This is a particularly hard one to write about because of my close relations with Sikhs, but hopefully, the sensible ones will understand the content along with the intent and use this article to inject some sanity in the popular discourse surrounding Sikhs, without letting it dent their egos. I have the additional benefit of not having to carry the baggage of any religion and therefore hope to be neutral and factual in my observations.
It is hard to discuss the complete history of Sikhs in a few pages; we are, after all, talking about 500 years of history of one of the more mobile and industrious communities in the world. For this, I recommend reading Khushwant Singh’s two-volumed History of the Sikhs for a comprehensive and fairly unbiased view. However, I decided to write this article for two reasons: first, the lack of understanding people have about Sikhs and Sikhism (beyond symbolism) and second, to bust the myth of Sikh exceptionalism.
Sikhs need little introduction in India, and indeed overseas, owing to their unique appearance and focus on symbolism (turbaned, bearded). Most people know some Sikhs and have dealt with them in their lives, either directly or indirectly. They are usually considered fearless and lively people, who are associated with metaphors like ‘lion’, ‘loyal’, ‘king’, ‘leader’ etc. In my opinion, this is a distorted view of Sikhs and Sikhism and does more harm to the core tenets of Sikhism than good as I’ll explain.
Sikhism, although it is hard to call it that for that is a relatively new term, started with Guru Nanak, who essentially contextualised the Sufi movement to an Indian, more specifically Punjabi context, stressing on the oneness of God and the equality of people. Of course, the Sufi movement was heavily influenced by the Bhakti movement in the first place. A ‘Seekh’ is someone who has ‘learned’ from the Gurus, and therefore the Gurus can’t be called Sikhs; only the disciples can be. This movement was in response, primarily, to the threat of Islamic theology that was continuously, and often violently, seeking to express itself in India to which Punjab was the gateway. Additionally, Hindu society was in dire need of reform as it was plagued with social stratification and injustice. His legacy was carried forward by 9 more Gurus, whose teachings were compiled in a book known as the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib contains poetic lessons from the Gurus and other prominent Sufi saints such as Fariduddin Ganjshakar and Kabir.
All Gurus, till the 9th (Guru Tegh Bahadur) were essentially poet-saints. With Guru Tegh Bahadur and his son Guru Gobind Singh, an element of military resistance was introduced, which culminated in the founding of the Khalsa Panth (lit. the Pure Sect). It was under Guru Gobind Singh that a large number of people (from rural, non-Khatri backgrounds) picked up arms in their and their ideology’s defense.
Both Guru Tegh Bahadur and Gobind Singh (and the latter’s children) were hounded and murdered by Muslims, on orders of Aurangzeb. However, the Sikh-Muslim conflicts started much before the time of these two Gurus and reached their zenith in 1947, when millions of Sikhs were killed and uprooted from their homes and their lands in western Punjab by people in search for a pure land.
Sikhism and Punjab
Punjab and Sikhs have a close relationship for that is where all the Sikh Gurus were born and the faith first spread. It is where the oldest and most important Gurdwaras (Sikh temples literally meaning the gate or door to the Gurus) were built, with the most important being the Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar. However, it is a folly to use the terms Sikhs and Punjabis interchangeably. Firstly, it is incorrect because Hindus (and Muslims) were and are Punjabis before Sikhs came into being, and even on the eve of partition, barring the Ludhiana district in eastern Punjab, no where were Sikhs a majority. Secondly, because it does a disservice to the faith by limiting it to region. Millions of people joined the Gurus in other parts of Hindustan, starting with Sindh and Kashmir (neighbouring regions of Punjab) but also in Maharashtra, where Guru Gobind Singh spent a lot of his time and also attained martyrdom.
One more reason for the close , often synonymous, relationship with Punjab is the fact that the Sikh scriptures are in Punjabi (vs. Sanskrit for the Hindus irrespective of where they are from or Arabic and Persian for the Muslims). In fact, Sikh scriptures are not all in Punjabi (they use many dialects of Hindi) but are written using Gurmukhi, which is thought as the script of Punjabi. After partition, the Hindus of Punjab readily accepted Hindi as their primary language and the Muslims rejected Punjabi as a language of the Hindus (and Sikhs, whom they consider Hindu for this purpose) in favor of Urdu. Sikhs became the automatic custodians of Punjabi.
But we have to remember that Punjab is the cradle of Hindu civilization. The Vedas were born in Punjab. Mahabharata was set in Punjab. Harappa and Mohenjo Daro flourished in Punjab, long before Islam or Sikhism entered the fray.
