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When the swayamsevaks came marching in!


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The Indian Express

December 21, 2000

EXPRESS FOCUS: SOCIETY Apart from the Muslim and Christian communites, the RSS has managed to cast its long shadow over the Sikh clergy in Punjab. S.P. SINGH reports They've always had an uneasy relationship, but now, their animosity is out in the open, fangs and all. The loudest buzz in the Sikh clergy and community is around the recent campaigning by the RSS in Punjab, and attempts by the RSS to rewrite Sikh history and ethos.

The head of the Shiromani Gurudwarak Prabhandak Committee, R.S.

Talwandi, even sounded his "last warning" recently. "The swayamsevaks

are coming" seems to be the cry across Punjab's countryside. But how

serious are claims that the RSS is making inroads in Punjab?

The answer lies in the RSS' aggressive posturing over the recent

past.

Even as the Sikh community was celebrating the tercentenary of

the Khalsa, the RSS was setting up yet another forum, the ?Rashtriya Sikh

Sangat', with the same acronym as its parent body. It was claimed that

the Sangat was in fact a decade-old body, but few seemed to have heard

of it before.

Then, as part of its recent Rashtra Jagran Abhiyan, the RSS began

swamping Punjab's countryside with literature and personal visits. Sikh

scholars were quick to zero in on what they considered attempts to

fudge facts and distort history. And, in the process, confuse the peasant,

for whom anyone who talked of Guru Nanak and reeled out Gurbani was worthy of respect.

In fact, prior to the Sangat's rural tourney, a former BJP MP B.L.

Sharma Prem underwent baptisation with much fanfare and became a Sikh. Soon enough, Prem was being spotted in villages, moving from door to door, a bunch of pamphlets in hand.

The problem area is the claim propounded in RSS literature that the

Khalsa, as created by the tenth Guru Gobind Singh, is nothing but a

Hindu sect. Sangat ideologues declare that Sikh Gurus were Suryavanshis

and were descendants of Luv and Kush, sons of Ram.

"The RSS also wants to develop ties with premier Sikh institutions

to subvert Sikh culture and identity. In a subtle way, it is helping

the BJP shape the country's politics by discouraging communities from

focusing on identity," says Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, president of

Institute of Sikh Studies, a leading thinktank.

Complaints piled up at the Akal Takht, the supreme temporal seat

of the community, forcing the clergy to act. On May 14 this year, the

clergy finally issued an ambiguous warning to forces that were out to

misinterpret Sikh ethos.

Meanwhile, the swayamsevaks continued to spread out. Nearly 50,000

students across Punjab's schools even took a "general knowledge test",

based on a booklet which glorified the RSS' role in struggles in the

country.

Another contentious RSS document was a pamphlet titled ?Sada Virsa

Sada Gaurav', the same title of a monthly periodical of Guru Gobind

Singh Study Circle, a Sikh missionary group.

In fact, many of the pamphlets issued during the Abhiyan have used

hymns from Gurbani. A booklet titled ?Hindutav ate Pariyavaran' has a

picture of a cow and calf on the title page superscribed ?Poota Mata Ki

Asees' (a phrase from Gurbani), to which many Sikh clerics have

objected.

Similarly, Guru Gobind Singh has been projected as a ?Gau

Rakhiyak'. Shivaji's guru, Samrath Ramdas, has been called Samrath Guru Ram Das ji, thus confusing him with the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das. One pamphlet carries a poem ostensibly taken from ?Chandi Di War, Dasam Granth'. However, the verses appear nowhere in Chandi Di War, nor anywhere else in the Dasam Granth, says renowned Sikh scholar Dr Jodh Singh.

As protests mounted, the Sikh clergy too went on the offensive:

they directly named the RSS for being responsible for ?polluting the

Sikh ethos'. But with the ruling Akali Dal running a government in

alliance with the BJP, chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal lost no time

in berating those who were "raising the RSS bogey".

"What is this but political hypocrisy? The entire community is

agitated, the clergy has taken exception, but Badal still sees no harm

in the RSS' activities in Punjab. He should realise that at stake is

the very issue of Sikh identity, an identity that the Akali Dal is bound to

protect, given its historical legacy," remarks Prof Jagmohan Singh,

general secretary of Akali Dal (Amritsar).

"Sikh leaders must realise that their religion and identity are

under attack from people who have resources, means, strategy and

political clout on their side. One would have expected a more

reasonable approach from Badal and his government but they have failed the community at this crucial juncture," said Saran Singh, former Bihar

chief secretary and editor of The Sikh Review.

Insiders in the RSS say the Sangat has managed to achieve some

degree of success in the villages, where it had failed for decades to

find a foothold. And the organisation has more up its sleeve.

"This time, we will be more aggressive. For too long now, Akalis

have reaped benefits by harping on Sikh identity. Now, we will tell

villagers that the true identity lies in the mainstream, where Sikhs

are part of a larger Hindu society," says a senior RSS ideologue.

The national president of the Sangat was more blunt. "Before the

British and during the Mughal rule, all Hindus considered themselves as

Sikhs and Sikhs considered themselves as Hindus...This Hindu-Sikh

problem is the result of British diplomacy and mischief," he said in

his presidential address before the sixth national convention of the

body."It is precisely such a theory which spells danger for Sikh

identity," says Harbhajan Singh, principal of the Sikh Missionary

College. "Badal is silent because he wants to save his gaddi, while the

president of BJP's Punjab unit continues to harp on his pet theme of

installing a BJP chief minister in the state," he points out.

Even those who earlier felt that saffron forces would never be

able to establish themselves in any significant way in Punjab given the

reality of its villages, concede that the RSS has made some inroads.

A senior functionary of the RSS' Punjab unit, Sudarshan Chowhan,

has fired his latest salvo: he says gurudwaras and temple management

committees should not be the sole preserve of one community. "When the

Gurus are common, Gurbani is common, Gurpurabs are common to both

Hindus and Sikhs, why shouldn't the managements of gurudwaras and temples?" he says. The war of words and ideas rages on.

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