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Complexities of The question of
Sikh nationality

Gopal Singh

The complexities involved in the question of Sikh nationality have neither been properly comprehended, nor adequately analysed by both the academicians and the politicians. There has been a continuous, confused and motivated debate on this question right from the beginning of the century, but without any final and convincing conclusions. On the one hand, we have had Western authors1 and certain religio-political orgaisations of the Sikhs, such as the Shiromani Akali Dal (henceforth SAD) and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), according the Sikhs the status of a nation and indulging, in the case of the latter, in politically motivated propaganda. On the other hand, we have some Hindu chauvinists who never tire of repeating that Sikhs are only a part of the larger Hindu community, an assertion that irks the Sikhs because it denies them a distinct and separate identity.2 The only serious attempt to grapple with this complex issue during the last few decades was made by K.R. Bombwall in his famous article Ethno-nationalism.3 Bombwall concedes the point that Sikhs are a politically conscious community, but finds that the idea of their being a nation is problematic.4

In the first part of this paper, I join issue with those who claim that Sikhs are not a nationality. These include serious-minded scholars like K.R. Bombwall. In the second part, I engage myself in debate with those, including the communist parties, who support the ‘Sikhs-are-a-nation’ thesis. The third part of the paper is devoted exclusively to my own understanding of the question of Sikh nationality.


The propaganda by the Hindu chauvinists, represented mainly by the Arya Samaj and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), that Sikhism was born out of Hinduism and, therefore, Sikhs are and will continue to remain a part of the larger Hindu community, can be easily dispensed with. The thrust of their argument is that “history bears testimony that the Sikh creed was founded for the protection of Hindu Society, its dharma and sanskriti.”5 To support their thesis, they cite the martyrdom by Guru Tegh Bahadur and the creation of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh. They argue that Guru Tegh Bahadur laid down his life for the protection of Kashmiri pandits and that Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa Panth, in 1699, to organise people militarily to fight the Mughal rulers.

Actually, much before the creation of the Khalsa Panth, which gave the Sikhs the five symbols of physical differentiation, the Sikhs had already established themselves as a separate community with a distinct identity. This point has been brilliantly discussed by Rajinder Kaur.6 The Sikhs had their own institutions, symbols, scripture, script and place of pilgrimage (The Golden Temple).7 So far as the sacrifices by Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh, and also by Guru Arjun Dev and Guru Hargobind, are concerned, these cannot be interpreted the way the Hindu chauvinists do. These Gurus fought against injustice, social inequality, exploitation and oppression; they fought against both Muslims and the Hindus, and gave a feeling of security to the exploited sections of the society comprising both Hindus and Muslims. For example, Guru Gobind Singh fought his first battle against the Hindu kings of the Himachal hills.

Coming to a more serious discussion of the issues by K.R. Bombwall, he agrees that India is a “multi-ethnic and multi-national state”, and has no hesitation in describing Tamils, Bengalis and Andhraites as ethno-national groups. But so far as Sikhs are concerned, though he agrees that they are an ethnic group, yet he has serious reservations about calling them a national group. One of the reservations he expresses is that “The Sikhs are by no means a monolithic social group”, though soon after he asserts that the Sikhs as a “community have achieved a definite external differentiation (i.e., differentiations vis-a-vis the adjacent social group, the Hindus) and its members have developed a distinct ethnic identity and common religio-cultural interests.”8

He further says that “Sikhs are internally segmented. They are divided by caste, class and urban-rural cleavages.”9 He talks of caste divisions among the Sikhs, such as the Jat Sikh landlords on the one hand and non-Jat Sikh, particularly the scheduled caste Sikhs in the rural areas, on the other, and the indifference of the latter to the demands for Punjabi Suba and for state autonomy, or, for that matter, to the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR). He asserts that such divisions on caste and class lines are visible even in urban areas. Here, we have the urban Sikh trading community, popularly known as bhapas, (Khatris, Aroras, etc.,) on the one hand, and the daily wage-earner Sikhs, generally of lower castes, on the other. Then we have caste / class division among artisans, such as carpenters (Ramgarhias), blacksmiths (Lohars), etc., right from the cities to the towns and the villages. But here my counter argument is : Do we not find these caste / class divisions in case of Tamils, Bengalis and Andhraites whom Bombwall has no hesitation in bringing under the category of ‘ethno-nationalism’ ? At least on this ground Bombwell should not deny the Sikh ethnic community the status of a national group.10 Yet he continues expressing his doubts :

“It seems doubtful whether the broad Sikh masses have made ‘the quantum jump’ involved in crossing the threshold from ethnic consciousness to national consciousness. The two are qualitatively different and national consciousness cannot be regarded as an extended form of ethnic consciousness.”11

It seems to me that Bombwall is here falling in the trap of conceptual confusion. I believe that the Sikhs cannot be denied the status of a nationality simply because the community is not ‘monolithic’, and is ‘internally segmented.’ Because at least class divisions we find all around the world in what Bombwall has designated as ‘ethno-national groups’, and, in the case of India, caste-class divisions in all such groups are more than obvious.

