Date: 19 Jan 2009



Martyrdom for Human Freedom

First Shaheed Nanak Singh Memorial Lecture
H.K.Manmohan Singh
Emeritus Professor of Economics
And Former Vice-Chancellor, Punjabi University

December 24, 2008


Martyrdom for Human Freedom

Some time ago, I had an occasion to introduce our incumbent Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh to an audience which had assembled in the Central State Library to honour him. I thought it would be enough for me to mention his finest trait –‘an uncommon common man’ – and proceed with the rest of the programme. I was overtaken by a similar feeling when I sat down to write a few words in honour of Sardar Nanak Singh – a dedicated and spirited citizen who made a phenomenal sacrifice to promote religious tolerance and human freedom. He was done to death in the pre-partition carnage as he was trying to save some students of a school who had organized a peace march against the division of the country.
                Nanak Singh who held every important public office in Multan where he was a practicing lawyer believed in secular polity and a society ‘without caste, without class, and without privilege’. He perceived the universe as infinite and could foresee that when established cultures and civilizations undergo a radical change, they generate debris of conflicts, tensions, and problems which can be gasped, conceptualized, and overcome only with the help of the teachings of great masters. He valued ‘values’ bequeathed to the nation by India’s major religions and thought that without making them an integral part of everyday living, man can neither fulfil himself nor make any positive contribution to the economic and social betterment of society.

Beliefs are mere hypotheses until they are tested either on the plane of reasoning or with reference to actual happenings. There is a classic case in history: Why is it that the industrial Revolution began in Europe and not in advanced civilizations of China, Egypt and India? The enigma was resolved only when Simon Kuznets, a Noble Laureate in Economics, and other experts disaggregated data on inputs which contributed to different rates of economic growth in world’s major economic powers. These studies brought out the fact that value-based education which raises the quality of human capital and shapes work ethics was the most important single factor accounting for nearly half of the net addition to wealth.

India has been the nursery of the world’s major religions. Because of their emphasis on other-worldliness, they have been generally regarded as a negative force in her economic development. Lord Peter Bauer, an authority on development, has noted two exceptions – Sikhism and Parseeism, and has complimented them on their attitudes in economic matters. While parsees constitute a tiny proportion of India’s total population, Sikhs constitute 1.87% of India’s total population. The percentage decadel growth rate of Sikhs during 1991-2001 was 18.18% as compared to 36.02% of Muslims , 20.35% of Christians ,24.54% of Buddhists, and 26.02 of Jains – averaging 22.66%. Excluding Punjab where Sikhs constitute 59.91% of our total population, they have a significant presence only in five States – Haryana (5.54%), Delhi (4.01%), Jammu & Kashmir (2.04%), Rajasthan (1.45%), and Himanchal Pradesh (1.19%) – and the Union Territory of Chandigarh (16.12%). The data for the last two censuses indicate that there is a perceptible decline in the proportion of Sikhs in Delhi, from 6.33% in 1981 to 4.01% in 2001. This apparently is due to 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the effects this cataclysm of events induced on migration flows.

Economic development is normally related to a region or a country and not to the people professing a particular faith. However, historical researches by scholars like Max Weber and R. H Tawney clearly show that not only religion influences man’s outlook on society to a degree which today it would be difficult to appreciate, social and economic changes also ac powerfully on religion.

Nanak Singh was a science graduate with a law degree and would have continued his career as a civil servant with the British police had it not been due to his upbringing as a devout person which revolted against his submission to the wrongs being perpetrated, first by the rulers and then by the fundamentalists who wanted to divide the country on the basis of religion. He could not reconcile himself to the idea that a nation bound together by deep cultural, political, and historical ties could be redefined on the basis of narrow identities. As a practicing lawyer he became the State’s leading human rights activist and forgets legal battles of those who were being prosecuted for raising their voice against the partition of their motherland. As an ideologue, Nanak Singh stood for multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation states which alone, he thought, could ensure peace in the world. As a leading counsel for Azad Hind Fauj prisoners, he suffered countless reprisals at the hands of governmental authorities.

