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‘RSS is the anti-thesis of Sikhism’: Sikhs resist Sangh expansion in Punjab

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 8 November 2017, 12:50 IST
(Arya Sharma)

The Hindutva brigade appears to have a new target for its propaganda – Punjab. The message is very similar what is being propagated in West Bengal and Kerala – “Hindus are under threat” and there is a “Pakistan-sponsored conspiracy” behind it.

On Sunday, a known right-wing news channel had a rather alarmist feature titled “Return of Bhindranwale’s ghost: Jihad against Hindus in Punjab”. The thrust of the story was that Pakistan was trying to replicate its “Mission Kashmir” in Punjab by orchestrating attacks on Hindus in the Sikh-majority state.

The channel insinuated that the recent killings of Hindutva leaders were part of a larger “Pakistani-Khalistani” conspiracy. The most recent killing cited is the murder of Hindu Sangharsh Sena leader Vipina Sharma in Amritsar on 30 October this year.

A day later, there were reports that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is going to probe the murders of Hindu leaders in Punjab, indicating that the Centre views the killings as possible acts of terror.

It is strange that the Union government and the right-wing media are choosing to give the killings a terror spin, particularly in the Vipina Sharma case. Punjab Anti-Terror Squad chief Kunwar Vijay Partap Singh has categorically stated that there was absolutely no terror angle in Sharma’s killing and that the motive was “personal rivalry”.

He also warned that people were using the murder to create communal tensions in Punjab.

Shamsher Singh of the National Sikh Youth Federation believes these are extremely sinister attempts to prepare the ground for communal violence.

“This type of divisive and communal rhetoric lead to the pogroms in Delhi in November 1984. For Sikhs, such rhetoric is seen as a potential foregrounding for oppressive policing tactics,” he told Catch.

It must be remembered that recently a few Shiv Sena functionaries from Punjab were arrested for trying to fake threats from Sikh outfits and incite communal tensions.

If at all there is a broader pattern at work in Punjab, it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’s) attempts to expand its base in the state.

Nothing reflects this more than the sudden spurt in the activities of the RSS affiliated Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. The body organised an event commemorating Guru Gobind Singh’s 350th birth anniversary on 25 October. The Sikh Sangat has also questioned the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhakh Committee’s expenditures.

However, the RSS and other Hindutva outfits are facing a strong resistance from within the Sikh community.

The pushback begins right at the top – the Akal Takht, the highest seat of temporal authority of the Sikh community -- denounced the Sikh Sangat and ordered Sikhs to boycott its event.

Several Sikh grassroots level organisations and public intellectuals are also actively resisting the RSS’ expansion efforts.

Ideological opposition

“The Akal Takht’s Hukamnama declares that the RSS is the antithesis of Sikh values. It seeks to undermine the fabric of the Sikh way of life and the minds and bodies of Sikh people,” Shamsher Singh of the National Sikh Youth Federation, told Catch.

“Sikhs have resisted imperialistic, fascist, racist, and oppressive forces since the time of Guru Nanak Dev ji. The 2004 Akal Takht Humkamnama demonstrates these long held Sikh sentiments,” he further adds.

According to senior journalist Jagtar Singh, RSS is selectively interpreting Sikh history to push its political agenda. This, according to him, amounts to “desecrating Sikh philosophy”.

“At the centre of the Sikh thought is Guru Nanak. RSS should start with Guru Nanak in case its intentions are sincere rather than quoting Guru Gobind Singh out of context. This distortion amounts to desecration of Sikh philosophy,” Jagtar Singh writes.

He argues that RSS aims to present Sikhs as a shield of Hinduism against Islam, which is a highly distorted view.

“RSS and its Sikh front Rashtriya Sikh Sangat has been projecting Guru Gobind Singh by projecting him as a ‘national’ hero like Shivaji. Sikh thought is universal and without boundaries as against sectarian Hindutva. Eulogising Guru Gobind Singh just as a ‘national hero’ is reductionist”.

