A Case-Study of the Crisis in Punjab

The Rise of an Illiberal Democracy in India
A Case-Study of the Crisis in Punjab

Sikh Genocide Project
India became the world’s largest democracy in 1947 with the end of British colonialism.  India, however, has not functioned as a constitutional liberal democracy—“a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.”[1] Democracy in India has coincided with the creation of a highly centralized state,[2]  suppression of basic human rights, discriminatory application of law, "tyranny of the majority" and a number of ethno-religious conflicts. In practice, India does little or nothing to protect what David Little calls “belief rights”,[3] the presence of which is an absolute must before a state may claim to practice constitutional liberalism.  Based on a case study that focuses mainly on Punjab, we are able to show that India is an illiberal democracy. Punjab has been the home to a Sikh ethno-religious nationalist movement since the Indian Army’s invasion of the Darbar Sahib (commonly known as the Golden Temple) on June 3, 1984.  The Sikh movement for political sovereignty in Punjab has its roots in Sikh theology and history, with both playing an important role in Sikh ethno-religious nationalist discourse.

Background to the Sikhs of Punjab (1469-1849)

Sikhs are a people with a common religious tradition, a scripture, a linguistic script and several social, political and economic institutions. Approximately twenty-five million people worldwide identify themselves as adherents of the Sikh faith, making it the fifth-largest world-religion. Gurmat, the Sikh doctrine, teaches that all human beings—regardless of their religion or beliefs—have the potential to realize God through devotion, truthful living, pursuit of justice and service of creation. The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539) and shaped by his nine successors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Punjab.  The Sikh faith holds that politics and religion are inseparable. The Sikh doctrine, however, rejects the validity of a theocratic state. Historically, all Sikh states in have been based on secular, non-theocratic laws because the Sikhs neither have a priestly class, which may rule in the name of an invisible God, nor do they have a corpus of civil law of divine origin and sanction.[4]

Numerous scholars have posited that the Sikhs constitute a nation.[5]  Joseph D. Cunningham (1812-1851), an eminent historian of the Sikhs, attributes the development of the Sikhs into a “people” under Guru Gobind Singh (1675-1708), the tenth Sikh Guru, and into a “nation” under Ranjit Singh, who established a Sikh state in 1799.[6]  Khushwant Singh’s reference to Sikhs fighting “a national war of independence” against the British in 1848 is consistent with Cunningham’s perception of Sikhs as a nation.[7]  Paul Brass argued in 1974 that “of all the ethnic groups and peoples of north India, the Sikhs come closest to satisfying the definition of a nationality or a nation.”[8] Sikh theological and historical sources use the words Panth and quam to describe the political body of the Sikhs and to give Sikhs a distinct communitarian identity (akin to the Western conception of a "nation" but with subtle differences since no English word can capture the essense of the Sikh conception of a community).

Several historical events led to the crystallization of a distinct Sikh identity, which in turn contributed to the development of a Sikh nation.  According to Sikh literature composed by Bhai Gurdas (1558[?]-1636), Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, began a new Panth,[9] which was distinct from the way of the Hindus and the Muslims.[10]  With the creation of a seat of Sikh political power through the institution of the Akal Takht (lit. the Eternal throne), Guru Hargobind (1601-1644), the fifth successor to Guru Nanak, greatly emphasized the need for political responsibility for the Panth.  In consonance with the theology of Guru Nanak, there was to be no dichotomy between religion and politics.  At this stage, the Sikhs, led by Guru Hargobind, fought four wars against the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.   Sikhs were to lay equal emphasis on the development of their spiritual and physical faculties.[11]  Guru Hargobind “encouraged Sikhs to bring him offerings of arms and horses in the future and enrolled an armed bodyguard of fifty-two mounted Sikhs…Ever since that time, armed Sikhs have stood guard to Harmander Sahib (the Golden Temple) and the Akal Takht as a symbol of temporal power of the Guru…the tradition of posting the armed guards continues to this day.”[12]

When the Mughal state arrested and martyred Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, the Sikhs lived under the fear of persecution.  Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, conceived the idea of forming Sikhs into a religious and military commonwealth and “executed his design with the systematic spirit of a Grecian lawgiver.”[13]  On March 30, 1699, Guru Gobind Singh ordained a new order, the Khalsa Panth, whose members were mandated to adorn themselves with five articles of faith at all times.  These articles of faith, based on a strict code of conduct, served as a uniform with the intent that Sikhs initiated into the Panth could no longer hide their identity, even under extreme conditions.  During the times when Sikhs faced genocide from the Mughal state, especially during the reigns of Bahadur Shah (1643-1712) and Farrukhsiyar (1683-1719),[14] this common identity must have created a great deal of cohesion among the members of the Panth, further strengthening their sense of nationality.  Furthermore, all members of the Panth were required to shed their caste and tribal affiliations in favor of a uniform Sikh identity; Sikh men were to adopt “Singh” and Sikh women were to accept “Kaur” as their last names.  The Panth, which was founded as a democratic institution devoid of all hierarchy, was to even possess authority over Guru Gobind Singh, its founder.[15]  With a range of religious symbols, collective institutions and internal structures of governance—some that were mature, while others still in their infancy—the Sikhs had now become an “imagined community”, a nation that aspired for state power.  In a litany that Sikh congregations, throughout the world, have been reciting for the last three hundred years, Guru Gobind Singh describes the political goal of the Sikhs:

The Khalsa shall rule; and all effective opposition shall cease.
Those in the opposition camp shall eventually come round the right way after many frustrations,
And they shall realize that stability and progress can only thus be assured.[16]

In Prachin Panth Prakash (1841), Rattan Singh Bhangu writes that after the inauguration of the Khalsa Panth, the Guru was pleased with the members of the Panth and asked them to request a boon from him.  After much deliberation, the Sikhs requested sovereignty over Punjab.  When the Guru inquired whether they wanted other lands, the Sikhs insisted that they only wanted to rule Punjab because they were already settled there.[17]  Regardless of the historical validity of this narrative, it is important because it shows that nineteenth century Sikhs thought that they were sovereigns of Punjab based on divine sanction.  When Bhangu was asked by Captain Murray, the British Charge-de-affairs in Punjab around 1850, “From what source Sikhs derived the validity of their claim to earthly sovereignty in the absence of rights of treaty?”  Bhangu responded: “The Sikhs’ right to earthly sovereignty is based on the Will of God and, therefore, other inferior sanctions are unnecessary.”[18]  It must be noted that Sikh theology unequivocally rejects the notion of one place being more sacred than another.  The Sikh affinity to Punjab, as a result, is not based on theology but on history—this is where the Sikh faith took birth and prospered, and its land is dotted with thousands of historical sites of the Sikhs.  At the same time, the notion that Sikhs are sovereign and answerable only to God is deeply rooted in Sikh theology.

In 1710, two years after the death of Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikhs under the leadership of Banda Singh Bahadur (1670-1716) established the first Sikh republic.  Formal sovereignty was assumed by the Sikhs with their capital at Mukhlispur, which was renamed Lohgarh (“the Steel Fort”) and Sikh coins were struck with the following legend on them:

The sword of the central Doctrine of Nanak destroys the evil of both the worlds, the poverty and slavery of this earth and the sickness of the soul hereafter, and we hereby proclaim our sovereignty over both the worlds, the seen and the unseen. The final victory in our struggle has been vouchsafed by Guru Gobind Singh, the Harbinger of the good tidings of the ever present Grace of God.[19]

The Sikh political ascendancy alarmed the Mughal regime, which called for extermination of the Sikhs.  In 1715, the Mughal army surrounded Banda Singh’s forces for several months and starved many of the Sikhs to death.  According to Iqbal Singh, “[The Sikh military leader]…his family and 740 of his soldiers were led in chains to Delhi.  They were subjected to inhuman tortures and then publicly beheaded on seven successive days.  On 9 June 1716 came the turn of Banda.  He was forced to kill his infant son and was then beheaded…The governors of Punjab were determined to wipe out the Sikhs and ordered the immediate execution of anyone who wore his hair and beard unshorn…The Harmander in Amritsar was blown up and thousands of men, women and children butchered.  The Sikhs fled the plains and bided their time in the Himalayan foothills.”[20]

