The USA boasts of being a melting pot of races and cultures;
a more apt image for India would be a bag of marbles. Labels
such as Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and so on are
convenient and adequate so long as one is viewing from a
distance. Get closer and one begins to see the many shades
and distinctions involved in each one. No religious group
is static or monolithic, no religious group can insulate
itself from the force of change. In recent years, the
Sikhs, particularly those living in the Indian State of
Punjab, have had to grapple with very powerful and threatening
forces. Trying to make sense of these challenges and dealing
with them has moulded Sikh consciousness and, in my
opinion, advanced their cultural and political maturity.
Before I get into these new perceptions, let me provide a
brief background on the Sikhs in general.
We are a people who have migrated all over the world.
All of you would have seen Sikhs on the streets of your
cities, easily recognizable by their uncut hair and beards,
but you may not know much about them, their faith,
their language or their place of origin.
Sikhism is not a geographical religion, it has no
Promised Land, no holy Mt Fujiyama or sacred Ganga.
Guru Nanak specifically rejected this. An episode from his life
recounts how, while on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he answered
a mat who had furiously demanded that he not lie down
to sleep with his feet pointing towards the shrine:
"Turn my feet in the direction where God is not." Neither
has it any priestly class. The Guru insisted on one
congregation —men and women, rich and poor—all sitting
on the same level, taking prasad (comparable to the
Christian communion bread) from the same bowl,
sharing the same name, (every man is 'Singh' and
every woman is 'Kaur').
Like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, Sikhism is an
idea-based faith. A religious Sikh will spend some time
every day reading the teachings of his Gurus. The holy
book containing their teachings occupies the centre of
every Sikh gurdwara and receives the homage of the
But rather than take time introducing you
to the Sikh religion, I have attached a brief outline of the
faith to this paper.
The epicentre of the Sikh faith and the place where
most Sikhs have their roots is the Indian state of Punjab
in the northwest of the country. As a geopolitical region,
the Punjab has always had great strategic significance. In
the ancient past every army that advanced southward into
the subcontinent had to pass through Punjab; likewise
merchants and Buddhist missionaries bound for Central
Asia or the subcontinent via Punjab. In the long millennia
before the advent of Guru Nanak and his successors,
the socio-political identity of the people of Punjab
was largely defined in terms of "The Other". By this
I mean that the capitals of pre-Mughal empires such
as the Guptas, the Lodhis and others were far to the
south and east; they were not "us", the invading
tribes of Ghur and Ghazni were certainly the other,
and the Mughals were as foreign to us as the British.
This "other-directed" identity changed over a 400 year
period between the mid 15th century when Guru Nanak
preached and the early 19th century when Sikhs ruled
from Delhi to Sindh to Afghanistan and Kashmir. These
four centuries in which a many sized flowering—spiritual,
cultural, political—took place is inextricably linked
with the emergence and development of the Sikh religion,
and it is, therefore, no wonder that although other faiths
are also practised in Punjab, the Sikhs regard themselves
as the truest representatives of Punjabi culture.
The language of the state is the language of their
sacred scriptures, the script in which that language is
written is known as Gurmukhi—from the mouth of the Gurus,
the state's most impressive architectural monuments
were raised to the glory of God as perceived by the Gurus,
the greatest military successes were achieved under the
banner of Guru Gobind Singh and other Sikh rulers and
In modern India, the Sikhs constitute about two
percent of the total population; Sikhs are settled all
over the country, but the greatest concentration of Sikhs
is in the state of Punjab where they make up about sixty-five
percent of the state population, and of this Sikh population,
eight out of every ten live in a rural area. Within the
Sikhs there are further divisions, usually based on traditional
occupations (e.g. Jats - farmers, Sainis - gardeners,
Ramgarhias carpenters, blacksmiths, Khatris - traders, and so on.)
Between 1984 and 1994, violent conflict wrecked Punjab.
According to the state magistracy, over two hundred thousand
were killed. Conflicts do not suddenly erupt out of nowhere,
each one represents a build-up of frustration and distrust.
Tracing the roots of strife in Punjab is too big a job for
a conference paper, it requires a book, (as it happens,
I have written one'). Suffice it to say, the situation
was a complicated one, and many explanations have been put
forward to account for it. It is sometimes presented as a
conflict between two religious groups, the Hindus and the
Sikhs. Another view sees it as a conflict between the
highly centralised Union of India and Punjab, a State
which has a Sikh majority and has often been ruled by a
political party, the Akali Dal, which strongly identifies
with the Sikh religion and claims to articulate the political
interests of the Sikhs. Others point to a national party's
cynical attempt to manipulate differences in order to parade
before the whole country as India's hope of unity and stability,
with the consequent pay-off at the polling booth. All these
views are partially true, but to a greater or lesser extent,
all of them need to be qualified..