Even though there is, theoretically, no caste system in Sikhism, the Sikh Gurus from what is known as the Punjabi Khatri (Kshatriya) community. All ten of them were Punjabi Khatris, who have, for the best part of the millennia, dominated the horizon from Kabul to Delhi and from Quetta to Srinagar. In some ways, the Khatris were the gentry of Punjab, with a deep rooted military tradition. The original ‘Sardars’ (explained below) were exclusively Khatri Sikhs, but as the movement grew, the masses joined the Gurus and constitute the bulk of the Sikh population today.
Much of the metaphor (incorrectly) associated with the Sikhs is essentially the same (or should be) for Hindus of Punjab as well (specifically the Khatris). ‘Sikhs never beg’ is actually Khatri Punjabis never beg. Have you heard of a Kapoor or Khanna beg? No, they are industrialists and Bollywood stars. ‘Sikhs are brave’ is actually Khatri Punjabis are brave. They were the ones from whom the Sikh Gurus arose and gave the bulk of the military leadership to the Khalsa resistance and the Indian armed forces post partition.
Think about this, just in the Indian Army there were Gen. Thapar (Arora Khatri), Gen. Malhotra (Khatri), Gen Vij (Khatri), Gen. JJ Singh (Sikh Khatri), Gen. Kapoor (Khatri), Gen. Malik, Gen. VK Singh and Gen. Bikram Singh who are from Punjab. Similarly, the Air Force has seen Arjan Singh (Sikh Khatri), OP Mehra (Khatri), Dilbagh Singh, Surinder Mehra (Khatri), NC Suri (Khatri), SK Sareen (Khatri), and BS Dhanoa as its chiefs. Punjabis (Hindus + Sikhs) make up around 3 percent of India, of which not more than 1% are Khatris, but there have been 5 Army and 5 Air Force chiefs and from that 1% and there have been more Hindu Punjabis than Sikhs.
If you look at Major and Lieutenant Generals, the numbers will be even higher. Just goes to show that the military tradition is deep rooted in Punjab and doesn’t have much to do with Sikhism. In fact, the same can be said even about the Pakistani Army (which is overwhelmingly Punjabi) whose leaders have also been Khatri or Rajput Punjabis (if you trace their real roots, which are often masked by Arabic names of course). However, at the foot soldier level, you don’t find any Khatris. The bulk of the force (at the non-leadership level) consisted of Jaats and others from an agrarian background. I am not making this distinction with the aim of putting one community on a pedestal, but to clarify key differences among the Sikhs.
This brings us nicely to another area of confusion: the difference between a Sikh and a Sardaar. The two terms are used synonymously, but incorrectly. Sardaar is a Persian word which means ‘General’ or Senapati; a military leader. In fact, the rank of Iran’s Army Chief is ‘Sar Lashkar’. Sikhs, as mentioned, are people who follow the Sikh tenets, and are not necessarily Sardaars. Most Sikhs are not Sardaars. Again, not only is it incorrect, but also condescending on the millions of Sikhs who come from the lower ranks of Hindu society (referred to as Mazhabi Sikhs) who have nothing to do with leading armies or fighting wars, but were simply influenced by the Gurus and their teachings.
For the most part of its history, Hindus and Sikhs have enjoyed a close, often inseparable, relation. For most of its history, the Khalsa Army drew from Hindu Punjabis where it became a tradition to give one son (not literally give, but raise him as a Sikh to serve in the resistance) to the Khalsa cause (or more broadly the Dharmic cause). The Sikh Gurus enjoy a position of reverence across India, and confining their ideals and sacrifices to just 2% of the people or a specific region is doing a great disservice to them. In some ways, all Hindus are Sikhs, because no true Hindu will deny ‘having learnt’ or ‘obtained Seekh’ from the Gurus. And the whole idea of having a living Guru is a Hindu concept.
Conservative Sikhs often give the examples of the sacrifices made by the Sikh Gurus for the ‘Hindus’ and go on to say that ‘Hinduism’ survives only because of the Sikhs. While their sacrifices are indeed worthy of praise, and draw high praise from most Hindus, it is a total error to attribute those actions as ‘saving Hindus’. They were simply saving their own people, and Hindus were their own people. In this context (all the way to our constitution, which I will come to in a bit), Hindus simply refer to people of the land (bhoomiputras), which is why I consider Sikhs to be Hindus but Sikhism to be an independent religion. No Guru would ever claim credit for defending Hindus, for they just did what they thought was the right thing to do. Again, reducing their contribution to some sort of a favour or being transactional in nature does them and their actions a great disfavor. After all, true Sikhism focuses heavily on doing the right actions and protecting the weak.
