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SIKH SEPARATISM: A History of Conflicts

by   Rajesh Singh (Author)  
by   Rajesh Singh (Author)   (show less)
Sold By:   Garuda Prakashan

Short Descriptions

A holistic understanding of Sikh separatism is not possible without going back into history, down the centuries, revisiting the events that shaped the Sikh psyche in the years that followed. While nothing in the past can justify the mindless violence that gripped Punjab for fifteen long years, a study of the developments leading up to the same helps expose the misdeeds of those who exploited religion to take innocent lives in later years, and the brazen manner in which they desecrated the memory of the gurus, whom they constantly invoked to justify their acts.

The concept of separatism, though, has been an inherent element of the Sikh faith. One separatism prepared the ground for and led to another. When Guru Nanak founded the pacifist faith of Sikhism, it was a separatist revolt against many beliefs and rituals that were part of other religions. Then came two separatist movements within the Sikh religion itself. The first was when Guru Hargobind straddled two swords around his waist—the presence of a weapon, in itself, made for revolutionary symbolism. The second was when the martial face of Sikhism was institutionalized—during Guru Gobind Singh’s time—with the creation of the Khalsa and the strengthening of the Sikh armed forces. Political separatism—driven by religious fervor—began in the 1920s, with the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee and the Shiromani Akali Dal.

The Sikh separatist movement, which began as a campaign to underline the unique Sikh identity, turned anti-national and militant in the years that followed. This book covers the period since the establishment of the Sikh religion in the fifteenth century to the crushing of militancy in the mid-nineties. The book winds up with a note of caution, that we must never lower our guard.

More Information

ISBN 13 9798885751124
Book Language English
Binding Paperback
Total Pages 368
Release Year 2023
Publishers Garuda Prakashan  
Category Politics   History   Religion   Offers  
Weight 380.00 g
Dimension 15.84 x 22.86 x 2.21

Product Details


Author’s Note



A New Religion, a New Identity

1. Bhakti and Persecution: An Overview

2. “There Is No Hindu, No Mussalman”

3. Consolidation of Pacifism

4. The Sword as the Protector

5. A Supreme

6. A Redefining Transformation


The Sikh Kingdom and After

7. Invaders from Abroad

8. Rule of the Khalsa

9. The Lion of Punjab

10. Countdown to the End

11. A Tale of Three Wars


Reawakening of Separateness

12. Confrontations with the Arya Samaj

13. Finding a New Direction

14. The Liberation of Sikh Temples

15. A Party of the Immortals

16. The Pivot of Language

17. The Groundwork for Separatism


The Bloodshed Years

18. Lighting the First Fuse

19. The Flip-Flops of the Akali Dal

20. Negotiations and Subterfuge

21. An Assault That Shocked the Sikhs


The Endgame for Many

22. The Assassination That Many Feared

23. An Accord That Failed

24. The Global Khalistan Project

25. The Troika Does the Trick




A New Religion, a New Identity


Bhakti and Persecution: An Overview

The history of the Sikh religion begins with the community’s first spiritual leader, Guru Nanak Dev. An understanding of Guru Nanak and his teachings is better facilitated by an appreciation of the developments that preceded his arrival, the period he lived in, and the events that shaped his thoughts. It is for this reason that we need to have an overview of the Bhakti era in which he was born and he preached, and the Muslim invasions which traumatized Punjab. Incidentally, the other nine Sikh gurus too worked in the Bhakti backdrop. The Mughal rule coincided with this period, and the later gurus paid a heavy personal price for standing tall against the atrocities of the Mughal emperors.

Roughly two hundred years over the period covering the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries marked a high point for the Bhakti movement in India. The movement produced many poet-devotees of eminence, largely in the Vaishnava tradition, who left a profound and lasting impact on the psyche of the people. Driven by individuals consumed by their devotion to their favorite deities, the Bhakti phenomenon made an instant connect with the masses, not least because it was musical and delivered in languages and dialects that were easily grasped even by the unlettered. The beginnings of the movement occurred much earlier though—in the seventh century, with the Alvar poets of present-day Tamil Nadu. They are considered as the “twelve supreme devotees of Vishnu” and the pioneers in popularizing Vaishnavism in southern India. The verses of the various Alvar saints are also referred to as the “Tamil Veda” or the “Dravida Veda.” It would thus not be inaccurate to say that the Bhakti movement started from the south, and over the centuries, spread across the country.

In northern and central India, Bhakti poets such as Tulsidas, Surdas and Mirabai seized the imagination of the people with both their poetic dazzle and unconditional surrender to God. Ravidas added an element of concern over social inequities to his devotional pleas. Tukaram, Namdev and Narsi Mehta promoted the Vaishnava tradition in western India while Chaitanya Mahaprabhu spread the word of God throughout eastern India.

