there to assist the army. Bluestar was already underway and my father got busy in ferrying senior commanders to nearby villages. While Harmandir Sahib was being flushed clean, Brigadier-level officers were administering the sanitization of rural areas. Villagers were being rounded up in systematically conducted search-and-seizure procedures.

A poignant scene that remained with him was how hordes of frail old menfolk and children as young as eleven or twelve years (those who could not be even remotely connected to terrorism), were being rounded up – their hands were tied at the back with disrobed turbans and they were thrown into the scorching fields.

The avid photographer that he was, my father had just bought a swanky new Yashica Electro-35. He had clicked thousands of panoramic aerial shots and instinctively brought the camera for that ominous trip as well. Gliding low over Darbar Sahib on June 5, carrying another Army functionary out on a survey, my father saw the Akal Takht in flames and the parikarma mauled by tanks, littered with bodies here and there. Not realizing the intensity or posterity of the spectacle, he released the shutter three-four times.

Returning to Jammu after twenty sorties, as the soldier within took a backseat, the very magnitude of the incident got to him.

Now, before I go on, it must be said that my father doesn’t fit into the Sikh caste or class stereotype. He came from an impoverished family of low-caste tailors from Tarn Taran, some 25 kilometers from Amritsar. They could never have imagined one of their own, (after surviving on scholarships throughout his life), joining the ranks of an elite government service. It was a coup of sorts. The proximity to poverty helped my father see through subtle societal constructs. Though he persevered to remain a proper kesdhari Sikh, when donning the pilot’s helmet over uncut hair became a particular problem, my father exhibited a strange sort of inward agnosticism, a healthy aversion to religious symbolism.

So, when he narrated his account of the Amritsar tour to my mother, it was with a dispassionate understanding of spiritual politics and minus any prejudice, that my father murmured prophetically, “Jo mai dekheya hai, mainun nai lagda ke hun Sikhi kattadta zyada der chupp rahegi” (After what I saw, I don’t think the staunch yeomanry of the Sikhs will keep quiet for very long). Indira Gandhi was shot dead a few months later.

And the pictures of the smoldering Akal Takht, the caved parikarma and the crimson-tinged sarovar – those could have been a priceless historical artifact, mysteriously disappeared from our house in Jammu. The hunt to locate them is still on.

I was eleven months old then. Over the years, children like me soaked up the numerous (and often conflicting) tales on Bluestar and its aftermath. We reconstructed the gruesome scenes in our minds. We have grown up with the vignette itself and the overwhelming confusion that followed, as it permeated into the Punjabi consciousness –  facts started emerging gradually, only to be consumed by a sea of sentiments. The collective trauma has aroused an array of emotions – rage, hate, empathy, fear and fearlessness – yet each persons’ final disposition has been conditioned by our immediate environment. First, second and third generation Sikhs from the diaspora prefer to interpret it differently than those hailing from the homeland. But we are all, in essence, the products of its politics – we are the Bluestar Baby Boomers. We are representative of a mutated strand of Sikhism, neutered by the brutal might of the Indian state. The martial narrative of the Jatts also ended with us – they were left to feed their alter-egos and indulge in nostalgia ever after.

Part II

This piece is inspired by “The Shattered Dome”, Hartosh Singh Bal’s sensational cover story for the May issue of The Caravan. Although the dry facts highlighted in it have been widely known and there are no new revelations for the academically inclined, Bal has uncannily pieced together a riveting portrait, which, with the crisscrossing testimonials of the people in the know, aptly exemplifies the haziness around the events that transpired. It rightly captures the overall purposelessness around the whole debacle and its instigators. Even after thirty years of tireless pursuit, there is no single actor to pin the blame on. There will be no retribution or closure ever, but an attempt at memorialization – only the Sikh community seems to have that sublime trait, and knows how to strike a delicate balance between historicity and history.

It is with this overpowering emotion that I serve my own minor contestations and addendums to The Shattered Dome, mainly to widen perspectives. Having known Hartosh Bhaaji as a friend, I understand very well why he resorted to underline the Jatt Sikh archetype, a term used to define Bhindranwale and repeated often in the article. Only he has the perspicacity to deconstruct the psyche of a group that has so imperiously clutched on to the edifice of Punjabiyat. Though the term is a figurative oxymoron since Sikhism doesn’t acknowledge caste, JattSikh is like the leavening agent that has fomented the identity politics at the core of this faith.

Academicians like Dr.W.Hew Mcleod in the authoritative “The Evolution of the Sikh Community” and Indubhushan Banerjee in “Evolution of the Khalsa” attribute the five symbols of Khalsa to have originated from the martial traditions of the Jatts. Diplomat turned scholar Rajiv A. Kapur in his brilliant historiography “Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith” advances the idea “that the beginning of Sikh militancy, traditionally ascribed to a decision of Guru Hargobind in direct response to Mogul persecution, was in fact largely the result of a growing jat influence among the Sikhs… (which) to some extent (also) prompted a Mogul reaction”.

The Jatt of Punjab is boisterous and brave. A tribal sense of honour and prestige, like a homegrown version of Pakhtunwali, lays heavy on his mind. The Kesdhari and Khalsa identities, the recognizable traits of Sikhs in the mainstream, have evolved from their sets of customs and beliefs as well.

Dabistan-e Mazahib”, an invaluable travelogue and metaphysical treatise composed by Mohsin Fani, a 17th century Persian historian in the courts of the Mughal mystic prince, Dara Shikoh, had this to say, “(the Sikh Gurus) have made the Khatris subservient to the Jatts, who are the lowest caste among the Vaishyas. Thus most of the great Masands of the Gurus are Jatts”. The Marxist historian Irfan Habib further elaborated on this love affair with the peasantry in “Jats of Punjab and Sind”, a keynote address delivered at Punjabi University in 1971. What it all boils down to is that the Sikh idea of statism, the way they perceived their social contract with the state, their exposition of genius loci were heavily influenced by Jatt tribalism, which has continued to assert itself at various critical junctures like the establishment of the Khalsa Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, to the peasant-led movements like the Akali agitation and the Khalistani insurgency.

These medieval honor codes and edicts also pervaded into the body politic of a religion which has never shied away from an active engagement with the world and its ways, encouraging the adept to aggressively confront the spiritual and temporal divide with a unique form transcendence, miri-piri. However, it is this very duality that introduced a feudalistic and regressive streak, a Talibani mentality that enforces rigid precepts and ritualism. Even in terms of representation, the Jatts came to occupy all the positions of power and privilege in religious and political institutions. Nihang Fateh Singh ousted Master Tara Singh from the Shiromani Akali Dal, ascribing Tara Singh’s professorial leanings as a sign of weakness implicit in the caste to which he belonged, rejecting him as a meek Bhapa – a pejorative slang for the merchant-class Khatris – in an open forum. This is emblematic of the disruption in the class hierarchies of Sikhism that happened in the first-half of the twentieth century, catalyzed further by the agrarian boom. Political scientists Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Singh recorded this ascendancy in “Rise of the Plebeians”.

My mother remembers how Sikhs used to prefer tying their beards up until the eighties when the Khalistaniclergy instructed them otherwise. My chacha, a small-time shopkeeper, still jokes about the random checks in buses by armed militants, singling out men with trimmed beards and making them do squats as punishment. Sikhs from the working classes, the artisan communities and the low-caste Mazhabi converts largely felt alienated and occasionally got caught in the crossfire. For them, all of it was an odd concoction of village-styled feudalism mixed with religious fanaticism, something which drove them to urban areas in the first place. It was this faint shift in perception of the hoi polloi, very hard to notice, that served as counter-narratives challenging the insurgency. The fact that Beant Singh, one of the bodyguards who assassinated Indira Gandhi, was a Chamar Sikh –  often used as a trope by the clergy to confirm the egalitarian credentials of the religion, not realizing its irony – could be termed as an aberration bucking the larger trend.

Part III

It was my first visit to the hallowed premises of Seminar, a prestigious journal run by the three-most influential babas of Delhi: Malvika Singh, Tejbir Singh and Harsh Sethi. As I burst into random monologues on culture, technology and politics, snapping with excitement and wild frenzy, Sethi was reminded of a scheduled engagement. A memorial meeting had been organized for Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar, a bureaucrat and a polymath, once a close confidante of Indira Gandhi. He had passed away fifteen years ago and it confounded me why an unfeeling city like Delhi, whose institutions and elite rarely carry a nuanced sense of history, would remember a man who should have gotten buried under some footnote ages ago.

Rather childishly, I lent some of my thoughts on the man, “I know him! He did many bad things in Punjab”.I melted with embarrassment, cursing my inarticulateness. Sethi’s eyes lit up and he responded in kind, “Haan! Theek hai yaar, kisi ne thoda paisa bana liya to kya hua?” (Yeah! It’s okay buddy, what’s wrong if someone makes a little money for himself?). The likes of Sethi, who have traversed the netherworlds of power and were active participants in modern India’s intellectual awakening, never really open up in front of a menial like me. It must have struck a chord somewhere. I had the fleeting sensation of being an insider, a player.

Yet, despite all that, I was left perplexed by the pronounced innocence of Haksar, who was to Gandhi what Kissinger was to Nixon or Brzezinski to Carter. He spearheaded the ideological subversion in Punjab, the PSYWAR, providing a moral and cultural grounding to countermand separatism.

I wondered why intellectual cornerstones like Seminar and Sethi succumb to collective amnesia, preferring to be doped with the unwholesome and sometimes vile succour of the establishment. This trend of mass co-optation, which I had observed very closely,  dismayed me a lot.

Purushottam Kumar Nijhawan, a veteran journalist whom I have been trying to trace for quite some time, wrote about the force-fed falsities as the violent nineties came to an end in “Suppression of Intellectual Dissidence and How the Left-Nehruvian Destroyed Punjab” – a call to arms against the Goebbelsian game that was played in the state. There was no love lost between Nijhawan and Haksar as he wrote, “Between the lines what came out was that Dr. Manmohan Singh too had come to occupy that high office mainly due to Rashpal and Mr. Haksar. He told me that Rashpal was a consummate operator, whose main function was to cast his net far and wide to catch the intellectual fish”.

Rashpal Malhotra is the founder of Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, an obscure think tank based in Chandigarh. Haksar’s intimacy with the intelligence apparatus was well known in the gossip circles of Delhi.

Punjab turned into an experiment for the security agencies, a training range of sorts. It is where the establishment and its hawks greased the state’s counter-terror machinery.

There are three interspersed streams of public consciousness for any story or event of significance – the historical narrative: woven around academic and journalistic discourses; the peoples’ narrative: subjectivity, first-person accounts, legends and folklore; and the oft ignored intelligence narrative.

“The Shattered Dome”, falling into the first two categories, breaks new ground. But again, the subliminal chatter of the intelligence agencies, their machinations and misadventures, seems too inaccessible or esoteric to be tapped. The key operatives and actors responsible, retired long ago, are in their twilight years or have perished. Crucial time has already passed and it won’t be too long before the vestiges get lost forever.

I too have tried to connect the dots on my own, approaching decorated spymasters like Maloy Krishna Dhar and Bahukutumbi Raman, but to no avail. The paucity of time and resources also impeded the effort. But the uncomfortable facts must be brought to the fore – there are no shots being fired in Punjab anymore – to pave the way for Truth and Reconciliation, to heal some of the festering wounds.

Unimpeachable mavericks like Dhar, who reneged against his very ilk at the fag end of an outstanding career, exposed the seedy nexus, its extrajudicial reach and excesses. He wrote novels like “Black Thunder and Bitter Harvest”, set in my hometown Tarn Taran, a nursery of militants at the time – the book provided a near-realistic depiction of the cloak-and-dagger work.

Dhar, who dodged many a bullet, went down fighting an unworthy adversary, cancer, in 2012. As Dhar’s son wrote in the obituary, he garnered respect from everyone and even the Khalistanis had called to enquire about his well being. “He told me about how many people in Punjab would miss him terribly, because in the midst of a terrible crisis (sic) with excesses committed on both sides, he was a rare officer.”

I am slightly surprised why Bal didn’t try interviewing A.R. Darshi, the senior Punjabi civil servant, who, like many others, went rogue after Bluestar, writing the no-holds-barred insider’s account, “The Gallant Defender: Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale”. Darshi didn’t betray his loyalties – even though he belonged to the downtrodden Balmiki community, much of the book is a gloating hagiography except for a few explosive disclosures. In one of the chapters, Darshi unwittingly exposed the names of undercover intelligence officers, who were probably running clandestine operations in Punjab even while the book was published in 1985. Names like N.F. Santook, G.C. Saxena, R Shankaran Mair, G.S. Mishra, Colonel B. Longer, Rabinder Ohri and A.I. Vasavada, supposedly from the Intelligence Bureau and Research and Analysis Wing were not only mandated with political sabotage and subterfuge, but they purportedly ran assassination squads in the state – the dirtiest secret of the trade, the most tabooed topic of all. A Google search tells us that these operatives are now living post-retirement lives, frequenting places like golf clubs. Who knows, they might be eager to talk?

A very senior Punjabi politician, with no axe to grind, told me once that Lala Jagat Narain, the founder of the influential Hind Samachar group, was assassinated in a field allegedly owned by an individual who was a known informer to the agencies at the helm. It could very well have been a false-flag operation nefariously meant to polarize and communalize Punjab. Ved Marwah, a veteran from the Indian Police Service, recorded the fallout of such wily intrigues in “Uncivil Wars”. Innocent Punjabi Hindus, especially from Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran, were systematically exterminated or chased away; dragged out of buses and shot at point-blank range; blown to smithereens by explosions; villages were cleansed of them and scores of houses razed to the ground. This was the dark, disquieting underbelly of Sikh separatism which still remains to be explored.

Since we are already in conspiratorial waters, what about the international angle to the whole terrorism affair? Whom do we actually indict for the bombing of Kanishka, the India-bound flight from Canada that exploded midair in 1985? If one believes “Soft Target: How the Indian Intelligence Service Penetrated Canada”, a convincing fact-fiction book authored by two creditable reporters from The Globe and Mail, Indian agencies have a lot to answer for. No wonder the book is banned by the government.

I remember sitting with Hartosh Bhaaji one evening, downing a few tots, as we pondered over the cold-blooded killing of Talwinder Singh Parmar from the dreaded militant group, Babbar Khalsa. With his state-sanctioned encounter in 1992, Parmar took many unsolved mysteries to the grave, saving the establishment undue embarrassment over past transgressions (its officiators now occupying key positions), and other grave accusations. A poster boy for the Khalistanis, he was a triple-agent at the least, a mole for anyone with a bottle of Scotch and wads of cash. Parmar typifies the duplicitous and debauched characters from both the sides that pushed Punjab into darkness.