I remember my grandfather going to Harimandir Sahib each year and feeding the fish with small flour-balls with Ram inscribed on them and it was not a special thing for Hindus to go to Gurudwaras. In fact many Hindus in Sindh even get married in Gurudwaras. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the symbol of Sikh military superiority, banned cow slaughter in his kingdom, not ‘for Hindus’ but for himself and his people. The sacredness of the cow can be deciphered from the fact that the Muslim invaders, repeatedly sought to provoke and rebuke the Sikhs by throwing cow meat into the pool surrounding Harimandir Sahib ‘because Hindus (Sikhs included) would be deeply hurt by such actions’. Most Sikhs, till recently also reciprocated and visited temples and celebrated traditional Hindu festivals like Diwali or Rakhi with equal fervor, because again, these were Hindu festivals, and from this point of view they were Hindus (the Muslims and Christians being the non-Hindus). It is said that Guru Amar Das adopted (for the lack of a better term) 3 Hindu festivals: Diwali, Maha Shivratri and Vaisakhi.
Diwali and Maha Shivratri need no introduction, but Vaisakhi, which is incorrectly called the Sikh new year, is a pan India Hindu festival, which stretches from Bihu in Assam to Vishu in Kerala and marks the start of the month of Vaisakh. Similarly, it was common for Sikhs and Hindus to inter marry (the caste remained an important consideration). It is only after Sikh extremism tied with the idea of Khalistan emerged that there has been a fall out in relations between the two communities. And all this can be traced to two important events: the rise of the Singh Sabha and the partition of India on religious grounds.
Myth of Sikh exceptionalism
Sikhs are no different to any other people. They suffer from the same vices and fall prey to the same temptations as anyone else. Few know that the epitome of Sikh power, Ranjit Singh, was invited by the residents of Lahore (Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs alike) to come to their rescue and boot out the Bhangi Sikhs from Amritsar, who were constantly raiding and devouring Lahore. So, Ranjit Singh was invited by the Sikhs (partly) to liberate them from the reign of other Sikhs. Similarly, there was constant internecine warfare between the Sikh Misls, over petty issues till Ranjit Singh united them. The golden era of his dynasty only lasted 60-70 years.
Militarily, there is no doubt that the Sikh empire, specifically under Ranjit Singh, was powerful. But not all victories were a result of bravery alone. There was tact and politics involved. The Sikhs defeated the Afghans but later allied with them. They also fought the Dogras and installed Afghan rulers in important cities (Srinagar and Peshawar). They won over Multan but later let an Arab Emir rule it. And as soon as Ranjit Singh died, the empire was pretty much over.
Even the Gurus and their immediate families were not faultless when it came to the power struggle. More than once in the history of the ten Gurus have there been factions that vied for power against rival factions, in the battle for succession and to ascend as the next Guru. These schisms appeared right at the beginning with Guru Nanak’s son Shri Chand and his followers termed as the Udaasis. They controlled much of the Sikh religious narrative till the 20th century, when they were essentially excommunicated by the Singh Sabha Movement that turned Sikhism into a far more homogenous and puritanical (and boring) movement.
Coming to the British rule, Sikhs, who are very proud of their military inclinations (which was propelled by the British construct of a ‘martial race’ although Sikhs aren’t a race), ought to know that they were essentially mercenaries fighting someone else’s wars. And while individual acts of valour stand out, the British drafted, specifically, the Sikhs and the Muslims from Punjab into their police and armed forces to prevent them from having a common interest with the Hindus in expelling the British from India.
The British leaving would mean the Sikhs and the Muslims losing out on the security of a govt. job and the societal status that came along. For this reason, many Sikhs and the Muslims remained, by and large, steadfast supporters of the British rule in India. I’ve explained in my article about the genesis of Pakistan that the Muslim league objectively stated that it was loyal to British India and the Sikhs weren’t far behind. During the 1857 mutiny, the only state to which the mutiny did not spread was Punjab, because the Sikh (and Muslim) soldiers were loyal to the British. The regiments of the British Army drawn from Punjab were almost exclusively Sikh and Muslim for this reason alone (not that they were stronger or braver).