Although the Bhakti movement spread fast across the country in the two hundred odd years beginning from the fifteenth century, it wasn’t an orchestrated campaign. On the contrary, different poets from different parts of India used varying techniques to express their bhakti. The only commonality was in the messaging: Surrender to God. Social and the more immediate issues too were expressed, off and on, leading to the impression that the Bhakti tradition sought to break free from Vedic influences. Ramakrishna Bhandarkar, in whose memory the Pune-based Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute is named, maintained that the Bhakti cult had challenged the hegemony of Sanskrit in religious matters—as a sort of kshatriya reform of a brahmin religion. However, other scholars such as Ranajit Guha were of the view that, for all its sophistication, the Bhakti movement failed to break the shackles of the older traditions.

Some foreign scholars, including Monier Monier-Williams, while claiming that the Bhakti tradition was reformatory, sought to draw comparisons between it and the Protestant movement, which incidentally was a counter to the Roman Catholic Church. But Monier-William’s argument need not be taken seriously for at least two reasons. One, the conditions in India were very different from those in the West—they were too Indian to lend themselves for analogies with Europe. And two, Monier had famously gone wrong when he predicted the demise of Hinduism as a consequence of Christianity’s rise in India.

The Bhakti campaign has been interpreted by many scholars as a “Hindu” counter to the growing influence of Islam (and the accompanying atrocities against the Hindus) during the Mughal dispensation. For instance, prominent Hindi author Acharya Ramchandra Shukla, in his seminal work, Hindi Sahitya ka Itihaas, wrote that when the Hindus saw their temples destroyed, their deities crushed and their icons humiliated, their anguish found expression through the Bhakti saints. The spread of the movement in northern India was, in his opinion, a direct fallout of the Mughal cruelties on the Hindu community. But others have dismissed this theory. Noted Hindi writer Hazariprasad Dwivedi noted in his book, Hindi Sahitya: Udbhav our Vikas, that the movement had begun well before the consolidation of Islam’s influence in North India, and had merely peaked during the Mughal rule. Had the Bhakti saints been offering a counter to Islam, he pointed out, the movement ought to have started in the north and not in the south where the Mughals did not have a foothold. Likewise, writer Ramvilas Sharma, in his pointedly titled book, Acharya Shukla aur Hindi Aalochana, argued that the connection between Islamic atrocities and the Bhakti movement overlooked the social and literary environments of the time. Author Meenakshi Jain is also dismissive of the causal effect, saying that the Bhakti tradition had, for ages before the Muslim reigns, been an intrinsic constituent of sadhna or religious pursuit.

Western author Wendy Doniger too is sceptical about the connection. In her book, The Hindus: an Alternative History, she maintains that Hinduism actually flourished during the Mughals. (But many scholars today debunk much of her writings as biased.) Author and politician Shashi Tharoor is more cautious and takes the middle ground in his book, Why I Am a Hindu. While admitting that Islam had posed a threat initially, with the attacks by the Muslim invaders on temples and Hindu treasures as well as rape and abduction of Hindu women, he claims that once the Mughals settled down, Islamic precepts played a positive role in reshaping Hinduism.

One is unlikely to hear the final word on this contentious subject any time soon. But what remains undisputed is that the Bhakti movement gave India some of its finest poet-philosophers. At least two of them, Kabir and Ramananda, would unwittingly go on to be major influencers in the creation of a new religious order—the Sikh religion or Sikhism. Their verses find prominence in the Sikh community’s holy book, the Adi Granth aka the Guru Granth Sahib.

Two Saints as Influencers

Ramananda was a Vaishnava and lived in Varanasi for the most part of his life. He founded the Ramanandi Sampradaya and was one of the pioneers of the Bhakti movement. Inspired by the Vedanta philosopher Ramanuja and also by the Nath sect, he accepted disciples cutting across caste and gender. Among them were Kabir and Ravidas. He composed his works in Hindi, stating that the language helped him reach out to the masses. Ramananda was among the few poet-saints who absorbed and accepted both the sagun (God with attributes) and the nirgun (God without attributes) streams of thought.

Scholars hold the view that his philosophy was a milestone development in the metaphysical principles of the Bhakti movement. According to Gavin Flood, author of An Introduction to Hinduism, the credit for the promotion of the Rama cult goes to Ramananda, who spoke of his devotion to Ram and Sita in a “pure sense,” unlike the celebration of Krishna in his many moods, his childhood mischief and romance included.