Let us start with the view that sees Punjab's problem
in terms of Hindu-Sikh conflict. It would be difficult to
cite two other religious groups with as many links as
Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. They belong to the same racial
stock, speak the same language, occasionally intermarry
and share the same neighbourhoods. This very closeness,
however, can be problematic. Thc fact that India's population
after the partition of India in 1947 is overwhelmingly Hindu,
makes many Sikhs fear a gradual absorption and obliteration
of their identity and not without reason. They do not
want to become just one more sect of Hinduism. They
react against stereotypes of Sikhs presented in popular
media such as films. They want to be able to remain Sikhs,
inwardly and outwardly, and still get their due in terms
of employment and promotion (particularly in fields such
as the military, the judiciary, and the civil services)
as well as equality under law. Here we see a minority
and majority conflict: Sikhs are a minority in terms
of the total population of India, they are a majority
in terms of the population of Punjab, contiguous to Pakistan.
The political views, referred to earlier, need to
be explored in depth. One of them is government, that is,
it focuses on weakness in the existing pattern of governance
and the distribution of powers. The other is electoral, that
is, it focuses on parties and their strategies to retain power.
I shall address electoral politics first. To gain
that crucial winning vote, competing parties look for
the surest and most direct appeal to the voters. By and
large, the Indian electorate can be described as illiterate
or semi-literate, rural and not far removed from feudal
socioeconomic relations. As an individual, the voter is most
likely to perceive his caste / religious identity as primary.
In the hierarchy of voter appeals, calls to caste / religious
identity still outweigh appeals based on economic or
legal / administrative issues. Caste or religion-based
tensions in a constituency may he dormant or weak, but
knowing that this is what will rouse the voters, a party
will not scruple to engineer incidents, prop up fanatics
or stir up some old quarrel. Parties happily fish in
troubled waters, and where necessary, they trouble the
waters in order to fish in them. In the case of Punjab,
this approach was followed so brazenly that after a
number of years it's effectiveness was weakened and the
party ruling at the Centre had to resort to manipulating
poll boycotts and rigging the polls in order to come to
power . Beant Singh, the chief minister. who came to office
in 1992, was elected by less then eight percent of
the Punjab electorate.
Another aspect of political discrimination against
the Sikhs pertains to the extreme animosity expel icncoci by
state-level Akali Dal governments. As Sikhs account for
some sixty-five percent of Punjab's population, the
Akali Dal, that is the Sikh political party, is regularly
voted to power in the state. Since 1947, the Akalis
have frequently been the ruling party but its government
has never been allowed to complete its full term in office.
When power must be retained by any means, one cannot
expect much sanctity being attached to principles,
law, or procedures. The official motto of thc Indian
Republic is Satyameva Jayate—Truth ever triumphs. Among
ourselves we say this with half a smile and a knowing wink.
The main reason why this is so is that power and profit
go together. When power is concentrated in a highly
centralised setup (as is the case in India), the economic
stakes become very high. Casteism, violence, criminalisation
of politics and corruption of administration are directly
from a pattern that places power in the hands of a few.
Another Indian motto unofficial but highly popular, is Unity in
Diversity. This brings me to the holy power is distributed
under the Indian Constitution and some of the problems that
are a consequence of this pattern. (Incidentally, the Indian
Constitution has been amended about one hundred times to
give more and more powers to the Centre government.)
The diversity part is incontestable, no other country in
the world has more diversity than India, and our unity has
endured more than fifty years despite the frequent jolts
suffered. In the first few decades of free India's existence,
every jolt made talc political and administrative leadership
Scurry around, plastering over cracks and cooing
everything they could to make the edifice stronger and
"more stable". The ideal was the "unshakable Centre".
The "strong edifice" school of thought is still fiercely
defending its point of view. But over the course of years
everyone living in a seismic zone realises that the flexible
building that shakes and shimmies through a tremor suffers
less damage than the rigid one, howsoever strong it may be.
Increasingly, political thinkers and voters are coming round
to the position that India's unity and stability can be
preserved only by working with (rather than against) the
nation's diversity and rebuilding to create movement and
tolerance among all the elements. The idea that a more
federal structure should replace the present highly centralized
one is gaining ground. In Punjab, the perception that the
centre stubbornly denies powers to the state, in itself
becomes cause for further alienation, and rather than integrating
Punjab into the Indian Union, has the effect of driving the wedge
deeper, leading to a demand for a confederal model.
One particular issue thrown up by the past decade of turmoil
in Punjab centres on the role of the state governor. A state
governor in India is the head of the state administration and
he is also an appointee and agent of the Union Government.