As we emptied the glasses, Hartosh ji recalled interviewing some of the policemen party to the incident, who told him that the order to eliminate Parmar came from the very top. The consortium of criminals above, having shed their fatigues for starched-white kurtas, put the last of their kind to rest. As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Bluestar, with a new government that carries a similar checkered history of impunity, people like Parmar and innumerable other faceless, nameless men and women should never be forgotten, whatever they be worth.

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Love Sans Gurdwaras – Chapati Mystery

Originally published by Chapati Mystery:

The latent passions of this land are steeped in love and longing. If one sees Punjab solely from the perspective of its oral traditions, local continuities and folklore, then the picture that emerges is in complete contrast to the drubbed, kitschy monochrome making its way to the mainstream. It is the unquestionable faith and conviction of its peoples, which have often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, to create identity markers that are more organically rooted in the mythos and geography.

By innately focusing on the unseen and the unsaid, there will be an emotional realization of a certain kind of inexplicable absence, and the purity of absence, overwhelming its verdant backdrop. The dirt-tracks crisscrossing the rural outliers are pockmarked with the signage of a time bygone, managing to exist somewhere between the interstices of memory and history.

It was from the critically-acclaimed documentaries of Ajay Bhardwajthat I first learnt to conduct séances, invoking an esoteric Punjab that has been rarely been experienced or talked about. His trilogy—Kitte Mil Ve MahiRabba Hun Kee Kariye and Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te—has archived such crucial portions of its culture that the future generations would forever remain indebted, be it the lesser-known Dalit Sufi customs or the militant pluralism of its men of faith like Baba Hajji Ratan and Sakhi Sarwar. Beating the post-traumatic amnesia of the Partition, the Green Revolution and the militancy, reemerged a few counter-narratives such as these—and that is how I started trusting the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse—leading me to territories uncharted.

When Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal laid the foundation stone for a 120-crore Valmiki temple this October to woo the sizeable community, the irony wasn’t lost on me. For decades the Balmikis or Mazhabi Sikhs have consecrated their identity and heritage in barebones temples, overshadowed by the mighty village gurdwara. The fretful caretaker of one such insipid place of devotion in village Dhotian (district Tarn Taran) first apprised me of an unpardonable depravity perpetrated by the local Sikh clergy, which barred the low-castes from performing kar seva (voluntary service) because “they looked dirty.” The dilapidated building, sticking out like a sore thumb, then seemed like a towering tribute to the inconsequential life of a Punjabi Dalit.

The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.
The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.

I witnessed a similar clamoring for acceptance once again at Talhan (district Jalandhar), where a local Sufi dargah became the epicenter of a violent caste riot that engulfed the village in 2002. When the gurdwara clammed up under pressure from the keepers of its tenets, it was this dargah with a Hindu sajjada nashin (administrator) that owned up to the residents and offered to quell the tensions.

The unassuming Hindu administrator (left) of the Sufi dargah at Talhan, responsible for quelling the violent caste riots.
The unassuming Hindu administrator (left) of the Sufi dargah at Talhan, responsible for quelling the violent caste riots.

But there have been larger, more visible signs of such grassroots disruptions. Dera Sach Khand at Ballan acts as a tincture for the collective wounds festering in the hearts of the downtrodden. An hour’s ride from Jalandhar—a city aptly named after an ethnically-misplaced “demon” king, thus fit for becoming the cradle of the biggest chunk of Dalit population across all the states—Dera Ballan is one rare example of how a fomentation acquired the size of a movement, and then got institutionalized under a spiritual precept. It is the home to the Ravidasias, a swanky new religion aiming to channelize the angst of the marginalized, after one of its tallest leaders, Saint Rama Nand, was assassinated in Vienna by Sikh fundamentalists. So enraged were the followers that they took to the streets, bringing the whole of Punjab to a standstill during the summer of 2009, as even the chief minister had to think twice before approaching Jalandhar.

I visited the imposing precinct of Dera Ballan, while the cinders of injustice were still alight. Amidst the overall sense of organization and tranquility, the palpable fear and loathing made everyone a little uneasy. The congregation didn’t really seem to immerse itself in the liberating hymns of Saint Ravidas, who once dreamt of Begumpura, a utopia ridden of all inequities. Rather, far more temporal aspects of coexistence, like political tensions with the Sikh clergy over a dispute about the holy scripture, churned the rumor mill. At the langar hall and the spacious patio outside the sanctum sanctorum, a few educated adherents bellowed in deep baritones, stoking the mood of revolt and disillusionment—Ki Khalsa? Ae ki Khalsa-Khalsa kari jaande ne? (What Khalsa? What’s so great about Khalsa anyways?).

So, when I queried a jet-setting katha-vaachak (storyteller) of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, over a chance encounter at Connaught Place last week—who claimed to have met the jujharu jatha (the agitators, to be read as a hit-squad), responsible for eliminating Rama Nand, somewhere in Europe—why this act should not be equated to irreligious violence, he simply told me that “our patience ran out”. With whom, I wondered—Rama Nand, or his harangued, simpleminded adepts.

That said, even certain deviating strands of Sikhism don’t shy away from highlighting the contestations that this land has romanticized for so long. Far away in Sur Singh (district Tarn Taran), a millennium-old village near the international border in the Bhikhiwind-Khemkaran sector, lies the shrine of Bidhi Chand Chhina—a soldier-saint who was a contemporary of the sixth Sikh guru, Hargobind. Called the Robin Hood of Majha (the distinct topography covering Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Gurdaspur), Bidhi Chand’s rise from a daredevil highwayman to a mighty general—who once renounced Sikhism and reneged against the writ of the Gurus, eventually to be co-opted by them—archetypes the celebrated baaghi (rebel) that has eternally enamored the balladeers and bards of the region. Like a perfect illustration of anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘mono-myth’, which tracks the transformation of an ordinary mortal to a life-affirming hero, he exemplifies the anti-establishment counterculture that has forever been the cornerstone of Punjabiyat.

The surge of excitement that came from excavating the true legend of Bidhi Chand, miraculously managing to survive only in the collective consciousness of people, is indescribable. His mutiny against the Sikh Gurus; his ingenious act of producing samizdat that posited Nanak as the disciple of the Muslim weaver, Kabir, much to the chagrin of the caste and communally conscious clerics and apologists, who summarily and opportunistically expunged the dissenting portions so that the valuable biography could be brought back into circulation; the way they refused to acknowledge his Mohammedan wife, but chose to endorse the lineage calls for an existential questioning as to how our historical narratives have been given the sartorial treatment under Sikhism.

 The shrine of Baba Bidhi Chand Chhina with caretaker Nihangs in the foreground.
The shrine of Baba Bidhi Chand Chhina with caretaker Nihangs in the foreground.

When cavalries of rambunctious Nihangs from the Bidhi Chand Dal, one of the four battalions of the Khalsa army, descend on Sur Singh for the annual fair, commandeered by Baba Daya Singh, the ninth descendent from the contentious lineage of Bidhi Chand, it remains a spectacle to be seen. The galloping horses of Afghani lineage, the spears whizzing by; the bloodshot eyes of Nihangs stoned on sulfa(cannabis), ravening, as dozens of goats get slaughtered for the evening feast—primal Punjab is at play there. It’s another story, however, that this Dal blithely practices caste-based segregation in its seminaries.

For where else will you see syncretism so enmeshed with the tradition that it dangerously usurps or mockingly challenges the conventionalities? An alternate Punjab still manages to exist on the margins, thriving under the shadows of a popular religion whose love sometimes fails to reach the runt of the litter.

Hacking Indian Journalism for Fun and Profit – Seminar

Originally published by Seminar and National Interest:

An average Indian journalist is like a teat pipette which spills more than it can suck to wreak havoc on the contemporary narrative. That is how Hunter S Thompson would have opined, if the S ever stood for Singh, which, I believe, could very well be the case. There are times when my dehorned scalp itches like anything to unleash the mendacity that I have acquired lately. I am tempted to conduct elaborate cyber-infiltration operations on these batty little boobs, exposing their gooey underbellies and scaring them so much that they run out giving a synchronised Wilhelm scream. But, of course, things like these have never fallen under my moral purview and, moreover, they require some institutional backing. I do, nonetheless, wonder if Indian journalists need to be terrorised like that, especially when they are so good at bitch-slapping each other.

The rant would stop just about here as the priority is to delve into the ever-present metanarrative and the esotericism of conversations in a brave, new and inordinately connected world. Right after my friend Hartosh Singh Bal was sacked and Tehelka fell prey to its own demagoguery—triggering a sadistic, feudal-quality fratricide within the cabal—I waited for that one opinion piece highlighting the plight of the listless reader. I contemplated whether the momentous rupture would make the journalistic community hold itself accountable to its readership more than anyone else, conceding to the massive breach of trust that had taken place, to preserve the sanctity of the written word and the impact it can carry. That was not to be.

There has been a lot of talk about media biases lately. I see it differently; I see it mainly as a clash between expression and reportage. As an engineer, I will bet my money on the fact that if one undertakes a simple lexical analysis of all the English-language news reports (English, because it will serve as a global standard) published in the last century, the one steady outcome would be that, postwar, the newspapers became increasingly subjective. I often ask why the linguist in Chomsky never thought of doing that before penning Manufacturing Consent.

 [James Cameron] was clear that ‘objectivity was of less importance than the truth’ and ‘the reporter whose technique was informed by no opinion lacked a very serious dimension’.

— N. Ram at the James Cameron Memorial Lecture 2012.

Like my journalist friends attribute incorrectly, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media—Internet in their cargo-cult parlance—are not to be credited for this narrative inconsistency in the information revolution. I imagine Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up being the first critical departure, which Hemingway, Capote and Thompson summarily noticed, eventually leading us here. Internet only came later, and the radical ethos surrounding the social media, which the Indian press loves to wallow in, was gifted to us by the hacker or cyberpunk counterculture of the eighties. That’s cyber-anthropology 101.

I understand that the seeping Americanism in all this is a little disappointing, but not ignorable. Let me stretch this indulgence by mentioning a few major happenings in the media industry of the US, completely missed by the local beat. Jeff Bezos, the founder of, acquired The Washington Post for $250 million as, what seemed like a gratitudinous act. Pierre Omidyar of eBay set aside an equal amount for a new media venture with gung-hos like Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. It arose as an opportunity from the growing frictions between the state and the press after l’affaire Snowden, aiming to tackle the entrenched biases within reporting and submitting to the moral scrutiny brought forth by a globalised environment. Needless to say, Greenwald would also carry along the treasure trove of classified NSA documents.

The fluffy idealism of tech billionaires does sound liberating at the first go, but speculations began doing the rounds of their intimacy with the law-enforcement and intelligence setup, the very catalysts of this upheaval. That charge was led by a spunky breed of writers spewing fire through their pens, the haggard pirates proudly holding the last-surviving bastion of gonzo journalism that was NSFW Corp.—recently acquired by PandoDaily, a Silicon Valley upstart backed by top venture capitalists. NSFW bears its leanings from the hallowed school of The eXile, an ‘outrageous’ yet highly-readable tabloid published from Moscow. The last piece of the puzzle that I am trying unravel here is the hiring of seasoned TV broadcaster, Katie Couric, as a “global anchor” for Yahoo!.

What’s with these dollar-fuelled interspersions at the borderlines of media? The simple answer being: the power of content, a heady cocktail undoing the sensory deprivation that comes with news. Content is the new world order, as The Cluetrain Manifesto foresaw in 1999— “markets are conversations” and “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”. It is the same conversation that the NSA is trying to snoop and Google wants to capitalise on. It alters the media metanarrative by leveling the discourse, putting the spotlight back on the studios and newsrooms. Radiagate was its first nudge and Tehelka the baby-step. The Indian industry must learn that.

There have been some interesting experiments in the regional mediascape as well. is an online retainer of left-liberal tradition, but more feisty, interactive and wide-reaching than its print counterparts. Newslaundry and The Caravan are making decisive interventions into the metanarrative, but monetisation remains their primary woe. Firstpost is basically a newspaper over the net, harbouring little scope for innovation, and is backed by the same opaque funding sources that the readership is so wary of. While I was confounded by the math of sabremetrician Nate Silver, when he weighed-in on the $315 million takeover of the news aggregator and blog Huffington Post back in 2011, I am sure some lessons for a successful exit lie hidden in there. Few more can be picked up from ProPublica’s profitability. Closer to home, not much value-creation has been witnessed since the 2008 buyout of ContentSutra by Guardian Media Group for roughly $30 million.

Beyond the number crunching, the larger argument to be made here is the news generation becoming more socially and contextually aware, almost sentient, to the extent that it’s leaping out of the screen. One of the major challenges faced by the Guardian in presenting a story as complex, path-breaking and rapidly evolving as the NSA leaks was to keep the lay audience abreast. It pushed the boundaries of “digital storytelling”, learning from the past tryouts in convergence journalism like Firestorm and The New York Times’ Snowfall. The underlying plot glided over a vignette of multimedia and textual mash-ups to bring alive the subjects—with the message truly upending the medium. In this era of Human-Computer Interaction, the newsroom and ‘skunkworks’ will have to collectively engineer the content.

It is time to move over from the off-putting Content Management Systems and understand that the news-cycle doesn’t stop at merely commenting, sharing, liking or trending. Bidirectional, community-driven ecosystems will have to be created around conversations and journalists should stop acting like the vanguards of objectivity. The old-fashioned structures of control and moderation need to be pulverised. NDTV and even Tehelka initially leveraged this symbiosis to a limited degree, but they have served their purpose. De Correspondent, a crowdfunded online journalism startup based in Holland has raised an impressive $ 1.7 million, coincidentally aspiring to meet the same ideals of New New Media. The consumers will become the producers, the global would have to exist in harmony with the local—allowing the news to breed virally, fostering a grand unified meme-fication of the discourse.

The title of this piece is inspired by a 1996 paper ‘Smashing the Stack for Fun and Profit’ by Aleph-One AKA Elias Levy, published in the underground hacker e-zine, Phrack. It revealed a pioneering new computer exploitation technique that still holds the Internet at ransom. The author had the honor of briefly working with the same research team as Levy at Symantec.

Pukhraj Singh ([email protected]) occasionally taps into the cognitive dissonance that arises from being a cyber-warfare analyst, a media observer and a social activist. He is the founder of Abroo. The opinions expressed in this piece are personal.

