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Are the Sikhs Hindus?

By Nonica Datta

No matter what the RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, might say with regard to the origin and development of Sikhism, Sikh consciousness has invariably followed an independent course.

"ALL MUSLIMS living in India are Hindus. All Sikhs are Hindus," asserted the RSS chief, K.S. Sudarshan, at a recent meeting in Amritsar. Citing Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, he said: "He himself acknowledged Hum Hindu Hain". This is an erroneous view. Sikhs have always been willing to accept diverse ideas and institutions, but in acceptance they have adapted and transformed their inheritance. Not always able to work the various strands into a harmonious whole, they have not yet lost their identity. This holds good for almost every manifestation of Sikh life and thought.

My own maternal grandmother, a devout Sikh, was married into an Arya Samaj family. Did she define herself as a Hindu? She did not. Her way of life, her association with the Sikh Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Ferozepur, and her perception of India's Partition signified her distinctive identity. Even though married into Hindu families, many like her were wedded to Sikh values. Without denying the existing bonds and alliances between the Hindus and Sikhs, not much has changed since my grandmother's days.

In fact, the basic flaw in Mr. Sudarshan's assertion is that he disregards the differences that have historically existed between the experiences and the lives of people of the two communities. He must know that no matter what he might say with regard to the origin and development of Sikhism, Sikh consciousness has invariably followed an independent course.

Two scholarly and popular views exist on Sikh identity. One of them traces its beginning to the Sikh gurus (1469-1708) and its crystallisation during Ranjit Singh's rule (1799-1839). All this while, so runs the argument, the Sikh religious and cultural heritage ran parallel to, not always antagonistic with, Hinduism. The other interpretation underlines the Sikhs' fluid identity in the pre-colonial period and brings into sharp focus the role of the Tat Khalsa (the true Khalsa) leadership in heightening a separate and exclusive consciousness in the late 19th century. It is fair to argue, therefore, that neither Mr. Sudarshan nor any of his predecessors have understood the changing meanings of Sikh identity. They have sought to impose their own worldview, ignoring how Sikh ideologues have understood, categorised and defined their community over the centuries.

Guru Nanak (1469-1539) had rejected the authority of the Brahmans, spurned ritualism and repudiated idol worship. Through gurbani (guru's word), sangat (religious congregation) and guru ka langar (community meal) he endeavoured to fashion a radical theology and create a moral community. However, it was the initiative of the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), which endowed his followers with a distinct identity.

The Khalsa Sikhs, thereafter, vested the authority of the Guru in the Guru Granth Sahib and the corporate community. This was a defining moment, carried to its logical culmination by the Rahit (code of discipline).

By the closing decades of the 19th century, the Singh Sabha movement defined the boundaries of the Sikh community vis-a-vis the Hindus. Such moves were largely in response to the Arya Samaj movement's strident initiative to incorporate Sikhism within the Hindu fold. In opposition to its agenda, of promoting Hindi as the official vernacular language, the Sikh reformers championed Punjabi as the medium of education and the language of administration. Moreover, Hindu idols, which had been installed in the Golden Temple premises, were removed. Bhai Kahn Singh, a Sikh spokesman, wrote in 1899, "we are not Hindus". This sentiment was vividly expressed in the everyday lives and rituals. The Sikhs knew by now who they were not.

Historically, the Sikhs have moved in and out of multiple identities. Yet, their quest for an exclusive identity was the most significant feature of their history in the last century. Although the meanings of identity have differed in certain contexts and in response to various challenges, the Sikhs have hardly ever integrated with any specific version of Hinduism. Consider, their demand for separate electorates (1917) and the role of the Gurdwara Reform movement. Thereafter, the Sikh Gurdwaras Act (1925) defined a Sikh as "a person who professes the Sikh religion", adding, "I solemnly affirm that I am a Sikh, that I believe in the Guru Granth Sahib, that I believe in the Ten Gurus, and that I have no other religion".

Before India's Independence, the Akalis tried to safeguard the political and cultural interests of their constituency. Thus, through the demand for `Azad Punjab' (1943) and for `Sikhistan' or `Khalistan' (1946), the Akalis sought to safeguard their interests as a distinct and unified entity. The Sikh leadership also mooted the idea of an `autonomous' Sikh area within Pakistan. Their ultimate acceptance of Punjab's Partition was, in fact, conditioned by such communitarian anxieties and aspirations.

After Independence, various Sikh outfits have insisted on defining themselves and their followers as a `minority' living under the shadow of Hindu majoritarianism. This found expression in the demand for separate representation in the Constitution, and was followed by the movement for a State comprising Punjabi-speaking people. The demand for greater autonomy gathered momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, giving rise to the Khalistan movement itself. The Indian Army's assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984, according to Khushwant Singh, widened the Hindu-Sikh gulf, and gave the movement for Khalistan its first martyr in Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

The brutal anti-Sikh pogrom that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi fuelled anti-Hindu sentiments, especially in parts of north India.

Identity rests on the notion of difference with the other(s). Yet, the other is not constant, and keeps changing. Thus, in the 18th century, the Muslims were the bete noire of the Sikhs. In the late 19th century, the `Arya Hindus' took their place. A century later, the British colonial state became the predominant antagonist.

At the time of Partition, the `Muslim' was endowed with a new kind of otherness, especially with the imaginary fear of Sikhs being subjected to Muslim rule. Finally, the `Hindu Congress' became the principal adversary in the 1980s.

The Sangh Parivar harps on all the others, but effaces the presence of the Hindu as other in the evolution and crystallisation of a specific Sikh identity. It denies the fact that if the Sikh communities had demonised the Muslims or the Congress in the past, they did so only to protect their own cultural identity and not to consolidate the Hindutva forces. Like the Muslims, the Sikhs have resisted the Hindutva project of absorption and sameness.

The Sangh Parivar's agenda, of suppressing the contested history and identity of the Sikhs as well as the Muslims, is ahistorical. It is also a contrived agenda, for it rests on a spurious notion of Hindu identity. The political language, as echoed by Mr. Sudarshan, is neither rooted in the historians' histories nor in the diverse communitarian narratives. Finally, his comment degrades the historians' histories, and ridicules a minority's own self-image and perceptions.

(The writer teaches history at Miranda House, New Delhi.)

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