119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, June 20, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri


Sugar 'n' Spice
Garden Life
Wide angle

The all-pervading spirit
By Baljit Kang

The common stereotype of the Sikh is of a certain unpredictability of character, a quickness to anger, quick to hurt — a proclivity for excess which can manifest itself in the most unexpected of ways. While like any other stereotype this a sweeping generalisation in the Jat Sikh’s case at least, and over 50 per cent of Sikhs are Jat, the reputation is not undeserved. Instead, these very traits are celebrated in local lore — folk songs dedicated to Sucha Soorma, a celebration of dacoity, or a more contemporary Gurdas Mann singing Put jattan de...ya theke ya thane. But perhaps that is how it was feted. According to religious lore, when Guru Gobind Singh conceived of the Khalsa three centuries ago, it was in part because of the lack of aggression in the native population which permitted a numerically small Afghan force to ride roughshod over it. The Guru was determined to ‘steel’ his followers, imbue his timid sparrows with the spirit required to take on the Mughal hawk. To this end a baptismal amrit was prepared, nectar empowered with sacred verses and stirred with the Guru’s iron khanda.
But even before the potion could be put to test, whether by oversight or intent, a pair of thirsty sparrows hovering overhead gulped down a mouthful. No sooner had they done so that, forgetting their old camaraderie, they set at each other with gusto. The hawk could wait, each sparrow had more proximate business to dispense with first.
According to the legend, taking a cue from the birds behaviour the Guru sensed that the Khalsa’s potent amrit could do with a sweetener. So Mata Sahib Kaur (the Guru’s wife) was asked to get a few lumps of sugar and these were added to the heady potion. Nearly 20,000 men took of the baptismal amrit that historic day, founding the Khalsa army that would change the course of history.
Even today, 300 years on, traces of that original amrit are still all too evident in the aplomb with which Sikhs go for each other’s throat, the Badals, the Tohras and sundry jathedars jostling for their place in the sun, or me and you, ordinary foot soldiers, fighting for advantage, for the love of the sport or merely to keep our hand in. And the Waheguru’s omnipotent spirit trails the Guru di fauj to the remotest corner of the world, undiluted and unaffected by either distance or visible symbols of change.
As it did to California, one of the first sizeable Sikh communities in the western world. The first Sikhs to arrive in the gold and fruit country were workers employed on farms. But it was only a matter of time before the Sikhs hard work and spirit of enterprise convert them to owners and proprietors.
US governments of the day, to discourage Asian settlers, would not allow the immigrants to bring in women of their own stock. So they improvised, marrying the daughters of Mexican fellow workers, and before long a vibrant Sikh community was in place. If it lacked for anything it was an establishment that could give the several families a sense of community. A place where children born in the foreign land might get a flavour of the dusty fields of Punjab, perhaps even learn a few words of Gurmukhi, a temple of their own. Thus the first Sikh gurdwara was conceived.
But a wide chasm separated dream from reality — of white neighbours wary of the brown men from the outset and made more wary still by the felicity with which they had got around the intended curb on family, of a government ostensibly committed to liberty but suspicious of the turbaned foreigners and their reported links to the Independence struggle in the mother country. They now looked askance at attempts to import a foreign god as well. The Californian Sikhs would have to wait a very long time for their first gurdwara. Still, once they got over that initial hurdle they set to their goal with alacrity. The first gurdwara came up at Stockton, and over time other followed even as the curbs on immigration gradually eased.
But if America’s Sikhs finally had a religious and cultural establishment of their own it was only a matter of time before the more ambitious among them want to own it. And when there was more than one claimant, contest ownership, feud and fights ensued. Not that there was much to fight over in those early days given most gurdwaras’ humble beginnings. But for the guru di fauj wealth, or in this case the lack of it, was rarely a deterrent to a fullbodied display of martial spirit.
Even the flash of kirpans and display of gatka might have gone unnoticed had not the clockwork-like predictability of the Sunday ritual and the plaintive protests of the vanquished drawn the authorities, attention to ‘fighting’ community in their midst. Some of the worst disputes ended up in court, where the white man was expected to adjudicate over them. This he did with the scholarly thoroughness, that is the defining quality of his race. In one particular case the court even appointed an officer to study the Sikh religion in an attempt to trace the roots of their divisiveness. In vain. At the end of several weeks of research the tired court official was compelled to report that he could find nothing in the holy books to explain their strife.
While this would have been enough to satisfy most enquirers, our judge in this case was made of sterner stuff. Besides he was expected to adjudicate and a sense of responsibility fired his quest. A trusted law officer was deputed to unobtrusively monitor the Sikhs, conduct at the gurdwara, a Lawrence in Arabia in florid California.
