LONGING FOR A HOMELAND

A BIT OF HISTORICAL RECAP

Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh faith, and was born in Talwandi in the present Pakistan Punjab. He and his successor nine Gurus nurtured the new faith for over two centuries. Early Gurus advised their successors to move their seat to a new place, a process that likely helped smoother transition and increased spread of the faith. The rising popularity of Sikhi however was causing concern to Hindus and Muslims and led to martyrdom of the 5th Guru Arjun in 1606 under orders of Mughal Emperor Jahangir.   

Guru Hargobind, after the martyrdom of Guru Arjun, made Sikhs assume responsibility for their own defence. He took to chase, horse riding, carrying arms, wore aigrette over turban, held court for Sikhs and gave battle to intruding armed bands of soldiers of the rulers with his guard of armed Sikhs. He was known as master of Miri and Piri – the temporal and spiritual, but when he felt the frequency of conflicts was becoming counter-productive, he chose to leave Amritsar and the neighbouring areas for the foothills.

Guru Har Rai ministered as he moved around and Guru Harkrishan’s ministry was too brief.  Guru Tegh Bahadur undertook visit to Amritsar but was refused entry to Golden Temple then under the control of Harji, grandson of Prithi Chand. The Guru returned to Kiratpur, decided to acquire a tract of land and founded the town of Chak Nanaki in 1665, named in honor of his mother (later to be known as Anandpur Sahib). It continued to be used as a base by Guru Gobind Singh, he claimed its control, defended it through five battles but did not pine for the place when he had to leave it.  

Though Sikh Gurus did not seek or hold on to any territory after victory in a battle. Sikhs were asked by Guru Gobind Singh, then at Nanded, to support a campaign, entrusted by him to the new convert, Banda, a short while before his passing, to punish those who were oppressive to Sikhs in the past in Punjab. The reason is seen to be recognition by the Guru of the Emperor not delivering on the promises of justice for the extreme excesses committed by his Satraps.

At the end of Guru-period the Sikhs were widely dispersed. There were Sikh Sangats in far off places like Kabul, Bidar, Puri, Dwarka, locales in Bihar, Northern Plains, Tibet, Assam, Dacca et al where they had continuing support and attention of the Gurus. The bulk of Sikh population however was in Punjab and parts of Bihar. Certain places mainly in Punjab were identified with Gurus for founding them or being linked with their missionaries.

Sikhs were content to be where they were and lived in harmony with the local community. In Punjab, however, there was a manifest sense of grievance at injustices and oppression that the Gurus and Sikhs had experienced at the hands of ruling elite. There was thus an undercurrent of mistrust and Sikh effort or longing to rule the land was not yet beginning to be mentioned.

GURU-SIKH-LAND CONNECTION

Let us now try to explore if Sikhs as a religious group identify with any land or places in their minds as necessarily integral to Sikhi. The starting point for such exploration would be to get a sense of the Guru-Sikh-locale relation from the written word in SGGS. The Sikh scripture is replete with verses lauding the Guru’s love for his Sikhs, day and night.[1] The Guru cherishes his Sikhs, is ever merciful, washes the filth of evil from their intellect, cuts away their bonds, guides and motivates them to abstain from evil deeds, arranges this world and the next for them and with the fullness of his heart, mends his Sikhs.[2]

The Gurus also mention the Sikhs to have tremendous fondness for the Guru. Sikh blossoms forth seeing the Guru, like the child would on seeing his mother.[3] It is so strong that GurSikh, even if separated by very vast oceans from the Guru, will navigate these to get there to meet with him.[4] The expression of love, support and bond between the Sikh and Guru thus is clear, comprehensive and reciprocally committing.

When we come to the connection with land, it is expressed differently in the Scripture. Sikh bond with dharti is not as the owned, exclusive abode of Sikhs. It is arena for the humans to make virtuous action choices. It is the abode which nature has richly endowed with diverse life forms engaged in various roles assigned by the Creator, people with their different beliefs all living together in harmony singing praises of the beneficent divine.

LAND OF GURUS IN FOCUS                      

Yet there are the inapt rulers and ruthless invaders who terrorize and commit atrocities on the poor and rich alike, take away old treasures as booty, young men as slaves, abduct women, or as rulers force the alien language, customs and beliefs on people, disrupt existing cultural and social harmony, destroy age old institutions – but why would this happen if the rulers and the khatris do their prime duty to protect people and not let the land made sacred by the Gurus be wantonly desecrated.

Sikhs had been seeing Punjab and neighbouring areas as the land of Gurus because holy Sikh sites abounded in this area and this is also where Banda Bahadur had succeeded in setting up Raj of the Gurus. This was the land where Sikhs faced so much persecution but persevered on till they made the invaders realize the high costs of invading again and deposed the despotic and brutal staraps of the Mughals and their opportunistic collaborators. Sikh holy places like Nanakana Sahib, Amritsar and so many others connected with Gurus are in this area.  There is Lahore that has strong historical connection with Sikhs. Punjab therefore is the land of the Gurus and the cradle where Sikhs and Sikhi grew. Even though the word Punjab does not get mentioned in Sikh Scripture but over the centuries Sikh have shed sweat, blood and tears for this land and the love for Punjabiat has evolved to become the dominant part of their cultural heritage and a transmission priority.  

THE SIKH STRUGGLE LEADS TO SIKH RULE

Banda issued instructions for the land held by Jagirdars to be distributed among farm tillers, enforced a stringent code of conduct for the soldiery and released coins in the name of Gurus, symbolic of Sikh Raj – seen by some as beginning of assertion of Sikh urges to rule.[5] During the subsequent struggle, Sikhs sought over-arching influence in parts of Punjab to discourage invaders from repetitive loot and oppression of the citizenry and to put a brake on injustices by local Satraps. The long and bloody struggle sharpened Sikh longing for freeing the land of Gurus from alien domination as the Misls established sporadic control over various locales. 

