Will the Sikhs Save India?

By Omar Ali 12 Comments

This topic came up a few days ago on Twitter because I happened to tweet:

 

The original tweet I was quoting is about the arrest of a Sikh leader who had gone to express solidarity (and serve tea) with the Shaheen Bagh protesters. I know nothing about him and have no idea if he is a Khalistani or a leftist or just a random guy who wanted to be nice to the protesters, so my tweet was not about him, but what was it about then? Several friends asked me this question (and others jumped in with their own theories, as expected on twitter), so i thought i would write a quick post to try and explain my quip.. I did not mean that the Sikhs are the moral guardians of India or some such, though of course many Sikhs do indeed believe this is the role their gurus intended for them. Whether they are or are not, that was not what I was aiming to say. If they do act as a moral force in India, more power to them, but that was not what I meant. 

  1. Sikhism is (in my opinion, others differ) an Indic religion. While the gurus used a fair amount of Islamicate vocabulary in their works, the philosophy and theology are clearly Indic and with the boundaries of classical Islam being what they are, they are certainly not Islamic in any strong sense.
  2. Some on the Hindu Right like to see Sikhism as “defenders of Hindus” if not “defenders of Hinduism” and given that the Sikh Gurus identified with the oppressed population of Mughal India and certainly not with the colonial administrators (whether the local administrator was Muslim or not; there were several prominent Hindus who also served as Mughal administrators and governors, some of whom are well known villains in Sikh history), this has some truth to it, but maybe not as much as Hindutvvadis would like.
  3. In any case, in British colonial times the religion evolved a stronger separate identity and that separate identity is firmly established in diaspora Sikhs and in the priests and leaders of the Sikh community. In the near future i see no way this is going to go away, in fact it is likely to get stronger. Partly because that is the nature of religions, they like to differentiate themselves (and priests of all varieties are especially likely to do so) and partly because Hindutvva over-reach will cause people to take sides and identities will become stronger.
  4. So here is what was (vaguely) in my mind when i wrote that line: I assume that RW Hindu leaders in India will continue to focus on Muslims and (to an increasing extent) Christians as “outsiders”, or at least, potential agents of outsiders in India. This conflict has the potential to be very damaging,  though everyone in India has long experience in this domain and for better or worse it is “baked into” most calculations, so maybe it will be less apocalyptic than imagined, but anyway, it is not a conflict I (or most liberals) would like to see accelerate. This brings us to the Sikhs. They are a very integrated and  successful group in India in many ways and for the first 30 years most of them probably did not feel they are some sort of minority set against a dominant Hindu majority in India. But with Bluestar, Indira assassination, Delhi pogroms, Khalistan movement and the harsh suppression of that insurgency, this has shifted somewhat, but the shift may have been a bit balanced by the fact that the BJP had a steady alliance with the Akalis and RW Hindus were keen to claim Sikhs as one of their own, not to demonize them as outsiders. But identity politics has its own inescapable logic and the more Indian Hindu identity crystallizes, the more it differentiates from other groups. As Hindus become more Hindu, Sikhs may feel some pressure to become more Sikh. As they do so, they will become even stronger supporters of equality before the law, separation of religion and state, and secularism in general. Since they are still an important and well integrated community (I probably overestimate their importance due to Punjabi chauvinism, but i think even if you adjust for that, this may still have some truth to it) I think semi-rational rulers (whether from BJP or not) will not brush their objections aside AS EASILY as they can for some other groups. Since some form of genuine secularism (say, a state that treats all individuals as equal citizens and does not discriminate on the basis of religion) is the best path for India to progress and develop (of course, from my POV), I am therefore happy that Sikhs will act as brakes on some of the less savory instincts of majoritarian politics.
    So, it was not a very profound tweet. i think it has a certain logic to it, but there can be many reasons why this will not happen, most convincing to my mind being the objection that humans are not that rational or nice and the trajectory may not be “Sikhs resist majoritarian over-reach>Sikhs R not trivial>Majority holds back”.. instead the more likely trajectory may be “Some Sikhs resist majoritarian over-reach>Majority attacks ALL Sikhs as traitors and khalistanis> many Sikhs retaliate with abuse of their own>shit hits many fans all across greater Punjab. Anyway, that was it. That was the tweet 🙂

 

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12 Replies to “Will the Sikhs Save India?”

  1. I like Sikhism. I like all dharmic faiths tho. But I especially Sikh focus on self defense.

    I don’t like Punjabi racism, which tends to manifest heavily among Jatt Sikh Khalistani ethnonationalists. They are among the most banned people on this blog. They preach on one hand that Sikhism is about equality, yet spew racialist and supremacist hatred against other Indians, while at the same time allying with the group that killed the the most, West Punjabi Muslims.

    The people who will save India are the entrepreneurs and the educated. This overemphasis on racial and religious differences only harms India. Diversity is good but there is way too much dick measuring of one community versus the other. It is rather patronizing to even propose one small community will be the “saviors” of India.

