Sikhs may be just 2 per cent of the population but in their self- image and deportment, it is as if they constitute 200 per cent of India’s one billion. As the saying goes: “Ek Sikh barabar sava lakh.” Even during the worst days of the Partition, Sikhs never felt insecure about their religion as their Hindu counterparts did, and continue to do.
Why then does a small, insignificant sect like the Dera Sacha Sauda, that does not even claim to be Sikh, get mainstream Akalis and a large number of everyday Sikhs so hot and bothered? This Baba is no medieval tyrant and martyrdom of any kind would be thoroughly wasted on him. He is a minor figure whose demonising by the Akalis raised his stature and downgraded their gurus who gave up their lives in far more glorious battlefields.
The question then is: How did the Sikhs suddenly turn so insecure? When did it happen and where were we all looking? Or did the lights suddenly go off in the changing room?
The original Panthic Party, which later morphed into the Akali Dal after 1947, never evinced such worries either, and those were very difficult times. They regularly participated with the Congress before Independence. The party even supplied the Congress with a stable of leaders from Pratap Singh Kairon to Swaran Singh. On election campaigns in undivided Punjab, the Panthic Party frequently displayed the Congress symbol along with its own. On no occasion did any of this to-and-fro movement from Panthic Party and back threaten Sikhism. Nor did the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee declare Kairon or Swaran Singh, or any of the others who took their political blood lines to the Congress, apostates or ‘tankhaiyas’. Sikhism had that much confidence.
In 1899, when Sardar Kahn Singh Nabha wrote “Hum Hindu Nahin (We are not Hindus),” he did not castigate any other religion but just said the plain truth. The Sikhs were not Hindus and let the record state the facts. It was not as if he was prompted to write this tract because of the perceived fear that Hinduism was eating up Sikhism. In this sense he was not the mirror opposite of Swami Dayanand who took every other religion, including Sikhism, as a threat to the Hindu faith.
Nabha’s interjection was to remind his readers of the symbolic energies at the heart of his faith without deriding non-Sikhs, nor, even for a moment, hoping to proselytise other religions to his own. Even the Singh Sabhas and Chief Khalsa Diwan of that period were intent on crafting a separate Sikh identity and not in impressing their own thought prints on their immediate religious neighbours.
Interestingly, in the 60 years after Independence, the Akali Dal has never used the Partition to evoke partisanship the way Hindu parties, and sadly, the Congress even, have done from time to time. This is indeed quite remarkable. Sikhs too had suffered along with Hindus in their migration to east Punjab and beyond. And yet, unlike Hindus, the Partition is history for Sikhs, and not a source of political energies.
When I was working with re-settled rural Sikh refugees in Punjab and Haryana, what struck me the most was that they found my questions, which recalled the Partition, quite stupid. So many of these Sikhs told me to move on and not keep looking over my shoulder for monsters and chimeras of the past.
That was such a relief. Hindu refugees, in general, were still agonising over the Partition and related stirring tales of their experiences during those times. Most of this recall was highly adorned as my Hindu respondents in the early 1990s were either babies or playing in the mud in knickers when 1947 happened. Some post-Partition Hindu families even held prayer meetings to solemnly remember the day they were ousted from their homes. I found none of this among Sikh refugees. It is no surprise then that even a sectarian party like the Akali Dal has no use for the Partition as a leavening political agent.
Later, during the bad days of Khalistan, a large number of Sikhs felt that they were humiliated by the Indian state, but on no account did they believe that their religion was under threat. Khalistanis were, of course, baying to the contrary from the margins, but an overwhelming majority of Sikhs did not politically side with these secessionists though they were widely admired for giving the hated agents of the government a tough time. This is not an ‘a-ha’ moment for, in spite of the trauma post-Bluestar, Sikhs were willing to look ahead the moment Prime Minister V.P. Singh visited Punjab with a healing balm.
The Khalistani years, if one may call them that, however demonstrated that in times of crisis, it was not as if there were Sikhs and Sikhs. Regardless of caste and origin, all Sikhs came together. This is where the difference lies when we come to the Sikh over-reaction to Dera Sacha Sauda. There are now Sikhs and Sikhs and the lines are drawn along the grooves of caste.
Most of the animus against Baba Ram Rahim came from the Malwa region of Punjab where Jat Sikhs are politically dominant. It does not matter really if Jats vote Congress today and Akali tomorrow, it would always be a fight between ‘lions’. Dera Sacha Sauda trampled on this territory by bringing in non-Jats to kick up dust and spoil the Jat versus Jat slugfest.
This is why Baba Ram Rahim was so profoundly despised in Jat-dominated Akali circles. It was not because he was undermining Sikhism so much as using his “low caste” followers to defeat Jats in their own lair that made Baba Ram Rahim such a hated poster-boy for the Akalis. If the Congress had won without his support, that would still have been acceptable.
It is not true, as the Akalis allege, that in the advertisement put out by Baba Ram Rahim he dressed like Guru Gobind. His turban did not have a ‘kalgi (or plume)’, he was stirring Rooh Afza (or something pink) with a ladle and not with a sword (which is Khalsa tradition), and further, he was wearing pink and not blue, not even white. No icon of Guru Gobind can ever be depicted in that colour. Chhatrapati Shivaji’s popular imagery looks closer to Guru Gobind than this pink spectacle.
And yet many Sikhs blindly believed the Akalis when they said that Baba Ram Rahim was imitating Guru Gobind and thus mocking Sikhism. The majority of such Sikhs did not bother to verify the facts as they were primed to believe anything against him. It was their Jatness, not their Sikhness, that Baba Ram Rahim deeply hurt. In the 1980s, Hindus too eagerly believed the tale that the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was secessionist. The drive to hate always numbs the better senses.
At the end of the day what is most depressing is that Sikhs are becoming caste-ridden, and more and more like Hindus. If this trend continues then Sikhism will probably find its greatest threat from within and not from figures clad in baby pink.
Dipankar Gupta is professor, social sciences, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi