This is a review article about the book ‘Religion & Politics in Sikhism’ by Tarlochan Singh Nahal, published by Singh Brothers, Amritsar, in Jan. 2011. The book ISBN: 81-7205-461-0,

priced at Rs. 795 [US $ 25, Euro 18] is a hard-cover edition with a colorful jacket juxtaposing Golden Temple and Akal Takht, symbolic of proximity of the spiritual and temporal in Sikhi.

The book is a voluminous 568 page account of the Sikh struggle for Khalistan documenting, in significant detail, the events from 1947 onwards. The author lives in San Jose, CA where he had pursued his doctoral research in Miri Piri, the Sikh doctrine of intertwining of the spiritual and temporal pursuits, under the guidance of late Dr Noel Q King, the well known scholar historian, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Cruz. The book has a Foreword by Dr King, written in 2008.

The author, after a brief introduction, walks the readers through a synopsis of Sikh experience during the Guru period and concludes that ‘even during the period of Sikh Gurus, the Sikhs struggled to protect their religion.’ The Gurus had to take to arms in self defense. Later, Sikhs took to offensive actions starting with Banda Bahadur and after a prolonged struggle were able to subdue their oppressors and establish Sikh rule in North West India towards the end of 18th century. Fifty years later they saw the Sikh empire crumble, culminating in its takeover by the British. Under British rule the objective of Sikh struggle remained the same even as its dynamic went through an evolving process.

There are three strands of Sikh struggle in the 20th century that the book brings out though not quite identified as such by the author. The first is the Sikh nostalgia for their lost empire and their sporadic laments and airing of expectation that the British would return their kingdom to Sikhs before they left the shores of India. Babbar Akali party, founded 1922, had restoring of Sikh Raj as their objective. SGPC was suspect in the eyes of the British as secretly seeking to restore Sikh Raj in Punjab and the book records several excerpts of intelligence reports and internal memos. An associated plea was for special treatment to be accorded to Sikhs for their military service to the Crown.

Sikh leadership had started talking loosely about a Sikh state since 1921 though the idea of Khalistan as a buffer state was proposed by Dr Vir Singh Bhatti in 1940, more as a reaction to the Muslim League’s demand for a Muslim majority state. Following it there were calls for establishment of Guru Khalsa Raj. AISSF passed a resolution at Lahore in 1946 for a Sikh State. SGPC asked for a Sikh State by a resolution passed in March, 1946. In representation to the Cabinet Mission, Sikhs sought a united India or else creation of a Sikh state to avoid their being under perpetual Muslim domination. Master Tara Singh has been quoted as saying that Congress encouraged Sikhs in their demand. The Communists supported it. Baldev Singh returning from 4 day negotiations in Dec 1946 in London issued the statement: Sikhs have no demand of their own for the British to fulfill — they will decide this with the Congress. The geographic limits of the territory were as varied as the names it went by: Azad Punjab, Sikh Homeland, Sikh State, Sikh Raj, Khalistan. It was a wish, a desire, shared by most Sikhs that was neither well articulated nor followed with any sense of conviction.

The third strand is the one that ironically Jinnah seemed to have fathomed. The author infers that ‘he [Jinnah] was of the view that the Sikhs were thinking of establishing a state within India after negotiating a deal with the Hindu leaders.’ In a circuitous manner that could not be divined in the divisive and highly charged environment preceding the division of India, the emerging Indian state, had to opt for creation of linguistic states that eventually led to Sikh espousal of a Punjabi Suba. Hindus disowned Punjabi in Gurmukhi script and indirectly helped in the eventual formation of a truncated Punjab that had numerical Sikh majority. This opened a new chapter of struggle that shook Punjab and India to its roots, was extremely bloody, left deep scars, and is still waiting to see some closure and healing.

The book is well referenced and even though at times repetitive, the author has made a cogent case that preceding 1947 division of India, the Sikh leaders and possibly the masses too, had some sort of a vague longing for a separate, autonomous Sikh state but little consensus on an outline of their demand. The Muslims crafted their claim on the basis of separateness from Hindus and numerical majority in the areas they asked for. The Sikh notions were a blend of several fanciful thoughts and emotions: Sikh Raj was held by the British in trust and must be returned to them; Sikhs had loyally served the British and made sacrifices in service of the empire; Sikhs were a nation and as such they had rights equal to the majority; the Sikh state should include Sikh princely states, Sikh majority areas and major holy sites; there should be separate autonomous status for Takht Hazoor Sahib and Takht Patna Sahib; Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus should be given all areas of Punjab west of Chenab river; Sikhs should beat the British out with shoes if not given their sovereignty.