God Just Left the Gurdwara – Newslaundry

Published by Newslaundry:

A vignette of emotions, centered on a perverse ritual being practiced in a 350-year old Sikh seminary. How a search for the origins of “Chauthey Paurey Wale”, a spiritually sanctioned cussword for the low-caste Sikhs, also unearthed the true story of a folk hero, Bidhi Chand Chhina, in a village so old that it’s said to be the birthplace of Shiva. The mutiny of a renouncer that was Bidhi Chand and the lingering doubts it left about the politics of the Gurus.


THE SUN WAS BARELY OVER the yardarm, but my shopkeeper friends from Guru Bazaar had already bantered away for nearly an hour. The billowing clay oven, from the rundown corner shop across the street, spitted out Ambarsari kulche at a frantic pace, as the passers-by stopped for a quick brunch. Vendors and wayfarers from the nearby villages scouted for early trades, while the market was still waking up to the clanking of steel utensils, being rearranged on the pavements of two prominent stores.

My jaunts and jamborees in the city of Tarn Taran generally began by afternoon, but on an unusually crisp morning of December, we had gathered early at the behest of “Pardhaan” Balbir Singh. Though the slight readjustment of schedules had left everyone anxious and even imparted them with a certain sense of purpose, that group of shopkeepers couldn’t let go the customary tea, stretching the chitchat for so long—as if serious trysting would have taken away all the fun.

Pardhaan glanced at the watch and rose to fetch his bicycle.

Pukhraj ‘Sian’! Ajj tainu kujj kamm de bandeya naal milauna ai, naale o kitaab vi davauni aa!”

(We are meeting some important people today, Pukhraj “Sian”, and I have to get that book for you!)

Careening over the pedals, he addressed me affectionately in a melodic tenor exuding rural rusticity and religiosity. As every muscle on his face contorted to deliver that perfect ‘Duchenne smile’, I couldn’t help but think how Pardhaan ji had always reminded me of the popular folk singer, Pammi Bai. I was quite fond of the old man—a local milk distributor, the elected head of a small city gurdwara and, most importantly, a liberated Sikh who had time-and-again chaperoned me on the social suavities of Punjab’s countryside.

We had just finished listening to one of Pardhaan’s war stories. The orchestrations of that gritty son-of-a-gun had led to the dismissal of a crooked Station House Officer posted in the city, after he tried implicating Pardhaan in a concocted drug bust. That an uneducated milkman had the nerve and the doggedness to take on the most powerful police official of the district—when the appointment of every SHO under the Akali regime was being administered directly by the chief minister’s office, with the reporting structure altered so deviously that they were accountable only to the constituency in-charge and the not the Senior Superintendent—sounded like a feat unimaginable. The climax to the showdown being the coup de grace delivered at the court premises, as the policeman begged for mercy:

“Hun tun  praa-praa kari jaana, odon taan saare tabbar nu maaran diyan gallan karda si? Mere bazurg pyo nu vi andar karaata? Main vi Jatt aa, meri vi anakh aa!”

(Calling me a brother now? Earlier, you had threatened to wipe out the whole family. You even locked up my ailing father. I am a Jatt too and my pride has been hurt.)

So mortified was the SHO upon realizing the fallout of the case that he opted for premature retirement.

TARN TARAN LAY in the notorious Border Areas. History was witness to the small sparks of unrest lighted there that burnt the whole of Punjab to cinders, from the Khalistani militancy to the recent drug pandemic. The most backward district of the state, as per the updated human development indices, the town reeked of decadence so debilitating, its people afflicted with ignorance so ignominious, that the words “tragedies” and “tombstones” perfectly alliterated its abbreviation, T.T.

Junior policemen paid anything from five to twenty lakhs for a transfer to the place, with a guaranteed “break-even” in less than a year, to act as henchmen, extortionists and drug traffickers. Like a pack of bloodthirsty wolves, they brazenly marauded the city, its villages and the people—spinning the cogwheel of corruption, succouring the food chain of the pestilential “police-politician nexus”.

The last time I visited the local civil hospital around three years ago to interview the resident doctor heading the drug therapy centre—where a pilot project funded by the World Health Organization, first-of-its-kind in India, was experimenting with a better de-addiction technique called the Opioid Substitution Therapy—most of the patients encountered were low-ranking cops. That was how the bottom feeders were being co-opted into the trade, succumbing to the proximity from the substance. There was occasional hue-and-cry, as the regional media published unattributed figures, categorizing every third young man and woman from the district as an addict, but nothing ever came out of it.

So, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when a young jeweller from the bazaar—whose sister was marrying the son of a local businessman, close to the two-time Akali MLA, Harmeet Singh Sandhu—retorted defensively, as I taunted him on Sandhu’s fortunes being made in the drug trade:

“Nai, hun o kamm chadd ditte ne onna ne.”

(No, he [Sandhu] has left that business.)

And that was why, in those putrid environs of parochialism, respect for someone like Pardhaan came naturally, as I witnessed the scourge affecting my own family. My grandfather, an unrelenting patriarch, got involved in a messy property dispute last year. Trying to rekindle his libido, also the talk of the town for long, Bhapaji, as everyone called him, accommodated a few female tenants with a questionable past at one of the properties. Pretty soon, they staked claim to the place and slandered Bhapaji with allegations that grossly overestimated his “potential” for the age. Expending all the options, even hired goons, who, as we came to know later, had previous “relations” with the licentious tenants, Bhapaji finally yielded to family pressure and approached the police. That decision, the small-town folks would have valuated instantly, doubled the price of the wager. Right under the nose of the SSP, despite the written orders signed by him—the SHO, the junior officials and the goons openly negotiated the compromise. Being the people from the bazaar, it brought Bhapaji and the family much infamy. And just like that, on one of those evenings, he downed a little too much moonshine than his body could take. I still wasn’t sure what killed him, cirrhosis or corruption.


Figure 1 — From left: Pardhaan Balbir Singh, Captain Pyara Singh and Master Kashmir Singh on a tour of the library.

ON THAT FORTUITOUS DECEMBER MORNING, Pardhaan took me to a place whose every square inch was consigned to posterity. Walking past the narrow lane of the souk leading to Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran—around which the whole town actually sprouted—we reached a wide entrance, marked by a gate, located right in the midst of those shop clusters. Surprised at myself for not noticing the landmark during the gazillion times I must have walked past the avenue since childhood, it was like a wormhole that materialized from another dimension. And time did indeed freeze, as we meandered through the small alleyway, towards the spacious complex inside.

Paved around a big Peepal tree, were a series of rooms, a double-storeyed building and some other quarters appearing to be warehouses. I got introduced to the four gentlemen soaking up the winter sun. The two octogenarians, Captain Pyara Singh and Master Kashmir Singh, were the officiators managing the place, owned by Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid Memorial Charitable Trust. They were entertaining Sub-Divisional Officers from Tarn Taran Improvement Trust (white elephants in Punjab’s political parlance), who came to see the newly renovated library.

Sitting on the cemented platform surrounding that massive tree trunk, I heeded to the chaiwallah’s request and grabbed a cup, though it wasn’t meant for me, as Pardhaan looked away in a desperate bid to control his sugar levels. Trying to bridge the age-gap and iron out the incongruities from the interaction that was about to happen, Pardhaan shared my love for the town and the desire to highlight its social issues. Warming up to a few homilies, the two gracefully aged seniors burst into occasional gales of laughter—not laughter actually, but childlike giggles—as their ruddy cheeks and flowing white beards glistened under the sunlight. While they sprinted towards the complex in-between, to bring down chairs or a pile of books through the stairs, their fine fettle left me amazed.

Capt. Pyara Singh took us on a tour of the library. His gravelly voice, describing the content housed over different shelves, never betrayed for a moment the fact that he had probably read most of it, making the exposition all the more interesting. The Trust had painstakingly acquired the worthy collection of the rarest books on Sikh history, philosophy and literature over the years. We finally reached an almirah solely stuffed with the works of Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid, in whose honour the organization was established.

And that was when I decided to make a delicately plotted interjection.


Figure 2 — Master Kashmir Singh holding the portrait of Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid.

BORN IN 1881 at Tarn Taran, Mohan Singh was perhaps the only Sikh polymath of our times. Hailing from a family of Ayurveda practitioners, he received little formal education, but was a natural autodidact. The reformist wave that swept Sikhism during the early part of the twentieth century left an indelible mark on the youngster, so much so that he completely devoted himself to the upliftment of the masses. Even as a teenager, he founded many social service initiatives, the talk about his activism and brilliance soon reached the ears of Chief Khalsa Diwan, the central body coordinating all the Singh Sabhas. And thus, Mohan Singh was anointed as the foot soldier of Panth, whose phenomenal contributions to the political, social and intellectual landscape of Punjab are still to be accounted for.

From setting up a number of reformist associations, the editorships of popular publications like Khalsa, charting the progressive course of the Sikh ideology under various government committees, retaining the post of Municipal Commissioner of Tarn Taran from 1910 till his death in 1936 to getting incarcerated in jail for two years as a member of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Mohan Singh truly epitomized the entrepreneurial aspirations of Punjabis—his vision emblematic of Qaum idyll.

He wrote more than 200 books on mind-bogglingly diverse topics like politics, economics, sociology, healthcare, philosophy, ethics, theology and mysticism, not to mention fiction and plays. But perhaps the most seminal of his contributions was codifying the modern Punjabi prose by inventing a simple, lightweight version of the language that complied more with the vernacular than its morphological complexity; and by producing the first-ever translation of Granth Sahib in Devanagri, thus engaging the non-Punjabi readership and migrants. So, just like Martin Luther became the progenitor of the modern German nationhood by translating New Testament, the ‘kraftvolles Punjabi’ heralded by Mohan Singh might be the least explored historical precedents that fomented the clamouring for a distinct Sikh identity.

Even till recently, the only childhood anecdote reminiscent of his legacy was how my mother used to forcibly apply the kohl manufactured by Bhai Mohan Singh Vaid & Sons, producing a horrible burning sensation in the eyes. Mohan Singh’s Ayurdvedic practice was sustained by his two sons inculcated with the same missionary zeal, their medicinal cures carried throughout the world by the diaspora. A substantial portion of the proceeds from the business went to charity. Up until a few years ago, his descendants could be seen sitting in the dingy shop near Darbar Sahib—my nose tingled with the aroma of herbs, potions and incense emanating from there—diligently tending to the poor patients treated free of cost. Most members of that illustrious clan had already relocated across India and abroad; the remaining ones also sold their assets, as revenues dwindled, and parted from the city.

(Professor Nirvikar Singh—holding the Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair of Sikh & Punjabi Studies at University of California, Santa Cruz—happened to be Mohan Singh’s grandson. His papers had provided me with the much needed insight on economic federalism.)

DELIBERATELY INTERRUPTING Capt. Pyara Singh’s tour, I twiddled with the mobile phone to produce a list of people whose forgotten lives should have gotten consecrated at one of the corners of the precinct.

Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran was among the firsts to be “liberated” from the clutches of the corrupt clergy, during the Gurdwara Reform Movement, whose transgressions had violated every statute of the Sikh rehat maryada(the code of conduct). Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni’s eyewitness account, published in 1922, provided the lurid details of their debaucheries. The priests were often found to be drinking in the sanctum sanctorum, eating quail meat while the Granth Sahib lay in front of them. They misbehaved with the women devotees, as one bystander described “how a Hindu girl had been kissed within the Holy of Holies”.

Mohan Singh, Municipal Commissioner at the time, organized a faction of peaceful reformists to negotiate with the clerics. Refusing to budge, the priests assembled an army of goons lodging crude bombs at the unarmed agitators, butchering them with swords during one of the meetings. As Sahni recalled, “It was the first bloodshed in the cause of Gurdwara Reform, and fitly in the temple of Guru Arjan who was the first martyr in the Sikh history”. A provisional committee of fifteen men, valiantly spearheading the struggle, was formed under the auspices of Mohan Singh to take charge of the Gurdwara affairs.

Capt. Pyara Singh got overwhelmed with nostalgia, as I recalled their names:

“Sardar Balwant Singh Subedar of village Kulla?”

Ah, yes! He… he and Hukam Singh—and Hazara Singh—offered the highest sacrifice. The duo was martyred, but Balwant Singh went to jail as well.”

“Are any relatives of his still living here?”

“Oh no, they have all gone.”

I moved to the next entry:

“Sardar Dharam Singh of Usma?”

“Yes, yes! He passed away many years ago.”

“Sardar Mehtab Singh, Headmaster of Khalsa High School?”

“He’s been long dead, too. I remember him well—yes—very much so. His son is the editor of Nawan Zamana…”

The Sub-Divisional Officers accompanying us gaped in silence, as two disparate men, eons apart, weaved an emotional bond from a thread of shared legacy; relived a tale of selflessness, thought to be buried forever in the interstices of memory and history.

Now that I had established a rapport with the elders, we sat down for another cup of tea that was well-deserved, as I gradually leaned towards the actual agenda.

Pardhaan enquired about the availability of Santan de Kautak, a multi-volume compendium dispassionately describing the feats and foibles of many living Sikh babas. A quick search through the catalogue revealed that it had already been issued. He then subtly shared my experiences of witnessing caste-based discrimination in the gurdwaras around nearby villages.

“Sikhi ‘ch Bahmannvaad aa gaya ai.”

(Brahminism has crept into the Sikh religion.)

Capt. Pyara Singh appeared to have shrunk into himself, as he whispered that line, looking a bit cagey. Even the most liberal-minded of Sikhs lived in abject denial or tried to externalize the source of the disease, knowing very well that their own religion failed to notice, leave alone address, its underlying symptoms.

Pardhaan was not in a mood to bury the hatchet.

 “Ae munde ne pata lagaya ai ki Dhotian de gurdware wich Majbi Singhan naal vitkara kitta jaanda ae.”

(The young lad has found out that a gurdwara of village Dhotian discriminates against the Mazhabi Sikhs.)

“Aaho. Sur Singh ’ch wi… Amrit shakaun vele. Ki naa rakheya ohna ne? Chauthey Paurey Wale?”

(Yes. Even in Sur Singh, while distributing Amrit [during the Khalsa baptism ceremony]. What name have they given to the people? Chauthey Paurey Wale?)

In my wide-ranging discussions with filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj—often hailed as the “Ritwik Ghatak of Punjab”—over the steaming bowls of delectable chicken-spinach soup, at his apartment in Delhi (I called it the “home of the inquilab”), one thing which got firmly etched in my mind was to always trust the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse.