That urge to rule found expression later under Maharaja Ranjit Singh who established Khalsa Raj by quickly consolidating the various territories held by others including the Misls under Lahore Durbar. His aggressive moves caused anxiety among the Sikh chieftains in the Malwa region who sought British protection against any threat by Ranjit Singh. When Holkar sought Sikh shelter, the British threat forced Ranjit Singh to agree to not venture east of Sutlej River. He however extended his rule to the Khyber Pass in west, Kashmir in north, western Tibet in east and Mithankot in south. Sikhs felt they had arrived home!

RAJ SNUFFED OUT BY BRITISH  

The Sikh state was powerful but unravelled in the aftermath of the passing of Ranjit Singh in 1839. Successor Princes Kharak Singh and Sher Singh died in quick succession and Duleep Singh, the minor son of Ranjit Singh, was installed as Ruler in 1843. The British assumed his guardianship after 1846 Sikh defeat in the first Anglo Sikh war and the British Resident took full control of the administration. The annexation came after the surrender at Rawal Pindi in March 1849 and young Duleep Singh had to sign away his and his successor’s claims to the throne and the kingdom and all its territories were declared part of British dominions in India. Loss of Raj felt like loss of home to most Sikhs.

The British chicanery continued and minor deposed Maharaja was exiled to England where he arrived in May 1854. In receipt of a pension, he took to Christianity and living as English aristocrat, on the closest of terms with Queen Victoria and her family, his abode soon became a symbol of the glitter and excesses of the Victorian aristocracy.

By the 1870s, in deep financial trouble, he wrote to the government claiming that annexation of Punjab had been done in an underhand way and sought compensation. With no success, he set sail for India in March 1886, but was told to turn back at Aden when he made his way to Paris and schemed to try to enlist support of the Tsar to get back to Punjab. He re-embraced the Sikh faith and refused his British stipend. He died a pauper in Paris in October 1893. The British foreign secretary was instructed to get his body brought back and buried a Christian.

The British considered that extinction of the Duleep Singh family was a must to secure long-term control over Punjab. Queen Victoria instructed the wife of Maharajah’s eldest son not to have children. Family members were convinced that cooks were adding poisons to their food. Curious fact is that none of Duleep Singh’s eight children had any offspring.[6]

RENEWED LONGING FOR HOMELAND

The annexation of the Sikh Kingdom by the British as their Dominion was seen to have been done in a suspect manner and Sikh feeling of having been cheated out of their Raj manifested in the form of yearning for restoration of the lost Sikh Raj. Some Sikhs even entertained the expectation that the British would rectify the wrong and return the kingdom to Sikhs before leaving India. This expectation seems to have weighed on the British too since the records of excerpts of internal memos and intelligence reports of the time show the British suspicion of the SGPC to be secretly seeking to restore Sikh Raj.

Around 1921 Sikh leadership had started talking loosely about a Sikh state. In 1922, Babbar Akali party came up with the objective of establishing Sikh Raj. In 1929 the Congress leaders Mahatma Gandhi, Moti Lal Nehru and Jawahar Lal Nehru, took the initiative to call on Baba Kharak Singh at his home to assure that on India achieving freedom, no Constitution shall be framed unless it is freely acceptable to the Sikhs. Thenceforth Sikhs were inclined for India to be left as a composite unit with appropriate protections for minorities.

The idea of Khalistan as a buffer state was thrown in by one Dr Vir Singh Bhatti as a reaction to the Muslim League demand for a Muslim majority state in 1940. Following it there were calls for establishment of a Sikh State and in 1946 SGPC and AISSF passed resolutions for a Sikh State. However, the Sikh leaders sought a united India from the British Cabinet Mission, failing which, they asked for creation of a Sikh State to obviate Sikhs being under perpetual Muslim domination in a Muslim majority State.

After the 1946 elections, Akalis and Congress joined the Unionist Khizar Hayat Khan Tiwana led coalition government in Punjab. Events were moving fast and on 2nd March, 1947, Khizar resigned and declared his Party’s support for the Muslim League. Punjab Governor invited Muslim League to form government the next day. To decide on their course of action, Akali Dal and Congress MLAs met at noon in Assembly Chamber with Master Tara Singh in the chair. A crowd of Muslims gathered outside started chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. Meeting was suspended and as the MLAs came out, an enraged Master Tara Singh pulled his sword and all the MLAs responded by raising ‘Pakistan Murdabad’ slogans.

Punjab had already been in the throes of communal riots. Governor’s rule was imposed. The worsening communal riots between Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other forced the partition of Punjab that in its wake led to the biggest and bloodiest migration of people in history. [7]

Thus preceding the 1947 partition, the Sikhs wanted India to be a composite state and provide constitutional guarantees for minorities. Failing this in the event the demand for a separate Muslim majority state was seriously considered Sikhs wanted an autonomous Sikh homeland. This notion of Sikh homeland however was a blend of several fanciful thoughts and demand remained only a talking point. As circumstances unfolded, trusting the assurances given by Congress leaders, Sikh leaders chose to stay with them and worked in earnest for protection of successor India’s interests during partition of the country.

FREEDOM FOR MOST, PARTITION FOR SIKHS

From a historical perspective, freedom to India came with Partition and absent partition of the country there may have been no freedom from the British rule. Looking back Hindu-Muslim divide never healed, and the British encouraged formation of religion based political parties. All India Muslim League and All India Hindu Mahasabha were formed in 1905. Partition of India became inevitable with religion based separate electorates.

The almost unimaginable violence that took place on both sides during partition was beyond the worst imagination. Punjab witnessed one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century that set the template for the continued hate politics and rioting between Hindus and Muslims in both countries.[8] Sikhs, as a community, were the biggest losers because not only did they suffer a disproportionate share of casualties and property loss, but also some of their most holy sites were left in the parts that went to Pakistan.  

