This topic came up a few days ago on Twitter because I happened to tweet:
Maybe Sikhs will restore balance to India. Maybe this is their task in history… https://t.co/0nVh1pznTr
— omar ali (@omarali50) September 25, 2020
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 🙂