I learnt to hunt counter-narratives existing on the very margins of our society, ready to be pushed into the oblivion by a monoculture constricted by geopolitics, a populace fed with mass-produced histories and an intelligentsia servile to the hegemonic constructs of class. Conversations, mere conversations—the chatter at the choupal, the grumbling in the gurdwaras, the whispers in the wheat fields—miraculously preserved and sanctified the stories of faceless, nameless men and women. With the message upending the medium, transcending the barriers of space and time—oozing through the crevices of collective consciousness, emerged the truth that was carried subliminally, piggybacking on the subjectivity of our mythos; becoming the ever-present origin, spawning a million minor mutinies here and there.

And so, as Capt. Pyara Singh uttered the term, Chauthey Paurey Wale—with its literal meaning being, People from the Fourth Step—hinting at some ritualistic perversity kept secret, I had the strange inkling of stumbling upon a conversation of monumental importance and historicity, whose origins ought to be pursued further.

Little did I know that the darkness trailing on the edges of that revelation was about to engulf my own life as well…


THE NEXT VISIT TO TARN TARAN in January was limited by familial responsibilities. My sister was getting married the next month. Tasked with a few arrangements, it provided me with an excellent excuse to travel often. One afternoon, while my parents were busy shopping the numerous knick-knacks that make for a wedding ceremony, I borrowed a bike from the bazaar and headed straight to village Sur Singh, some thirty kilometres on the Bhikhiwind-Khemkaran stretch.

That fertile tract of Majha—the region comprising Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Tarn Taran—was steeped in history. The earlier excursion off-the-beaten-track, which took me there some years ago, was to locate the fabled Patton Nagar, a town named after the most ferocious tank battle ever fought since World War II, during the Indo-Pak conflict of 1965. If one were to ever come close to experiencing Valhalla on earth, then it was on the piece of land between the villages Assal Uttar and Cheema—the faltering Indian defense line that thwarted an all-out invasion—where the banzai charge of Havaldar Abdul Hamid (posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra) and Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh still rang in the ears.

Sur Singh had blipped on the radar earlier too, when I was made aware of the communal segregation being enforced in one of its gurdwaras by my ‘informant network’, and it was duly pinned on Punjab’s Map of Shame, last year. Veering towards the other side of the highway to take a sharp right, landing on the dirt track that led to the heart of the village, I ended up parking the bike in front of the very first gurdwara. Leaning over the brick wall, besides the small water pool meant for cleansing, I read the inscribed Gurumukhi, making overtures with the camera to gather the attention of the old Nihang sitting on the charpoy. The moment our eyes met, he limped forward to greet me.

“Cha-paani ji?”

(Can I get something for you, sir?)

Volunteering as a caretaker of the Gurdwara, Ratan Singh preferred to pass the dull winter afternoons lazing around the premises, so the ill-timed visits from strangers always made for an interesting tête-à-tête. My introduction as a local history buff was enough to get things going.

“Bahut itehaasik pind hai ji!”

(It’s a very historic village, sir!)

The excitement was palpable as his guttural voice struggled its way out of the phlegm-choked throat. Ratan Singh was right. The place was as old as history itself. Dr. Amarjit Kaur Ibban, who taught at the local high school for girls, actually ended up writing a whole book on Sur Singh. From the rather lofty claim of it being the birthplace of Lord Shiva, Ibban gradually descends to traceable antiquity, postulating that the place was teeming with settlers much before the arrival of Sikhism.

Citing contemporary sources, she had compiled an impressive list of personalities having their roots in the village: Abdulla and Nattha, the two dhadi (ballad singers) with Guru Hargobind; Des Raj, the architect of Golden Temple; Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, the commander of Ramgarhia Sikh Confederacy; Maha Singh, the leader of Chali Muktay (Forty Liberated Ones) of Guru Gobind; Sufi saints Shah Jamal and Shah Malik; Jagat Singh and Prem Singh, martyrs from Ghadar Party; wrestler Kartar Singh, a gold medallist at Asian Games; and Dr. Waryam Singh Sandhu, the Sahitya Akademi Award winning short-story writer.

But for Ratan Singh, history began and ended with just one man—the “Robin Hood of Majha” —Baba Bidhi Chand Chhina.

“Tusi kull duniya da itehaas suneya ke Maharaj Chhevein Paatshahi chaar jung jitte aa, te Baba Bidhi Chand sa’ab sajje hatth ‘ch Maharaj ne rakhe aa. Te aenu var ditte aaBidhi Chand nuke, ‘Bidhi Chand Chhina, Guru Ka Seena’.”

(If you are little aware of “world’s history”, the sixth Sikh Guru [Hargobind] won four wars and Baba Bidhi Chand was his right hand all the way. He was exalted by the Guru with the eternal blessing—“Bidhi Chand Chhina makes Guru’s chest swell with pride”.)

The listless face of Ratan Singh swayed a little with the underlying emotions, as he carried on with the slightly incoherent monologue.

“Te Guru ne onna nu keha, “Tu saada dil ban chukkeya haan. Saade sarir vakhro-vakhri reh gaye aa, appan dovein ik ho chukke aa’. Ae koi shotta-motta itehaas…”

(And the Guru told him, “You have acquired a place in my heart. We may be separated by bodies, but our souls are one”. No ordinary history that is…)

Ratan Singh was stirred, and quite rightly so, for the man Bidhi Chand exemplified the contrarian streak that went right through the heart and history of Punjab. Like an archetypal hero emerging from Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth, his story selectively hid and revealed the subtleties that were essential to the creation of a people’s legend.

“Bidhia dar awwa

duzd bud.”

(In the beginning, Bidhia was a thief.)

—Mohsin Fani, a Persian historian of the seventeenth century, in Dabestan-e Mazaheb.

A DAREDEVIL HIGHWAYMAN in his early life, Bidhi Chand was won over by Bhai Adli, a disciple of the fifth Guru, Arjan, and brought to the Sikh fold. After spending years treading the rural heartland as a preacher, spreading the message of Sikhism, the varied skills of the burly Jatt were put to good use, as the Guruship succeeded to the sixth heir, Hargobind, also beginning the extant militarization of the faith. As a risaldar (commander of a cavalry) managing the intelligence functions, Bidhi Chand showcased tremendous valour and loyalty, routing the armies of the Mughal chieftains, in the four battles that the Guru fought. His most memorable exploit being the rescue of two horses, Dilbagh and Gulbagh, which were brought from Kabul as a gift for Hargobind, but were seized midway and taken to the stables of Lahore Fort. Using the tricks he had learnt as a thief for the one last time, Bidhi Chand managed to steal them back in plain sight, disguising as a grass-cutter and then, as a fortune teller.

Gradually withdrawing from the worldly affairs as the end drew nigh, Bidhi Chand bid an emotional farewell to Hargobind and spent the remaining days at Devnagar, near Ayodhya, in the company of a Sufi friend, Sundar Shah. As per a pact made earlier, they left the world together on 14th August, 1640 (1654, according to some accounts). Bidhi Chand’s mortal remains were brought back to his paternal place, Sur Singh, by nephew, Lal Chand—or as some say, his “second descendant”—and a smadh (shrine) was installed.


Figure 3 — A popular painting depicting Bidhi Chand disguised as a fortune teller, rescuing the horse, Dilbagh, from the stables of Lahore Fort.

But that was as far as a sanitized religious narrative could go. According to Kristina Myrvold, assistant professor at Lund University and the author of the dissertation, Inside the Guru’s Gate, “As a minority group situated within the boundaries of a Hindu centre, the Sikhs have generated their own collective emic historiography”. Circumscribed by political correctness—the ideological absolutism and the newfangled notion of belonging it results in—the case of Bidhi Chand was given the sartorial treatment to better fit within the framework of Sikh identity politics. Far from being a man gone astray, he was the proverbial baaghi: a rebel who not only challenged the writ of the Gurus, but also went to war with a society that rejected his love.

BIDHI CHAND WAS BORN to Sukh Ram Hindal (1573–1648), a farmer and a cleric who established Jandiala Guru, a kasba or small settlement situated at a comfortable distance of eighteen kilometres from both Amritsar and Tarn Taran (one of my cousins got married there). Hindal, or Handal, as referred to in some texts, was a Muslim disciple of the Sufi saint, Sakhi Sarwar. He was converted to Sikhism by the third Guru, Amar Das, and given the responsibility of organizing langar at Goindwal. For his commendable service to the faith, Hindal was later appointed as the masand (administrator) of a manji—the dioceses that were the precursors to gurdwaras.

The young Bidhi Chand seemingly followed the footsteps of his father, preaching the sizeable congregation of Hindal’s disciples. By a curious twist of fate, he fell for a Mohammedan girl and eventually ended up marrying her—an act which was widely despised by the Sikh community and its leaders. The embittered Bidhi Chand was soon tagged as an apostate, only strengthening the convictions of that diehard. He reneged against the very order by creating a schismatic sect that ingeniously exploited the politics of the Gurus. Skilfully mobilizing the followers of Hindal—called Niranjani or Hindali—he pitted them directly against the Sikh establishment. The Niranjanis refused to be identified as Sikhs and frequently aligned themselves with the Mughal rulers and the foreign invaders.

Sometimes, dissent pricked the thick skin of religion at just the right spot to drain out the uncomfortable truths from the abscesses of history. In a masterly move, Bidhi Chand brought the Sikh leaders to the negotiating table by crafting Hindaliya Janam Sakhi: a biographical account on the life of Baba Nanak that depicted him as a disciple of the low-caste Muslim weaver, Kabir; even mentioning the legendary meeting between the two celebrated poets at Varanasi. Deemed as a plagiarized variant of the earliest-known texts authored by one Bala Sandhu—who was said to have pioneered the “Bala tradition” of janam sakhis (quite literally, the birth stories)—the supposedly derogatory references were methodically expunged by the hagiographers and the revised document was put back into circulation. However, the wily propaganda appeared to have raised enough hackles, making the situation untenable for the Sikh leaders, as the “heretical” Niranjanis gained more ground.

Jandiala became the strategically positioned nerve-center of a rebellion. Not abundantly clear as to when and how Bidhi Chand had a change of heart, due to the peculiar absence of archives on that momentous phase, the switching of sides under Baba Adli’s decree and his gradual elevation to a military commander had the shades of a compromise—a balancing act between the political expediency of the Sikh Gurus, and the honour and ambition of a baaghi. It doesn’t take more than a cursory observation of the religious politics played out in Punjab during the recent past to understand how all that could have been legitimatized under the dominancy, the questionable edict of a monoculture.

And as far as the Niranjanis were concerned, the third-oldest sect of the Sikhs gradually faded into insignificance, their lands taken away by Maharaja Ranjit Singh to punish them for tacitly supporting the Mughals. Yet, that rabidly nonconformist movement continued plotting against them till the late eighteenth century, conveniently leveraging the communal rift—notably, by endorsing the official storyline emerging from Lahore on Guru Arjan’s death; by covertly siding with Punjab governor, Adeena Beg Khan, to drive away the Guru’s armies; and by playing a dangerous game in collusion with the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, inadvertently creating the conditions that led to Vadda Ghallughara (Big Holocaust).

Kristina Myrvold made another noteworthy observation, “The rhetorical strategy to counter dominant beliefs and practices is in no way exceptional for the contemporary local historiography in Varanasi, but typical of the seventeenth century Janam-sakhi literature that aimed at proving the supremacy of Guru Nanak and the geographical spread of his teaching”. So the genuine questions regarding the relationship between Nanak and Kabir were consciously sidelined and erased from the public memory. Similarly, the aspersions about Bidhi Chand’s Muslim wife were addressed by inserting the nephew, Lal Chand, into the narrative, instead of his actual son, Devi Das.


Figure 4 — Gurdwara Baba Bidhi Chand of Sur Singh.

THE SUN WAS FINALLY GIVING WAY to the wintry haze, as the day drew near to a close.

“Baba Daya Singh gyarvein peedi de ne.”

(Baba Daya Singh is from the eleventh generation.)

Caretaker Ratan Singh was extolling the lineage of Bidhi Chand. His eleventh “descendant”, Baba Daya Singh, led one of the four Nihang battalions of Khalsa Army and an important Sikh seminary, under the umbrella organization, Sampardaye Baba Bidhi Chand Ji (also called Baba Bidhi Chand Dal).

Guru Hargobind once arrived in Sur Singh at the constant bidding of a rich trader by the name of Bhag Mal, who offered his newly built palatial bungalow and a thousand bighas of land to further the cause of Sikhism. The Guru was travelling extensively and rarely stayed at one place for long. So he delegated Lal Chand, the “second scion”, to develop the property. One could still find the magnificent and remarkably well-preserved ruins of the old buildings in the village, dating back many centuries. The progenies of Bidhi Chand steadily invested their efforts in converting those assets into places of worship and influence.

Ratan Singh told me that the village boasted five historical gurdwaras. The one in front of which we were sitting was the shrine of Bidhi Chand and I saw a larger structure just a few meters away that was Gurdwara Sri Hargobind Sahib. All those institutions were managed by Bidhi Chand Dal. The aging Daya Singh—whose “army” had closely sided with Bhindranwale in the fight for Khalistan—was preparing to pass the baton to his son, Avtar Singh, from the twelfth generation, though they never made it clear whether the politically powerful ancestry stemmed from Bidhi Chand’s nephew, or his son from the Muslim wife.


Figure 5 — Ratan Singh (L) and Ajaib Singh (R) with the author.

 I asked Ratan Singh the question that drew me to the wild-goose chase in the first place:

“Babaji, ae Chauthey Paurey da ki matlab aa?

(Babaji, what does the term “Chauthey Paurey” imply?)

He was habitual to talking in quick spurts and the answers trickled out more rapidly than my questions. I didn’t register surprise or bemusement on the weatherworn face, but his changed mien had a confessional undertone to it:

“Babaji, ek bennti aa merimai anpaddh aa. Mai ae nai keh sakda kijaaneyajyon Maharaj ne Amrit shakaayaBhai, ae kiss vitth wich baba bhaavein dass gayeMajbi Singh jehde aa na? Ohna nu Chauthey Pauriye ahnne hunne si. Te… te Amrit taan ikko hi ai na? Ae ghar taan sabda saanjha ai na? Aaye te rabb de ghar ne?”

(Sir, I submit very humbly that I am an uneducated person. I can’t ascertain the context in which, after the Gurus baptized them with Amrit, the babas started referring to the Mazhabi Sikhs as “Chauthey Pauriye”. But… but isn’t the same Amrit partaken by all? Isn’t this our common home? After all, haven’t we arrived in God’s abode?)

I tried pushing him for little more:

“Mainu badi ruchi aa ki ae Paurey ki ne. Koi dooja ya teeja paura wi hunda?”

(But I am quite interested in knowing what Paurey means. Is there any second or third “step” as well?)

