The intersection between religion and politics has always been an integral part of the dynamics in the evolution of the Sikh tradition. The seeds of sovereignty sown by Guru Nanak flowered in the form of an ideology of m ̄ır ̄ı-p ̄ır ̄ı for a new religious-political dispensation. As such, what was latent became manifest, and what became manifest awakened the Mughal authorities to a formidable challenge in the thrust of the growing Sikh power.
In the beginning of the 19th century, Rattan Singh Bhangu presented in his Sri Guru Panth Prakash (1810s) the political mission of the Sikh Panth as an indivisible part of its worldview. In his conversations with Captain Murray who was charged with preparing the history of the Sikhs, Bhangu stressed the point that the Sikh Panth had always
“preserved the right to sovereignty” (ham ra ̄khat pa ̄tisha ̄h ̄ı da ̄ava ̄). He asserted that Baba Nanak was the “master of both spiritual and temporal matters, but in his grace gave the political power to Mir Babur (1483–1530), the founder of the Mughal dynasty” He further claimed that three generations later, Babur’s descendants began to misuse their power—the execution of Guru Arjan, and later that of Guru Tegh Bahadur being the concrete examples of this—and forfeited their right to rule as a result of their misdeeds. Guru Gobind Singh decided to “elevate the Sikhs” to the position of rulers and assigned them a visible identity by ordering them to wear their hair uncut and bear weaponry. Thus, the constant recitation of the litany “Khalsa shall Rule!” in the congregational prayer has shaped the perceptions of the Sikhs at different historical junctures. They have invoked the 18th-century traditions of Sarbat Khalsa, heroism, defiance, loyalty and martyrdom in their present-day struggles. What counts is history as a people actually understand it in their living experience, and for most Sikhs that history dwells in the present as well as in the past
One recurring theme in the process of Sikh formations has been ‘interference’ in Sikh affairs by the state, whether it was the Mughal regime or the British Raj or even the Government of India. Most recently, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has warned its ally BJP against interference in Sikh
religious affairs. It strongly objected to an amendment to Section 11 of Sri Hazur Sahib Management Act, which allows the government to elect gurdwara management chief. Even though the BJP claimed no attempts were being made to “dilute” Sikh shrines, the Akalis remained defiant. In a series of tweets, SAD spokesperson Manjinder Singh Sirsa accused the BJP of meddling in the affairs of gurdwaras by trying to install its own persons in gurdwara managements: “We can sacrifice the alliance but cannot tolerate interference in the religious affairs of the community.” Sikh minorities across the world are feeling agitated over attempts by the BJP to try and interfere in Gurdwara Patna Sahib. We stopped that by petitioning BJP chief Amit Shah. Now attempts are being made by the BJP-led Maharashtra Government to install their own person as head of the board of Gurdwara Takht Hazur Sahib, Nanded. “This cannot be tolerated. Let the BJP be warned. For us MLA/MP posts are not important. For us, the service of the community is important. If they don’t stop meddling in our religious affairs, we will be forced to take the extreme step,” Sirsa warned in a video message (The Tribune 2019, 31 January 2019). A truce has finally been called between the warring BJP and SAD, after a meeting between BJP president Amit Shah and the Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal in Delhi. Both the Akali Dal and BJP confirmed that the presidents of the two parties met for almost two hours. During this meeting, Shah is said to have assured Sukhbir that the amendment made in the Act would be withdrawn (Khanna 2019).
In the 20th century, modern governments have continuously redefined the religious-secular distinctions for the purpose of classifying institutions, practices and people as either “religious” or “non-religious.” By doing so, the state actors have been “able to redefine and monopolize the meaning of sovereignty, thereby divesting Sikhs of access to their own forms of sovereign consciousness in their enunciations” For instance, the original 1950 text of the preamble to the Constitution of India used only the words “sovereign democratic republic.” The addition of the terms “socialist” and “secular” came by way of the forty-second amendment to the Constitution Act of 1976, enacted during the national emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi from June 1975 through January of 1977 (Larson 1995, p. 10). This was consciously done to promote the Nehruvian model of
the religion–secularism divide based upon the modernist assumptions of the West. Unsurprisingly, right-wing Hindus have strongly criticized it as pseudo-secularism.
