It has often been said that the Indian Army has kept Sikhism alive. War is a conserver of the Khalsa, peace a dissolvent. When one understands how this is so, one has grasped what Sikhism has done for the followers of the faith, and why the Sikh is different in habit and thought from his Hindu and Muhammadan neighbour, though in most cases he derives from the same stock.
The Sikhs are a community, not a race. The son of a Sikh is not himself a Sikh until he has taken the pahul, the ceremony by which he is admitted into the Khalsa, the community of the faithful. It would take volumes to explain exactly what initiation means for him. But the important thing to understand is that the convert, in becoming a Sikh, is not charged with a religious crusade. There is no bigotry in the faith that has made a Singh of him. His baptism by steel and “the waters of life” only means that he has gained prestige by admission into a military arid spiritual brotherhood of splendid traditions.
The son of a Sikh is not himself a Sikh until he has taken the pahul, the ceremony by which he is admitted into the Khalsa, the community of the faithful.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of the sect, was a man of peace and a quietist. He only sought to remove the cobwebs that had overgrown sectarian conceptions of God. He could not in his most prophetic dreams have foreseen the bearded, martial Sikh whom we know today. This is the Govindi Sikh, the product of the tenth Guru, that inspired leader of men who welded his followers into the armed fraternity which supplanted the Moguls and became the dominant military class of the Punjab.
It was persecution that made the Sikh what he is, not theological conviction. Dogma was incidental. The rise of the Khalsa was a political movement. The thousands of Jat yeomen who joined the banner accepted the book with the sword. To make a strong and distinctive body of them, to lift them above the Hindu ranks, to convert a sect into a religion, to give them a cause and a crusade was Govind’s work. It was he who consolidated the Sikhs by giving them prestige. He instituted the Khalsa, or the common-wealth of the chosen, into which his disciples were initiated by the ceremony of the pahul.
He swept away ritual, abolished caste, and ordained that every Sikh should bear the old Rajput title of Singh, or Lion, as every Govindi Sikh does to this day. He also gave national and distinctive traits to the dress of his people, ordaining that they should carry a sword, dagger, and bracelet of steel, don breeches instead of a loincloth, and wear their hair long and secured in a knot by a comb. He it was, who grafted the principles of valour, devotion, and chivalry on the humble gospel of Nanak, and introduced the national salutation of “Wah Guru ji ka Khalsa! Wah Guru ji ki Futteh!”—“Hail to the Khalsa! Victory to God”—a chant that has dismayed the garrison of many a doomed trench held by the Turks and the Huns.
“The Sikhs of Govind shall bestride horses,
And bear hawks upon their hands;
The Turks who behold them shall fly;
One shall combat a multitude,
And the Sikh who thus perishes shall be blessed for ever.”*
It was odd that the Arabs in Mesopotamia should have called the Sikh “the black lion,”† bearing witness to the boast that every member of the Khalsa, when he puts on the consecrated steel and adopts the title of Singh, is lionised in the most literal sense of the word and becomes the part in fact as well as in name.
War is a necessary stimulus for Sikhism. In the reaction of peace the Sikh population dwindles. It was in the struggle with Islam, during the ascendency of Ranjit Singh, in the two wars against the British, and after in the Mutiny, when the Sikhs proved our loyal allies, that the Khalsa was strongest. Without the incentive to honour and the door open to military service the ineradicable instincts of the Hindu reassert themselves.
Amongst all the races and castes that have been caught up into the Khalsa, by far the most important in influence and numbers is the Jat.
Fewer jiwans come forward and take the pahul; not only is the community weakened by lack of disciples, but many who hold fast to the form let go the spirit; ritual, idolatry, superstition, exclusiveness, and caste, the old enemies to the reformed religion, creep in again; the aristocracy of honour lapses into the aristocracy of privilege. Then the Brahman enters in, and the simple faith is obscured by all manner of un-Sikh-like preoccupations. Sikhism might have fallen back into Hinduism and become an obscure sect if it had not been for the Indian Army.
But here the insignia of Guru Govind have been maintained, and his laws and traditions. The class regiments and class-company regiments have preserved not merely the outward observances; they have kept alive the inward spirit of the Khalsa. Thus it is that the Sikh has more class feeling than any other sepoy, and more pride in himself and his community. Govind set the lion stamp on him as he intended. By his outward signs he cannot be mistaken—by his beard, the steel bracelet on his wrist, his long knotted hair, or if that is hidden, by the set of his turban, above all by his grave self-respect.
