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Bridging communal divides in India

Published by Newsweek on 1999-04-01

While India's Hindu-nationalist-led government foundered in New Delhi last week, a few hundred miles away six million Indians squeezed into the small Punjab town of Anandpur Sahib to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of modern Sikhism.

The gathering marked more than a unique anniversary at the holy shrine of a monotheistic religion. It also signaled, in effect, a coming of age of modern Punjab, a state that has long been India's granary and a model of agro-economic innovation for developing countries. For much of the last two decades Punjab had also been a seedbed for a violent Sikh separatist campaign, and last week's joyous milestone, too, highlighted that such terrorism had been finally overcome--not just by Indian authorities who frequently used ruthless tactics but by the sustained efforts of Sikhs themselves. And the coming together of such large numbers of Sikhs and Hindus also suggested that the communal fissures that had deepened during the separatist era had at last been sutured, if not entirely sealed.

The formal occasion for last week's celebrations was the founding of the "Khalsa," a Punjabi word that translates as "pure." The Khalsa was a militant fraternity started in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the last of Sikhism's 10 gurus. By the time he'd assembled five trusted lieutenants in Anandpur Sahib that year to re-energize the faith in the face of invading Islam's onslaught, Sikhism had already existed in one form or another since its creation 200 years earlier by Guru Nanak as a protest against Hinduism's suffocating casteism. Calling his five disciples "panj piyarey" ("the five beloved ones") it was Guru Gobind who named the Sikh fighting fraternity the Khalsa. The Khalsa were told that their last name would be "Singh" ("lion"). He directed them to observe the "Five Ks": "kesh" ( not to cut hair); "Kangha" (to always carry a comb in the hair); "kuchha" (to wear underpants, as a sign of cleanliness); "kara" (to wear a steel bangle); and "kirpan" (to carry a dagger indicating the Sikh martial tradition). Thus was modern Sikhism born--and thus came about the distinctive appearance of turbaned and hirsute Sikhs.

Sikhs number only 16 million of India's billion people; most of them live in Punjab. There are perhaps another five million Sikhs in Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada, the U.S., Australia and the Caribbean. Sikhs have distinguished themselves in India's military--of the 40 Victoria Crosses that the British awarded to Indian soldiers since 1914, 21 were given to Sikhs who received this highest British military medal for battlefield valor. Sikhs created Punjab's "Green Revolution," which transformed India from a famine-stricken, grain-importing country into a food exporter; this revolution is probably independent India's finest economic achievement, one that has become a case study for sustainable development globally. In places such as California and Thailand, Sikh entrepreneurs have become formidable large-scale growers of fruits and vegetables.

"Sikhs have proved their staying power wherever they have put down their roots," says Patwant Singh, a Delhi-based historian. "Sikhs have not only prospered in business, industry and the professions; they are also beginning to participate in the political life of the countries of their adoption. They now sit in the legislatures of many nations. And because they wear the outward symbols of their faith with pride, they stand out for their distinctive appearance, good humor, and just a touch of swagger."

Singh, the author of a recently published book, "The Sikhs," adds: "It has been a long journey from the time Sikhs took on formidable odds to the present. None of their assertiveness, energy or enterprising spirit has lessened. The achievements and adversities of their history have produced a compelling optimism which has helped them emerge stronger after each trial."

No trial--not persecution by India's Mughal rulers over three centuries, not battles against the British imperialists in the 18th and 19th centuries- proved more debilitating for Sikhs than their separatist campaign of the last two decades. Driven by fulminating politicians and fundamentalist preachers, Sikh militants undertook terrorism that not only affected Punjab but also encouraged separatists in other parts of India and, indeed, elsewhere in the developing world. They received funding and weapons from Sikh brethren in Europe and North America. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who had earlier tacitly supported one militant faction in its internecine political squabble with another) finally sent in troops to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984.. Four months later, two Sikh bodyguards murdered the prime minister in the garden of her home in New Delhi. And in the aftermath of the assassination, more than 5,000 innocent Sikh men, women and children were killed across northern Indian by rampaging mobs.

Those mobs were led by Hindu politicians, few of whom have been apprehended after all these years. The attacks and that gross travesty of justice still rankle Sikhs in Punjab, and decent Indians everywhere. But it is a tribute to the leadership qualities of moderate Sikh political groups such as the Akali Dal, and the high priests of Guru Gobind Singh's 300 year-old Khalsa, that the rhetoric of militancy and separatism has diminished, even to the point of disappearance. Everyday Sikhs realized that the separatists--who fought for an independent state they wanted to call Khalistan--were little more than extortionists. And the governments of nations where some Sikh immigrants were supportive of the Punjab militants cooperated with the Indian authorities by cracking down on fundraising for militant causes.

Last week's celebrations in Anandpur Sahib and in many countries where Sikhs have settled and prospered, suggested that in a secular state there can be ample room for a deeply religious community that is willing to abide by the political rule of moderation. Sikhs have shown that, notwithstanding historical militancy, they welcome the social contract of convivial tolerance with India's majority Hindus. And at a time when Hindus elsewhere are engaging in terrible acts of violence against Christians and other minorities, the Punjab's catalytic experience offers a valuable lesson of how communal divides can be breached.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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