  2. “instead the more likely trajectory may be “Some Sikhs resist majoritarian over-reach>Majority attacks ALL Sikhs as traitors and khalistanis> many Sikhs retaliate with abuse of their own>shit hits many fans all across greater Punjab. ”

    I would disagree a bit. Its true that sikhs do resist majoritarian over reach, but it would be too difficult for Hindus “to attacks ALL Sikhs as traitors and khalistanis”, and the simple reason is they have gained enough “nationalist” pedigree even within RW Hindus for them to go on this path. There was a survey some years back and within Hindus the only community the Hindus see as either as patriotic as themselves (or in some cases more than them) are the Sikhs. This is like the whole Pathan-are-warriors thing among the Punjabi Pakistani type phenomena. The only outlier is Indira Gandhi/Blue star/Delhi pogroms thing, which was really an outlier, and can’t be repeated.

    Since the first 2 steps might not play out that way, you would see the same modus operandi of blaming some sikhs as Khalistani etc as the norm rather than full blown civil war.

  3. I think semi-rational rulers (whether from BJP or not) will not brush their objections aside AS EASILY as they can for some other groups. Since some form of genuine secularism (say, a state that treats all individuals as equal citizens and does not discriminate on the basis of religion) is the best path for India to progress and develop (of course, from my POV), I am therefore happy that Sikhs will act as brakes on some of the less savory instincts of majoritarian politics.
    INSHALLAH Omarji आपके मुंह में घी शक्कर (May you have Ghee and sugar in your mouth) – though this feels a bit like wishful thinking to me which i indugle in from time to time

    But identity politics has its own inescapable logic and the more Indian Hindu identity crystallizes, the more it differentiates from other groups. As Hindus become more Hindu, Sikhs may feel some pressure to become more Sikh. As they do so, they will become even stronger supporters of equality before the law, separation of religion and state, and secularism in general.
    Wrt the podcast with Tony-TheLiberal – The only point he made where he made sense was Congress/BJP wrt 1984/2002;
    Despite Bluestar, Congress supported pogroms, Insurgency which was put down mostly under Congress governments the Sikhs continue to see Congress as acceptable viz BJP. BJP has not been able to make any inroads in Sikh Punjab and had to depend on Akalis for decades. Even in the 2019 wave, Punjab stood out ;
    Contrast that with BJP wrt other minorities – even Christians – there continues to be major distrust of BJP though actually BJP hasn’t been particularly anti Christian.

    If one takes an non-essentialist position viz Dharmic v Abrahamic it can be well argued that this is the drawback of Hindutva identity & Hindi politics . Human beings will act like human beings and cling on to identities and focus on what’s different vs the commonalities of Sikhism v Hinduism. They will not act according to the so called expectations from their “tolerant” faiths.
    One of the first causes of friction in Punjab was Hindus in Punjab identifying with Hindi/vs Punjabi.

  4. Indian Punjabis (Sikhs, Hindus) have moved on from Op Bluestar, Delhi riots and Khalistan. The fact that INC has captured power in Punjab for more than 3 times since 1984 is significant (and ruling currently). The political behaviour of Sikhs shows no significant difference from the rest of the Indian population (forgive and move on).

    The real problem confronting the Punjabi state is that they have reached their zenith as an agricultural power. Returns are diminishing. Now they have to prove themselves in some other field and quench the creative energies.

    The Punjabi elites are themselves heavily invested into the Indian power structures (armed forces, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia). They are also highly self aware – they know geopolitical reality, without access to the seaboard, a Punjabi ethnostate will be a paper tiger.

    But there is disquiet. An uneasy calm lies over the land. A new undertaking should consume their fires into a creative force. And that direction lies to the West. The rapidity with which Modi, Amit Shah and Doval (MAD) accepted the Kartarpur proposal left even the Pakistanis surprised. It is awakening a lot of young people to the loss of their ancestral lands. There lies a quest.

  5. I dont know a lot about Punjab’s politics so this question might be dumb but what are the chances if a tie up between AAP and the Akalis

  6. Sikhs opposing the CAA with such passion just does not pass the smell test. A distinction is to be drawn between opportunistic rabble rousing, and genuine grievance. Just compare the trajectory of the Sikhs to the Tamils.

  7. Jatt Sikhs dominate the socio-political milieu of Indian Punjab to such an extent and rule their own state of Punjab in such an authoritarian, borderline fascist manner that its a bit rich when they start accusing Hindus of falling for “right-wing” politics.

    This criticism of Hindutva politics by Sikh religious leaders is simply opportunistic trolling.

    Perhaps, Omar hasn’t heard of the whole stupid brouhaha over “beadbi” which keeps happening in Punjab every few years whenever some loose leafs of the Sikh holy book are found burnt or in trash heaps. Mostly its radical (Khalistani) Sikhs who do this in order to create disturbances in the state and create a wedge issue between Hindus and Sikhs.

    Also there have been a bunch of killings of Hindu leaders in the last several years by Sikh radicals.

    India is secular and will remain secular ONLY and ONLY because a large percentage of Hindus want it so. Otherwise left to themselves Sikhs may have formed an extremely authoritarian, land-locked country of Punjab. I shudder to think of what would have happened if Khalistani Jathebandis were to come to power in an independent country of Punjab. A stupider, more bloodthirsty group cannot even be found in Congo.

