We are all Duleep Singh

On October 25, 1887 on a drizzly British morning, The Standard newspaper carried a letter ending with a customary salutation ”your obedient servant” from someone who signed it as ”Sovereign of the Sikh nation, and Implacable Foe of England.” Duleep Singh, son of the last Maharaja of greater Punjab, Ranjit Singh, had dated this letter from Moscow on October 18, 1887. Like many Sikhs of my generation, Duleep was a man of contradictions - fighting hard to balance between his nurtured environment and his urge to connect to his roots and his homeland.

Duleep Singh letter
Duleep Singh’s letter to the editor of The Standard, published on October 25, 1887. Courtesy - The British Newspaper Archive

Duleep Singh’s letter to the editor of The Standard, published on October 25, 1887. Courtesy The British Newspaper ArchiveAs a first generation diaspora Punjabi, like Duleep, I became interested in the Punjabi history of eighteenth century after re-embracing my roots and Sikh identity, once having abandoned it. I have written about that journey - of feeling lost and rediscovering my identity, not on the banks of Satluj, but that of Mississippi in The Turban in the Obama McCain Debate. My new-found love for the turbans - at one time I had a collection of more than 50 turbans - few years later lead me to launch The Turban Club while attending a summer at Yale Business School. I decided to publish a newsletter, the the first edition was on how the men in turban were perceived in the West a century ago. The research lead me to the letter mentioned above, among other gems about the Punjab of nineteenth century.

Reading through European newspapers between 1800 and 1900 AD, lies a trove of information about Punjab under Ranjeet Singh and about his son, Duleep Singh - the Black Prince. There are stories of inspiration and of great loss, many of which have surprisingly been kept away from Punjabis youngsters, lost in archives.

Duleep Singh letter
Article on the Sikhs describing Gurmata. Published in London's The Morning Post on march 2, 1846. Courtesy The British Newspaper Archive

Known as Lion of Punjab, Ranjit Singh ruled under the name of Khalsa - an egalitarian order of Sikhs.

Khalsa was formed and baptized by the tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The initiation to Khalsa requires a commitment to higher calls of life - universal brother / sisterhood & justice for all, while emphasizing the core tenets given by the first Guru - remembering the creator, hard work and sharing. Formation of Khalsa re-emphasized the ideas of sovereignty in Sikhs, the political sovereignty declared by the sixth teacher - Guru Hargobind. For the Khalsa, the ideas of sovereignty are repeated everyday in daily salutation - Waheguru Jee Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Jee Kee Fateh (Khalsa belongs only to the Creator, and to Creator alone belongs victory/destiny/end).

The most part of 20th century, Punjabis lived in a veil of cloud. Punjab was partitioned into two in 1947, divided between Indian and Pakistan. Partition of Punjab in 1947 displaced fifteen million people and killed more than a million. 60’s and 70’s was a struggling period for language based state, which further carved the eastern Punjab to a much smaller area. 80’s and 90’s was the period of Sikh uprise against the Indian state, which was crushed with an iron fist costing another tens of thousands of Punjabi lives. In the words of documentary filmmaker Ajay Bhardwaj, ’Punjabis never got the time to pause and reflect on the loss.

Given the fact the pre-partition Punjab had a robust legacy of ‘live and let live’ tradition bequeathed by the efforts of Muslim Sufis, Hindu Sants and Sikh Gurus, such an outcome at the end of 1947 was too drastic and traumatic remained an intriguing and perplexing puzzle. There were some peculiarities which rendered the Punjab vulnerable to violence in case the competing parties and their leaders could not agree to keep their province united. Among them the main factor was that nearly a million Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs had recently been demobilized from the British Indian Army.Additionally there were criminal gangs operating all over Punjab. These two elements and partisan government functionaries, politicians and ethnic activists formed nexuses that began to coordinate attacks on the ‘enemy community’. Once the British were gone and two partisan administrations came to power in the divided Punjab whole-sale attacks on the minorities started taking place. By the end of the year ethnic cleansing had been achieved.

  • Ishtiaq Ahmed, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012).

But as Bob Dylan once sang, the the times are a changing. The generation of Punjabis having grown up in Punjab, in Canada, US, Europe and elsewhere, and have just started to debate and question the Sikh and Punjabi history written for them - separating grain from the chaff.

The Black Prince is one such incredible effort, where the team toiled hard to do justice to a complex story - the human Duleep with his habits and vices, and the dreamer Duleep that aspired for something larger than himself, something other than he had known all his life growing up.

For many such Duleeps of my era - sitting in far away lands - probably leading a more comfortable life than our parents led in Punjab, there is a longing for the sprawling fields left behind, of monthly homages paid at Darbar Sahib. The urge to identify with Lahore, as much as with Amritsar is becoming evident in arts and theatre - success of movie Lahoriye that transcends Punjab beyond Indian and Pakistani borders is one such proof.

There is a sense of mourning for the partition of a state and a culture that aspired to bring the best of the three faiths together. The foundation stone of Punjab’s one of the holiest place, Darbar Sahib, a gurduara incorrectly referred to as Golden Temple, was laid down by a Muslim faqir, Sain Mian Mir of Lahore. Ninth Guru or teacher of Sikhs were persecuted defending the rights of Hindus of Kashmir to freely exercise their religion, despite himself not being a follower of it. Guru Hargobdind of Sikhs constructed a Mosque, Guru Ki Maseet, for muslims despite himself not being a believer of Islam.

Although Ranjit Singh formed the largest empire under the banner of Sarkar-i-Khalsa in Panjab, he ruled as a secular king. His cabinet comprised people of many faiths and nationalities, his armies had soldiers from as far as France and USA. With the political and religious following in post partition Eastern and Western Punjab going far right, a generation of Punjabis that I have met across the globe feel this sense of loss.

My generation of Punjabi Sikh men born after 1984 have had an even harder time figuring out what our culture represents. The common discourse and the media pushed into the state in 80s and 90s portrayed Punjabi as the hyper-masculine warrior sans the thinker; the agricultural needs of the nation states of India and Pakistan promoted it as the proud landlord of small lands; the need of Sikh men in wars of 60’s and 70’s promoted Sikhs as the defenders of nation states; Bollywood persistently pushed the turban-less, drunks - both strong vices in the Sikh faith. The result of this identity politics, among others, is that within 70 years the state has transformed from hardest working to one with proliferated drug use.

True history of Punjab got somewhere lost in this game of politics. Not many in my youth had heard about a different Punjabi identity - of lover, empathy and literary faculty as can be read in the letters of paternal and devotional love written by Guru Arjan to his father Guru Ram Das in Shabad Hazare, of egalitarian feminism in the Vaars and Gurbani written by Bhai Gurdas and Guru Nanak himself. Not many had heard often of Puran Singh - the poet lover of Punjab, whose love of Japanese culture in 19th century was as beautiful as his longing for his home - Panjab; of Babu Rajab Ali, whose poetry stanzas ooze love for Punjabi dialects, of Teja Singh & Kartar Singh Sarabha - who left Harvard and Berkley to serve the causes of their people and Dalip Singh - a young kid taken away from home, who grew without any nurturing of his culture and spent later part trying hard to identify with.

The Black Prince is hopefully a beginning of the narration of uncovering of Punjab’s true past, and a beginning of the discourse for what will shape the future of Punjab for the next few centuries.

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