Behind the decline

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Christian families being converted to Sikhism in a ghar wapsi programme conducted by Dharm Jagaran Manch in a village in Amritsar in December 2014. Photo: PTI

The Green Revolution brought considerable prosperity to many Sikh families in Punjab. Wealth from land in turn indirectly helped many families to take the business route out of the State. Photo: PRASHANTH VISHWANATHAN/BLOOMBERG

Census figures show a negative growth rate for the Sikh population in Punjab, but it is the Sangh Parivar, not Sikhs, that uses this to stoke up communal tensions.

WHY is there absolutely no rage among Sikhs over a constantly declining Sikh population in Punjab, as is evident in the latest Census figures? The State, which was carved out in 1966 as a Sikh-majority one after militant demands by the unified Akali Dal and other Sikh identity groups, should have been bursting out in anger. Not only is Punjab a Sikh-majority State, it has also been witness to one of the most violent wars of secession on religious lines for more than two decades.

After all, in the narrative of the Sangh Parivar—the proponent of “Akhand Hindu Rashtra”—Hindus may turn into a victimised minority in the future if the latest Census data on religious composition of the Indian population is something to go by. Various mouthpieces of the Sangh Parivar interpreted the decline of the Hindu population to a little less than 80 per cent as the most significant marker to justify its vitriolic propaganda that Muslims are deliberately reproducing more to counter the might of the Hindus in India.

Yet, the Census data created hardly a flutter among the Sikhs in Punjab. Barring a few insignificant extremist groups, none of the Sikh political parties, including various factions of the Akali Dal, has taken up the issue of declining Sikh population.

The 2011 Census shows that out of approximately 2.75 crore people in Punjab, 1.07 crore are Hindus, while 1.60 crore are Sikhs. Sikhs constitute 57.69 per cent of the population and Hindus, 38.49 per cent. The 1991 Census had shown Sikhs as constituting 62.95 per cent of the population of Punjab. The percentage has been coming down ever since. In the 2001 Census, Sikhs constituted 59.91 per cent of the population.

In contrast, the percentage of the Hindus in the population is growing; 34.46 per cent in the 1991 Census and 36.94 per cent in 2001. In terms of population growth rate, Hindus are growing much faster than Sikhs.

If one adheres to the Sangh Parivar’s logic, Sikhs, who at one point fought for a Sikh-majority State, should naturally feel threatened by such a trend. But why have they not? That such cosmetic conflicts on religious lines have not reached the power corridors of Punjab is because the political parties resolved the historical ethnic rivalries politically in 1996. Punjab became the torchbearer for communal harmony in the early 1990s when the Sangh Parivar was stoking up communal tensions all over India in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Moga declaration of 1996 transformed the way politics was practised in Punjab. The prominent regional political parties, which had been left unnerved by the high number of killings during the two decades of militancy, together vowed, in the Moga declaration, to carry the message of “Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat”. The declaration became the bedrock of political practice in Punjab. The State shunned sectarian politics based on ethnic identities and invested in a vision of an inclusive political culture.

The Moga declaration practically nullified the 1973 Anandpur Sahib resolutions, in which Sikh political groups had pledged to propagate the Khalsa Panth and joined hands to launch “Dharm Yudh Morcha”, a political fight to establish the supremacy of Sikhism. Various factions of the Akali Dal fought with each other to establish their credentials in accordance with the Anandpur Sahib resolutions, and there were ethnic clashes in the State.

However, as militancy grew, ordinary Sikhs started to migrate out of Punjab and even out of India. The benefits of the Green Revolution were gradually getting eroded in the prosperous State. Jobs became scarce for young people in the years of militancy, and people were worried. This situation changed the demography of the State. Hindus remained concentrated in urban Punjab and ran their businesses, while Sikhs remained attached to farming. In due course, Hindus and Sikhs became so inter-dependent that it forced political parties to sign the historic Moga declaration. “Punjab, Punjabi, and Punjabiyat” was no more an exclusive agenda of Sikhs. The Punjabi language and culture became a sub-nationalist inclusive agenda for both the Sikhs and the Hindus of Punjab.

