Militancy in Sikhism Today

(Adapted from an essay prepared for Professor Steven Vose at Florida International University)

Abstract Sikhism is the youngest major world religion with over 20 million practitioners and less than 1,000 years to its name. In its short life, however, Sikhism has fought many wars with Muslims, Hindus, and recently with foreign nations in regard to both diaspora and hate crimes. The emergence of the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, brought forth a militant attitude for Sikhs that even radical Islamic fundamentalists cannot rival in terms of order and objective. That objective is the autonomy to practice a Sikh way of life without interference. What is being presented here is the question of necessity; is a militant (or at least defensive) attitude among Sikhs today still validated by the past treatment in India, and more recently by animosity from Americans? Recent and current events involving Sikhs from Punjab, Canada, The United States and Mexico will serve as a springboard from which discussion will take place.

Tradition being the focus of this seminar, let us begin with the less intrusive traditions of Sikhs, allowing me to illustrate the foundation for a strong culture based on theology. Turbans and beards, for example, are a tradition stemming from the tenth Guru. Nobody would argue that these characteristics impair Sikhs from functioning in modern society in any way. There also exists a tradition of strong communal activity. It was Guru Nanak himself who outlined three commandments for a righteous life: work, worship and sharing what one earns. Sikhi, or the Sikh way of life, is an essential part of the theology. Again, one would have difficulty in asserting community service to be problematic. The purpose of outlining these harmless customs is simply to prove that tradition does not inherently hinder society in any way. When societies of different theological beliefs are forced to work together, however, there is often friction. Such has been the case in America, Canada and even in India for Sikhs.
Another Sikh tradition is the male adoption of the surname ‘Singh’, meaning lion. Females adopt the surname ‘Kaur’, meaning princess. Name changing began for Sikhs as a means of resisting the caste system, as one could distinguish the caste of a person by his/her last name. Unlike the turban and beard, changing one’s name is an act of defiance. Hindus did not approve of it, laying a small cornerstone for what will come to a head in Operation Blue Star. Before Operation Blue Star there lies quite an impressive history of resistance for Sikhs. First came the Mughal Empire who ran them into the hills of Punjab. At the decline of the Mughals came the Afghans, whom the Sikhs fought many battles with. Tensions with the Maratha Empire remained constant throughout the Maratha Reign. There were also two wars with the British known as the Anglo-Sikh wars. In fact, Sikhs have been given a defiant label since Guru Nanak first appeared to his neighbors and stated, ‘There is no Hindu and there is no Musalman’. Ranjit Singh was a leader who unified Punjab among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. He founded the first Sikh nation. Singh had also appointed Europeans as officers in his army as a sign of trust. Sadly, after Ranjit Singh’s death, the European officers set the Sikh armies up for slaughter in battles, thus starting the first Anglo-Sikh War. After a second Anglo-Sikh War, kick started by the British annexation of Punjab, Sikhs saw a small period of relative peace. Sikhs had lost the will to fight the British any longer and had been forced to agree to subjugation in the annexation of the Punjab. Life during this time was not horrible for Sikhs, though this was around the time the Singh Sabha movement formed out of necessity to push back against Christian missionaries. They even aided the British against the revolt of 1857. Aiding the British proved Sikhs to be in a different category than the Zealots of Judaism or fundamentalists of Islam. 
In the years leading up to Operation Blue Star, Sikhs found their collective voice being suppressed in the political arena. The Khalistan movement was a political nationalist movement started in the 1940’s with a resurgence in the 1970’s. It advocated for a separate sovereign Sikh state. In 1966, the state boundaries were adjusted and Sikhs finally got their own territory, though many still wanted a state independent of India. One of those people was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Akali Dal was the major political party that rose to power, and it kept pushing for special privileges for Punjab. Tensions were rising, and in 1978 a group of Sikh youths were killed by a reformist group known as Nirankaris during one of their conventions. It was obvious the Nirankaris had support from Hindu police. The Nirankaris responsible were tried outside of Punjab and acquitted, which gave Bhindranwale instant support from the outraged Punjabi Sikhs. This was the start of the major push for Khalistan. Conspiracy theories about Bhindranwale being backed by Indira Gandhi to suppress the Akali Dal’s power are plentiful, but they are not the focus of this lecture. 
Since the early 1900’s, many have emigrated to Canada or the United States. Sikhs initially endured beatings and extreme economic oppression. Immigrants remained peaceful, but began banding together and having their voices heard through a variety of publications and petitions. Today Sikhs are being profiled by airlines in Mexico and they’re seeing new graffiti on their gurudwaras in the United States. There is no violent resistance occurring, but there is an outcry for education of Sikh-Muslim religious rights in the West. Muslims are naturally the ultimate losers in the West; they are the intended recipients of American hate crimes, after all. In Mexico a story recently emerged involving actor Waris Ahluwalia who was essentially stopped from boarding an aircraft in Mexico because of his turban if he had not taken it off. Mr. Ahluwalia intentionally remained in Mexico until the airline agreed to adjust its procedures regarding religious headwear. In the United States, Sikhs are taking to the media once again to peacefully resist the attacks from Americans. Stories are being printed and posted every month with new families that have become victims of bigotry. 
Another hurtle for the Sikh community, both Punjabi and American, is that of religion versus culture. The youth are becoming more westernized. They drink, smoke, refer to themselves by caste and cut their hair. Resistance from this problem comes from Sikh women. Recently, an increasing number of women began wearing turbans and letting their hair grow as a sign of their devotion. They claim to do this to directly show their love of their faith and to combat the gradual disappearance of Sikh traditions. The initial question of this study was the necessity for a tradition of resistance. Though violence in Punjab has halted and there are no major military forces for Sikhs to battle at the moment, old stereotypes and new cultural assimilations attempt to diminish tradition. Recent events and diaspora history indicate that resistance is as much an active part of life as ever for Sikhs.

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