One of the main problems that the Sikhs have had to face has been the lack of any empathetic understanding by the mainstream India of the trauma that Sikhs were going through when the vast majority was experiencing perhaps one of the happiest moments of their lives. In the heat of the moment Sikhs did not notice that there was little evidence of effort by the locals to help the beleaguered mass of displaced people. If at all they were left to find their own way around for resettlement. This initial feeling perhaps got sharper among Sikhs with the emerging tenor of Punjab politics as it unfolded.

THE PERSONAL TESTIMONY

We had lived in Delhi till mid 1946 when my father reverted back to Punjab after completion of his five year deputation. I was in my first year at F C College Lahore when the communal disturbances flared up in Rawal Pindi area in March 1947, soon Lahore also became affected. Curfew was imposed and in a couple of days seeing no respite the College decided that we all staying in the hostel should go home and return once situation improved. The reason as given I recall was lack of rations availability. We were left at the Railway Station from where I took the night train to Rawal Pindi on my way home.

Arriving there the scene was tense. At the station we were received by Sikhs carrying lathis and mandasas tied over their beards, who collected all Hindu & Sikh passengers and told us that the things were bad in town and that they had arranged a bus to take people to the city bus stand near Imperial Cinema. We all got there safe but I and some others had to go further to Kartar Pura etc. They said the route could be hazardous both via Raja Bazar and Murree Road.

After some time the driver and a couple of volunteers said they would take us via Murree Road because the road is wider and may be open. We started out and soon as we turned into the Muslim populated area the people who saw us started pelting stones and missiles at the bus. The driver sped along with all of us heads down but missed the turning into Kartar Pura and we landed in another area where a Hindu family gave us shelter. With the experience fresh in all our minds we could understand when driver refused to venture further.

We were standing at the roof top as the evening approached and I saw a military armored car coming down the road. I ran down and out to the road waving my College ID and shouting for them to stop. The British officer stopped and I screamed that I am a student of the F C College, Lahore and —-, now stranded like this. He thought, looked at my card and then said – ok we are going the other way but if your bus can follow us we can leave you where you have to go. I came back and to every body’s relief we left our sanctuary homeward.

The College did not reopen. My father was transferred to Lahore and he arranged for the kids to stay with our Masi who had moved to Solan for safety of children. After some weeks, we wanted to join back with our parents and landed home in Lahore. Things got worse and soon it was 15th August and we were in Pakistan. The situation was getting dangerous and it was on 19th August that my parents decided to send me, my brother and three sisters in the care of a Hindu couple to Delhi by train from Mughalpura station.

The train schedules were completely upset with stoppages by attacking masses. Finally the train got in late at night and we were able to board a vacant second class compartment. Our escorting couple locked the doors from inside and told us to not open the doors or windows. By early dawn the train covered the thirty miles to Kasur, the last station before we entered Indian Territory but seemed to have stopped there as if forever.

It was hot and humid as mid August is in those parts and I could not but help open the window partially to push my nose out to get some fresh air when hearing the shouts ‘Sikhra, Sikhra’ our lady escort pulled me back, shut the window and shoved both my brother and me into the bathroom with instructions not to squeak. We could hear the knocking at the door, it being opened and the woman telling the men outside ‘there is no Sikh here – only we and three daughters. I would hand over any Sikh if he was there. They are the cause of all the problems’ which possibly assuaged them. We made it through!

In Delhi, my brother and I were keen to reconnect with our old friends, Govind and Jagdish Saksena. When we got to their house, the boys were not home. We were received by the parents. They offered us nimbu pani and before leaving, the father sat us down for a moment longer to give us a little bit of advice ‘jahan ka murda hota hai wahin pai ghara jata hai!.’

We had cherished our friendship but the sane advice did not seem to bring us any sense of comfort – not that we were looking for it. We did not speak and Ujagar and I did not talk about it. But we never again thought of meeting them either.

What is love? What is empathy? What is friendship? What is common good? Without feeling the pain of others, words of kindly advice, uttered ever so gently may become so difficult to forget for reasons often not understood.

We all had spent over five months living in tension, men taking turns keeping watch against any attackers most nights, girls almost totally confined to the safety of four walls. We saw grim atrocities committed on both sides, barely escaped ourselves becoming victims, now lodged in a tent in a refugee camp opposite the Red Fort, still separated from our parents and not sure if we would ever reconnect. We may not have realized it but our hearts must have been fully subsumed by conflicted emotions and anxieties for the joy and excitement over the newly won freedom that we all so fondly had looked forward to just bypassed us – totally!

Yet in this unbeknown inner turmoil one thing I do remember clear as the day. I was not shaking with fear or rage. Nor were Ujagar or my little sisters. We were quiet, subdued, but there was no hate – no compulsive motivation to go kill or hurt now that we were on safe ground. Looking back, I feel fortunate that these memories never became overpowering enough to turn into hate or kept coming back to haunt in later years.[9]

GLOW OF FREEDOM DIMS FOR SIKHS FOLLOWING PARTITION

The dimming of glow of freedom had started in Sikh minds when the Indian leadership went ahead even though none of Sikh members of Constituent Assembly signed the Constitution. It got only affirmed as future unfolded. Following the 1956 linguistic reorganisation of states, Akalis sought a Punjabi State but Punjabi Hindus declared their mother tongue as Hindi. The demand for a Punjabi state was promptly rejected by the States Reorganisation Commission.

Eventually Indira Gandhi Government created a Punjabi speaking state, Punjab, in September 1966. Chandigarh however was carved out as a Union Territory to function as joint Capital of both Punjab and Haryana. This and many other decisions did not satisfy Akalis and their demands were eventually consolidated in October 1973 Anandpur Sahib Resolution, seeking the transfer of Chandigarh and contiguous Punjabi-speaking areas of Haryana to Punjab, enhancement of autonomy for all states in India plus some Punjab and Sikh specific demands that included land reforms, industrialization, all-India Gurdwara act, revision of Sikh quota in armed forces etc.

