With an unerring sense of the politically apposite as well as grandiose, Prime Minister Narendra Modi staged yet another mega event-cum-masterstroke in India’s ongoing political and civilisational drama. It was for the first time that an Indian prime minister had addressed the nation from the historic Red Fort after sundown. On the 400th birth anniversary or Prakash Parva of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Modi spoke not from its lofty ramparts, but from the more equal and equable front lawns, in front of a huge gathering of the Sikh sangat, the community of the gurus’ followers.
The evening was dominated by shabad kirtan, devotional songs, by a large ensemble of singers and musicians. Modi, listening intently, head bowed, said: “I felt at peace while listening to the shabad. I am happy that the country is following the path of our gurus.” Dressed in modest white, with a luminous saffron saropa or sacred bandanna, Modi focused not so much on the birth, but on the martyrdom of the guru. The Red Fort, the Mughal capitol, has been the continuing symbol of power through the British era and independent India. But it was also from these premises that Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, gave the orders in 1675 for the execution of the guru.
The story of the torture of his companions and the beheading of Guru Tegh Bahadur in Chandni Chowk is well-known. It has been memorialised in as many as six major shrines and monuments. But the potential of this historic martyrdom to change and impact present-day India has not yet been fully realised, let alone exhausted. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), knowing this well, has made deliberate and considered overtures to the Sikhs. Not only by repealing the unpopular farm laws, but also by not fighting too hard in the recent Assembly elections in Punjab. Despite having a “winnable” candidate to lead its alliance in Capt Amarinder Singh, the former chief minister, the BJP strategists preferred a slower, but surer, plan is now obvious.
Home Minister and former party president Amit Shah made this clear the day before, on 20 April, at the Red Fort, when he said that Guru Tegh Bahadur had given his life to protect Kashmiri Pandits from Aurangzeb’s forced conversion pogrom. “When the Mughals began torturing Kashmiri Pandits, they sought Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh’s help.” Shah added, “He asked them to tell Aurangzeb if he could convert him (Guru Tegh Bahadur) everyone will follow suit. Guru Tegh Bahadur came to Delhi himself. He suffered immeasurable torture and even witnessed the death of his three followers. However, he did not deter.” Modi also invoked this tale of heroism and sacrifice, “Resisting Aurangzeb’s tyrannical thinking, Guru Tegh Bahadur ji, becoming 'Hind di Chadar', stood like a rock.”
The symbolism of the Modi Sarkar celebrating both the 500th birth anniversary of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak, as well as the 400th birth anniversary of the martyred 9th guru, Tegh Bahadur, would not be lost on Sikhs. But even more eloquent than thousands of words were the optics of both India’s Prime Minister and Home Minister bowing, kneeling, and genuflecting in front of the Guru Granth Sahib, showing respect and seeking the blessings of the Sikh gurus on auspicious occasions. Both leaders thereby underscored not only their reverence for, and gratitude to, the Sikh gurus but emphasised how the latter belong to the whole of India.
This was a civilisational statement of the highest import, especially resonant in the backdrop of the conspiracy to divide Sikhs and Hindus, going back even before Operation Bluestar, the attack on Harmandir Sahib, the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in the nation’s capital and its deadly aftermath, the Khalistan movement, back to the bloody Partition of India itself. By pushing the entire burden of this dirty, dangerous, and damaging history towards the Congress, the BJP, under Modi, has made a bold and brave endeavour to suture the rent in the civilisational unity of India. What better way to ensure national integration and the safety of our borders under threat from our “permanent enemy”, Pakistan?
Speaking of India’s civilisational resilience and glory, Modi said, “Big powers have disappeared, big storms have calmed down, but India still stands immortal and is moving ahead.” Modi has consistently used his flagship India@75 celebration, “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav,” to unite and bring together different pro-nationalist and unifying strands of the nation into one huge tapestry from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Punjab to Assam. On this occasion of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s 400th anniversary, Modi released a commemorative Rs 400 coin and postage stamp, also launching several animation clips and short films on the guru’s life, soon to be translated into major Indian languages.
The idea was not only to spread the guru’s message and teachings, but also to de-sectarianise and re-nationalise his legacy. Modi said, “Guru Nanak Dev ji united the whole country in one thread. Guru Tegh Bahadur's followers were everywhere. Patna Sahib in Patna and Rakabganj Sahib in Delhi, we see 'Ek Bharat' everywhere in the form of Guru's wisdom and blessings.”
Referring to the guru’s great contribution, Modi paid him a glowing tribute: “Whenever our civilisation faces a crisis, a new hero rises to the occasion.” One can’t help wondering if Modi is also one such hero who has risen from the humblest ranks of Indians to drive India’s unfinished renaissance. Modi said, “We need to create a new India whose capabilities will draw the attention of the global world. I have full faith that India will reach its glory with the blessings of the gurus. India's progress is everyone's duty.”
When he ended his speech by asserting that “We will have a new India on the 100th year of independence,” his message resonated not only with his predominantly Sikh live audience, but with millions of Indians in India and abroad who watched the live broadcast of this historic event.
This is part 2 of a three-part ‘Delhi Files’ series. Click here to read Part 1.
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.