Ratan Singh shirked, but not before divulging the partial truth:

“Babaji, mai tuhannu dasseya ki mai ehde do gaan gall nai koi jaanda. Bhai, Chautha Paurasannu ehde matbal da hi nai patapicche aam gall karde hunde si ke falaane Chuhre aa. Chuhre te Jatt, gall taan inni ai na? Te Nihang Singh ehna nu Chauthey Paurey…”

(Sir, as I have already told you, this is the best I can come up with. I am completely ignorant about its origin or interpretation. Earlier, it was the fairly common to use the term “Chuhre” for them. Isn’t the whole thing about Chuhre and Jatt? So similarly, the Nihang Singhs called them Chauthey Paurey…)

The barely decipherable exchange got interrupted by what sounded like a faint cry from Ajaib Singh. He was the granthi (one who reads the scripture) at the Gurdwara. The rotund man with pinkish complexion had an irritably squeaky voice, giving him the appearance of an anthropomorphic piglet from a Disney film. He was busy chopping the daatun (Neem twigs used for oral cleaning), until the interaction piqued his interest:

“Baba Jiwan Singh Chauthi Pauri chon hoya na? Majbi Singh hoya na? Maharaj ne jad sarir tyageya, ohna ne laiyanda nai sir onna da?”

(Didn’t Baba Jiwan Singh belong to the Chauthi Pauri? Wasn’t he a Mazhabi Sikh? When the Guru departed, wasn’t he the one to bring his severed head?)

Ajaib Singh had made a tactical interpolation by invoking the legend of Jiwan Singh, or Bhai Jaita, who rescued the severed head of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, from Delhi. The first known Dalit poet of Punjab, his story of service and sacrifice marked a turning point in the evolution of caste consciousness among the Sikhs, paving the way for a new social contract based on equity that was unheard of.

Ratan Singh dutifully filled in the blanks:

“Laiyanda! Maharaj ne ohna nu gall naal la leya. Inni gehri gall aakhi ki, ‘Rangrete Guru ke Bete’.”

(Yes, he brought it! The deeply moved Guru [Gobind Singh] embraced him and said, “Rangrete [the low-castes] are the sons of the Guru”.)

Indeed, that impassioned verse became the incantation for inclusion in the times to come.

The semblance of empathy was distracting me, as I tried again to stress on the origin of that disturbing ritual of segregation, hounding them with questions on Paurey and its colloquial usage for Dalits. The thudding of the wooden plank, to which I had grown comfortable by then, stopped for a second as Ajaib Singh raised thedaatar (arc-shaped knife) and said:

“Mai tuhannu das dinna. Amrit banauna ikko thaan.Te jehda mudke pauna ke nai? O tuhadda baata tuhannu dena. Jehde Majbi Singh hai na, ohna nu ahdd baata dena, appan nu ahdd baata dena… bannde ikko thaan hi aa.”

(Let me explain it to you. The Amrit is prepared at one place. But when it is distributed later, the Mazhabi Sikhs receive it in a separate utensil, while we [the upper castes] partake from the other one.)

It was as simple as that, clear as crystal. We had bridged the distance of a few generations, between people imagining themselves as warriors, born to different mothers, raised to represent different eras. An achievement of sorts, more like an epiphany actually. There I was: spectacled, clad in a hooded sweatshirt and a leather overcoat, with a voice recorder in one hand and a smart-phone in the other; the two rugged Nihangs—who must have strode vast lands over horsebacks during the youth, with nerves bulging out of the faces and limbs like an imprinted relic from their adventures—reminiscing how they had raced the horses at full-speed while spearing a target with a lance at the same time, to a jubilant crowd of onlookers.

A gust of wind ruffled through the leaves of the ghostly Peepal trees that arched over us menacingly, carrying a spell towards the shrine of Bidhi Chand Chhina, then just a mere silhouette in front of the setting sun. For all the Amrit that was partaken there, the gloomy building appeared devoid of the life-giving elixir. The last remnant of the evening took a deep, infectious yawn and right at that very moment, God seemed to have left the Gurdwara.


FROM HARMANDIR TO HARVARD, the Sikh scholars were busy convincing each other that all the rhetoric about the systemic depravity gripping their religious and political bodies, the clergy and the adherents, was the result of a targeted campaign singling-out a few cases; aberrations for which only some digressing babas or deras were to be blamed. It was their gross misapprehension that an ordinary person can’t see through the complex schemata of the Sikh establishment—that the aspect of Daya Singh slaughtering hundreds of goats for the ravenous Nihangs at the marriage of his son would be treated as a minor eccentricity, long associated with such folks; while the perverse practice of caste-based segregation, masqueraded as a spiritually sanctioned act, in the 350 years old seminary of a religion that abhors ritualism in the first place, would be seen as a crime against humanity.

Long enamoured by the trope of falsification and by endlessly chasing the spectre of institutional downfall, I was slowly inching towards the eye of the storm.

Situated on the road towards Goindwal, Gurdwara Marhi Sahib looked more like the headquarters of a business conglomerate, when I visited it in January. The huge, marble-floored campus was like a small township with its own go-downs, granaries and a bay for trucks and tractors. A newly-built ultramodern, multispecialty hospital adjacent to it, funded by the same organization that managed Marhi Sahib, was now the crown jewel of Tarn Taran. After downing two glasses of the freshest buttermilk at the langar hall, I asked for Baba Jagtar Singh “Kar-Sewa Wale”, who had become the elusive boogeyman since my visit to village Dhotian, earlier in November.

Like any other institutionalized religion, Sikhism had also fallen prey to the commoditization of spirituality and Baba Jagtar Singh was at the very forefront of that game. Kar Sewa, or the voluntary, selfless contribution of services and goods, from physical labor to money, had been one of the founding tenets of the faith. Dera Kar Sewa of Tarn Taran honed a series of leaders to spearhead such initiatives in an organized manner, by training a cadre of volunteers and channelling donations through structured investment vehicles since the last 200 years or so. Jagtar Singh was like the reigning chief executive of the corpus. He had mobilized lakhs of volunteers to renovate dozens of crumbling historical monuments and building new ones across India and abroad; cleaning the holy tank of Golden Temple being the pinnacle of his career. It was an altogether different story that Jagtar Singh’s subordinates had gotten away after embezzlement of funds that his misplaced zeal had led to the wanton destruction of old artefacts and that he unrestrainedly exercised the power coming with the job.

But all of that never mattered while I was looking for him at Marhi Sahib. My self-imagined grouse with Jagtar Singh was on a much simpler issue. While investigating a case of discrimination against the Dalit Christians of Dhotian, I encountered a prominent gurdwara—one among the many under Jagtar Singh’s administration—that had publicly barred the Mazhabis from performing the langar sewa because their supposed lack of hygiene killed the appetite of a few (chronicled in my article for, A Day in the Life of a Sikh Prejudice).

After some waiting, a message arrived that Baba ji had left for Mumbai. He was in the United States when I had enquired earlier. Disappointed a little, but still having ample time at my disposal, I raced towards the village of Alawalpur, around four kilometres from the place. Sardara Singh, its sarpanch, was another character from my grand confabulation, the most entertaining of all, neatly fitting the profile of transgressors described in my case-book, my very own Malleus Maleficarum.

Sardara Singh drew power from the political standing of his mother, Manjit Kaur, once an SGPC Member. Apparently, the senior Shiromani Akali Dal leader and former minister, Ranjit Singh Brahmpura—widely known as the “Jarnail (General) of Majha” after a slew of electoral victories from the region—bestowed patronage on Manjit Kaur, so she revered him like an elder brother. It was through the ménage à trois that the sarpanch of Alawalpur wielded his clout.

A baptized Sikh with unshorn hair and a ceremonial dagger dangling by the side, he would have resembled a genuine harbinger of the faith, but for a particularly irresistible vice. Earlier in September, Sardara Singh’s mugshot was splashed all over the papers, when the outlandish plan to stage his own kidnapping was foiled. Enacting a drama of epic hilarity, Sardara Singh instructed his cohorts to theatrically “abduct” him from the car and an “eyewitness” was summarily dispatched to file a police complaint. As the cops belted their trousers to get cracking on the sensational case, both the hostage and the abductees merrily sped to a nearby village, in what seemed like a lopsided effect of Stockholm Syndrome, taking a woman on board.

Like any other married man, desperate to escape the scrutiny of his wife and in-laws, Sardara Singh’s shenanigans were merely aimed at spending some quality time with the mistresses. The week-long sojourn amidst the romantic dales of Srinagar was cut short when a relative ratted him out. A passionate lover that he was, driven to the extremes, another plan of a lengthy outing, by falsely summoning himself in a court case, had also gone kaput.

I could very well have ended up appreciating his “lust for life”, until another startling revelation reached my ears through the grapevine of Tarn Taran.  When push came to shove, when it was no longer possible to bridle—what many scholars have alluded to as the “Indus libido”—Sardara Singh used to barge into the sarai (lodge) of the gurdwaras around Goindwal for the romping sessions, both with paramours and prostitutes. The clergy and the caretakers either turned a blind eye, or were themselves enticed by the conveniences of power. The one or two times that he got arrested, a prompt call from Brahmpura’s office was enough to let go the Don Juan. The orgies in the gurdwaras continued unabated.

An orderly at his residence told me that Sardara Singh was unavailable. Not prepared to be snubbed twice in a day, I pushed hard by pretending to be a journalist from Delhi, keen to hear his side of the story. After a long pause, I was told to go away.

Barring a few minor roadblocks like as such, I had arrived full circle in a witch-hunt spanning many months. During the numerous and sometimes exhausting trips to the bucolic outback—cultivating sources, chasing the obscure stories and its subjects, and deconstructing the newspaper clippings that looked interesting to no one but me; hitching over rickety public transport, forever cash-strapped; beating the deadly summer heat, falling sick; getting rubbed off in the wrong way by the so-called intellectuals, activists and apologists, only to hit them back in the same coin—the one stubborn belief, in fact, a presupposition, was that all those contraventions led directly to the “Source”. It was a hothead’s attempt to call for an arraignment of the “System” by never ignoring the cogs, but, more importantly, by also focusing on the wheel, as a whole, to prove that it had deviated from the chosen path—politically, institutionally and spiritually.

If Sardara Singh was meant to be a case in point for the venality of religio-communitarian politics, then Baba Jagtar Singh Kar-Sewa Wale, with his unhindered access to the Akal Takht, was symbolic of the insidious, self-serving cabal that had taken control of the religious bodies. The ever-widening gulf between Miri and Piri, between the temporal and the spiritual—only efficacious when working in tandem—had produced something as sinister as Brahminism, but was never to be confused with it. The demonic plague of “purity-pollution” had struck again—witnessed at places like Sur Singh and Dhotian, to name a few; even at Sis Ganj and Bangla Sahib, where the destitute were served a separate langar simply because they looked “dirty”—leading to the dismemberment of humanity on the basis of caste and creed. The Timeless Throne seemed to have gotten lost in its very timelessness; the daily ablutions with milk had made its floor unctuous with the grease of greed and pomp.

AS THE VISIT TO ALAWALPUR wrapped early, I spent the rest of the day mingling with acquaintances from the bazaar. Perched on the counter at a friend’s shop selling used clothes, shipped in containers from Europe and America, idly staring at the crowd, I receive a message to reach home immediately. The unusual twist was a bit surprising.

My Chacha and mother were sitting in the drawing room, sipping the afternoon tea. He tried giving me a disarming smile and mumbled something incoherent. From the years that I had known my uncle, I knew it was a mix of affection and nervousness forcing him to do so. He certainly had an odd disposition, like every other member of our clan, always reminding me of the lines from G.K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, “He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions”, the more our ladies “preached a more than Puritan abstinence” the more did the men expanded “into a more than pagan latitude”.

Was it about alcohol, I made a few guesses. I certainly drank like a fish whenever the opportunity beckoned, more often than not in a joint family type of setting.  My mother, whose face was flushing a bit by then, began the interrogation. She enquired about my recent visit to the villages. I was unnaturally indiscrete and told them everything. And that was when the bombshell landed.

Not that I hadn’t anticipated it earlier, but some stranger, looking like a “dera man” (unwelcome in our places), delivered a missive to my Chacha at the shop, telling me to quit meddling in their affairs or the “consequences would be dire”. He also hinted that the bazaar would not take to the uncharted excursions of the young lad very kindly, for which the whole family would suffer. That was as serious as things could get.

We were calico printers by caste—Cheemba in Punjabi, Chhipa in Hindi and Rangrez in Urdu. Traditionally the followers of poet-saint, Namdev, from Maharashtra, they had made early ingress into Sikhism, after his poetry was incorporated in Granth Sahib. The migration got a further boost over the years, as Mokham Chand, one of the original Panj Pyare (Five Beloved Ones) baptized by Guru Gobind Singh, was also from the same community. With changing times, they became washermen and tailors as well.  Like most landless, artisan groups stuck in the social stratification, their conditions remained deplorable, so they were categorized as “Backward”.

All my uncles and aunts were uneducated, so were most of the cousins. Our grandfather relocated from village Bundala, the growing settlement around Darbar Sahib Tarn Taran offered better opportunities. Womenfolk from the nearby hamlets would flock to the town over masya (new moon day) and sangrand (new month in the sidereal-solar calendar), and bathe in the holy tank—the largest ever constructed. As had been the proclivity since the beginning of civilization, they would also steal some time to shop, ordering new suits or customizing the older ones with fancy embroidery, which was what Bhapaji did to raise our family, though the uninhibited proximity to the opposite sex also led to many amorous encounters (some tricks of the trade remaining effective till lately).

One son, exhibiting prodigal talent, was admitted to Sainik School, Kapurthala, after much pounding on their doors, to end up as a defence officer. The youngest turned out be a violent schizophrenic.  The remaining two were bequeathed with shops in the main arcade towards Darbar Sahib, the tiniest ones in the whole bazaar, to sell tailoring material or offer the associated services. The truism, that one mantra, which helped them come out unscathed from the dark days of the militancy, was to always keep the heads low, only to mind their own business, never-ever to catch anyone’s eye.

“Do peg lao, daal-roti khaake, ramaan naal so jao.”

(Drink two pegs, eat daal-roti and sleep in peace.)

In the big, resource constrained world of working-class families, where countless siblings craved for attention, where the kids were breast-fed till they were ten, the failure of expectations, the overlap of oedipal complexes, and the resulting madness was far too common—making us a normal poor family. Religion hardly offered any realistic advice to the landless, the artisans and the downtrodden. That’s probably why a noticeable strain of agnosticism, a penchant for scepticism, ran through most of them.

