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Hindutva’s zealots trigger Sikh militancy in Punjab

Hindutva’s zealots trigger Sikh militancy in Punjab

  0 comments   |     by P K Balachandran

Flush with unprecedented success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 Indian parliamentary elections, and given the BJP’s alliance with the Sikh party Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological arm of the BJP, has gone on an over drive to spread “Hindutva” or Hindu nationalism among the Sikhs in Punjab. But this ambitious project, executed with recklessness typical of extremist groups, has set off alarm bells among Sikh nationalists, whose greatest fear is the obliteration of their separate identity as a socio-religious-cultural group through absorption by Hinduism and the Hindu community. The RSS’s moves, made through its own Sikh organization Sikh Sangat has led to the revival of Sikh militancy in Punjab which is reflected in a series of murders of RSS and other Hindutva activists. On April 23, 2016 Shiv Sena leader Durga Prasad Gupta was shot dead in Khanna. On August 6, RSS Punjab Vice-President Brig Jagdish Gagneja (retd) was shot dead in Jalandhar. On Feb 25, 2017, Dera Sacha Sauda follower Satpal Sharma and his son Ramesh were killed in Jagera village on Ludhiana-Malerkotla road.

On January 14, 2017 Amit Sharma, District President of Shri Hindu Takht, was shot dead outside Durga Mata Temple in Ludhiana. On October 17 RSS Shakha leader and BJP RTI wing member Ravinder Gosainwas gunned down outside his house in Ludhiana. On October 30, Vipin Sharma, District President of Hindu Sangharsh Sena in Amritsar was shot dead. The RSS’s moves, made through its own Sikh organization Sikh Sangat has led to the revival of Sikh militancy in Punjab which is reflected in a series of murders of RSS and other Hindutva activists. The Hindu reports that days before the Sikh Sangat held its widely-opposed event on October 25 to celebrate the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh, the founder of Sikhism, Ravinder Gosain, an RSS leader from Ludhiana, was shot dead by suspected Sikh hardliners. Earlier this week, another right-wing Hindu activist of the Hindu Sangharsh Sena, Vipan Sharma, was murdered in Amritsar.

Basis of Sikh’s Fear

The Sikhs’ fear of absorption is grounded in historical reality. Hinduism does not sanction “conversion” as in Islam and Christianity, but it gets its recruits through “co-option and absorption”. Sects, vastly different from and even contradictory to each other, have been absorbed by “co-option” into a larger whole down the ages. The absorbed sects or communities maintain their distinctness but are subsumed under an over-arching Hindu identity. What the RSS has been doing is to exponentially increase the number of “Shakhas” or units in the rural areas where people are vulnerable. These Shakhas do not teach Hinduism or Hindu nationalism per se.  They teach Sikhism, portraying it as the “sword arm of Hinduism” defending it against invasive “non-Indian” religions like Islam and Christianity. The RSS-sponsored Sikh Sangat has been trying to turn the Sikhs against Muslims and Christians.

According to reports, RSS workers became brazen enough to mock at traditional Sikh organizations for “not doing enough for Sikhism.” But this only annoyed the established Sikh organizations. Hinduisation did not accord with the post-independence concern of the Sikhs which is to gain recognition as a separate religious community, a minority in Hindu-majority India. But Sikh nationalism, which had waned, got a shot in the arm when the Bengalis of East Pakistan began a war of independence against West Pakistan in 1971. And when India supported the East Pakistanis’ demand and helped create Bangladesh, Sikh nationalists also wanted separation from India. They passed a resolution for an independent “Khalistan” at the Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara in 1972. In the early 1940s when the Pakistan movement was gaining ground, a section of the Sikhs also wanted a separate country for themselves, or at the least, special rights in a multi-religious country. But this was not conceded.
However, what proved to be decisive for Sikh thinking on the partition of India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan was the targeting of Sikhs by Muslim zealots in the partition riots. 

