By Nikita Azad:
In September this year, Akal Takht, the highest temporal authority of Sikhs pardoned Dera Sirsa Head, Gurmeet Ram Rahim for the 2007 blasphemy case. In 2007, he had imitated the tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, in attire, and had copied a practice of baptising Sikhs, for his own followers. As soon as Akal Takht gave its decision to exonerate the Dera head, it evoked a series of protests from a majority of the Sikh section, including radicals and moderate Sikhs. During this time, pages of the religious scripture of Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, were torn in different places and it augmented the already hurt sentiments of Sikhs. Following the unprecedented discontent of the people, Akal Takht revoked its decision to pardon the Dera chief, but the tense atmosphere continued to prevail. Also, two Sikhs were shot dead, a number of Sikhs injured, and brutally lathi charged by police during a mass protest against the sacrilege.
These incidents, and the long-standing demand for releasing Sikh political prisoners vested in the ongoing 302 days long hunger strike of Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa seem to converge. Along with it, the understanding of suppressed religious minorities found platform and a condition to get addressed in the mass meeting of all Sikh organizations, known as Sarbat Khalsa. On November 10, Sikh organizations gathered in lakhs, in a village near Taran Taran, Amritsar to challenge authoritarian leaders who represented Akal Takht, and chose Jagtar Singh Hawara as the supreme religious leader of Sikhs, and jathedar of Akal Takht. Jathedar Hawara is convicted of the murder of Beant Singh, who was the Chief Minister of Punjab during the Sikh Genocide of 1984. He is undergoing imprisonment until death, and while still sitting behind bars, Sikh organizations have made him a religious hero. The same day, these outfits filed a petition to the Obama Administration to release Jathedar Hawara from India. This step has given a new turn to the movement, with conflicts among the Sikh organizations themselves, whereby Shiromani Akali Dal has rejected all the resolutions passed in the meeting. Voices of making Khalistan, a separate state for the Sikhs were also heard at the site of the protest. Many posters and flags were hurled in the air which read ‘Khalistan’.
A movement which was initiated with a calculated pardon and sacrilege of the holy book has reached the demand for a separate state. In the meeting, the resolution was passed that the movement will continue until a Sikh state is won, but did not consciously use the name ‘Khalistan’.
There is no denying the fact that Sikhs faced and continue to face oppression as a religious minority in the nation, and the horrors of 1984 are still burning, not only their minds, but in the minds of many others. Sikhs have always considered themselves as having a separate, independent identity, initially as a reaction to continuous oppression by Mughal emperors, later as reaction to the Brahamanical Indian state. The term oppression is quite comprehensive in the light of present day’s capitalist nation-states, whereby along with class oppression, other forms of oppression like gender, caste, language, and religion prevail, proliferating isolated cults of resistance formed on linearity. It is in this linear, one-dimensional understanding of oppression that separatist voices of Punjab are burgeoning.
For over two months, Punjab has remained quite tense, with no predictions about the future. This unpredictability stems from the movement’s disassociation with Punjab’s socio-economic circumstances that need to be visited. Punjab is a home to a number of Hindu migrants who work as labourers in Punjab’s fields and factories. Neither does their livelihood find a place in the movement, nor does their oppression get considered as oppression. Dalits of Punjab, who constitute 33% of the total populace lack representation in the movement entirely. Instead of a resolution calling for land reforms and land distribution among the landless, the Dalit issue is reduced to abolishing separate Gurdwaras for Dalits and Upper Castes. Interestingly, gender based oppression is not even included in the resolution! The resolution, which is hailed as one holding the flag of equality, speaks not a single word about the highly Brahaminical division between mental and physical labour. In the name of development for all, it says that small peasantry does not have access to machinery, so machinery should be made accessible. It arrogantly refuses to dwell upon the question of ownership patterns of land and other resources, and speaks only of increasing wages of labourers. Overall, it badly lacks a scientific understanding of society and the state.
The immediate and long standing cause of the movement is the religious oppression done by the Indian state. The reasons behind the character of the state to suppress the voices of all Dalit, Adivasi, religious minorities, and linguistic minorities are never contemplated on. The movement lacks comprehensiveness by submitting its problems to religious oppression exclusively, and isolating Sikhs from broad masses who face severe exploitation at the hands of the imperialism-government nexus.
The philosophy of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Guru of Sikhs is one that vehemently opposes Brahmanism, casteism, and patriarchy, and is thus progressive. The history of Sikhism has it all, progressive philosophy, sacrifices, and detachment from ruling class ideologies. But, at the end of the day, it becomes fanatic when an institutionalized structure is given to it in the name of a religion. This standardisation of a way of life, when given a strict set of codes and procedures, hamper the development of society. From Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind, Sikhism, as a philosophy has achieved heights in ideology, as well as practice, but it started degrading later on. As soon as institutions were set up to promote the ideology, it became a religion, and absorbed casteism in its practice, just as a piece of paper absorbs water. It closed its doors for the word ‘change’ just like other religions. It criticised criticism, just as all other cults.
From then on, it has become a religion v/s other religions, which fight for their existence, and rejoice at the numbers which follow them. It does not provide an alternative to the oppression, rather creates another, with certain changes only in the form. As a child, I once read a quote, “In the battle of ideas, it is the common man who suffers.” I prefer the word religions to ideas, and find the quote highly appropriate for the situation.
The meetings which are going on pose a threat not only to the state, but also to their own people by diverting the questions towards a religious belief spiritually, and a separate state objectively. The youth of Punjab has resistance in its blood, which it has exhibited a number of times in its bitter fight against the state. The questions of unemployment, casteism, patriarchy, labour are on the rise among the youth. Instead of engaging them in healthy practices of finding answers, and putting up a scientific fight, their inquisitiveness is shunned in the name of religion. History shows how states have used religion as a tool of exploitation, by distinguishing between the material and the spiritual world, and thus encouraging people to forget about all questions concerning their material life.
Thus, in this age of contesting ideologies, the youth needs to be more critical and vigilant than before to take a correct stand to put an end to all forms of oppression. In the end, I would like to quote a scientist of this era, Stephen Hawking, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.“