For the next fifty years, the Sikhs resorted to guerilla warfare against Lahore, the capital of the Mughals.  This period in history gave rise to Sikh misls or confederacies that ruled several territories across Punjab with much popular support.  In this period, the Sikhs captured Lahore under the leadership of Jassa Singh of the Ahluwalia misl.  Under his leadership, the Sikh ruled areas ranging from the banks of the Indus in the west to the Ganges in the east, and from the Himalayas in the north to the desert wastes of Sind in the south.[21]  In their fight against invading Afghans, the Sikhs suffered two ghallugharas, or holocausts, one in June 1746 and the other in May 1762.  During the second holocaust, 10,000 to 70,000 Sikhs were massacred by the forces of Ahmad Shah Abdali, who also destroyed the Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple).[22]  Sikhs worldwide would later recall their history to compare the attack of the Indian army on the Darbar Sahib in June 1984 with Abdali’s invasion, and the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in October 1984 to Abdali’s untimely death on his way back to Afghanistan.[23]  In the popular Sikh imagination, whenever an enemy has sought to commit genocide against the Sikhs, it has invaded the Darbar Sahib on a Sikh holiday.[24]   

By the end of 1760s, Sikhs had succeeded in establishing numerous autonomous confederacies.  These confederacies were consolidated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in a united Sikh state with its capital in Lahore in 1799. The Sikh state was largely secular in character and appointed members of others faiths in its administration.  By 1824, Ranjit Singh had expanded the Sikh empire from Sutlej to Khyber and Kashmir.  The death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, followed by betrayals by Dogra administrators of the Sikh state and intrigue within the Sikh court, enabled the British to defeat the Sikhs and assume full control of Punjab and adjoining Sikh territories by 1849.[25] 

Sikh Role Against British Colonialism in South Asia (1912-1947)

As erstwhile sovereigns of Punjab, the Sikhs—who constituted about 1.1 percent of the population of British-India[26]—played a disproportionate role in the struggle to free the subcontinent of British colonialism.  The table below summarizes the Sikh contribution in the freedom movement.  The data reflects Sikhs serving prison sentences, being deported to nearby islands in exile, facing capital punishment and enlisting themselves in the Indian National Army that was organized to oppose the British.

Type

All Communities

Sikhs

Percentage

Prison term over 1-year

2,125

1,550

75%

Deported

2,646

2,147

80%

Death Sentence

127

92

80%

Indian National Army

20,000

12,000

60%

Table 1: Sikh mobilization for India’s freedom struggle[27]

With the possibility of an end to British colonialism in sight, the Sikh leadership became concerned about the future of the Sikhs.  The Sikhs and the Muslims had unsuccessfully claimed separate representation for their communities in the Minto-Morley Scheme of 1909.[28]  The Congress, led by predominantly a Hindu majority, denied Sikhs their separate identity and labeled them as a sect of Hinduism.  Even though the Sikhs occupied 19.1 percent of the seats in the Punjab Legislature, in a document on the future of British-India in response to the Simon Commission in 1927, the Congress leader Motilal Nehru defined the future of the subcontinent in Hindu and Muslim terms.[29]  Nehru’s report evoked strong condemnation from Sikh leaders.

Diarchy was introduced in 1935, guaranteeing a majority for Muslims in Punjab, which changed Hindu attitudes towards the Sikh demand for reasons of political expediency.  The Hindus aimed to reduce the Muslim majority in the Punjab Legislative Council.[30]  At this time, the Hindus not only accepted Sikhs as a distinct community, but also supported the Sikh demand for adequate political representation.  In December 1929, Sikh leaders were also assured by Motilal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi that Congress would accept no political situation for the future of British India unless it satisfied the Sikhs.[31]  Accordingly, the Congress passed a resolution during its Lahore session:

…as the Sikhs in particular, and Muslims and other minorities in general have expressed dissatisfaction over the solution of communal questions proposed in the Nehru Report, this Congress assures the Sikhs, the Muslims and other minorities that no solution thereof in any future constitution will be acceptable to the Congress that does not give full satisfaction to the parties concerned.[32] 
Gandhi stated that the resolution was adopted by the Congress to satisfy the Sikh community.[33]  Addressing a meeting at Gurdwara Sis Ganj, Delhi, he said:
I ask you to accept my word…and the resolution of the Congress that it will not betray a single individual, much less a community…our Sikh friends have no reason to fear that it would betray them.  For, the moment it does so, the Congress would not only thereby seal its own doom but that of the country too.  Moreover, Sikhs are a brave people.  They know how to safeguard their rights by exercise of arms if it should ever come to that.[34]
Jawaharlal Nehru reiterated Gandhi’s assurance to the Sikhs at the All India Congress Committee meeting in Calcuatta in 1946. He declared:
The brave Sikhs of Punjab are entitled to special consideration.  I see nothing wrong in an area and a set-up in the North wherein the Sikhs can experience the glow of freedom.[35]
With the Muslims proposing the creation of a Pakistan to safeguard their interests, some Sikhs put forth the idea of carving out a Sikh state of Khalistan.[36]  During a prolonged negotiation process during the 1940s between the British and the three groups seeking political power—Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—the Congress Party continually extended such promises to prevent Sikhs from allying with the Muslim League.  To win Sikh support, Jawaharlal Nehru again declared:
Redistribution of provincial boundaries was essential and inevitable.  I stand for semi-autonomous units…if the Sikhs desire to function as such a unit, I would like them to have a semi-autonomous unit within the province so that they may have a sense of freedom.”[37]
These pledges of by Nehru and Gandhi on behalf of the Indian Congress were formalized through a resolution in the Constituent Assembly on December 9, 1946:
Adequate safeguards would be provided for minorities in India…It was a declaration, pledge and an undertaking before the world, a contract with millions of Indians and, therefore, in the nature of an oath we must keep.[38]
During a press conference on July 10, 1946 in Bombay, Nehru’s controversial statement that the Congress may “change or modify” the agreed upon agreement came “as a bombshell”.[39]  As a consequence, Mohammad Ali Jinnah—the charismatic leader of the Muslim League—was forced to seek safeguards for his community through the creation of a separate Pakistan.

After the departure of the British, the Congress Party would repudiate all pledges and Constituent Assembly resolutions promulgated to safeguard Sikh interests.[40]  Many Sikhs felt that they had been tricked into joining the Indian union.  On Nov. 21, 1949, upon the review of the draft of the Indian Constitution, Hukam Singh, the Sikh representative, declared to the Constituent Assembly:

Naturally, under these circumstances, as I have stated, the Sikhs feel utterly disappointed and frustrated. They feel that they have been discriminated against. Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this [Indian] Constitution.  I wish to record an emphatic protest here.  My community cannot subscribe its assent to this historic document.[41]
India showed signs of illiberalism from the very beginning by reneging on its promises to the Sikhs and by not accommodating the Sikhs as equal partners in the affairs of the new nation.  The Sikh leadership was not politically savvy to foresee that the likelihood of Congress’ communalism in the colonial period being transformed into liberalism in the postcolonial period was slim.

Further Growth of Sikh National Consciousness (1947-1966)

The Sikhs, whose participation in India’s independence struggle was disproportionate to their small numbers (see Table 1), had greater reasons to be worried in postcolonial India.  According to Kapur Singh, who was the Deputy Commissioner at Dalhousie and a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) at the time:

In 1947, the governor of Punjab, Mr. C.M. Trevedi, in deference to the wishes of the Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister, issued certain instructions to all the Deputy Commissioners of Indian Punjab…These were to the effect that, without reference to the law of the land, the Sikhs in general and Sikh migrants in particular must be treated as a “criminal tribe”.  Harsh treatment must be meted out to them…to the extent of shooting them dead so that they wake up to the political realities and recognize “who are the rulers and who the subjects.” [42]
Here, the rhetoric of calling an entire religious community a “criminal tribe” shows the communal nature of the top Indian politicians, who from the very beginning attempted to exclude the Sikhs in order to build solidarity among the Hindus of the Punjab.  Master Tara Singh summed up Sikh sentiments in his Presidential Address to the All India Sikh Conference on March 28, 1953:
English-man has gone, but our [Sikh] liberty has not come.  For us the so-called liberty is simply a change of masters, black for white. Under the garb of democracy and secularism, our Panth, our liberty and our religion are being crushed.[43]
In the1950s and 1960s, linguistic issues in India caused civil disorder when the central government attempted to marginalize a select group of regional languages.  Hindi was imposed as the national language on all Indians by the Hindu elite leading the Congress.  “The nationwide movement of linguistic groups seeking statehood resulted in a massive reorganization of states according to linguistic boundaries in 1956.  However, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu were the only three languages not considered for statehood.”[44]  As a result, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party representing the Sikhs in Punjab, initiated its first major movement in August 1950 that lasted two decades.[45]