In 20/20 hindsight, the reasons for Sikh failure to achieve any success were their own naiveté. The Sikh leaders were mostly clueless compared to the likes of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Liaqat or their British interlocutors. The author is pretty harsh and unforgiving about the lapses by the Sikh leadership but really does not examine the viability of their wish list or discuss likely experience of such a buffer state between two warring neighbors. Significantly the book, like several other commentaries offers no vision about a viable approach that could have helped Sikhs realize their wishes given their numbers, dispersed locations and all other constraints.

The Sikh doctrine of miri piri is cited liberally. It is clear that the tradition guides Sikhs to believe that sovereignty is God given gift that places an onus on them for a life of activism for the well being of one and all and for not shirking from the path of righteousness. What remains unaddressed is how to translate these spiritual principles to particular situations wherever Sikhs may happen to be – including in minority, secluded, oppressed, discriminated environments. Offering sacrifices impulsively does not bring success nor ironically, does it earn thankfulness or recognition as a measure of principled living or proof of lofty ideals.

The prognosis for future is as vague and wishful as the past – 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? A model of one hundred member body is suggested as an international council to manage Sikh affairs on the lines of sarbat Khalsa tried out in the 18th century with Akal Takht as the supreme religious authority. It would certainly help reduce the confusion that seems to prevail presently at the apex but if we go by the account so meticulously given by the author, we might not be able to but conclude that the Sikh self image today is different from the 18th century puratan Sikhs. Unlike then, Sikhs today act as a collective of sovereign individuals, with very diverse visions of Sikhi and limited motivation to act collectively. The problem is bigger and far more complex – not capable of being distilled into a simplistic organizational or leadership paradigm.

The story of Sikh struggle to seek a valid and durable expression for their political aspirations in India after 1947 makes a sorry reading. It was a time of transition in the Indian polity and the Sikh cause suffered not only because of their own failings but 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. In the since changed political environment, it is unlikely that a future Government will attempt a repeat of the draconian choices that were then made but the continuing obduracy in bringing the accused to justice even after a lapse of over 25 years is tragic and brings no kudos to the maturity of the political and judicial systems of India.

That the Sikhs made mistakes is abundantly clear. That they were behaving like a group of self led individuals also comes through. That the understanding of Gurmat by Sikh militants who attacked the innocent was deeply flawed, however, is not clearly said. This needs to be owned up for in Sikh war, everything is not fair – only fair is fair. The Gurus made it abundantly clear and the writings/examples from their life are a proof of it.

The author has interviewed a large number of persons who were actual witness to the events being narrated. This does provide a touch of authenticity to the narration even though it can be argued that their version is more likely colored. But then the media reports or reports by government agencies or intelligence could likewise suffer from their bias. The discerning reader, judge or commentator has to cull out the truth from these versions and the painstaking effort of the author to uncover some new sources should be lauded.

The events researched are recent and a large number of persons in important places who had access to the inner machinations and execution of what transpired are still alive. It is hoped that more disclosures will be made that bring clarity to the purpose behind this shameful set of manipulations that steadily 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. Exigencies of electoral politics are too simplistic to explain away such aberrations. The Sikh issues remain unresolved and three electoral cycles have gone through without any real problem. The explanation of foreign hand too seems to be equally disingenuous. There is mention of KGB linkage. If that be so, the CIA could not be far behind. In any case their purpose remains elusive and does not square. The area that has been left unexplored is the deep contradictions that exist between the vision of a democratic polity with a strong and all powerful center that the founding fathers of the Indian political system had opted for and Indira Gandhi so vigorously defended and the Sikh ideal of governance rooted in freedoms, non-discrimination, protection of righteous values, justice and almost anarchic, individual sense of autonomy.

The book gives the texts of several original documents, translated into English, by the author where the original was in Punjabi. Most of the translations of the quotes from Gurbani and other works in Punjabi are also by the author. He has done well to document a lot of what went on in the Diaspora during these turbulent years. Even though this adds to the already documented accounts by Khushwant Singh, Sangat Singh, Mark Tully, Manoj Mitta and H S Phoolka, Jaskaran Kaur, Pranay Gupte and several others, it does not give any hard details of the mechanics used and sources co-opted by the Diaspora, thus leaving it open to speculation.