Unlike Ramananda, and unlike the other poets of the Bhakti period, Kabir was cut from a different cloth. Raised by a Muslim family of weavers—his biological parents were speculated to be Hindus—he grew up to be a keen but irreverent observer of both Hinduism and Islam. He believed in God but scorned the rituals and rules which clerics from both sides imposed on the people. Through his verses, he exposed the hypocrisies of religious leaders, taunting them in many ways. He said:1

O Pandit, you go about your ways cleverly,

Having read the Shastras, and talk of Mukti

What experiences have you yourself had of this Mukti?

In another of his verses, Kabir exclaimed:

Where do you look for me, friend?

I am inside you

Not in the temple, not in the mosque

Neither in the Kaaba, nor Kailash

Says Kabir, I am in every breath.

John Stratton Hawley, in his A Storm of Songs, declared that Kabir, more than any Bhakti poet, spoke without mediation to modern sensibilities. And Linda Hess, author of Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in North India, wondered if it is possible to even understand the depth of his writings.

Kabir used everyday analogies and real-life situations to express his philosophical thoughts. A sample of Kabir’s verses from Hess’s book:

The woman sobbed and cried:

We were joined, and now we are broken!

Kabir says, listen seekers

The one who joins

Is the one who breaks.

It would however be erroneous to conclude that Kabir was a non-believer. His Ram may have been attributeless, but He was there, as Kabir called himself His servant, who was to be dealt with in the way He wished—Main ghulam mujhe bechh Gosain/Tan-man-dhan mere Rajik tain. His humane and in-your-face approach have over the years earned him millions of admirers, and his way of life—the Kabir Panth—too has many followers across the country. Kabir Panth could very well have been institutionalized into a much larger and powerful structure than what presently exists, but Kabir was a loner. He did not anoint a successor, nor was he interested in the creation of a “Church of Kabir.”

To use the words of Charles Dickens, the period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries was the best of times and the worst of times. Successive Mughal emperors discriminated against and sought to suppress the Hindu way of life, with only patches of relief evident. On the other hand, the saint-poets provided the beleaguered masses a glimmer of hope and kept the Hindu consciousness alive. It was against this backdrop that the Bhakti period saw another stalwart, Guru Nanak, in the fifteenth–sixteenth century, in Punjab. He would go on to lay the foundation for a new religious order.

Punjab of the Fifteenth Century

In the centuries preceding the arrival of Guru Nanak, Punjab was the main gateway to India and several invaders of different ethnic bearings and speaking various languages had made their way into the region, hoping to conquer the country. Turkish, Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Mongol invaders—all of them mingled with the local population over the decades, bringing in the influences of their language, religion and culture, which merged and also clashed with the prevalent Vedantic, Jain and Buddhist traditions. Punjab thus became a melting pot of various affinities. It was also an important center of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, having found cultural nourishment during the Vedic period.

The rise of the mahajanapadas—the sixteen big kingdoms or oligarchies that reigned from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE—had brought an end to the Vedic period’s cozy arrangement. The Punjab region was the frontier of several early empires, including those of Alexander and the Mauryas. Thereafter came the Kushan, Gupta and Harsha dynasties. And the Huns, the Turks and the Mongols. The so-called Delhi Sultanate—an Islamic rule that extended over large parts of the country for over three hundred years and encompassed the dynasties of Mamluk, Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodi—extended its hold over Punjab, as did the Durranis, and later, the Mughals. Effectively, everyone, except the Punjabis, ruled the region. It would only be at the start of the nineteenth century that a Sikh kingdom would get crafted, with the charismatic Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the helm.

The invasion of northern India in 1398 by Timur, a Central Asian Turk, had plunged Punjab into turmoil and set the tone for far-reaching socio-political changes in the region, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Mughal dynasty on Delhi’s throne. Timur came to India to punish the Tughlaq rulers, who, in his opinion, were not good Muslims. In the process, he sacked Delhi and conducted a reckless drive against non-Muslims. The Tughlaq dynasty, of which Mohammad bin Tughlaq was the most prominent figure, eventually breathed its last in 1413. Meanwhile, Timur returned to Central Asia, leaving behind a nominee to rule Punjab.

By then, open fights had broken out between the king and his various satraps, and among the satraps as well. Punjab’s ruling class, which comprised Muslims mainly, found it increasingly difficult to collect revenues in the prevailing chaos. Its members resorted to the easiest way out, which was to direct their ire at the well-off Hindus, especially the business class. They imposed stifling levels of taxation, often illegal. Failure to adhere to these atrocious demands invited strong action: the “infidels” were severely punished, their places of worship desecrated, and many even lost their lives. It was not long before the persecution became large-scale. In contrast, it was easy to be a “good Muslim”—all one had to manage was to do namaz five times a day, eat halal meat, be circumcised and fast during Ramzan. The bonus was targeting the infidels.