The Akali Dal sought to create a Punjabi suba, a Punjabi-speaking state.  This case was presented to the Sates Reorganization Commission established in 1953.  The Akali Dal’s manifesto declared:

The true test of democracy, in the opinion of the Shiromani Akali Dal, is that the minorities should feel that they are really free and equal partners in the destiny of their country…to bring home a sense of freedom to the Sikhs, it is vital that there should be a Punjabi speaking language and culture.  This will not only be in fulfillment of the pre-partition Congress program and pledges, but also in entire conformity with the universally recognized principles governing formation of provinces…The Shiromani Akali Dal has reason to believe that a Punjabi-speaking province may give the Sikhs the needful security.  It believes in a Punjabi speaking province as a autonomous unit of India.”[46]

A communal response from the Hindus of Punjab further complicated the Sikh demand.  There was a Hindu opposition to the adoption of Punjabi as an official language in the Punjabi-speaking areas.  Accordingly, Punjabi-speaking Hindus declared Hindi as their mother tongue in the censuses of 1951 and 1961.  Paul Brass notes, “There is a good reason to believe…that the 1961 census accurately reflects that language preference of the people of the Punjab, although certainly not the actual mother tongue spoken.”[47]  Why would Punjabi Hindus misrepresent and repudiate their linguistic heritage?  According to Paul Brass, “The dominant Hindu majority, unable to assimilate the Sikhs, adopted the tactic of avoiding their language so that the Sikhs, a minority people by religion, might become a minority by language as well.”[48]

The demand for adoption of Punjabi for Punjabi-speaking areas intensified the rift between Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab.  As the Hindus raised the slogan of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan,”—which translates to “the Hindi language, Hindu religion and Hindu India”—relations between the Akali Dal and the Congress government suffered as well.

The States Reorganization Commission, not recognizing Punjabi as a language that was distinct grammatically from Hindi, rejected the demand for a Punjabi suba or state.  Another reason that the Commission gave in its report was that the movement lacked general support of the people inhabiting the region, a reference to the Punjabi Hindus who were opposed to the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state.[49]  The Sikhs felt discriminated against by the commission.  Hukam Singh of the Akali Dal wrote, “While others got States for their languages, we lost even our language.”[50]  The Akali Dal saw the refusal of the Commission to concede to the Sikh demands as a sign of intolerance against a religious community that spoke a distinct language, which was both linguistically and lexically distinct from Hindi.[51]  Fateh Singh, a leading Sikh representative, further noted, “No status is given to the Punjabi language, because Sikhs speak it.  If non-Sikhs had owned Punjabi as mother tongue then the rulers of India would have seen no objection in establishing a Punjabi State.”[52]

Language was adopted as a religious symbol by the Sikh elite to advance religious nationalist rhetoric.  The Hindu elite also used Hindi as a symbol of Hindu identity, knowing well that Hindi was not spoken by the vast majority of Hindus.  Specifically in Punjab, the use of religious discourse enabled the Hindu elite to fuel religious passion among Hindu Punjabis, who readily accepted Hindi over their mother tongue.

The Akal Takht, the temporal seat of Sikh authority in Amritsar, played a vital role in organizing Sikhs to campaign for the Punjabi suba.   During the course of the campaign, twelve thousand Sikhs were arrested for their peaceful demonstrations in 1955 and twenty-six thousand in 1960-61.[53]  Finally, in September 1966, the Punjabi suba demand was accepted by the central government and Punjab was trifurcated under the Punjab State Reorganization Bill.  Areas in the south of Punjab that spoke a language that is a derivative of Braj formed a new state of Haryana and the Pahari- and Kangari-speaking districts north of Punjab were merged with Himachal Pradesh, while the remaining areas formed a new state of Punjab.   As a result, the Sikhs became a majority in the newly created Punjabi suba.[54]  Harnik Deol observes overtones of religious nationalism in this movement:

The main driving force of the Punjabi suba movement was the Sikh leadership saw a separate political status for the Sikhs as being essential for preserving the Sikh identity.  Thus, the Akali leader Master Tara Singh noted in 1945, “there is not the least doubt that the Sikh religion will live only as long as the panth exists as an organized entity.”…It was further argued that the panth was based on the common ideology of Sikh religion.  A prominent Akali leader argued that the ideology of the panth binds its adherents together in “Kinship which transcends distance, territory, caste, social barriers and even race.”  By this logic the panth was coeval with the Sikh nation.[55]

Language had become a symbol of group identity.  The use of religious symbols by the Sikh leadership during the Punjabi suba movement enabled greater cohesion among the Sikhs.  Anthony Marx has argued in Faith in Nation: The Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism that the exclusion of a minority community by the majority in a state gives rise to nationalism. Marx’ claim can easily be applied to the Punjabi Hindus who increasingly saw themselves as Indians as they lobbied for marginalization of the Sikhs and their linguistic heritage.  We would like to extend Marx’ thesis and argue that the struggle of the minority Sikh community against Hindu majoritarian politics created greater coherence within the Panth, giving further boost to the already extant Sikh ethno-religious nationalism.  At this point, however, the Sikhs did not attempt to secede from the Indian union.

The Current Conflict (1978-2004)

The creation of the Punjabi suba did not solve Sikh problems.  In 1978, thirteen Sikhs were killed by the Nirankari group in Amritsar.  To provide relief to the assailants, the central government moved the case to courts in the neighboring Hindu-dominated state of Haryana, where they were acquitted, increasing the Sikh alienation from India.

Before the creation of the Punjabi suba, Punjab was the master of its river waters.  When the Punjabi suba was created, the central government—against the provisions of the Indian constitution—introduced sections 78 to 80 in the Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966, under which the central government “assumed the powers of control, maintenance, distribution and development of the waters and the hydel power of the Punjab rivers.”[56]  With seventy-five percent of Punjab’s river water being diverted to non-riparian, Hindu-dominated states of Haryana and Rajastan, the Sikhs have perceived the central government’s violation of the Indian constitution as a measure to break the Sikhs economically, since the vast majority of the people of Punjab are dependent on agriculture.[57]  Similar river water disputes in other parts of the country have been resolved according to the Indian constitution, reinforcing the perception of the Sikhs that they are being targeted because of their religion.[58] 

The following anecdote describes the helplessness of the judiciary in India when it came to such disputes. According to the Institute of Sikh Studies, Chandigarh:

An organisation of farmers had filed a petition in the High Court, Punjab and Haryana, regarding the unconstitutionality of the drain of the waters of the Punjab to the non-riparian states under the Reorganisation Act. The issue being of fundamental constitutional importance, the Chief Justice, S.S. Sandhawalia admitted the long pending petition and announced the constitution of a Full Bench, with himself as Chairman, for the hearing of the case on the following Monday, the 25th November, 1983. In the intervening two days before the hearing of the case could start, and these two days were holidays, two things happened. First, before Monday, the Chief Justice of the High Court was transferred to the High Court of Patna. Hence neither the Bench could sit, nor could the hearing of the case start. Second an oral application was given by the Attorney General in the Supreme Court requesting for the transfer of the writ petition from the file of the High Court to that of the Supreme Court on the ground that the issue involved was of great public importance. The request was granted; the case was transferred. And there this case of great public importance rests unheard for the last nearly twenty years.[59]

According to the Earth Policy Institute, Punjab’s water table is falling by one meter per year, which could lead to disastrous consequences for the state and its farmers in the long-term.[60] This example demonstrates that the Indian constitution is used differently when deciding Sikh-Hindu conflicts and Hindu-Hindu conflicts, which can be seen as a sign of illiberalism. India has a constitution but the government and the judiciary may not to adhere to it, as in this case, when such conformism goes against Hindu interests.