Incidents, like the one mentioned by my mother, could’ve easily brought down the house of cards in a second. Laden words like aukaad introduced certain sombreness to the conversation, making me realize that a line had been crossed. It didn’t matter who that person was, whether he belonged to the dera of Jagtar Singh or Sardara Singh’s gang. In a small town like ours, where power still lay in the old hands, resisting capitulation to the onslaughts of modernism, those folks were law unto themselves.

But, of course, I had known all of that very well. What I really underestimated, that too by a wide margin, was the vulnerability of my own family, how inescapably linked they were to the culture, its geography and the backwardness. For reasons that would be hard to appreciate, arguments ensued the whole evening. A tightly lidded urn got shattered, letting loose the ghosts of the past, feeding over the prized middle-class commodity: peace of mind. Bhapaji had expired recently and my sister was getting married in a fortnight. I had risked a lot. My previous skirmishes with the system played their part too. I was a whistleblower once—a wretched, deliriously high-minded act which almost destroyed my career. You couldn’t pollute the air you breathed.


“IK-ADDHI KANDDH DHAA DO gurdware di, fer dasseyo ki karde ne.”

(Bring down one or two walls of the gurdwara and then tell me what they would do.)

The dim, smoke-filled bar of the Press Club was heady with the laidback attitude so typically associated with Chandigarh. The moist window panes, with trails of dew, offered a view to the underworld, which was what the city had transformed into, after a dense evening fog descended over. Hardly discouraging the experienced prowlers of the night, a few tables were still occupied, making the whole setting look like an ungodly feast from a Transylvanian castle—the elaborate capes and makeup hiding the tails and fangs that were to appear later. As expected, the women outnumbered the men, fuelling my long-harboured fantasies about a certain esoteric libertinism of the local gentry.

I hardly socialized in Chandigarh, though my parents lived in Mohali—driven to the ‘bourgeoisie anthills’ that had popped up recently—so it was my first visit to the Club. Gurveer (name changed), a veteran journalist, had invited me over. A fixture in the local art and cultural circuits, he was known to have a reasoned and moderated outlook. Gurveer was referring to the incidents of discrimination while making that comment about the gurdwaras, more specifically to the ones which I had highlighted in the “Map of Shame” and the article on Dhotian. His idea of instigating a revolt in the gurdwaras excited me at the outset. Even historically, those institutions had acted as the centres for social upheaval, the common public taking charge when necessary to enforce the shared ethos. I was also pleasantly surprised by Gurveer being candid to that extent, as differing ideologies had led to some friction earlier. The imaginings about a “conspiracy of silence” had turned me into a bit of a rabble-rouser, though some of the suspicions did rung true later.

Nietzsche coined the sublime phrase—the pathos of distance—having so many political, moral and spiritual connotations that the exercise of describing what it exactly meant became a treacherous one. Implying that the birth of the moral framework, the created set of virtues and the foundation of equality, as enforced similarity, deliberately underplayed a primal human instinct to stand apart, to exist, to discriminate, both positively and negatively; to assert, to command and obey; to accept and reject the multiplicities as per need. It was the widening of polarities, the lack of its realization at an inward and outward level, that led to the misperceptions, to the inefficient structures of administration in class and caste hierarchies—if at all such things were to exist, which they would, no matter what. The garb of perfection that only exacerbated the decadence; what appeared like a race to a finale turned out to be hamsters tumbling over each other in a wheel. Not to risk his reputation, but right before the breakdown, he came close to the most subjective of its definitions, “‘The world is perfect’—thus speaks the instinct of the most intellectual men, affirmative instinct; ‘imperfection, every kind of inferiority to us, distance, pathos of distance, even the Chandala belongs to this perfection”.

“Mai nai samajh sakda ke tuhadde ki experiences rahe ne…”

(I can’t put myself in your shoes…)

Gurveer was bridging the ‘distance’, acknowledging the confusion that arose due to the generalities around ‘us’ and ‘them’, and accepting how ideologies could sometimes underplay the intensity of emotions. But the seething suspicion had already firmed up my prejudices against his ilk. Like a splinter lodged in the eye, the past interactions with them unsettled me to a great extent. The seeds of disenchantment had long been sown.

THE PRESENCE OF AMARJIT CHANDAN at the Punjabi Subaltern Summit, a small conference I had organized in Chandigarh last year, made the whole effort worthwhile. He didn’t speak much but sat attentively throughout the day, almost wedged in a corner, the glazed eyes and the impassive demeanour imparting some regality to the doyen of Punjabi culture. A British-Indian writer—a young woman with dark, streaming locks and large, accentuated eyes—was constantly by Chandan’s side, like a warder of his poetic sensitivities. The attendees fawned over, even skipped the talks to genuflect in front of him. He appeared lost, slightly weary of the one-sided exchanges, occasionally uttering monosyllables when someone raised a topic of interest. The halo around his head became obvious after a young poet greeted me and immediately rushed towards Chandan, before I could even reciprocate the gesture. As a computer science engineer from Malout, I was a rank outsider to those circles, completely uninitiated to the schools of thought that governed them, with it being my first exposure to their complex dynamics. What seemed rather foolhardy later, I had conjured up a dream to build a united front of the thinkers and doers, influencing policy issues in Punjab.

Can any dalitist academic do a lit analysis of the following two liner gem of Punjabi folk poetry? — Gaa ke aarti, te dhoop jaga ke, Majbi ne choddi Bahmani.” (By singing hymns and lighting incense, a Mazhabi fucks a Brahmin woman.)

The dream started falling apart like a Jackson Pollock painting just around the same time I received that email from Chandan a few months later, as a reply to a seemingly benign message on a mailing-list, having absolutely no bearing to the scurrilous remark. The sensory deprivation induced by technology often gave shape to the most deeply-harboured biases, but Chandan was no ordinary being. Initially numb with fear for having triggered his outrage, befuddled beyond words by what led to it, I then felt pity for the old man who soon realized that the rant was also broadcasted to his worshippers on the list. He was specifically concerned about the two Bahmaniyan, a feminist-poetess who treated him as a reverential figurehead and that British writer. Showcasing the same traits of senility as my grandfather, I knew Chandan didn’t mean what he said. It was rather the deafening silence of his self-righteous friends—those public intellectuals with private ambitions, who generally didn’t hesitate to nitpick the slightest deviations of an underdog like me—fully aware of the delicacy with which I was touching the caste issues, that really set me off.  The whole effort around the Summit looked undone.

After weeks of sulking and sending drunken diatribes, I decided to delve into Chandan’s world. Son of aKumiar, a Naxalite in the heydays, he was a contemporary of the radical poet, Lal Singh Dil. Even his own compositions, tepid in verse, betrayed the discordant note he had struck earlier. And I knew at that very instant, Chandan went too close to the “Revolution” and got singed—overwhelmed by the “miasma of lying that, far more than the cruelty took the heart out of it”. He was one of those born-again believers who survived, but had never planned on it; who should have ideally spent the rest of the days in a sanatorium, like Orwell after the Spanish Civil War, meticulously noting down the number eggs the hens were laying. As a friend of mine tried to put things into perspective:

“O ae babey ne, aina nu nai pata!”

(They are babas, too old to change!)

“You smug-faced PUNJABI LEFTISTS with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.”

—An improvisation of Siegfried Sassoon’s Suicide in the Trenches.

GURVEER OFFERED ME the last piece of fish tikka from the platter. Our interaction at the Press Club was well past the initial hitches, so I asked him about the “Rajab Ali affair”. Nodding his head, as if the question was almost anticipated, he admitted that the matter needed to be contemplated at many levels.

The local continuities in Punjab had often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, creating identity markers that were more organically rooted in its culture and geography, with Babu Rajab Ali (1894-1979) being one of its most potent catalysts. Merely mentioning the name of that famed bard elicited unrestrained emotions across both sides of the border. The uncrowned king of kavishari—folk poetry sung in an energetic manner—tapped the latent passions of the land by invoking various legends, from Dahood Badshah to Bidhi Chand. Ajay Bhardwaj, who managed to capture the essence of such fascinating anomalies, had said, “Go to Malwa and you will see how peasants, on moonlit nights, sing songs of Babu Rajab Ali. They need no textbooks to read his songs from. They are rooted in them. He is entwined in their oral tradition”.

But the unhinged directness of folklore, its flirtations with the raw truth, could contradict the conventions of change—that happened when, in September last year, a few publishers from Barnala and Samrala were tossed in prison under the SC / ST Act.  Punjab Police went on an overdrive after a group of protesters emerged from nowhere, alleging that the works of Rajab Ali, reprinted by the publishers, hurt their sentiments, as his poetry was abundant with colloquial slangs for Dalits, quite prevalent during those times.

A comedic farce was set into motion. It wasn’t the first time that his works were re-circulated. Some of the activists and the editors running the publishing house were themselves from the Scheduled Castes and well placed within the left-leaning intelligentsia, so the highbrows cried hoarse over the clampdown. Gurveer mobilized the ideological network and pretty soon, in an unusual show of support, the beau monde of Punjab from the media and the academia petitioned the authorities, fully leveraging their access to the newsprint and the airwaves. A barrage of editorials was unleashed, avowing freedom of speech, propriety and all— justifying that even Nanak resorted to the same argot in Granth Sahib, hence it would be preposterous to censor the historically relevant content. Amarjit Chandan, too, was roped in for old times’ sake.

I had a severe heartburn that day. The do-gooders made no noise ever on why similar fissures were appearing more frequently in the first place, why the caste tensions led to instant polarization, and why it was important to acknowledge the changes in societal equations happening at the grassroots. I knew that the clique, whose denial stemmed from guilt, was morally famished. There was no place for propriety or even posterity where such prejudice had existed. It was time to blacken-out those slangs from the conscience, if not from Granth Sahib.

“Kayi vaari aunde ne.”

(The caste-denoting words are scattered throughout.)

When I proposed that rather ambitious alternative of using moderation as a precedent, Gurveer told me that it would make Rajab Ali’s poems completely illegible—a humbling reminder that even art can aggravate the human condition.

Gurveer carried the image of a progressive liberal, more open to ideas than ideologies. Now in his forties, he still occasionally alluded to the charm of Marxism. Like many young men of his age coming from rural families with midsized land holdings during the peak of the agrarian growth, he was also initiated as arangroot and dreamt of the collectivist utopia—they were actually the baby-boomers. Their inspired vision of communism got firmly bastioned on top of the radical foundations of modern Punjab. It was perfectly alright to be a Jatt, a Sikh and a Comrade at the same time. A generation of philosophers, who chiselled the socio-political discourse over the decades, came from similar settings, so the university systems also became the conceptual foundries of leftism. Its writ ran large among the educated few and was unquestionable.

Punjabi leftists or closeted Sikh apologists, I thought. They adored Nanak’s politics, but pretended to ignore his transcendentalism. They gleefully inherited the anti-Muslim bias of the Sikh community, by garbing it under “anti-imperialism”. They preached equity, but, in fact, secretly aspired to marry within their own castes.

Gail Omvedt wrote a blog post last winter which began like, “Writing on the subject of ‘Anti-Caste movements and the left’ is in one sense fairly simple because the Left has so thoroughly ignored and marginalized the issues of the anti-caste movements that there is little to say”. She was correct. They were harmlessly supine. And I had the same consternations, but leaving them aside, it was the sense of wonderment for having encountered the menagerie very late in my life which left me thoroughly amused. I was so diminutive a figure in front of them that the veritable lack of ideology, my intellectual promiscuity became the saving grace! An oaf with roots in Sturm und Drang (Of Storm and Urge)—German Romanticism that challenged the Age of Reason for being bereft of love, ridiculing its aridity with intense subjectivity and an extreme display of emotions—I was the hackneyed “young Werther” of Goethe; overwhelmed with my obsessions, infatuated with my own insecurities.

The quixotic orientation generated visions of splendour that were completely antithetical to what my left-leaning friends had long espoused. I rejected their Revolution and its Heroes, smitten by the love song of the survivor than the banshee’s cry of the martyr. One, crooning Bant Singh Jhabar outscored Banda Bahadur, Bhagat Singh and Bhindranwale taken together. I would have lost all faith in them if the left-feminist cadre hadn’t taken me to task on the inborn patriarchy. My preconceptions on feminism as a fringe cult—that forced its members to wear mannish battle fatigues, women who refused to shave their underarms for some idealistic causes, symbolized by the image of Valerie Solanas chasing Andy Warhol with a pistol—were addressed with honest affirmation. I became extremely cognizant of the gender bias.

But it wasn’t as if their blatant denial had left me unaffected. “Punjab’s Map of Shame” began as an investigative subproject, dissecting how competently and accurately did the regional media addressed caste issues, and to explore avenues that would apprise them of the realities on the ground. In a way, the motive was to lobby for certain causes. My first break came with a news snippet detailing an incident from village Mahan Singh Wala, where the Jatt landlords had imposed social boycott and unfair wage restrictions on Dalit laborers, in complicity with the panchayat and the politicians. Having realized its potential, I delved into the story. In the thick of summer, I was travelling around and meeting the protesters encamping at Mahan Singh Wala, to further understand the makings of that debacle. Soon enough, I had gathered enough information which, when corroborated with the happenings at the village, highlighted a widespread, systemic bias against the low-caste farm workers. Armed with firsthand evidence, I approached the patrons of the Subaltern Summit, spread across key regional media houses and universities, pressing for more coverage. There was no response, but for a few laconic utterances. So the impetuous few among us approached the national media and voila!—it got streamed on the front pages and the breaking news tickers. The state government finally made a half-hearted attempt to broker a truce in the village, which, as the observers saw, was a sham.


Figure 6 — The infamous notification by the panchayat of Mahan Singh Wala, imposing the social boycott on Dalit laborers.

An eye-opening experience, it made me realize how long-drawn, lonely and thankless the battle was. So, to minimize the dependency on the engrained elite, the armchair activists and the jabbering journalists who rarely crossed the borders of Chandigarh, I charted a travel plan for bootstrapping my own ‘informant network’. Even with the little money, a tight schedule and the backbreaking journeys from Delhi to rural Punjab, I was flooded with tales of atrocities; every third place of worship stunk to high heaven. In a matter of few months, twelve names burst on the Map like ugly zits. There was Sarhali—the maternal home of Bidhi Chand, which had inherited the blight of Chauthey Paurey Wale. Then there were the rest—Amirke, Faride Wala, Dhotian, Sardarpura, Gandav, Sakohan, Jogewala, Lehra Khana and Khiva Khurd—each carrying a sordid saga long enough to fill a few dozen pages. It was more than I could ever handle and soon, with little or no encouragement to go by, despair started looming large.

“Mai qaiyan nu tadaphde vekheya hai, bahot bure halataan wich.”