The Sikh leadership had veered around to demand of a Punjabi state within India which had a level of constitutional autonomy and where Sikh interests could receive due attention.[10] Even as SAD was exploring a modified Federal structure in India, in the UK and USA, Jagjit Singh Chauhan pursued the idea of a sovereign Khalistan and set up Khalistan National Council in 1977 and later declared himself president of the Republic of Khalistan.

By then, with Congress support, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had got increasingly involved in Punjab politics. While Bhindranwale stated that he neither supported nor opposed the concept of Khalistan, by late 1981 he had come to be the leader of militants with an agenda rooted in autonomy for the Punjab. As Bhideranwale’s influence grew, Akalis launched Dharam Yudh Morcha seeking to implement Anandpur Sahib Resolution, along with Bhindranwale.

Indira Gandhi dubbed the resolution as secessionist and in an atmosphere of high lawlessness, including by the militants taking shelter in some Gurdwaras, emergency rule was imposed in Punjab in October 1983. In June 1984 Indian army troops were ordered to attack Harmandir Sahib Complex at Amritsar to neutralize militants sheltering therein. The Army used their full force in the operation under complete veil of secrecy. As attack was planned to coincide with the Martyrdom Day of Guru Arjun, victims included many worshipers caught in the crossfire between Army and the militants. The Akal Takht was razed to ground.

The awakening of glow of freedom dream for the Sikhs had turned into a nightmare as efforts for securing greater autonomy for Punjab within India miserably failed and instead, Sikhs as a community, defamed by the Indian State media as separatists and untrustworthy,  publically got shunned and discriminated. But the worst was still to happen. On the morning of 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her Sikh security guards ostensibly in retaliation for the Army Assault on the holiest Sikh shrine. In the pogrom led by Congress that followed in Delhi, thousands of Sikhs were killed in the most gruesome manner.

The alienation among global Sikhs knew no bounds and the brutal violence Punjab witnessed in the following 15 years, almost wiped out a generation of youth to insurgents and in counter insurgency measures by the Government.

THE PATH TO HOMELAND – THUMBNAIL VIEW AS 21st CENTURY DAWNED

If we were to do a kaleidoscopic summary of the Sikh journey to the longing for a Homeland, we would note that the Gurus clearly did not show being tied to any one place. They moved as needed. As for the Sikhs, the place where the Guru happened to be was the hallowed land.

Banda’s victories led to his capturing land where he established his administration and issued coins in the name of Gurus. People were happy with his rule and Sikhs felt thankful to Guru Nanak for having blessed them with Raj after over a century under oppressive conditions by the Mughal rulers and their Satraps. That gave currency to the litany Raj Karega Khalsa and the Sikh quest for Raj, was finally consummated in its fullness by Ranjit Singh establishing Khalsa Raj under Lahore Durbar. History is convincing that Khalsa Raj was not theocratic in intent or practice and its diverse citizenry were well taken care of.

The British annexation of Sikh kingdom under suspicious circumstances gave rise to longing for the revival of Raj but the more abiding effect of Sikh experience under the British regime was the sharpening of Sikh identity consciousness. This also gave impetus to their affinity for the cultural milieu of Punjab and Punjabi in Gurmukhi script to get interwoven into lived and transmitted Sikhi and Sikh memory to acquire a vague longing for a land where their culture and quest for feeling of glow of freedom could blossom.

India, the successor Establishment, with which Sikhs chose to go on gaining freedom from the British, in a few years, succumbed to the demand for linguistic states but chose to reject Sikh demand for a Punjabi speaking Punjab. Eventually the demand was acceded to but the truncated state created did not satisfy Akalis. They agitated for contiguous Punjabi areas to be merged with Punjab and the state given autonomy on the lines of J & K. This ended up with assault on Golden Temple Complex by the Indian Army in the name of neutralizing militants and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had taken shelter in the Gurdwara complex, killing of numerous devotees gathered for Gurpurb and the destruction of Akal Takht. The Sikh quest for glow of freedom was totally extinguished when thousands of them were killed in most gruesome manner in Delhi in a Pogrom post murder of Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh Security personnel, orchestrated by the Government and Congress leaders.

Sikhs have to some extent recovered but the feeling that Sikhs had ruled over Punjab and it is also their cultural home has not diminished. Thus Sikh longing for homeland had not yet been fulfilled fully in history. Sikhs especially in the Diaspora therefore keep gravitating to a Sikh Homeland in Punjab region. There are others who are in search for a strategic repositioning that can bring Sikhs some sense of sharing of gains of freedom in the highly polarized and assimilative emerging Hindutva environment in India. 

DIASPORA AS TRIGGER

We have earlier noted that the initial call for formation of Khalistan was made by Jagjit Singh Chauhan from the UK and it resonated with the US Sikhs. The British have been indulgently tolerant of such movements from their soil because they, till a couple of decades earlier, had a historical connection with most of territories involved as parts of the British Empire. Besides the British and US laws allow foreign nationals living in their country to pursue calls for self determination in their traditional homelands.

Causes of Sikh alienation can be very complex and possibly may be significantly linked to the worsening of relations with majority Hindus in the run up to events of 1984. The post 1984 Sikh experience of oppression and stigmatization coupled with denial of justice could have added to that divide and also acting as a trigger for such calls to be periodically made by Sikhs living in the UK.