The Akali Dal led a series of peaceful mass demonstrations to present its grievances to the central government.  The demands of the Akali Dal were based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, which was adopted by the party in October 1973 to raise specific political, economic and social issues.  The major motivation behind the resolution was safeguarding of the Sikh identity in a state structure that was decentralized with non-interference from the central government.  The Indian state and the Indian media misrepresented the Anandpur Sahib Resolution as a secessionist document in an attempt to malign the Sikhs.  The Resolution outlines seven objectives:[61]

1.      The transfer of the federally administered city of Chandigarh to Punjab. 
2.      The transfer of Punjabi speaking and contiguous areas to Punjab.
3.      Decentralization of states under the existing constitution, limiting the central government’s role.
4.      The call for land reforms and industrialization of Punjab, along with safeguarding the rights of the weaker sections of the population.
5.      The enactment of an all-India gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) act.
6.      Protection for minorities residing outside Punjab, but within India.
7.      Revision of government’s recruitment quota restricting the number of Sikhs in armed forces.

Along with these demands, the issue concerning the unconstitutional diversion of Punjab’s river waters to non-riparian states has been of fundamental importance.  Writing about the nature of these demands, The Wall Street Journal noted:

The Akali Dal is in the hands of moderate and sensible leadership…but giving anyone a fair share of power is unthinkable politics of Mrs. Gandhi [the then Prime Minister of India]… Many Hindus in Punjab privately concede that there isn't much wrong with these demands. But every time the ball goes to the Congress court, it is kicked out one way or another because Mrs. Gandhi considers it a good electoral calculation.[62]

The early stages of the Sikh agitation for equal rights were peaceful, leading one commentator to note:

…over 100,000 [Sikh] volunteers have been arrested. This high number of arrests is undoubtedly, a national record and so has been the peaceful nature in which the Satyagrahas [protests] of this magnitude have been handled by the Sikhs, with extreme tolerance.[63]
According to an editorial in The New York Times:
There was a nonviolent Sikh protest movement, but it was eclipsed when the Prime Minister rebuffed its demands…Since Indian independence in 1947, Sikhs have pleaded for greater autonomy and for specific recognition of their religion in the Constitution.[64]

In a politically charged environment, Lala Jagat Narain, the owner of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers, was assassinated by Sikh militants in September 1981.  He had been instrumental in persuading Punjabi Hindus to declare their mother tongue as Hindi.  His editorials consistently attacked the Akali Dal’s leadership.  His assassination led to mob violence by Hindus, who set Sikhs shops on fire and burnt the offices of the Akali Patrika, a Punjabi newspaper that represented Sikh interests.  The government acted hastily by arraigning Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh preacher who had risen to popularity in Punjab for his harsh critique of the government.[65]

Interestingly, vernacular press, printed pamphlets and posters —what Benedict Anderson calls “print capitalism”—along with oral forms of communication, such as cassettes, enabled Bhindranwale to transmit his message to a wide range of Sikhs in Punjab and abroad.  The political implications of such a movement were immense.  It created solidarity and uniformity among practicing Sikhs and it influenced those Sikhs who were not interested in religion to become devout practitioners of faith.  Bhindranwale’s emphasis on a distinct Sikh identity and his insistence on fighting for justice provided all the needed ingredients to strengthen the Sikh movement for greater autonomy.

On September 1981, Bhindranwale voluntarily offered his arrest in Amritsar, where he was detained and interrogated for twenty-five days, but was released because of lack of evidence.  After his release, Bhindranwale relocated himself from his headquarters at Mehta Chowk to Guru Nanak Niwas within the Darbar Sahib precincts.[66]  Many Sikhs today criticize this move because they think that it gave the state an excuse to attack the Darbar Sahib, but this criticism is unwarranted.  As we will see, the Indian army attacked not only this important shine, but dozens of additional shrines across Punjab where there were no Sikh nationalists or militants in residence.  Bhindranwale’s presence at the shrine, therefore, was a minor factor, if a factor at all, in Indira Gandhi’s decision to attack the Darbar Sahib.  In fact, “the then deputy commissioner of Amritsar, Gurdev Singh…said that he had categorically informed the highest officials of the Punjab government that if they wanted to arrest Bhindranwale, there would be no major difficulty in organizing it.  The chief minister, the governor of Punjab and other senior officials told him that the directive to take action against Bhindranwale had to come from Delhi.”[67]  These orders never came because Bhindranwale had no outstanding charges against him.  Arun Shourie of The Indian Express noted, "For all I know, he [Bhindranwale] is completely innocent and is genuinely and exclusively dedicated to the teachings of the Gurus.”[68]  In December 1983, a senior officer in Chandigarh confessed: “It’s really shocking that we have so little against him [Bhindranwale] while we keep blaming him for all sorts of things.”[69]  Therefore, to think that Bhindranwale invited an attack from the Indian army through his presence at the Darbar Sahib is to ignore an established fact that the army operation was planned well in advance, as stated by S. K. Sinha, a major figure in the Indian Army.

In August 1982, the Akali Dal under the leadership of Harcharan Singh Longowal launched the dharam yudh morcha, or the “battle for righteousness.”  Bhindranwale and the Akali Dal united for the first time; their goal was the fulfillment of the demands based on the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.  In two and a half months, security forces arrested thirty-thousand Sikhs for their peaceful demonstrations to the point that protesting volunteers could not be accommodated in the existing jails.[70]

In November 1982, Akali Dal announced the organization of peaceful protests in Delhi during the Asian Games.  To prevent Sikhs from reaching Delhi, the central government stopped all buses, trains and vehicles that were headed for Delhi to interrogate Sikhs.  Background or affiliation did not matter; all Sikhs were profiled, segregated and searched.  The Sikhs as a community felt discriminated against by the Indian state.  Later, the Akali Dal organized a convention at the Darbar Sahib attended by 5,000 Sikh ex-servicemen—170 of whom were above the rank of a colonel.  These Sikhs claimed that there was discrimination against them in government service.[71]

The situation in Punjab deteriorated as violence escalated with the murders of Hindus and Sikhs.  During this turmoil, the Akai Dal began another agitation in February 1984 protesting against clause (2) (b) of Article 25 of the Indian constitution, which defines Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains as Hindus.  Several Akali leaders were arrested for burning the Indian constitution in protest.[72]  

From the point of view of belief rights, India’s defining of its Sikh, Buddhist and Jain citizens as Hindus has serious ramification.  For instance, a Sikh couple that marries in accordance to the rites of the Sikh religion must register its marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 [73] in order to be considered legally married.[74]  This amounts to a coercive declaration that the couple is a Hindu.  The contents of clause (2) (b) of Article 25 of the Indian constitution and the laws based on its understanding are in violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) calling for free exercise because Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are forced to identify themselves as Hindus even for the simple purpose of obtaining a marriage certificate.[75]  Here India’s secular credentials come into question because the state and its legislators arrogate to themselves the authority to define the beliefs of religious communities to which they do not belong.  Furthermore, India’s overt attempt to categorize its religious minorities as Hindus in spite of strong protests attests to the state’s illiberal policies.

The events in 1984 further demonstrate the illiberal nature of the Indian democracy.  For over a year, the Indian army had been preparing for an attack on the Darbar Sahib.  To legitimize the attack, according to Subramaniam Swami—a member of the Indian Parliament—the central government had created a disinformation campaign.  In his words, the state sought to “make out that the Golden Temple was the haven of criminals, a store of armory and a citadel of the nation’s dismemberment conspiracy.”[76]

The Surya magazine published a special report detailing how the Third Agency, a special intelligence outfit created by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Secretariat, R. Shankaran Nair, was instrumental in smuggling most of the arms inside the Darbar Sahib.[77]  “One week before the Army action, Punjab police had intercepted two truck loads of weapons and ammunition in the Batala sub-division of Gurdaspur district.  But the officer of the Third Agency, in-charge of Amritsar, persuaded the director-general of police (DGP) to release them and send them along safely to the Golden Temple.”[78]

According to plan, the Indian army invaded the Darbar Sahib in an assault that was code named “Operation Blue Star” on June 5, 1984 to coincide with the martyrdom day of Guru Arjan, who had constructed the Darbar Sahib.  It is common knowledge that this gurpurab (commemoration of Guru Arjan’s martyrdom) attracts an unusually large number of Sikh visitors at the Darbar Sahib, just like a large number of Muslims visit Mecca during the month of Ramadan.  Then, why did the Indian army attack the most important Sikh shrine on this particular day?  Ram Narayan Kumar notes, “Operation Blue Star was not only envisioned and rehearsed in advance, meticulously and in total secrecy, it also aimed at obtaining the maximum number of Sikh victims, largely devout pilgrims unconnected with the political agitation.”[79]