(I have seen many an activist suffer excruciatingly in dire conditions.)

Gurveer gave me a ride till Mohali. The fog was so thick that one could barely see beyond the front bumper of the car. We almost hit a divider once, so it was hard for me to concentrate on the discussion, but that statement of his did add some solemnity. Gurveer had spent years struggling as an artist, often failing to strike that delicate balance between passion and profession, not to mention the material pressures of life making it even worse. He had watched the most fervent of activists plunge into the depths of despondency, living the rest of their lives in extreme poverty and isolation, betrayed and forgotten by their own—the careerists who sold their souls.

I knew what he was talking about. I knew how tempting it was to give up everything.

PROFESSOR KUMAR HAD READ my piece on Dhotian and was keen to meet up. He called me unexpectedly one Sunday morning, sounding quite excited about the work I was undertaking. I tried complimenting it with equally appreciative remarks on the papers he had written. Kumar taught history at a prominent university located in the western part of India. The first child from a family of Dalit Christians based in Majha to receive an education beyond primary school, the sheer sense of Kumar’s achievements became apparent with a line from his online bio: “… it was only at the Masters level that he [Kumar] started getting used to the English language”.

Ideally, interacting with someone like him would have been cathartic, but I had gazed into the abyss for so long that numbness gripped me all over. Those platitudes from puny professors made me sick to my stomach. The apathy of the entrenched and the endowed had left me completely disillusioned. I was writhing in the agony of hopelessness.

It was that time of the year when I lodge myself into a cocoon for months.

Lacking a convincing excuse and after a few more phone calls, I finally agreed to face Kumar at a plush hotel in the heart of Delhi, where he had arrived for a conference. Dressed in a tweed jacket and a flat cap, the dark and short-statured professor had a fantastically Nubian nose—his broad and pleasant smile gave the impression of a jolly old bloke. As he poured a glass of water, I noticed from the periphery of the eye, Kumar staring at me intently, nodding his head in certain ambiguity. He was sizing me up, locating the common threads of existence—verifying whether my demeanour conveyed the same ‘pathos of distance’, the same nuanced understanding of things, as portrayed in the writings. I had experienced similar class anxieties all too often, with my own personality being tempered by them. In any case, he was happy to have met me.

“Itthe takk paunchna hi ek supne wang lagda hai.”

(It feels like a dream to reach this level.)

In a moment of introspection, Kumar confessed how surreal it felt to be standing in the posh hotel suite. That fleeting glimpse into the intensity of his travails, the casualness with which he made that remark, filled me to the brim, and rather impulsively, I ended up patting his shoulder.

“Khair, in cheezan nu wi kade-kade enjoy karna chahida!”

(Anyhow, such things must be enjoyed occasionally!)

Kumar sensed the opportunity. It was time to drink.

A few pegs later, I was doing all the talking, unintentionally stoking the subtle tensions. With the harboured disgust for politically-correct exchanges, wary of its attempts to sabotage my weakening will, the patience to listen had long worn out. Kumar’s passive aggression also surfaced erratically.

“Ki naa oda? Sant Singh Sekhon. O taan siddha hi kehnda si ki, ‘Ae Mhalle Waleyan nu bahar kaddo!’”

(What’s his name? Sant Singh Sekhon. He used to blurt openly, “Kick these Mhalle Wale out!”)

He shocked me by telling how the venerated Punjabi litterateur, Sant Singh Sekhon, used to openly lambast the low-caste members of the socialist movement, hurling demotic abuses like Mhalle Wale (on their habit of staying huddled together in a few colonies).

I felt like burning his books.

We had found a comfortable spot under the blistering ‘twilight of the idols’.

As I shared my parables from Sur Singh, Kumar furnished a perspicacious account on the etymology of “Chauthey Paurey Wale”. It was the last piece of the puzzle that had confounded me too much, and for too long. The Internet forums on Sikhism and the village squares were pregnant with rumours on how such practices and terms had existed for centuries, how some babas had taken the lead by enforcing apartheid in every other gurdwara. But like an embarrassing family secret, it was repeatedly purged from the mainstream narrative to leave no trace at all. From the bits and pieces I could recollect the next morning, being a little drunk by the time he began with the soliloquy, Kumar’s account painted a surprisingly endearing picture. With an unparalleled foresight, one of the Gurus—possibly Gobind Singh at the insistence of Bhai Jaita—took the lead in affirmative action by reserving a fourth of the stairs surrounding the holy tank of Golden Temple for the low-caste Sikhs. As propounded by Kumar, they wanted the newly-initiated converts to feel welcomed, to bask in the acceptance that the fledgling religion had offered.

As much as I wanted to believe that, the only citable reference on the subject, coming from a paper of political scientist, Harish K. Puri, had something else to say, “Harjot Oberoi cites from an ‘authoritative manual’ – Khalsa Dharam Sastra of 1914 – which laid down that the members of the untouchable groups (like the Mazhabi, Rahtia and Ramdasia Sikhs) did not have the right to go beyond the fourth step in the Golden Temple and the members of the fourfold varnas including Nai, chippe (sic), Jhivar, (sudra sub castes) were instructed not to mix with persons belonging to the untouchable castes”.

The one disconcerting lesson emerging from the folly was that the predacious public memory, naturally inclined towards prejudices, could simmer hate even after the original structures of control had collapsed centuries ago. How baffling was the fact that, although no incidences recounting the actual act of exclusion were ever memorialized, like the will-o’-the-wisp, its myth resurfaced around the damned outliers of rural Punjab.

AS I SLIPPED MY HANDS through her floral negligee, the sepulchral beauty that was Noor, felt like a still-unfolding Greek tragedy. The pale, golden light from the sodium lamp across the street passed through the window grill, splitting her buxom silhouette into two. She appeared half-black and half-white. But that was merely the cast of my own imperfections. Noor had always been flawless, pure and innocent…

Sashaying through the crowds of Nizamuddin mosque, while the qawwals—festooned with saffron cloaks to celebrate Basant Panchmi the way Hazrat Auliya loved doing so—tuned their musical instruments, Noor gently stroked her golden hair. Spanning every inch of the sacred floor with her delicate steps, dressed in a shade above yellow, she was one with the saints. I followed her in congruent motion and thoughts. With emerald green eyes, rosy cheeks and a mole above the deliciously pouty lips, people mistook her for a Persian tourist.

Being so disturbingly perfect, Noor became the Strange Attractor of divine causation, and that was how we seemed to have met, despite an unbridgeable age difference, surrendering to the dark forces and an imminent fate. Only those who had glimpsed into the netherworlds of consciousness could grapple the higher purpose of that union. She was among the few eyewitnesses who saw the tumults of a movement that was Bahujan Samaj Party in its early years. Noor, in fact, bore the brunt of madness, anger and violence that didn’t get channelized, coming from the oppressed who tried to give a fight, but failed miserably.

She offered me food and shelter. For the two years that I had known Noor—majority of which was spent in quelling the angst that often led to bitter fights between us—the chip on my shoulder and her internment in the past never became that obvious. And one spring evening, our love fell prey to the perceived wounds of injustice perpetrated by others, and I lost her forever.

The temperatures had risen considerably by April, so I hopped on a rickshaw for the last leg of my daily commute to Gurgaon. The scrawny figure on the pedals spoke Hindi with an unmistakable Punjabi accent. As it turned out, the man, a Sikh with a masters in political science, had fallen on hard times. We covered the three kilometres fairly quickly and he bid adieu with a couplet of Gurdas Maan.

The next day, we bounced into each other again. Foaming from the mouth and looking very unkempt, he appeared on the verge of a breakdown. I profiled that the man was either a runaway convict or a drug fiend. Genuinely concerned, I confronted him with alacrity:

“Tu koi galat kamm karke bhajjeya lagda, Punjab ton.”

(You seem be a felon on the run from Punjab.)

The confirmation came quickly with a half-cooked yarn of how his brothers had disowned him for the property.

“Waise assin Saini hunde aan.”

(By the way, we are Sainis by caste.)

The once glorious antecedents offered him imaginary relief.

He stayed in the shanty town of Kapashera, near the Delhi-Gurgaon border. It was a shithole for the dispensable lot which erected the MNC utopia—like the security guards of our gated colonies, malls and cyber-parks­—flushed away to the place like roaches when they were not needed.

“Mera munda kainda, ‘Baapu, saada taan haal Majbiyan ton vi maada ho gaya.’”

(My son tells me, “Father, our living conditions are even deplorable than that of the Mazhabis”.)

Here was a creature that would barely pass off as a human, who wilfully got arrested for the three free meals in a lock-up. Yet, in his mind, in his soul, still survived a sadist, a demon—placating the ego, licking the maggots off the wounds. He even played politics with hygiene, reminding me of a poignant statement made by a Mazhabi Sikh of Sur Singh, when I nudged him a little about the goings-on in the gurdwara:

“Saanu ki aa? Assin taan nauhne wi roz aa, te saadi boli wi saaf aa.”

(Why should I care? We bathe daily and don’t use obscene language.)

Bouncing atop that rickshaw, I could do nothing but shed a tear on the cruel joke, on the all-encompassing irony of it.

My long winter was finally coming to an end.

Contact Pukhraj

A Day in the Life of a Sikh Prejudice – Kafila

Originally published by Kafila:

Part I

“The very ink with which history is written,” allegorised Mark Twain, “is merely fluid prejudice.” By that rationale, religion can often be the quill which defaces the truth with its broad strokes, perverting history than promulgating it. And like the bastard child of these perversions, a few counter-narratives manage to wade through the tides of public opinion, carrying the dim outline of the ossified ideas that led to its tragic pursuit. But one has to have the right kind of eyes, says Hunter S. Thompson, to “see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

A similar, horrid apparition of truth opened the floodgates of memories and angst very recently as a headline screamed through the Twitterverse—40 Sikhs Convert to Christianity in a Tarn Taran District Village: Gurdwara Management’s Treatment of “Low Caste” Sikhs Calls for Strict Action—in the particularly sultry month of August.

Tarn Taran is my hometown. It’s where I first fell in love, with the patwari’s daughter. The whole of my extended family ekes out a living there. And like every other kid of Mohalla Khalsapura, I too have defecated in its open drains for the competitive jousts, much to the annoyance of the passersby.

The village in question was Dhotian, a thirty-minute drive from the main kasba.

Tarn Taran-Dhotian… Tarn Taran-Dhotian—I started perceiving a subliminal connection, and then it dawned upon me—the writings of Lala Ruchi Ram Sahni.

The man has been my hero for long. A true son of the soil, the ‘asli’ among all Naqli Sikhs (going by the definition of Giani Ditt Singh). A Hindu by Providence who fought for and dedicatedly historiographed the Gurdwara Reform Movement, a scientist by temperament who worked under the likes of Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and a social reformer by design who tirelessly imbued scientific aptitude among Punjabis, Sahni also co-founded The Tribune and the Dyal Singh Majithia College. It was in his brilliant textual documentary, The Gurdwara Reform Movement & the Sikh Awakening, that I had found the mention of Dhotian, some years ago. At the bungah (the Punjabi word for quarters, quite literally a shelter in this case) of Dhotian, the Akali jathas tried to broker peace with the reigning mahants of Gurdwara Tarn Taran, who had defiled the sanctum sanctorum with deeds that would even make an atheist squirm with disgust. Deviously plotted by the priests, the resulting altercation turned violent when goons armed with swords, kirpans and bombs butchered the non-violent reformers. Two were killed and seventeen injured but the Gurdwara was eventually ‘liberated’ in 1921.

When I finally got the opportunity to visit Dhotian this November, it were these footnotes of history that made me see the crimson tinge of sacrifice in its fertile soil, made me smell the air incensed with the aroma of the martyred souls.

Part II

Having arrived in Tarn Taran to celebrate Diwali with my loved ones, the stupor, from the previous night’s recitations of Batalvi over a few drinks with my Chacha, hadn’t subsided when I kickstart my cousin’s Bajaj Platina for the short haul to Dhotian. The Yule-like spirit was clearly obstructing my objective faculties to treat this trip with the seriousness it deserves.

After a refreshing cup of tea with an impromptu gathering at a Sufi shrine, I pause at Sheron Bypass to ask for the directions. One aged farmer instinctively mounts the pillion; free ride for the services rendered. He hails from a village a bit further from Dhotian. I nudge him gently about any disturbances in the area. My feigned zeal gelled great with the sincerity with which he convinces me that nothing untoward had happened. He is, of course, a Jatt, and I leave it at that. Careering past Dhotian’s main market, I park the bike in front of the cobbler’s desk. With a deduction that has become an uncomfortably natural part of my world-view, I assume that he is a Chamar. I bend down a bit, as my knees make that cracking sound, his gesture remains the same—distant but all-observing, while mending a shoe at the same. With a Sat Sri Akal, I come straight to the point:

“Mai suneya aithe de Mazhabi Singha ne Isaai dharam apna leya, jathedaaran ton tang aake.”

(I have heard that some Mazhabi Singhs have converted to Christianity, after the treatment meted out by the Sikh clergy.)

Trying hard to penetrate the leather with the stitching awl, his eyes become even more intensely-rounded as he moistens the lips, not to speak, but to break-away from the conversation.

“Aistraan hai, assin kisse de ghulaam nai aan.”

(The thing is, we are not anyone’s slaves.)

I struggle to retain my composure as he knocks me off with this unexpected volley of sublimity. Is he one of those underground activists who huddle together in the night for the “two minutes hate” against the system? Has he been reading the radical poet, Lal Singh Dil?

I give-in to the excitement.

“Tussi jo keha hai, ossda tatt mai changi tarah bujjh leya. Gull waajib hai tuhaddi.”

(I completely understand and feel the crux of your statement. You make a lot of sense.)

He instructs a mentally-disabled kid sitting under the banyan tree behind him to escort me to the Doctor. Still smitten by his terse one-liner, I depart with the promise to meet again for a cup of tea, later in the afternoon.

2 - The clinic.
2 – The clinic.

The nondescript clinic operates out of a small room facing a narrow street cramped with houses. The walls have been bleached white, lending some seriousness to the affair. Behind the desk, that occupies a corner, is the ‘trophy wall’ adorned with the medical degree, a Certificate of Membership for the Medical Practitioners Association of Punjab, a group snap from the college and the quintessentially rural hack-job of a portrait, probably clicked by the local photographer. The doctor, Ranjodh Singh, knows very well that it’s a giant leap for his family, having cultivated that demeanor of acting as the responsible one.

3 - Dr. Ranjodh Singh (L) with his brother, Gurpreet.
3 – Dr. Ranjodh Singh (L) with his brother, Gurpreet.

