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Misls Sikh Misls - Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow


Sep 24, 2004
Sikh Misls, Part One: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

The Roundtable Open Forum # 56

Misls - Sikh confederacies - have a longer history than we think and are more critical to Sikh history than we give them credit for. We have forgotten their past, if we ever learned it. Naturally then we have diminished what they might tell us about today and tomorrow.

I start by deriving much of their history from the landmark entry by the eminent historian Hari Ram Gupta in Punjabi University's Encyclopaedia of Sikhism edited by Dr. Harbans Singh. Please explore that essay for historical detail. For me the issue emerged from recent conversations with Harpreet Singh of Harvard University, Harinder Singh of Sikh Research Institute, and T. Sher Singh of sikhchic.com. I will provide a tad longer comment than a thumb nail; my focus remains on connecting historical dots and mining that reality for lessons for today.

The word "Misl" apparently comes to us from Farsi to denote a unit or brigade of armed Sikh warriors and the territory controlled by them and from which they exacted tribute.

Depending on the context, the dictionary meaning of "Misl" varies from "similitude, alike or equal" (Steingass: Persian-English Dictionary); "tribe or race" (David Ochterlony); "territory occupied by a Sardar and his comrades" (Butay Shah); "voluntary association of Sikhs" (Wilson); even as an "encampment or deraah" (Syed Imam ud-Din Husaini).

Other meanings found in history are "thaana" (Ratan Singh Bhangu), "friendly nation" (McGregor); "brotherhood" (Lawrence); "front garrison or border fortification" (J.D. Cunningham).

To me the varieties of descriptions try to capture the embryology and ontogeny of a nation.

According to some, the records of eleven such Misls (brigades), including the Sardars' fighting forces and territorial acquisitions were maintained at the Akaal Takht under the commander of the entire Sikh army - the Dal Khalsa. Later, a 12th misl arose in the Patiala region but it stayed somewhat independent of the overall command of the Dal Khalsa.

The misl system may date from the time of Guru Gobind Singh since his contemporary, Sainapati, has used the term, but it remains a largely 18th century reality. The eleven, and later twelve, misls were organized in two large commands - the Buddha Dal and the Taruna Dal, with an overall Commander-in-Chief of the Dal Khalsa.

The Dal Khalsa remained a loosely knit confederacy with no written constitution and every chief (Sardar) maintained his autonomy. Any amritdhari Sikh could join and had the option to shift from one misl to another. The ultimate controlling authority was the Sarbatt Khalsa that convened twice a year - at Vaisakhi and Diwali -- with the Akaal Takht as the symbolic capital
of the new nation.

In time, Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sukhercharia misl prevailed, consolidated his power and successfully liquidated all misls north of the Sutlej. From this he was able to forge a powerful empire that ruled a large swath of north India extending far into Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Ranjit Singh ruled with great sagacity but, not wanting competing powers around him, deliberately undermined neighboring misls as well as the authority of the Akaal Takht. That is some of his unfortunate legacy that continues to haunt us today.

The British annexed Punjab about a hundred years after they acquired the rest of India. The control of Sikh institutions, too, passed to them. It took an entirely non-violent (on the part of the Sikhs) but titanic struggle to wrest control of the historic gurdwaras of Punjab from the British and return it to the Sikhs.

Ceding control of Sikh institutions to Sikhs came with a price - legislative enactment of laws to govern the newly formed Shiromini Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) and later also the DGMC for gurdwaras in Delhi and surrounding regions.

This meant that the self-governance that was inherent in Sikh doctrine and spirit and was promised by law, passed into the hands of a legislatively and politically derived bureaucracy. This has some benefits but they are more political than religious.

Now the newly emerging global village is adding another complexity that some view as a massive complication.

The past 150 years have seen an exponential growth in Sikhs migrating from their traditional bastion in Punjab and India to all corners of the world. Sikhs are now found in substantial numbers in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and even the remotest places in this world.

Sikh diaspora is much like that of the Jews - there is not a corner of the world where Sikhs are not. This worldwide diaspora of Sikhs reminds me also of the large but scattered nations of the Native Americans.

The growing reality of a new world order has brought us beyond our borders in Punjab and India.

But we no longer have the misls that helped us act powerfully and in unison in our interests.

Do we now evolve a new definition of what a misl is and then into a new collective of misls? I believe we must.

This would then give new reality to Sikhs as a nation without borders. History tells us that misl leaders of the 18th century met twice a year to hammer out issues that Sikhs faced as a people.

They acted in concert without diminishing the independence and suzerainty of each other. They met as collaborating equals at the Akaal Takht. Thus was a new nation born.

Without this model of functioning Maharaja Ranjit Singh might not have been possible - surely, he would not have been able to create the uniquely successful Sikh Raj.

In our present reality, this seems like an excellent governing model to emulate. It might even invigorate our five Takhts, including the Akaal Takht, to chart a new role in the uncharted waters of today.

