In the wake of this week’s white supremacist massacre of unarmed Sikh worshippers in Wisconsin, The eXiled proudly reposts a War Nerd classic first published in The eXile in July 2007:
FRESNO, CA — I think I’ve finally found a religion I can convert to. I’m thinking of turning Sikh. And we’ll just slide right by all the puns popping into your little heads, if you don’t mind. The Sikhs are just the coolest warrior tribe around. Take their scripture.
My Bible goes on about beating swords into plowshares — I always hated that bit, because all you’d get was a wrecked sword and a lousy plow. But the Sikh scripture actually says that the sword predates the universe: “After the primal manifestation of the sword, the universe was created.”
See? That’s a god who’s got his priorities in order! No doubt about it, I’m letting my beard grow and practicing wrapping old socks around my head. Gary B. Singh, you can call me from now on.
It all started when I got a letter from a guy named Gill, a Sikh in the UK, whining about how I’d talked up all the other warrior tribes but never had a word to say for the Sikhs. “Give us some love, Gary,” Gill whined.
Well, the War Nerd makes war, not love, but after weeks of looking into this Sikh thing, I gotta give the bearded boys their due. The Sikhs have one of the most amazing military histories on the planet. And they’re still living through their Golden Age right now. One of the great last stands in Sikh history happened less than 25 years ago, when 200 Sikh militants holed up in their version of the Mormon Tabernacle, the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, India. Anybody with sense knew those 200 Sikhs were going to fight like demons, because that’s what Sikhs have been doing for the past 400 years. Sikh military history is so packed with glorious last stands that George Armstrong Custer would be a smalltime footnote if he’d worn a big turban to go with that long hair and beard of his.
It was 1984, and the Indian Army must have known it was in for a big bloody mess to get the temple back, especially since its upper ranks are filled mostly with Sikh generals, Sikhs being the designated hitters of the Indian war game. But Indira Gandhi was PM, and she was a lady who didn’t like being disobeyed, so she ordered her Sikh Commanding General to overrun the temple.
Mistake. The Sikh CO inside the temple was a dude named Shahbeg Singh, who pretty much single-handedly engineered the collapse of the Pakistani Army in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. It was Shahbeg who organized the Mukhti Bahini, the Bangladeshi guerrillas who made history by being the first Bengali armed force in history not to pee in their dhotis and flee at the sound of gunfire. In fact, this Sikh must’ve given the Bengalis some kind of Sikh blood transfusion because they fought well enough to make the West Pak garrisons surrender en masse even before Indian troops crossed the Bengal border. After that it was the end of history for East Bengal, except for a bunch of whiney George Harrison begging chanteys, and a tidal wave or two.
Well, this same Shahbeg arranged the defense of the Golden Temple so well that at the end of a seven-day battle with the Indian Army’s best units, his 200-odd amateur militants had inflicted 83 KIA on the army and even managed to blast the first tank to enter the compound. They paid a price, naturally – at least 500 Sikh dead and the Temple blasted into gold dust. But Sikhs — well, if there’s one thing you can say about ’em, it’s that they’re willing to pay any price.
And they make the enemy pay, too. Less than five months after Indira Gandhi ordered the attack on the Temple, she was strolling into her garden to be interviewed by that fat old Brit with the Russian name, Peter Ustinov, when the Sikhs got their revenge. It must have been a pretty scene, the fat man sweating in the Delhi heat, Indira swirling up in her best sari — when BOOM! Two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs, naturally, opened fire on her with machine guns, turning her into human chutney. She died before the sweat dried on Ustinov’s chins. And then, just to add to Ustinov’s fun, her other non-Sikh bodyguards started blasting at the Sikh shooters, killing one and wounding another.
The Compassionate Guru: Founding Sikh, Nanak Sahib
Shortest — and loudest — interview the old battle-ax ever gave. Last, too.
That was the Sikh revenge for “Operation Bluestar,” the temple raid. By the way, that’s another of these lame ops titles they keep coming up with. Should’ve called it “Operation Blowback,” or “Operation Indira, Are You Sure?”
For the Sikhs, this was just like Chapter Two Million in a long and glorious series of battles, assassinations and massacres. The Sikhs were born in the Punjab, the coolest part of India. Every conqueror in history headed that way as soon as he got his learner’s license at 15. Punjab was the last, and the toughest place Alexander himself ever tried to take. He was so impressed with the army of Pontus, as they called it then, that he said every Punjabi deserved to be called Alexander. Which was high praise, since Alex was never known for modesty.
