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. 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.
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.
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 move 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.
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.
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.