What do we see when we look at many religions across the world? Christianity is fissured into over 200 sects and denominations. It is practiced in Rome very differently from how you see it in Latin America, United Kingdom or even in India.

The face of Islam varies with much divergence from Pakistan to the Middle East and onwards into America or Canada.

I could make similar arguments for Hinduism, Buddhism or any of the other major religions of the world.

We Sikhs are a young religion. But even now, after only about 150 years in the diaspora, I find strains and lines drawn among Sikhs of various nations. Our understanding of our faith is differently interpreted. How do we interpret the role of institutions that are Punjab- and India-based and seem to be as either hostage to local political realities or not understanding of our special needs and circumstances.

Yes, thinking globally, acting locally and starting small, may be the answer.

We are all influenced, shaped and guided by the fundamentals of our faith, socio-cultural realities and the legal ambiance which nurture us. It seems to me inevitable that Punjab-based Sikhs and their counterparts outside India will continue to grow apart from each other.

We need to live by our local realities and laws and not have our lives controlled by a remote bureaucracy in a distant part of the world. Much as different states and provinces find an equal voice in a national legislature, we in the diaspora, too, need representation and to be assured of an equal and (semi) autonomous place at our religion's table.

A workable way then it seems is to look at global realities as the new misls of today that could convene as the Sarbatt Khalsa as they used to.

This would provide us representation that is the first but critical step towards self-governance, accountability and transparency - values that the Gurus bestowed to us and remain the bedrock principles of any civilized society. These are values that we won at great cost but forgot to nurture in the Indian political-cultural milieu.

I can see Sikh misls - Singaporean, Kenyan, Thai, Punjabi, British, American, Pakistani or Canadian, among others, cognizant of their own interests and convening together in a Sarbatt Khalsa in the larger interest of Sikhs worldwide.

Yes, I seem to be pushing for a Misl Amriki (American), Misl Angrezi (UK) and all the way to a Misl Bharati (Indian) or Misl Punjabi (or better yet, Misl Haryanvi, Misl Mumbai or Bangalori, etc), since the Bharti Missl would otherwise become an overwhelming, looming presence because of its sheer numbers.

I am asking you to keep in mind that these and many misls more collectively make up the Sikh reality today that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Recreating such a Sikh nation from this model of our history would also mean that it would be harder for the bureaucracy of any nation either to dominate or undermine our existence. By recognizing our misl-based structure that is semi-autonomous we could then legitimately and automatically evolve into a nation without borders. These are obvious pluses.

If we can envision the many-splendored global bouquet that the Sikh-world now presents, it would bring to us and to today's global village the greater and richer reality of Sikhi.

Dr. Jaswant Singh Neki has explored some of these issues as have I in The Sikh Review as well as elsewhere, including sikhchic.com. One can easily design a model for an appropriate bureaucracy; how best to recreate the grass roots is my issue here today.

Today, let's explore the misl system as a model. I have left out one formidable problem that is not easily overcome or swept aside: How membership in each misl would be regulated.

In the 18th century the single most important criterion for enrolment was being an amridhari male. What should requirements now be? Would the leader of the misl come by democratic elections?

Keep in mind that criteria for membership or leadership in democratic political systems are not always quite so simple. I illustrate my concern by a simple example. Many of us - immigrants to the USA - now enjoy largely equal rights and obligations except that, not being American born, the Presidency of the country is not open to us. I raise this not because each of
is hankering after the office but because it is pertinent here. Many models for self-governance are available. Democracy can be a pretty messy system except that it is better than the alternatives.

These matters demand careful and thoughtful discussion. I promise to soon explore these caveats in Part II of what we have started today.

Sikhs are nation builders and history-making people. We can neither repeat the past nor can we bury it, but we can reshape the present with it.

To me, the history of the Sikh Misls has profound lessons in the art of nation building that are just as true today as they were in the 18th century.

We must be ready to change and accommodate new realities while remaining true to our unchanging traditions and truths. These are the lasting lessons of history.

Our challenge? How to make this into an action item?



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Gyani Jarnail Singh

Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
Jul 4, 2004
Re: Sikh Misls, Part One: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow (from SikhChic)

Baba Banda Singh Bahadur and The SIKH MISLS followed EXACTLY the WINNING FORMULA of JYOT in SGGS (GURU GRANTH)..... and JUGAT in KHALSA (GURU KHALSA) provided by Guru Gobind Singh ji at Vasakhi 1699.

Within a SHORT SPAN the MINORITY SIKHS brought and end to the Mighty Mughal Empire and Captured the CROWN of Khalsa Raaj.

