In July 1947, five of India’s six million Sikhs still lived in the Punjab. They constituted only 13% of its population, but owned 40% of its land and produced almost two thirds of its crops. Almost a third of the members of India’s armed forces were Sikhs and close to half of the Indian Army’s medal winners in two World Wars had come from their ranks.
The tragedy of the Punjab was that while Moslems and Sikhs could live under the British they could not live under each other. The Moslems’ memory of Sikh rule in the Punjab was one of ‘mosques defiled, women outraged, tombs razed, Moslems without regard to age or sex butchered, bayoneted, strangled, shot down, hacked to pieces, burnt alive’.
For the Sikhs, the tales of their sufferings at the hands of the Punjab’s Moghul rulers were embedded into a bloody folklore preached to every Sikh child as soon as it reached the age of understanding. At the Golden Temple was a museum designed to maintain alive in the memory of each succeeding generation of Sikhs the details of every indignity, every horror, every atrocity their people had suffered at the hands of the Moslems.
In gory profusion, huge oil paintings depicted spread-eagled Sikhs being sawed in half for refusing to embrace Islam, ground to pulp between huge stone mills; crushed between meshing wheels studded with blades like gears; Sikh women at the gates of the Moghuls’ palace in Lahore seeing their infants speared and beheaded by the Moghuls’ Praetorian guard.
The failure of the Sikhs to react to the violence done in March to their community had surprised and comforted both the Moslems and the politicians in Delhi. The Sikhs had lost their old martial vigour, it was whispered, they had gone soft with prosperity. That was a grave misjudgement of their mood. Early in June, while the Viceroy and India’s leaders had been reaching agreement in Delhi on India’s division, the Sikh leadership had met at a secret council in Nedou’s Hotel in Lahore. Its purpose was to decide Sikh strategy in case partition was accepted. The dominant voice at the council was that of the hot-eyed fanatic who had started the March conflagration by hacking down a Moslem League banner with his kirpan. Tara Singh, called ‘Master’ by his followers because he was a third-grade school teacher, had lost many members of his own family in the violence he had provoked and one passion motivated him now, revenge. ‘O Sikhs,’ he had shouted in a speech that foretold too well the tragedy soon to overtake the Punjab, ‘be ready for self-destruction like the Japanese and Nazis. Our lands are about to be over- run, our women dishonoured. Arise and once more destroy the Moghul invader. Our mother land is calling for blood! We shall sate her thirst with our blood and the blood of our enemies!*