If you ever visit Delhi Gate and plan to visit the Shahi Hammam and the mosque of Wazir Khan, both beautiful reminders of our Mughal-era heritage, it would not be a bad idea to head in the opposite direction to visit to the shrine of an extraordinary Punjabi called Bhai Taru Singh.

It will not be surprising that you will shrug your shoulders at the suggestion, and in all probability ask: ‘Who was Taru Singh?’ Such a reaction is to be expected for we are fine-tuned to appreciate the killings of the Mughals and the Afghan, both foreign invaders, and not the real heroes of our soil. How both these invaders treated local Punjabis, be they Muslim, Hindus or Sikhs, is never studied, let alone understood. The numbness of our minds to the historic suffering of our poor - the have-nots - is an accepted part of our psyche. The degree of suffering they underwent is mind-boggling. That is why telling the story of Bhai Taru Singh is so important if we are to understand the history of Lahore. For once let us learn about the people and not foreign invaders.

Instead of entering the old once-walled city through Delhi Gate, why not head in the opposite direction and enter Landa Bazaar, or more correctly Naulakha Bazaar. As you reach the first crossing with a road branching off towards the Brandreth Road Roundabout, move to the left and towards a huge gurdwara. This is the Shaheedganj Gurdwara, the place where over 10,000 Sikhs were butchered over a whole week by the butchers of Lahore on the orders of the Afghan governor Yahya Khan. Their bodies were thrown in a well nearby. That is now known as Shaheedi Khoo. An earlier piece has dealt with this massacre.

But if you are not aware, or interested, or numb, towards this important event, which is not surprising given our communal mind-set, just take time out to visit the nearby shrine of Bhai Taru Singh. This is near the Shaheedganj Gurdwara and Bhai Taru Singh was executed on July 1 1745 at this very place. Before I set off on the story of this remarkable man, just one point needs labouring.

Sikhs of today, just as in 1947, blame Muslims for all their sufferings. This also is a communal interpretation. What they forget is that the perpetuators were all foreigners, not Punjabis. They also forget that in the Khalsa Army there were more Punjabi Muslims than Sikhs. I will not touch of the events in Kabul last week, as also the tragedy of Delhi in 1984. Our Sikhs brothers should think for themselves about who the oppressors are. Now to the main story.

So, who was Taru Singh? Born in a village called Poohla on the Lahore-Ferozepur Road near Amritsar, in 1720, he was a Sandhu Jatt and a farmer who was known for his helpful ways to all those who were fleeing Afghan persecution. In those days the authorities in Lahore had a lot of informers, and a spy from Jandiala named Akil Das who informed the governor of the Punjab, Zakariya Khan, that Taru and his sister were providing food to Sikh fighters hiding in a nearby forest. They were, allegedly, part of a plot to overthrow the governor.

Both Bhai Taru Singh and his sister were arrested and brought to Lahore. His sister was released after villagers raised money for their release, and after promising never again to assist strangers. But Taru Singh was made of firmer stuff and refused to apologise for feeding those in need. The feeding of strangers should be seen in the prevailing reality of those days.

According to Sikh sources Zakariya Khan had been forbidding all Sikhs from tilling any land and hence did not provide the Afghan governor’s coffers with any taxes. As a result they were barred from any business or employment, and selling food to them was banned. The governor thus queried: “Without resources how do they eat, and why have they all not starved to death?” He was informed that besides ‘hidden Sikhs’ the Muslim villagers were also secretly providing food to these ‘rebels’. One source claims that he was upset at this ‘Punjabi culture’ which went against his orders.

The spy Akil Das informed the governor that Taru and his mother and sister both work every hard, but eat very little and share the rest with the ‘rebels’. One source claims that when Bhai Taru Singh was presented before the governor, he shouted: “Vahiguru je da Khalsa, Vahiguru ge de Fateh’. He was charged with treason. On hearing the charges he, allegedly, told the governor that they till the land and pay their taxes, and what is left we eat to survive, and what we save we share with the hungry, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh does not matter.

On hearing this the governor went into a rage and as was the practice he ordered that Taru either become a Muslim or would be punished. If he refused to become a Muslim, he would be executed. On hearing this he retorted: ‘Why must I become a Muslim, do they never die?’

An enraged Zakariya Khan ordered that his long hair be cut along with the scalp. “Make sure he does not die, let him suffer”, he raged. That was done outside Delhi Gate and he was jailed in the Lahore Fort to die a slow death. This horrible act was committed on June 9, 1745. While he was being tortured Bhai Taru Singh shouted that Zakariya Khan would die a horrible death in his lifetime. Taru shouted: “Your only cure will be when you are beaten with my shoes”.

Here we enter the hazy area between reality and myth. The fact is that Zakariya Khan did develop a terrible headache, and that he wrote to the Khalsa Panth to forgive him for the torture of Taru Singh. They agreed to forgive if he beat himself with Taru’s shoes. That was done and Zakariya Khan’s headache receded, but within a few days he died. Taru also died in prison on the July 1, 1745, of his wounds. The Sikhs cremated him at the place where he was scalped and a shrine made for him to hold his ashes.

But this was not the end of the story. Zakariya Khan was replaced by a new Afghan governor of the Punjab called Yahya Khan, who on the instigation of Lakhpat Rai, the revenue minister of Lahore, collected a huge force and scanned the countryside for Sikhs. They were all brought to Lahore and on March 10, 1746 began a slow massacre of over 10,000 Sikh men, women and children. The butchers, who then lived inside Delhi Gate in Mohallah Qasaban, were forced to cut the throats of these helpless prisoners.

This unprecedented Holocaust resulted in the rise of the Sikh Misls. The place where this butchery took place was the same outside Delhi Gate. Today the Gurdwara Shaheedganj stands at that place, as also the small shrine of Bhai Taru Singh.

But it seems this place is jinxed for the Afghan Muslims of Lahore claimed that a mosque had existed at this place. This led to a lot of misunderstanding. In the British era the Lahore High Court ruled in favour of the Sikhs in the famous Shaheedganj Case. They, however, allowed a small portion for a small prayer platform that existed there.

That ruling held the ground till 2012, when a group of Naulakha Bazaar shopkeepers led by a certain Sohail Butt encroached on the land of Gurdwara Bhai Taru Singh and the Shaheedganj Gurdwara. They have taken over 90 per cent of the land by curtaining it off. The Sikh leaders of Lahore and Pakistan have tried in vain to reason. The worst thing is that Sikhs are disallowed to pray at two of their holiest sites in Lahore. It seems that the ghosts of Zakariya Khan and Yahya Khan still reign supreme.

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2020