Why Are Sikhs Angry With Delhi Police? Data Reveals Deep Distrust
Delhi Police’s altercation with a Sikh tempo driver named Sarbjeet Singh and his young son in Mukherjee Nagar area in north Delhi on 16 June has sparked outrage among the capital’s Sikh community. Several Sikhs protested outside the Mukherjee Nagar police station on 17 and 18 June demanding that the police personnel who thrashed Sarbjeet and his son be dismissed and booked. They had been suspended by then.
The unexpectedly large scale of the protests seems to indicate a deeper disconnect between the Sikh community and the police, which goes beyond the 16 June incident. There are two elements to this: First, the Sikh community’s distrust towards the police and second, recent incidents in which security forces were accused of using excessive force against Sikhs. Let’s look at both these issues.
Sikhs’ Distrust of the Police
According to the ‘Status of Policing in India Report 2018’ by Lokniti-Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Sikhs have the highest distrust towards the police compared to other communities.
The survey shows that 45 percent Sikhs either “highly distrust” or “somewhat distrust” the police, which is much higher compared to 32 percent among Muslims, 31 percent among Christians, 27 percent among upper castes, 29 percent among SCs and 37 percent among STs.
According to the survey, the fear of the police among Sikhs is much higher than the national average, which is the case with Muslims as well. But there is a crucial difference. While the fear of police is disproportionately higher among poorer sections in all communities, Sikhs are unique in the fact that even upper classes expressed a fear of the police.
“In comparison to the response of upper classes from other religions, the Sikh upper class is much more likely to be scared (42 percent) as against upper class Hindus (14 per cent) or upper class Muslims (9 percent),” the survey observes.
This partly explains why upper class Sikhs come out in protest against the police much more than Muslims, even though both communities expressed a fear of the police. While there seems to be a disconnect in the perception of rich and poor Muslims, the sentiment among Sikhs is more united across classes.
In yet another aspect – positive or negative view of the police – the negative perception was higher among Sikhs than other communities. 49 percent Sikhs said they have a somewhat or highly negative view of the police, compared to 36 percent among Muslims 33 percent among Hindus and 22 percent among Christians.
34 percent Sikhs have a “highly negative” perception of the police, much more than the corresponding percent among other communities: 20 percent among Muslims, 17 percent among Hindus and 10 percent among Christians.
The reasons for the Sikhs’ distrust and fear of the police could stem from police atrocities – encounters and forced disappearances that took place in the 1980s and 1990s during the Khalistan insurgency. Another factor could be the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in which the police in different parts of the country, particularly Delhi, are accused of abetting or even helping the killing of Sikhs.
With not many people being punished for the 1984 pogrom or the forced disappearances and encounters, Sikhs’ wounds haven’t quite healed. But the discontent against the police isn’t just related to what happened in the 80s and 90s.
There have been a number of incidents in the recent past that have also contributed. For instance, in April this year security personnel were accused of using excessive force against Sikh traders during a sealing drive in West Delhi’s Mayapuri. One security personnel even threw a rock, which hit a Sikh trader on the head.
Even though the sealing drive wasn’t a religious issue, it assumed a religious colour as the crackdown took place on Baisakhi day, inviting comparisons with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre that took place exactly 100 years before.
Police action against Sikhs often assumes a communal colour because of insensitivity about Sikhism on the part of the police. When police personnel target a Sikh’s dastaar (turban) or kesh (hair), it isn’t seen by the community just as physical assault but an act of sacrilege as these are articles of faith.
Take this assault by a Rajasthan cop on a Sikh rickshaw driver in Bharatpur earlier this year.
Irrespective of whether the police is driven by communal motives in such cases, an attack on an article of faith will obviously be seen as communal by the Sikh community. It also doesn’t help when some police personnel openly harbour communal views. Sikhs on Twitter flagged a Facebook post by one Sachin Bhati, who is supposedly with the Delhi Police. In the post after the Mukherjee Nagar protest, he openly says that “people need to be reminded of 1984”. He has since deleted his profile.
Several Sikhs, including the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee have filed a complaint against Bhati.
Increasing Consciousness Among Sikhs
Another key reason behind the large scale protests on the Mukherjee Nagar incident is the increasing consciousness among Sikhs against police atrocities. There is a history to this and can be traced to how activists like Jaswant Singh Khalra copiously documented fake encounters and forced disappearances by the police in the 1980s and 1990s. Though Khalra was himself abducted by the police 1995 and was never seen again, this documentation formed the basis of a great deal of activism by Indian as well as diaspora Sikhs.
The high degree of consciousness against police atrocities among Sikhs can be seen in the fact that the Kotkapura firing of 2015 which killed two people remains a major political issue in Punjab.
Social media has also helped highlighting incidents like what happened in Mayapuri, Bharatpur and now Mukherjee Nagar, enabling protests by Sikhs.
Irrespective of what happens in the Mukherjee Nagar case and whose fault it actually was, it is clear that the Sikh community isn’t going to remain silent when it comes to police atrocities. It is also up to police forces across the country to sensitise their personnel on how to deal with minorities.
(The Quint is now available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)