For nearly ten years, thc people of Punjab, both Hindus and
Sikhs, were denied elections and representation in their state
Assembly and in the national Parliament. All powers
were wielded by the governor who acted under the directions
of the Union Government, a situation known as "President's Rule".
In Punjab today there is great dissatisfaction with many of
the institutions of governance, but none has been brought
so deeply into disrepute than the practice of President's Rule.
Powerlessness has many faces, and the Sikhs of Punjab
have become familiar with all of them over the past fifty years.
The Indian states have hardly any powers and the Centre holds
the whip all along.
Financial powers vest largely with the Union Government
and states have little scope for raising revenue within their
borders. Excise taxes, this chiefly means tax on the sale of
alcohol, are the largest single source of state revenue.
This means that the state acquires a strong interest
in setting up the largest possible number of liquor vends,
even when people living nearby are opposed to the establishment
of a vend. (Sikhism traditionally discouraged consumption
of alcohol, but the trend of recent years has been a steep
rise in liquor consumption in the state. At one point,
Sikh militants directed their ire at the liquor vends and
those who drank). With regard to resources at the state's
disposal, avocations cannot be made for certain purposes
without the approval of the Centre. For example, the state
may establish a new university without central permission,
but must have approval if it wants to open a primary school.
The state can do very little to foster industrial development
since no large industry can be set up in the state without
central permission. For years, the Union Government has
refused industries to Punjab on the plea that they
would be vulnerable to attack from Pakistan. The Centre
allocates money to the states according to a complex
calculation called the Gadgil Formula. One of the determinants
of this formula is population. Economic and educational
advancement invariably result in a decline in the birth-rate.
As a state with high economic productivity, Punjab's birth-rate
has been falling, meaning that its share from the Centre
has also fallen. To the people of Punjab, the consequences
of doing well appear to be a punishment rather than a reward.
Punjab contributes millions of tons of food grains to the
central pool, but this gets Punjab no special financial consideration.
All the key subjects such as finance, planning, foreign
affairs, defence, communication, education, etc., are with
the Centre. Even in the case of subjects which are with
the states, the Centre has never thought of restraining itself.
For instance, control over river waters as per the Indian
Constitution, and international riparian law, vests with the
state. In the case of Punjab, the Centre has reapportioned some
seventy-five percent of Punjab's river waters to other
states, and that too without making any compensation,
and withdrawing even the royalty paid to Punjab up to 1956.
Another issue pertains to food grain prices. These are set
by the central government to the great disadvantage of
overwhelmingly agrarian Punjab. The Punjab farmer has
nowhere else to sell, and is compelled to accept the
unremunerative terms offered by the Central government and
its trading agencies or let his wheat rot. Caught in
an economic stranglehold, the Punjab farmer is sinking
deeper into debt with every passing year. In recent years,
an alarming number of suicides have taken place in rural
Punjab, where farmers found a way out in death. Eighty
percent of Punjab's farmers are Sikhs. It is estimated
that more than six thousand farmers resort to taking
their own life each year.
Employment opportunities other than farming arc very
limited in Punjab, as little industrialization has
taken place. Military service was one of the traditional
occupations for Sikh men, but fourteen years ago the
Army drastically curtailed recruitment from Punjab. An
all-lndia quota system based on the state population
was introduced. Paramilitary forces followed suit.
These measures could only mean fewer opportunities
and more frustration for Punjab's young men. It is
strange that when one considers that for entry into
other types of services the criterion is merit, but
in military and paramilitary services, where Punjab's
village youth can show merit surpassing all others, they
are confronted with a quota system.
Education is another neglected area. Village
schools in Punjab often lack the most basic facilities,
rarely having even rudimentary libraries or laboratories,
and are invariably understaffed. Most village youngsters
drop out by fifth class and only a minority of the total
young population of the village graduates from Class X.
Access to vocational education is extremely limited.
This means that Punjab's youth has really nowhere to go.
Dissatisfaction with the highly centralized nature
of the Indian state is not confined to Punjab and the
Sikhs. The leadership of regional parties in many states
is advocating a devolution of power and over the years
regionalism has found more and more supporters. This is
a positive development that gives expression to diversity
in the country and also represents an aspect of
liberalization, which argues that resources are managed
more efficiently and advantageously by democratically
functioning regional states, rather than a highly
contralised government model.
As a minority within India and a majority within
Punjab, Sikhs are increasingly veering round to the belief
that structural change in the pattern of government is
the way to prevent a recurrence of another round of violence.
Creating such a structure will require skill and insight
that enables the Sikhs to not only press their own case,
but empathise with the situation of other regions and
minorities within the country.
From book "Abstracts of Sikh Studies" by Indeerjeet Singh