Mistreatment of Sikhs Continues in India

2 years ago Alger Mag Editor 0

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Harmandir Sahib, also Darbar Sahib and informally referred to as the “Golden Temple”, is the holiest Sikh gurdwara located in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India.

On October 12th, 2015, in Bargadi Village of Faridkot district, the Sikh temple Gurdwara Burj Jawahar Singh Wala was broken into. Suspects stole the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the sacred book and eternally living guru of the Sikhs, and scattered its pages in the streets. As word of even more desecrations in Bathinda and Jalandhar spread, Sikhs began peaceful protests in various cities throughout the northwestern Indian region of Punjab. The protesters were met with heavy deployment of the Punjab police who used excessive physical force, guns, water cannons, and tear gas to harass the masses. Two Sikh men, Bhai Gurjit Singh and Krishan Bhagwan Singh, were murdered and 82 others were injured.

Historically, Sikhs have always been an oppressed religious minority in India in order to keep the “Sikh Kaum”, or Sikh nation, from gaining power. Despite making up less than 2% of the Indian population, the Indian army is currently 20% Sikh, a statistic that was once 60% when the British occupied India. Sikhs also contribute highly towards taxes and agricultural output compared to other religious groups. Sikhs, however, have always been the target of violence and hatred by the Indian government. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Operation Blue Star. Gandhi claimed that a Sikh “militant” named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was occupying the holiest Sikh temple, Harimandir Sahib, with weapons. “The Indian Military prepared and simulated this operation for several months prior to its execution. The army’s assault included the deployment of tear gas, army tanks and 70,000 troops.”  Bhindranwale was accused of supporting a separate Sikh state to be called Khalistan, although he never vocally expressed support. Gandhi saw support for Khalistan as a threat to both the strength of the Indian army and stability of the country, after already having been split into India and Pakistan less than four decades prior.

Months after Operation Blue Star took place, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, whom she had initially refused to fire after her attacks on the temple. Gandhi’s assassination launched a long genocide against Sikhs in the Delhi area and the Amritsar district of Punjab. To this day, the Indian government refuses to recognize the mass violence against Sikhs as a genocide. Furthermore, anti-Sikh sentiment remains in Indian politics. Although India is said to be a secular democracy, religious forces still strongly influence politics; right-wing Hindu parties seek to diminish the power of minorities like the Sikhs.

The desecration of the Sikh holy book was therefore met with anger and suspicion because Sikhs have been the targets of such discrimination and disrespect for decades in India. There is general consensus amongst Sikhs that the current political party in charge of Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), is to be blamed for the desecration of the Guru. The SAD was elected by the Punjabi population in the hope that a Sikh leader would offer some relief from anti-Sikh politics and discrimination, but its power-hungry leader has failed to meet those expectations. The President of the Punjab Congress Party, India’s center-left party, has ordered an investigation into SAD and its leader Prakash Singh Badal, claiming that “RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat had made several visits to Punjab this year and held closed-door meetings with religious preachers. Whatever took place in Punjab recently was the outcome of a bid to [polarize] Punjab. RSS had a direct hand in the events that unfolded.”  RSS is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh party, a Hindu extremist party with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has close ties. Polarizing Punjab on religious lines would be an optimal strategy for the RSS and BJP since Punjab is inhabited by sizeable populations of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; this division would make Punjab a weaker state.

Since the 1984 genocide there has been a pattern of mistreatment of Sikhs, and Badal has only pushed it further. Five years ago, a man dressed up to impersonate the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, which is forbidden in Sikhism. Although political seat of the Sikhs ordered a sanction against him, an appointed Sikh leader forgave him without consulting the whole Sikh Kaum. This decision was supported by Badal – thus inciting anger and opposition from the community.  In addition, the RSS has attempted to cause unrest in the wake of upcoming 2017 elections in Punjab. Cotton farmers, who make up the largest occupation in Punjab, are angry at SAD for failing to financially help them in last year’s dismal harvest; farmer suicides continue to occur at alarming rates. There are now rumors that Badal is attempting to regain face by piloting the desecration of the holy book with the RSS, catching the criminals, and running his 2017 campaign on the so-called justice he brought to the community. The desecration and secret meetings with the RSS were just the cherry on top of the political unrest in Punjab, which finally incited mass protests.

In the wake of the desecration and political games in Punjab, the Sikh Kaum has taken it upon itself to rid their religious community of as much corruption as possible. In India, religion plays a heavy role in politics and drives the decisions of many political leaders and voters. The Sikhs democratically govern themselves through a gathering called “Sarbat Khalsa.” Sarbat means “whole” and Khalsa means “community of the Pure.” Historically, the Sarbat Khalsa had been called by the clergy leader  twice a year. Last year’s call constituted a historic moment: it was the first time since the 1984 genocide that there has been a Sarbat Khalsa, and was the first time the community itself has ordered one. Sarbat Khalsa 2015 took place in Chabba Village and thousands of Sikhs from all across the world attended the event. After hours of deliberation and speeches, thirteen resolutions were successfully passed. The passing of these resolutions is significant as majority rule does not exist in Sikh democracy; there must be unanimous agreement.

Although the resolutions represent a monumental step in Sikh democracy, the Sikh Kaum is not done with its work. Two diasporic Sikhs who flew into India for the Sarbat Khalsa have been charged with sedition by the Indian government. The Kaum continues to combat the notion that it is somehow a radical organization, as many media platforms have framed it, and are still fighting for the Indian government to recognize the 1984 Genocide. The next two years will be full of more political unrest in Punjab; although the Kaum hopes to vote Badal out of office in 2017, manipulation of and discrimination against Sikhs will make India’s electoral future difficult to predict.

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by Ravleen Kaur

(Photo Credit: Arian Zwegers, Flickr)