The casual stranger can mark him by one or all of these signs, but there is a subtler physical distinction in expression and feature that you cannot miss when you know the Sikh well. This is quite independent of insignia. It is as marked in a boy without a hair to his chin as in an old campaigner. This also is Govind’s mark, the sum of his influence inscribed on the face by the spirit. A great tribute this to the genius of the Khalsa, when one remembers that the Sikh is not a race apart, but comes of the same original stock as most of his Hindu and Muhammadan neighbours in the Punjab, and that Govind, his spiritual ancestor, only died two hundred years ago.
The admitted characteristics of the Jat are stubbornness, tenacity, patience, devotion, courage, discipline and independence of spirit fitly reconciled; add to these the prestige and traditions of the Khalsa and you have the ideal Sikh.
Amongst all the races and castes that have been caught up into the Khalsa, by far the most important in influence and numbers is the Jat. Porus was probably of the race. When Alexander, impressed by his gallantry, asked him what boon he might confer, he demanded “to be treated like a king”—a very Sikh-like speech. The Sikh soldier is the Jat sublimated, and the bulk of the Sikhs in the Indian Army are of Jat origin. Authorities differ as to the derivation of the Jats, but it is commonly believed that they and the Rajputs are of the same Scythian origin, and thatthey represent two separate waves of invasion; and this is borne out by their physical resemblance and by a general similarity in their communal habits of life.
The Jat, so long as he remains a Hindu, is called Jat (pronounced Ja-at), while the Jat who has adopted Sikhism is generally referred to as Jat (pronounced Jut). The spelling is the same, and to the uninitiated this is a constant source of confusion. The difference in pronunciation arose from a subtlety of dialect, it being customary in the part of the Punjab where Sikhs preponderate to shorten the long ã of the Hindi.
The Jat is the backbone of the Punjab. From his Scythian ancestors is derived the same stub-born fibre that stiffens the Punjabi cultivator, whatever changes he may have suffered by influence of caste or creed, whether he be Hindu, Muhammadan, or Sikh. The admitted characteristics of the Jat are stubbornness, tenacity, patience, devotion, courage, discipline and independence of spirit fitly reconciled; add to these the prestige and traditions of the Khalsa and you have the ideal Sikh.
The pick of the Khalsa will be found in the class regiments and class company regiments to which the Sikhism of today owes its conservation, vigour, and life.
I say “the ideal Sikh,” for without the contributory influences you may not get the type as Govind conceived it. The ideal Sikh is the happy Sikh, the Sikh who is content with the place he occupies in his cosmos, who respects and believes in his superior officers, who does not consider himself unjustly treated, and who has received no injury to his self-esteem. For the virtuous ingredients in his composition are subject to reaction. When he fancies he is wronged, he broods. The milk in him becomes gall. The “waters of life” stirred by steel, his baptismal draught, take on an acid potency. “I’d rather command Sikhs than any other class of sepoy,” a brigadier told me, and he had commanded every imaginable class of sepoys for twenty years, “but they must be happy Sikhs,” he added. The brooding or intriguing Sikh is a nuisance and a danger.
The 15th Sikhs, one of the two earliest-raised Sikh battalions, were the first to come into action in France, and they maintained a high-level reputation for gallantry all through the campaign. The story of Lieutenant Smyth and his ten Sikh bombers at Festubert is not likely to be forgotten. Smyth and two sepoys were the only two survivors of this gallant band who passed by a miracle, crawling over the dead bodies of their comrades, through a torrent of lead, and carried their bombs through to the first line. Smyth was awarded the V.C., Lance-Naik Mangal Singh the Indian Order of Merit, and every sepoy in the party the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.
Theoretically Sikhism acknowledges no caste; but in practice the Sikh of Jat or Rajput descent will not eat or drink with Sikhs drawn from the menial classes…
Two of these men belonged to the 45th Sikhs, four to the 19th Punjabis. And here it should be remembered that the Sikhs earned a composite part of the honour of nearly every mixed class-company regiment in France; of the Punjabi regiments, for instance, and of the Frontier Force Rifle battalions, in which the number of Sikh companies varies from one to four, not to mention the Sappers and, Miners.
It was in the very first days of the Indians’ debut in France that a Sikh company of the 57th Rifles earned fame when it was believed that the line must have given way, holding on all through the night against repeated counter- attacks, though the Germans were past them on both flanks. As for the Sappers, the story of Dalip Singh is pure dumas. This fire-eater helped his fallen officer, Lieut. Rail-Kerr to cover, stood over him and kept off several parties of Germans by his fire. On one occasion—a feat almost incredible, but well established—he was attacked by twenty of the enemy, but beat them all off and got his officer away.*
It is in “sticking it out” that the Sikh excels. No one will deny his élan; yet élan is not so remarkably and peculiarly his as the dogged spirit of resistance that never admits defeat, the spirit that carried his ancestors through the long ordeal by fire in their struggle with the Moguls. It is in defensive action that the Sikhs have won most renown, fighting it out against hopeless, or almost hopeless odds, as at Arrah and Lucknow in the Mutiny, and in the Tirah campaign at Saraghiri on the Samana ridge.