Cynthia Kepply Mahmood, describing the scale of the attack, writes:

When it [the Indian army] attacked the Golden Temple complex at Amritsar in 1984, containing the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the ostensible aim was to rid the sacred buildings of the militants who had taken up shelter inside.  But the level force used in the attack was utterly incommensurate with this limited and eminently attainable aim.  Seventy thousand troops, in conjunction with the use of tanks and chemical gas, killed not only the few dozen militants who didn’t manage to escape the battleground but also hundreds (possibly thousands) of innocent pilgrims, the day of the attack being a Sikh holy day.  The Akal Takht, the seat of temporal authority for the Sikhs, was reduced to rubble and the Sikh Reference Library, an irreplaceable collection of books, manuscripts, and artifacts bearing on all aspects of Sikh history, burned to ground.  Thirty-seven other shrines were attacked across Punjab on the same day.  The only possible reason for this appalling level of state force against its own citizens must be that the attempt was not merely to “flush out,” as they say, a handful of militants, but to destroy the fulcrum of a possible mass resistance against the state.[80]
The most disturbing aspect of the operation was the targeting of civilians by the Indian army.  Contrary to the army Lt. General K. Sundarji’s statement—“We went inside [the Darbar Sahib] with humility in our hearts and prayers on our lips”[81]—for the invading troops “every Sikh inside was a militant.”[82]  Mark Tully, in his famous account of the invasion, writes: “Karnail Kaur, a young mother of three children…said, ‘When people begged for water some jawans [soldiers] told them to drink the mixture of blood and urine on the ground.’”  Tully records an eye-witness account by Bhan Singh, the then SGPC Secretary:
I saw about thirty-five or thirty-six Sikhs lined up with their hands raised above their heads.  And the major was about to order them to be shot.  When I asked him for medical help, he got into rage, tore my turban off my head, and ordered his men to shoot me.  I turned back and fled…Sardar Karnail Singh Nag, who had followed me, also narrated what he had seen, as well as the killing of thirty-five to thirty-six young Sikhs by cannon fire.  All of them were villagers.[83]
C.K.C. Reddy, while writing on the army action notes:
The whole of Punjab and especially the Golden Temple Complex, was turned into a murderous mouse trap from where people could neither escape nor could they seek succor of any kind...The bodies of the victims of military operation in Punjab were unceremoniously destroyed without any attempt to identify them and hand them over to their relatives …The most disturbing thing about the entire operation was that a whole mass of men, women, and children were ordered to be killed merely on the suspicion that some terrorists were operating from the Golden Temple and other Gurdwaras. There had been no judicial verdict of guilt against definite individuals who had been taking shelter in the Golden Temple.[84]
The Indian army’s invasion of the Darbar Sahib, which is remembered as a ghalughara (holocaust) by Sikhs much like the aforementioned attacks by the Afghan invader Abdali, claimed as many as “7,000 to 8,000” lives according to some eyewitness accounts.[85]  While there is ample evidence to show that Bhindranwale was fighting for the demands articulated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution and not for the separate state of Khalistan, the Indian army’s invasion was not seen by the Sikhs as “a security operation but a clash between two nations, the first ‘war for Khalistan’”.[86]  As Joyce Pettigrew puts it:
The sacrifice of Bhindranwale’s life and that of his followers drew attention to the fact that Sikhs live by a model of society opposed to that for which India stood. They were slaughtered in defense of their conception of what society should be.[87]
The army operation was followed by another government-sponsored initiative, code-named, “Operation Woodrose”, in which the Indian army sought to eliminate all Amritdharis (members of the Khalsa Panth) across the villages of Punjab.  Baatcheet, the Indian Army’s bulletin, made an appeal to all soldiers in June 1984:
Any knowledge of the "Amritdharis" who are dangerous people and pledged to committing murder, arson and acts of terrorism should be immediately brought to the notice of the authorities. These people may appear harmless from outside but they are basically committed to terrorism. In the interest of us all, their identity and whereabouts must always be disclosed.[88]
All initiated Sikhs were “terrorists” in the eyes of the Indian state and were to be killed extra-judicially.  The Christian Science Monitor reported:
The pattern in each village appears to be the same. The Army moves in during the early evening, cordons a village, and announces over loudspeakers that everyone must come out. All males between the ages of 15 and 35 are trussed and blindfolded, then taken away…Thousands have disappeared in the Punjab since the Army Operation began. The government has provided no lists of names; families don't know if sons and husbands are arrested, underground or dead.[89]


These actions of the Indian state need to be examined closely to see whether Article 2 of the Genocide Convention is applicable since they were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.[90]  The fact that the law of the land was disregarded completely when it came to the Sikhs further shows that the fabric of the Indian democracy is not built on individual rights, which have varied according to the religious affiliations of those concerned.  Joyce Pettigrew in her case-studies presented in The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence has shown convincingly that some affluent Sikhs with sufficient connection in the government, who did not subscribe to Sikh nationalism, became victims of state terror because of the singular reason that they were Sikhs.[91]  State terror directed against innocent Sikhs served as a baptism ceremony for initiation into the Sikh ethno-religious nationalist movement for many Sikhs who would not have joined it otherwise.  Here, it should be noted that the state policies against Sikhs and sweeping powers that were given to Indian paramilitary forces would not have existed in a liberal constitutional democracy.

On the morning of October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot-dead by two Sikh security guards in New Delhi.  The assassination triggered organized violence against Sikhs across north India.  In the words of Khushwant Singh, on the night of October 31, “Politicians belonging to the ruling Congress party met to decide how to teach the Sikhs a lesson they would never forget.”[92]  Ram N. Kumar describes the nature of organization of these state sponsored pogroms against Sikhs:

Early next morning, hordes of people from the suburbs of Delhi were transported to various localities in the city where the Sikh population was concentrated.  The mobilization suggested backing of an organization with vast resources.  The criminal hordes carried crude weapons…and combustible material, including kerosene, for arson.  They were also supplied with lists of houses and business establishments belonging to the Sikhs in various localities.  The government controlled television Doordarshan, and the All India Radio began broadcasting provocative slogans seeking bloody vengence, “khoon ka badla khoon se lenge (Blood for blood!)”.  Murderous gangs of 200 or 300 people led by the leaders, with policemen looking on, began to swarm into Sikh houses, hacking the occupants to pieces, chopping off the heads of children, raping women, tying Sikh men to tires set aflame with kerosene, burning down houses and shops after ransacking them…In some areas, the Sikh families grouped together for self-defense.  The police officials then arrived to disperse them, by force when persuasion did not work…Khushwant Singh realized “what Jews must have felt in Nazi Germany.”  He concluded: “The killing assumed the proportions of a genocide of the Sikh community.”[93]

From the perspective of belief rights, with its promotion of hate speech over state-operated national television to incite violence against the Sikhs, the Indian state violated Article 20.2 of ICCPR and Article 7 of UDHR.  Encyclopedia of Genocide cites these events in its entry on “Genocide of Sikhs”.[94]

Two major civil-liberties organizations issued a joint report on the anti-Sikh pogrom naming sixteen important politicians, thirteen police officers and one hundred and ninety-eight others, accused by survivors and eye-witnesses.[95]  In January 1985, journalist Rahul Bedi of the Indian Express and Smitu Kothari of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties “moved the High Court of Delhi to demand a judicial inquiry into the pogrom on the strength of the documentation carried out by human rights organizations.  Justice Yogeshwar Dayal dismissed the petition after deprecating ‘those busybodies out for publicity, who poke their noses into all matters and waste the valuable time of the judiciary.’”[96]

As it is often the case in illiberal states, a number of politicians who organized the pogrom were rewarded with electoral success by the Congress party and by their Hindu constituents.  The Misra Commission was appointed to investigate the killings as a tactic to delay and deny justice.  According to Patwant Singh:

The Government received the Misra Commission’s report…and took six months to place it before parliament...a full 27 months after the killings.  A weak and vapid report, it let key Congress figures off the hook and characteristically recommended the setting up of three more committees…The third committee spawned two more committees plus an enquiry by the Central bureau of Investigation (CBI). When one of these two, the Poti-Rosha Committee, recommended 30 cases for prosecution including one against Sajjan Kumar, Congress MP [Member of Parliament], and the CBI sent a team to arrest him on 11 September 1990, a mob held the team captive for more than four hours! According to the CBI’s subsequent affidavit filed in court, “the Delhi Police far from trying to disperse the mob sought an assurance from the CBI that he [Sajjan Kumar] would not be arrested.”  The CBI also “disclosed that [another committee’s] file relating to the case [against him] was found in Sajjan Kumar’s house.”  The MP was given “anticipatory bail while the CBI team was being held captive” by his henchmen.