In Indian Punjab (we ought to simply call it East Punjab for all of Punjab is India), Sikhs have ruled the state since inception (not even once has a Hindu Punjabi become CM), but the state is in dire straits. The land of plenty and of the powerful is in a debt trap. Farmer suicides are rampant. Female infanticide is one of the highest in India. Corruption is omnipresent (just like everywhere else in India). Alcoholism is a big issue. And off late, drug addiction is finishing off a whole generation of youngsters. And there are Sikhs involved everywhere, from smuggling drugs, to accepting bribes in the police and from ruining the state’s agriculture to killing unborn girls. So, it is a fallacy to think that Sikhs, at a macro level, are any better at anything than any other group of people in India.
When Sikhs post pictures of famous Sikh personalities in India and overseas, I can’t help but wonder what is so special about a Sikh doing something millions have done before or after him or her, unless he or she is the first. Examples include becoming the first turbaned officer in the Canadian Army or the first Sikh to join the Pakistani traffic police or the first Sikh to play for the Australian cricket team. If Hindus did something similar (imagine Hindus celebrating that a Hindu is the CEO of Google and Microsoft instead of celebrating them as an Indian), it would sound and appear very odd, which is why, while it makes sense to celebrate the success of Indians overseas and at home, it doesn’t to do so only for people who follow your faith. Faith has very little to do with accomplishment.
Extremism in Sikh society and schisms in Hindu Sikh unity
Many people think that till Operation Bluestar in 1984, all was well between the Hindus and the Sikhs. That is simply not true. Schisms started to appear from the early 20th century and culminated in the 70s and 80s.
Sikhism, being a grass roots movement, had many offshoots such as Nirankaris, Radhaswamis, Ravidasis, Namdharis (who consider the lineage of Gurus to continue beyond Guru Gobind Singh). People familiar with Islamic theology would be reminded of similar sects within Islam (starting with the Shias and more recently the Bahais and the Ahmadiyas), which have been persecuted by those claiming to be the ‘real Muslims’. In fact, even in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi sect of Islam that is now dominant was originally from the deserts of Nejd, and was forcibly imposed on the people of Hejaaz (Mecca & Madina area) where Islam was born. Similar has been the fate of these various Sikhs or Sikh-influenced denominations that have been sidelined by the dominant and more homogeneous Jaat Sikhs as their faith becomes more conservative, closed, and uncomfortably similar to Islam.
The concept of Khalistan can trace its origins to the Singh Sabha movement, which interestingly began in response to the fallen pride of the Sikhs after their defeat to the British in the second Anglo-Sikh war. Many started to desert the Khalsa and Punjab was riddled with missionary activity. To add to this, Arya Samajis and Brahmo Samajis also went into top gear trying to get Sikhs ‘back to the Hindu fold’. This led to the renaissance of the Singh Sabha (the first Singh Sabha was constituted by Guru Gobind Singh himself), which started of under the leadership of the Sanatani Sikhs. This lot considered Sikhs to be a part of the larger Hindu framework, but their influence later waned and a counter view, propagated by Tat Khalsa, which stressed on the exclusivity of the Guru Granth Sahib. This was when Sikhism got Abrahamicized.
Sahajdari Sikhs, literally the slow or late adopters, were a major component of Sikh society up until the 20th century. These were essentially Hinduized Sikhs, who had faith in the Sikh teachings and scriptures but did not follow the 5 Ks or follow the initiation ceremony (Amrit Sanchar) that the Khalsa Panth created and followed. In some ways, Sahajdaris were those who were, and are, Sikh without the Khalsa tradition. Most Sindhi Hindus were thus Sahajdari Sikhs as were many Hindu Punjabis. The key difference being that exclusivity hadn’t crept it (most of the exclusivity surrounding Sikhs is tied to the military narrative) and there was no reason to distance oneself from Hindus. In fact, the Udaasis (explained below) were also Sahajdaari Sikhs as were, in someways, all Sikhs before the Khalsa Panth came into being. Therefore, demanding certain rituals and limiting membership to those who followed them is a relatively new and damaging concept, similar to that followed by the Christian church for centuries.
The idea that someone or some group can decide or define who is and is not a true adherent of a faith is alien to the Hindu lands and people. Hindu philosophy is about individual choice and enlightenment and is totally decentralized. Sikhs were pretty much the same till the Singh Sabha came into swing and tried to homogenize the community. For example, even the turbans wore by Sikhs were different depending on their denomination. But today, if you are a ‘real Sikh’, you need to wear a particular type of turban (the one that springs to your mind when I mention a Sikh turban). And while it is true that growing hair and beard are part of the Khalsa tradition, the way it has become a blind practice is a sign of growing conservatism. This was best demonstrated by a Punjab and Haryana High Court judgement that deemed that a girl, who had plucked her eyebrow hair, was not a Sikh (she was seeking admissions in a Sikh minority college and was denied admission). So in effect, I could be living and breathing the life of an ideal Sikh, but if I plucked my eyebrows, all that counts for nothing.
