Sikh History

To learn about the first 200 years of Sikh history, the birth of Sikhism, Sikh gurus, and basic beliefs, please go to the main Sikhism page.

The Sikh Kingdom

The military might of the Khalsa brotherhood, coupled with the shrewd leadership of a man named Ranjit Singh, led to the creation of the Sikh Kingdom in 1801, certainly a significant event in Sikh history. Maharajah Ranjit Singh had keen foresight and a gift for diplomacy that enabled him to maintain the upper hand in a land that was only 10 percent Sikh, the overwhelming majority being Muslim.

These same skills served him well in maintaining a remarkable degree of communal harmony, as well as in striking just the right balance when dealing with the British. He recognized almost right away what the British would be to India and predicted that they would eventually rule the entire country. Still, he managed to keep the British (and the Afghans) at bay during his time.

Future rulers weren’t as strong as Ranjit Singh, but even so, the Sikh Kingdom was, for all intents and purposes, the last independent stronghold to be annexed by the British. In 1849, British officers leading an army of largely high-caste Bengali sepoys defeated the Sikhs, but only after thousands of them had died to preserve their freedom.

Sikh History: A Nation Defeated

The British were shrewd enough to respect this valiant enemy, even in its defeat, and immediately began recruiting and arming Sikh warriors to fight their battles in other places. Sikhs, who were allowed to retain their beards, swords, and all religious customs, became an integral part of the British Indian Army and were key to many British victories.

In 1857, only eight years after Bengali sepoys and British weapons brought down the Sikh Kingdom, the new Sikh sepoys were only too happy to take down the Bengali sepoys during the the Sepoy Mutiny. And although individual Sikh factions, such as the Kukas, were radical anti-British revolutionaries, Sikhs in general were the strong and trustworthy backbone of the British army for quite some time.

Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh

Over time, particularly during World War I, the British suspended due process of law and put in place restrictive legislation known as the Defence of India Acts. Naturally, civil unrest increased under martial law—as did paranoia within the British Raj.

In April 1919, around the time Gandhi was denied entrance into Amritsar by the British, who were fearful he’d stir up trouble there (this was shortly after he’d become prominent for his acts of anti-British, nonviolent civil disobedience, or satyagraha), Amritsar was under lockdown due to politically motivated riots and violence. British General Dyer and his troops patrolled the city. All public meetings were forbidden.

April 13, the day of the Baisakhi Spring Festival and anniversary of the creation of Guru Govind’s Khalsa Panth, thousands of Sikhs and Hindus gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, a large, walled garden near the Golden Temple. Some had walked long distances for the festival, unaware of the prohibition on gatherings, while others came together in protest of British oppression.

The British feared this signaled another rebellion, similar to the one that, quite ironically, the Sikh Panth had helped quell in 1857. But rather than prevent the gathering to begin with, General Reginald Dyer took action after the fact to ensure what he considered a proper respect for British authority: he ordered British Indian Army troops to march to the bagh and open fire...without warning, without respite.

In the end, these troops fired 1,650 rounds and didn’t stop until ammunition ran low. People were packed so tightly together, with no means of escape, that 400 Punjabis were left dead and more than 1,200 wounded (some sources list this number as high as 1,526).

The Aftermath

General Dyer gave no apology for what he did there. Although Winston Churchill and the House of Commons criticised the act, calling it a “monstrous event,” others considered Dyer a hero. The British House of Lords commended him and, quite inexplicably, even the Guardians of the Golden Temple enrolled him in the Brotherhood of Sikhs.

Among Indians, particularly Punjabis, deep grief over the massacre cemented support for Gandhi’s Noncooperation Movement. Noted writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tragore returned his knighthood to the British as a form of protest over the tragedy, while S. Srinivas Iyengar returned his Order of the Indian Empire and resigned from office.

A Punjabi named Udham Singh, who’d been living at the Khalsa Orphanage and was present during the massacre, later became an ardent revolutionary. In 1940 in London, he assassinated Michael O’Dwyer, who’d been British Lieutenant-Governor at the time of the massacre; Reginald Dyer had died 13 years earlier of natural causes. Udham Singh was hanged soon thereafter and was considered by many to be a hero in Sikh history.

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