Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Gateway to Sikhism
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.


All Communities



Prison term over 1-year








Death Sentence




Indian National Army




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 t

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The etymology of the term 'gurdwara' is from the words 'Gur (ਗੁਰ)' (a reference to the Sikh Gurus) and 'Dwara (ਦੁਆਰਾ)' (gateway in Gurmukhi), together meaning 'the gateway through which the Guru could be reached'. Thereafter, all Sikh places of worship came to be known as gurdwaras.
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