Profiles in Courage: FATEHPAL SINGH TARNEY
Janam Da Firangee,
Sikhi Mai Mangee
I have written five anti-Trump columns in a row. I needed to do this as an exercise in tension release.
Since the Trump victory, it has been a challenge for me to remain in chardi kalaa. Two quotations have helped me.
One by the French philosopher, Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
The other quote is from an author I do not recall. “I have not committed suicide yet, so I must be an optimist!”
Now, I'd like to turn my attention to something more agreeable and noteworthy. I want to discuss the heroism of three individuals: a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Frenchman [or Frenchmen] of unknown faith or possibly no faith at all – I really don't know. I'll introduce them in chronological order. What they have in common is courage. Courage involves a willingness to confront danger, pain, adversity, death, or at least the risk of death, for some worthy cause. I like to think that those causes are righteous ones.
In Sikhi we use the term dharam for justice and righteousness.
ABBAS IBN ALI
This is the story of bringing water to thirsty people. Of course, this reminds us all of the story in our Sikh tradition of Bhai Kanhaiyya.
Abbas ibn Ali, a person I admire greatly, was martyred in 680 I.C.E. He is one of my heroes. Abbas is revered by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. He had abiding loyalty for his half-brother Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and considered the third Imam of the Shia.
At the Battle of Karbala, the followers of Imam Hussein were greatly outnumbered by the army of Yazid, who was a Muslim in name only. Abbas went to the River Euphrates to get water for the thirsty children in Hussein's entourage. According to many sources, once he had made it to the river, he started filling his pouch with water, and although he was very thirsty himself, Abbas drank no water because he could not bear the thought that the children were thirsty.
This story evolved into the legend of how Abbas conquered the River Euphrates and held it with his mighty hands, yet he refused to drink.
After gathering the water, Abbas rode back towards Hussein's camp. On his way back, he was struck from behind by enemy soldiers, and one of his arms was cut off. Then he was struck from behind again, amputating his other arm. Abbas pressed on, holding the water-bag with his mouth.
The enemy soldiers started shooting arrows at him. One arrow hit the bag, and water poured out of it. Then, an arrow shot at Abbas hit his eye. One of Yazid's men hit Abbas' head with a mace, and, lacking the support of his arms, Abbas fell off his horse.
As he was falling, he called, "Oh brother!" to Hussein and Abbas fell. He did not regret his own death – his only regret was having been unable to bring water to the thirsty children.
Shia Muslims refer to Abbas as the "Hero of the Euphrates."
We all fail at times whilst trying to do the right thing, but it is the honorable, praiseworthy efforts that are important and these are what God remembers and rewards.
Bhai SAHIB SINGH
The idea of martyrdom is central to Sikhi. The Sikhs adopted the Arabic term Shahid to describe their martyrs. We also took the Arabic word Khalsa for our own.
Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale once said, “You cannot have courage without reading Gurbani. Only the bani-reader can suffer torture and be capable of feats of strength.”
One of the key elements of Sikhi, in my view, is transformation. Progressing from one level to another, but improving all the time. Bhai Sahib Singh was one of the Punj Pyare or the Five Beloved. He came from a community of barbers – people whose occupation was cutting hair. Sahib Chand became Sahib Singh when he underwent the initiation to the Khalsa on the First Vaisakhi Day, and pledged undying loyalty to Guru Gobind Singh.
He was a highly skilled soldier who was martyred fighting in the battle of Chamkaur on 7 December 1705 I.C.E. I suspect that much of his military skill was acquired “on the job” in skirmishes as well as in major battles. Sikh soldiers chose to engage the overwhelming Mughal forces at Chamkaur, thus allowing their Guru to escape.
Baba Ajit Singh, Baba Jujhar Singh, plus two of the original Punj Pyare - Bhai Himmat Singh and Bhai Sahib Singh - and so many other sant-sipahis died at Chamkaur.
