Punjab - A lethal combination of religion and politics

Article appeared in Hindustan Times, Mumbai

Violence is just under the surface in Punjab where a divisive British legacy continues to thrive. The British supported the Tat Khalsa movement by insisting that only Khalsa Sikhs (those who sported the 5ks) could join the Army.

With the controversy over Dera Sacha Sauda leaders’s apparent imitation of the 10th Sikh Guru having died down it might be useful to know why a prosperous state like Punjab continues to erupt like this. This article recaps history of Punjab from the 1860’s to date, and includes a series of key events that have brought about the current situation. 

Guru Gobind Singh started the Khalsa in 1699. According to tradition, its followers had to sport the five Ks i.e. Kesh-long hair, Kangha-comb, Kirpan-sword, Kara-steel bracelet, Kachcha-knickers. Long hair and turbans were supposed to protect faces and heads from sword cuts and lathi blows. The Kada was a reminder that Sikh spirit was strong and unbending. The Kacha was more suitable for fighting the Mughals in than the Dhotis and loose trousers of Muslims. The maximum numbers of Khalsa followers were Jats. Though others considered themselves Sikhs, they held back since they were not followers of the Khalsa.

Having experienced the strength of Sikh opposition during the Anglo-Sikh wars and grateful for the assistance received from Sikh princes during the Mutiny of 1857, the British realized that Sikhs could be an effective buffer between Afghanistan and India.

Therefore, British reduced the number of Bengali soldiers (involved in 1857 Mutiny) to be replaced by loyal Sikhs & Punjabi Muslims. As Veena Talwar wrote: "To prevent the sort of mutiny they experienced from sepoys in 1857, the British organized religiously segregated regimental units from the alleged martial races, Sikhs, Pathans, Rajputs etc.  This severely restricted Hindus of other castes particularly Khatris (Punjabi form of Kshatriya), who had served in Maharaja Ranjit Singh's forces. Khatris (all Sikh Gurus were Khatris) were arbitrarily lumped together by the British as trading castes. Many families got around this artificially imposed caste barrier by raising one or more son as Sikhs, chiefly by having them adopt the name Singh and grow hair/beard to match". (Dowry Murder, the Imperial origins of a Cultural Crime).

Thus, the enlistment of Sikhs increased steeply. Joining the army was remunerative. Soldiers were well paid, given agricultural land and pension.

Around this time there was a fall in Sikh morale, stemmed by the Singh Sabha movement. Founded in 1873 it soon split into two. One, were Sanatani Sikhs who regarded the Panth as a special form of Hindu tradition. Two, were Tat (true) Khalsa, who believed that Sikhism was a different religion.

The British supported the Tat Khalsa movement by insisting only Khalsa Sikhs (those who sported the 5 Ks) could join the Army. A move to say Sikhs were not Hindus received an impetus in 1898 with Khan Singh Nabha’s book ‘Ham Hindu Nahin’, the passing of the Anand Marriage Act in 1909 as the only approved order for Sikh marriage and the insistence on the five Ks to distinguish Sikhs from Hindus.

It did not matter to the Tat Khalsa that the real name of Golden Temple is Hari Mandir and, “Of the 15,028 names of Gods that appear in the Adi Granth, Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2,533 times followed by Prabhu, Gopal, Govind and other Hindu names for the divine. The popular Sikh coinage Wah Guru appears only 16 times”. (Khushwant Singh).

After several decades, the Tat Khalsa emerged victorious. According to W. H. Mcleod, it ensured that “in 1905 idols were removed from the Harimandir”. (Historical Dictionary of Sikhism). Modern day Sikhism is a creation of this movement.

By about 1920, it was overtaken by the Akali Dal, a new political party that gave expression to the revived sense of Sikh identity. The Akalis entered into a dispute with the British for the control of Sikh Gurudwaras. Passing of the Sikh Gurudwaras Act in 1925 signalled their complete victory. The Act’s definition of a Sikh leant strongly towards the exclusivists Khalsa view.

To retain effective control over Punjab, the British drove a wedge between Jat and Khatris. They passed the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900, which created a favored, dominant, agriculturalist class and a non-agriculturists class. The former included Hindu & Sikh Jats, Muslim tribes and the latter Hindu Brahmins, Khatris and Banias. The Act made tribe and caste the basis of land ownership. British sought to anchor itself in Punjab by playing the distinctions between Hindu and Muslim while nurturing Muslim and Sikh Jats as loyal subjects.

In this manner, the British supported the Jat Sikhs who were the prime movers behind the Tat Khalsa movement.

The consequences were many. One, the birth of Akali Dal and its control over Gurudwaras heralded the tradition of mixing religion and politics. Control of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee is key to political power in Punjab. Two, it made Jats a powerful community. Three, it started a tradition of Khatris/Aroras making the first son a Sikh. Children of the Sikh son became Sikh and so on. Today, future generations of the same family having similar surnames, say Kohli, are known to the outside world as followers of two religions, Sikhism and Hinduism. Four, it created a divide between Jat and Khatri Sikhs such that the latter are called ‘Bhapa’, a term dismissively used by Jats to describe  Khatris and Aroras. Five, “since Jat Sikhs consider themselves superior to others, non Jat Sikhs in the Indian Army never reveal their surnames for the fear of being ridiculed in the Sikh community”. Instead they suffix their first names with ‘Singh’.

Notwithstanding the fact that an Akali leader (1940-1960 period), Master Tara Singh was a co founder of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1964, Punjab was quite successfully divided between Sikh and Hindu. During the agitation for Punjab, the divide widened. Those areas (inhabited mostly by Punjabi Hindus) which had a Hindi-speaking majority, were included in the state of Haryana.

Religion and politics got irrevocably intertwined in Punjab. Adept at using religion, the Akalis ensured the Congress was at the receiving end in the 1980s. Indira Gandhi believed, if you-can’t-beat-them-join-them. So the Congress propped up Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale to counter the Akalis, creating a monster in the process. What followed was killing of innocent Hindus and Sikhs.

Just like the Congress party’s propping up of Bhindrawale eventually resulted in Operation Blue Star and Indira Gandhi’s death, so also Pakistan’s support for terrorism in India and Afghanistan resulted in the attack on Lal Masjid.  

Today, the Jat Sikhs are a very powerful community. Such is their clout that the UPA government is yet to implement an August 2004 Supreme Court ruling, which orders the construction of the Punjab portion of the Sutlej Yamuna Canal.

Whenever the supremacy of the Jat Sikhs is threatened, there could be violence. After the latest apex court order, Amarinder Singh said terrorism would return to Punjab if the order was implemented.

Mixing religion with politics was the British strategy. Has anything changed!

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