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Why BJP's Relations With Sikhs are at a New Low: 3 Aspects to This

Shubhkaran Singh was killed on the Punjab-Haryana border and a Sikh cop was allegedly called Khalistani in Bengal.

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Recent events have placed BJP-led Union government's relations with the Sikh community at a new low. Consider these:

  • A 21-year-old farmer, Shubhkaran Singh, was killed on the Punjab-Haryana border during the ongoing farmers' protest. Protesting farmers allege that he was shot dead by the Haryana Police. Initial findings do seem to suggest that Shubhkaran Singh died due to bullet injuries. The Haryana government also decided to book some of the protesting farmers under the National Security Act, a move that was later withdrawn.

  • Another farmer, 62-year-old Karnail Singh, has died due to a lung infection allegedly after he faced tear gas firing on the Punjab-Haryana border.

  • A Sikh IPS officer from West Bengal, Jaspreet Singh, alleges that he was called a "Khalistani" by BJP's leader of the Opposition in the state, Suvendu Adhikari. A video of Singh saying, "Are you calling me Khalistani just because I wear a turban?" has gone viral.

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  • A large number of Sikh accounts on social media, including those of farm activists, have been withheld in India under orders of the central government. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, an apex body of the Sikh community, has accused the government of censoring its social media content as well, including posts pertaining purely to worship.

The alleged slur on Jaspreet Singh and the killing of Shubhkaran Singh happened on successive days. For many Sikhs, this sent a signal that a Sikh farmer can be killed and a Sikh police officer labelled a Khalistani with complete impunity.

Now, a majority of Sikhs had voted against the BJP in both 2014 and 2019 according to survey data. But these incidents have worsened an already troubled relationship between the BJP-led Centre and the Sikh community.

Where are things going wrong?

There are three aspects to this.

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1. Viewing Sikhs Only From the Prism of National Security

BJP is committing the same mistake that Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Beant Singh did in the 1980s and early 1990s - viewing Sikh political assertion purely from the point of view of national security.

It must be remembered that after Operation Bluestar, the Centre and Punjab government banned any form of protests in Punjab, including by farmers, students or trade unions, for nearly a decade. You can read more on that in this article.

This basically amounted to denying people in Punjab rights that were enjoyed by people in other parts of the country. The same was done in Kashmir as well.

The same thinking is at play presently as well - as was clear during the crackdown against Amritpal Singh and now during the ongoing farmers' protest. The use of excessive force - pellets, tear gas and allegedly even bullets against protesters - is a clear proof of this.
Shubhkaran Singh was killed on the Punjab-Haryana border and a Sikh cop was allegedly called Khalistani in Bengal.

The Haryana police have used tear gas canisters against the protesting crowd.

(Photo : PTI)

Then there are the allegations that the Indian government carried out the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada and tried to do the same to Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the United States.

Now, most Sikhs don't sympathise with Nijjar or Pannun. But in light of these allegations, Nijjar in particular is now being seen as a victim of an extra-judicial killing. The same holds true for Amritpal Singh who now evokes more sympathy after the arrest than he did when he was free.

At the root of this lies one thing: the wrong lessons that the Modi government had drawn from the farmers' protest. The top leadership of the government and BJP is convinced that the protests were hijacked by anti-national elements.

Even when the Centre withdrew the farm laws, the spin it gave was that it was done in the "national interest" as "anti-India forces" were misusing the protest to stir trouble in Punjab.

It is this thinking that makes the use of excessive force against farmers, seem justified.

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2. Inability to Engage With Most Strands of Sikh Opinion

Now, it is true that the Sangh Parivar doesn't have the kind of ideological opposition to Sikhs that they have towards Muslims or Christians. In fact, in the Sangh's worldview, Sikhs fall within the broader Hindu fold - a concept that is deeply resented by Sikh institutions.

However, is this thinking that shapes their understanding of Sikhs. They see Sikhs' assertion of their separate-ness not as a genuine desire to preserve their identity but as a sign of "radicalism".

The common belief in the Hindutva ecosystem is that Sikhism is being "hijacked" by "vested interests" who need to be "weeded out" or "silenced".

Judging by the diversity of Sikh accounts silenced on social media, it's not just pro-Khalistan elements who are being viewed with suspicion but also farmers, journalists, human rights activists and artists.

Even the SGPC has alleged that its social media posts are being censored.

This is a dangerous pattern and indicates the Centre's complete inability to engage with any form of Sikh opinion except the handful who toe their line.

Unfortunately, even leaders who had a relatively independent viewpoint - like Captain Amarinder Singh, Harinder Singh Khalsa and to some extent Manjinder Singh Sirsa - are now mostly silent or following the party line instead of acting as a bridge between the Centre and Sikhs.

A key development in this context have been the efforts by BJP governments to influence Sikh institutions in states like Haryana and Maharashtra.
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3. A Toxic Ecosystem

There is another problem - the Hindutva ecosystem that is thriving under PM Modi's rule. This hardline base was with the Congress in the 1980s and it is now with the BJP.

Online hate against Sikhs has increased manifold. Threats to "repeat 1984" became extremely common during the 2020-21 farmers protest and haven't really abated since then.

The Hindutva online ecosystem has also launched a targeted campaign against apex Sikh bodies like the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Akal Takht.

Many right wing influencers glorify Lawrence Bishnoi, accused in the killing of singer Sidhu Moose Wala.

The ecosystem is also justifying the killing of Nijjar, a charge that the Modi government continues to deny.

The problem is that it isn't just common trolls making these threats. Even a BJP MLA had tweeted threatening a repeat of 1984. He wasn't censured and in fact was renominated BJP the BJP a few months later.

Shubhkaran Singh was killed on the Punjab-Haryana border and a Sikh cop was allegedly called Khalistani in Bengal.

Even during the 2023 Rajasthan election, a BJP leader made a hate speech against Sikhs though he later apologised and was suspended.

Given this toxicity, it didn't come as a surprise to anyone when a Sikh police officer accused a senior BJP leader of calling him a "Khalistani".

It is too late to undo the first and the third aspect because neither the national security-driven thinking nor the Hindutva ecosystem's desire to subjugate minorities, can be undone overnight.

It is the second aspect - engaging with Sikhs - where steps can be taken. A good starting point could be to resume dialogue with the farmers and also address the long pending issue of Bandi Singhs (Sikh prisoners).

But there seems to be no political will as of now.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  sikhs   Farmers Protest   Khalistani 

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