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Asunto:[CeHuNews] 140/03 - The Sikhs and the Challenges of the 21st Century
Fecha:Viernes, 6 de Junio, 2003  09:24:15 (-0300)
Autor:Humboldt <humboldt>

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CeHuNews 140/03

The Sikhs and the Challenges of the 21st Century

Dr. Mehar Singh Gill*

* Professor & Head, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala-147002. Punjab. India.

Being a distinct religion and having a different way of life, Sikhism marked a deep rupture with the religious traditions of South Asia. As religion had permeated virtually all aspects of life in this part of the world till recent years, the introduction of the Sikh religion changed the very tenor and pulse of life in the subcontinent. No wonder, the participation of the Sikhs in the socio-political and cultural life of the area has been eminently distinct in various ways.

The Sikhs have been through various ups and downs during the last three hundred years. From the mid-second decade of the eighteenth century to the beginning of 1760s, the Sikhs suffered severe persecution at the hands of the later Mughal rulers. Most of them were forced to seek shelter in jungles and in relatively inaccessible areas in and around Punjab. It was followed by the establishment of the Sikh rule under the Sikh Misls. Subsequently, Maharaja Ranjit Singh united most of these Misls under one banner and established the Khalsa rule in the area for about fifty years, in 1799.

The annexation of the Sikh kingdom by the British colonial power in 1849 was followed by gradual dilution of separate Sikh identity at different levels. This trend was reversed by the Singh Sabha Movement beginning in the 1880s. From that time, to the end of the British rule in 1947, the Sikhs forged ahead, continually in various walks of life.


Independent India

During the post-British period, the Sikhs had to confront various socio-political challenges in the country. Even when the euphoria of being citizens of a free country had not yet subsided fully, the Sikhs had come to realize that the Indian State would not get reconciled to the separate Sikh identity and, hence, to their distinct place in the country’s edifice. This is more than proved by a range of discriminations against Punjab and Punjabi which have been so dear to the Sikhs. The refusal by the Indian government to carve our Punjabi-speaking State in first instance points toward a strong bias of the Indian ruling class against the homeland of the Sikhs. When, in the early 1980s, the Sikhs rallied strongly for several rightful demands of the Punjabis in general and the Sikhs in particular, in Indian Government came down with a heavy hand in the form of the infamous Operation Blue Star and the Operation Woodrose during 1984.


Minorities in New Millennium

The twenty first century would throw up a number of challenges for the Sikhs, and also for other religious minorities in India. These challenges would mainly stem from : (i) The fast pace of technological change and consequent redistribution of people at a notable scale which portend to overwhelm areas of concentration of Sikh population with non-Sikh immigrants in near future; and (ii) strongly homogenising role of various components of globalization, which are further manipulated by the Indian ruling class to the disadvantage of the minorities, like the Sikhs, in the country. No doubt, these challenges exist for other religious groups also, but the emerging scenario is not as serious for them as for the Sikhs. Each major religion of the world enjoys direct or indirect State support and patronage and, thus, stands placed in a strategic situation to negotiate the new scenario of the twenty-first century on advantageous terns. However, the Sikhs do not enjoy even indirect support of the State. In fact, the Indian State has been consistently at work to dilute the Sikh identity ever since the end of the British rule in 1947.

In this context, the Sikhs face a two-fold challenge in the twenty first century. One, from the forces of homogenization unleashed by recent phase of globalization and, second, from the Indian State which, at every possible occasion, seeks to project and manipulate every religious minority in the country as a minor variant of the Hindu society.

The Sikh religion is under a two-pronged attack in India. On the one hand, Sikhism has not been recognized as a separate religion (except by default) by the Indian ruling class, notwithstanding the fact that it is singularly an original and basically a different religion. On the other hand, the State spares no effort, direct or indirect, to create and promote ‘sects’, often called different ‘faiths’, among the Sikhs. Significantly, these sponsored ‘sects’ or ‘faiths’ quote profusely from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy Scripture of the Sikhs. But at the same time, each of these faiths is headed by a living "guru" who also keeps unshorn hair as required of the Sikhs.

However, now the only Guru for the Sikhs is the holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib as ordained by the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh. It is a very subtle method of creating fissures in the Sikh society which the Sikh masses, by and large, fail to take due note of. It is important to mention that the operations of all these ‘sects’ are primarily limited to Punjab and other areas of concentration of the Sikh population.

