Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur and the Kashmiri Pandit Saga

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At a recent event at Delhi’s Red Fort, Home Minister Amit Shah referred to the martyrdom of the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur, who he said had given his life while opposing the atrocities committed against Kashmiri Pandits by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

While the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur on the orders of the Mughal Emperor in 1675 CE is a historical fact, there is an ongoing debate among historians on the circumstances that led to it. While there is plenty of evidence to show that Aurangzeb was a hardliner, who at times during his reign abandoned the policy of religious tolerance initiated by his ancestor Emperor Akbar, the reason for his anger against Guru Tegh Bahadur was actually wider. Also, the specific issue of Kashmiri Pandits approaching him for help is a little misleading.

The ‘Bachittar Nattak’

Several scholars use Bachittar Natak, a text attributed to Guru Gobind Singh, son and successor of Guru Tegh Bahadur, as the primary source for details about his martyrdom. Interestingly, this text does not explicitly mention that Hindus had approached the Guru to protest attempts by Aurangzeb to convert them to Islam, although it does describe the Guru as the “protector of the sacred tilak and the sacred thread of Hindus”.

An early 19th-century Dasam Granth manuscript frontispiece from British Library
An early 19th-century Dasam Granth manuscript frontispiece | British Library

There have been different interpretations of the Bachittar Natak by Sikh scholars, who question its authorship and debate whether it is a religious or a historical text. For example, religious scholar Robin Rinehart points out in her book Debating the Dasam Granth (2011) that a substantial portion of the Dasam Granth, which includes Bachittar Natak, narrates tales from Hindu mythology, suggesting a disconnect from the normative Sikh theology. Moreover, it has 30-odd adaptations.

The Guru as a Rallying Point

Akali Nihang Singh Bhangu, with his wife
Akali Nihang Singh Bhangu, with his wife | Wikimedia Commons

But many later scholars did pick out some details from the Bachittar Natak. The note on the persecution of Kashmiri Hindus by Aurangzeb and their turning to the Guru for help was further echoed in the annals written during the Sikh Empire (1801-1849). Akali Ratan Singh Bhangu Nihang was a Sikh historian who chronicled the history of the Sikhs, in his book Prachin Panth Prakash (1841). It is one of the few available historical accounts of the era.

This text follows the traditional narrative that Hindus, facing persecution from Aurangzeb due to their refusal to accept Islam, petitioned Guru Tegh Bahadur for help. Interestingly, as per Prachin Panth Prakash, not just Hindus from Kashmir, even those from Benares and the wider Gangetic plains are said to have been among the petitioners, something not mentioned in other historical annals.

This is not surprising. The 17th century was a period of political turmoil and Aurangzeb was brutal in suppressing dissent. Since the Guru was known for his tolerance, he became a rallying point against Aurangzeb, and among those who were drawn to the Guru were Hindus, in general, not just Kashmiri Pandits, in particular. In time, Tegh Bahadur’s following grew larger and larger, and Aurangzeb saw him as a challenger to his authority, which made him take brutal action against the Guru.

A Political Challenger

Sohan Lal Suri, the court historian of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, says in his work Umdat-ut-Twarikh that the reason for Aurangzeb’s hostility towards the ninth Guru was the latter’s political popularity. He points out that Guru Tegh Bahadur had at his command thousands of soldiers and horsemen, while camels and goods of all kinds were at his disposal. Moreover, those who were opposed to the social elite, such as the zamindars, ijaraddars, diwans and other officials, found solace with the Guru.

Several modern scholars even profoundly explain the theory of a political rather than religious motive behind the Guru’s martyrdom. Among them is American scholar Audrey Truschke, who in her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (2017), writes: “A commonly repeated story is that Aurangzeb asked Tegh Bahadur to convert to Islam and then executed him when the Sikh guru stood firm in his faith. Given Aurangzeb’s typically harsh actions against state enemies, I find it unlikely that conversion, even if offered, would have saved Tegh Bahadur.”

Gurdwara Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, Delhi - Built to commemorate the cremation of Guru Tegh Bahadur | Wikimedia Commons
Gurdwara Gurdwara Rakab Ganj Sahib, Delhi - Built to commemorate the cremation of Guru Tegh Bahadur | Wikimedia Commons

Another popular fallacy concerning the martyrdom of the Guru is the one in that Aurangzeb had asked him to “perform a miracle to save his life” before giving the orders, and that Aurangzeb watched as the Guru was beheaded. However, historically there is no proof of Aurangazeb being in Delhi at the time of the Guru’s martyrdom.

Saqi Mustaid Khan, soon after the death of Aurangzeb, collected the official records and with their help wrote the Emperor’s biography titled Maasir-i-Alamgiri. He mentions in his work that the Mughal Emperor was in the North-Western region from April 1674 to the end of March 1676, suppressing the Pashtun rebellion (1672-77) there. Thus, he hadn’t returned to the capital by the time the Sikh Guru was executed, which is supposed to have taken place in November 1675.

Atrocities Against Kashmiri Hindus

Shifting focus to Kashmir, noted historian Satish Chandra writes in his book Medieval India (1999), “In most Sikh traditions, Sher Khan, the Mughal governor of Kashmir, had been trying to force the Hindus of Kashmir to convert, and that the final sacrifice of Guru Teg Bahadur was against this persecution.”

But Chandra further clarifies that “the Mughal governor of Kashmir since 1671 had been Iktekhar Khan, his predecessor being Saif Khan, who was a humane and broad-minded person. He had appointed a Hindu to advise him in administrative matters. His successor, after 1671, Iftekhar Khan, was anti-Shia but none of the histories of Kashmir (of that period) including the history of Kashmir written by Narayan Kaul in 1710 mention any persecution of Hindus." Moreover, there is no mention of a farman or edict attributed to Aurangzeb to attest that he had ordered the large-scale conversion of Hindus to Islam in the Kashmir Valley.

Clearly, there is much research to be done about this period and the life and times of the ninth Sikh Guru, Tegh Bahadur.

It is interesting how, today, 350 years after his martyrdom, the connection between the Guru and the Kashmiri Pandits is being resurrected. The latter is clearly in focus as this call-out comes just two months after The Kashmir Files (2022), a film that has triggered debate and raised questions about why the filmmakers chose to selectively pick facts and tell the story of what happened in the Valley in the 1990s.

We need a wider lens to understand events, lives and history.


Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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