               Both in his private and public life Nanak Singh closely followed the teachings of Guru Nanak who sought to mould the existing social order into a democratic setup based on justice, liberty, equality, and brotherhood, later adopted as the building blocks of polity by all civilized societies. His last speech which he delivered a day before he was assassinated carries an implicit reference to Guru Nanak’s repudiation of the doctrine that ‘religion and economic interests are two separate and coordinate kingdoms ‘and reiteration of his philosophy that the economic environment within which the individuals function must have a scale of values derived from theology which ca moderate the unbounded desire for pecuniary gain in a materialistic civilization. Nanak Singh was not unaware of the fact that in societies that were emerging from the medieval background and modernizing their economic and social systems, such as India, there could occasionally be conflicts between progress and religious beliefs but he thought that, given human ingenuity, resolution of such conflicts should not be difficult provided the reforms aimed at do not hurt a particular religious group. He considered fanatics of every religion as an anti-reform people and wanted them to be kept out of the pale of any arbitration.

It is generally believed that religion plays a central role in social progress. Economic historians have shown clearly that the rise of capitalism in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards was due mainly to Christian ethics which changed people’s attitudes to work, thrift, and economical management of resources. There are different species of capitalism as there were Feudalism and Mercantilism which it superseded but they all focus on ‘capital accumulation’ and ‘free enterprise’ as the main contributory factors. To the best of my knowledge, this vastly important area of research in respect of oriental religions has not attracted much attention. There are a couple of doctoral studies, one by Vikas Mishra of Hindu religion and another by Upinder Jit Kaur on Sikh Religion besides a monograph on Islam by Mohammad Shabbir Khan. They are all scholarly works but that is all that we have.

            Like Nanak Singh, I am an ardent fan follower of Guru Nanak but my knowledge of the Sikh scriptures is neither adequate nor deep. I may be forgiven if I am being presumptuous but my own understanding of the scriptures is that they do not at all approve of the emerging attitude of life based on unhindered laissez faire whatever the field of human endeavor. To that extent, the free enterprise hypothesis does not hold in the context of Sikh religion. It may be of interest to some of you if I mention here that its first authoritative repudiation came from the tallest of British economists, Lord John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas of post-World war II reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes met with universal approval. He wrote against the background of the world’s greatest depression of the 1930’s and has again become topical as the world is heading towards another great depression. This is how he described the modern Capitalism: It is ‘absolutely irreligious, without internal union, without much public spirit, often, though not always, a mere congeries of possessors and pursuers.’

Western societies have built their economic systems largely believing that man is the best judge of his own interests and should be left alone. Such an assessment of human nature was delivered by Jeremy Bentham, eighteenth century English philosopher and political scientist, in the form of axiom and has become a popular textbook quote which reads as follows:

             ‘My notion of man is, that successfully or unsuccessfully he aims 
             at happiness, and so will continue to aim as long as he continues to
             be man, in everything he does….All men who are actuated by regard
             for any thing but self, are fools: those only whose regard is confined
             to self, are wise. I am of the number of the wise.’

Bentham’s view is antiethical to the ideal view of life as laid down in the Sikh Scriptures. When a person reposes his faith in his Gurus, he surrenders his judgment and sovereignty not to the state but to a higher authority that is infallible.

There is a saying, ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ But neither does he live without bread. This is the main direction in which the Sikh thought flows. In a world of limited resources and too much want, there are always people whose full development is checked by insufficiency of material requisites. Naturally, there has to be a systematic effort to optimize development and utilization of resources. But whatever the extent of this effort, poverty and destitution cannot be overcome unless man’s desires go through a process of purification. In Sikh ethics, economics is a two-dimensional concept. While optimum utilization and development of resources is its one dimension, sublimation of wants is its other dimension. This is to be seen against the dominant world view prevailing in India before the birth of Sikhism and the one evolved in the West, both of which are unidirectional. The former encourages austerity and renunciation, the latter materialism. 