Another serious reservation which Bombwall expresses is about what he calls “The SAD’s split personality and dual orientation.” By this he means that on the one hand the Akalis fight for their religious demands, and on the other, they fight for regional demands such as greater autonomy for states, particularly greater financial resources, inclusion of left-out Punjabi-speaking areas in Punjab, a more favourable allocation of inter-state river water to Punjab, etc. And he concludes :

“The Akali doctrine of Sikh nationhood (and the related demand for a self-determined political status for Sikhs) is seen as a repudiation and disruption of the Punjabi nationality based on territory, language and culture.”12

Here, I would like to make two brief comments. The first is about what Bombwall calls the split personality and dual orientation of the Akalis. There is no doubt that the SAD is a religion-based party, and till recently a non-Sikh could not be its member. It is also true that not all Sikhs are members of the Akali Dal. Quite a few Sikhs are members of the Congress, the Communist Parties, the BSP, the JD, etc. But when the Akalis raise regional demands, besides religious demands, one wonders how and why the Sikhs should be denied the status of a nationality on this basis ? If this basis were to be considered valid, one would hesitate to call the Assamese or for that matter even the Kashmiris a nationality. Although the Kashmiris do not have a religion-based party, yet an overwhelming majority of them are Muslims. They have been raising a demand for secession on the basis of religious composition. On the other hand, the Assamese have also been demanding regional autonomy (AASU-AGP agitation of late 70s and early 80s) and recently even secession through ULFA. The basic issue before the Assamese agitators, besides autonomy, is the ouster of ‘foreigners’ (Bangladeshis, most of whom are Muslims). Secondly, not all the Assamese are members of the regional groups of parties. Many of them are members of the Congress Party, the Communist Parties, the BJP, etc. Thirdly, and more importantly, there is another agitation within Assam, that of the Bodo tribe, for Bodoland. Then, should we assume on the basis of Bombwall’s argument that Assamese or Kashmiris are not a nationality ? On the other hand, if the Kashmiris or Assamese are a nationality, why should the Sikh community be denied the status of a nationality ?

As regards the point that Akali doctrine of Sikh nationhood is (or should be) seen as a repudiation and disruption of Punjabi nationality based on language, territory and culture, I would pose a counter question : Who is the repository of the Punjabi nationality if at all anything of this nature exists today ? After independence, the Hindus of Punjab have opposed even the regional demands raised by the Akalis, such as the demand for a unilingual state of Punjab. So far as the language and culture are concerned, the Hindus of Punjab, by disowning the Punjabi language, have made the Sikhs the sole custodian of the Punjabi language and culture. The Hindus, in fact, launched counter agitations both on the question of Punjabi Suba and on that of Punjabi language. I would elaborate this point later. Here it is sufficient to say that even on this point Bombwall’s formulation is untenable.

Talking about the separatist movement of the Basques in Spain and the insistence on their distinct identities by Slovens and Croats in the former Yugoslavia, Bombwall says :

“The national consciousness can emerge even among ethnic groups which are economically as advanced as, or even more advanced than the politically dominant groups in multi-ethnic states. What is crucial for the existence of a nation is its self-view or its psyche-cultural essence ...”13

I fully agree with the argument of Bombwall. At least on the basis of this argument, he should have had no hesitation in according the status of ethno-nationalism to the Sikh community. However, he concludes his debate on the positive note that in future the Sikhs “can be a nation” :

“The questions raised here do not necessarily imply a dogmatic rejection of the theory that Sikhs are a nation. What we have called ethno-nationalism may well evolve into a full state nationalism with all the political implications of the concept. The questions posed here are, in fact, a plea for a constructive academic debate on the issue involved.”14

