"The Sikh identity is in a state of transition"

May 14, 2017

-- Interview with Amardeep Singh

An alternative voice, firmly seated in Singapore, Amardeep Singh, 50, has been taking photographs that explore sociology, anthropology, ethnology and cultures for over 10 years. His images are an attempt to make sense of the dynamic chaos of our time, and his mandate, as he sees it, is to chronicle and document history on the brink of oblivion. Throughout his career, he has been especially interested in the ways in which power is exercised and the resulting -- often perverse and unforeseen -- consequences that follow.

Born in Gorakhpur in 1966, Singh joined the Doon School before pursuing higher studies in Electrical Engineering at Manipal Institute of Technology, and a Masters degree in Business Administration from the University of Chicago, USA.

Author of the much acclaimed Lost Heritage: The Sikh Legacy in Pakistan -- an insightful quest for the relinquished heritage of the Sikhs spanning between 15th and 21st centuries, Singh’s 60-chapter narrative -- part memoir, part history -- is interspersed with 507 photographs of historic monuments, forts, battlegrounds, commercial and residential establishments, and places of worship. Urvashi Butalia calls it "a stunning pictorial journey that is both tragic and equally evocative".

Amardeep Singh talks to The News on Sunday on the occasion of ILF 2017 about the ‘accidental treasure trove’ that culminated into this magnum opus. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): Sikhs had a visible presence in pre-Partition days in northern Punjab. What are your findings?

Amardeep Singh: While Sikhs had a substantial presence in Rawalpindi and Hazara, they could be found all around (what has now become) Pakistan, before Partition. Could you imagine Sikhs living in an area as far-flung as Quetta? When I went there researching towards my book, I found streets that bore their names and shops with inscriptions in Gurumukhi. In other words, Sikhs spread far and wide in those times. Their remnants are not just the mohallas and neighbourhoods in Rawalpindi city alone, but can be found in villages with Sikh appellations all across Punjab. If you go deep into Rawalpindi district, for example, you come across villages like Dera Khalsa and Thoha Khalsa. Likewise, you come across Toba Tek Singh and Jhanda Singh near Jhang.

If you acquire a map of undivided India, you’ll discover the overlay of the Sikh Empire that was formed in 1799 and lasted till 1849. (It’s unfortunate that we call it the Sikh Empire; I prefer to call it the Punjabi Empire!) It was for the first time that in 2000 years of successive invasions, the people of Punjab had risen to create an Empire. The Empire had more than 50 per cent Muslims in the army. How could an empire function as a Sikh Empire when it had a predominant Muslim population? It was a secular Empire, so to speak.

Guru Nanak was born in 1469 who says: "Na koi Hindu, na koi Musalman". Being a reformist, he advocated humanity. I don’t think he was trying to found a new religion. Instead, he was trying to attach people to monotheism and to basic human values while trying to eradicate the evils of caste system and disparity that had spread in the society.

The British named it the Sikh Empire because of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. To call it Sikh is akin to calling Akbar’s empire Islamic. Akbar was a Mughal emperor; to equate Mughal with Islam would be a fallacy.

TNS: Where does the Sikh sense of identity come from?

AS: Sikhs are recognised, by and large, by their beard and turban today. However, around the world, the Sikh identity as well as the Sikh community is in a state of transition. Let me look at this sense of identity in the contemporary context: I am proud of my culture, my Punjabiyat and my people (and in a broader syncretic context, you are a part of my culture). Likewise, I am also very proud of what my forefathers bequeathed me as my ancestral heritage, which includes the beard and the turban, both having a cultural aspect.

Having lived abroad for quite sometime, I’ve noticed that the cultural identity of Sikhs is in decline especially in the younger generation of Sikhs. Now, when that sense of identity is fast evading, it’s important to know where it came from.

Guru Nanak was born in 1469 who says: "Na koi Hindu, na koi Musalman". Being a reformist, he advocated humanity. I don’t think he was trying to found a new religion. Instead, he was trying to attach people to monotheism and to basic human values while trying to eradicate the evils of caste system and disparity that had spread in the society. The sense of cultural identity surfaced in 1699, in the tenth Guru’s time, when it became a military formation to defend against the Mughals. It had nothing to do with Islam. In Guru Granth Sahib -- the holy text that talks about Allah -- Baba Farid has an equal part. It was Aurangzeb who went down the path of hardline rule of conversion. To oppose him, the ninth Guru raised his voice that you can’t force religion on anyone. As a result, he was beheaded by Aurangzeb in Delhi.