In the MISLS..the GURMATTA Principle...the Congregation in front of SGGS in which EACH and EVERY SINGLE SIKH had the complete freedom to VOICE HIS OPINION...no distinction between Soldier..horse Dung carrier or High Ranking General...ALL WERE EQUALS under SGGS. Once a DECISION was taken..ALL irrespective of how bitterly they OPPOSED/SECONDED... that..would Fall in LINE and UNANIMOUSLY ACCEPT IT. No back stabbing and pulling out (as happens so often today). Lack of LOBH and GREED for High positions was so LOW that No one wanted to be a NAWAB..and a Horse dung carrier Kapur Singh was ordered by the KHALSA to ACCEPT and becomea NAWAB !! ( TODAY any one of the politicians will gladly SELL his mother....and even his grandmother for a small post in Govt/MP/assembly seat !!) Sikhs sit in front of SGGS and "accept" decisions and straight away begin plotting to "get out" of that decision..the GURU means NOTHING and "word" of a man is worthless..even a dogs bark is worth more !!


Way back in 2005 dass wrote and presented a Paper to the IOSS Annual Confrence in Chandigarh detailing this MISL PERIOD...." At the CROSS ROADS...CROWN or Obliteration"...is in our Hands. IF we DONT repent soon..we will disappear in the DESERT sands of the Majority Community..as the STORMS of Patitpunna, apostacy, dishonouring panj kakaars kesh, dastaar amrit, desertion of Punjabi Gurmukhi, Gurbani, sggs will bury us forever....just as quickly as SAND DUNES BURY and Change the Desert Landscape !!


Mar 28, 2013

I will edit this up, but look up 10 maxims of law. As a global community, we really are not governed by different 'laws' and 'processes'. Fact is, the british empire as an example is split up into various parts but all are headed by the queen who leaves administration in the hands of a governer-general.

Who assigns right to companies to manage the local crown land and resources for the benefit of the kingdom (the people). How well this goes, aka corruption, bribes, etc. is debatable but that is the spirit of the acts. The rules of those companies, only apply to those who work for them.

While what I've said may be commonwealth-centric the same basic principles apply everywhere. A new misl system will work, as long as we recognize that we are not governed by 'local laws (statues), regulations, etc.' as a people, depending on our role we individually may be but not as a nation.

No nation is, every nation ahs its own rules but the only inviolable ones are to not infringe upon others. You can take this to mean, injure or harm no person; do not damage or take the property of others without permission, and do not commit fraud or forgery within the rules of a contract, in such a way to harm or damage another (respect and be respected).

They can't make a law, that you can't 'lie' as if you don't want to tell your name to someone you don't have to, but to wrong someone is, well wrong.

Obviously, what I say must have a watered-down rule implemented until the truth about the system is realized by the masses (if ever) however, many of these principles can be used for the benefit of everyone such as being able to be immune to weapons regulations, other little things (like driving taxes).

Ultimately, in commonwealth countries power rests in the jury; (which can even declare a contract in-valid (if for example, as debt payment someone wants to take a pound of flesh) however, you could have treaties that change that for those who agree to be part of the misl.

We would exercise suzerainty or writ of law over our own members, but not rule of the land or sovereignty like we would hopefully in some place. We wouldn't be able to change the common law, unless we ruled the territory in a country we would have to jump through their loopholes (similar to what you said about different local laws; but our understanding of it was different but, now you know).
Oct 6, 2009
  • Time Line of the rise of Sikh Misl's to power.
  • The first Khalsa Raj founded (1707-1716)
  • A lot of wars, and Struggle to reestablish Khalsa Raj, (1716-1733)
  • Sikh Misl's come into being and take power, (1733-35)
  • Khalsa wars against the Mughal Empire, (1735-1739)
  • Invasion of Nadir Shah, of Persia, (1739-40)
  • Sikhs, seize territories in the Punjab, (1740-1759)
  • Sikhs managed to take power in Punjab, and expel the Afghan invaders, (1759-1765)
  • The Sikh Misl, finally establish, an strong Khalsa Raj, in Punjab, (1765-1791)
  • The Sikh Misl's, begin to become weaker, because of their wars on each other, (1791-1799)
  • Because of the Sikh Misl's, becoming weaker, the Afghans invade the western part of Punjab, (1799)
  • Chieftain Ranjit Singh, expels, the Afghans, from western Punjab area, and takes power, (1799-1801)
  • Ranjit Singh, becomes, the Maharaja of Punjab, after uniting the torn apart Sikh Misl's, (1801-1811)
  • Maharaja Ranjit Singh, expands the boundaries of Sikh Empire, from Kashmir to Peshawar, (1811-1839)
  • Maharaja Kharak Singh, is proclaimed as the Emperor of the Sikh Empire, (1839)
  • Maharaja Nau Nihal Singh takes power, and puts down his father Kharak Singh, (1839-40)
  • Maharani Chand Kaur, is the Empress of the Sikh Empire, (1840-1842)
  • Maharaja Sher Singh, takes power, (1842-1844)
  • The rule of the Dowager Empress Rani Jind kaur, and Shahzada (prince) Duleep Singh, (1843-1849)
  • The fall of the Sikh Empire, after the two Anglo Sikhs Wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49)