The Moga declaration paved the way for the inter-mixing of ethnicities. The flourishing businesses in the urban centres of Punjab such as Ludhiana and Jalandhar drew people from other parts of India. The Sikhs, however, always looked for opportunities abroad and in other parts of India. The Green Revolution had brought prosperity for many Sikh agricultural families. These families helped out their less fortunate relatives to start businesses in the transportation of goods, which was not difficult in a State that had enough agricultural produce to sell in other States. Many Sikh families migrated to different parts of India and were able to rely on their relatives back in Punjab to ease their way into the transportation business by helping them to get contracts.

“Such socio-economic factors like the migration among Sikhs are the primary reasons for the declining Sikh population in Punjab. Demographic transition in Punjab is definitely not a function of religious categories,” Pramod Kumar, the director of the Chandigarh-based Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), told Frontline.

The Census figures support this understanding. That the Hindus are primarily in urban businesses and the majority of Sikhs are farmers or are in agricultural activities is corroborated by the urban and rural populations of Punjab. Out of the 1.60 crore Sikhs, more than 1.23 crore are settled in rural Punjab. And out of the approximately 1.06 crore Hindus, around 63 lakh are in urban areas, which also draws more Hindu immigrants into the State.

Hindus, Sikhs and other religious communities have coexisted peacefully to a significant degree for two decades because of this economic dependence. Political commentators give credit to the founding principles of the Moga declaration, which, apart from stabilising the economy in the aftermath of the militancy years, improved the socio-economic indicators of Punjab, where the literacy rate is 75.8 per cent, which is better than the national average of 73 per cent.

The political mood engendered by the Moga declaration has suffered a dent in the last one year, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The Sangh Parivar has launched a wounding ghar wapsi (reconversion) programme against the Christian communities of Punjab, a mere 3.5 lakh, especially in the border areas of the State. The Sangh Parivar has conveniently tweaked its ghar wapsi programme in Punjab, where it claims to reconvert Christians back to Sikhism, whereas in other parts of India it tries to bring Christians and Muslims into the Hindu fold. For example, in December 2014, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Dharm Jagaran, claimed that it had successfully reconverted 8,000 Christians back to Sikhism. It also claimed that it had reconverted at least 3,500 Christians in 2014 alone. Dharm Jagaran members claim that Christians in Punjab were forcibly converted from Sikhism.

Kiranjot Kaur, a member of Dharm Jagaran who was instrumental in holding several recent ghar wapsi ceremonies at gurdwaras, told The Indian Express in December 2014: “The situation is so alarming that even Sikhs in Amritsar, which is the seat of Sikhism, are converting. We are a small minority, and we should be worried. Because of the politicisation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee [the main Sikh administrative body], the religious agenda which it should be actively promoting has got diluted. The RSS does not mind people reconverting to Sikhism because it sees Hindus and Sikhs as members of the same family.”

Similarly, RSS leader Ram Gopal, who heads the organisation’s Dharm Jagaran unit in the State, told the newspaper: “We are trying to halt the march of Christianity in Punjab and reconvert people to their original religion, which could be Hinduism or Sikhism. We discovered villages where gurdwaras were locked because the entire population had converted. This should also worry the Sikh religious leadership.”

However, such moves by the RSS have irked the leadership of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal). These initiatives create ripples in the State’s politics and affect the relationship between the SAD and the BJP, which are allies. “The BJP has been trying to get an edge over the Akalis for a long time now. It is no longer happy playing second fiddle to the Akalis. Such reconversion programmes and overplaying the Census figures on religious composition may be future political tools of the BJP to create a religious crisis in the State,” Ashutosh Kumar, a political analyst based in Chandigarh, told Frontline.

Clearly, the reconversion programme in Punjab is a unique and convenient means that the Sangh Parivar is using to stake its claim to Sikhism and its religious bodies. Such programmes play on Census figures that show a declining demographic ratio of Sikhs in Punjab. The BJP’s main vote share in the State comes from the Hindu business communities of the State and the party has to depend on the Akalis for electoral success. Since the Moga declaration, the Sikh-dominated parties have chosen to stay away from the politics of ethnic rivalry that had claimed thousands of lives. However, the Sangh Parivar’s renewed attempts to stoke up communal tensions by projecting false perceptions of Sikhism facing a threat may help it expand its base and, thereby, sideline the Akalis politically, a long-term goal of the BJP for a considerable time now.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor