The great Punjab paradox: Why state’s economic prosperity goes hand in hand with manufactured grievances

Punjab is currently at a crossroads, with concerted attempts being made to paint out any connection Sikhism had with Hinduism and the rest of the subcontinent

Utpal Kumar December 28, 2021 13:54:49 IST
The great Punjab paradox: Why state’s economic prosperity goes hand in hand with manufactured grievances

File photo of farmers taking out a march in Delhi on Republic Day. AFP

All’s not well in Punjab. More so when a demented person gets lynched in the Golden Temple for trespassing the holy structure, and a British woman Sikh parliamentarian calls it an act of “Hindu terror” that could be “prevented” by timely lynching. Another person meets a similar fate in a not-so prominent gurdwara, his fault being he was too hungry and was looking for some easy food at the shrine. But then ‘be-adabi’ is a sensitive issue in Punjab. Just like blasphemy in neighbouring Pakistan. So sensitive that a top cop of the state walks out in the middle of a press meet after announcing a few arrests in the lynching cases, to soon come back and say no such arrest has been made so far!

Two persons lost their lives to the murderous mob, incited by vested elements to take advantage of Punjab’s troubled waters. But no one talked about them. No one cared who they were, how their respective families were dealing with it. Even the police chose not to speak. Reminding one of KPS Gill’s experience when he was first told to handle Punjab militancy in September 1984, a full three months after the disastrous Operation Blue Star — hara-kiri committed by New Delhi to compensate for its initial hobnobbing with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale just to corner the Akalis in the state.

Gill recalls in his 1999 essay, ‘Endgame in Punjab: 1988-93’, how he was “astonished to discover that simply no records were being maintained in connection with terrorist crimes, no investigations were carried out, and almost invariably, no documentation existed of any action taken”.


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Things may not be that bad now, but it doesn’t take long for the situation to deteriorate if timely action is not taken to arrest the slide. Maybe it is this fear of growing unrest abetted by Khalistani and anti-India forces over the farmers’ agitation that made Prime Minister Narendra Modi climb down on the three farm laws. Maybe he knew more than what we know right now. This is commendable, but such a move can be construed as a sign of weakness and the government should move in quickly and resolutely to deal with vested elements out there to take advantage of such a situation.

Like the 1980s Punjab militancy — which, according to KPS Gill, was “a rebellion of a privileged quasi-feudal caste-based orthodoxy that saw its privileges shrinking” — the year-long farmers’ agitation bore similar characteristics. Who would have lost out had the three laws been implemented? The powerful Arthiyas and their supporters of the state’s feudal setup! Such similarities don’t augur well. For, these dangerous elements are still out there in Punjab, very much vindicated after the government bowed down on the farm laws. The solace is that, unlike the Indira Gandhi dispensation, the Modi government has a precedent to take a cue from: It knows the hazards of pandering to such elements.

Punjab has two distinct characteristics that make it a land of constant rebellions. One, the state’s unique socio-economic status keeps it in flux. As the French case study suggests, rebellions invariably take place in a society that isn’t too poor. Punjab, being a relatively prosperous state, has always had vested, well-entrenched elements worried about losing out their gains to others. It is this element — a privileged quasi-feudal caste-based orthodoxy — that saw its privileges shrinking in the 1980s. It is the same group that again saw the new farm laws as a socio-economic disrupter.

But the deeper, more fundamental malaise lies in the very nature of Sikhism. The religion has internalised the sufferings of its Gurus who had to face insurmountable barbarity at the hands of the Mughals. So much so, to use Sir Vidia Naipual’s words in India: A Million Mutinies, it “created in the believer the feeling of injustice and persecution, and perhaps even the wish to be persecuted”. What else can explain this lack of balance between their stupendous material success, often in the wake of unimaginable human tragedies like the 1947 Partition, and their astounding ability to manufacture grievances?

“In this faith, when the world became too much for men, the religion of the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the religion of gesture and symbol, came more easily than the philosophy and poetry of the first Guru. It was easier to go back to the formal baptismal faith of Guru Gobind Singh, to all things that separated the believer from the rest of the world. Religion became the identification with the sufferings and persecution of the later Gurus: The call to battle,” Naipaul explains.