It is known that the Diaspora activities were strongly opposed by the Indian State. In a couple of decades since then however the world is seeing new challenges to the established authority claimed by States. In the recent happenings rocking the Arab world most of transition seems to have been triggered by the Diaspora using social media tools and the international response seems to be legitimizing Diaspora activism and in fact raising an emerging concern for States to protect their sovereignty on the internet. The invasive role of media has also acted as a check on the ruling elite to unleash oppression over peaceful protests and has thus become a moderating influence. The classical concepts of national sovereignty over riding basic human rights are no longer accepted as a cover for reign of state sponsored terror or targeted killings of innocent minority populations. Indian Government however continues to be weary of occasional eruptions of pro-khalistan demonstrations in the Diaspora though it has used the Diaspora for their own advocacy objectives including appointment of an ambassador level NRI by the Bajpai Administration to mobilize PIO’s to lobby for official Indian positions and aspirations with the US Administration, Congress, Media and other interest groups.

A related comment is about another important side to these tragic events that have remained undocumented thus far. I am referring here to the untold stories of how families of victims of Delhi pogrom and all those unidentified victims of encounter deaths, kidnappings, midnight disappearances et al coped with their loss – jinh kae ba(n)kae gharee n aaeiaa thinh kio rain vihaanee – and rebuilt their lives. It will be a saga of huge human suffering and fortitude. That part of the story is not about politics or sovereignty and therefore has not drawn interest of researchers. My brief search for a paper in 2009 led me to the finding that none of the family members of the victims in Delhi had committed a violent act out of feeling of revenge or hate in the last 25 years. Their story, if told will likely reveal how faith, kinship and little kindnesses from the ‘other’, helped individuals and communities to self heal and get re-engaged in their human travail.

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 well recognized. This position is the net result of their parallel efforts in two important areas. The first was reconciliation with the Christians at the highest levels of religious authority in matters theological, historical memory etc that had so divided them for centuries. The second was 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.

That we preferred the societal model represented by the undivided India and failing that, in a divided polity, we deliberately chose to go with Hindus is not in doubt at all. It is now for us to make that choice work in the Hindu dominated social milieu of Indian state. Hindu-Sikh religious relations have parallels with the Judeo-Christian story, though possibly a fair shade positive in spite of the difficulties that may have been encountered on both sides. This is a serious work and has to be handled after careful thought. My understanding from one of the Jewish emissaries engaged in the ongoing Judeo-Christian conversations with the Vatican in mid 90’s was that the discussions had gone on for decades. Likewise 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. We have had a curious blend of admiration for certain principles of Islam with a deep mistrust of Muslim rulers and invaders because of our historical experience. May be the time has come when we could 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.

The other part about Sikh individuals realizing their potential is obvious. While calling miri piri a universal principle, the author cites in support, the example of Sikhs in Canada where some have risen to cabinet level appointments but he cautions that ‘none of them can achieve those positions without the support of the Sikh community that is anchored by the Sikh Gurdwaras and other religious institutions.’ Even in Indian setting we have the recent success of Rachpal Singh in West Bengal. Rachpal Singh had joined the Trinamool Congress in 2008 after his retirement from IPS and came close to Mamata Bannerjee. In the recent State polls, he won from Tarakeshwar [Hooghly] constituency by a margin of 25,000 votes and Mamata appointed him as the minister for Tourism on 25 May, 2011. I do not know if the author’s hypothesis holds good in his case, though as a general proposition it should have some, not exclusive, validity.

The support of Sikh community anchored in Gurdwaras or other religious institutions seems to have played little role in the case of Manmohan Singh. If we look deep enough we may find that his success was the outcome of persistent pursuit of excellence in a highly competitive environment. The same may be true of so many who made good in the field of public sector, armed services, business, industry, academia, sports, arts or some of the social causes or even for working with interfaith groups. All such achievements reflected 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. Sikhi is in fact a path of excellence that guides the seeker to become virla and nyara as one develops spiritually.

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 reposition ourselves to engage constructively with the dynamically changing environment, be a productive part of the society, serve it and let life play out as it will and we will come out winners, spiritually and materially.

Coming back to the book, Tarlochan Singh Nahal has done a commendable job bringing the pieces together. If the story makes us feel betrayed, it is not because of the messenger. 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.

As I come close to finishing this review, the Indian government has removed names of 142 Sikhs from the blacklist that prevented their entry into India since around 1980’s. This is a welcome sign of recognition of need to correct grave human rights denial by the Indian state. Let us hope it helps in the healing process. Expecting miracles however may be a mistake – Sikhs forgive but do not easily forget. The text of their ardas recited daily in Gurdwaras and homes is a testimony to that and should not be viewed as a mere ritual.


Nirmal Singh

New Cumberland, PA

Camp: New Delhi

31 May, 2011

Edited 14 Jun, 2011

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