    1. I should have thought of a lot of this, since I am actually someone who does mention these aspects of Sikhism (blasphemy, heresy, sects). Good comment :), but i do disagree with the last line..

  8. Omar:
    I think there is some truth to your conclusion but may be to less to the chain of logic. Sikhs might actually be the reason there is a brake on Hindutva majoritarianism not because of their inherent morality or moral superiority, nor because of their clout but because Hindutva politics will not want to alienate another community especially a Dharmic one that they consider part of the larger family. Their fight is against the real and perceived injustices of the past and present (Left, Muslim and their alliance), and to gain primacy for Hinduism (Malaysian model if you will),,Hindu worldview has enough flexibility to accommodate Dharmic faiths, and even less aggressively inimical Abrahamic faiths (with some concessions to Indicness from their side) but what they will not countenance is open hostility. Open hostility and ridicule, and overt alliance with Islamists is what the right wing of the Sikhs (especially in the diaspora) is going for. To the extent that Hindutva pushes aggressively against Sikhs, the likes of this Chai guy from Shaheen Baug, it is to dissuade further Islamo-Rightwing Sikh alliance…Once extreme Sikhs show some accommodation, or at least not openly poke Hindutva in the eyes, these folks will back off. So instead of the Hindutvists going aggressively against “Sikhs” it is the rightwing minority of Sikhs (or Khalistani sympathizer types) that are actively poking Hindus/HIndutva folks at every opportunity…

    Hindus/Hindutva types have learnt the lesson of 47, and that is to not show any weakness, and to give back as they get. This was further reinforced by 1980s Punjab and how a minority of Sikhs went berserk against Hindus (we can debate who started it, and there is blame to go around on both sides) and there was a real fear of secession. Gandhi’s Ahmisa days were gone, and they were buried after the 1980s. It is no coincidence that you saw right wing Hindu politics gain steam after Punjab and Kashmir blew up in succession in the 80s.

    Finally coming to the Sikhs and Sikhism, there are many things to admire about the faith AND how it is practised. But both the Sikhs themselves and some of their admirers overestimate the moral delta between Sikh communities and others..Some of the “moralness” is performative, and some have argued the exaggerated highly public acts of charity conducted by the Sikhs are part their genuine fath (or faith driven) and part performance boosted again by their ongoin separation from the Dharmic spiritual core (I am not sure about this part, but the “performance” argument does ring true). Finally, to your point about secularism Sikhs have had a great opportunity to demonstrate secualrism, anticasteism etc in Punjab and have failed miserably. There is no social indicator on which Punjab stands out in a good way compared to many other Indian states..What leg do they have to stand on to lecture others? Also, Punjab is 40% Hindu, 45% non Sikh and nobody can name one prominent Hindu politician from the state, forget about one with a good chance to be CM.

  9. The comments here are quite normative regarding Sikhs or Jatt Sikhs. There is a lot of internal diversity within Sikhism which is not reflected in these comments at all.

    That said almost every aspect of N Indian culture / communitarian life is marked by a certain level of reflexive conservatism and deep fear of change. And Sikhism isn’t immune from it. Besides Sikhism as a religion flowered under siege, and its conservative tradition remains deeply suspicious of external political interference.

    1. Stupid comment!!

      Sikhs may have internal diversity but the faction which has political control of the Sikh faith is the casteist Jatt one. It has long distanced itself completely from Hinduism and has a permanent victimhood complex wrt India and Hindus.

      And no, North Indian culture is not reflexively conservative and fearful of change. Hindus have been drastically reforming their religion ever since the British conquest of Bengal. Rather than being fearful of change Hindus have been at the forefront of ensuring that our faith keeps up with the times. The cultural, communitarian lives our grandfathers lived is markedly different from ours and its not just due to urbanization and economic growth. I wouldn’t even say that North Indian Hindus have been unique in doing this. This is what any living culture would do. A good example of this would be how easily Hindus have accepted Dalits and women priests, women doing antyeshti rights for parents etc.

      Among all Hindus, its Kashmiri Pandits who perhaps do have a fossilized culture. Maybe thats why they were chased out of Kashmir so easily with ZERO pushback from them. Hilariously, now we find some of them in the Leaftis/Islamist activist circuit, railing against “Hindu fascist” control of Kashmir in the US Congress.

      The modern Sikh faith itself is not conservative. Historically, it was much closer to Hinduism. Even Gobind Singh himself while not proclaiming a “Teesar Panth” (third way as different from Hinduism and Islam), was prone to writing verse praising Hindu Devtas and took a lot of the martial elements of the Khalsa from Shakti parampara etc. All the philosophical elements of Sikhism are straight lift from Advaita Vedanta. This has been systematically brushed under the carpet by Sikhs who insist only on the outer differences.

      Being conservative and resistance to change would have meant holding on to the historical interpretations of their religion and cultural traits. Instead the way Sikhs tie themselves into knots every year trying to justify giving up celebrating Hindu festivals like Diwali, Rakhi etc is something to behold.

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