In response, it was time to defend oneself; rise against power like a civil movement that can erupt in any democratic setup today. This finally led to the alliance among the people who adhere to the five ‘k’s.

TNS: Tell us about the Sikhs who stayed behind, in Pakistan.

AS: Having travelled extensively through Pakistan and having known my history backwards, I’ve found the answer to the question: "Who do you define as a Sikh?" Interestingly enough in Pakistan, a Sikh is not necessarily somebody who wears a turban. He is a believer of monotheism, and of Guru Nanak’s philosophy. The very word ‘Sikh’ means ‘learner’ or shishaya. He’s someone with the mindset of a learner. When Pakistan was carved, the entire Sikh community moved away. But there still are 13-14,000 Sikhs living in Pakistan even today who wear turbans and beards. They are not Punjabi. Punjab was soaked in a bloodbath on both sides -- Muslims were massacred in East Punjab while Hindus and Sikhs were slaughtered in West Punjab. The Sikhs survived in the Federally Administrered Tribal Areas (Fata). If you come across a Sikh in Punjab, Pakistan, today practicing hikmat or selling cloth, rest assured he’s not Punjabi. He speaks Pushto at home because sanguinely, he’s not Punjabi. He’s come to Punjab for economic reasons. As a rationale, Sikhism originated to cleanse the society, and began to spread once it gained momentum like any other religion. It went down south to Multan from where it entered Sindh via Shikarpur.

Sikhs also left Sindh and Balochistan around Partition but those who stayed behind are thriving today. They are practicing their faith freely. It would be wrong to say that you can’t practice your faith in Pakistan. They don’t call their darbars gurdwaras anymore, and inside their temples you’ll find multiplicity. On the one hand you’ll find Udero Lal from the local folklore while on the other, you’ll come across Nanak who is idolised, and a couple of Hindu gods of the Gangetic Belt. It’s a porous belt where the fulcrum of faith remains Guru Granth Sahib. The turbanless Sindhi Sikhs have adapted to the local customs. Because of the umbilical cord being severed, they are compartmentalised. They greet you with Waheguru instead of Namaste. When they wake up in the morning, they recite Sikh prayers, and in the evening, they ardas with Sikh prayers again.

Sikhism was in reality, an all-embracing thought that a lot of people, irrespective of the turban, adhered to -- what you find living and breathing in Pakistan today.

Those who left for India from Sindh assimilated into the popular Hindu mainstream. Those who we call Khalsas because of their beards and turbans had to go to different regions where they dispersed, and were forced to maintain their identity through their language and culture. When Punjab was divided the Sikhs had at least the Golden Temple as an anchor to hold on to. They made the temple the apex of their faith. The Sindhi Sikhs also known as Nanak panthis had nothing to cling to. When they crossed over they started to forget the Sikh values.


TNS: Tell us about your Sikh roots in Pakistan.

AS: My father was from Muzaffarabad, and my mother from Abbottabad. Regions were not as clearly demarcated in those days as they are today. The fact is that we are Paharis who speak Pahari Punjabi. (Linguistically we are Punjabi because that’s what we spoke at home). My father used to trade in gold. Together with my uncle, my father had carved a niche market for his gold business with the Gurkhalis -- Gurkha soldiers in the British Army. Money exchange was not such a common fare in those days, and when the Gurkhalis would return to Nepal they would convert a large portion of their salary into gold.

Gurkhalis would get recruited in India along the Nepalese border, and exit via Gorakhpur in UP. There was a large flow of Gurkhalis coming into the Indian subcontinent. My father being quite an adventurer explored the opportunity of expansion and ended up opening a shop in Gorakhpur a few years before Partition. Partition took place; Punjab was burnt out. Kashmir, Junagarh and Hyderabad were left unhurt because the British left it up to the local princes to decide their fate. Kashmir was handed over to Hari Singh who had three options: either to join Pakistan because all trade routes went through Rawalpindi and/or Baramulla Uri into Srinagar; to stay within India being a Hindu Raja himself. When the British left, Gurdaspur was handed over to Pakistan but three days later, shifted back to India. One of the reasons was that the road to Kashmir passing through India would have been disconnected, and Kashmir would have been totally isolated; the third option was to maintain an independent state.