So here we have a person who went from cutting hair to pledging to always keep his hair and be an inspirational role model for other Sikhs from that time on to the present. I must also say that the idea of physical fitness and training does go back at least to the time of our second Guru, Angad, with his emphasis on wrestling.
LES SOLDATS INCONNUS - THE UNKNOWN SOLDIERS
This third part of my column is not about colonialism, or communism, or anti-communism, or the First Vietnam War [Vietnam War II pertains to America's war]. This is about courage.
The French attempted to re-establish their colonial control of Indochina from 1946 to 1954. They met with stiff resistance from communist forces known as the Viet Minh. As a result of terrible decision-making, the French began an operation to insert and then reinforce their troops at Dien Bien Phu, which was a remote outpost deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into neighboring Laos, a French ally, and entice the Viet Minh into a major battle and defeat them.
The Viet Minh were able to surround the French position at Dien Bien Phu and bring in heavy artillery, including anti-aircraft guns, which had to be transported over mountainous jungle terrain. The French did not believe this was possible. French positions were subjected to relentless artillery fire and the Viet Minh infantry then attacked. Stubborn ground fighting followed that was comparable to World War I trench warfare.
The French resorted to air drops of supplies and troops. However, as the French positions were overrun by the Viet Minh, resupply by air became more and more difficult. The Viet Minh anti-aircraft guns shot down many French aircraft and few supplies reached the French positions.
After a two-month battle, the French positions were totally overrun and most of the French forces surrendered. A few French managed to escape into neighboring Laos. The French government resigned and the new Prime Minister supported total French withdrawal from Indochina.
This is when the Americans came in to support non-Communist South Vietnam. The rest too is history.
Soldiers for France of all racial, ethnic and religious persuasions fought bravely at Dien Bien Phu even after it became clear that the battle was lost. There were a few courageous ones of particular interest to me. These were volunteers who reinforced the beleaguered French positions who parachuted in despite intense anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
What is particularly remarkable is that some of these volunteers had never parachuted before – neither in combat nor in training! Their only schooling in this procedure was an hour or so of on-the-ground training and then they were in the air. Jumping from a plane for the first time with a parachute, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire and then landing – not in a safe landing zone at a military training base, but in the middle of a battle requires a level of courage above and beyond the call of duty.
These fledgling paratroopers had an estimated life expectancy upon landing of about four hours.
Parachute training in most armed forces around the world is at least three weeks in duration. First, there is “Ground Week”: intensive physical fitness conditioning and what are called “PLFs” [Parachute Landing Falls} - how to land safely without injury. Then students train on a 34-foot tower.
The second week is known as “Tower Week” which involves, among other things, learning how to manipulate a parachute from the 250-foot tower. The third week is known as “Jump Week” which is contingent upon successful completion of the first two weeks of training.
In the U.S., during “Jump Week,” troops must successfully complete five jumps at 1,250 feet from a C-130 or C-17 aircraft. The landing zone is a safe, non-combat area. Contrast this situation with the Frenchmen who volunteered to jump for the first time into a combat zone and into a hopeless situation to assist comrades fighting a lost cause on the ground.
I am told that the parachute training base for the Indian armed forces is in close proximity to the Taj Mahal at Agra. No race, ethnicity, or religion has any monopoly on courage. We Sikhs, I think, have always respected and admired heroism down through the ages as it has been exhibited all over the world.
The Battles of Karbala, Chamkaur, and Dien Bien Phu should always remind us of the willingness of some exceptional people to sacrifice their lives fighting despite being greatly outnumbered by enemy forces.
January 9, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 12, 2017, 5:25 AM.
To be published on sikhchic.com on a regular basis is in itself a precursor akin to getting into the best seller list. Every time I read you I feel we should have your autobiography, especially how you came into Sikhi, as an inspiration to those sitting on the fence. Please keep wielding your pen that remains mightier than the AK 47 or similar deadly weapon that you had to carry during the unnecessary Vietnam War. Your writings provide joy and take the readers to new levels and soothe an aching heart or broken spirit through Sikhi.