Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Sikhs are a religious minority in the north-western state of Punjab, where they form a majority. They are also scattered around different parts of India and the world. Though a significant number have emigrated, they number around 20.8 million (2011 Census) in India, the large majority concentrated in their home state of Punjab. There are other significant Sikh communities in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Delhi. Sizeable Sikh populations can be found in North America, Europe and Australia. The Sikh religion dates back to end of the fifteenth century and was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539).
The Sikh religion dates back to end of the fifteenth century and was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Dissatisfied with the teachings of Hinduism as well as Islam, he formulated an egalitarian doctrine which transcended both, and became a powerful force for change in subsequent centuries. A crucial element of this new religion was the creation of the community of the Khalsa, or Company of the Pure in 1699 during the period of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind 1675-1708. As part of their religious injunctions they are obliged to wear the symbols called the five Ks, taken from the words kesh (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bangle) and kaccha (breeches). Sikh men are most easily identifiable through their wearing of the turban. The creation of this community marked a change of emphasis which led Sikhism away from its traditional peaceful course into a more warlike stance, and although not all Sikhs adopted the baptismal tokens, bearded and turbaned members of the Khalsa came to be recognized as guardians of Sikh orthodoxy.
For the next 150 years the Sikh Khalsa remained involved in conflict with Afghan invaders and the Muslim governors of Lahore. In 1746 the city of Amritsar was sacked, the Golden Temple defiled, and Sikh forces massacred by one such governor. Another massacre, this time perpetrated by Afghan forces, took place in 1762. In the ensuing strife and consequent power vacuum emerged Ranjit Singh. After capturing Lahore in 1799 he ruled as the Maharajah of Punjab until his death in 1839. Some Sikh states maintained a separate existence under British rule, but elsewhere in the Punjab the Sikh Khalsa remained independent. Factional infighting gave the British a chance to intervene, and after two Anglo-Sikh wars in the mid-nineteenth century the British gained control of the whole of the Punjab, and the Khalsa army was disbanded.
Sikhs played a leading role in the Indian army at the time of British colonization, and also used the opportunity provided by British citizenship to emigrate to other parts of the then British empire. Elected provincial governments began to exercise more powers in India during the years leading up to independence. As independence approached, Sikhs put forward proposals for alterations to Punjab’s boundaries to exclude the largely Hindu and Muslim areas to the south-east and west or, alternatively, for increased Sikh representation in Parliament to protect their interests. These proposals were largely ignored, and the predominantly Muslim unionist party retained control over the province. During the 1940s there were increasing demands made by Muslims for a separate Muslim state after independence. Muslims urged the Sikhs to join them in the new state, but there were too few cultural and religious links between them to make this feasible. Afraid of their numbers being split between India and Pakistan, Sikh leaders in 1946 called for the creation of their own independent state of Sikhistan or Khalistan, without success. The situation deteriorated rapidly, with outbursts of violence and bloodshed in riots between Muslims on the one hand, and Sikhs and Hindus on the other.
With independence and Partition the larger, western, portion of Punjab was allocated to Pakistan, now a Muslim state. In the violent upheavals that followed, hundreds of thousands of Punjabis were killed, and millions fled from one part of the province to the other. The Sikh community was split down the middle, and over 40 per cent were forced to leave Pakistan for India, abandoning homes, lands and sacred shrines. The majority of Sikh refugees settled in the Indian part of Punjab, although many moved to Delhi and other neighbouring regions.
In 1966 the new Sikh-majority state of Punjab was created, but various complex issues remained unresolved. Firstly, the capital city of Chandigarh also doubled as the capital of the neighbouring state of Haryana. Then the water supply from the Punjab rivers was divided between them in what Sikhs saw as an unfair manner. As in 1947, many religious and linguistic groups found themselves on the wrong side of the boundary after the division, with Punjabi Hindus constituting the majority of the urban population in Punjab and a sizeable Sikh minority remaining in Haryana. Nor were the majority Sikhs politically united. The Akali Dal represented for the most part the Jat Sikh farmers, but the state Congress Party attracted many Sikh voters in addition to Hindus. Punjab was now declared a unilingual Punjabi state with safeguards for the Hindu minority.
Between 1966 and 1984 these conflicts continued to remain unresolved, which led to rising frustration amongst the Sikh community. Relations between Sikh political leaders became strained, and there were disputes between Punjab and neighbouring states, especially Haryana. These were exacerbated by Indira Gandhi’s domination of the Indian political scene and her tendency to centralize power rather than grant greater autonomy to many of the country’s regions, including Punjab. During the same period Punjab had undergone a remarkable agricultural and economic boom, primarily as a result of the introduction of green revolution wheat farming. Despite this economic prosperity, many Sikhs saw the contribution of Punjab to the national economy as not being sufficiently recognized. At the same time the immigration of Hindus to Punjab affected the perception of Sikhs in terms of fears of becoming a numerical minority in their own province. The influx of Hindus also meant that a significant number of young Sikhs from Rajput families were left without work in an increasingly mobile and urbanized economy at a time when military recruitment was on the decline.