The highly contentious Article 25 (2)[b] of the Indian Constitution states that “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu institutions shall be construed accordingly.” The legal net of
‘Hinduism’ is cast very widely in the Constitution of India in such a way that it raises the fundamental problem of defining ‘Hinduism’. Sikh resentment resurfaced during the 1980s when Akali leader Parkash Singh Badal publicly burned a copy of Article 25 in New Delhi. Both Sikh and Hindu politicians have used popular interpretations of constitutional wording for their own purposes in ensuing confrontation. Therefore, to remove this misunderstanding, the National Commission to Review the Constitution headed by the former Chief Justice of India, Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, made the following recommendation: “The commission, without going into the larger issue on which the contention is based, is of the opinion that the purpose of the representations would be served if Explanation II to Article 25 is omitted and sub-clause (b) of clause (2) of that article is reworded as follows—(b) “providing for social welfare and reform or throwing open of Hindu, Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of these religions” (Ramachandran 2002, The Tribune, 3 April 2002). When this amendment to Article 25 is carried out, the Indian Constitution will duly recognize the distinct and independent identity of Sikhism.
One of the significant consequences of contemporary globalization has been to sever the connections between the state—a coercive apparatus of governance defined in terms of its monopoly over organized violence—and the nation—an ‘imagined political community’ to the point where
‘many national projects today no longer involve an aspiration to acquire their own sovereign state’ Accordingly, the de-territorialization of nationalism has created a space for the assertion of ‘multiple and overlapping sovereignties’ Thus, sovereignty is no longer seen as the absolute and exclusive attribute of territorially demarcated nation-states, but as plural and mobile. Consequently, Shani argues, it may be possible for the Khalsa Panth to escape the long shadow of territoriality cast by ‘the myth of Westphalia’ and reclaim the sovereignty invested in it by Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur in 1699 without the establishment of Khalistan (Shani 2014, pp. 279–80; Shani 2008, pp. 128–51). Shani’s arguments make sense in a global framework based upon the universality of Sikh values. They may not appeal to a fringe group of the Sikhs (whether in the Punjab or in the diaspora) who are still involved in raising the slogan of ‘Khalistan’
Sikh resistance to brutal state structures has always been formidable. When the Akal Takhat, the seat of temporal authority and political power of the Sikhs, was destroyed during Operation Blue Star in 1984, the Government of India swiftly rebuilt it to pacify the Sikhs. The Sikh Panth did not accept the government-built Akal Takhat, and they razed it to the ground and rebuilt it with their own resources. This action was simply meant to preserve their sovereign consciousness. The Punjab crisis was specifically created by the government agencies that acted as ‘extended arms’ of state machinery to carry out its evil designs. In modern parlance, it is known as ‘penetration strategy’:
“You stand for separation of religion and politics; encourage use of religion in a certain community for political purposes; and then take action against the community for mixing religion and politics” (Grewal 1998, p. 101). In this context, Virginia Van Dyke (2009) has recently provided a summary of competing narratives of the Punjab crisis. The dominant narrative told by the Akali Dal and supported by many academic and journalistic sources focuses on the malfeasance and vindictiveness of the state, more specifically the Congress Party and Indira Gandhi herself. In this narrative, the rise of a militant movement was a creation of Congress in 1978 to successfully destabilize the Parkash Singh Badal government, leading to nearly two decades of strife. In order to defeat the nefarious designs of Congress, so goes the narrative, there is a need for the coalition between the BJP and the Akalis to preserve harmony and reassure the populace of continued peace. This coalition is also necessary in changing the image of the Sikhs as anti-national. In contrast to the above view, there are other narratives that focus on the desire of the Sikhs for autonomy or independence. And there are also opposing viewpoints to the argument that the coalition between the Akali Dal and the BJP is a statesman-like inter-communal alliance to preserve the peace. According to these alternative voices, including from those few and dwindling number of Akalis who do not belong to the Badal faction, the alliance with BJP is completely self-serving on the part of the BJP and Badal and his supporters. These voices are relatively muted due to the widespread desire for peace, along with structural changes that support the main Akali faction’s position (Dyke 2009, p. 126).
