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Should India Fear Another Sikh Insurgency?


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The Sikh insurgency of the 1980’s is a painful legacy in the history of modern India. It remains a difficult topic for most Indians as the wounds are still deep. The violence claimed the lives of thousands. It even resulted in the assassination of several key political figures, including a Prime Minister and a former Army Chief.

The violence has abated since the 1980’s, and many of the issues that were once burning topics of contention seem to have taken the back stage. However, a lingering fear still remains in India’s political elite that another Sikh rising could once again threaten the very fabric of Indian unity.

In order to understand these fears better, it is important to understand the Sikh psyche, and why the danger of Sikh separatism continues to haunt the Indian political establishment.

The Sikhs began as a peaceful spiritual people under the leadership of an enlightened mystic, Guru Nanak, some five hundred years ago. This was in the land of Punjab in North-West India. Punjab was on the fault line of the Hindu-Muslim civilizational conflict, and therefore a place of great turmoil.

Guru Nanak preached a message of divine love and tried to take Muslim and Hindu perceptions of each other beyond the realm of hate and fear. His movement became very popular amongst both communities. After his physical demise, he was succeeded by a line of Gurus, who eventually found themselves in conflict with the central Islamic Emperors who ruled with an iron fist of tyranny. Image Attribution

The tenth and final Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, transformed the Sikhs into a martial race of warrior-saints in order to meet this challenge. His vision of combining the martial aspects of a warrior with the spirituality of a saint was beyond mundane sectarian divide, and was based on the desire to elevate human thinking and spirit. People of various castes and religions, including Muslims responded to his call.

However after his death, the religion took a political path and found itself in a power struggle, vying for the physical control of the land. This brought the Sikhs into a vicious conflict with the ruling Islamic elite.

The Sikhs eventually prevailed and established a powerful kingdom in the North-West regions of India. It was after nearly one thousand years of Islamic domination that non-Muslims ruled the region again. Prior to this, the Sikhs had to endure a bloody campaign against them, in which it was a state declared policy to exterminate any individual who associated with the Sikh faith. Elements both within the established radicalized Muslim and Hindu elite supported this tirade against them. Image Attribution

This period of a struggle to survive a bloody extermination of their faith remains deeply entrenched in the Sikh psyche and is one of the reasons they continue to be aggressively defensive against any form of perceived attack.

The Sikh Kingdom of the 19th century became a military power to be reckoned with. The Sikh Army employed European military professionals who'd had real-time battle experience during the Napoleonic wars. The standard of the Sikh army rose considerably, and they eventually came face-to-face with the British, who were extending their control in the Indian subcontinent. Image Attribution

In the mid-nineteenth century, the British and Sikhs fought two vicious Anglo-Sikh Wars. The British losses were deep, but they eventually prevailed over the powerful Sikh army, which had been badly weakened by a poor administration and internecine politics.

The British formally annexed Punjab in 1848, but their respect for the fighting skills of their former foes had increased tremendously. They inculcated the remains of the defeated Sikh Army into the British-Indian Army by making hollow promises about how the Sikhs would become equal citizens of the British Commonwealth. Image Attribution

In 1857, less than a decade after the Punjab annexation, many Muslim and Hindu soldiers of the British Indian army revolted against their British officers, in what is known to modern Indian historians as India’s First War of Independence. The British downplay the event and call it the Great Mutiny.

The revolt spread, and many subjugated Indian kings joined in. The British were expelled from important centers of power such as Delhi, Jhansi and Kanpur.

The Sikhs viewed the revolt as an attempt by the former Islamic Mughal Empire to re-establish its control on the subcontinent. The British gladly allowed the Sikh suspicions of the Muslims to grow to their advantage. Thousands of young Sikhs in the Punjab region were recruited and joined the British in their war against the revolt.

By 1858, the revolt was more or less defeated. If the Sikhs had not helped the British, then the British Empire may have come to an end in India. The Sikh support was primarily driven by the unfortunate Sikh hatred of the Muslims, which had not dissipated from the period when they were hunted like animals and exterminated by the thousands.