Bombwall’s paper was first published in 1983, which means that he prepared it sometime in 1981-82. Had he written this piece after the happenings of 1984, he would probably have had a rethinking on the whole question. The Sikhs as a community were humiliated in Haryana, when they were not permitted to go to Delhi during the 1982 Asian Games. They realised in 1984 that they were a minority community and can be persecuted and suppressed. Here I am referring to Operation Blue Star in June 1984 when their sanctum sanctorum, the holiest of their holy places, the Golden Temple, along with other gurdwaras, was assaulted by regular armed forces. During Operation Woodrose in July, 1984, rural Punjab was subjected to house to house search by the regular armed forces. And the biggest shock to the community came when thousands of Sikhs were massacred and burnt alive in Delhi, Kanpur, Bhilai, etc. after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October, 1984. These three events of 1984 not only sharpened the community consciousness of the Sikhs, but also their national consciousness, and this happened in spite of the fact that there are caste-class cleavages and other internal differentiations and segmentations within the community. However, this is a point which I would elaborate and discuss further on.


The credit for evolving the thesis that the ‘Sikhs are a nation’ has been claimed by a number of groups and persons. These include Sirdar Kapur Singh, Gurcharan Singh Tohra, Ganga Singh Dhillon, the SGPC, and even the members of the committee which prepared the draft of Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973.15 Actually, the thesis had begun to be evolved much earlier. The SAD, under the presidentship of Master Tara Singh, had not only declared the Sikhs as a nation, but had also articulated the demand for the creation of a Sikhistan in the years 1945-46. Earlier, soon after the Muslim League resolution of 1940 for the creation of an independent state of Pakistan on the basis of Jinnah’s two nation theory, the SAD had ambiguously talked about the demand for an ‘Azaad Punjab’ and a ‘Sikh Homeland’, etc.16

However, at the moment I want to emphasize the SAD’s demand for an independent sovereign state of Sikhistan. I reproduce here the full text of a resolution adopted at Lahore sometimes in March-April, 1946, by a very representative gathering of prominent Sikh leaders under the presidentship of Master Tara Singh :

“The Panth notes that at the present moment, on the eve of expected far-reaching changes in the Constitution of the country, the desire on the part of the majorities to dominate the minorities is rising with great tempo, as is evidenced by the slogans of Akhand Hindustan and Pakistan. It further notes that in a situation so greatly charged with aggressive communalism, the minorities, especially the Sikhs, find themselves placed in a position in which they cannot safeguard their existence against the high-handedness of a politically organised majority, which conviction is further strengthened by the experience of the working of Provincial Autonomy for nine years, resulting in grave attacks being made on the culture, and civic and political rights of the Sikhs in Punjab. After giving mature and thoughtful consideration to the foregoing, the Panth is strongly of the opinion that no safeguards and guarantees of a constitutional nature, no weightage or protection, promised to the Sikhs by any of the majority communities can be considered adequate to protect the Sikhs and ensure their free and unhindered growth as a nationality with a distinct religious, ideological, cultural and political character. In order to ensure the free and unfettered growth of the Sikh Panth, the Panth demands the splitting up of the existing province of the Punjab, with its unnatural boundaries, so as to constitute a separate autonomous Sikh state in those areas of the central, northern, eastern and south-eastern Punjab in which the overwhelming part of the Sikh population is concentrated, and, which, because of the proprietors in it being mostly Sikhs and its general character being distinctly Sikh, is also de facto the Sikh Homeland — the area, the extent, the status and the constitutional framework of such a state being left to be settled by negotiation between the accredited representatives of the Sikh Panth and other interested parties such as British government, the Hindus, and the Muslims; further resolving that the above demand is the unconditional, absolute and minimum demand and political objective of the Sikh Panth as a whole. The Panth visualises that this proposed state will be democratic in constitution and will have socialistic economic structure, with full protection of the culture and rights of the minorities.”17

The main trust of this resolution is that the Sikhs are a nationality and as such have a right to a sovereign Sikhistan.18 It is an interesting fact that Akalis were not alone in demanding a sovereign homeland. The Communist Party in general, and G. Adhikari of this party in particular, also advocated the demand of the Sikhs for an autonomous homeland. They believed that the Sikhs were a nationality by history, culture, economic way of life and language, etc.19 In a booklet, Sikh Homeland, issued on the eve of Punjab assembly elections in 1945, G. Adhikari advocated the right to self-determination to all nationalities, including the Sikhs. He said :

“Our party firmly believes that the edifice of an independent India, free from foreign control, must be based on three great pillars — complete democracy, self-determination to all nationalities and the well-being of our entire people... The people of various nationalities in India with their respective languages, cultures and historical traditions, whose homelands are today divided by the artificial boundaries created by the imperialists, must be free to form their sovereign constituent assemblies.