On October 21, 1947, the tribals attacked Muzaffarabad. My uncles were there around the time of invasion, only my father was in Gorakhpur. There’s a chapter in my book called ‘A Bloodied Bridge’ that recalls what brought me to Pakistan. The invasion took place with the objective of forcing Hari Singh to join Pakistan. My uncles and family told me that they woke up one morning to the war cry that proclaimed: "Hindu ka zar, Sikh ka sar". The following day, there was a huge Sikh massacre in Muzaffarabad; they were lined up on the bridge and shot at from both sides. One of my distant buas was only 5-years-old when she lost both her parents in the massacre -- the incident that I recall in the chapter ‘Meeting Noori’. A Muslim family adopted her later on. She grew up as a Muslim, and now stays in Rawalpindi. Her brother, 9-years-old at that point, left for India. There’s a chapter in the book that recounts how the two of them met again in the 1990s. My real bua lost her sons in the massacre. Her grandchildren, Hari Singh and Arjun Singh, however, survived.

My bent towards spirituality, upon realisation made me abandon study in 2009. I began to enjoy appreciating the world for all its worth. That led me to pick up photography as a passion and an art form.

The book starts with a personal story: How my father received a letter from Pakistan in Gorakhpur with only two words inscribed on the envelope: Sunder Singh and Gorakhpur. Missionaries in Rawalpindi who raised them as Christians picked up Hari Singh and Arjun Singh. Hari Singh remembered that my father had gone off to Gorakhpur. He picked up a postcard a year later, and inscribed these two words on it. Coincidentally my father received it without an address. Files moved across the border, and two-and-a-half years later, they were reunited and handed over to my bua. The book is about both tangible and intangible aspects of the Sikh heritage. These anecdotes are non-tangible, and we can’t ignore them.

TNS: When and how did you decide to author the book on the crumbling legacy of the Sikhs in Pakistan?

AS: My bent towards spirituality, upon realisation, made me abandon its study in 2009. I began to enjoy appreciating the world for all its worth. That led me to pick up photography as a passion and an art form. Within a year-and-a-half, my photography reached its pinnacle. I started travelling to distant lands like Tibet and Mt. Kailasha, and writing travelogues for magazines like Asian Geographic, etc. The reason I started to write was to improve my writing skills because having arrived from a financial background; I was a man of numbers. I was writing in an expressive language, through photography, preparing myself for greater writing.

My job at the American Express was going to post me in Sydney. The best decision, at that point, was to take a golden handshake, and reinvent myself. Al I knew was that I didn’t want to move to Australia and disrupt my children’s education. I quit the job, took six months off, and started brooding that if I don’t visit Pakistan now will I ever? Pilgrimage was not my quest. When I landed here on a 30-day visa, all I knew was that I should be reaching Muzaffarabad on the 15th day. I arrived in Lahore, and started to connect with like-minded people. I started to explore my past, and within a short span of time, found myself in Haripur. (Within 7 days I explored Lahore, and made connections with people who took me across Punjab). While I reached Muzaffarabad on the 15th days, I wanted to carry the soil from beneath the bridge to my family but didn’t. There was no point in invoking bitter memories. I came back to Singapore in November 2014. The book was nowhere in the picture then. Within 30 days I had travelled to 36 odd places in Pakistan. If you look at the first map in the book, it identifies those places.

By December that year, I thought of going back to the corporate world, and started looking for a job. It just struck me that the British had written some travelogues on Punjab. One of them was by William Moorcroft, the other by Alexander Burnes. Moorcroft came to Lahore in 1821. To commemorate his reception hosted by Ranjit Singh, the British laid a plaque in a room at Shalimar Bagh. Burnes was sent on a mission to gift five European horses to Ranjit Singh. He arrived in India for the first time via sea route.

Those two travelogues inspired and motivated me to write my own travelogue, chronicling history before the heritage fades away.  I thought if Burnes’ travelogue could inspire me 180 years later, why shouldn’t I document my heritage and write my own travelogue. Perhaps, it might become a catalyst for posterity. It took me exactly a year to write and publish the book. When the book came out in January 2016, I realised the kind of demand this subject commanded among the readers. Between then and now, I must have travelled to 70 places in the world to launch it.

Call it divine intervention that one day, I received a call from the Pakistani Ambassador who appreciated my balanced approach in handling a very delicate subject, and extended invitation to participate in the Pakistan Academy of Letters Conference in January 2017 here. I came with the desire to see forts of the Sikh era. I got fabulous support from the Ministry, 21 men escorted me to visit the forts.

This is a slightly modified version of the interview that appeared in the print version of The News on Sunday on May 14, 2017.

"The Sikh identity is in a state of transition"