However, there is still another narrative, one that deserves much more attention than it has received to date, namely a narrative highlighting the ongoing non-violent dimension of Sikh ‘militancy’. The representation of Sikhs and Sikhism in violent and militant images has been pivotal in popular understandings of Sikhism since colonial times. Sikh history is indeed replete with the valor of the Sikh warrior in battle. However, there is less attention to the Sikh warrior in equally and perhaps more demanding non-violent actions. For instance, Paul Wallace (2011) makes the point that the Sikhs are not essentially violent but militant where ‘militancy’ does not mean violence in actions and reactions alone, but also an aggressive and passionate stand for the cause of their religion and the Gurus. Through a study of the development of non-violent militancy, Wallace argues that public demonstrations and political demands through non-violent means have been more successful than violent ones. Three case studies (of the Gurdwara Reform movement from 1920–1925, the Punjabi Suba (‘Province’) movement from 1947–1966, and movement against the emergency imposed by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975–1977) highlight the strengths of non-violent struggles and those of the actors within the Akali Dal. The violence during the 1980s in the Punjab, Wallace argues, is now finding ways of closure through non-violent democratic means, moving away from ‘anti-centrism’ to ‘cooperative federalism’. Conflict resolution can be found through measures of democratic process and accommodating the former militants in a peaceful manner, along with initiating transparency and justice through the state structure (Wallace 2011, pp. 85–101).
In sum, the Sikh life-world intends to overcome the frequently encountered ‘religious’/‘secular’, ‘private’/‘public’ and ‘belief’/‘practice’ binaries of ‘Western’ traditions. In this context, Ivan Strenski has made an important observation that “religion can be both public and a player in the game of political power, where the conventional clichéd assumptions about religion being this so-called ‘spiritual’ and internal reality do not always square with facts” (Strenski 2010, p. 154). It is no wonder that all the public–private, religion–politics, and church–state dichotomies have come under the powerful critique of postmodern and post-colonial studies. It has been forcefully argued that such dichotomies, rather than describing reality as it is, justify a certain configuration of power.
So what is the stance of Sikhs in Politics?
1. The first & foremost thing to remember is that no matter what side of the house you sit in, whether it is the left or the right. Whether you belong to Conservative Ideology or Liberal one, your politics has to be anti-hate. And both the sides of the house ie left & right provide the scope for that.
2. ‘Inclusive of all’- ‘Sarbhat da Bhala’- If you are a Sikh I don’t see how you can be selective in picking up side when it comes to offering services and help to people. Your politics should be inclusive of all without any bias. Both left & right don’t provide scope for this. Left adopts secularism & tags of being progressive but at the end of the day believe in ripping off rich to feed poor or are anti market for that matter. Right on the other hand has its issues too when it comes to being selective. Right believes in hierarchy based society & that again violates the fundamental of being a Sikh.
3. Uphold Sikhi values & traditions. While left is politically correct on the values & traditions, it doesn’t actually stand for a society based on those & instead see’s the stronger form of religion as a threat. Sikhs have already faced the brunt by aiding Nehruvian model of left & how it backfired when it saw Sikhi influence growing. Right on the other hand encourages religion & traditions unless it challenges the majoritarian religion which brings me to two kinds of right that india has seen, one under Vajpayee & the current one under Modi.
4. Stand against oppression. While being a leftist a Sikh would be in a pressure cooker situation to be politically correct at all times & would not dare talk against oppression, right wing may take it little further for a Sikh to be actually an oppressor. Right no doubt encourages calling spade a spade and hence falls in line with what Sikhs are required to do in the face of aggression & oppression.
5. Money Models. Both the ideologies are built on how to make economic reforms in a country. While left is considered anti market & right is considered a system of less accountability when it comes to money, Sikhs need to understand the value of Maya, kirat & the importance of social & economic life. The model Of giving without expectations is not found in both the ideologies & is also not feasible in economies. It is here that Guru Nanak comes to aid & tells us that parameter of equality is to be used. Left wins in this.
6. Interference in the lives of Subjects & Protests by Subjects or citizens. While left argues that citizens should be left to deal with their likes, dislikes, and narratives around culture and its modifications or adaptations, right is very vocal about purity of culture. What would sikhs be expected to do? The answer is a yes and no to both. While Sikhs are not interested in the affairs of other religions and their people or how they conduct their lives, the Sikh affairs are important & adulteration in culture would be something that can’t have leftist approach. You see what I’m saying? Sikhs have to be Right when it comes to Sikhs & liberal when it comes to other religions. The examples of these are times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who ruled over Sikhs, Muslims & Hindus without interfering in affairs of either Muslims or Hindus.
It needs to be understood that Sikhs should align themselves to political ideology that offers, sovereignty in religion, fearlessness, freedom to choose, & recognition as independent faith. I leave it to Singhs & Kaurs in politics to decide for better.