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The Storm Bursts
Tales of Haripur, Part III




Before long, and out of the blue one day, Haripur was plunged into turmoil between the religious communities of the area, as India came closer to gaining independence from the British.

Muslims were divided between the Muslim League and the secular parties supported by the likes of Dr. Khan Sahib and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (known as “Sarhadi“ - 'Frontier' - Gandhi').

The Sikh population, under the leadership of Baba Kharak Singh, was overwhelmingly loyal to the Indian National Congress. Exceptions were the students who were supporting the Panthic Party under the leadership of Master Tara Singh.

I remember a visit by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru to Haripur. They stayed at the house of Bhagat Duni Chand. As the family of Bhagat Duni Chand was affluent, the street where they lived was known as ‘Bhagtaa(n) da Mohalla‘. The family was Hindu but they were close friends of Sikhs and often participated in the gurdwara events.

I went to see Gandhi ji one morning at Bhagat Duni Chand’s home. I took off my shoes before entering the living room where he was seated and then sat down next to him. I heard him making a short speech to the gathering as well as answering the questions that followed. Essentially, he urged people to maintain unity and fight for freedom non-violently.

In 1945, the political tempo had started to heat up to a very dangerous level, threatening to impinge upon the amicable relationship between the various religious communities of Haripur.

For the first time in Haripur’s history, a procession in honor of Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday was attacked by some Muslim hooligans from the surrounding villages.

It was the winter of 1944-45. The procession was merely an annual event, accompanied by a lot of enthusiasm and festivities in the town.

This year was different.

A Muslim mob from some villages in the area also marched into the town and began to move towards the Sikh procession. The mob was certainly not supported by the local Muslim population. However, everyone was frightened as they were taken by surprise and were afraid to face the trouble-makers.

As usual, the Sikh procession was led by the Punj Pyare who, in accordance with tradition, were carrying full-length kirpans. When they saw that the mob was advancing toward the palanquin in which the Guru Granth was being carried, with obvious intent to cause mischief, the five moved forward to restrain the hooligans.

The mob shouted angry slogans but seeing the kirpans, fled. There was no reported injury on either side but the incident left a bad taste in the mouth.

The following winter, the same procession was again taken out, as usual, to celebrate Guru Gobind Singh ji’s birthday gurpurab. There was no inkling of any trouble as the local Muslims had, in traditional fraternal spirit, assured the Sikhs full protection in case of a repeat of the previous year’s scene.

However, the Muslim fanatics of the surrounding villages had not forgotten the embarrassment of the previous year. This year they recruited a much larger number of supporters from the neighbouring villages and worked hard in fueling their feelings against Sikhs. They appeared to be better organized to cause mayhem this time around.

A sea of hooligans with machetes, knives, axes and stones surprised the town by attacking it from several directions. Intimidated by the size of the attack, and the propaganda that had immediately preceded it within their mohallas, the local Muslim population saw it fit to stay away.

The few who did come were mere spectators. They also tried somewhat to warn the Sikhs of what they had heard was coming their way, and attempted to get the procession managers to change their plans. They urged the celebrating crowd to disperse and hide.

The mob, after entering the town center, went into a frenzied spree of looting and burning non-Muslim property, as it advanced towards the procession route. From our roof-tops and shelters, we were watching the forays of the assailants. We could hear the loud sloganeering emanating from the mob as it progressed towards us.

I was hiding on a roof-top from where I could clearly see the Sikh procession. Suddenly, I saw smoke billowing out of a burning gurdwara located in the vicinity.

There were four gurdwaras in the town.

The gurdwara that was torched first was located in an area that was not well-protected. The resident caretakers were a lone Sikh family living on the premises. The gurdwara was burnt to ashes. The caretaker’s family escaped.

The mob then marched towards the Sikh procession which had by now reached the central area of the town and was in front of the major gurdwara known as the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha. The Sikhs marching in the procession were too small a number to effectively respond to the far larger and hostile mob.