The Sikhs became the blue-eyed boys of the British. As per an official policy known as the Martial Races of India, the Sikhs were classified as high quality military men and given excessive preference in recruitment. The British used the Sikhs extensively in establishing their hegemony in the subcontinent, and in the far flung regions of their Empire. Sikh regiments excelled in battle and became a major tool for protecting British interests, especially during the period of the Great Game against the Russian empire. Image Attribution

By the time of the First World War, Sikhs comprised nearly 50% of the combatant units in the Indian Army. Many British historians agree that if it had not been for the support of high quality Sikh regiments, the British may not have been able to maintain their presence in the European trenches in World War I, as their own armies were exceedingly stretched and exhausted.

Over 80,000 Sikhs lost their lives fighting in both the world wars. They died fighting in wars that had nothing to do with them or their interests.

After the First World War, British policies towards the Sikhs made it clear that they were not considered equal members of the Empire. Discrimination towards Sikhs, who tried emmigrating to Canada, and finally the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, pushed many Sikhs into the mainstream Indian Independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

By the end of the Second World War, it became clear that British control of India was coming to an end. Both the Hindus and Muslim scrambled for control over what was clearly forthcoming: a partition of British India into a Hindu dominated India, and a Muslim dominated Pakistan. Image Attribution

The Sikhs were spread thinly in the North West plains; hence they had little leverage in demanding their own country during the partition talks. Both the Hindus and the Muslims, however, courted the Sikhs into joining their respective sides, as their support was crucial in each side’s own territorial demands.

The Sikh suspicion of the Muslims distanced them from joining Pakistan. Sikhs and Hindus had enjoyed a close relationship prior to this with a vast majority of Sikhs coming from a Hindu background. In many Hindu and Sikh families of the Punjab, the line dividing Hindus and Sikhs was very thin, and there was no problem with different family members professing either faith. The Sikh emotional support for joining India was natural, though not unanimous.

Some Sikhs demanded the creation of a Sikh theocratic state called Khalistan. They felt that their interests would not be protected in a Hindu dominated India, and given the fact that the Sikhs had their own independent kingdom prior to the British, it was but natural to restore to them their territorial rights.

The Indian leadership made a verbal deal with the Sikhs promising them an autonomous region within India once the partition was completed. It was made to appease Sikh fears and to cajole them into joining the Indian union.

The verbal promises made to the Sikhs were never fulfilled.

After independence, the existential threat that many Sikhs felt came to the fore. The Sikhs comprised only about two percent of the population. There was a fear that the Sikh religion and culture would slowly be absorbed into the majority Hindu religion. Certain references in the Indian constitution labeling Sikhs as a Hindu sect added to Sikh fears. Image Attribution

Due to extensive nationalization of the Indian Army after independence, many Sikh regiments were disbanded and made mainstream. Sikh representation in the armed forces was decreased dramatically, thus adding to the Sikh feeling of discrimination and isolation.

The Sikhs, even though a minority, remained a potent military force, and the inherent violent nature of the community continued to be a dangerous flashpoint in its existence.

In the 70’s and 80’s, the situation exploded. Radical versions of Sikhism took center stage, often with the connivance of devious political forces wishing to exploit the situation. The events during this conflict are complex and will not be fully covered in this article. Read The Prime Minister’s Apology for more information.

By the end of the 1980’s, thousands of people had died due to both religious and state-sponsored terrorism. Image Attribution

Pakistan played a major role in enhancing the violence in the Indian Punjab. This was expected, as both India and Pakistan have fought continuous proxy wars against each other since independence. The Pakistanis, under the leadership of the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, utilized experience and resources attained in their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in supporting the Sikh insurgency against India.

The Sikh insurgency, with the support of Pakistan, was able to wrest control of most of Punjab from the Indian authorities during the initial stages of the conflict. However, due to their violent activities and attempts to enforce a Talibanized form of Sikhism, support from the Sikh masses began to wane.