In September 2003 Sikh Federation [UK] was set up with its objectives including lobbying of governments and exerting pressure through diplomatic channels for the establishment of Sikh State, Khalistan. The Federation believes that the Indian army assault at Darbar Sahib in June 1984 laid the foundation for Khalistan. The Federation honors the legacy of Bhinderanwale and is linked to the Damdami Taksal, the oldest Sikh seminary. Their vision of Khalistan as gleaned from some of their handouts in 2012 seemed to be for a pluralistic state offering all freedoms as model of miri piri, promote universal well being, human rights et al.

Not much has been heard of that initiative since but Sikhs in the UK received a jolt in January 2014 when papers released under 30-year rule revealed that the UK Government had directly assisted the Indian authorities to plan the army’s assault on Harmandir Sahib in 1984. Strong Sikh reactions have included demand for release of full information by British Government and revival of demand for British Government to intercede with the International Community and UN Agencies to pressure the Indian Establishment to let Sikhs exercise their right of self determination for Homeland.   

The Surmise of Darshan S. Tatla is that ‘diasporic Sikh nationalism [is] generally labelled as a movement for an independent Khalistan. Overseas Sikhs’ reaction was highly emotional response at the desecration of the Golden Temple and Sikhs becoming aware of lack of state power —.’[11] Jasdev Rai’s take is that it is the obsession of educated modernist and diaspora Sikhs.[12] Interestingly the news about revival of Khalistan Movement operating from foreign countries has never been allowed to die down in India.  

In Canada gurudwaras banned entry of Indian Consular Officers to “protect” their followers from the “interference” of Indian government officials. A fortnight later, several gurudwara bodies echoed the ban in the US, and SFUK is to invoke a similar embargo in Britain and Europe. Obviously a section of Sikh diaspora openly supports the creation of Khalistan and is wary of Indian security agencies who believe the diaspora is trying to revive militancy in Punjab. Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh wants Canadian government to come clean on the issue of supporting Khalistanis.

DIASPORA LOCUS STANDI IN HOMELAND POLITICS

One question that needs some exploration is about the locus standi of the Diaspora Sikhs in the matter because the right of self determination, if extended, will be exercisable by Indian nationals only. We know that the Diasporas tend to have strong feelings for the homeland due to ethnic and cultural associations. Sikh Diaspora groups are no different and also happen to have considerable leverage in Sikh affairs.

Their clout is actually not confined within the community itself. Organized Diasporas are in fact becoming capable of directly engaging with hosts, third states and international agencies on behalf of the entire group. The Diaspora communities are increasingly seen engaged in the politics of their homelands, especially as it relates to the ethnic or religious community and in conflict situations. As such even if one thinks that Diaspora is acting intrusively, the above initiative cannot easily be rubbished. P M Modi himself has used Diaspora unabashedly to invoke support for brand of nationalism he is promoting.

MAKING COMMON CAUSE WITH OTHER DISAFFECTED GROUPS

There have been allegations of Pakistani ISI involvement in fanning separatist movements in Punjab and Kashmir. Similarly there have been suggestions of foreign hand in the demand for Nagaland. The demand for Khalistan was raised by certain groups within India independently and sporadically so far. On 28 January, 2018, Dal Khalsa organized a convention on ‘Right to Self-determination: UN recognizes, India defeats’ at Amritsar. Dal Khalsa is an India based group claiming to be committed to pursuit of a Homeland for Sikhs by peaceful means.

A news report[13] suggests that it was coming together of Sikh and Kashmir groups, Dal Khalsa and Hurriyat Conference, for their demand for exercise of right of self determination as the only peaceful route to achieve aspiration of sovereign and independent Punjab and Kashmir. The report mentions the convention being addressed by executives of Dal Khalsa and address by Syed Ali Shah Geelani of Hurriyat Conference through a video link. He sought Punjabis to help their northern neighbour. In addition Prof SAR Geelani of Delhi University asserted that the people of Kashmir have a UN resolution supporting their legitimate claim but the Indian state publicly delegitimizes this right and continues to crush it through military occupation.

Dal Khalsa would launch an awareness drive to take the masses on board and underlined that self determination is a simple expression by the peoples of a nation about their intent about non-acceptance of their allegiance to their present dispensation and a declaration to move towards self-rule. It was asserted that the people of Punjab have the full right to invoke the December 14, 1960 resolution of the UN General Assembly on ‘Declaration of the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples’ since “We were a country whose borders extended up to present day Afghanistan. We had treaty relations as a people with the British —- We seek the transfer of power back to the Sikhs through the exercise of this right to self-determination guaranteed under this UN resolution — – Heretofore, Sikh organisations have petitioned the UN individually and collectively, though there has been no response so far.”

While the Kashmir situation continued with daily reports of violent acts attributed to the cross border terrorists allegedly helped by their local sympathisers of separatist inclination, Punjab has been quiet and Dal Khalsa was not in the news with any follow up activity. This was not unexpected because of the known lack of support for Dal Khalsa or Khalistan among Sikhs in India so making common cause is an exercise in futility.

EXAMINING PARALLELS: JEWISH LONGING FOR PROMISED LAND

The land now known as Israel is referred to as Promised Land because the legend says that God had promised to give the land to the descendants of Abraham. The Land itself is seen as holy and a substantial portion of Jewish law can only be performed there. Jews were exiled from Israel by the Romans in 135 C E though some Jews continued to live there.

Jewish Diaspora continued to hope to be able to return and their daily prayers ask for return to Israel and Jerusalem. This had created an eternal longing among the Jewish people for the Promised Land.

In late 1800’s a political movement, known as Zionism, for the creation of a Jewish state was founded. Since at that time Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, early Zionists thought of even creating a Jewish homeland in Uganda.