There was a similar watershed movement when a court in India was asked to define what a Sikh is: the answer till that point was those who believe in and follow the teachings of the Gurus. Gauging by this, most Hindus would be considered Sikhs (as they should be in my opinion). But again, to carve out a little more artificial separation, a clause was added that those who ONLY believe in the teachings of the 10 Gurus would be considered Sikhs. When the world ONLY enters a religious conversation, it is usually a sign of troubling times, and as I mentioned, is something alien to the Hindu philosophy, where the only ONLY that matters is what you think for yourself. Exclusivity is an Abrahamic construct, not a Hindu one. One has to only wonder if the Sikh Gurus were alive, would they have passed the same judgement (and therefore claiming exclusivity for themselves). I highly doubt that.
On the internet, the Sikh Gurus are often referred to, naively, by Sikhs as prophets. They make the same mistake many Hindu scholars have made by framing their faith in an Abhrahamic context. The greatness of the Gurus lies in the fact that they were not prophets but mere humans, with imperfections, because it means that every human has the potential to emulate them. Add to it the fact that they stand scientific scrutiny when compared to ludicrous stories around Mohammad or Jesus. The Guru Granth Sahib is not a Bible or Quran. It is not a revelation. It is experiential. And this, for me, makes it much more real and relevant. But it also means that is neither complete nor perfect, because not all possible experiences and learning could be incorporated in it by ten humans.
Today, it is funny that many Jaat Sikhs have shaved their hair/beards, eat non-vegetarian food and consume alcohol (both of which are frowned up in the puritanical sense), but leave no stone unturned to deride others (‘Hindus’) while claiming superiority. In essence, this is just another form of racism that is manifesting itself. They don’t like ‘Hindus’ because ‘Hindus are short, dark, weak,, drink cow piss, worship idols or worse penises, eat rice, are vegetarian, worship trees and are fearful lot’. Does this remind of you anything? This is pretty much the same nonsensical narrative that the Muslims propagated, first during the partition of India, and later during the oppression of Bengali people in east Pakistan. We’ve seen where they’ve ended up of course, both militarily and economically. Most of this construct is fabricated, and additionally, most Sikhs are short, dark, and quite fragile in their physiques. This derogatory and racist attitude is as ‘un-Sikh’ as you can get.
In someways, it ties to economics. People said similar things about the Chinese for centuries, but not any more. The Japanese are a weird lot, but command enormous respect for their technological advancements. The Jaat Sikh from Punjab (or Vancouver) does not want to associate with the Hindu from Bihar because in most material terms, he is better off. When the Hindu of Bihar will be richer, smarter and more prosperous than him, this construct will fall apart (as has the construct that 1 Muslim is equal to 10 Hindus after Pakistan’s repeated humiliation in wars with India). Again, to me, it doesn’t matter what someone looks like physically, but it is important to clarify this point to break the popular perception that all Sikhs are strong, brave, rich etc.
I have already talked about how Sikhism is intertwined with Hindu culture, but the need for creating artificial differences is also demonstrated in the choice of Sikh names these days. All the Gurus had very ‘Hindu’ names (Govind = Krishna, Ram Das = Servant of Ram, Har Kishan = Perennial worshipper of Krishna, Arjun Dev = Arjun from Mahabharata). However, in the last 50 years or so, you will struggle to find a Sikh name that is clearly and proudly Hindu. In fact, some seem even ashamed to name their children with eponymous names (named after the Gurus themselves). This is so common that people think that to be a Sikh, your name must end in ‘er’ (Tejinder, Lakhwinder, Balwinder etc.), ‘preet’ (Gurpreet, Harpreet, Jaspreet etc.) or ‘meet’ (Jasmeet, Gurmeet, Manmeet etc.). The choice of one’s name is certainly a parental prerogative, but there is a clear trend visible here.