Before him even those lazy necrophiliac Egyptians had a stab at the Punjab. I couldn’t believe it when I read it, but apparently those Nile-side loungers had the energy to attack the Punjab. Everybody had a turn, though it was the Persians and the Afghans who turned invading the Punjab from a healthy, occasional fun evening into an unhealthy obsession.
And that was before Islam was added to the subcontinental mix. By the time Sikhism started, about 400 years ago, the Mughal emperors, basically a bunch of land pirates who swooped down out of Afghanistan to plunder the plains, had tried to convert India to Islam by using the time-honored method of appealing to the prospect’s common sense: “Convert or we’ll hack you into a million tiny pieces.” The Hindu majority, under the thumbs of hundreds of feudal kings, tried to weasel out of conversion so they could hang on to their own homegrown miseries, like the caste system. The Hindus’ ultimate weapon was simple inertia and birthrate. The Afghans’ sword arms just got tired after a while, hacking in that heat, and they said, “Aw, the Hell with it.” Northern India settled into a lazy routine with the occasional massacre, a lot of bribery, nasty little village snobs hating each other.
A brave Sikh martyr takes a Moghul bath
Then along comes the founder of Sikhism, Nanak, and says, “There is no Muslim, there is no Hindu.” Meaning the Hell with both of you. Sikhs were radicals from the start. All the little traditions people know about them started out as in-your-face rebel yells in the Punjab. Like those beards: only the Mughal were allowed to wear long hair and beards. So the Sikh all let theirs grow longer than John and Yoko’s. That name, “Singh,” every Sikh guy has? It means “Lion” but the real point is that it replaced all the caste names they had before. Like Malcolm making his last name “X.”
The Mughals didn’t like it. They said so pretty clearly. Take the early career of the sixth Sikh guru, an orphan named Gobind Rai. It was the Mughals who made him an orphan, by torturing his dad to death. See, in the old Punjab, death was nothing; death was what you got if the head man was in a good mood.
Most of the time they weren’t in a very good mood, so you got real slow, horrible deaths. At least somebody at the Mughal court was nice enough to FedEx Gobind a package with his dad’s head in it, Seven-style.
Gobind decided right about then to end the whole peacenik tradition of Sikhism. He had a sense of style, so to set the mood he called all the Sikhs together and came onstage with a big huge sword and said, “My sword wants blood. Who wants to supply it? I need a volunteer!” Well, he would’ve bombed as a stage magician because there was a looooooong silence, no hands raised, till an Untouchable convert came up. Gobind took him into a tent and came out alone, bloody as an apprentice butcher. Four more volunteers and the crowd was beginning to grumble. Then Gobind revealed the trick, which you’ve all probably guessed already especially if you remember Sunday school, Isaac and Abraham: the five dudes were alive! Heroes! All in new armor! Ready to kill!
These “Five Beloved” were the core of the Akala, the Immortals, an elite Sikh unit that wore these ridiculous Harry Potter turbans with metal rings on them. The rings, called “quoits,” were supposedly sharp and you can throw them as weapons. But I’m sorry, I’d be willing to stand all day in front of some dude in a wizard’s hat throwing sharpened frisbees at me.
The Sikhs’ real weapon was the flintlock. A grumbly Muslim Afghan wrote that “these dogs [the Sikhs] invented the musket, and nobody knows these weapons better. These bad-tempered people discharge hundreds of bullets on the enemy, on the left and right and back.” Aww, poor little Afghan! Those pesky bad-tempered Sikhs, shooting at you when all you want to do is massacre them for their unbelief and steal their stuff along the way! No-friggin’-fair!
The Sikhs were more than happy to fight hand-to-hand whenever it made sense, and even got praise from the Brits for hacking Brit soldiers to death with their swords even after being spitted on the redcoats’ bayonets. But the Sikhs were also sensible people: Why risk getting cut when you can lure the enemy into an ambush and knock him out of the saddle at long range?
The Sikhs evolved a theory of warfare called “the two-and-a-half strikes.” You got a full point for ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, but only a half point for pitched battles where you lost a lot of your own men. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Francis Marion and Patton himself would have agreed.