It is this deadly cocktail of minority syndrome and persecution complex that explains the siege within Sikhism. It’s a unique problem that Sikhism faces in India. Unlike in the West, which has a history of the minorities being singled out and persecuted, in India it’s the other way round. Hindus see Sikhs as an extension of Hinduism. They see Sikhs as their own. They revere Sikh Gurus, they celebrate the festivals of Sikhs with gusto. It’s this oneness that causes unease.

As Khushwant Singh writes, “Sikhism is an offshoot of Hinduism. Punjabi Hindus regard Sikhs as one of them and till recently brought up one of their own sons as a Sikh, intermarried with Sikh families, worshipped in Sikh gurdwaras and recited the Gurbani which they could understand in preference to slokas from the Vedas, Upanishads or the Gita which they could not.” At another place, he reiterates that “the real danger to the Khalsa has always been, as it is today, the absorptive capacity of Hinduism.”

I am deliberately quoting Khushwant Singh over others because his credentials as an Indian and a Sikh are beyond doubt. He surrendered his Padma Bhushan after the 1984 operations, and when Vinod Mehta, then editor of The Observer, criticised him for choosing to be a Sikh over an Indian, he stopped contributing to his paper!

Calling the relationship between Hindus and Sikhs “roti-beti ka rishta (breaking bread together and giving daughters in marriage), Khushwant Singh reminds how the Adi Granth, though an eclectic work with compositions of Hindu and Muslim saints, “echoes the Vedanta through most of its 6,000 hymns”.

Rebutting a new breed of Sikh scholars who bend backwards to prove Sikhism has little or nothing to take from Hinduism, or balance it by bracketing Hinduism with Islam (as author Amandeep Sandhu has done with his 2019 book, Punjab: Journeys Through fault Lines, where he says that Guru Gobind Singh “raised an army to defend the society from the unjust oppressors, both Hindu and Mughal”), Khushwant Singh writes: “All they need to be told is that of the 15,028 names of God that appear in the Adi Granth, Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2,533 times, followed by Prabhu, Gopal Govind, Parbrahm and other Hindu nomenclatures for the Divine. The purely Sikh coinage ‘Wahe Guru’ appears only 16 times.”

The Hindu-Sikh divide is a colonial construct — a well-oiled British policy of divide and rule — that got further accentuated in the vote-bank politics of the post-Independence era. To make things clearer, one just needs to look at how Maharaja Ranjit Singh, whose kingdom was the last to be absorbed into British India soon after his death, saw Hinduism and how Hindus looked at him. The Maharaja, when it came to determining the future of the Kohinoor diamond, decided to donate it to Puri’s Jagannath temple, rather than bequeathing it to one of his sons.

Also, it was he who got the Kashi Vishwanath temple’s crown covered with gold. No wonder, Hindus and Sikhs traditionally deified him as a virtuous man and a selfless patriot, while Muslim historians looked at him as an “avaricious freebooter”. For all his secular, eclectic outlook, Ranjit Singh remained the “other” for Muslims.

Historically, Sikhs and Hindus lived together, dined together, and even fought wars together. Guru Tegh Bahadur was a shining example. He died fighting against Aurangzeb’s fanaticism for the cause of the Pandits of Kashmir. It is this inherent and organic unity between Hindus and Sikhs that stands as a stumbling block against those looking to create a new nation state in the name of religion.

This explains why Amandeep Sandhu invents history to say that Guru Gobind Singh raised an army to defend society from the unjust oppressors, both Hindu and Mughal. Mind you, he mentions “Hindu” but stops short of calling Muslim. All he mentions is “Mughal”! A wonderful play of words exposes the real intent. This also explains why Preet Gill, first British woman Sikh parliamentarian, calls the recent Golden temple incident “Hindu terror”.

Punjab is again at a crossroads. It had been in a similar situation before, more so in the 1980s. Then too, there were concerted attempts to paint out any connection Sikhism had with Hinduism and the rest of the subcontinent. In fact, a new history was manufactured that showcased Sikhism’s close affinity with the Middle East in general and Islam in particular. Anyone having an iota of doubt about Sikhism’s Indic origins should look at its fate in Afghanistan.

Hinduism and Sikhism are the children of Mother India. And no mother would prefer one over another. Those raising concerns should look at the fate of Zoroastrians, who came to India looking for refuge after their homeland was forcibly converted into Islam. They were much less in numbers, but they retained their identity. And in the course of time, they outshone others with their immense contributions to the making of the nation.

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