Such encounters have become all too common for him during the last couple of months. As if reading out loud from a well-rehearsed script, Ranjodh doesn’t even put an effort to convince me that all is well, and these are merely the rumors spread by some ill-intentioned parties.

I am just another stringer raking up the mud for a few quips.

On the other hand, his younger brother, Gurpreet, is far more receptive to the idea of a conspiracy prejudicial to the interests of his community. I heave a sigh of relief as Ranjodh departs to tend to a patient.

4 - Gurpreet tending to a patient, while the brother is away.
4 – Gurpreet tending to a patient, while the brother is away.

The next three hours spent with Gurpreet give me the complete lowdown. Balmikis by caste, his family had converted to Christianity sometime during the peak of pre-Independence proselytization in Punjab. Dhotian is an unusually large village for the tehsil, dotted with numerous gurdwaras, temple and shrines. Though not in the majority, the Dalits boast a decent number here as in the rest of the Majha region. Cohabiting in a composite mix of subcultures—what may seem as paradoxical and trivializing to an outsider—these communities know instinctively how to balance assertion with assimilation, reclamation with reconciliation. Syncretism acts as the clever workaround, a bridge to be traversed for reaching out to the ‘other’. For the Dalit Christians of Dhotian, essential catechism got enmeshed into the contemporary lore, as in the case of marriage ceremonies where the couples not only take vows in front of the Bible but also perform laavan around the Granth Sahib.

It was this ingenious ‘detoxification’ of the Self—at a societal, spiritual and cosmic level—that the Mleccha of Majha had minded its own business, even as the underlying economic stratification made sure that the manacles of caste were only loosened, but never unlocked. However, for the last decade or so, with the conditions improving gradually, with remittances spawning minor revolutions here and there, the menial started reorganizing more rapidly and vociferously. The skewed strictures of the village life started creaking under the strain. Things that weren’t even noticed became the rueful repentances of “modernism” during the evening baithaks of the panchayat and the elders.

One such newly-imagined sore point was the “unceremonial” handling of the Sikh Holy Scripture in the observances of Dhotian’s Christians. The panchayat and the Sikh priesthood, unquestionably the ancillary of the local Jatt landlords, didn’t hide their restlessness for too long. In what could only be termed as Kafkaesque, the story of this impending conflagration unfolded in a manner so bizarre, that it can serve as a grim warning about how Punjab is turning into a tinderbox of caste.

Upon inquiring about the veracity of the news on the conversions, Gurpreet’s tension becomes palpable as he explains that this was indeed a rumor spread to malign them. Hard for us urban dwellers to understand, any deviation from the tenets of the dominant religion, even for a just cause, is no less than a heresy in the suffocating moral confines of rural Punjab. And this is how, when a large Dalit Christian samagam was organized in Dhotian, entertaining followers from the nearby villages, that the landlords decided they’ve had enough. Whether there was any squabble I could not confirm but soon the “news” about the alleged conversions started propagating.

The first time that Gurpreet came to know about it was when someone forwarded him a factitiously incriminating post about the incident on Facebook. Originally authored by one Tajinder Singh, whose identifier on the social network was ‘tajindervienna’ (; a feeling of disbelief and numbness overwhelmed me as I tried to imagine how far the rumor-mongering had fared. Vienna is to Punjabi Dalits what Memphis is to the African-American civil rights movement—a place where one of the figureheads of their assertion, Sant Rama Nand of the Ravidassia Dharam, was assassinated by the Sikh fundamentalists. But to imagine that the city breeds contempt for an incident, transpiring in the far-off rural heartland of Punjab, in just a matter of a few days, was symptomatic of the widening gyre of this caste rift.

As me and Gurpreet start rifling through the profile of Tajinder Singh (which had already increased the access restrictions by then), my instincts as a professional dealing with cyber threat intelligence took over. How could these alternative media sources be so effective in propagating this falsity, this intrigue of international proportions? It is decent enough to imagine that the initial ‘information’ trickled through the social media, but almost immediately, the plot was picked up by a group of credible Sikh news portals as well. The gurdwara machinery, if one sees it as a matrix of institutions, has created global feeder networks that operate quite independently from governments or regulatory bodies. Sikhs of all hues—hardliners, liberals, modernists, scientific and even skeptics—contribute to this vibrant and fledgling discourse. It is from their ‘swarm behavior’ that the agendas disguised as news, and vice-versa, percolate through the hierarchy of the Sikh body politic and discourse. And when one connects all these dots, the alarm bells start to ring. Why has this propaganda machine gone awry with the Dalits? Dhotian was among the many blips on the radar we were lucky enough to notice.

Snapping out of this wild-goose chase, I finish the cup of tea and bid adieu to Gurmeet. It was already late afternoon and I was desperate to get back to the bazaars of Tarn Taran, studded with local beauties out on a festive shopping spree. Keen to spend half-an-hour exploring the local shrines, Gurmeet suggests that I pay obeisance to the Balmiki Dargah just a kilometer away.

It wasn’t a dargah per se, more of an unimpressive but resourceful arrangement. As I peep around the doors, a kid gives me the directions to its caretaker. Hidden beneath the low-lying porch of a house, the caretaker, a tailor-master to my delight, is busy pedaling the sewing machine. Most tailors in the rural extension procure the raw materials from my Chacha who runs a hole-of-a-shop in Tarn Taran for the last three decades. So the conversation starts on a breezy note. He declares rather forcefully that the Dargah is managed by a handful of Balmikis from the mohalla, with whatever little money they could muster, but they also had a separate gurdwara.

I deliberately touch on the widespread malpractice, almost labeled as a custom now, of setting up caste-based gurdwaras and communal segregation. On that note, he becomes visibly perturbed, maybe even a little cautious. That reminded me of an obtuse observation made by someone: unlike Doaba, the Dalits of Majha still feel more subjugated and are fearful of the dominant castes. With a hint of frustration, he finally exclaims that the most prominent place of worship in the village, Gurdwara Raja Ram, doesn’t allow Mazhabis to enter the premises. With this startling revelation, the caretaker acquiesces to trademark silence.

7 - Gurdwara Raja Ram, Dhotian
7 – Gurdwara Raja Ram, Dhotian

Still feeling slightly lost and confused after doing a few rounds of the local market, I finally decide to visit Gurdwara Raja Ram. On a road leading to the innards of this large village, lay the entrance to the Gurdwara, bulwarked with a huge metal gate. The sheer expanse of this place surprises me. Spread over a vast piece of land, the granary and the firewood storage on the left looked well-stocked. At the very distant center, the swanky new temple is under construction, and until then, the older one on the right is the sanctum sanctorum. To the extreme right, almost hidden in a corner, are the residential quarters and a cowshed.

After roaming around innocuously in the campus, aware of the tailing gazes, I move forward towards the cowshed where a Nihang is waiting for me. Tall, fair and well-chiseled—his physique didn’t betray the martial leanings—the aquiline face and green eyes reminded me of a ludicrous theory I had entertained for some time: about the “Greco-Punjabi” ancestry of many agrarian clans, perhaps extending from the soldiers of Alexander’s army who chose to settle here after the defeat.

With the politest Sat Sri Akal, I introduce myself as a journalist from Delhi and try to surprise him:

“Babaji, mai suneya itthe Mazhabi Singhan nu karseva karan ton manahi aa?”

(Babaji, I have heard that Mazhabi Sikhs are barred from performing the volunteer service here?)

Before he could utter a single word, an older gentleman emerges from the cowshed and the Nihang bounces-off the question to him. The man doesn’t even take a second to answer an affirmative “yes”.

I know God has a great sense of humor but I certainly missed out on the joke here, the terrific irony that encompasses this place. The Nihang, realizing he was caught a bit off-guard, or genuinely eased by the older man’s interjection, steps in with an explanation. He tells me that the rehat-maryada of the place obligates the followers to comply with a few adherences. Mazhabis, he adds, often arrive shabbily dressed and even drunk, so the administration has decided that they won’t be able to perform the langar-seva, yet the other avenues of service are open to all.

Like watching The Turin Horse being whipped mercilessly, I plunge into a stoic withdrawal like Nietzsche, though managing to ask this in a hushed voice:

“Par tuhannu kistran pata lagda ki o maile kapdeya waalan yaan sharabi banda Mazhabhi aa? Ussde matthe te thode likheya? Daaru taan Jatt wi peenda.”

(But how do you ascertain that the disheveled or drunk-looking person is a Mazhabi? Not as if it’s tattooed on anyone’s forehead? Even a Jatt drinks.)

To that, he retorts with an elaborate exegetical stance coming all the way from the source, the Granth Sahib. I remembered a few lines from a rant of mine on religion, written for Abroo’s blog, “Quoting a scripture to justify the validity of a claim should be taken as an outright defeat of the apologist, when the prevalent socio-political conditions are discordant to its teachings.” Droning on with the “Rangrete Guru ke bete” rationalization and the whole shebang, he narrates a list of castes, incidentally ending with the one to which I belong—Cheemba—and I knew almost instantly then that this rote sequence comes from some manuscript or scripture. He was towing the same-old line. So I decide to bid farewell to the man-forsaken place. The Nihang follows me right up to the exit making sure that I actually depart!

8 – The village cobbler with his friends. The one on the right used to be a seeri (bonded laborer) working in the landlords’ farms.

The slight evening chill was already settling in as I hurried back to the cobbler, the rebel in pink disguise. By then, his friends had gathered for the soiree at sunset. Confessing that the cracker-of-a-statement he had delivered earlier in the morning was told to him by a visitor, a government karamchari (could be a local law-enforcement or an intelligence official), who had come to enquire about the caste tensions. Their sordid saga of perversion and prejudice was now all humdrum to my ears which had heard enough for a day. More than the tragedies that they endure, it was their hesitation, the fear in their eyes which rankled me; fear which didn’t even allow the cobbler and his friends, one of whom used to be a seeri (a bonded laborer), to shed that relentless expression of betrayal for a nice photograph! For all the bleeding-heart exhortations of mine—as someone had commented earlier, mistaken by my clean-shaven look—I could very well be a “Bahmann (Brahmin) with vested interests in the situation.”

Part III

Returning to Tarn Taran, I head straight to the bazaar. A few old shopkeeper friends have planned a feast of Gurda-Kapoora (goat’s kidneys and testicles in a spicy sauce, cooked on a large frying pan; a Lahori-Amritsari delicacy) to celebrate my coming to the hometown. Since there’s no place to squat at my Chacha’s four-foot wide hatti, we generally meet at the neighboring shop of a jeweler, a muh-bola chacha as well, for the daily adda over the endless cups of tea.

However, this time, I quietly move to the end of the stool with my laptop, frantically searching for information on the disease that had gripped Gurdwara Raja Ram. And that is when I stumble upon a goldmine. Kiranjot Kaur—daughter of the Rajya Sabha member, Bibi Rajinder Kaur, and herself an SGPC member and an ex-General Secretary—had written a blog post for the The UK-Punjabi Heritage Association, where she mentions this fact about the infamous Gurdwara, “Interstingly low caste Mazhabi Sikhs are prevented from doing any sewa there!(sic)” This despicable crime on humanity is being perpetrated since 2009 and ought to have some institutional backing. One name, Baba Jagtar Singh, had crept in earlier during my exchanges with the Nihang. While Kiranjot didn’t spare any words for him, the Nihang only told me that the Baba, a senior functionary of the Gurdwara, and generally available at Marhi Sahib in Goindwal, would be better equipped to answer my queries.

I make a brief mention of what I had witnessed at Dhotian to the fellows congregating at the shop. They are all Kesdhari Sikhs and genuinely pained by it. I further consult Pardhaan-ji—a smalltime milk distributor, recently elected as the head of a local gurdwara. A Jatt and a Sikh—but not a “Jatt Sikh”—his fatherly disposition, magnanimity and the commendably-progressive outlook towards religion and politics had impressed me thoroughly. A truly liberal-minded and humble adept of the Guru Sahiban, who was very aggrieved by the caste discrimination and the wretchedness of the Sikh clergy, he gives me extremely useful pointers on the regional politico-religious situation. Pardhaan-ji tells me that Baba Jagtar Singh is an influential jathedar from the area, having a say in gurdwaras spread all across Punjab and even abroad. With the karseva, the jathas and the resources that he brings, the clergy feels obliged to induct him into the management boards and the governing corporations. Slowly and steadily, he has become indispensible. And when I mention that he is well-aware of the happenings at Gurdwara Raja Ram, Pardhaan-ji concurs that he could readily be turning a Nelson’s eye. As long as the interests of all the associated parties are not harmed—the chances of which are remote, as casteism and segregation become rampant in the Sikh establishments—Dhotian will maintain its descent into darkness.

My Chacha arrives to partake some of the gossip. I scan his shabby wardrobe, the faded turban, and reminisce how immensely difficult and tumultuous it has been for my family to reach this level of self-sustenance. Could all this meddling into the affairs of the powerful jathedars spell a trouble for me and for them? I regret my carelessly indiscrete dealings at Dhotian; they all know where I live. As the fear, seen on the faces of Dalits of Dhotian, that I had resented and demurred all day, cast its paralyzing shadow on me, I give up on the plan of confronting Baba Jagtar Singh the next day. A sudden ruckus erupts in the bazaar. Two dark-complexioned boys start beating a man on his way to the Darbar Sahib with his family. His wife and children are crying as the shopkeepers watch on. No one steps forward. One of my acquaintances at the adda, a typical Punjabi simpleton with a pure heart but no control on the tongue, blurts out,

“Ae ******* de pangeya wich paina matlab apne hatth maile karna. Sirphire ne, kade wi kisse nu kutt dinde ne aake! Inna di ki izzat aa? Thane jhoothiyan reportaan likha dinde ne fasaun layi.”

(Meddling into the affairs of ******* [a common slang for a community of Dalits] is like dirtying one’s hands. They are unpredictable, pick up fights with anyone. What respect have they got? They file false complaints with the police to ensnare people.)

With an unnoticeable cringe, I turn towards the bustling market bedecked with Punjabi goddesses. The pallor of prejudices fades away as I sink my head into their florid bosoms.

(Pukhraj Singh (pukhraj at gmail dot com) is the founder of Abroo (ਆਬਰੂ). By December 2012, he has recorded nine serious cases of caste atrocities, religious discrimination and communal segregation in Punjab’s villages, accessible as ‘Punjab’s Map of Shame’.)


1 – A gathering at the shrine of Baba Noor Shah where I halted for a cup of tea.

6 – The caretaker of the Dargah, a tailor-master.

5 – The Balmiki Dargah of Dhotian.

9 – Our daily adda at Guru Bazaar, Tarn Taran. Pardhaan-ji on the right