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Shaving the Lions
Time, Jul. 4, 1955
Photo: Master Tara Singh
'Let thy hair grow long and talk Punjabi,' said the young soldier to Kim, quoting a Northern proverb. 'That is all that makes a Sikh.' But he did not say this very loud. - Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
Tara Singh, white-bearded religious leader of India's 6,000,000 Sikhs, has strong views about the recent habit among young Sikhs of shaving their chins. 'These spoiled youths forget,' he said, 'that when they are shaven they look like boiled potatoes.' And then, because Tara Singh is also an active politician, he went on: 'Shave the lion and see how he looks! Are we not a race of lions?'
The bearded, sword-swinging Sikhs want a lion's share of the Punjab. This is a parched and heat-seared prairie land in northwest India lying south of Kashmir, where the Sikhs fought a century-long battle with invading Moguls and earned the name of being the great warriors of India. Later, fighting as professional soldiers and serving as cops for the British in odd corners of the colonial world, they made their fighting reputation stick.
The idea of having their own home state became firmly fixed in the Sikh mind at the time of the partition of old British India, when some Sikh country was shaved off to make part of what is now West Pakistan. Forced to move out, the Sikhs left a trail of massacre behind them, and were furious when Nehru ordered their swords to be sewn into their leather scabbards. Said old Tara Singh: 'When the Moslems can get Pakistan, and the Hindus India, why not a Sikhs' Sikhistan?' But Nehru's Congress Party won over many of Tara Singh's followers to the idea of peace, and of a multiracial India. In the 1951 general elections, Tara Singh's Shiromani Akali party lost heavily. 'Ye unbelievers,' cried old Tara Singh from out the depths of a magnificent beard, 'there will come a time when you will need me and flock around me - for your very survival!'
The time came when Nehru, reluctantly yielding to pressure from India's many language groups, appointed a State Reorganization Committee to advise 'on the realigning of states within India.' By skillful gerrymandering, Tara Singh worked out a scheme for a Punjabi-speaking state of 35,458 square miles, containing a population of 12 million, with the Sikhs in a slight minority. 'We multiply faster than Hindus and are more virile,' said Tara Singh. 'In ten years we will be in an absolute majority, leaving the soft-fleshed Hindus to trail behind.' Two months ago Tara Singh's party, regaining its popularity, began whooping it up for Sikhistan.
The Punjabi government warned: 'Shout your slogans in meetings if you want, but not in processions with swords at every waist.' Tara Singh defied the ban and was arrested. But taking a leaf out of Gandhi's book, he instructed his followers to remain 'nonviolent' and 'to offer no provocation.' Since then, all over the Punjab, bearded Sikhs have stood in front of policemen (the favorite place: before the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar), shouting their slogans and courting arrest. Already nearly 7,000 Sikhs have been jailed.
The passive resistance of the warrior race had the authorities more worried than if the Sikhs had attempted to carry the day with their swords, for the persuasive power of passive resistance is some thing that old jailbirds like Jawaharlal Nehru know only too well, though Nehru calls Tara Singh's campaign 'silly and infantile.' Last week Tara Singh marked his 71st birthday, and he spent it in jail. As a special birthday present to him, 271 Sikhs volunteered to get themselves arrested - and succeeded.