BANDA Singh Badahur is considered one of the most colourful and fascinating characters in Sikh history. From an ascetic, he was transformed into Guru Gobind Singh’s most trusted disciple, so much so that when the seriously injured Guru was unable to lead the Sikh army against the Mughal forces, Banda Singh had no alternative but to agree to be anointed as the Guru’s deputy.
The book begins with the story of a young boy named Madho Das, who detests hunting and gets reviled at the sight of a doe he had killed. He renounces the world due to self-loathing and self-revulsion but is initiated by Swami Janki Prasad in the forest. Both undertake a holy pilgrimage to places like Kashmir, especially to Amarnath. He takes the vows of celibacy and of poverty. From Kashmir they travel to Nasik, where he establishes his ashram.
Here at the ashram, Madho Das happens to meet the Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh whose followers who are accompanying him kill two goats and cook meat. Madho Das is displeased at it and tells the Sikh Guru that for “a Vaishnavite, the killing of any animal is a sin”. The Guru tells him that if he feels pain at the killing of animals, then why not it is so at the men who are being killed by the Mughals? Madho Das says that he has become an ascetic, a bairagi and hence is “no longer a part of their pain and suffering”.
But Guru Gobind Singh talks to him and manages to convince him to take to arms against the Mughals. Finally, Madho Das falls at his feet and says, “I am your Banda, your bondsman, waiting for your command.” The Guru embraces him and begins to train him. One day the Guru is attacked by two Pathans, Gul Khan and Jamshed Khan. The attackers are killed by his followers but the Guru is seriously injured. Since Punjab is going through political instability and he himself is fatally wounded by the assassins, the Guru appoints Madho Das as the leader of the Sikhs and baptises him as Banda Singh Bahadur. He desires that Banda Singh should fight oppression and injustice and gives him a sword, five arrows from his own quiver, a nagara (war drum) and his battle standard before appointing him the head of 25 devoted Sikhs and attack the Mughals.
Emperor Bahadur Shah is away in the Deccan, engaged in snuffing out the flames of revolt and containing the insurgencies in Rajasthan. Seeing this as an opportune moment, Banda Singh Bahadur launches attacks on one town after another in the North, like Samana, Ghuram, Thaskar, Thanesar, Shahbad, Mustafabad, Sadhaura and finally fights a dramatic battle at Chapan-Chiri, in 1710. At last, he attacks Sirhind, which is then considered not only second to Lahore in importance to Punjab, but is also the strongest Mughal suba, whose destruction would mean destruction of Mughal control on the province. Another reason for Banda’s attack is that Wazir Khan, ruler of Sirhind, had put Guru’s two youngest sons, little more than boys, to death. After scoring one victory after another, Banda Singh becomes the ruler of a huge tract of land between the Rivers Jhelum and the Yamuna and establishes his capital at Muklispur where his impregnable fort called Lohgarh still stands.
He lays the foundation of a Sikh state by issuing coins in the names of the Sikh Gurus and starts a new calendar. However, many years of battle still lie ahead and an increasingly desperate Mughal Emperor seeks to vanquish the Sikhs. Despite reverses, Banda Singh continues to elude the Mughals till 1716, when at last, he is captured and brought to Delhi. But, he is unbroken in spirit till the end, even when he is put to death in the most horrific manner. He is paraded in a cage on an elephant in Delhi, subjected to unbearable torture, while his son is hacked before his very eyes before he himself is torn, limb by limb, at Mehrauli.
The author, a prolific writer and English teacher of several decades of standing, makes a valiant attempt to show how Banda Singh sets about shaking the foundations of the Mughal Empire. He also clearly reveals that Banda Singh’s campaigns against the Mughals are not just meant to extract revenge against Wazir Khan of Sirhind for bricking alive the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh, but that is a campaign for justice which finds widespread acceptance. He is able to muster the support of local Sikhs, who in any case are seething with anger against the local governors, nawabs and faujdars.
The author says that among the Sikh leaders, after the Gurus, it is Banda Singh that inspires more awe and wonder than any other figure, perhaps even more than Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who came much later. As Banda Singh was more remote, his life has not been chronicled by court diarists or later-day historians or the wonderstruck British administrators. Yet, Sikh lore is resplendent with tales of his campaigns, on the basis of which and whatever material he could lay his hands on, the author tries to put together the somewhat disconnected legends to chalk out the story of Banda Singh’s life in a proper historical, political and martial context. It is only when the gaps cannot be filled that the he takes recourse to weaving a romantic tale about his relationship with his wife. He has nevertheless made extensive use of earlier works by Sikh historians like Dr Ganda Singh and Rattan Singh Bhangru along with contemporary Muslim accounts and thus succeeds in holding the reader’s interest.