New Delhi: The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), an apex religious body of Sikhs, recently passed a resolution that accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of threatening minority communities by intervening in their affairs.
The irony of this move cannot be lost as the RSS had defended the sacred Sikh Shrine ‘Darbar Sahib’ at Amritsar twice when Muslim League-led mobs attacked it in 1947. The Sangh came out to protect Sikhs during anti-Sikh riots in 1984. And on 25 June 1989, 21 RSS swayamsevaks sacrificed their lives against terrorism in Punjab when an RSS Shakha, held in a park, came under a terror attack at Moga. These swayamsevaks were shot dead. An RSS resolution, in the wake of this tragedy, had emphasised the importance of collective efforts for nation building.
The connection between the RSS and the Sikhs has a historical context. During partition of India in 1947, RSS saved lives of a large number Sikhs also and played a major role in protecting the population of Punjab from the onslaught of the Muslim league-led mobs. It also helped move them to safer places.
During that era the English Tribune wrote: “Punjab is the sword arm of Hindustan and RSS is the sword arm of Punjab (The Saffron Surge: Untold Story of RSS Leadership, Prabhat Prakashan).”
Manikchandra Vajpayee and Sridhar Paradkar have mentioned in detail these two incidents in their seminal work, ‘Partition Days: The Fiery Saga of RSS’. The first attack came on the night of 6 March 1947.
“It was a terrible night of March 6. A formidable, organized mob of Muslims led by National Guards in their uniform was advancing from Sherawala Gate to Chowk Fawara in Amritsar. This time their target was the well-known Krishna Textile market and sacred Darbar Sahib. But…the moment they reached Chowk Fawara, they were fiercely attacked from all sides with lathis, swords, spears, knives and bombs. The mob saw that the attackers were none other but the Knickerwalas (RSS volunteers known as swayamsevaks were identified by their Khaki shorts during that era). They had taken such fright of the swayamsevaks’ past record that they ran away. Thus the victory under the leadership of brave swayamsevaks saved both the Krishna market and Darbar Sahib from destruction,” Vajpayee and Paradkar wrote.
The RSS posted 75 swayamsevaks (the complete list with names and addresses is available in the appendix of ‘Partition Days: The Fiery Saga of RSS’) to safeguard the Darbar Sahib at all times from any further onslaught. The RSS’ operations to protect the Darbar Sahib were primarily led by Dr Baldev Prakash, the then chief of RSS’ evening shakhas in Amritsar, along with the town pracharak (full time worker) Dr Indrapal, and Goverdhan Chopra, incharge of morning shakhas in Amritsar.
The second attack by Muslim mobs on Darbar Sahib began on 9 March. Vajpayee and Paradkar have given a blow-by-blow account of this incident too.
“That day March 9, 1947 troops of uniformed Muslim National Guards begin to advance towards the Gurudwara from three sides. A big contingent was advancing from the League’s stronghold in Katra Karam Singh, the second from Namak Mandi and the third from Sherawala Darwaza. All of them were armed.”
“There were a handful of sewadars and they were frightened. Unfortunately about a hundred unarmed pilgrims were also trapped inside. Because of the curfew they could not leave. Jathas of Sikhs from the rural areas who were coming on receiving information about the situation were stopped outside by armed policemen. This had been done in conspiracy with the League. Phone calls were coming to the Punjab relief committee office from the Gurdwara saying Muslim mobs were advancing towards the Darbar Sahib and the Golden temple was in danger. ‘Would you swayamsevaks not come to our aid?’ Durga Das Khanna, in-charge of the Karyalaya (RSS office) kept assuring them — Don’t panic, swayamsevaks have reached there and they have taken up positions in every lane. Whatever the cost, we won’t let anything happen to the sacred Darbar Sahib. This time too we will teach the Muslims a lesson.”
The Muslim groups were advancing but the swayamsevaks were also alert. Dr Baldev Prakash had also reached there with a team of swayamsevaks. Every mohalla and every house had already turned into a fortress. “This time the plan was not just self-defence but counter attack.”
The first confrontation was at Chowk Fawara where Muslim mobs had to retreat after some fighting. At all other places also Muslim mobs had to retreat back.
“Now the tables were decisively turned. The attackers were on the run and the defenders were chasing them and punishing them. The whole city rang with the shouts of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Sat Shri Akaal’.”
‘RSS played a role in maintaining Hindu-Sikh unity’
In a first-hand account of the riots in Lahore in run-up to partition, Prof. A.N. Bali gives a detailed description of how RSS saved a large number of Sikhs and Hindus. Prof. Bali taught in Panjab University and was a resident of Lahore. The book titled ‘Now it can be told’ was first published in 1949 and the preface was written by Master Tara Singh, a Sikh stalwart who played a key role in shaping up of the Akali movement as well as the emergence of SGPC as a key body of Sikhs.
Bali writes: “The police was mostly League minded … who else came to the rescue of the people at this stage but a band of young selfless Hindus, known as RSS. They organized in every mohalla (area) of every town of the province the evacuation of the Hindu and Sikh women and children from dangerous pockets to comparatively safe centres. They organized for their feeding, medical aid, clothing and care … even fire brigades were formed in various towns.”
“Their (RSS) discipline, their physical fitness and their selflessness in the face of dangers came to the rescue of the people in Punjab when the whole province was burning and when the Congress leaders were helplessly fiddling in New Delhi, not being able to overcome the opposition to the Muslim League and the obstinacy of the governor-general to their proposal for stronger action for the maintenance of law and order.”
After the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, noted columnist and author Khushwant Singh had said, “RSS has played an honourable role in maintaining Hindu-Sikh unity before and after the murder of Indira Gandhi in Delhi and in other places. It was the Congress (I) leaders who instigated mobs in 1984 and got more than 3,000 people killed. I must give due credit to RSS and the BJP for showing courage and protecting helpless Sikhs during those difficult days. No less a person than Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself intervened at a couple of places to help poor taxi drivers.”
(The writer is research director with Delhi based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. He has authored two books on RSS. Views expressed are personal)