Countering the argument of RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, Jagtar Singh points out “RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has been quoted as saying, ‘Guru Gobind Singh and the entire Sikh religion have acted as a shield for out ancient Sanatan Dharm against attacks from foreign forces’. These foreign forces are Muslims. It is conveniently that Guru Gobind Singh came into confrontation first with the Hindu kings in the area around Anandpur Sahib”.

On the other hand, he argues that “Muslims in Pakistani Punjab treat Maharaja Ranjit Singh as the only Punjabi Emperor and own him. History is dynamic and shaped by the contemporary situation.”

Jagtar Singh further takes a dig at the RSS leaders saying that if they are so impressed with Guru Gobind Singh, “what stops them from embracing Sikhism?”

Threat to Sikh identity

Sikh community leaders’ opposition to RSS stems from the latter’s efforts to appropriate Sikhism as part of Hinduism and not as a separate entity. The RSS in Punjab has inherited the Arya Samaj’s mission of bringing Sikhs back into the Hindu fold.

This deliberate denial of the Sikhs’ identity as a separate religious community is deeply resented by Sikh leaders and the community at large. This resentment lies at the heart of the Akal Takht’s Hukamnama against the Sikh Sangat.

“The RSS’ policies seek to undermine Sikhi as a distinct and sovereign religious and political tradition. It presents the Khalsa Panth as the military arm of the Hindu religion,” Shamsher Singh said.

What is more disturbing, as Jagtar Singh has argued, are the Hindutva brigade’s efforts to project Sikhism as an anti-Muslim cult by emphasising solely on the Gurus’ tussle against the Mughals and giving it a communal slant.

This is completely opposite of what the Sikh leadership has stood for. The Shiromani Akali Dal’s Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1973 clearly emphasised on the rights of all religious minorities, not just Sikhs.

The dominant opinion in the community is that the Gurus’ opposition to Mughals was a struggle against oppression, not a battle against Islam.

“Sikhs share the same concerns about the RSS that all liberal secular Indian’s share. The RSS violently promotes the Hindutva agenda,” Shamsher Singh told Catch.

Voicing concerns of the community, he said “In the past few years, radical nationalism has been blamed for a rise in attacks against beef eaters, continuing mob assaults on Africans and a countless list of attacks on other minority communities. Sikh concerns revolve around the fact these issues remain an endemic part of everyday life in India and that state authorities do nothing to quell them in the long term”.

Political tactics

The RSS appears to have intensified its efforts in Punjab especially after the defeat of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance in the Assembly elections earlier this year. It is believed that the RSS working towards carving out a base in Punjab that is independent of the SAD. The plan is three-fold. First, to consolidate Hindus by playing up the alleged threat that the community faces in the state. Second, to use Deras to woo Mazhabi or Dalit Sikhs. The BJP’s support to Dera Sacha Sauda was part of this process. Third, to create confusion within Panthic Sikhs through outfits like the Sikh Sangat and expand influence in Sikh bodies.

“Personally I view this as an effort to consolidate power, SAD has traditionally been a Sikh political party, although this is no longer the case, SAD relies on grass roots support of the Sikh community. The RSS is attempting to galvanise that support base by seemingly addressing ‘social ills’ to build legitimacy with the Sikh community. This is why the Hukamnama has become a central issue, Sikhs have called out the RSS on an ideological level,” Shamsher Singh believes.

Jagtar Singh, too, argues that that Sikh Sangat represents the RSS attempts to penetrate Sikh bodies.

The Sikh Sangat controversy and the recent row surrounding the downplaying of Punjabi on national highway signboards indicate that the battle between Hindutva expansion and Sikh resistance won’t end anytime soon.

Shamsher Singh argues that it is incumbent upon all Sikhs to resist such oppression. “Guru Nanak Dev ji spoke to the poorest and those considered lowly. Standing with humanity, challenging oppressive power structures - caste, fascism, majoritarianism - has always been central to Sikh traditions”.

First published: 7 November 2017, 20:11 IST