The disciples of Govind comprise many classes other than the Jat, of whom there are some thirty main clans. There are Sikhs of Brahman and Rajput descent, and a number of tribes of humbler origin.
The defence of the little house at Arrah by Rattray’s (the 45th) Sikhs was one of the most glorious episodes of the Indian Mutiny, and the story of the Sikh picket at Saraghiri will live as long in history. The whole garrison of the post, twenty-one men of the 36th Sikhs, a battalion lately raised and then in action for the first time, fell to a man in its defence. The Afridis admitted the loss of two hundred dead in the attack. As they pressed in on all sides in overwhelming numbers, the Sikhs kept up their steady fire for six hours, until the walls of the post fell. The last of the little band perished in the flames as he defended the guard-room door, and shot down twenty of the assailants before he succumbed.
Strangely enough, these two regiments, the 36th and 45th Sikhs, to whom we owe two of the most enduring examples in history of “sticking it out,” fought side by side on the Hai in an action which called for as high qualities of discipline and endurance under reverse as any that was fought in Mesopotamia. The Sikhs lived up to their tradition. Both regiments went over the parapet in full strength and were practically annihilated.
Only 190 effectives came out of the assault; only one British officer returned unwounded. The 45th on the right were exposed to a massed counter-attack. A British officer was seen to collect his men and close in on the Turks in the open; he and his gallant band were enveloped and overwhelmed. So, too, in Gallipoli the 14th Sikhs, who saved Allahabad in the Mutiny and immortalized themselves with Havelock in the march on Lucknow and the defence of the Residency, displayed their old spirit. When they had fought their way through the unbroken wire at Gully Ravine (June 4, 1915) and taken three lines of trenches, they hung on all day, though they had lost threefourths of their effectives, and every British officer but two was killed.
But I must tell the story of Wariam Singh, a Jat Sikh of a Punjabi regiment; it was told to me by one Zorowar Singh, his comrade, in France. “You heard of Wariam Singh, Sahib,” he asked— “Wariam Singh, who would not surrender?”
Wariam Singh was on leave when the regiment was mobilized, and the news reached him in his village. It was a very hot night. They were sitting by the well, and when Wariam Singh heard that the –– Punjabis were going to WiIayat to fight for the Sircar against a different kind of white man, he said that, come what might, he would never surrender. He made a vow then and there, and, contrary to all regimental discipline, held by it.
The Jat stands first in respect to honour and numbers; apart from him, it is the humbler classes who have contributed most weight to the fighting arms of the community.
I can picture the scene—the stencilled shadows of the kikar in the moonlight, the smell of baked flour and dying embers, the almost motionless group in a ring like birds on the edge of a tank, and in the background the screen of tall sugarcane behind the dry thorn hedge. The village kahne-wallah (recounter of tales) would be half chanting, half intoning, with little tremulous grace-notes, the ballad about “Wa-ar-button Sahib,” or Jân Nikalsain, when the lumbardar from the next village would appear by the well and portentously deliver the message.
The scene may have flickered before the eyes of Wariam Singh, lying stricken beside his machine-gun, just as the cherry blossom of Kent is said to appear to the Kentish soldier. The two English officers in his trench had fallen; the Germans had taken the trenches to the left and the right, and they were enfiladed up to the moment when the final frontal wave broke in. The order came to retire, but Wariam Singh said, “I cannot retire, I have sworn”; and he stood by his machine-gun.
“If he had retired no doubt he would have been slain. Remaining he was slain, but he slew many,” was Zorowar Singh’s comment.
Afterwards the trench was taken back, and the body of Wariam Singh was found under the gun. The corpses of the Germans lay all round “like stones in a river bed.”
The disciples of Govind comprise many classes other than the Jat, of whom there are some thirty main clans. There are Sikhs of Brahman and Rajput descent, and a number of tribes of humbler origin. The Jat stands first in respect to honour and numbers; apart from him, it is the humbler classes who have contributed most weight to the fighting arms of the community. The Brahman, Rajput, and Khatri-descended Sikhs do not enlist freely.
The order came to retire, but Wariam Singh said, “I cannot retire, I have sworn”; and he stood by his machine-gun.