Justice Mirsa became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and after retirement chairman of the National Human Rights Commission; the accused MPs, except one, were again given Congress tickets to stand for parliament; one of them, H.K.L. Bhagat, became a cabinet minister; three accused police officers were promoted and placed in high positions…The Sikhs, determined to see those they believe to be guilty punished, continue to press for justice although fully aware of the fact that in India too, as Solzhenitsyn wrote about his country, “the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of the state.”[97]
Here, one cannot help but notice the collusion between India’s executive branch, its legislators, judiciary and law enforcement agencies.  Interestingly, as recently as May 2004, two senior Congress politicians, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler, “widely cited as perpetrators of the 1984 pogroms against Sikhs by survivors and witnesses”[98] were elected as Members of Parliament, in addition to Kamal Nath who had attacked Gurdwara Rakab Ganj in Delhi.  Furthermore, Manmohhan Singh, a Sikh who defended India’s indefensible human rights record during the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and does not acknowledge his party’s role in the pogroms against Sikhs, also ascended to the position of Prime Minister of India in May 2004.[99] Twenty years after the pogroms, India continues to operate as an illiberal democracy. 

During the late 1980s and the early 1990s, there was a dramatic rise in Sikh militancy in Punjab.  While there is no doubt that excesses were committed by the militants, there is no way of assessing the claims of the government.  Lack of independent reporting by the press also contributed to defamation of the militants who enjoyed immense popular support toward the beginning of the Sikh independence movement.[100]  The Times of India reported:

Often and unwittingly…journalists fall prey to the government disinformation which suavely manages to plant stories…The confusion gets compounded when government agencies also resort to feeding disinformation on letterheads of militant organizations since there is no way of confirming or seeking clarifications on press notes supposedly issued by militants who are underground and remain inaccessible most of the time.[101]
Ram Narayan Kumar, a human rights activist with considerable work experience in Punjab, provides remarkable insights into the workings of the state that sought to discredit the Sikh movement.  He writes:
My own research on Punjab…suggested that the state agencies were creating vigilante outfits in order to infiltrate the Sikh radical movement and generate a climate of moral revulsion by engineering heinous crimes which they then attributed to armed Sikh groups.[102]
While Sikhs militants purported to fight for their basic human rights, the Indian media attributed to them the crimes of secret Indian agencies. Without validating the Indian state’s reports, the U.S. Department of State, in an irresponsible manner, also outlawed some of these groups as “terrorist” organizations. [103]  Last year, the Office of the Historian at the Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State, engaged in group libel against the Sikh community, through its video and curriculum distributed to 15,000 middle schools across the United States in which it classified the invasion of the Golden Temple complex by Indian State as a siege by “Sikh terrorists.”[104]  When on March 27, 2003, the representatives of four Sikh organizations met with Marc Susser, the Head Historian, and objected to his use of “Sikh terrorists” in the video to broadly label the world’s 26 million Sikhs, their concerns were dismissed.[105]  The Sikh organizations presented a memorandum to Dr. Susser requesting recall of all videos and curriculum materials that accompanied the videos.  The memorandum stated, “…Sikh political activists in the Golden Temple were not separatists.  Even if they were, equating separatists with terrorists is simply inaccurate.  For example, George Washington was a separatist during America’s struggle for independence from the British.  His separatism, however, did not make him a terrorist.”[106]  Marc Susser neither responded to the memorandum, nor did he attempt to correct the egregious error he had made in spite of having considerable background in the area of human rights and India during his tenure at the U.S. State Department, a fact he himself revealed to the Sikh representatives.

In a post-September 11, 2001 environment where hate crimes against Sikhs have been common occurrences in the United States, men in key positions like Marc Susser contribute towards the pervasive misunderstanding and portrayals of Sikhs as “terrorists”.  Such misrepresentations by senior officials of the United States government send the wrong message to the Indian state that it need not improve its dismal human rights record.

Peace Initiatives

The Indian state has consistently undermined peace initiatives that could have led to peace and stability in Punjab.  There has been much reluctance on the part of the central government to recognize Sikh grievances.  The one and only attempt of the central government to seek a political solution to the grievances presented by the Sikhs resulted in the Rajiv-Longowal Accord, which took place between the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, the then President of the Akali Dal who was later assassinated.  The accord recognized the religious, territorial and economic demands of the Sikhs that were thought to be non-negotiable under Indira Gandhi’s tenure.  While the agreement provided some basis for a return to normalcy, it was denounced by Sikh militants who claimed that the Indian state could not be trusted.  Their claim became valid when the territorial transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab—scheduled for January 26, 1986—was first delayed, then postponed and eventually suspended by the central government.[107]  The table below provides the solutions outlined in the agreement and the status of their implementation.

Issue

Agreement

Implementation

Implementation of Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR) seeking greater autonomy to states

Referred to Sarkaria Commission Report

Oct. 1987: Rejects ASR approach to Center-State relations

Transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab

To be transferred by Jan. 1986. Punjab to compensate Haryana with equivalent territory for a new capital.  Other territorial disputes to be settled by a commission.

Three commissions (Matthew/Venkatarmiah/Desai) fail to provide an agreement.  Strong opposition in Haryana.  July 1986: union government suspends the transfer for an indefinite period.

Sharing of Ravi-Beas Waters by non-riparian states

A tribunal headed by a Supreme Court judge to adjudicate.  July 1985 consumption as a baseline.

May 1987: Eradi Tribunal reduced Punjab’s July 1985 level while doubling Haryana’s share.

Prosecution of those responsible for November 1984 Anti-Sikh Pogroms

Referred to Mishra Commission

February 1987: Absolves Congress (I) of responsibility placing guilt on Delhi police.

Army Deserters

To be rehabilitated and given gainful employment

August 1985: 900 out of 2,606 deserters rehabilitated.

Political Detainees

Release of political detainees and withdrawal of special powers

Limited releases.  May 1988, Parliament passes the 59th amendment to the constitution. The amendment allowed for the suspension of the rights to life and liberty, habeas corpus, freedoms of speech and association, and the guarantee of fundamental rights.

Religious Autonomy

Enactment of an all-India Gurdwara act

Not enacted; May 1988: Religious Institutions (Prevention of Misuse) Ordinance.

Table 2: Rajiv-Longowal Accord (Source: Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab)[108]

The failure of the central government to implement the agreement led to further alienation of the Sikhs from the Indian state.  On April 29, 1986, an assembly of thousands of Sikhs at the Akal Takht made a declaration of an independent state of Khalistan.  These events were followed by a decade of violence and conflict in Punjab.

A recent observation by Tapan Bose of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights provides a critique of the Indian claim that normalcy and peace have returned to Punjab and by implication no peace initiatives are needed:

…the silence of graveyard that obtains in Punjab today is not a reflection of peace. The enquiry being conducted by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in the disappearances and illegal cremations in Punjab, shows the deep social division that is endangering the prospects of justice and peace in the state...Although this matter or police abductions leading to illegal cremations was initiated six years ago before the NHRC, the commission unfortunately has failed to examine a single case of abuse. It has also not heard a single victim's testimony or deposition.[109]

From a peace building perspective, genuine willingness on the part of the central government to recognize Sikh grievances is essential in order to make progress towards the resolution of this conflict.

