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The Lions of Punjab


Time, Nov. 12, 1984

Photo: Pico Iyer

Strong and close-knit, the Sikhs fight to preserve their identity.

He cuts a strikingly distinctive figure. Generally tall and strapping, he sports a thick beard and, over his uncut hair, a turban wrapped of 15 ft. of elegantly coiled and pleated cloth. He takes as one of his names 'Singh' (lion). He does not smoke or chew tobacco, and he eats the meat only of an animal that has been slain with one decisive stroke. In accordance with his religion, he at all times wears the five Ks: kes (long hair); kach (short trousers); kara (a steel bracelet on his right wrist); kangha (a comb); and kirpan (a curved dagger). Holding tenaciously to a creed of activism that decrees, 'With your hands carve out your destiny,' he tends to be a hard-working farmer, a go-getting businessman or a fearless warrior. He has been described, with poetic license perhaps, as 'the Texan of India.'

He is a Sikh, a member of a casteless religion that combines elements of Hinduism and Islam but scorns both the caste system of the Hindus and the historic expansionism of the Muslims in favor of monotheism, unembarrassed materialism and, where necessary, militarism. Though the 15 million Sikhs represent only about 2% of India's polyglot population, their influence is considerable. They account for 15% of the nation's army and an almost equally high proportion of its civil servants. Their efficient farming in Punjab, India's richest state, has helped make the country virtually self-sufficient in food production. Moreover, the President of India, Zail Singh, is a Sikh. Above all, perhaps, the Sikhs are fortified and distinguished by a binding sense of community, at home and abroad, and a mighty determination to protect their rights.

Together with their language and literature, the Sikhs cherish their religious customs and institutions. A newcomer is initiated by being anointed with sweet water that has been stirred in an iron bowl with a double-edged dagger. Sikhs pray together on equal footing in gurdwaras, or temples, through which reverberate chanted verses from the sacred book known as the Granth Sahib. The holiest of holies is the Golden Temple at Amritsar, some 250 miles northwest of Delhi, the shrine that was stormed by government troops five months ago. Rejecting all idols as false, the Sikh (the name means disciple) draws his inspiration from ten religious teachers, or gurus.

Ironically, the first of those teachers, and the founder of a faith now known for its warlike strength, was a gentle sage who preached a code of pacifism. Declaring 'There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim,' Guru Nanak forged a path between the two warring religions, drawing followers from both, when he created Sikhism in Punjab at the end of the 15th century. Two centuries later, however, Guru Nanak's teaching of religious tolerance was radically redirected by the tenth and last of the Sikh gurus, a skilled horseman and dauntless fighter named Gobind Singh. With his people being persecuted by Mogul warlords, Gobind formed a fierce fraternity of 'warriors of God' known as the Khalsa (Pure).

As the Sikhs cleaved to Gobind's martial principles, the tales of their valor and ferocity became legion. They routed the Afghans at the Battle of Attock in 1813, and in 1849 they delivered a stinging defeat to the British at the Battle of Chillianwala. After they were forced to succumb to superior British firepower six weeks later, the Sikhs became among the sturdiest and trustiest men of the British army: during the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, the raj was kept alive by their support. After the British slaughtered nearly 400 civilians, many of them Sikhs, at Amritsar in 1919, the warriors changed allegiances and joined the crusade to bring down the raj. Sikh soldiers and policemen have, to this day, loyally protected their Hindu compatriots all over India.

With partition and independence in 1947, India went to the Hindus and Pakistan to the Muslims; the Sikhs were left in the middle. The Sikhs' home state of Punjab was cut to a third of its former size, and many Sikhs, finding themselves landless, became urban teachers, doctors and engineers. By now the vast majority of Sikhs are the very picture of middle-class respectability. Yet a small band of extremists has continued agitating, with ever more fervor, for a separate Sikh state that would be called Khalistan.

Their cause has enjoyed increasingly vigorous support in recent months from Sikhs abroad. 'We may not be in India,' said Amarjit Singh Dhillon, general secretary of the Supreme Council of Sikhs, in London last week. 'But we are to the fighters in the homeland what the provisional Sinn Fein is to the Irish Republican Army here.' In all, there are about 250,000 Sikhs in the U.S., 80,000 of them in New York and as many as 60,000 more in Northern California. Some 400,000 live in Britain.

When they first emigrated, many Sikhs tried to blend into their new homes by shedding their turbans and shaving their beards. But as they have grown more rooted and confident, they have proved characteristically resolute in defense of their customs.

In 1969 Sikh bus crews in Britain defied, and defeated, a local transport committee that prohibited the wearing of turbans by employees. Then, mounting their own mobile version of civil disobedience, Sikh motorcyclists flouted British law by wearing their turbans in place of the required helmets. Just last year, after a private school refused admission to a 13-year-old Sikh boy whose father insisted he wear a turban, the three judicial peers who constitute Britain's highest court of appeal unanimously found the school guilty of racial discrimination. The Sikhs, they declared, were not just a religious community but an ethnic group. A group, moreover, that has never been shy about stressing its differences from the world around it. As one Sikh historian writes, 'Where there is one Sikh, there is one Sikh. Where there are two Sikhs, there is an assembly of saints. Where there are five Sikhs, there is God.'