The 48th Pioneers are recruited almost entirely from Labanas, a tribe whose history goes back to the beginning of time. There are Labanas, of course, who are not Sikhs. The Raja of the community is a Hindu and lives at Philibit, and there are Labana hillmen about Simla, farmers in the Punjab, traders in the Deccan and Bombay, and owners of ships; but I have no doubt that the pick of them are those that have enlisted in the Khalsa.
The Labanas were soldiers at least two thousand years before Govind, and according to tradition formed the armed transport of the Pandavas and brought in the fuel (labanke—a kind of brushwood, hence the tribal name) for the heroes of the Mahabharata. I heard this story from a Labana Sikh one night on the upper reaches of the Euphrates near Khan Baghdadi, when we were miles ahead of our transport and had rounded up a whole army of Turks. He told it to me with such impressment that I felt it must be true, though no doubt there are spoilers of romance who would unweave the web.
Theoretically Sikhism acknowledges no caste; but in practice the Sikh of Jat or Rajput descent will not eat or drink with Sikhs drawn from the menial classes, though the lowest in the social scale have been tried and proved on the field, and shown themselves possessed of military qualities which, apart from caste prejudice, should admit them to an equal place in the brotherhood of the faithful.
The Mazbhis are a case in point. The first of this despised sweeper class to attain distinction were the three whom Guru Govind admitted into the Khalsa as a reward for their fidelity and devotion when they rescued the body of Tegh Bahodur, the murdered ninth Guru, from the fanatical Moslem mob at Delhi. When Sikhism was fighting for its life, these outcasts were caught up in the wave of chivalry and “gentled their condition”; but as soon as the Khalsa were dominant in the Punjab, the Mazbhis found that the equality their religion promised them existed in theory rather than fact.
They occupied much the same position among the Jat and Khattri-descended Sikhs as their ancestors, the sweepers, enjoyed amongst the Hindus. They were debarred from all privileges, and were at one time even excluded from the army. It fell to the British to restore the status of the Mazbhi, or rather to give him the opening by which he was able to re-establish his honour and self-esteem.
…as soon as the Khalsa were dominant in the Punjab, the Mazbhis found that the equality their religion promised them existed in theory rather than fact.
The occasion was in the Mutiny of 1857, when we were in great need of trained sappers for the siege-work at Delhi. A number of Mazbhis who were employed at the time in the canal works at Madhopur were offered military service and enlisted readily. On the march to Delhi these raw recruits fought like veterans. They were attacked by the rebels, beat them off, and saved the whole of the ammunition and treasure.
During the siege Neville Chamberlain wrote of them that “their courage amounted to utter recklessness of life.” Eight of them carried the powder-bags to blow up the Kashmir Gate, under Home and Salkeld. Their names are inscribed on the arch today and have become historical. John Lawrence wrote of the deed as one of “deliberate and sustained courage, as noble as any that ever graced the annals of war.”
The Mazbhis are recruited for the Sikh Pioneer regiments, the 23rd, 32nd, and 34th, sister regiments of whom one, or more, has been engaged in nearby every frontier campaign from Waziristan in 1860 to the Abor expedition in 1911. It was the 32nd who carried the guns over the Shandur Pass in the snow, in the march from Gilgit, and relieved the British garrison in Chitral.
Yet the Mazbhis are still excluded from most privileged by the Khalsa. They are not eligible for the other Sikh class regiments. Nor are they acceptable in the cavalry or in other arms
The 34th were among the earliest Indian regiments engaged in France, and the Mazbhis gained distinction in October, 1914, when they were pushed up to relieve the French cavalry, and the Sikh officers carried on the defence for a day and a night under repeated attacks when their British officers had fallen. Great, too, was the gallantry of the Indian officers of the regiment at Festubert (November, 1914), and the spirit of the ranks.
Yet the Mazbhis are still excluded from most privileged by the Khalsa. They are not eligible for the other Sikh class regiments. Nor are they acceptable in the cavalry or in other arms, for the aristocratic Jat Sikh, as a rule, refuses to serve with them. Yet you will find a sprinkling of Jat Sikhs in the Mazbhi Pioneer regiments—quickwitted, ambitious men usually, who are ready to make some sacrifice in the way of social prestige for the sake of more rapid promotion. The solid old Mazbhis, with all their sterling virtues, are not quick at picking up ideas. It is sometimes difficult to find men among them with the initiative to make good officers. Thus in a Mazbhi regiment the more subtle-minded Jat does not find it such a stiff climb out of the ranks.