“The people of every national-territorial unit such as Pathanland, Baluchistan, Sind, western Punjab, central Punjab, Hindustan, Bihar, Rajasthan, Assam, Orissa, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gurjarat and Bengal (with previous agreement for plebiscite of the Hindu and Muslim areas) should be able to form their own sovereign states in a free India, with full freedom for self-development in brotherly unity with each other.”20

As for the Sikhs, after having established that they were a nationality on the basis of their common struggles, historical traditions, culture and language, etc., Adhikari spoke for an autonomous homeland of their own in the central Punjab where they, along with Hindus, constituted 65 per cent of the population. He wrote :

“The main homelands of the Sikhs, the Doaba, the Majha and the Malwa, lie scattered in the contiguous districts and the native states of the central Punjab. The whole villages after villages in these tracts are Sikhs. Here lies the cradle of the Sikh people and their great historical traditions.

“The rise of Sikhism was something much more than a section of Hindus changing their form of worship. It was a great popular and cultural upheaval which roused and united a bulk of peasant Hindu tribes of the central Punjab — namely, the Jats, Rajputs, Khatris, Aroras, Ramgarhias, and the Mazhils (sic, mazbhis). These sturdy peasant tribes were settled in the fertile regions of Doaba and Majha from times immemorial. There they built their village communities and developed agriculture. This region, however, lay in the path of every invader who came into India from the north. Again and again, these peaceful peasant communities were destroyed and scattered. They suffered under the reign of each invader and conqueror, but they reformed themselves. It was under the rule of Mughal emperor-builders and their mansabdars that the political and economic pressure on these peasant communities became intense and sustained. It was then that peasant tribes began to unite as a ‘Sikh people’ — to defend their life, their village communities and their peasant farms — under the inspiring leadership of the Gurus.

“The rise of the militant Sikh movement under the latter Gurus, especially under Guru Gobind Singh — the sage of heroic martyrdom of Sikh warriors — is often understood as a chapter of religious persecution or religious wars. In reality it was the birth of a ‘people’ — peasant tribes uniting themselves into ‘a people’, shaping their language, creating their first inspiring folk literature — fighting to defend their way of life in their homelands. This popular upheaval, led by the Sikh Gurus, which culminated in the emergence of the ‘Sikh people’, in many ways, was similar to the popular upheaval of the Maratha peasant tribes aroused by the saints of Maharashtra and united by Shivaji which in its turn led to the emergence of the ‘Maharashtra people’. It is significant that both took place about the same time, i.e., in the period of decline of the Mughal empire. Their subsequent history is also strikingly parallel. The awakened Sikh people built their own independent 12 tribe kingdoms — the misls — in the Doaba and the Majha. The great Ranjit Singh, in the first quarter of the 19th century, unified them and built a strong fighting force... All these historical developments — the emergence of the Sikh people, the rise of the 12 misls, their partial unification under Ranjit Singh, the formation of a virile language and the rise of powerful literature associated with it — made the Sikh people a leading cultural force in the central Punjab...”21

How did the Communist Party (henceforth CP) come to adopt this stand ? It appears to me that the party was over-enthusiastic about the definition of nationality as given by Lenin and Stalin. It forgot that this definition had emerged in the background of the conditions prevailing in Russia / Soviet Union. The adoption of this definition lead to a distorted understanding of the developing Indian situation. However, it must be mentioned to the credit of the CP that it reversed its stand on this critical issue around the mid 1950s, and today’s main Communist parties — the CPI and CPI (M) — are staunch votaries of a strong and united India though they hold the view that India is a multinational state and every nationality must be given an opportunity to develop its own culture, identity, language, art and literature, etc. It is with this view that these two parties vehemently oppose the secessionist movements in Kashmir and Punjab.

Coming back to the SAD’s demand for Sikhistan, I think it was a last ditch battle for political survival as the partition of Punjab also meant a partition of the Sikh population, a development which stood to weaken the base of the SAD. The demand for a Sikh homeland was a panic reaction on the part of the SAD.

