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Who Decides One's Religion

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Who Decides One’s Religion


Abstracts of Sikh Studies

Freedom of faith is universally recognized as a fundamental human right. The United Nations Charter leaves no doubt about it, and the Constitution of India fully endorses it. One can profess and practice a religion of one’s choice in complete freedom. This freedom obviously covers the choice of one’s own religion only, and does not grant anyone the right to choose a religion for others.

In India, some veteran leaders of the majority community, particularly in the VHP, have, however, assumed suo moto the role of determining the religion of minority communities like the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. They continue to declare from time to time that the Sikhs are Hindus. These irksome statements cause understandable anxiety and concern to the proud and self-respecting Sikh community, since these tantamount to a denial of their distinct identity and refusal to recognize Sikhism as a sovereign religion.

Taking a favorable view of this strange attitude, one could argue that these statements indicate their love for the Sikhs and a desire for closeness with them. Such probably was the case, when, in the past, some great Hindu leaders like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, impressed by the valiant struggles waged by the Sikhs and their unparalleled sacrifices in the cause of freedom and defence of the poor and the helpless, advised the Hindus of the Punjab to bring up atleast one of their sons as an amritdhari Sikh. His advice did not fall on deaf ears. Many Hindus converted to Sikh religion and became staunch followers, and even leaders of their new faith. Master Tara Singh, whose daring saved a large part of the Indian union from going to Pakistan, and Dr Sahib Singh, the famous gurbani grammarian, were among countless such converts.

If the spirit that motivated Pandit Malaviya had continued to prevail, there should have been no problems. Although the Sikhs are Sikhs and not Hindus, the bonds of kinship and affinity between the two communities would have been so strong that the controversy as to whether the Sikhs are Hindus, would appear completely irrelevant.

But that spirit died with Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and his contemporaries. Although present leadership claims loudly that the Sikhs are Hindus, but organize their massacre in thousands in broad day light. They no longer ask the Hindu families to bring up any of their members as amritdhari Sikhs. They would rather make sure now that all Sikhs return to Hindu fold, and to absorb the brave Khalsa created by the Gurus, that liberated India from centuries-old slavery of foreign invaders, into the same society that had tolerated that slavery without any protest.

Macauliffe had warned against the possible extinction of the Khalsa a hundred years ago. He says, “Truly wonderful are the strength and vitality of Hinduism. It is like the boa constrictor of the Indian forests. When a petty enemy appears to worry it, it winds round its opponent, crushes it in its folds and finally causes it to disappear in its capacious interior. In this way... Hinduism disposed of Buddhism..... it absorbed the religion of the Scythian invaders in Northern India, it has converted uneducated Islam in India into a semi-paganism, and in this way it is disposing off the reformed and once hopeful religion of Baba Nanak, still the comparatively young religion is making a vigorous struggle for life, but its ultimate destruction is, it is apprehended, inevitable without state support.â€

Macaulliffe’s fears were not ill founded. He was aware of the intentions and plans of the Arya Samajists and their Guru, Swami Daya Nand Sarswati, who ridiculed the prophets of all other religions including Guru Nanak. He met with some initial success and managed to create a dent in the Sikh following. Even Giani Ditt Singh was taken in earlier. But he soon discovered his real intentions and he, along with Prof Gurmukh Singh and others, organized the Singh Sabha Movement, and put up a formidable resistance to the foul propaganda against the religion of the Gurus.

It is not necessary to go into the details of the subsequent history. It is clear, however, that the efforts to mislead the Sikh masses continued with increased vigor. The onslaught has now assumed a subtle form through a renewed emphasis on the slogan ‘Sikhs are Hindus’. Volumes have been written to show that Sikhs are Sikhs and not Hindus. They believe only in the Ten Gurus and their teachings enshrined in Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Himself declared that he was neither a Hindu, nor a Musalman. How can his followers be called Hindus?

Mircea Eliade writes in Encyclopaedia of Religion:

“Guru Arjun was fully conscious of the new role he was planning for his community. In a passage from the Adi Granth, he mentions the separate identity the Sikhs had acquired in their hundred years of existence:

I do not keep the Hindu fast, nor the Muslim Ramzan;

I serve Hari alone who is my refuge.

I serve the One Master who is also Allah.

I have broken with the Hindu and the Muslim,

I will not worship with the Hindu, nor like the Muslims go to Mecca.

I shall serve Him and no other.

I will not pray to idols, nor heed the Muslim Azan.

I shall put my heart at the feet of the One Supreme Being.

For, we are neither Hindu nor Muslim. – Guru Granth Sahib, p 1136

Besides the author of Dabistan-e-Mazahib, a contemporary of Guru Hargobind, and a host of Persian chroniclers of the Guru period and the post-Guru period, have recorded that Sikhs are not Hindus and that their religion is different. Among several Western scholars of Sikh history, we may quote only two:

J D Cunningham:

“A living spirit possesses the whole Sikh people, and the impress of Gobind has not only elevated and altered the constitution of their minds, but has operated materially and given amplitude to their physical frames.â€


“Now there is here presented a religion totally unaffected by Semitic or Christian influences. Based on the concept of unity of God, it rejected Hindu formularies, and adopted an independent ethical system, rituals and standards which were totally opposed to the theological beliefs of Guru Nanak’s age and country. As we shall see hereafter, it would be difficult to point to a religion of greater originality or to a more comprehensive ethical system.â€

As early as 1899, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha wrote his famous book, Ham Hindu Nahin. Since then countless volumes have appeared on the subject. The Institute of Sikh Studies has produced a huge body of literature to show that Sikhism is an independent and original religious dispensation, and that it is a radical departure from all earlier religious traditions in India. For, it is a whole-life system and does not recognize any dichotomy between spiritual and temporal life. Internationally, Sikhism is recognized among the five major world religions. Those who say that the Sikhs are Hindus have obviously not studied either of the two systems. But if they have and still insist, it is an outright mischief, and is carried on for ulterior motives. The intention is to absorb the minorities into the Hindu fold through the ‘boa constrictor’ technique referred to by Macauliffe. Sikhs are the major stumbling block in the designs aimed at ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, and are, therefore, a special target.