This forced the Sikhs to join the Hindu side in the riots and agree to become part of India, which, unlike explicitly Islamic Pakistan, promised to be a secular state. However, the Sikhs’ ties with the Hindus became tenuous when Hindu-majority India refused to consider a separate State or Province for the Sikhs which their leader Master Tara Singh called “Punjabi Suba”.

Punjabi Suba was to be a Sikh-majority state where the official language would be Punjabi written in the Gurmukhi script and not in the Persian or Sanskrit script. The Sikhs were worried that Hindu Punjabis were abandoning the Punjabi language in favour of Hindi and choosing a Hindu identity over a “Punjabi” identity. They feared that the quintessentially “Punjabi” Sikhs will be reduced to a powerless minority. Tara Singh had to go on a 48 day fast before the demand for Punjabi Suba was conceded in the early 1960s. Punjab was divided into a Hindu-majority “Haryana” and Sikh-dominated “Punjab”. But Sikh nationalism, which had waned, got a shot in the arm when the Bengalis of East Pakistan began a war of independence against West Pakistan in 1971. And when India supported the East Pakistanis’ demand and helped create Bangladesh, Sikh nationalists also wanted separation from India.
They passed a resolution for an independent “Khalistan” at the Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara in 1972. This secured the support of neighbouring Pakistan which was smarting under an ignominious military defeat in East Pakistan at the hands of the Indian army and wanted to punish India for helping East Pakistan gain independence. It took a decade for New Delhi to quash the Pakistan-aided Sikh movement, which had led to the storming of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian army, and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, which in turn led to the massacre of 2000 Sikhs in Delhi. Tough measures against the wayward terrorists and reconciliatory moves to mollify the Sikhs brought peace and communal harmony to Punjab in the 1990s. Elections were held with high participation and the Sikh party Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) even ran a coalition government with the Hindu nationalist BJP. The Congress, which was earlier seen as being a tormentor, was also elected to power. But this harmony is now being disrupted by the over-zealous Hindutva forces using the sweeping victory of the BJP in the 2014 national elections. Led by the RSS, the Hindutva forces are trying to absorb Sikhs into the larger Hindu fold, threatening Sikh’s identity. The Sikhs, in their entirety, reject the Hindutva theory that Sikhism is nothing but a reformist Hindu movement and that the Sikhs are but a Hindu sect and not a distinct religious group. This line is propagated very cleverly in rural Punjab by portraying Hindutva as the real protector of Sikhism against proselytization by Muslims and Christians. The idea is to turn Sikhs against Islamic Pakistan and the Christian West.

Grand Plan Misfires

But this grand plan has misfired. It is being resisted by the Sikhs, both moderate and radical. Radical Sikhs are suspected to be behind the series of murders of RSS works since 2015. According to The Hindu, the animosity between the RSS and Sikh organizations dates back to the 1980s, when Sikh terrorists uprooted RSS Shakhas from border areas of Punjab. It was Brig. Jagdhish Gagneja, the then Vice President of the RSS in Punjab, who revived these outlying Shakhas in the former militant stronghold areas in Tarn Taran and Amritsar. Most believe he paid with his life for doing so. The Akal Takht (the highest Sikh religious seat), the Shiromani Akali Dal, and all-powerful Sikh head priests boycotted the Sikh Sangat — organized celebration of Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday on October 25. Association with the Sikh Sangat is banned by the Akal Takhtas the apex Sikh body feels that the former has been formed by the RSS to subsume Sikhism into a Hindu identity, The Hindu says. But the high-profile celebration saw the participation of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Union home minister Rajnath Singh and the President of the Sikh Sangat, Gurcharan Singh Gill. Gill rejected the allegation that the RSS is involved in a subversive movement to merge the Sikh identity with Hinduism.

After it’s then President, Rulda Singh, was shot dead by Babbar Khalsa militants in 2009, the Sikh Sangat has been virtually defunct in Punjab. Out of the 500 odd units that it runs, only 15 operate in Punjab. The rest are in Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. However, since 2014, when the BJP formed the government at New Delhi, the RSS and the Sikh Sangat have been active.

PK Balachandran, a senior Indian journalist

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