In this background, how does one look at the Sikh community from independence and partition till today ? And how does one analyse and explain the political behaviour of the SAD during this period ? In this connection two points need to be emphasised right in the beginning. The first point is that the partition of Punjab was probably the bloodiest such event in human history, which resulted in the massacre of millions of people of three communities — the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Muslims — and the migration of virtually the entire Sikh-Hindu population from Pakistani Punjab to India and of Muslims from Indian Punjab to Pakistan.22 This migration, nevertheless, gave the Sikhs a majority in six districts of Indian Punjab. This was an important development because the British, at least on paper, had denied the Sikhs an autonomous homeland arguing that the Sikhs were not in majority in any district of the pre-partition Punjab. This development re-awakened a hope in the SAD supremo Master Tara Singh to once again raise the demand for a Sikh homeland, of course within the union of India, a demand which went unheeded virtually for two decades. The second important point is that right from its inception in December, 1920, the SAD has been a faction-ridden party, a theme which I have discussed in detail elsewhere.23 What is the condition of the SAD today ? Till recently, there were at least four Akali Dals — Alali Dal (Badal), Akali Dal (Longowal), Akali Dal (Mann), Akali Dal (Manjit). On the other hand, there were at least 25 militant organisations of the Sikh youth fighting for an independent and sovereign state of Khalistan through violent means. Each one of these militant organisations owed allegiance to one or the other of at least three Panthak Committees. However, as I have noted elsewhere, in SAD’s 72 year old history, there have always been three broad factions within the party — the moderates, the extremists and the militants.24

There is no doubt that the Sikh community, first under the leadership of Master Tara Singh and then under that of Sant Fateh Singh, had to launch many a struggle (morchas) even for the reorganisation of Punjab on linguistic basis. The Punjabi Suba was created in 1966 giving the Sikhs a majority of around 60 per cent of the total population. But after their failure in ministry-making during the period 1967-71 when Akali-led coalition ministry did not survive, and loss of power to Congress in 1972 elections, Akalis prepared a new action plan in the form of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (1973) which demanded a geographical territory where the ‘Khalsa shall be in a position of pre-eminence’ (Khalsa ji-ka-bolbala). When this resolution was ratified in the 18th All India Sikh Conference (general house of Sikhs) at Ludhiana, G.S. Tohra had already issued his booklet, Federal Polity. Both the ASR and the Federal Polity declared the Sikhs as a nation and pleaded for greater autonomy to all states, leaving only foreign relations, defence, currency and communications to the union of India. Tohra advocated a federal structure on the pattern of the then Soviet constitution. In July - August, 1982, the SAD started its morcha (agitation) under the leadership of late Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, after having invited Bhindranwale to join the morcha. Bhindranwale did join when his demands were also incorporated in the Akali charter of demands. It was a turning point both in the political history of Punjab and also of the SAD. A new phase of violence and terrorism started. This period witnessed storming of the Golden Temple and other gurdwaras in Punjab by the regular Indian armed forces at the instance of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who herself was assassinated by two Sikh guards, an incident which led to the massacre of innocent Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, etc., by the marauding-lumpen gangs.25

Among different factions of the Akalis, one faction, right from the pre-partition days, has consisted of what I call ‘homelanders’.26 By ‘homelanders’ I mean those who have always advocated the idea of a sovereign Sikh homeland,27 whether within the Union of India or outside it. The homelanders are the Khalistanis in today’s context. The intellectual godfather of the homelanders in post-independent India was late Sirdar Kapur Singh,28 who created a following in the different universities of Punjab and among a section of Sikh intelligentsia.

So far as the issue of the Sikh community being a nationality is concerned, it seems to me that there has been a lot of confusion among the Sikhs over this issue. Firstly, the Sikhs belonging to parties like the Congress and the Communist parties have rejected this idea. Secondly, both among the leaders and members of the SAD, there has been a section which did not support this idea, for example, Jivan Singh Umranangal and his followers. Therefore, the question that arises here is : Should the Sikhs be denied the status of a nationality just because some Sikhs, both Akalis and non-Akalis, are opposed to this idea ? However, a more complex question that needs to be answered is : If the Sikhs are a nationality, what are, then, the Hindus living in Punjab, and what is this thing called the ‘Punjabi nationality’ or Punjabiyat ?

Before I come to my own views on these questions, I would discuss the views of those Sikhs and Western historians who claim that Sikhs are a nation. Paul R. Brass29 quotes Cunningham who put forth this view right in the beginning of this century. He also quotes Ganda Singh and Khushwant Singh, the two Sikh historians of eminence, who express the same view. Cunningham talks of the development of the Sikhs “from a sect into a people under Guru Gobind Singh, and from a people to a nation under Ranjit Singh.”30 Khushwant Singh writes of the struggles of the Sikh forces against the British in 1848 as a nation rising in arms, and of the second Anglo-Sikh war of 1848 as a national war of independence.31 Ganda Singh goes further back and finds Banda Bahadur a hero of the Sikh nation in early part of the 18th century because of his struggle and victories against the Mughals. He writes :