Partition, Pakistan and Khalistan
The role of Pakistan in wedging a knife between Hindus & Sikhs or India & Sikhs cannot be understated; and when I say Pakistan, I mean the mindset, the ideology more than the nation. As mentioned, millions of Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis were killed during the partition. West Punjab was the traditional home of the Khatri Punjabi community (both Sikh and Hindu) for millennia, but post partition, most of them did not move to east Punjab but to Chandigarh, Delhi & Bombay. The idea of Khalistan is notoriously similar to that of Pakistan. In fact, both names mean the exact same thing. The proponents of Pakistan wanted a pure land for the pure people as do the proponents of the Khalistan. And they are both mutually exclusive, but somehow there is a unique bonhomie between Pakistanis and Khalistani Sikhs.
Pakistani interference during the Khalistan insurgency years (70s and 80s) is well documented and though the movement was quelled by brute force, many sympathizers emigrated to north America and the UK during these years, which is where most of the support for Khalistan comes from today. Khalistani Sikhs fail to see that when Pakistan was created, they treated Sikhs like Hindus (Muslims always considered Sikhs to be an armed movement of the Hindus) and have ensured that less than 1% of the total population of Punjab in Pakistan is Sikh. However, when it came to the issue of Khalistan, they opportunistically support the idea that Sikhs are not Hindus and therefore should secede from India. Of course, they wouldn’t be willing to accommodate any in Pakistan, most of which is the traditional home of the Sikhs. Most maps showing the supposed Khalistan include half of north India and not an inch of Pakistan, 60% of which is Punjab!
So, to summarize the contribution of Pakistanis: the lionizers of the people who murdered the Sikh Gurus, their families, forcibly converted Sikhs to Islam, destroyed the lives of millions of Sikhs, forcibly occupy Sikh holy sites such as Nankana Sahib, and killed the Punjabi language among other crimes offer moral support to Khalistani Sikhs. This behavior can be seen on social media even today (the most vocal Khalistanis are found on Facebook) where I often notice Pakistanis lending moral support to Khalistanis. What brotherhood.
Post partition, Indian Punjab was divided into three states (Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) with the aim to create a Sikh majority state in Punjab (this was agreed under the Rajiv-Longowal accord signed between Akali Dal chief Harcharan Singh Longowal and Rajiv Gandhi. In some ways, the battle for Hindu-Sikh unity was already lost because instead of vying for genuine brotherhood, a state (with significant autonomy and special privileges) was formed primarily for the Sikhs. Most educated Sikhs left Punjab for greener pastures in India and overseas while only the poorer, agrarian masses remained. Sikh extremism was on display here was well as Mr. Longowal was assassinated by Sikh militants and labelled a traitor.
Operation Bluestar, in 1984, is another watershed moment in Hindu Sikh relations. Without going into the details, this was when the Indian Army flushed out Bhindranwale and his comrades from the Golden temple. While it is debatable whether the army could have done more to minimize the damage to the temple, what Khalistani Sikhs fail to answer is what were secessionist elements, armed by the ISI, doing inside the temple. Bhindranwale’s life was also quite interesting; to me, he was neither the monster that the Congress govt. projected him as being nor the Sant that Khalistani Sikhs call him. But that is perhaps for a different article. However, it is worth sharing this quote by Khushwant Singh on the subject:
[In 1984] Terrorism began to spread its tentacles over the State and beyond its borders. Bhindranwale’s speeches became more acerbic and contemptuous of Hindus. He would refer to Mrs Gandhi as Panditan di dhee or Bahmani – that Pandit’s daughter or the Brahman woman. Hindus were dhotian, topian walley – those who wear dhotis and caps. In one speech he exhorted every Sikh to kill 32 Hindus, not 31, not 33 – only 32 he said (in that way the entire population of Hindus would be accounted for). I do not know why more Sikhs did not denounce him as a homicidal maniac. During the days when he was making these hateful utterances I called on Sant Longowal, who was nominal head of the Dharma Yuddh Morcha, in his room in the offices of the SGPC. This meeting with Longowal did not yield much copy: I sensed that he was unhappy with Bhindranwale but was unable to do anything about him. Bhindranwale was entrenched in the Akal Takht, his armed bodyguards had the run of the Golden Temple complex and were more than eager to bump off anyone their leader wanted out of the way. I asked Longowal why he allowed Bhindranwale to say nasty things about the Hindus from the sacred precincts of the Akal Takht. Longowal replied, “O tay saada danda hai”– he is our stave [to hit the government with].
The idea of Khalistan is as vacuous as was the idea of Pakistan. Firstly, because all theocracies are bound to fail. Secondly, even if Khalistan is created, it will further warrant dividing the small state of Punjab (there are 35% Hindus there). Resolutions in favor of Khalistan (propagated by absconders like Jagjit Singh Chauhan) naively state that Khalistan will encompass parts of Pakistani Punjab and Indian undivided Punjab (including Himachal Pradesh and Haryana). So Pakistan will slice up Punjab and serve it up to the Sikhs on a platter. Lastly, because most Sikhs in India (and overseas) are against such an idea, Sikhs will be the ones who will suffer if such a state was ever created.
