THIS IS NOT A REVIEW. It is some thoughts when I watched the movie Sajjan Singh Rangroot.
The movie Sajjan Singh Rangroot is based on this war. The term Rangroot, is an Indianization, and most likely comes from the word 'recruit'. Is the movie name Sajjan pure coincidence? Does it indirectly allude to Harjit Singh Sajjan? I don’t know but that is not the point of this write up.
I found SSR playing close to home and booked our tickets before I encountered two disparate reviews of the film - one positive, another negative. Before leaving for the movie last night I checked with my honourary Panjabi wife Lakshmi if she was okay going for a movie which might turn out flat. She only asked, if it had subtitles. To my relief, it had. SSR had something more – nostalgia which makes you question the present and the future.
The utility of art is in its raising questions which create spaces for reflection. A historical movie is a powerful platform for questions because it locates them in a particular milieu and context. This one does so when the Lahore Division, British Indian Army, reaches Europe to participate in the Great War. The mostly Sikh, but also Hindu and Muslim unit finds itself being discriminated against on the basis of race and colour. Sajjan puts a question to his Subedar Zorawar Singh: why have we (Indians or Panjabis or Sikhs, read as you may) come to defend the borders of those who have infiltrated our borders?
This duty of a Sikh, since the inception of the Khalsa 1699, is to stand for justice. The Sikhs are valorized for their bravery, for being the sword arm of the society, for protecting the weak against injustice.
The build up to the question lies in Panjab of the 1910s when Sajjan states we are slaves to the British. He is reluctant to join the military which his doting father - himself an orderly with Sir John - wants him join for its relative security, ease of life, and the option of coming back home each night. Sajjan agrees and joins the military. When it comes to enlisting for war, his father is reluctant to send him. However, Sajjan's mother steps in and says: 'I did not raise my son to keep him locked in rooms. If he has to go, he has to go. That is his duty.'
This duty of a Sikh, since the inception of the Khalsa 1699, is to stand for justice. The Sikhs are valorized for their bravery, for being the sword arm of the society, for protecting the weak against injustice. A core inspiration of their faith as defined by Guru Gobind, the 10th Guru, in his words as:
Chirion se main baaz turaun, Tabe Gobind Singh naam kahaun
Sawa lakh se ek laraun, Tabe Gobind Singh naam kahaun.
When I make sparrows fight hawks, call me Gobind Singh.
When I make one fight a hundred thousand, call me Gobind Singh.
For a fledgling new religion the odds were stacked against the Khalsa. The fight for justice in every age is hard but this was a system of cruel and ruthless monarchies supported by large armies. The Sikhs who joined the Khalsa were small in numbers and variously placed in skills and tactics. They needed inspiration. The lines of the Guru are inspiration. Even beyond it, they serve as purpose for the Guru has linked his being considered a Guru to a Sikh's being able to achieve a grand purpose of action. After all, every soldier will tell you, battles and wars are won by determination and perseverance.
In villages even now younger boys seek to have a Bai, a brother, who can guide them. The culture comes from geography. Panjab is placed between the Orient and the Occident, the East and the West, the Himalayas and the desert, Central Asia and the sea.
That is why, in spite of the small footprint, the imprint of the Sikhs is much larger - disproportionate to their size. History is witness that the contribution of Sikhs in battles and in peace is vastly disproportionate to their real numbers, to the land they occupy. One of the reasons is every Sikh child, right from birth, is infused with stories of martial valour. It is ingrained in the psyche of the people. The Sikh prayer – the Ardas – is about sacrifice, martyrdom, longing for justice and perseverance in the face of odds. It is cultural and it is religious. Yet, mindless violence goes nowhere. The idea is to find a purpose.
It was good while the Guru guided the community. After that, tall generals guided the misls - the Sikhs formed 13 divisions to deal with the power structures of Delhi and with invaders Ahmed Shah Abdali, Nadir Shah and others. By the turn of the 18th Century the Sikhs formed their own secular kingdom under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Then came the British. They defeated the Sikhs and established their colonial rule in 1849. Yet, the British recognized the fighting ability of the Sikhs and recruited them in large numbers for their armies.
In the World War I, the Sikhs formed 22 per cent of the 1.2 million British Indian Army and served in Belgium, France, Galipoli, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Eritrea and East Africa, and so on. While engaging the Sikhs, having burnt their hands on the infamous pork-cow fat issue that led to the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the British maintained a core principle: do not force fit the Panjabis - Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus - into a template.
In fact, the British asked the Sikhs to fight in the name of the eternal living Guru - the Granth Sahib. Recognizing the Sikh talent, they encouraged use of their own weaponry - the kirpans and sabre - along with gunpowder, guns, and canons. Those who frown upon the role of religion in modern studies may call it indoctrination, but to me it was simple faith - in the Guru, in the Holy Book, in the just cause, in a purpose larger than their individual selves. It produced massive results - it saved Europe. That is what Subedar Zorawar Singh answers: ‘Yes, the British rule but they have not tried to convert us. That is our freedom.’