Concluding Remarks

The Indian state has sought to stifle the basic human rights of the Sikh by creating a culture of impunity where large-scale extrajudicial killings, torture, custodial rape, use of draconian laws by state agencies are natural occurrences that go unpunished.[110]  Lack of constitutional liberalism has created conditions for members of different political parties to successfully appeal to the religious sentiments of the Hindu majority through the exclusion of Sikhs and other minorities.  Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, provides some reasons for the rise of an illiberal democracy in India.  According to him, “Massive corruption and a disregard for the rule of law have transformed Indian politics.”  His discussion on politics in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, is illuminating:

Every year elections are rigged, ballot boxes are stuffed.  The winning party packs the bureaucracy—sometimes even the courts—with its cronies and bribes opposition legislators to defect to its ranks…The process reached its lowest point in November 1997, when the chief minister of UP secured his parliamentary majority by creating a cabinet of ninety-three ministers…nineteen of them had documented criminal backgrounds…The science and technology minister, Hari Shankar Tiwari, for example, has a police file that names him as a suspect in nine murders, ten attempted murders, three robberies, and three kidnappings.  The program implementation minister (whatever that means), Raghuraj Pratap Singh, was being investigated for two murders, three attempted murders, and several kidnappings (twenty-five crimes in all).[111]
Zakaria further suggests that the Indian judiciary is not impartial:
Today, when a party comes to power in any region of India, it finds ways to pack local courts.  Judges anticipating this process, now offer their services to political leaders so that they may remain secure in office and be rewarded in retirement… no judge in any part of India has ruled against a powerful politician.[112]
Zakaria’s analysis, however, has one major gap.  It does not explain how an atmosphere of impunity prevails even after a new party with an adversarial position in relation to the old party replaces the latter and does not lobby for judicial action against the accused members of the old party.  For instance, the Indian National Congress and the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) represent two rival camps in the Indian political arena.  When the members of the former—who had orchestrated pogroms against the Sikh masses—were out of power, why didn’t the rival party, namely BJP, bring to justice these perpetrators of war crimes?   After all, according to Zakaria, the judiciary is controlled by the ruling political party, which should be more than willing to weaken its opposition through the judicial processes.  The only plausible reason is that religion plays a central role in this conflict and because victims in this case are Sikhs, the state policy remains antagonistic to them, even though the governments and the political parties continue to change.  The result is that the exclusion of the minority Sikh community by raising the religious passions of the majority Hindu community enhances cohesion among the majority community giving rise to Hindu nationalism, while alienating Sikhs from India and creating conditions for Sikh ethno-religious nationalism to thrive.

The belief of many Sikhs that Punjab is the Sikh homeland and that the Indian state is hostile to its interests is an important element sustaining Sikh ethno-religious nationalism.  Ethnicity contributes to this conflict because the Punjabi language and the Gurmukhi script used to write it are inextricably tied to the Sikh identity.  Because religion is the dominant social bond defining the characteristics of the Sikh nation, ethnicity continues to function in the background.  The Indian constitution’s classification of Sikhs as “Hindu”, the suppression of Sikhs’ human rights by the state,  government’s economic policies in relation to Punjab and diversion of Punjab’s river waters to bordering Hindu-dominated, non-riparian states are other important contributing factors in the conflict.  While the mass media reports claim that “normalcy” has returned to Punjab, impartial observers like Amnesty International claim that the basic human rights of the Sikhs continue to be violated by the Indian state.[113]  That the conflict in Punjab is far from over is proven by two recent events.  First, on April 14, 2004, Daljit Singh Bittu, who is currently incarcerated in Nabha Jail, founded a new political party, the Shiromani Khalsa Dal, with “establishment of a free, sovereign, and separate Khalsa state” as its primary objective.[114]  Second, on April 29, 2004, the Dal Khalsa, a Sikh nationalist organization, began a week long “Khalsa Freedom March” from the Akal Takht in Amritsar with an objective of gaining support for the idea of Khalistan by peaceful means.[115]  This shows that the support for the idea of Khalistan still exists in some sections of the Sikh community in Punjab.  It would serve India well to seek a political solution to the Punjab crisis through a peace process to avoid additional violence.


[1] Zakria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 17.
[2] Since its independence, India’s administrations have encroached on the powers and rights of other branches of the national government and of regional and local authorities.  According to Zakaria, “Over the last three decades, the Indian government has routinely disbanded state legislatures on flimsy grounds, placing regions under New Delhi's direct rule.”  Ibid, p. 17.
[3] Little, D., “Rethinking Religious Tolerance: A Human Rights Approach”, Religion and Human Rights: Towards an Understanding of Tolerance and Reconciliation, Druid Hills: The Academic Exchange, 2001, p. 3.  “Belief” encompasses a meaning that is broader than “religion.”  Belief is a “conviction of the truth of a proposition, existing subjectivity in the mind, and induced by argument, persuasion, or proof addressed to judgment.” See, Black's Law Dictionary. 6th ed. 1990, p. 1292.  According to David Little. “belief rights” include (1) free exercise of religion; (2) nondiscrimination; (3) protection of minorities; (4) protection against religious or racial hatred; and (5) protection against genocide.
[4] Singh, Kapur, “Golden Temple and Its Theo-political Status,” http://www.sikhcoalition.org/Sikhism16.asp (last accessed May 20, 2004).
[5] We define a nation as “a group of people sharing a collective sentiment or identity, bound by a sense of large-scale political solidarity aimed at creating, legitimating, or challenging states.”  This definition is based on Anthony Marx’ definition of “nationalism” in Faith in Nation: The Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[6] Singh, Iqbal, Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis, New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986, p. 34.
[7] Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs: 1839-1988, Vol. 1, 2nd edition, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 147.

[8] Brass, Paul, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, p. 277.

[9] Panth is a Sanskrit word that literally means a path or a road.  The early Sikh community was known as Nanak-Panth (followers of the Nanak).  After the establishment of the Khalsa, a new order was created by the Guru Gobind Singh—the tenth Sikh Guru—to define the ideal Sikh identity against which all Sikhs, whether initiated into the Khalsa order or not, were to measure their religiosity.  After the establishment of the Khalsa, the collectivity of Sikhs became known as the Khalsa Panth, which was given physical authority to lead the Sikh community under the spiritual authority of the Sikh scripture.
[10] Bhai Gurdas (var 1, pauri 45) writes, maria sikka jagat vich, nanak nirmal panth chalaya, which translates to, “In the world, Guru Nanak established the authority [of his doctrines] and started a new religion, devoid of any impurity.” See Jodh Singh, Varan Bhai Gurdas: Text, Transliteration and Translation, vol. 1, Patiala: Vision and Venture, 1998, p. 75.
[11] Singh, Sangat, The Sikhs in History, New Delhi: Uncommon Books, 2001, p. 39.

[12] Singh, Iqbal, Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis, New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986, p. 18.  Iqbal Singh writes that this religious tradition, which remained in force during British colonialism, was stopped by the Indian Central Government in 1983 in the face of growing tensions in the Punjab.
[13] Elphinstone quoted in ibid, p. 21.

[14] For genocide decrees against the Sikhs, see Singh, Iqbal, Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis, New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986, p. 22-23.

[15] A composition attributed to Guru Gobind Singh in the Sarab Loh Granth declares: khalsa akal purakh ki fauj; pargatiyo khalsa parmatam ki mauj,  meaning “The Khalsa is the army of God and was came into existence through the Will of God.” 

[16] Rehatnameh Bhai Nandlal (c. 1707), quoted in Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna, 3rd ed., Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 2001, p. 38.

[17]Akali, Santa Singh, Prachin Panth Prakash Steek, vol. 1, Bathinda: Shromini Panth Akali Budda Dal Punjava Takht, 2000, p. 115.

[18] Kapur Singh, Parasaraprasna, 3rd ed., Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 2001, p. 126.
[19] The Persian inscription reads, “sikkah zad bar har do alam, tegh-i nanak vahib ast, fatah-i gobind singh shah-i shahan, fazl-i sachcha sahib ast.”  The English translation of the Persian inscription is from Kapur Singh, Sikhism for Modern Man, 4th ed., Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University, 2000, p. 71.
[20] Singh, Iqbal, Punjab Under Siege: A Critical Analysis, New York: Allen, McMillan and Enderson, 1986, p. 23.

[21] Ibid, p. 25

[22] Ibid, p. 25
[23] It was Indira Gandhi who ordered an attack on the Darbar Sahib.  More discussion to follow.

[24] Such comparisons are regularly made in gurdwaras, the Sikh houses of worship.  Ahmed Shah Abdali invaded the Darbar Sahib in the period of Vaisakhi celebrations that commemorate the establishment of the Khalsa Panth.  (See Patwant Singh, The Sikhs, London: John Murray, 1999, p. 89-90.)  Similarly, the Indian army chose the day commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru who founded the Darbar Sahib, to maximize the potential casualties.  More discussion to follow.

[25] Patwant Singh, The Sikhs, London: John Murray, 1999, p. 143.

[26] Ibid. p. 33

[27] Ibid. p. 33
[28] Ibid, p. 35

[29] Ibid, p. 36

[30] Ibid, p. 36

[31] Ibid, p. 36.