During World War I, the UK Foreign Secretary Balfour had assured Jews to create a Jewish homeland within Palestine. After WW I, League of Nations assigned Palestine to the UK as a mandated territory. In 1937 the British recommended partition of Palestine. After WW II, the British handed the Palestine problem to United Nations, which developed and ratified plan to divide it into Jewish and Arab portions in November 1947. When Palestine mandate expired on May 14, 1948, the Palestine Jews declared creation of State of Israel that was immediately recognized by several Western countries.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, a Jew who has not renounced Jewish faith for another religion can automatically become an Israeli citizen. Most Jews now support the existence of state of Israel. Most Orthodox Jews support Israel as a homeland, even though it is not the theological state of Israel to be brought about by the messiah.[14]

PALESTINIAN NAKBA SITUATION

The displacement from their homes of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians with establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is known as Nakba, catastrophe. Nakba is commemorated every year for the Palestinian refugees have been unable to go home since then.

‘The old will die and the young will forget’ predicted Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion – old died but young did not forget

DO THESE PARALLELS APPLY?

Sikh case is different from Jewish and Palestinian nakba example:

  • The Gurus never claimed Punjab as their land though they defended the people and made sacrifices for their rights, well being and dignity.
  • Sikhs may have some legitimacy in thinking that the annexation of Sikh Empire was not done legally but that issue has never been seriously raised.
  • Sikhs were not a majority at any time or anywhere in British Punjab.
  • Sikhs asked for Punjab to be partitioned rather than become part of Pakistan and opted to be in India– may be under false assurances but by free choice.
  • Almost all the Sikhs in Pakistan left for secure India in 1947 and have not tried to go back and reclaim their citizenship or assets.  
  • Refugee Sikhs did not have right of return and were treated as Indian citizens. They resettled where they could and did not commemorate partition loss. Many migrated to other countries or out of Punjab to other states.
  • The small population of Pakistani Sikhs has resettled around Lahore, Nankana Sahib and some other pockets. They seem to be emerging as an engaged minority.
  • Sikhs have memorialized Nanakana Sahib and other religious sites in Ardas praying for return of their control to the Khalsa. This may be seen as being partially answered by formation of PSGPC, if it is made autonomous and Pakistan continues to offer the global Sikh community easy access and involvement in preserving their heritage; e.g. the opening of Kartarpur corridor and Sikh Gallery in the Lahore Fort Museum.

Sikhs in India and more specifically in Diaspora have been articulating longing for a Homeland carved out of or as a federated part of India. This longing is often tinged with ideological nuances of Miri Piri, Halemi Raj and the like that could be assured under an autonomous country setting only.

RELEVANCE OF JEWISH EXPERIENCE FOR SIKHS IN FUTURE

My sense is that Sikhs view Punjab area as the Land where Sikhi was revealed and nurtured. Their religious texts are mostly written in spoken Punjabi language of the times and the Sikh praxis bears unmistakable identity markers of Punjabi cultural influences. Besides this most of Sikh holy sites, historical memories and symbols of their rich heritage dot the Punjabi soil. Sikh institutions are located and functioning in places in Punjab where these were originally created. With all these realities, Indian Punjab and several other locales in India are and will likely continue to remain primary locus for Sikhs and Sikhi for the global Sikh community and Pakistan Punjab plus neighbouring areas as the next important heritage area. 

At the same time Sikhs will continue to disperse and re-disperse to where opportunity seems to beckon. They are and would remain small minority in the societies that they choose to go to and live in. Yet they would continue to cherish Sikhi bana and traditions of kirtan, langar and Gurbani in Gurmukhi. Since in spite of their best efforts they will not get much of a feel of autonomy, embedded in them by Miri Piri and the Khalsa lore, they will keep going back to Nankana and Darbar Sahib, sample memories of Sikh Raj, Forts and heroes and muse over a place they could envision as Homeland!

DISCUSSION

Majority Sikhs now live in and see India as their home, though longing for a homeland seems incipiently embedded in their minds. Sikhs realize that an independent Khalistan may not be ceded now by India and Pakistan. They however do entertain a sense of nationhood that binds Sikhs in a shared bond. In practice this bond is more emotional in nature than a transactional reality in their life and relations.

It is possibly because of this bond being at the emotional plane that Sikh religious response to the cataclysmic 1947 partition could be memorialized by inserting a short paragraph in their ritual Ardas [supplication] text ‘O Immortal Being, eternal helper of Thy panth, benevolent Lord, bestow on the Khalsa the beneficence of unobstructed visit to and free management of Nankana Sahib and other shrines and places of the Guru from which the Panth has been separated.’[15] Sikhs seem reconciled that what happened was as the divine willed!

It is clear that the doctrine of miri piri guides Sikhs to believe that sovereignty is a God given gift that places on them an onus for a life of endeavor for the well being of one and all and for not shirking from the path of righteousness. The difficulty is how to translate these principles in situations where Sikhs may be in minority, secluded, oppressed or discriminated. Offering impulsive sacrifices neither brings success nor earn thankfulness or recognition as a measure of principled living or proof of lofty ideals.

For future, Sikhs want a life of dignity and honor without undue interference by the majority; their objective has been and continues to be to survive and thrive as a religious community with their unique identity. Fine; so what do we do? We cannot but conclude that Sikhs today act as a collective of sovereign individuals, with very diverse visions of Sikhi and limited motivation to act collectively. The problem is very complex and not capable of being distilled into a simplistic organizational or leadership paradigm.

The story of Sikh struggle for their political aspirations in India after 1947 makes a sorry reading. The Sikh cause and Sikhs suffered because of their own failings and also because the times were such that the newly independent Indian State could act with impunity under the cover of state sovereignty and national interest to ruthlessly suppress a small minority. It may be unlikely that a future Government will attempt a repeat of the draconian choices that were then made by the political and judicial elite of India.

That the Sikhs made mistakes is abundantly clear and needs to be owned up clearly by Sikhs.

