(The following excerpt has been taken, with permission, from Chapter 12 – ‘Patit – Apostate’ of the book ‘Panjab: Journeys Through Faultlines’ – written by Amandeep Sandhu. Published by Westland, the hardback is 580 pages long and priced at Rs 688.)
(The sub-headings are not part of the book, and have been added by The Quint.)
The real clear and present danger to Sikh identity is the same as was a century and a half ago: Panjab as the laboratory of Hindutva politics. This was an area that Lala Lajpat Rai and Indira Gandhi too had trodden. The original question on the identity of Sikhs keeps changing form, but becomes even more relevant now: are Sikhs a sword arm of the Hindus? A century back, the Singh Sabha could wrest the gurudwaras from the Mahants. Now the Sikh clergy under the auspices of the SGPC and an avowedly Sikh party (the Akalis) are themselves compromised. The Akalis are partners with the BJP and control the SGPC.
As an organisation, the RSS, founded in 1925, is almost as old as the Akalis. Yet, while the freedom struggle was on, unlike the Akalis who were making great sacrifices, the RSS remained obsequious to the British. Hindutva as an ideology has created many threads: the Arya Samaj who, in Panjab, through language politics, opposed the Akalis and the Sikhs; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad; the Hindu Mahasabha; and the nationwide organisation, the RSS.
‘RSS is Subsuming Sikh Religion Within Hindu Fold’
Their visible face now is the BJP, but the RSS is more than the BJP’s parent organisation. The RSS is a version of the Hindutva idea that believes it has a right to interfere in every minority community’s belief and worldview to destabilise the minority, mould it, and align it with the grand dream of a Hindu Rashtra.
After Operation Blue Star and Indira Gandhi’s missteps and through its legacy, the RSS knows better than to challenge the Sikhs. So, they do the reverse — they operate subversively in Panjab. They embrace the Sikhs, and through that they seek to appropriate them.
By accepting the Sikhs — their Gurus, their belief system and their rituals — the RSS leaves the community with little option to assert themselves as a distinct voice. The idea is to subsume the Sikh religion within the larger Hindu fold.
Even at RSS ‘Ghar Wapsi’ programmes mostly for Christians, the RSS allows them to join either the Hindu religion or the Sikh. After the militancy years, the RSS shakhas had dwindled in the border districts, but the RSS has now been on a drive to revive them. The RSS has also spawned the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat which attracts Sikhs who seemingly are not so bothered about the identity question.
The larger push is to dilute the Sikh identity so much that they stop asserting themselves as different from Hindus and fall in line with the grand project of India as a Hindu Rashtra. That is why in 2004 the Akal Takht forbade the Sikhs to associate with the Rashtriya Sikh Sangh. The Sikh clergy needs to realise that mere proclamations and orders do not work on the ground. The lines between the BJP and the RSS are fluid.
‘Sikhs Are At Loss On How to Deal With Onslaught’
When Sikhs join or support the BJP, they automatically open up to being under RSS influence and within the RSS propaganda machinery. The RSS strategy in Panjab is not to get confrontational but facelessly permeate the Sikh ethos in such a way that one can’t make out if a phenomena is because of Hindutva influence or because of Sikhs not knowing their own code of religion well, or just plain fashion. For example, in the practices of the idolatory of Gurus as discussed earlier; rituals like Karwa Chauth being celebrated by Sikh women sporting choodas (bangles); the question of Panjabi language and many others.
Through history, the Sikhs have been known to do well against an enemy with a face. Their whole martial history is built on the opposition being a visible force.
Now the opposition—Hindutva thought—has entered the Akali Dal leadership, the working of the SGPC and the very practice and day to day living of Sikhs, and the Sikhs are at a loss on how to deal with this new onslaught.
‘Resist Being Appropriated or Perish’
The Sikhs realise this but are unable to prevent the erosion of their religion. They feel claustrophobic, under covert assault by the RSS. They end up taking law in their hands and killing RSS and Shiv Sena leaders.
In the last few years, a number of top functionaries of the RSS and other Hindutva groups have been murdered by suspected Sikh hardliners. Among those killed were RSS state vice-president Brig. (retd.) Jagdish Gagneja; RSS leader Naresh Kumar; president of Mazdoor Sena Durga Prasad Gupta; Amit Sharma, a preacher at Hindu Takht; RSS and BJP leader Ravinder Gosai; Vipan Sharma, leader of the Hindu Sangharsh Sena; Dera Sacha Sauda followers, Satpal Kumar and his son Ramesh Kumar and Sultan Masih, a pastor at the Temple of God church. These attacks have been owned by the Khalistan Commando Force and a new outfit, the Dashmesh Regiment. These killings are an old strategy and solve nothing on the ground. They only revive memories of militancy.
The need of the hour for the Sikhs is to engage with the RSS and Hindutva groups who have taken the identity game into play and find ways of preserving their unique identity.
It is fine if the Hindutva groups want to revere Sikh symbols and rituals, but they need to be asked to stay away from appropriating the Sikh voice. The option for the community in these times is clear: resist being appropriated, or perish.
Sadly, neither our clergy, nor the Akalis are willing to engage with right-wing forces. Per the Gurus, the line is clear: stay away from empty rituals and focus on the essence of knowledge. Stay away from unnecessary reverence and symbolism, focus on real action—become a learner, a shishya, a Sikh, and stand with the oppressed. That is why the community will have to either rise to the challenge of stepping away from decadent practices in the religion or just perish by being appropriated.