The events currently underway in Delhi could very quickly escalate into something much more devastating. Passions have been running high and quite clearly, the protests that began with the newly passed farm laws are no longer limited to it. Somewhere down the line, the protests have transformed into an orgy of ethnic supremacy and a vicious cycle of identarian politics is currently underway. The ‘Khalistan’ bogey has indeed reared its ugly head.
To be fair, the problem began with extremely problematic statements by ‘farmers’ in these protests which triggered a reaction from others on social media. Consequently, Sikhs in western countries, with questionable ideological fealties, chimed in to rouse passions in India. These were individuals who have openly espoused the idea of Khalistan in the past and their rhetoric amidst the current spate of protests coloured them in extremely communal light.
And then came Deep Sidhu and set the cat among the pigeons. After a video of his went viral where he could be seen sitting at the protests and saying that they could have geopolitical ramifications, hinting at Khalistan, he was invited by Barkha Dutt for an interview where he hailed Khalistani terrorist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a revolutionary fighting for an empowered federal structure.
Such an embrace of Khalistani rhetoric by the public faces of the farmer protests had the inevitable consequence of enticing a reaction from others on social media. The extent of support that Khalistanis enjoy among Sikhs began to be discussed and it was pointed out that Hindus were massacred by Khalistanis long before Operation Bluestar, a chapter of the history of Independent India that has largely been ignored thus far.
All of this points towards the fact that there is a necessity of addressing the matter of Hindu-Sikh relations as they stand and what it once was. It cannot be denied that Sikhism has as its source the same fountain that has given rise to the diverse set of traditions and practices that dominate the Indian subcontinent.
There is much that Hindus and Sikhs share in common but it is also true that there have been times when horrible crimes have been committed against Hindus by Khalistanis. Under these circumstances, it is imperative to address the issue with a level head to deescalate tensions. At the onset itself, it needs to be stated that the protests were begun by individuals and organisations who wished to protect their commercial interests.
However, as such things eventually turn out, Khalistanis soon entered the fray and hijacked the protests to steer them towards their own end. But it cannot be denied that the protests did begin as an attempt by a group to protect their commercial interests and not to further their identarian objectives.
Commercial interests cannot be and should not be allowed to dictate terms between two communities that share so much in common. For that reason alone, there is a need to understand the historical context of the tensions between the two communities so that saner heads can prevail and deescalate the rising passions.
The internal power struggle between Sikhs
The idea of Khalistan, a separate religious country for Sikhs, did not arise in a vacuum. It was the logical consequence of a series of transformations that have occurred within Sikh society itself. The transformation came to a conclusion with the end of the Battle for the Gurudwaras in the 1920s which had a profound impact on Hindu-Sikh relations.
The Battle for the Gurudwaras was waged between the Udasi sect and the Akalis in the late 19th and early 20th century. Traditionally, the Gurudwaras were controlled by Udasi mahants. The Udasi sect was founded by Guru Nanak’s son and it advocated a syncretic culture between Guru Nanak’s teaching and Hindu beliefs.
But a distinct Sikh identity grew in late 19th and early 20th century, led by movements such as Singh Sabha and later the Akali movement. The split was formalised when the British Colonial Government passed the Sikh Gurudwaras Act in 1925, which effectively gave control of all Gurudwaras to the Akalis. Subsequently, Udasis were expelled from mainstream Sikh identity.
This irreparably diluted the Hindu-Sikh relationship. However, it did not vitiate the relationship and both the communities continued to have brotherly bonds. As India moved towards partition, influential Sikh leadership could have demanded a three way partition too – for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, but major Sikh and Punjabi leaders chose to stay with India. During the partition riots, Hindus and Sikhs fought and suffered together.
The immediate years after Independence
One of the reasons why Sikhs didn’t care about Khalistan in 1947 itself were assurances by Congress leaders, especially Nehru himself, who said that Punjabi identity and culture will be safe and preserved in independent India. Sikh leadership assumed that this means that a Punjabi speaking Sikh majority state will be created. However, Nehru continued to delay creation of such state even though he himself favoured creation of states on linguistic lines.