“Although the successes of Banda Singh were but temporary, there was a revolution effected in the minds of people of which history often fails to take notice. A will was created in the ordinary masses to resist tyranny and to live and die for the national cause. The example set by Banda Singh and his companions in this respect was to serve as a beacon-light in the darker days to come. The idea of a national state long dead, once again became a living aspiration... 32

To begin with, Brass does not seem to agree with this viewpoint of the historians. He believes that :

“The Sikh historians and politicians have been engaged in a process of symbol selection from the events of the past, adapting those which would best support contemporary Sikh self-consciousness and rejecting those which would not.”33

While talking of inconvenient symbols, he points out “a characteristic lack of congruence in pre-modern times between the corporate spirit of the people and the factional divisions of their leaders”, “between the loyalties of fighting forces and the treachery of commanders”, etc. He satirically mentions the alliance of the “cis-Sutlej kingdoms” with the British from 1809 against trans-Sutlej Sikh powers, and of the cis-Sutlej Sikh kingdom having turned the tide in favour of the British rule during the mutiny of 1857, thereby securing British imperialism in India “for another century” and the “loyalty” of surviving Sikh kingdoms to the “British Raj” during the nationalist movement and their “opposition to the main Sikh nationalist organisations and the internecine conflict.”34 However, what is interesting to note is that when Brass concludes his arguments, he tends to agree with the view of historians mentioned above :

“Modern nations are any way built more upon the selection and manipulation of symbols from the past than the persistence of real political structures into the present.”35

If one agrees with Ganda Singh’s proposition that Banda Singh’s victories, though short-lived, created national consciousness among the Sikh people and an aspiration for a nation state, and if one goes by this criterion, then the period of the Sikh national consciousness must start with the sixth Guru, Hargobind, because he was the first to wage some battles against the Mughals. In any case, this period can be said to have started with the creation of the Khalsa Panth (1699) by Guru Gobind Singh who not only gave the community symbols of physical differentiation, but also prepared them to fight militarily the tyranny of the Mughals. As for Khushwant Singh calling Anglo-Sikh wars as wars of (Sikh) national independence, one must point out, as does Brass, that during these wars a part of the community had aligned with the British and, therefore, the wars were, in part, wars within the community. This makes a labelling of these wars as ‘national’ a bit problematic.


As mentioned earlier, Bombwall raises the question whether the national consciousness among Sikhs is only an elite phenomenon or it has percolated among the masses. I really do not know what exactly is the view-point of Bombwall today, because he expressed this particular doubt a decade ago.36 At that time, he tended to limit national consciousness to elites only. Since then, dramatic developments have taken place in Punjab and elsewhere, particularly the incidents in 1984 which affected the psyche of the Sikh community as a whole. Therefore, I have no reservations about stating the national consciousness has percolated to the broad Sikh masses, despite the caste-class cleavages in the community and the disillusionment about the activities of the militant organisations. W.H. McLeod’s main concern, in his book Who Is a Sikh ? The Problem of Sikh Identity, is about the problem of sehjdhari Sikhs as against the keshadhari Sikhs.37 However, to put a question-mark on the Sikh identity in this manner in 1988-89 does not make sense. For, by the end of 1980, this identity was well settled.

As against Bombwall and McLeod, I perceive the historical development of Sikhism in different phases right from the period of the first Guru till today. First was the phase of community formation which, in my opinion, was complete by the time of the martyrdom of fifth Guru, Arjun Dev. By this time, Sikhs as a community had developed a distinct and separate identity. The trio of the Guru, the Granth and the Gurdwara was the focal point of the identity and the institutions of sangat (congregation), pangat (taking the meals together in the same line irrespective of status or caste) and langar (free Kitchen) went a long way in crystallising the identity. However, it was the construction of the Golden Temple with Harimandar Sahib as the spiritual seat and place of worship, the Akal Takht as a place for discussion of temporal affairs, and the wearing of two swords by the Sixth Guru as symbols of miri and piri, that completed the process of community formation.38