Khalistani sympthaizers, most of who are based in Canada and the UK, are a funny lot. They talk about Khalistan as a solution for all problems, but I wonder whether they will leave their comfortable lives in Vancouver and Southall and move to Ludhiana? Of course not. Will the millions of Sikhs living across India, as ordinary, hard working, and often successful Indians, move to a state that will have nothing in it? Punjab is already Khalistan. It is ruled by the Sikhs, and as mentioned, is in tatters. They can’t deal with one state even though it is backed by and fed by a generous nation, but want to run a country via a remote control.
Khalistani extremism is on display in most Gurudwaras outside India, where Bhindranwale’s picture, who as quoted above, exhorted the killing of Hindus, is framed and placed next to those of the Gurus. There are Khalistan days being celebrated in a religious place. The Sikhs who don’t want participate in such activities are faced with the prospect of not visiting their Gurudwaras or facing social ridicule. Maj Gen. Brar, the Sikh officer who led Operation Bluestar once said in response to a question on whether he misses visiting the Golden Temple that he is not interested in visiting this Gurudwara or that, and that he has a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib at home, which he finds sufficient. Unfortunately, not all Sikhs are as brave and clear in their head, and are being pushed into a corner by the extremist elements taking over their Gurudwaras (very similar to what has happened in mosques in India, where Wahhabism has taken control and voices of moderation such as those of the Barelvis have been silenced).
They crop up untrue and misleading theories. For example, one of the favorite grievance that Khalistani sympathizers have is that the Indian constitution does not recognize Sikhism as an independent religion and clubs them with the Hindus. Again, Hindus in the constitution refers to the people who belong to the land vs. those who came from outside, and by this definition, Sikhs are indeed Hindus (unless the Khalistani sympathizers claim to have come from the middle east like their Pakistani brothers). Moreover, the constitution does recognize Sikhism as a religion where article 25 (b) reads:
(b) providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus Explanation I The wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion Explanation II in sub clause (b) of clause reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly
It clearly refers to the Sikh religion and then goes on to group Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists as Hindus for reasons explained above and a matter of legal convenience. Additionally, India is not a theocracy, and there is no question of ‘recognizing a religion’. The constitution is not in the business of recognizing or derecognizing religions. Many laws were common between Hindus and Sikhs and the question of creating Sikh personal laws never arose. Additionally, today the discussion should be about doing away with personal laws in favor of a civil code. These grievances are merely used to mislead people and create artificial differences. Let’s say the Indian parliament passes a resolution that Sikhism is an independent religion; will Khalistani sympathizers give up their demands? No. Just like Pakistan won’t become amicable towards India even if Kashmir acceded to Pakistan or became independent.
Then there is the popular Khalistani claim that Guru Nanak himself clarified that Sikhs are neither Hindus nor Muslims. This is incorrect and malicious at multiple levels. First, Nanak was just experimenting with newer avenues of social reform. He wasn’t ‘starting a new religion’. He wasn’t setting up institutions, rituals, ceremonies, and a clergy to govern a religion. He was challenging them. His quote “Na koi Hindu na koi Musalaman” (often twisted to read “Na main Hindu na main Musalman”) merely conveys the emotion of equality before the divine, which wasn’t unique to Nanak. Pretty much the same has been said by Baba Farid, Kabir and later by Baba Bulleh Shah as per the zeitgeist. There was no reason for Nanak to make it a personal statement.
If it indeed was a personal one (and that he said “main” instead of “koi”), I think it would have made a weaker message. For him, and till the 9th Guru, the struggle was really a philosophical and spiritual one; with the Khalsa (as was needed given the extreme Mughal oppression), it took a military and more institutionalized turn. Most importantly, this fixation on trying to figure out every word uttered by every Guru (and the history-centrism as Rajiv Malhotra puts it) is also a very Abhrahamic concept, where you have zealous Christians and Muslims battling for the last 2000 years to figure our what Jesus and Mohammad actually said (and then quarreling over what they meant).