The rise of an extremist Sikh movement led by the charismatic preacher Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale attracted much support from within the Sikh community, and resulted in calls for an independent state of Khalistan to protect the rights and identity of the Sikhs. This movement took a violent turn and eventually led to the controversial ‘Operation Bluestar’ of June 1984, which saw the Indian army storm the Golden Temple, holiest of Sikh shrines, to flush out suspected terrorists sheltering in the premises. The army action caused great resentment among Sikhs generally at what was seen as the defilement of Sikh holy places and an insult to the entire community on the part of the Indian state. The ultimate act in this political tragedy was the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards, which resulted in a wave of Hindu violence being unleashed against the Sikh community, in a number of cases with the acquiescence of the police and allegedly with the political support of Congress Party politicians throughout the country. There was massive destruction of Sikh property and at least 2,150 Sikhs, mainly males, were killed in Delhi and over 600 in other parts of India. The army took over after three days, but the killings created deep and lasting bitterness and resentment among Sikhs, not only in India but also abroad.
Following the installation of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister of India in 1984, an agreement was signed (the Punjab Accord) with the leader of the Akali Dal under which Chandigarh was made the exclusive capital of the state of Punjab and the issue of the river water was to be decided by a commission. It was also agreed that Sikhs’ control of their religious affairs was to be expedited and fresh investments were promised for Punjab. These measures did not go far enough for many Sikhs, and shortly after the signing of the accord the leader of the Akali Dal was assassinated. In the elections that followed, the Akali Dal was voted into power under a moderate leader, but the rise of extremism in the state continued. Eventually the government was sacked and the state placed under President’s rule, with the police, and increasingly, the army being given a free hand in fighting the growing armed secessionist movement. After a long period of President’s rule, during which abuses of human rights were widespread, the rule of law appeared to have been restored, reflected through the state elections of 1989 (although they were boycotted by many people). The Congress government that was voted into power attempted to restore normality in the state through a combination of extreme measures in dealing with the fighters and restoring the faith of people in a democratic system of government.
The roots of the problems that gave rise to the armed movement in the state have yet to be resolved, however. Demands for an investigation into the Delhi massacres have not been heeded by the central government. Moreover, the Sikh community’s faith in the ability of the Indian state to protect its identity, culture and religion had been shaken. Extremism remained a problem, as was evidenced by the assassination of the chief minister of the state in 1995, but the number of people involved in the secessionist movement for an independent state of Khalistan shrunk dramatically.
Though the Khalistan movement has lost momentum in the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s, the country-wide anti-Sikh riots in 1984 have left a lot of bitterness between the two communities – Hindus and Sikhs – and have left a deep sense of injustice in their wake. Various commissions have been set up since 1984 to investigate the riots by the government but there has been no move to punish the perpetrators of the violence or even to prosecute cases against them. The Marwah Commission set up in November 1984 under the chairmanship of Ved Marwah, Additional Commissioner of Police, Delhi, enquired into the specific role of the police during the riots. However, the report of the Commission was left inconclusive following a direction of the government to hand over proceedings and papers to a new Commission set up in May 1985 under Justice Ranganath Misra, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court of India. The late 1980s and 1990s saw several commissions being set up by the government without any substantive movement forward or any concrete steps towards restoring justice being taken.
The political stalemate continued into the 2000s, preventing any action being taken against the perpetrators of the riots. Despite repeated recommendations by several official committees set up in the last three decades, there has been no move by the government to prosecute the political leaders involved directly in instigating the mobs to violence or for their role in the rioting. Similarly, there has been complete silence on the part of the government when it came down to taking action against the policemen indicted for their role and complicity during the riots. The repeated instances of inaction by the government has left a feeling of injustice among many Sikhs to this day.
Issues surrounding recognition impact on India’s Sikh population: specifically, the Indian Constitution groups Sikhs, along with Buddhists and Jains, with Hinduism, and therefore they are not legally recognized as distinct religions. Along with Christians and Muslims, Sikhs have also been a target of communal violence, although less frequently. Relatively few Sikhs are represented within the higher echelons of the government and the civil service.
In 2015, protests broke out in Punjab following the discovery of desecrated copies of the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s holy book, with Sikh demonstrators blockading roads after two protestors were killed and others injured by police.
More positively and in a rare show of positive cross-border dialogue, in November 2019, hundreds of Indian Sikhs were able to use a newly established corridor into Pakistan in order to conduct a pilgrimage to the shrine of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak. The shrine lies in Kartarpur, a small town just 4 kilometres across the Pakistan side of the border where Guru Nanak is believed to have died. Negotiations between India and Pakistan had led to the establishing of a visa-free corridor directly to the shrine, enabling up to 5,000 pilgrims a day to make the journey.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in