The second phase begins with the Sixth Guru and comes to an end in the post-Banda period of mass persecution of the Sikhs when quite a few new institutions were introduced and the community developed into an ethnic group. The most significant development of the period was the creation of Khalsa Panth by Tenth Guru on April 13, 1699, which not only gave the five physical symbols known as the five Ks, but also gave a psychological boost to the hitherto suppressed followers of the Gurus, particularly the peasants, and inspired them to prepare militarily to fight against the Mughal tyrants. The adventures of Banda Singh after the death of Tenth Guru, in which he inflicted defeat after defeat on the Mughal armies, proved beyond any doubt the military force created by the Guru was capable not only of fighting against better organised forces, but also of winning. After the persecution of Banda in the most humiliating way, there was such a massive repression of Sikhs that they were forced to flee to the jungles where they slowly reorganised and after some time started ruling over small areas. Thus began the period of the misls. During this period three institutions were evolved; the Dal Khalsa (different armed bands of the Khalsa), Sarbat Khalsa (bi-annual general body meeting of Khalsa in the Golden Temple) and the Rakhi system (protecting everyone who paid taxes and remained loyal to the Khalsa). This, in my opinion, was the period when the community became a full-fledged ethnic group.

This amalgamation of different misls into an empire with Lahore as its capital by Ranjit Singh is generally regarded as the golden period of the Sikh history and some historians like Cunningham assert that during this period the Sikhs became a nation. But I have a different point of view. It is true that Ranjit Singh ruled in the name of the Khalsa, but he indulged in empire building rather than serving the cause of the Khalsa in the real sense of the term. More significantly, he abolished the two important institutions of Sikhism — the Dal Khalsa and the Sarbat Khalsa. In many ways, he permitted himself and the community to relapse into orthodox Hindu rituals — thus diffusing the boundary definitions of the two communities. One does not need some historical evidence to assert that he himself and quite a few Sikhs re-adopted Brahminical rituals against which all the Sikh Gurus had fought so vigorously. Even the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses were placed in gurdwaras. As during his regime and in his lifetime, the Hindu rituals were conspicuous at the time of his death. Some of his wives / mistresses committed sati on his funeral pyre, something strictly prohibited in Sikhism and totally banned by the Sikh Gurus.

Therefore, I believe that the nationality formation of the Sikhs took place during the last 120 years or so, i.e., from the beginning of the Namdhari or Kuka movement to the end of 1980s and through the various struggles against and the persecutions by the ruling powers. Baba Ram Singh and his followers of the Kuka movement fought against British imperialism on the one hand, and for reforms in Sikhism on the other. It is well-known that some 70 Kukas were blown out of the canon-mouth at Malerkotla by the British. The aim was to teach them a lesson rather than to punish them for a crime, and Ram Singh was exiled from Punjab to Burma to crush the movement. The British succeeded in their efforts, but the movement left a deep imprint in the psyche of the Sikh peasantry. There is no doubt that there were some collaborationist elements among the Sikhs, particularly the landed Sikh aristocracy.

Another massive upsurge which was in congruence with Sikh national aspiration was to be seen during the Gurdwara Reform Movement (1920-25). During the movement, hundreds of unarmed non-violent Sikhs were done to death when they went to liberate the gurdwaras (particularly Nanakana Sahib) from the corrupt mahants, and thousands were put into jail. Also, the break-away faction of the Sikh youth known as Babbars took to militancy. The Babbars, like Kukas, attacked two enemies — the British imperialists and their informers (mukhbirs) even if these were Sikhs. The collaborationist Sikhs were denounced as jholi-chuks (toadies) and were the main targets of their attacks. Like Kukas, the Babbars were crushed by the British when Gandhi denounced them as misguided patriots and the SGPC and SAD also went by the statement of Gandhi. The point which I want to emphasise here is that the heroic sacrifices made by Kukas and Babbars did create a national consciousness among the ordinary Sikh masses, particularly those inclined to puritanism.

During the partition, the Sikhs as a community suffered a great loss of life and property when they, along with the Hindus, were hounded out of Pakistani Punjab. I believe that the losses thus experienced by the community as a whole further strengthened the sense of national consciousness among the Sikhs. By this I do not mean to say, of course, that Hindus or Muslims did not suffer any loss of life and property. My point is altogether different.

As I have mentioned earlier, the three incidents of 1980s have finally consolidated the national consciousness among the Sikhs. It is difficult to foresee a dilution in this consciousness because in these incidents the Sikhs as a community suffered humiliation, unforgettable psychological blows, physical injuries and loss of life and property.

Therefore, I am of the view that Sikhs today are a nationality like any other nationality in India. I would be happy if someone comes out with a definition of nationality which Sikhs do not fit into.


