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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Lost in the Shuffle: Sikhism and the Partition of India

On a warm June day in 1984, a large military force made up of Indian soldiers under the command of Sikh General Kuldip Singh Brar, made their way through the Punjab Region to the city of Amristar. Their goal: the removal of Sikh militants loyal to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a religious and political revolutionary who had been a vehement advocate for Sikh sovereignty. In what became known as Operation Blue Star, the Indian military swiftly and violently attacked Sikhs throughout the city. The military operation even saw soldiers forcibly attacking Sikh leaders located inside of the Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple), the holiest of Sikh edifices. In total, the carnage brought on by Operation Blue Star ended the lives of at least 500 Sikh civilians, and subsequently ignited the fires of further anti-Sikh riots. In the end, it would be considered one of the greatest massacres of Sikhs since the Sikh Holocaust of 1762 (Deol 101-103).

 India’s violent opposition made manifest through Operation Blue Star is far from the only occasion in which Sikhs have found themselves in the crosshairs of their enemies. Dating all the way back to the early critical formative years of the Partition of India (and even earlier), Sikhs have been engaged in a virtual tug-o-war with their Muslim and Hindu neighbors. It was during the formation of both modern day Pakistan and India that Sikhs found themselves desperately trying to pick up any and all scraps of what little remaining sovereignty they could, but for the most part, their efforts proved futile and even paved the way for future hostilities.

To better understand why Sikhs have experienced such vicious animosity from their neighbors, we must endeavor to uncover the nucleus of where and how hostilities began. First, it is important to recognize that Sikhs have a long and proud history in the Punjab Region dating back to the early 15th century. As historian Eleanor Nesbitt points out in her book, Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction: Sikhs’ sense of community is not just a matter of interacting with, and feeling distinct from, the other major religious constituencies of North India. It also has strong regional roots. The family origins of almost all Sikhs, wherever in the world they now live, are in Punjab…Any exposition of ‘Sikhism’ that omits the significance of Punjab for Sikhs is incomplete, especially as Punjab has come to be regarded as the spiritual homeland for Sikhs everywhere (8).

It is of paramount importance that we recognize the special place Punjab carries in the hearts of Sikhs the world over. As a Sikh Mecca of sorts, Punjab serves as both the historical and religious homeland for Sikhs. Without it, the religion and its adherents would have a difficult time establishing their unique heritage and culture.

When Partition became a reality, the natural concern for Sikhs centered on the fate of their native land and the place they would have in it. It is no mystery that the Punjab Region played a center stage in the drama of Indian partition. Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus all boasted the right to govern the region. In his article, “Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab 1947,” Akhtar Hussain Sandhu states: Muslims and Sikhs had both been ruling communities of the Punjab, therefore both were confident to claim their political inheritance when the British decided to depart from India…Islam came from Arabia and many Muslims from other countries had settled in the Punjab, while Sikhism was an indigenous religion and its followers were purely local people, which convinced them to claim the region as Sikh homeland (215). And though Sikh claims to the Punjab on the basis of it being their native soil were legit, they did not pacify Muslim or Hindu assertions for control of the Punjab Region. Both India and Pakistan laid claim to the area and fought vehemently for control over it. Historian Yasmin Khan alludes to this fact in her book, The Great Partition, when she writes: “Punjab…was the bloody battlefield of Partition where by far the greatest number of massacres of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims occurred" (Khan, Introduction).

Though having made strong initial claims for their right to control the Punjab Region, Sikhs were finding themselves increasingly on the fringe of the Partition debate. A lack of cohesiveness throughout their ranks, coupled with poor leadership stymied any hope Sikhs might have had of advancing their hopes and desires. As Akhtar Hussain Sandhu states: The land of the five rivers could not produce a leader of national caliber in all the communities, and this resulted in havoc at the critical juncture of history. The Punjabi leadership seemed satiated with their personal benefits in the domains of the Punjab. The Sikh leadership also became victim of this traditional weakness. Moreover, they had to deal with the competent leadership of M. A. Jinnah, M. K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which put them in a defensive position (227).

This general lack of leadership and direction on the part of Sikh authorities made any push for sovereignty a futile enterprise. Sikh officials, who spent more time arguing with one another as opposed to asserting any push for actual sovereignty, saw their chances at shaping Partition in their favor slip right through their fingers.

Instead of using the Partition debate as a platform to assert Sikh sovereignty, Sikh leaders began jockeying for position between the emerging Pakistani and Indian players in an effort to determine which nation would better support Sikh interests. Extreme skepticism of Muslim intentions, particularly those of the Muslim League, sparked contentions between Sikh leaders and Muslim leadership. As a result, Sikhs felt more comfortable in supporting Indian claims and advocated for a division of the Punjab Region that would include Indian control. Simply put, Indian interests were far more in harmony with Sikh desires (Sandhu 224).

It therefore comes as no surprise to discover that tensions between Sikhs and Muslims in Punjab became contentious and downright violent in the wake of Partition negotiations. And while the majority of the violence manifested itself as a Hindu/Muslim dispute, Sikhs were far from exempt from the brutality. In fact, this tragic tale of violence is very much at the “core of any history of Partition” (Khan, Chapter 7). Countless scores of refugees fell victim to the killings, rapes and mutilations that will forever stain the history of Partition. The rape accounts alone are hideous enough to make even the coldest blood boil. Stories of women’s corpses, their genitalia dismembered with teeth marks buried deep into their skin are more common than one would expect (Khan, Chapter 7).

And though they were regular recipients of this kind of aforementioned violence, Sikhs were far from having their own hands clean. Violence was a regular tool on both sides, and many Sikhs resorted to using aggressive measures against their Muslim neighbors “on an unprecedented scale” that could only be rivaled by the violence of the 18th century (Nesbitt 122). Sikh violence would continue even into the post-Partition era, and transition from Muslim to Hindu foes. A good example of Sikh violence would be the retaliation for Operation Blue Star which came in the form of the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards (Deol 91).

For Sikhs, what emerges from this long history of violence during Partition is a sense of lost opportunity. Not only did Sikh leadership fail to take a more active role during the Partition debates, but they failed to unify Sikhs themselves. It would take several more years before Sikhs became galvanized to a collective cause under newer, more inspired leadership. But by then India (and Pakistan) had emerged as the dominant players, while Sikhs were little more than a decent sized minority group. Nevertheless, Sikhs had evolved “from an ethnic community into a nation” by the latter years of the 20th century (Deol 4). By the time of Operation Blue Star, Indian authorities were well aware that Sikhs were beginning to assert their desire for greater sovereignty.

But the question remaining is, has the ship already sailed on the issue of Sikh sovereignty? Did Sikhs miss their opportunity when Britain pulled out of its former colonies and relinquished control to local communities? The relatively recent push for greater sovereignty seems to suggest that at the very least Sikhs recognize that they squandered a golden opportunity to have better secured their interests. The question now is, will Sikhs seize the opportunities afforded them in the here and now to bolster support for their cause? If anything is certain from the history of Indian Partition it is this: the matter seems far from resolved. Only time will tell how future generations of Sikhs seek to protect their interests in their land of the five rivers.

Works Cited:

Deol, Harnik. Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab. New York: Routledge Press, 2000. Print.

Khan, Yasmin. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan. London: Yale University Press, 2007. Amazon Kindle edition.

Nesbitt, Eleanor. Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Sandhu, Akhtar Hussain. “Sikh Failure on the Partition of Punjab in 1947.” Journal of Punjab Studies vol. 19, no. 2. (2013): Pp. 215-232. Web. . Accessed 15 August, 2015.

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