Exigencies of electoral politics are too simplistic to explain away the shameful manipulations that succeeded in placing a vibrant yet vulnerable section of the community at a place where they could be subjected to murder and mayhem with little affront to collective consciousness of the people. The deep contradictions between democratic polity with an all powerful center that the Indian political elite defends and the Sikh ideal of governance rooted in freedoms, non-discrimination, protection of righteous values, justice and almost anarchic, individual sense of autonomy need to be explored. 

It is known that the Indian Establishment was very wary of the activities of Sikh Diaspora as challenging the strong overlordship of Indian states by the Central Government. In a couple of decades however the world saw the established authority claimed by the States in the Arab world challenged by the Diaspora using social media tools. The invasive role of media also became a moderating influence over the oppressive ruling elite. The international response no longer seems to accept national sovereignty as overriding human rights of innocent minority populations. Indian Government however continues to be wary of pro-khalistan elements in the Diaspora though it uses the Diaspora unabashedly for its own advocacy objectives.

The story obviously arouses questions that relate to future. Sikhs are a minority everywhere. As such while a vision of Sikh state could continue to be used as a rallying slogan but beyond that it may not help the community in any tangible manner. Sikhs must ponder over how they can effectively engage with the societies they live in so as to be able to share in the glow of freedom and make a difference. The example of Jewish people has often been cited. Leaving aside the Israel-like state option, the Jewish story does hold lessons for us relating to survival, transmission and positioning in society. 

The clout of Jews in American public life is the net result of parallel efforts in two important areas – the first, reconciliation with the Christians in matters theological, historical memory etc that had so divided them for centuries; the second, internal measures to help co-believers grow and develop to achieve their potential though financial aid was mostly to be paid back. It took them a century to get where they are.

There is no doubt at all that by preferring the societal model represented by undivided India and failing that, in a divided polity, we deliberately chose to go with Hindus. It is now for us to make that choice work in the Hindu dominated social milieu of Indian state. Hindu-Sikh relations have, in spite of some difficulties, been manageable. We also have to relate to a growingly influential Muslim presence in India and neighboring Pakistan where several of our revered historical shrines are located. May be the time has come for us to work towards resolving our differences with Hindus as well as Muslims and help usher in a society where we can live the vision of Guru Arjan – neh ko bairi nehai begaanaa sagal sang hum ko ban aayee.

Many Sikhs have made good in public sector, armed services, business, industry, academia, sports, arts, working for social causes and with interfaith groups. All achievements of Sikhs reflect on the community. That it is possible to succeed and make a difference to the society should encourage us to put more of our youth on to pursuit of excellence. 

If our spiritual compass is rightly oriented, with some beacons of excellence overlaying a broad canvass of moderate successes, we can leverage our social capital and be a respected and sought after part of the society. As our engagement diversifies, new opportunities will come our way. If we make good, the multiple can be amazing.  Let us therefore be engaged constructively with the dynamically changing environment, be productive part of the society, serve it well and let life play out as it will. We will surely come out winners, spiritually and materially.

If our story makes us feel betrayed, the problem is and has been us and our infirmities. We have to find the way forward. We have done it in the past and we can do it again.

GOING FORWARD

It would seem that Sikhs in history may need to stay anchored to a regional affinity for sake of enhancing their own sensitivity to connect with their past and continue to think fondly of the lands that brought together the conditions for the message of Gurus being accepted by so many as the divine guidance. However we should also be cognizant that historical experience suggests that some persuasions like Zoroastrians, Bahais, Ahmediyas and Lama Buddhism continue to live with the trauma of separation from the land of their origin. Difficulty with the Jewish example is that Jews did get a homeland but existence of Israel cannot be guaranteed without consistent support from the US and the Jewish Diaspora. Nor can Israel go pluralistic and promote equal human rights for all its citizens, with fear of Palestinian demographics and mass of refugees in waiting.

Sikh situation is more complex and definition of their homeland will be a challenge. So while I understand the urges, I would suggest we do not get carried away by use of clichés miri piri, sarbat ka bhala, human rights. We have to think carefully if a sovereign Sikh state helps in delivering on these ideals. Besides our population spread has been increasing over the last few decades and that may create its own issues. Some comments that come to mind are:

  • Our interpretive postures suggest that we may accept drastic reductions in numbers rather than revert to a more inclusive identity for fear of losing control over our religious institutions.
  • The two visions of Sikh temporality – one for controlling the religious institutions and the other for securing a homeland come in direct conflict on fundamentals and could prove to be irreconcilable.
  • Our primary need is to create ability to influence formulation of the State Policies and Legislation affecting Sikhs and get international acceptance for our distinct identity in spite of the trend for de-emphasizing ethnic and religious identities in the post Sep 11 West. This need applies to all societies where Sikhs live and its advocacy is not likely to be served by a sovereign Sikh state.
  • Sikh interests in the international setting as presently situated are mainly tied to India, Pakistan and some other countries where Sikh presence is significant. Sikhs never say it but they sense that next to India, Pakistan is perhaps the most important country for them because many of their very sacred religious sites are located in that country and many significant events and achievements in their history were made in the lands west of Indian Punjab.  

Sikh need is to improve relations and understanding primarily with Hindus and next with Muslims in South Asia. We are mostly familiar with complexities surrounding our interfaith relations with Hindus. There are emerging signs that our relations with Indian Muslims may be influenced more by our competitive compulsions[16] rather than historical factors. This dynamic can create new complexities that may compel Sikhs to think about their positioning in Pakistan and India.

MY VIEW ON KHALISTAN[17]

The SFUK statement perhaps may need more reasoned review for its objective concept has failed to resonate with the global Sikh community thus far. What has been said is that ‘One need not agree with the sentiment or the slogan of Khalistan but just understand it as a call for the right to self-determination by any distinct people as per UN instruments.’

We have to take note that such articulations have mainly been emanating from some of the Sikh groups in the UK, US and Canada and have been directed at the Indian Establishment as a symbol of the threat that Sikhs see in the emerging aggressive Hindu identity.  

