Sunday, July 29, 2007


A lethal cocktail of religion and politics by Sanjeev Nayyar
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

Article appeared in Hindustan Times, Mumbai, July 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

End of Matter
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