Col Harisimran Singh (Retd)
THIS book contributes significantly to scholarship on the disparate struggles against the Mughal rule in different parts of India. One of its many strengths is its analysis of the underlying reasons why the dissenting Rajputs and the Marathas failed to come together with the Sikhs for a common front against the brutal and exploitative Mughal regime:
“The Rajputs were old Kshatriya ruling houses… Dharma to them was status quo.” As opposed to the ‘jagirs’ bestowed as favours upon the nobility, which lapsed to the state on the demise of the beneficiary, the Rajputs held ‘watan’ lands inherited from their ancestors over many generations. To them, these were inalienable and they would brook no meddling from the state.
In contrast, ‘the Marathas represented a Hindu dynastic revival in competition with the Mughals. They sought political change but rooted within a traditional Indian society… The Sikhs, however, sought a new social covenant and a new political arrangement. It was not a coincidence that out of the three, only the Sikhs rejected monarchy and held power in the name of the collective will of the people, the Khalsa”: ‘hane hane patshahi’ (king in every saddle).
In addition to these differences was the caste factor. Bound within an elitist social construct, the Rajputs would have no truck with either the upstart Marathas or the essentially peasant revolt of the Sikhs under Banda Singh Bahadur. Nor, they felt, could they negotiate with the Thakurs of Himachal, who they considered inferior to their Rana blood.
Through their extensive research, the authors reveal how the intellectual climate was changing, with considerable commonality. In Europe, when Spinoza challenged the Divine Rights of Kings, he echoed Nanak who believed that there was only one ultimate sovereign, the Divine. Beyond that, all individuals were equal. The emperor held political power but only as a custodian of that higher power, the Divine Creator. So long as the emperor followed the Divine Law (Hukam), and was ethical (Dharmic), the Sikhs would dutifully follow the imperial will, but if the emperor wavered, they would only answer to the Divine Will. In this sense, for the Sikhs, Dharma lay in promoting their Gurus as an alternative to Mughal corruption and tyranny.
In USA, Jefferson elevated the right to rebel against tyrants as Natural Law, or ‘obedience to God’. Likewise, in England, Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘If the tyrant’s abuse was so enormous, Nature itself would rise up and, claiming her original rights, overturn a corrupt political system.’
In Mughal India, while the fabulously rich nobility enjoyed indescribable luxury, they paid no tax — Italian traveller Manucci estimated barely 655 such families. The wretched peasants bore all the burden; Hindu/Sikh farmers were worse off since they paid tax at twice the rate of Muslims. Against this milieu, Banda’s war was just since he sought a new society built on equality where all could enjoy the fruits of their labour.
The book is impressive for its wide-ranging research and some rather striking period illustrations, but begs several questions. It is true that the Miri-Piri concept precluded aggression, and both Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh fought only defensive battles. In going on the offensive, did Banda exceed the brief extended by Guru Gobind Singh, who himself had declared his mission as the extirpation of tyrants? Given the ruthless regime they were up against, could this have been accomplished without aggression?
To match enemy numbers, Banda accepted freebooters into his rag-tag army who often indulged in excesses against hapless civilians among the vanquished, thus violating two principles of the just war tradition: jus in bello (justice during the war) and jus post bellum (justice after the war). Was this avoidable?
Several historians contend that Banda lost popular support when he arrogated to himself the trappings and title of a Guru, and replaced the traditional Khalsa greeting, precipitating the Tatt Khalsa-Bandeyi Khalsa divide. Could this have been among the reasons why Banda lost the just war he had initiated?
Alongside the just war principles, ultima ratio (war as a last resort) has been unjustifiably excluded, although it is clearly enunciated in the most-quoted couplet of the ‘Zafarnama’.
The language is impressive all through although grammatical and spelling errors are noticeable. Several pages are not bound in the correct sequence, and the chapters on a just war are relegated to appendices whereas these needed to inform the entire book. These minor shortcomings notwithstanding, the book holds out extraordinary informative promise and appeal.