Why Modi, BJP & RSS Never Understood Sikhs and Still Don’t
Booklet on ‘PM Modi’s Special Relationship with Sikhs’ won’t help as he hasn’t done the one thing that was needed.
The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) sent about 2 crore emails with a 47-page document titled "'PM Modi and his government's special relationship with Sikh" earlier this week.
The booklet lists 13 measures taken by the Modi government for "to support the Sikh community". The measures listed included the "Kartarpur Sahib corridor", "tax exemption on langar", "FCRA registration for Harmandir Sahib", "justice for 1984 riot victims".
Whether the Modi government actually deserves credit for these measures is besides the point. The important part here is that such an outreach is being done at a time when Sikhs are at the forefront of the farmers' protest against Modi government's new farm laws.
New Low in Centre’s Relations With Sikhs
It won't be an an exaggeration to say that the Centre's popularity among Sikhs is at its lowest since over two decades.
Consider these facts:
Farmers from several states are protesting on Delhi's borders and over a lakh of them happen to be Sikh.
Sikh achievers from several fields - from Sahitya Akademi Award winning literary figures to Arjuna Award winning sportspersons, decorated soldiers and prominent scientists - have returned awards given to them by the government.
The Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority for Sikhs, has condemned the Modi government's farm laws, slammed the RSS for being "divisive" and even called for a ban on it earlier this year.
Punjabi singers are composing songs targetting the Modi government, actors have actively joined protests, social media stars are posting videos ridiculing Modi and common Sikhs are also expressing their disaffection.
It’s not just the farmers protest but also the constant propaganda calling protesters “anti-national” and “Khalistani” that has hurt Sikhs.
Then in the political realm, the one figure who had acted as an important bridge between the Centre and Sikhs since the 1990s - five time chief minister of Punjab Parkash Singh Badal - has returned India's second highest civilian honour Padma Vibhushan, given to him by the Modi government.
His party - the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) has ended its 23 year old alliance with the BJP. And party chief Sukhbir Badal has now accused the BJP of being the "real Tukde Tukde gang" which is "trying to divide Hindus and Sikhs".
Even the BJP-friendly Akali leader Sukhdev Dhindsa has returned his Padma Bhushan award.
Why Are Sikhs Upset With Modi Govt?
Now, the farmers' protest is not a Sikh protest. Thousands of farmers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand are also protesting around Delhi and farmers across several other states are also backing the movement.
But it is clear that for Sikhs, the entire protest has come to mean much more.
Throughout history Sikhs have consistently resisted autocratic rulers and Modi stands where Aurangzeb stood four centuries ago and Indira Gandhi four decades ago.
As Punjabi protesters invoke rebels from Punjab’s history - from Baghel Singh who captured Delhi in 1783 to freedom fighters like Kartar Singh Sarabha, Bhagat Singh and Udham Singh - the BJP government is being compared to the Mughals and British.
Sikhs are rising and the Modi government is being seen as the main antagonist.
But the resentment isn’t restricted to farm laws.
The farm laws worsened manifold what was already a troubled relationship. The truth is that Sikhs never quite warmed up to Modi.
According to the CSDS pre-poll survey before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, dislike for Modi was highest among Sikhs, more than even Muslims. According to the survey, 68 percent Sikhs said that Modi shouldn’t get another chance to be PM.
The corresponding figures were 31 percent among Hindus, 56 percent among Muslims and 62 percent among Christians.
Only 21 percent Sikhs wanted Modi back as PM, compared to 51 percent Hindus.
Punjab was the one state where BJP's national security pitch after the Pulwama attack and Balakot strike, worked the least. More details on the survey can be found here.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dissatisfaction with the Modi government's performance was the highest among Sikhs compared to other communities, according to the CVoter survey.
Lack of Understanding on Sikhs
The problem lies in the fact that Modi, Amit Shah and even the RSS never quite understood Sikhs.
No Takers for Token Measures
Token measures seldom work for Sikhs. Having a Sikh president in the 1980s didn't help Centre paper over the deep resentment in the community, especially when the government's policies remained hostile.
More recently, the Congress lost two successive Assembly elections in Punjab - in 2007 and 2012 - at a time when it had given India its first Sikh Prime Minister. It's not that Sikhs disliked the then PM Dr Manmohan Singh, it's just that symbolism didn't matter to them and they decided on the basis of what made sense in the state.
The relations between New Delhi and Sikhs is much worse now than it was under the UPA. So the token measures done by the Modi government and its PR exercises won't help improve its standing.
Trauma of 1984 and Importance of Federalism
The main reason for this is that the trauma of the 1984 pogrom and Operation Bluestar has made Sikhs deeply distrustful of leaders with large majorities who have a tendency to assert central authority over states.
Federalism is a very important for Punjab, particularly for Sikhs. It was the main principle behind the Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1973 as well.
The lack of understand from Modi and Shah may also be a result of the RSS' distorted view of Sikhs.
In the RSS worldview, Sikhs are Keshdhari Hindu or a Panth within Hinduism.
This denial of their separate identity is deeply hurtful to Sikhs and contributed to their distrust of the RSS. In 2004, the Akal Takht issued a hukamnama directing Sikhs to stay away from RSS affiliate Rashtriya Sikh Sangat calling the outfit "anti-Panthic".
Sikh bodies’ main complaint against the RSS is that it denies the separate identity of Sikhs and tries to appropriate Sikh Gurus, particularly Guru Gobind Singh, and present them as Hindu figures.
The efforts to appropriate Guru Gobind Singh stem from another disturbing premise in the Hindutva worldview - that Sikhism came into being to protect Hindus during the Mughal era and that the religion was a sword arm of Hinduism against Muslims.
Hindutva outfits have consistently tried to weaponise the 'Sikh-Mughal conflict' and turn Sikhs against Muslims.
However, Sikh bodies like Akal Takht and SGPC, Sikh historians and religious scholars as well as many common Sikhs have consistently resisted this narrative by asserting that the conflict with Mughals wasn't a conflict against Islam, but against tyranny.
So in the context of Independent India, Sikhs are more likely to equate Mughals with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi rather than with Indian Muslims.
The Only Thing That Was Needed
Most Sikhs don't like bullies. Whenever the Modi government or Hindutva vigilantes have picked on another vulnerable minority, Sikhs have been at the forefront of standing by those at the receiving end.
This was evident from how Sikhs came forward to protect Kashmiris after they were facing attacks following the Pulwama blast. Even in the anti-CAA protests, Sikh groups and farmers groups from Punjab expressed solidarity with Muslims despite the law benefiting Sikh refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Then when Muslims were being attacked in hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh urged Sikhs to stand by those who were being wrongly targetted.
If Sikhs could take a stand for another minority in a matter that didn't even directly affect them, it would be foolish to expect them to get bullied on an issue that directly affects the livelihood of farmers, who form a majority among Sikhs.
The Modi government hasn't done the one thing it needed to do to win over Sikhs - show humility.
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