Although the threat has been constantly dangling over our heads, not many Sikhs were inclined to take it seriously, thinking that only a few ambitious people in the V.H.P. and R.S.S. backed it.

The Supreme Court Judgment

A recent Supreme Court judgment, however, has added a new dimension to the problem, so that the threat of the ‘boa constrictor’, has become real and can no more be taken with complacency. The relevant extract is reproduced below:

“The so-called minority communities like Sikhs and Jains were not treated as national minorities at the time of framing the Constitution. Sikhs and Jains, in fact, have throughout been treated as part of the wider Hindu community, which has different sects, sub-sects, faiths, modes of worship and religious philosophies. In various codified customary laws like Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act and other laws of pre- and post-Constitution period, definition of ‘Hindu’ included all sects, sub-sects of Hindu religion including Sikhs and Jains.

“Thus, ‘Hinduism’ can be called a general religion and common faith of Indians, whereas ‘Jainism’ is a special religion formed on the basis of quintessence of Hindu religion.â€

The judgment refers to Sikhs and Jains as ‘so-called’ minorities, and reduces them to sub-sects of Hindu religion (not even sects), so that even the nominal minority rights provided in the Constitution can be denied to them. The judgment leaves no doubt about it, in the following paragraph of the same judgment with reference to the role of the Minority Commission, it says:

“The Commission, instead of encouraging claims from different communities for being added to a list of notified minorities under the Act, should suggest ways and means to help create social conditions where the list of notified minorities is gradually reduced and done away with altogether.â€

The judgment obviously draws upon Section 25 of the Indian Constitution which clubs Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists with the Hindus for the purpose of various acts that form parts of the Hindu Code Bill. It, however, ignores the following facts:

a. The Sikh representatives of the Constituent Assembly refused to sign the Constitution in 1949, simply because of the above reason.

b. The Sikhs represented against the above provisions before the Constitution Review Commission a couple of years ago. The Commission accepted the Sikh view, and has recommended deletion/amendment to the Section 25.

c. Prior to the adoption of the Indian Constitution (without the consent of the Sikhs) the Sikhs had always been treated as a separate entity. The Cabinet Mission plan which led to the Independence of India Act, recognized the Sikhs as one of the three contending parties, the other two being Muslims and others. In fact, Hindus were not even mentioned as a party. They formed a part of ‘others’. The judgment has some other serious implications, which deserve immediate notice:

– Minority status of a community will be determined at state level, and not at national level where the real power is concentrated. As a result, the Sikhs will practically receive no benefit, because they are not a minority in Punjab where their vast majority lives.

– Even otherwise, no benefit is to be expected in the long run in view of the clear hint that the list of minorities is to be gradually reduced and done away with altogether.

– Minorities look to the Supreme Court for protection. But when the latter wants the list of minorities done away with altogether, God help the minorities in India!

Existence with Sikh identity is threatened not only through cultural absorption by the ‘boa-constrictor’ syndrome hinted by Macauliffe, but even through organized violence like the one witnessed during massacre of thousands of Sikhs, including women and children in 1984, engineered by top leaders and unashamedly condoned by the Govt. as well as the judiciary.

We are indeed in the midst of a very disturbing situation. The Institute of Sikh Studies has expressed its deep concern through a resolution reported in the Abstracts of Sikh Studies, in which the SGPC has been requested to file a review petition in the Supreme Court against the judgment, besides initiating action for the required legislation. Besides the Sikhs, other minorities should see this warning. It is high time all the minorities sat together to find ways to ensure their survival and an honorable existence. The situation also demands a serious thought on the part of leaders of all political parties to allay the fears of the minorities.

India is a multicultural and multi-religious country. It is necessary to create conditions in which all cultures and religions can live harmoniously and contribute their mite towards its greatness. Attempts on the part of any community to dominate over others, can only lead to disaster. This is a lesson from our history. Let us not forget it.

International community is watching. The 1984 genocide of the Sikhs and the more recent massacre of Muslims in Gujarat have brought enough bad name and disgrace to India. These have neither been forgotten nor forgiven. There are agencies to keep a watch over violations of human rights. World has shrunk into a single global village, where Modis, Tytlers and Sajjan Kumars will not be tolerated indefinitely.

As far as the Sikhs are concerned, India is their homeland. They love it, they have made tremendous sacrifices for it, and will continue to do so. They want to live here as equal partners, and respectable citizens as followers of an independent religion, and not as a sub-sect or an adjunct to another religion. We trust that responsible leaders of the majority community also want peace and harmony, and are keen to strengthen the bonds of kinship with the Sikhs. That objective can be achieved only through recognizing and respecting their distinct identity. Thoughtless assertions like ‘Sikhs are Hindus’ are counterproductive. The edifice of goodwill and friendship can only be raised on the foundation of understanding and mutual respect as equals.

Given that spirit, it will not be difficult to answer the question raised earlier — ‘Who decides the religion of the Sikhs? The Sikhs, the Supreme Court, or others? The right answer can only be — The Sikhs themselves!

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