[32] Quoted in ibid, p. 36.

[33] Ibid, p. 36.

[34] Quoted in ibid, p. 37
[35] The Statesman, Calcutta, July 7, 1946 quoting Jawaharlal Nehru in ibid p. 37.

[36] For instance, in 1940, Dr. Vir Singh Bhatti demanded the formulation of the Sikh state of Khalistan as a buffer state between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India.
[37] Congress Records, quoted in ibid. p. 38.

[38] Quoted in ibid, p. 38.

[39] Ibid, p. 38.

[40] Ibid, p. 38-39.

[41] Singh, Gurmit, History of Sikh Struggles, New Delhi: South Asia Books, 1989, p. 110-111
[42] Singh, Kapur, Sachi Sakhi,   Amritsar: SGPC, 1993, p. 4-5.  Kapur Singh was one of the officials who received a copy of the memorandum and speaks as an insider.
[43] Kapur, Anup Chand, ThePunjab Crisis, New Delhi: S. Chand, 1985, p. 45.
[44] Deol, Harnik, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 93.

[45] Ibid, p. 93
[46] Quoted in ibid, p. 94.
[47] Quoted in ibid, p. 95.
[48] Quoted in ibid, p. 95.
[49] Ibid, p. 95.
[50] Quoted in ibid, p. 95.
[51] Ibid, p. 95.
[52] Quoted in ibid, p. 95-96.
[53] Ibid, p. 96.
[54] Ibid, p. 96.  The current Sikh population in Punjab is a little over sixty percent.
[55] Ibid, p. 98.
[56] Singh, Gurdev, “Punjab River Waters”, Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2002. http://www.sikhcoalition.org/Sikhism24.asp (last accessed, May 12, 2004).
[57] States have full ownership and exclusive legislative and executive powers to their river waters under Articles 246(3) and 162 of the Indian Constitution.
[58] In a judicial decision concerning the question whether the Narmada river—which passes through the territory of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat states, but not through the Rajasthan state—could be shared by Rajasthan, it was ruled: “(i) Rajasthan being a non-riparian state in regard to Narmada, cannot apply to the Tribunal, because under the Act only a co-riparian state can do so; and (ii) the state of Rajasthan is not entitled to any portion of the waters of Narmada basin on the ground that the state of Rajasthan is not a co-riparian state, or that no portion of its territory is situated in the basin of River Narmada.”  See Government of India, The Report of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, vol. III, New Delhi, 1978, p. 30.
[59] Singh, Gurdev, “Punjab River Waters”, Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, 2002. http://www.sikhcoalition.org/Sikhism24.asp (last accessed, May 12, 2004).
[60] http://www.earth-policy.org/Indicators/indicator7_data2.htm (last accessed, May 12, 2004).
[61] Deol, Harnik, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 101-102.
[62] The Wall Street Journal, September 26, 1983.
[63] Sathananthan, S.M. , Hindu-Sikh Conflict in Punjab: Cause and Cure, London: Transatlantic India Times, 1983, p. 15.
[64] The New York Times, Editorial, June 8, 1984.
[65] Deol, Harnik, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 104.
[66] Ibid, p. 105.
[67] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes, p. 34
[68] Arun Shourie, “The consequences of pandering”, The Indian Express, May 13, 1982.
[69] India Today, 31 December 1983, page 36.
[70] Deol, Harnik, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 105.
[71] Ibid. p, 105.
[72] Ibid, p. 106.
[73] See http://law.indiainfo.com/personal/hindu (last accessed May 12, 2004)
[74] In the colonial period the Sikh marriages were registered under the Anand Marriage Act of 1909, which was named after the Sikh marriage ceremony, the Anand Karaj. The Anand Marriage Act was repealed in the postcolonial India.
[75] Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html).  Also see, Article 18 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
[76] Swami, Subramaniam, Imprint, July 1984, p. 7-8.  Quoted in Kumar, Ram Narayan, et al, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab, Kathmandu: South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2003, p. 34. (Hereafter, Reduced to Ashes.)
[77] Bajaj, Rajeev, K., “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” Surya, September 1984, p. 9-10.
[78] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes, p. 34.  For full details, see Surya cover story, ibid, p. 13.
[79] Ibid, p. 35.
[80] Mahmood, Cynthia Keppley, “Dynamics of Terror in Punjab and Kashmir,” Jeffrey A. Sluka, ed., Death Squad: The Anthropology of State Terror, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 77.
[81] Quoted in Brar, K.S., Operation Blue Star: The True Story, New Delhi: UBSPD, 1993, p. 74.
[82] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes, p. 38.
[83] Tully, Mark and Jacob, Satish, Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi’s Last Battle, New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 1985, p. 170.
[84] Reddy, C.K.C., et. al., Army Action in Punjab: Prelude & Aftermath, New Delhi: Samata Era Publication, 1984, p. 46-48
[85] For a range of number estimates, see Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes, p. 38.
[86] Singh, Gurharpal, Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab, New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000, p. 114.
[87] Quoted in ibid, p. 114.
[88] Baatcheet, Serial Number 153, June 1984.  For full text, see http://www.sikhcoalition.org/Sikhism22.asp
[89] Mary Anne Weaver, The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1984.
[90] According to Article 2 of the on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”): “… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
[91] Pettigrew, Joyce, The Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State and Guerilla Violence, London: Zed Books, 1995.
[92] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes, p. 42.
[93] Ibid, p. 42-43.
[94] Charny, Israel W., ed., Encyclopedia of Genocide, vol 2, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999, p. 516-517.
[95] Ibid, p. 43.
[96] Ibid, p. 43-44.
[97] Singh, Patwant, The Sikhs, New York: Knopf, 2000, p. 223-224.
[98] http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/jaskaran/2004/05/14#a211 (last accessed May 20, 2004).
[99] http://www.parliamentofindia.nic.in/rs/kiosk/rsfinal3/whoswho/alpha_m9.htm (last accessed May 20, 2004).
[100] The Press Council of India, Crisis and Credibility, New Delhi: Lancer International, 1991, in Sandhu, Ranbir Singh, Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Dublin: Sikh Educational and Religious Foundation, 1999, p. xlvi (Struggle for Justice, hereafter).
[101] Kumar, Dinesh,  “Dispatches from the Edge”, The Times of India, August, 11, 1991. Quoted in Struggle for Justice, p. xlvi.
[102] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab, p. 42-43.
[103] http://usembassy.state.gov/posts/in1/wwwhpr43004i.html (last accessed May 14, 2004).
[104] “Terrorism: A War Without Borders” http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/18262.asx (last accessed May 29, 2004).
[105] The Sikh Sentinel, “State Department Tells School Children Sikhs are Terrorists”, July 23, 2003, http://www.sikhsentinel.com/sikhsentinel0307/statedeptvideo.htm (last accessed May 29, 2004).  Also see, Sikh News Network, “Congress Members Respond to State Department Video”, March 24, 2004, http://www.sikhnn.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=65 (last accessed May 29, 2004).
[106] From a joint memorandum submitted to the Office of the Historian, US Department of State on March 27, 2003 by Sikh Council on Religion and Education, Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force, The Sikh Coalition, and United Sikhs in Service of America.
[107] Singh, Gurharpal, Ethnic Conflict in India: A Case-Study of Punjab, New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000, p. 132.
[108] The table appears in ibid, p. 133 with minor differences.
[109] Kumar, Ram Narayan, et. al., Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab,  p. IV.
[110] Amnesty International, “India: Break the cycle of impunity and torture in Punjab”,  January 2003.  http://web.amnesty.org/aidoc/aidoc_pdf.nsf/Index/ASA200022003ENGLISH/$File/ASA2000203.pdf
[111] Zakria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York: W. Norton, 2004, p. 109-110
[112] Ibid, p. 111
[113] Amnesty International, “India: Break the cycle of impunity and torture in Punjab”, January 2003.  http://web.amnesty.org/aidoc/aidoc_pdf.nsf/Index/ASA200022003ENGLISH/$File/ASA2000203.pdf
[114] Shiromani Khalsa Dal, “Daljit Singh Founds New Party on Idealism and Activism”, http://sikhe.com/htmlpages/2004/0416_skd_pressrelease.htm
[115] Sikhe News Bureau, “Khalsa March for Freedom”, http://www.sikhe.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=1658

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