1. See, for example, Joseph D. Cunningham, A History of the Sikhs from the Origin of the Nation to the Battles of the Sutlej, S. Chand and Co. Delhi, 1966 pp. 120, 200.
2. This was generally the theme of the conflict between the Punjab Arya Samaj and the Sikhs in the last two decades of the 19th century.
3. K.R, Bombwall, Ethno-nationalism, Punjab Journal of Politics, Vol. VII, No. 294, February 1984, pp. 44-53. Henceforth, I shall cite this paper only from the Seminar.
4. Ibid., pp. 49-53.
5. Quoted from ibid., p. 50.
6. Rajinder Kaur, Sikh Identity and National Integration, Intellectual Publishing House, New Delhi, 1992, pp. 17-36.
7. Ibid.
8. K.R. Bombwall, op. cit., pp. 49-53.
9. Ibid., p. 52.
10. I have discussed this point in more detail in Part III of this paper.
11. K.R. Bombwall, op. cit., p. 52.
12. Ibid., p. 53.
13. Ibid., p. 52.
14. Ibid., p. 53.
15. See, the Introduction and Political Goals of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution, 1978, SGPC, Amritsar.
16. For details, see Rajinder Kaur, op. cit., pp. 43-49. See also, Baldev Raj Nayyar, Minority Politics in the Punjab, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1966, pp. 76-97.
17. Quoted from Gurbachan Singh and Lal Singh Gyani, The Idea of the Sikh State, Lahore Book Shop, Lahore, 1946, pp. 1-3.
18. The fear of deliberate and persistent attempts to devalue and liquidate the Sikh people in free India and the determination to resist such attempts have formed the refrain of numerous resolutions passed by the SAD and public announcements of the Akali leaders. True, none of the SAD factions has defined Sikh nationalism in terms of a sovereign Sikh state as its objective. However, it was after the establishment of the present Punjab in which the Sikhs constitute a majority that the well-known Sikh scholar-politician, the late Sirdar Kapur Singh declared the Sikhs sui generis a “free and sovereign” people who had a birthright to claim and establish a sovereign political status for themselves by creating a homeland. Referring to a resolution passed by the Akali Dal (Master Tara Singh) Working Committee on July 20, 1966, Kapur Singh stated that “a new Punjab should be given an autonomous constitutional status on the analogy of Jammu and Kashmir.” As early as May, 1965, the Akali Dal (Master), which spoke for a minority of the Akalis, asserted that “there was no alternative left for the Sikhs, in the interest of self-preservation, than to frame their demand for a self-determined political status within the republic of Union of India. “The constitution of United Akali Dal, approved on September 2, 1974 included among the party’s objectives “the preservation, among the Sikhs, of a consciousness of an independent Panthak identity and carving out a territory and era (desh and kal) wherein the national sentiments and nationhood of the Sikh Panth may find the fullest embodiment and expression.” An SGPC pamphlet, Sikh Ate Bharati Rajniti (Sikhs and Indian Politics), published in 1974, included five pages listing complaints of “economic attacks on the Sikhs by the Centre”, “injustice to Sikh religion”, “political excesses against the Sikhs”, and “discrimination and excesses on all sides”. The theme of Sikh Kaum nal Dhokha (injustice to the Sikh nation) also figured prominently at the Ludhiana Akali Conference, held in October, 1978. This theme also ran through the 45 points of the charter of demands of the Akali Dal (Longowal) submitted to the prime minister, late Indira Gandhi (see K.R. Bombwall, op. cit., pp. 51-52).
19. G. Adhikari, Sikh Homeland, People’s Publishing House, Bombay, 1945, pp. 4-5.
20. Ibid., p. 3.
21. Ibid., pp. 5-6.
22. For details, see Satya M. Rai, Partition of Punjab: A Study of the Effects on Politics and Administration of Punjab, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1965.
23. See Gopal Singh, Factional Politics in Akali Dal and the Homelanders, Punjab Journal of Politics, Vol. XIV, Nos. 1-2, 1990. pp. 47-62.
24. Ibid., pp. 48-50.
25. For details see, Who Are the Guilty ?, PUDR and PUCL, Delhi, 1984.
26. Gopal Singh, op. cit., pp. 56-57.
27. Ibid.
28. For details, see his Documents on Sikh Homeland, edited by Jaswant Singh Mann, Chandigarh, 1969.
29. Paul R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1974, p. 279.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid., pp. 279-80.
32. Ibid., p. 279.
33. Ibid., p 280.
34. Ibid., pp. 280-81.
35. Ibid., p. 281
36. K.R. Bombwall, op. cit.
37. W.H. McLeod, Who Is a Sikh ? Problem of Sikh Identity, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989.
38. For details, see Rajinder Kaur, op. cit., pp. 17-35.




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