My sense is that the genesis of the concept of Khalistan at the time of the partition was a complex outflow of a series of traumas that Sikhs had gone through in history and was variously rooted in their search for certain basic freedoms; access to, care and say in the seva sambhal of gurudhams and other related asthans; safeguard and preserving the signs and symbols of memory of Sikh period of supremacy; have opportunity for Sikh cultural heritage to evolve, stay relevant and grow as Sikhs position themselves in various settings as the opportunity beckons.

Such a broad emotional need and search for space could not be satisfied without the weight of numbers. It was therefore never pushed and Sikhs, of their own volition, joined hands with a Hindu dominated India. It needed no collective decision. It just came naturally to all Sikhs and the move Eastward seemed set on their mental compasses.

Granted there have been a series of difficulties and inexcusable episodes of oppressive injustice since then. Yet Sikhs also have grown, accomplished a lot and have had access to vast and increasing opportunities.

The experience of global spread of should help Sikhs of Indian origin to understand that no place or society may really provide them the ideal setting that they may envision Khalistan to be. Khalistan itself could be a mirage – ask any thinking person in a homogenized society.

If we can live in the Diaspora and not lose our ardor for Sikhi, we should be less paranoid about possibilities in India. What we need to be really concerned about are our own internal exclusionary divides. These can turn any of our dreams into a nightmare.

As for the right of self determination, it is a human right – not bound to any place or people but with its own constraints and responsibilities. It is not meant to be talked lightly, least of all, in reactive anger or hate. Loyalty is a debt to society – it is not just reciprocity.

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Edited 9/25/2019 Orlando, FL


[1] Gurasikh Piaarae Dhinas Raath – Basant M I, p. 1170.

[2] Sathigur Sikh Kee Karai Prathipaal, Sadhaa Dhaeiaal,  Dhuramath Mal Hirai, Bandhhan Kaattai, Bikaar Thae Haattai, Halath Palath Savaarai, Jeea Naal Samaarai – Gauri Sukhmani M V, p. 286

[3] Gur Ddeethai Gur Kaa Sikh Bigasai Jio Baarik Dhaekh Mehathaaree – Malar M IV, p. 1263

[4] Samundh Saagar Hovai Bahu Khaaraa Gurasikh Langh Gur Pehi Jaaee – Suhi M IV, p. 757.

[5] Harbans Kaur Sagoo in her Banda Singh Bahadur and Sikh Sovereignty [2001] speculates that this filled [Sikh] hearts ‘with a lofty longing for freedom and national ascendancy. … and look upon themselves as the future rulers of their land’.

[6] For a comprehensive account, see the entry Annexation of the Punjab in Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, the Article ‘Diamonds, Spies and Betrayal: Maharajah Duleep Singh’ by James Parry at http://www.duleepsingh.com/  – and a report by BBC at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28106083

[7] For a detailed account access https://www.facebook.com/notes/harjinder-singh-dilgeer/master-tara-singh-truth-about-him/200369800004189/ and the Book ‘Religion & Politics in Sikhism – The Khalsa Perspective’, by Tarlochan Singh Nahal, 2011, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, ISBN: 81-7205-461-0. 

[8] See William Dalrymple, The violent legacy of Indian Partition, New Yorker June 29, 2015,

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple

[9] Extract from Author’s Book Interfaith Engagement, Hemkunt, New Delhi [2015], PartI, Understanding Interfaith: My Journey – Trauma 1947, pp. 69-72

[10] See the address to Parliament by Kapur Singh on 6 Sep 1966, transcript in Sachi Sakhi by Kapur Singh and‘Sikhs Demand Sikh State Within India’ by D S Gill at https://www.facebook.com/notes/ds-gill/sikhs-demand-sikh-state-within-india-virtually-the-highest-degree-of-federalism-/672138722883557/    

[11] Abstract ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Diasporic Sikh Nationalism! From Anguished Cries of ‘Khalistan’ to Pleas for ‘Recognition’ http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17448727.2012.671009

[12] The real Khalistan movement of ordinary Sikhs has been around since 1920. It is incoherent, without direction or a clear goal but it sees Indian efforts to construct a nation as an attack on Sikh concept of Guru Granth–Guru Panth as a non-territorial nation. Presently it i[12] Abstract ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Diasporic Sikh Nationalism! From Anguished Cries of ‘Khalistan’ to Pleas for ‘Recognition’ http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17448727.2012.671009

[12] The real Khalistan movement of ordinary Sikhs has been around since 1920. It is incoherent, without direction or a clear goal but it sees Indian efforts to construct a nation as an attack on Sikh concept of Guru Granth–Guru Panth as a non-territorial nation. Presently it s a defunct movement giving expression to imagined obsession of academics and journalists, largely led by educated modernist and diaspora Sikhs. It also symbolizes resistance to political and cultural changes that challenge Sikh concept of Guru Granth:Guru Panth – see, Khalistan Is Dead! Long Live Khalistan!, Sikh Formations, 4 May 2011.

[13] http://www.catchnews.com/india-news/sikhs-kashmiri-groups-come-together-in-amritsar-to-air-demand-self-determination-97179.html   [Rajeev Khanna, 29 January 2018]

[14] http://www.jewfaq.org/israel.htm – Judaism 101

[15] See the English version of Sikh Rehit Maryada, published by the SGPC, Article IV, 3 [a].

[16] Jamait Ulema i Hind has alleged that 95% of minority benefits are being cornered by Sikhs and Jains andat the Sachar Commission report was converted into a minority report rather than its intended purpose to alleviate Muslim problems. In another instance, a South Africa based scholar Yaseen Dockrat has just published a pretty vitriolic article titled The Muslim Position in India that alleges that India is being ruled by Hindus and Sikhs.

[17] From a post by the author on Gurmat Learning Zone, January, 29, 2018.

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