(Commemorating the Farsighted Acts of a Warrior Sikh Guru for Protection of Human Rights)
Dr Surjit Singh Bhatti, Ex-Professor & Head, and Dean Sciences, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar
Bandi-Chhor (Liberator of Prisoners) is an honorific used for Guru Hargobind Sahib (1595-1644), sixth of the ten Sikh Gurus, who got 52 Hindu princes released from the Gwalior Fort, where they were unjustly incarcerated by Moghul Emperor Jahangir. Guru Sahib had gone to this fort on the request of Jahangir but was detained there under a conspiracy. He was released due to the strong pressure from many quarters. However, he considered the detention of other innocent princes, on mere suspicion, as a gross violation of Human Rights. For his own release, therefore, the brave and far-sighted warrior Guru put the condition that others must also be released simultaneously with him. Jahangir freed all of them on the insistence of Guru Sahib.
Bandi-Chhor Divas is the day when Guru Sahib returned to Amritsar and is observed every year to commemorate this historic event. It falls normally during autumn when traditionally Hindus and the Sikhs celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights. On this day, the holy Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple), Amritsar, is decorated with flowers and is illuminated at night. It is marked with special recitals of Gurbani hymns from Sri Guru Granth Sahib, for the ‘Good of All’ (Sarbat ka Bhala) and to express gratitude to God. It is observed now in most cities and Gurdwaras throughout the world.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji ( 1563-1606), the fifth Guru, and father of Guru Hargobind Sahib, was martyred because of his refusal to give up his Faith. Moghuls were watching the sixth Guru when he constructed Akal Takht and was training Sikhs for his Army. The Nawab of Lahore, Murtaza Khan, grew alarmed and informed Jahangir about growing power of the Sikhs. He reported that the Guru was getting arms and horses as presents from his devotees. His (erroneous) suspicion was that the aim of Guru Hargobind Sahib was to avenge the death of his father. Jahangir sent Nawab Wazir Khan and Guncha Beg to Amritsar to arrest Guru Sahib.
Akal Takht (Eternal Throne of the Almighty) Established at Amritsar
Akal Takht was constructed by Guru Hargobind Sahib as an Assertion of Sikh Self-Respect and Sovereignty. Guru Sahib boldly declared the religious independence of Sikhs from the tyrannical Moghul Empire. Jahangir had banned wearing of sword, turban (Dastaar), horse-riding, and sitting on a throne more than three feet high.. Guru Hargobind Sahib wore two swords, and hoisted two flags on the Akal Takht, one for spirituality (Peeri), and the other for temporal power (Meeri). He regularly sat on a 12 feet high throne at Akal Takht, with all marks of royalty, and dispensed justice. The Guru’s aim was to instil self-confidence in the Sikhs and strengthen them for self-defence in case of attack on them by the Moghuls. Revenge was not the motivation behind these activities.
Jahangir became a friend of Guru Hargobind Sahib
Wazir Khan was highly impressed when he went to meet Guru Ji. Instead of arresting him, he requested Guru Sahib to visit Delhi to meet Jahangir. After their meeting, Jahangir was subdued by the noble words , and brave spirit of Guru Hargobind Sahib, when he recited: “One Lord resides within both Hindus and Muslims. None is superior and none is inferior”. The Emperor gave him a royal reception, inviting Guru Ji to stay with him for some time and join him in his hunting expeditions (shikars). During one of these hunts, Jahangir and his party were tracking a ferocious lion. In a sudden move, when the lion charged at Jahangir, his bodyguards fired but failed to stop its attack. Guru Hargobind Sahib Sahib thrust his sword into the lion’s jaws and killed it in a single stroke. Guru Sahib had saved Jahangir’s life, and the two became good friends.
A Jealous courtier Chandu hatched a Conspiracy against Guru Hargobind Sahib
Emperor Jahangir had an influential Adviser, Chandu Shah, who harboured a deep-seated ill-will for both Guru Arjan Dev Ji and his son Guru Hargobind Sahib. Reason for it was the old rejection of the proposal of marriage of Chandu’s daughter with young Guru Hargobind Sahib. Feeling insulted, the stung Chandu had earlier instigated Jahangir to punish Guru Arjan Dev Ji on concocted-up and exaggerated charges. During the stay of Guru Hargobind Sahib as a royal guest, when Jahangir fell seriously ill, jealous Chandu got another opportunity to harm the young Guru. Chandu Shah took a reputed court astrologer into confidence and bribed him to advise the emperor as per his vicious plan. The tutored astrologer told Jahangir that his illness was due to the effect of some inauspicious and evil stars, and that he could be cured only if a holy man offers prayers, for a fixed duration of time, for recovery of his health. Hypocrite Adviser Chandu suggested to Jahangir that his friend Guru Hargobind Sahib was the best saint for offering this type of difficult prayer. Accordingly, Jahangir requested Guru Hargobind Sahib to go to Gwalior Fort (modern-day photograph shown here) to pray for his good health, in complete tranquility. In good faith, and with pious intentions for his friend Jahangir, the unsuspecting Guru Sahib accepted his request and went to Gwalior Fort.
Baba Buddha ji, a great Sikh saint who had taught Guru sahib in his childhood, along with many devout Sikhs from Amritsar, in the meanwhile, became restive. They and devotees from other places started coming to Gwalior in large numbers to meet Guru Hatgobind Sahib. They asked the Fort Authorities to release Guru Sahib, as Jahangir’s stated purpose of Guru Ji’s coming to Gwalior Fort to pray for him had been achieved and the Emperor had already recovered from his illness. Sayeen Minyan Mir, a Muslim Sufi saint (who had been invited by Guru Arjan Dev Ji to lay foundation stone of Darbar Sahib), also asked Jahangir to release Guru Hargobind Sahib.
Jahangir Agreed to Release Guru Sahib from Gwalior Fort
Guru Hargobind Sahib, however, refused to leave the fort until all 52 of the innocent Hindu princes, unjustly imprisoned there since long, were freed along with him. Emperor Jahangir accepted this demand of Guru Hargobind Sahib on the condition that only those princes would be freed who hold the tassels or panels (kalian) of the Guru’s dress (chola), as Guru Sahib walked out of the garrison gates. Guru Sahib got a special flowing overcoat (photograph shown here) made with 52 panels attached to it. Each prince grasped one of these panels and gratefully walked behind Guru Sahib to have freedom after a long humiliating incarceration. Guru Hargobind Sahib arrived at Amritsar with a large number of his devotees and was welcomed by the people with flowers, candles, and earthen lamps. This celebration continues in Amritsar and elsewhere in the Sikh world till today.
Implications of Bandi-Chhor Divas for Human Rights
Guru Hargobind Sahib worked for upholding the dignity and self-respect of the common people when powerful empires try to usurp their basic Human Rights. He gave self-confidence, strength, and sovereignty to the peace-loving Sikhs. In addition, he fought for the basic Human Rights of others too, irrespective of caste or religious affiliations. The illuminations on this day are a natural expression of Sikhs’ joy while celebrating the victory of their Human Rights over oppression and injustice. However, it must be accompanied by illumination of the human mind by assimilation of the spiritual values given to all human beings by Guru Sahib. Permanent removal of darkness of ignorance of mind is more important than the temporary external brightness of the surroundings.