LIONS IN THE PUNJAB: An Introduction to the Sikh Religion
By Andrea Grace Diem, Ph.D.
THE FIGHT FOR KHALISTAN
Starting out as a peaceful, non-violent mystical tradition in line with the teachings of the Sants, Sikhism later evolved into a religion with political and military concerns. The onslaught of persecution coupled with the influx of Jats into Sikhism helps explain the complex transition from ahimsa (non-violence) to soldiery. When the British encouraged Sikhs to join their army the image of the Sikhs as strong fighters was further reinforced. All of this martial training has prepared certain Sikhs to fight the battle of their life: the establishment of a sovereign Sikh state known as Khalistan (Land of the Pure). This battle among militant Sikhs began in 1947 just after India was liberated from British control and political parties began fighting for land rights. When the Muslim League was given Pakistan and the Indian National Congress was awarded the rest of India, many Sikhs felt that they were left out in the cold and an intense struggle for Khalistan began.
The pursuit of Khalistan can be understood when considering several factors. First of all, the newly formed Indian government argued that Sikhs were really Hindus and so did not require a separate state. The Singh Sabha’s 19th century phrase "Hum Hindu nahin" ("We are not Hindu") was totally ignored. As in the late 1800s the absorption of Sikhism into the mass of Hinduism was a major concern for the Sikhs. Secondly, the Sikhs wanted ownership of the Punjab since this land was directly tied their history and their sense of identity. With the formation of Pakistan, Sikhs had already lost access to Maharaj Ranjit Singh’s capital, Lahore, and several historic Sikh shrines, including Nanak’s birthplace. In creating Khalistan, however, at least the Golden Temple would be theirs. Moreover, in colonial India Sikhs appreciated a degree of political representation since the British allowed separate communal electorates and a reservation of political seats for the Sikhs. But with the abolition of these Sikhs feared total political impotence.
Guru Gobind Singh’s Hymn on a Fight Against Tyranny in the Dasam Granth
All the battles I have won, against tyranny
I have fought with the devoted backing of these people;
Through them only have I been able to bestow gifts,
Through their help I have escaped from harm;
The love and generosity of these Sikhs
Have enriched my heart and my home.
Through their grace I have attained all learning;
Through their help, in battle, I have slain all my enemies.
After the partition, since forty percent of Sikhs lived in Pakistan and an equally large percentage of Muslims lived in the Eastern side of the Punjab, millions of Sikhs and Muslims were forced to flee their homes. With the mass movement of refugees tensions escalated between them. This led to communal violence and over 500,000 Muslims and Sikhs were killed. The relationship between Pakistani Muslims and Punjabi Sikhs has never been repaired.
Guru Nanak’s Hymn on Delusion in the Adi Granth
Such are the blasphemers,
Who set themselves up
As the leaders of the world;
They consume daily the forbidden fruit of falsehood,
And yet they preach to others
What is right and what is wrong.
Themselves deluded, they delude those also
Who follow them in their path.
If one smear of blood pollutes a garment
And renders it unclean, to be worn at prayer;
How can they that like vampires such human blood pass as pure;
Nanak, before the name of God is uttered by the tongue
Let the heart first be cleaned;
All other outward appearances of piety are worthless.
More bloodshed occurred in the early 1980s but this time between Sikhs and Hindus. Sikh political leaders led a series of mass civil disobedience campaigns against the Indian government in seeking autonomy for the state of the Punjab. When they were denied their objective extreme hostility mounted between the Sikhs and the Hindus, which climaxed in 1984. During this year a small group of Sikh fundamentalists under the leadership of a Sikh separatist, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, attempted to store weapons in the Golden Temple to fight for the Sikh cause. The complex was being used as a base to defy the authority of the Indian government. In reaction, the Prime Minister of India at the time, Indira Gandhi, sent in her troops to eliminate the threat. This military project, titled Operation Blue Star, was a political disaster. Over 1,000 Sikhs were killed in the siege and the onset of a civil war in India was now escalated. From the Sikh’s perspective Gandhi was waging war on sacred ground. But from the Prime Minister’s perspective she was simply fighting against terrorism. (It is important to note that her battle was not against Sikhism itself. In fact, according to many biographers Gandhi actually had great affection for the Sikh people.)
When Bhindranwale died in the take over many Sikhs sought revenge. What followed was the death of Indira Gandhi herself, when her own Sikh bodyguards shot her in retaliation. Wearing a saffron colored sari, ironically the color of martyrdom, Gandhi was on her way to a television interview with the actor and playwright Peter Ustinov when Beant Singh and Satwant Singh fired at her. In her final public speech, she appeared to have foreknowledge of her own death when she said, "I do not worry whether I live or not. As long as there is any breath in me, I will go on serving you. When I die, every single drop of my blood will give strength to India and sustain united India."
Important Dates in the Sikh Fight for Khalistan
1961 First movement to establish Punjabi speaking state supported by Akali Dal and led by Master Tara Singh and by Sant Feteh Singh
1982 Bhindranwale’s right hand man, Amrik Sikh, was arrested, as well as thousands of Akali demonstrators. About this time a religious war was officially declared for Khalistan.
1981 Sikh political leaders led a series of mass civil disobedience campaigns against the Indian government. The Akal Dal, defenders of Sikh orthodoxy, made a series of demands to Indira Gandhi, including releasing Bhindranwale from prison, granting holy city status to Amritsar on the same level as Benaras, broadcasting the Granth Sahib on the radio, allowing the symbolic dagger to be worn on domestic and international flights, etc.
1984 Indira Gandhi sent her troops into the Golden Temple to combat Sikh fundamentalism head on. Later, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
1989 The Punjab is open again to Western travelers, since the violence in the region seemed to partially diminish.
The next day after Gandhi’s death violence erupted against Sikhs throughout India. Anti-Sikh riots led to more than 2,700 Sikh deaths and over 50,000 Sikhs fleeing the capital of Delhi to take refuge in the Punjab. Due to the intense turmoil in India, western travelers were not allowed to enter this northern region. The travel restrictions continued until 1989. Right after they were lifted I ventured up into the Punjab on the train. At every stop I witnessed armed guards ready to react at a moment’s notice; the tension in the air was apparent.
Guru Gobind Singh’s Hymn on Fighting Without Fear in the Dasam Granth
Grant me this boon
O God, from Thy Greatness,
May I never refrain
From righteous acts;
May I fight without fear
All foes in life’s battle,
With confident courage
Claiming the victory!
May my highest ambition be
Singing Thy praises,
And may Thy Glory be
Grained in my mind!
When this mortal life
Reaches its limits,
May I die fighting
With limitless courage!
Today, Sikhs are still pursuing their goal of an independent Sikh state, although the intense terrorist activities witnessed in the 1980s have significantly subsided. Hopefully, in remembering the ahimsa of Nanak the tactics will continue to turn more political than military. What the future holds for the Sikhs in terms of land rights remains to be seen