East Punjab (West Punjab had gone to Pakistan) continued to be how it was under the British and it was technically not a Sikh majority or Punjabi speaking region because it included Haryana and parts of Himachal Pradesh, where Hindus were in majority and they spoke Hindi. Punjab state as we know it today – Sikh majority and Punjabi speaking – came into existence in 1966, 2 years after Nehru’s death and 19 years after independence.
While Nehru was in power, numerous attempts and demands were rejected. On one occasion, Golden Temple was raided too during protests for the creation of the linguistic state of Punjab. This resulted in resentment among many Sikhs quite early. Though not as serious as Operation Bluestar, this was seen as Sikhs not being given their due by Nehru who had promised so.
Thus, quite clearly, the Sikh leaders have plenty of reasons to feel betrayed due to the conduct of the Congress party under Jawaharlal Nehru at the time. It is undeniable that Nehru made a promise and then backed away from it for whatever reason, which provided a fertile ground for radicalism to take root and thrive. Nehru had committed a series of follies during his rule but this was arguably his most expensive mistake.
Hindu-Sikh tensions since Jawaharlal Nehru
After Punjab state was formed, one would assume things would return to normalcy, but Congress and SAD continued their sectarian politics. Congress tried to appease a section of Punjabi Hindus who wanted to continue choosing and affirming Hindi as their mother-tongue and not Punjabi, while SAD took a more and more Sikh centric stand.
Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973 after SAD lost 1972 Punjab elections became one of the pivots on which a renewed assertive Sikh identity politics emerged. And this is where modern Khalistani elements tried to enter mainstream Sikh politics. The resolution included demands such as ‘maintaining the realization of the Panth’s independent entity and creation of such an environment where Sikh sentiment can find its full expression’ and ‘The propagation of religion and Sikh tenets and condemnation of atheism’.
However, it was denied that resolution carried the demands of a separate Sikh state or even an autonomous Sikh State within the Indian Union. The Rise of Bhindranwale was facilitated by political parties as both SAD and Congress tried to use him for their own means. In 1982, when his terrorist inclinations were well known, the SAD and Bhidranwale together launched the ‘Dharma Yudh Morcha’.
During his speeches, Bhindranwale spoke of both ‘internal threats’ to the Sikh religion, that is sects that preached in contradiction to the Sikh orthodoxy, and external threats, that is Hindus, who were seen as enemies not loyal to Punjab or Sikhs. The former became evident during the clash with Nirankaris in 1978 which led to bloodshed.
Sikhs who didn’t agree with the Khalistani agenda also suffered and they were killed as well. Giani Partap Singh, former leader of the Akal Takht, Niranjan Singh, the Granthi of Gurudwara Toot Sahib, Granthi Jarnail Singh and Granthi Surat Singh were some of the prominent Sikhs who were murdered for opposing Bhindranwale.
Then came Operation Bluestar and the subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi. On the directions of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian Military entered the Golden Temple to flush out the terrorists. The subsequent assassination of Indira Gandhi led to an anti-Sikh massacre by the Congress party which has since then been twisted by Khalistanis to project it as a case of Hindu persecution of Sikhs, which it was not.
By mid-1990s, the Khalistani menace had been tamed with significant contribution from IPS KPS Gill who led a stellar effort to take down the terrorists. He was by all accounts a hero and is recognised as such by people across the board. Since then, however, the focal point of the Khalistani movement shifted to the West.
The BJP-SAD alliance
BJP-SAD alliance was one of the steps towards patching Hindu-Sikh relationship under militancy and it worked well. It was an alliance between the party of Hindutva and a Sikh-centric party. Therefore, beyond the realms of politics alone, it also reflected a patch-up between the Hindu and Sikh communities.
Since the split between the BJP and SAD, it was suspected by many that it could portend dangerous times for the state and the country as a whole. With the current farmer protests, Khalistanis feel that the situation is rife to re-enter mainstream politics by using farmers protests like they had used Anandpur Sahib Resolution given that the BJP-SAD alliance no longer stands.
Perhaps it is a matter of coincidence or a pattern but the rise of Khalistani forces the first time occurred after the SAD suffered electoral defeats. This time, too, Khalistani forces have reared their ugly head after the SAD suffered a defeat in elections. And that is why everyone needs to be cautious.