The Hindu’s life had turned miserable and perilous. In desperation, he sought refuge in age-old symbolic acts like vegetarianism and stricter adherence to the caste system. More secretively, he scaled up idol worship. Driven to a state of near penury because of the fleecing Muslim rulers, he looked up to his gods for deliverance.

Instead of deliverance, Babur came, from present-day Uzbekistan. Having failed to capture Samarkand despite repeated attempts, he had turned his attention to India. With the help of the Safavid and the Ottoman Empires, he vanquished Ibrahim Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. The sultanate in Delhi was already on its last legs, and the only real challenge Babur faced, apart from Lodi, was from Rana Sanga. Having taken care of the Rajput king of Mewar in the Battle of Khanwa, he anchored in Delhi and expanded his writ over nearly all of northern India, including Punjab. He lost no time in executing his plans for the newly acquired kingdom, which included suppression of the Hindus and the newly-turned Sikhs in Punjab. The Hindus, despairing, became more inward-looking and submissive.

Reflecting on the dismal scenario that had emerged from Lodi’s misgovernance and the arrival of the Mughal, Babur, a pained Guru Nanak later observed: “The age is like a knife. Kings are butchers. Religion hath taken wings and flown. On the dark night of falsehood I cannot see where the moon of truth is rising.”2 He was also critical of both the Hindu and the Muslim religious leaderships, and said, “The Muslim Mulla and the Hindu Pandit have resigned their duties, the Devil reads the marriage vows.… Praises of murder are sung and people smear themselves with blood instead of saffron.”3

The two main religious cultures dominant in Punjab when Guru Nanak was born were Hinduism and Islam. Although the ruling class comprised Muslims, the non-privileged sections of the community lived as miserable a life as the Hindus. “At the lowest rung of the society were slaves, both males and females. The Muslim society in the Punjab, as elsewhere in the world, was marked by the existence of slavery as its integral part. Female slaves were also kept. They were of two types: those employed for domestic and menial works and others who were taken hold for company and pleasure.”4 Slavery was especially rampant during the sultanate period—“Ala-udd-in had fifty thousand slaves while Feroze Tughlaq maintained 180000.”5

The Hindus had Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Besides, there were the Jogis divided into the Aghora Panth and the Nath Panth. The Nath Panthis were followers of Gorakh Nath, who had initiated the sect in Punjab. While the Panthis were large in number and quite dominant, from the fifteenth century onwards, their influence had begun to wane. The Vaishnava tradition too had begun to decline by the time Guru Nanak began to preach, though it continued to remain relevant. The Aghoras were flesh-eating people who frequented cremation grounds and had a fearsome look. Another branch of Hinduism, the Shakti tradition, with its accompanying tantric practices, was also popular in the run-up to the fifteenth century.

Attempts to bridge the gap between the Hindus and the Muslims were made by Sufi saints and poets. While the Sufis were Muslim, they preached a more inclusive and a relatively less rigid approach. They understood the power of music and, like the Bhakti saint-poets, held that singing and dancing almost to the point of being in a trance, brought mankind closer to God. They saw it as a kind of meditation, wherein evil thoughts got abolished from the heart and the mind was freed of restlessness. Unlike the Muslim rulers, most Sufi saints did not—at least, that has been the popular narrative—subscribe to the destruction of temples and desecration of idols. They respected the Hindu beliefs and traditions. However, several experts have been dismissive of the “Sufi tolerance” narrative. This is not the place though, to go into the details.

At one level, the acceptance of Sufi traditions led to the arrival of many Hindus in Islam’s fold. But more important, it developed a bond between the members of the two communities. One of the earliest Sufi saints of Punjab was Ali Makhdum Hujwri (eleventh century). The most prominent Sufi leader was Shaikh Farid Shakarganj (thirteenth century) of the Chishti order; he lived in Pak Patan, which became the center of Sufism in Punjab. Sufi poetry came to be called Sufi kavya-dhara and finds reflection in the Guru Granth Sahib. Sufi kavya-dhara saw further refinement in the sixteenth century in the hands of Shah Hussain and reached its crest in the eighteenth century with the legendary Bulle Shah. Shah Hussain was the first Sufi poet of Punjab who used the kafi measure to express his mystic ideas. He introduced elements of popular love-lore of the region (Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal) into Sufi verses, which added to his popularity among the masses.

However, while attempts were made to create harmony between the Hindus and the Muslims through Sufism, the two religious identities remained in a warring mode. It was this state of friction and conflict that Guru Nanak confronted and sought to reconcile, through a new religion.