On the following Sunday morning, when the Sikhs rolled in twos and threes, families and all, and took their place below Guru Granth Sahib, he was present. He observed as they meekly bowed their heads in prayer. Despite the fact that the room was packed to capacity by the time ‘ardas’ was said, the several dozen men presented the perfect picture in repose. Then, even while prasad was being distributed, announcement time commenced. The gurdwara managers detailed their programme and read out messages from the community.
Around this time the foreigner detected the first murmurs. But before they could evolve into anything more serious the men had broken up into groups and filed outside for langar. Though by now the group which had only recently been ousted from the gurdwara management was spoiling for a fight this semi-religious ritual now held its hand. With much of the ruling group and many of their own women engaged in the preparation and distribution of langar, they sensed that its wasn’t a good moment to give vent to their feelings. So they shuffled out in brooding silence and sat down to be served. Minutes later, lunch and ruminations over, they were ready to get down to real business.
But while each of the participants was probably running to a well-oiled plan to an outside observer at least the clash, when it began, seemed to just blow in out of nowhere. One moment the two groups were just standing around in separate corners talking. The next, and without a word being exchanged, they were at each others’ throat. Then a third group metamorphosed from behind the gurdwara and began to attack the attackers . In seconds a fullblooded battle was on as turbans went flying in the air and kirpans flashed.
For a moment the law officer felt alarmed enough to intervene even at expense of blowing his cover. But his initial surprise and the fact that the fight ended soon after, with the avenged party fleeing in cars, came in the way of his intervention.
But if the foreigner failed to anticipate the fight, discreet subsequent enquiries did not yield any real information either. To all intents the fight was without purpose. For while one faction managed the gurdwara, the institution ran on donations from the small Sikh community. And from what he had observed the weekend donation did not seem sufficient to even pay the wage of the granthi who conducted prayers. Nor could the clash be linked to religious differences since everybody prayed in the same room, in an identical manner, and none of the factions seemed to be visibly different. Though dissatisfied with his initial foray the next week the official was back. And once again the same ritual was played out. Except this time some of the men made a grab for the mike at announcement time, but were successfully thwarted by the managers. This only whetted the appetite of both sides. (The third, less numerous faction, had made a tactical retreat by slipping out the moment the ardas was over). But running true to some unstated tradition, they waited for the langar to end before making a lunge at each other. The next two weekends were relatively quiet, throwing the low-officer momentarily off-guard.
The fifth Sunday coincided with Baisakhi, a bigger, more grand affair than usual with Sikhs from a wider geographical area driving in for the occasion. The gathering was not only larger but also more boisterous, with those who had been following the events from a distance finally having their say. So at the speeches time after the ardas that day, besides the usual point-scoring, some community stalwarts went to the length of ticking off their more fractious brothers who, they said, not only did not understand their peaceable religion but were bringing a bad name to the entire community.
Which only goes to show that these leading lights had either because of the long years spent in the foreign country or perhaps because of age quite lost their touch. For if their is one class of person the Guru’s Sikh dislikes more than his fratricidal brother, it is the wise guy who stands and preaches from the sidelines. And in this he is following a time-honoured tradition. For did not the Guru himself burn and banish the ‘wise’ mahants of his age? So this time all three factions’ anger was reserved for these worthies. But the presence of Guru Granth Sahib held their hand. Then it was langar time, and much as they would have preferred immediate redress, themartial race must bide its time.
No sooner was langar over that all three factions opened up on their would-be mentors,who,though taken unawares by the ferocity of the attack, recovered quickly. For while they might have aged, the old Singhs, pioneers in the frontier land, were a match for any Johnny-come lately. Defensive to begin with, they soon counter attacked with an alacrity that belied their age. In this enterprise they were joined by their sons and relatives forcing the attackers to withdraw.
The would-be peacemakers had conclusively won this round of the fight. But rather than celebrate they merely adjusted their clothes and turbans and drove away. For he who fight and runs away will be back to fight for sure next Sunday.
As for the law officer, he was more confused than ever by the fighting Singhs, who conformed to no clear grouping, ideology or lineal divide. What he did know was that the gurdwara had some part to play, though just what he could not fathom. All that week he pondered over the mystery and, hours before the hearing, he had his report.
The gist of his findings : The Sikhs are mostly a peaceful community. The fights at the Sikh temple are, I suspect, in some way connected with the temple itself. Since most violence occurs after the distribution of prasad specially shortly after the lunch (langar), I recommend that the food (prasad and langar) be examined properly.

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