Nanak Singh was born in a deeply religious family, brought up as per the Sikh tradition, and named Nanak after the founder of the Sikh Faith whose true missionary he remained all his life. A major evil with which the Indian society was afflicted and stood in the way of India’s unity and progress appeared to Guru Nanak her caste system. 
             One learns from India’s history that the caste system was evolved by her law givers to serve two important purposes. First, it was thought that the system would provide social stability by eliminating chances of class conflict. Since each member belonged to a particular caste and each caste group was assigned a particular function, the system was supposed to provide the balance of power between different social and vocational interests. Second, it was thought that the system would help economic development by encouraging functional specialization and by promoting division of labour and hereditary skill-formation. Unfortunately, rather than furthering progress, the caste system came to be the greatest divisive force in the Indian society. Eternally promoting social dissensions, it is in direct conflict with the forces of economic growth. In the first place, it does not permit vertical, occupational mobility. Further, since in India land and capital are owned by particular caste groups and each caste group had specified economic functions to perform, the caste system implies not only immobility of labour between different occupations, but also immobility of means of production between different uses. Secondly, functional specialization by castes can lead to serious regional imbalances. It has been observed in India recently that the private sector of the economy has been diverting resources from all over the country for development of industry in particular states – Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – besides the industrial belt around Delhi. The data relating to the credit- deposit ratio in the banking sector show that Punjab with a credit-deposit ratio of about 40-45 per cent has been the major loser in this process. The numerical strength of different groups rests on the incidence of birth and may or may not correspond to the economic need.
               With elimination of caste factor in the sphere of economics, the Sikh society experienced an unparalled outburst of energy.  The Sikhs were the first to reach foreign lands after the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849. They first went to China and Malaysia and then to North America. The first gurdwaras to be built in foreign countries were in Bangkok and Singapore. The photographs  displayed in an exhibition on ‘ Early Asian Arrivals in the United States’ held at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1984 showed that the first Indian immigrants to that country were all Sikhs. The population of Sikhs among the settlers in the canal colonies of Lyallpur and Montgomery (Now in Pakistan) was about 19 per cent but they were allotted over 70 per cent of agricultural wasteland which they transformed into a granary within a short time. The population of Sikhs in the erstwhile British India was less than 1 per cent. However, their representation in the Armed Forces which required grit, qualities of hard work and discipline besides ability to work under pressure and readiness to mix regardless of caste, creed and ethnicity was until recently almost 20 per cent. An important demographic feature of population in India is the concentration of different linguistic groups in specific states. The data show that 76.3 per cent of the population whose mother tongue is Punjabi resides in Punjab. This is the lowest percentage for any linguistic group residing in a particular state. Since Punjabi is the sole mother tongue of Sikhs, this shows the outward-going character of the community. Mobility of labour, both geographical and occupational, has been viewed as a powerful engine of economic growth ever since scientific enquiries into the causes of material welfare began in the late eighteenth century.

Time does not permit me to go over all the main causes to which Nanak Singh was faithful and for which he gave everything that he had – his time, his money, his energy, his life. He was a very dynamic person endowed with exceptional powers of persuasion, unswerving faith in Guru Nanak’s teachings, and will to act under stress.

I am conscious of the fact that I have written more of an essay than a proper memorial lecture. But the time constraint apart, there was hardly any readily available source material. Obituaries and condolence resolutions make a specific mention of Nanak Singh’s concern for democratic polity, dignity of labour – particularly of manual work, service of the people, and gender equality which is currently on international agenda. When I was taking down notes for my lecture, I came across an interesting finding that the tribe of penmen, scribes, and calligraphists came into being just because India’s nobility abhorred manual work, considering it below its dignity. Nanak Singh’s respect for Sri Akal Takht and the SGPC was unbounded because he thought that both these institutions were democratically constituted and reflected the will of the people. He was a forceful orator and had deep knowledge of the Classics, particularly of the Sikh scriptures. 
All in all, Nanak Singh belongs to that rare class of distinguished world citizens who will long be remembered by his countrymen with deep admiration.
Nanak Singh’s martyrdom justified its existence.

           Many thanks to you all for your kind patience with my presentation of a bloodlessly abstract composition. My very special thanks to our worth Vice-Chancellor for his gracious invitation to me to deliver this lecture. In the process of searching material for the lecture I made an important discovery that Sardar Nanak Singh and I belonged to the same village – Kauntrila – in the district of Rawalpindi in Pakistan. The village is in the Jurisdiction of Jatli Police Station and not Gujarkhan as mentioned in the publication Don’t Break Up India. Gujarkhan was our Tehsil. Two days after Sardar Nanak Singh was assassinated I too fell a victim to pro-Pakistan elements and received four dagger wounds and a bullet injury on my body. That was in Peshawar. I am not a martyr but I believe I have a place in history as the first victim of pro-Pakistan elements in the North-West Frontier Province.
                God Bless.