The Sikh leaders gauged the impossible situation and terminated the procession. They apologized to the procession participants for their helplessness and asked them to disperse to protected places. However, despite these precautions, there were small skirmishes during the dispersal that resulted in a few casualties amongst the bystanders.

When the riotous mob reached the second gurdwara where the procession had already reached, they found the akhand paatth - the continuous 48-hour reading of the scriptures being held in commemoration of the gurpurab -  in progress within the main hall.

The mob began pelting the gurdwara with stones. A number of the attackers then entered the gurdwara. The intruders were well armed and prepared to cause damage.

At the time of the attack, the head granthi (caretaker) of the gurdwara, Bhai Tara Singh, was seated behind the Guru Granth Sahib and engaged in the continuous recitation. The fact that this was a continuous, uninterrupted reading which involved no break or pause, was common knowledge to all in the land, including Muslims. Certainly the invading hoodlums would have known of this practice.

Bhai Tara Singh continued the reading as the assailants stormed in. They then clubbed him to death as he remained seated behind the Guru Granth Sahib, continuing with his duty.

The victim, focused on what he was doing, had refused to interrupt his flow of the recitation in order to flee to safety. His bleeding head fell on the volume of the Guru Granth Sahib. Seeing the blood on the pages of the holy book, the murderers ran out and disappeared into the crowd.

A female granthi - Mai Dhanwanti was her name - had earlier come from a neighboring gurdwara to serve during the akhand paatth in this gurdwara. She was living as a cleric in the Women’s Gurdwara which had been allocated exclusively for women in another part of the city.

She went into hiding when the intruders entered the gurdwara hall. From her hiding place, she witnessed the entire attack on Bhai Tara Singh, who was later hailed a shaheed (martyr).

She saw how the turban and the bloodied head of Tara Singh fell on the pages of the Guru Granth. She could not resist the situation anymore and would not let the akhand paatth be interrupted. On the spur of the moment, she decided to come out of hiding. She immediately sat beside the body and took over the reading of the Guru Granth.  

Amar Singh, the elder of the two sons of Bhai Tara Singh, heard about the attack on the gurdwara and his father’s martyrdom. Enraged by the attack, he emerged from his home behind the gurdwara with a drawn kirpan to deal with the mob.

During the skirmish, Amar Singh was hit on the head. His turban fell off, exposing his thick hair-bun. Miraculously, it saved him from serious injury. He continued to take on the mob single-handed with his kirpan, and managed to cause some lethal injuries.

The mob had disappeared by the time the city police arrived on the scene.

By the evening, Sikhs from the surrounding villages had arrived, well prepared to fight for their places of worship and to defend the Sikhs of Haripur. I remember watching them enter the city center area while shouting jaikaras (Sikh war-cries), with unsheathed kirpans in their hands.

By this time, city officials had summoned the army units from nearby Abbottabad to maintain peace in Haripur.

The very next day, the local population publicly condemned the attackers.  Muslims in the town joined their non-Muslim neighbours in prayers. They brought food and other supplies for those who had suffered injuries or other losses.

In a couple of days, the city and provincial administrations were fully at the scene to support the victims of the attack.

I recall meeting Sardar Ajit Singh Sarhadi, who was a minister in the provincial government and had come to Haripur to gauge the situation. He brought along with him a number of Muslim members of his cabinet to the scene. They met with the town officials to discuss steps for preventing such an incident from reccurring.

Continues with Part IV, next  Thursday, August 18 ...



August 11, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), August 11, 2011, 4:56 PM.

Religion has caused untold chaos to the human rRace. Guru Nanak rejected all institutionalized religion and criticised the clergy of all the religions for being frauds. They instigate their 'flocks' to take over the world and become the dominant group with a monopoly on 'salvation', which, of course, will never happen. The world needs contraception, NOT religion.

2: Gurinder singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), August 12, 2011, 12:03 PM.

I do not consider Gandhi and Nehru as friends of Sikhs. They backed out of their promise to give Sikhs an automonous area in India after India gained freedom.

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Tales of Haripur, Part III"

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