When the attack is on, the British soldiers decide to not expose themselves to German fire and advance to the next trench. The Sikh soldiers engage in the dare devil attack. The slogans that rise among the soldiers is Jai Mata Sherawali, Jo Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal. Many die. Sajjan mourns Dheera, he mourns Gul Mohammad, and he mourns Lakshman. This was the spirit of Panjab - a camaraderie that extended beyond religious identity. A valour where Sikhs did well but other religions too did well. Sajjan also asks Zorawar, 'Will our martyrdom be valued?'
Zorawar answers, 'Maybe'.
In this 'maybe' is contained a century of what happened to Sikhs since the war. The critical moment arrives in the film when the Germans seek the Lahore Division to betray the British. They offer triple the salary, promotions. In the response to this question I found the film offered a study of how the Sikh mind operates. Zorawar engages his soldiers in the decision. Given the military hierarchy, but even beyond that, given the feudal nature of Panjab, every soldier says: we will do what you say Subedar Sahib. No one stands up to say what he believed should be done.
This transfer of decision is deeply ingrained in a largely fatalistic society – prepared to die for a cause provided a loved and respected elder defines the cause. The average Sikh looks for an elder, a father figure. The Sikhs revere Guru Gobind as the Dashmesh Pita – a father figure. In villages even now younger boys seek to have a Bai, a brother, who can guide them. The culture comes from geography. Panjab is placed between the Orient and the Occident, the East and the West, the Himalayas and the desert, Central Asia and the sea. For three millennia it has been a gateway to the sub-continent. Its people familiar and bewildered by attacks and wars seek succour, they seek guidance, and they look up to those who can provide authority and leadership. Once the path is defined, they excel in achieving it. Individually each Sikh is a lion - they were even called Black Lions by the Arabs in the Great War - but when it comes to the next level of thinking, commanding an idea, a certain kind of leadership, they seek guidance. Sajjan intervenes to say: 'That would be betrayal. We have decided to fight on this side. Once decided, we stick by our decisions.'
The failure of Indian democracy is that it has not been able to synthesize a culture of some of the nation’s strong sub-nationalities - the north eastern, the Bengali, Maratha, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayali. The cow-belt politics has stunted India’s democratic pursuit.
This is principles. A code of conduct. This is heroism. Sikhs, at least a hundred years back, stood by it. A hundred years in which the value they got from the world has shifted considerably – earlier as eulogy, then as demonization, and now as indifference. When Sajjan is dying and learns the Allied powers have won the war, he asks, ‘Will we be a free nation now?’
That did not happen for another thirty years. When freedom came, it spilt unimaginable blood of Panjab (and Bengal). The communal division split the Panjabiat which was beyond religious identity. When democracy was established, vote bank politics sought to fix Panjab in a numbers game. The sword was replaced by an ink blot on the index finger. The Black Lion was caged. The quest for Panjabi Suba spawned another level of breakdown of the common Panjabiat, this time between Hindus and Sikhs. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution was an attempt to create a large imprint – federalism for the nation - but the Centre did not accept it. Even so, the Sikhs rose up to defy Emergency – 70,000 Akalis, half the number of total arrests, carried out a non-violent protest and courted arrest under the banner Campaign to Save Democracy
. After that things just went downhill – communalism, militancy, erosion of Panjab and its value-based framework.
Panjab has remained the bread basket of the nation for five decades. In spite of being 2 per cent land, it has stood between India and hunger. The contribution is disproportionate. But the value Panjab or Sikhs get for being themselves is ambiguous. It has led to a loss of adequate leadership among Sikhs, in Panjab.
The failure of Indian democracy is that it has not been able to synthesize a culture of some of the nation’s strong sub-nationalities - the north eastern, the Bengali, Maratha, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayali. The cow-belt politics has stunted India’s democratic pursuit. Yet, notice, Panjab has remained the bread basket of the nation for five decades. In spite of being 2 per cent land, it has stood between India and hunger. The contribution is disproportionate. But the value Panjab or Sikhs get for being themselves is ambiguous. It has led to a loss of adequate leadership among Sikhs, in Panjab.
That is why when Captain meets Canadian defence minister, the leaders recognize the individual bravery of Sikhs, celebrate the British crown that brought them together, but remain suspicious of each other arising out of their national loyalties. They do not have a plan for the people who have created the history on which they stand. That is Panjab’s tragedy - its people seek their place in nostalgia but not in the possibility of a glorious future or a present that keeps them caged.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction on Panjab.
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