In 1988, General Zia was killed under mysterious circumstances in a plane crash. The US Ambassador to Pakistan also died in the crash.

With the death of Zia, the Sikh insurgents lost a key ally. Many powerful figures in Pakistan were against the creation of a Sikh Khalistan; they considered it a threat to their own existence, given the history of the region and the fact that many radical Sikhs claimed holy lands that were under the control of Pakistan.

Benazair Bhutto, who was eventually elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, claims to have made a deal with the Indian leadership, under which Pakistan provided the necessary intelligence for India to neutralize the Sikh insurgents. She made this claim public prior to her assassination in 2007.

Aided with this intelligence, Indian authorities utilized brutal methods to effectively put an end to the violent uprising. By the early 1990’s, normalcy had returned to Punjab - but at a bloody price.

Sikh grievances remained, and new ones were now added to the list. The most important being Government inaction and connivance in a sectarian genocide of innocent Sikhs outside of the Punjab in November 1984, after the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi by her own Sikh bodyguards.

The 1980’s saw a massive influx of Sikh asylum seekers to western nations. Many of these asylum seekers were genuine victims of state oppression. They passed on their grievances to a new generation of Sikhs being raised in the western world. Image Attribution

Mainstream Sikhism believes that the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, made it mandatory for all Sikhs to keep five external symbols of faith. One of these symbols was that of uncut hair. Male Sikhs also tie a turban, but it is unclear if that was also made mandatory, though many mainstream Sikhs claim it was.

Many elements within the Sikh community argue against the need to keep long hair in this day and age. Some claim that the Tenth Guru made it optional and not mandatory. The radical definition of Sikhism, however, does not budge, and any attempt to redefine Sikhism would be seen as unforgivable blasphemy. Image Attribution

In recent years, many younger Sikhs have done away with their long hair and turbans, in favor of a more convenient existence. In the Indian Punjab, which is a majority Sikh state, the number of Sikhs with uncut hair is now a minority.

Many radical elements associate the decrease in practicing long-haired Sikhs as a result of a conspiracy to wipe the Sikhs out of existence.

It is all the more difficult for Sikhs living in the western world to maintain this appeara

nce since the 9/11 attacks. Most westerners have little knowledge of Sikhism and associate their turbans and beards with that of Osama Bin Laden. Many Sikhs became innocent victims of hate crimes that continue in the western world to this day.

This sense of isolation in the western world could be one of the reasons why Khalistan and anti-India feelings still find some support amongst Sikhs living outside of India. In places like France, recent anti-Turban laws have also added to a feeling that Sikhs have no real support in their desire to exist.

The rage against crimes committed by the Indian state against Sikhs also continues in India, even though it is less radicalized than that in the western world. Attempts by right-wing Hindus in India to propagate Sikhism as a sect of Hinduism have also added to Sikh dismay. Image Attribution

Under such circumstances, the danger of another insurgency is as alive in India now as it was in the 80’s. The volatile Sikh psyche could once again be forced into a self-defeating insurgency. Some of the reasons behind this volatility could be summarized by the following:

A history of being the most potent military-cum-religious force in the Indian subcontinent.

The fear of being snubbed out of existence due to changes in modern life-style.

The fear of the absorption of Sikhism into the Hindu mainstream.

The desire to restore the glory of the Sikh Kingdom of the 19th century.

Anger against the Indian state for its inefficiency in addressing genuine Sikh grievances.

The support for Sikh radicalism and separatism from some Sikhs in the Western world.

Any event that upsets the unstable nature of the aforesaid could trigger a sequence of events leading to another Sikh uprising.

It is up to Indian society to recognize this situation and grow in accordance with the aspirations of all its citizens. No nation can be based upon an unjust society. The unity of India cannot be based upon false assumptions regarding the righteousness of subjugation.

It is also up to Sikhs to come to terms with their own weaknesses and grow beyond the tentacles of a Taliban style radicalism, which seems to be a bigger threat to their existence than any other. It is not identity that defines faith, but the purity of intention and the message of compassion delivered by all great prophets.

There really is no other way.

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