It would be a mistake to think that the Jat Sikh is necessarily a better man in a scrap than the Mazbhi, though this is no doubt assumed as a matter of course by officers whose acquaintance with the Sikh is confined to the Jat. I shall never forget introducing a young captain in a Mazbhi regiment to a very senior Colonel on the Staff. The colonel in his early days had been a subaltern in the —th Sikhs, but had put in most of his life’s work in “Q” Branch up at Simla, and did not know a great deal about the Sikh or any other sepoy.
The officer who does not think much of his jiwans will not go far with them.
He turned to the young leader of Mazbhis, who is quite the keenest regimental officer I know, and said—
“ Your men are Mazbhis, aren’t they? But I suppose you have a stiffening of Jats.”
The youngster’s eyes glinted rage and he breathed fire.
“Stiffening, sir? Stiffening of Jats! Our men are Mazbhis.”
Stiffening was an unhappy word, and it stuck in the boy’s gorge for weeks. To stiffen the Mazbhi,
“ to gild refined gold,
To add another hue unto the rainbow,”
One has to mix with different regiments a long time before one can follow all the nuances, but it does not take long to realize to what extent the British officer is a partisan.
all come in the same catalogue of ridiculous excess. Stiffening! Why the man is solid concrete. It would take a stream of molten larva to make him budge. Or, as Atkins would say—
“He wants a crump on his blamed cokernut before he knows things is beginning to get a bit ’ot, and then he ain’t sure.”
It was to stiffen his men a bit, as they were all jiwans and likely to get a little flustered, that old Khattak Singh, Subadar of the 34th Sikh Pioneers, called “Left, right; right, left,” as the regiment tramped into action at Dujaila; but the Mazbhi did not want stiffening. It is rather his part to contribute the inflexible element when there is fear of a bent or broken line. In the action at Jebel Hamrin, on March 25, 1917, when we tried to drive the Turks from a strong position in the hills, where they outnumbered us, the Mazbhis showed us how stiff they could be. They were divisional troops and for months they had been employed in wiring our line at night—a wearing business, standing about for hours in the dark, under a blind but hot fire, casualties every night and never a shot at the Turk.
So tired were they of being fired at without returning the enemy’s fire that, when they got the chance at Jebel Hamrin and were rolling over visible Turks, for a long time they could not be induced to retire. The Turks were bringing off an enveloping movement which threatened our right. The order had been given for the retirement. But the Mazbhis did not, or would not, hear it. Somebody, I forget whether it was a British officer, or if it was an Indian officer after the British officers had all fallen, said that he would not retire without a written order. Ninety of them out of one hundred and fifty fell. Old Khattak Singh got back in the night, walked six miles to the hospital with seven wounds, one in his shoulder and two in his thigh, and said, “I had ninety rounds. I fired them all at the Turks and killed a few. Now I am happy and may as well lie up for a bit.”
…youngsters intended for other walks of life who will never be impressed by the Indian soldier until they have first learnt to impress him.
The Staff Colonel had a certain spice of humour, if little tact, and I think he rather liked the boy for his outburst in defence of his dear Mazbhis. To the outsider these little passages afford continual amusement. One has to mix with different regiments a long time before one can follow all the nuances, but it does not take long to realize to what extent the British officer is a partisan. Insensibly he suffers through his affections a kind of conversion. He comes to see many things as his men see them, even to adopt their own estimate of themselves in relation to other sepoys. And one would not have it otherwise.
It speaks well for the qualities of the Indian soldier, for the courage, kindliness, loyalty, and faith with which he binds his British officer to his own community. It may be very narrow and wrong, but an Indian regiment is the better fighting unit for it. Better an enthusiasm that is sometimes ridiculous than a lukewarm attachment. The officer who does not think much of his jiwans will not go far with them. There are cases, of course, where pride runs riot and verges on snobbishness. I remember a subaltern who was shocked at the idea of his men playing hockey with a regiment recruited from a lower caste. And I once knew a field officer in a class regiment of Jat Sikhs who, I am sure, would have felt very uncomfortable if he had been asked to sit down at table with an officer who commanded Mazbhis. Yet, I am told, he was a fine soldier.
Fanatics of his kidney were happily rare. I use the past tense for they have gone with the best, and I am speaking generally of a school that has vanished. It may be resuscitated, but it will hardly be in our time. Too many of the old campaigners, transmitters of tradition, splendid fellows who lived for the regiment and swore by it, are dead or crippled, and the pick of the Indian Army Reserve has been reaped by the same scythe. The gaps have had to be filled so fast and from a material so unready that one meets officers now who know nothing about their sepoys, who do not understand their lan-guage and who are not even interested in them, youngsters intended for other walks of life who will never be impressed by the Indian soldier until they have first learnt to impress him.