By 1810 the Sikhs had driven the Mughals out of the Punjab. They owned the place, literally: They had an independent Sikh kingdom running there, and by all accounts it was the one place in India where something sorta resembling law and order actually prevailed.
The only reason the Sikhs didn’t go on to run all of India and maybe the world is simple: They ran into the Brits. Same reason the Zulu didn’t get to own all of southern Africa. A lot of big, strong tribes were on the movie in Queen Victoria’s time, and the same thing happened to most of them: They met the Brits, and that was all she wrote.
Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab, was smart enough to sign a treaty with the Brits, keep a strong army to back it up, and avoid the sort of little faked “border incidents” the Raj loved to use to start a war. When he died in 1839, the Punjab fell into the usual bickering, and the Brits pounced.
I keep telling you, the Brits circa 1840 weren’t the cute little Monty Python guys you imagine. They were stone killers, the best since the Romans, totally ruthless, no more conscience than a drain contractor. They saw the Sikhs fighting among themselves and went for it.
Even then, even with Sikh traitors fighting for the Brits, the Sikhs had the best of the first Anglo-Sikh war. The Brits lost more than 2,000 men in the first battle, Ferozeshah, in 1845, and were on the verge of offering unconditional surrender when reinforcements arrived and overwhelmed the Khalsa, the Sikh army. The second war, in 1849, was easier, because the Brits, who knew more about occupation than our lame Bremer clones ever will, used the three years in between to bribe, assassinate and divide the Sikh elite. Even so, the Sikh cavalry, fighting basically without any leaders, slaughtered the British cavalry at the battle of Chillianwalla, smacking down the redcoats’ little ceremonial swords with their big scimitars. I’ve read Brit officers’ accounts of that battle, and they say something you get in all accounts of the Sikh: how big and strong the bastards are. The Brits said they felt like children beside the Sikh horsemen, and there’s really funny picture of a white officer surrounded by Sikh soldiers, looking like a pasty little midget with his bodyguards.
And you know the best thing about the Sikhs? They don’t waste time holding grudges. The Brits won; they accepted it, worked with it, and in a few years they were the core of the Raj’s army. That came in handy during the Great Mutiny; the Sikhs stayed loyal and that was what saved the Raj. In fact, the Sikhs stayed so loyal that the battle of Saraghari, one of their greatest-ever last stands, was fought in the service of the British.
In 1897, 21 Sikh soldiers in British service were occupying two tiny forts on the Afghan frontier. The Pushtun were getting bored, the way they do every few months, and decided to stop taking British gold and attack the Raj instead. So 15 or 20,000 Afghans whooped down to the frontier. And those 21 Sikhs were standing in their way.
Proudest of the Proud: Officers in the Punjab Cavalry
The Sikh garrison knew they were doomed, and if anything it kind of relaxed them. They went on to cover themselves with glory, killing hundreds of Afghans before they were overrun. The unit’s communications specialist, who used a helicograph, a kind of semaphore, sent his last message asking permission of his Brit officer to stop signaling and go down and die spitting Afghans on his bayonet. Permission was granted, and he carefully packed up his helicograph, charged into the fight and died gloriously.
The only objection you could make, and it’s kind of a quibble, is that politically this is a little weird, like a bunch of Mexicans dying in defense of the Alamo. I mean, it was the Brits who wrecked the Sikh’s homeland and all. But see, that kind of nitpicking is what ruins war-nerding. If you ask me, the Sikhs who died at Saraghari were just doing what they do best. I mean, what boy didn’t dream of dying at the Alamo, or Thermopylae, or on the Bonhomme Richard? Not many of us get a chance to actually do it, and if you do, you don’t nitpick about who pays your wages, you just soak up the gloriousness of it and imagine the songs they’ll write about you, how you’ll look as a statue.
And that’s the great thing about being a Sikh, which I’m gonna be soon unless the beard turns out too scratchy: It’s still happening! The Golden Age of Sikhism is still in session! When the rest of the world is a convalescent home, you can count on the Punjab – along with the Horn of Africa, and the Congo — to keep the old ways going. And you can count on the Sikh to be there, doing a Little Big Horn or Alamo every few years to keep life sweet, and give me hope that there’s something better outside of this office life I’m stuck in.
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