A strong indication of State patronage to this phenomenon is manifested by the fact that no government has ever taken note of hundreds of crores worth of property in the name of these ‘sects’. Strangely enough, 1991 census figures, collected by the government, reveal that the total number of adherents of these ‘sects’ was fewer than 2500 each.


Erosion of Identity:

In this way promoting sectarian differentiation within the Sikh people, on the one hand, and denying its very existence as a separate religion on the other, are the two important methods, among others, applied by the Indian ruling class to checkmate Sikhism in the country. It is being done with a view to eroding the distinctiveness of the Sikhs; and, secondly, to dilute their numerical strength in the areas of their strategic concentration. The creation of negative stereotypes of the Sikhs through various types of media, including films, also works toward the same end.



Another major challenge facing the Sikhs in the present century is demographic in nature. The Sikhs are in majority in one State only, i.e. Punjab, However, considering the emerging patterns of migration to and from Punjab, it seems that the Sikhs’ numerical preponderance in Punjab would not last for more than a decade or so. Since the early 1980s, Punjab has been experiencing a huge influx of Hindi-speaking people, particularly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. Under the prevailing circumstances, the tempo of migration of these people to Punjab portends to experience further acceleration in the years to come. Moreover, as the fertility rate of these migrants from other States is considerably higher than that of the local Punjabis, their ratio in the total population of the State is bound to register rapid rise in the near future. Another notable factor in the anticipated rapid decline in the proportion of Sikh population in Punjab relates to considerable emigration of the Sikhs, particularly from the younger group, to foreign countries.

Once a country’s minority community in a conflict-prone society loses its majority in the area of its concentration, then a host of adverse effects - for its culture, language, relation and political position - follow as a natural consequence. In this context, the Sikhs in Punjab and, hence, in India, would be confronted with all such increasingly adverse effects in about 10 years’ time from now. One could easily read the foreshadows of such consequences in the stoic silence of the Sikh leadership and the Sikh elite on question of Sikh identity and Sikh culture. If such a demographic scenario emerges in Punjab itself, then it would be a tall order to expect development of Sikh culture in the Sikh Diaspora in different countries of the world.



Level of urbanization is rightly considered to be a sine-qua-non of socio-economic development of a people. From this angle, the position of the Sikhs is far from satisfactory. According to the 1991 Census, only 17.22 percent of the Sikhs in Punjab were recorded in urban areas. The corresponding figures for Haryana and Rajasthan were also no better as these stood at 20.37 percent and 16.55 percent, respectively. It is a matter of serious concern and introspection that the level of urbanization of the Sikhs in these States continues to be very low in spite of success of the Green Revolution there. Thus, more than four-fifths of the Sikhs in Punjab were residing in rural areas in 1991. Similarly, a very high percentage of these people are still engaged in agricultural activities. In other words, the Sikhs in Punjab continue to be primarily rural in residence and preponderantly agricultural in occupation. It means that the gains of the socio-economic development in general and those of the Green Revolution in particular have not percolated among the Sikhs to the desired extent. Had it happened in a meaningful manner, the proportion of the Sikhs outside agriculture would have gone up considerably by now. If the Sikhs do not become rapidly urbanized, and their occupational structure does not experience fast non-agriculturalization, these people would get increasingly marginalized in the emerging socio-economic scenario in the country.


Moral Tradition & Identity:

Culture is the most crucial issue confronting the Sikhs. The notable impact of the ‘mainstream’ politics in the country and a strong onslaught of the Indian as well as the foreign media in recent years are working to dilute the Sikh culture. Similarly, lack of requisite awareness, and also necessary commitment, on the part of the Sikh leadership to Sikh culture plays its own role in this regard. Though the Sikh political leadership at large is very fond of emphasizing the question of Sikh identity, yet it has always maintained an enigmatic silence about the issue of Sikh culture during the last about 50 years. Of late, particularly in the post-Bluestar Operation period, Punjabi culture has come to be emphasized without any mention of Sikh culture. However, if the huge influx of Hindi-speaking migrants from U.P., Bihar, and Rajasthan, etc. continues as at present, the day is not far off when even Punjabi culture would stand marginalized in the Punjab.

Such a socio-political and demographic scenario would pose a serious challenge to the distinct Sikh identity. In order to overcome this situation, the Sikh political and intellectual elites need to articulate the Sikh discourse with more clarity. The concept of the Indian mainstream, being all inclusive, is ultimately aimed at denying the existence of smaller discourses in the country. To a large extent, the same situation could be found in most of the other pluralist countries in the Third World. It is another matter, however, that in the Developed World smaller minorities are now getting increasingly greater accommodation and acceptance.