Some Khalistani sympathizers often say that they want to create a state like Israel. Small but powerful. Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? But again, there is no comparison between the two. Israel has a sound (however stupid) theological basis. It was a promised land from where the Jewish people (Israelites) were forced to leave. The Jews are a different race. They were not part of a larger civilization and were scattered across unfriendly lands, which is why Israel repatriated Jews unconditionally to Israel. Sikhs are not a race. They are part of a larger and friendly Indian ecosystem. They have not been persecuted. They don’t have America backing them (for it’s own selfish purposes of course like they back Israel, which is America’s base in the middle east). Contrary to perception, Sikhs are largely poor people with very limited resources, and the wealthy ones will not leave their lives to move to some Utopian state. And most importantly, most Sikhs are happy where they are in India. As happy or unhappy as any other Indian is.
The claim that Sikhs have been subject to gross injustices in India is another hollow one. They have been subject to the same level of injustice as anyone else in India. Social justice is poor in India; the tribal in Jharkand or Hindu in Kashmir has also been subject to severe injustices. But they are not institutionalized. There is no pattern of ill treatment of the Sikhs. In fact, Khalistani sympathizers should be ashamed to make such claims when their community has occupied every important position in the country, in politics, military, literati, and economics. To this, they say that this has been the case because Sikhs are great. But when a Sikh is mistreated, it is because the Indian state is against Sikhs. Convenient indeed. The crux of the matter is that we shouldn’t find patterns where none exist.
The anti Sikh riots in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination were very shameful indeed, and I don’t know one Indian who doesn’t express their anguish at the riots or hangs their head in shame that the culprits haven’t been bought to the book. But have the culprits of the Hindu Pandit genocide of Kashmir been bought to justice? Have the murderers of the Kar Sevaks in Gujarat been punished? No. Which is why I say that India is equally useless towards everyone when it comes to ensuring justice and there is no special mistreatment of the Sikhs.
I must also add that I expect Sikhs to condemn the killing of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards. They were sworn to protect her but killed an unarmed woman with assault rifles. In fact, Mrs. Gandhi and his secretary RK Dhawan did not remove Sikhs from her security detail despite intelligence warnings. Two wrongs don’t make a right; their actions are inexcusable. Similar shameful actions include killing Beant Singh (CM of Punjab), HS Longowal, Gen. Vaidya of the Indian Army, and multiple attempts to kill Maj Gen. Brar, the commanding officer of operation Bluestar, who is also a Sikh. Again, the idea that anyone who represents a different opinion (in this case Sikhs who agreed with the Indian state) should be killed is the same mindset that has seen Pakistan and much of the Islamic world descend into their current state. Examples of this mindset are visible in our own backyard in Kashmir, where every single person who rejects Kashmiri separatism (either by working in the Army, police, joining politics or simply teaching at a local school) is on the radar of the militants for being a traitor.
The way forward
The future of Sikhs, though likely to be brighter than that of the Muslims, hinges on a few key questions. They have to decide if their Gurus meant for them to be exclusive or inclusive. The Gurus have already shown the path, which Sikhs are bound to follow. They have to decide if they want to believe in symbolism or action. They have to decide if there is room for reform in the Sikh faith and society, or if they want to continue hanging Bhindranwale’s photo in Gurudwaras alongside the 10 Gurus and ensure that only one perspective if Sikh history is propagated. They have to decide if they will merely imitate the actions of the Gurus or embody them. They have to decide if it is alright to use their own brains over and above what is written in their holy texts. They have to decide if it makes sense to keep uncut hear in the 21st century and excommunicate those who don’t or leave it as an individual choice.
They have to decide if they want to be homogeneous, like Islam, or heterogeneous like Hinduism. We’ve seen where homogeneity gets you; there are 22 Arab countries in the world. Same language, same culture, same religion, but can’t sit peacefully across a table. And you have ~30 states in India with different languages, cultures and religions, and for the most part, despite massive problems, live in harmony. They have to decide whether to label the millions of Sikhs who serve the Indian armed forces with pride and distinction as being traitors or heroes.
The Sikhs are an inseparable part of India. Their history is a major, but not the only, chapter in the history of Punjab. They have the benefit of having witnessed the mirage of a Utopian, theological state and the horrors of achieving it. The idea of breaking away, as history has shown, is a foolish one. Like the child who decides to not play with his friends because he won’t get to bat in a cricket match. Unity is strength and India’s growth is a matter of surety. The union allows for enough room and expression of newer ideas. For the most part, Hindustan is already Khalistan. It is the land of Gurus, but not just the Sikh gurus. And I am certain that if the Sikh Gurus were alive and had to choose a place to live in, they would choose a syncretic Hindustan over a synthetic Khalistan.