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RSS forays into Punjab

Print edition : May 27, 2000 T+T-

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's campaign to reinvent the Sikh identity within a Hindu-nationalist paradigm and the aggressive response from Sikh chauvinist organisations against it could have serious consequences for the already fragile commun al peace in Punjab.

THE first rustle of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) campaign began to be heard in Punjab's political undergrowth early this year. In January, RSS workers visited Gopalpur, a village near Majitha in Amritsar. Its mainly Dalit Sikh and Hindu residents were urged to bring down a local mosque which fell into disuse after Gopalpur's Muslims left for Pakistan after Partition. Soon afterwards, children at a State-run school in the Chheharta suburb of Amritsar were handed out questionnaires about Sikh relig ious history and the RSS leadership. Prizes for the winners of this quiz were sponsored by a local RSS front organisation. By spring, Rawanni, a new Jalandhar-based magazine that regularly carries anti-Christian propaganda, was in circulation thro ugh the border districts.

Few people paid much attention to these early signs that the RSS had resumed its historic campaign to reinvent Sikh identity within a larger Hindu-nationalist paradigm. That had to wait until April 29, when RSS chief K.S. Sudershan arrived in Chandigarh for the first National Executive committee meeting of his organisation's newly-formed front body, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Sikhs, Sudershan proclaimed, were part of the "Hindu mainstream", and he charged that organisations which claimed that the commun ity had an "exclusive identity" were secessionist. Describing the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, as a "national hero", Sudershan said that the RSS was "working hard to revive the custom of the eldest son in every Hindu family being raised as a Sikh".

Unsurprisingly, Sudershan's foray provoked aggressive protests from Sikh chauvinist organisations. "Sikhs are a separate nation, and any attempt to change this status will be contested and resisted," proclaimed the right-wing Dal Khalsa's Kanwarpal Singh Bittu at the April 29 protests. "Though Sikhs are a peace-loving and god-fearing people," he continued, "when all peaceful methods fail, then, as ordained by Guru Gobind Singh, it is righteous to take to the sword." Such polemic is, in part, driven by t he battle for power between Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the alliance of Gurcharan Singh Tohra's All India Shiromani Akali Dal (AISAD) and Simranjit Singh Mann's Shiromani Akali Dal-Amritsar (SAD-A). But the competin g chauvinisms now at play could have serious consequences for communal peace in Punjab, which is quite fragile.

The Rashtriya Sikh Sangat's emergence has its origins in the celebrations of the tercentennial of the foundation of the Khalsa order which began in April 1999. In an effort to enrich the theocratic credentials of his regime, Badal ensured that the State government played a central role in the celebrations. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi proved only too happy to help out, putting up some Rs. 300 crores for the event. At least some of that money went to organisations such as the Sikh Sangat, ostensibly to help promote knowledge of Sikh religious history through events like the school quiz programmes in Amritsar.

By early April, the Sikh Sangat's activities were in full flow. RSS cadre joined in Sikh rituals at Dharamkot near Moga on April 3, and sponsored a langar (community meal) to mark the conclusion of the tercentennial celebrations. A week later, Sik h Sangat chief Chiranjeev Singh was in Muktsar to attend a similar RSS-led celebration. And by mid-April, the Sikh Sangat was sponsoring at least seven training camps for Sikh recruits. Among the major issues raised at these camps were the expansion of t he Punjab government's shagun programme, a controversial cash grant scheme for Dalit women marrying Christians. The camps, Punjab RSS general secretary Devinder Kumar Gupta said, were organised in order to "caution the youth against the threat fro m imperialist forces, such as Islamic extremists and Christian missionaries".

If SAD centrists maintained a stoic silence on these developments, their detractors on the far right saw an opportunity here to launch an attack. An RSS translation of the Dasam Granth, a religious text which claims among other things that the Sikh gurus were descendants of the Hindu mythological figures Luv and Kush, became the first ground for battle. At an April 9 seminar, members of the Institute for Sikh Studies claimed that portions of the Dasam Granth were not authentic, arguing that they encoura ged belief in reincarnation and other beliefs that are irreconcilable with theological tenets. This assertion in turn sparked off a furore within the Sikh community, with the Nihang sect, members of which claim descent from the army of Guru Gobind Singh, charging the Institute's scholars with heresy. "By denouncing the Dasam Granth," Nihang leader Baba Santa Singh said, "they are aiming to divide Hindus and Sikhs".

RSS leaders have for long seen the assertion that the Sikh faith is in essence Hindu as a key component in their struggle for the creation of a theocratic state. Indeed, on these grounds their ideologue M.S. Golwalkar had advised Hindus not to oppose the Punjabi language. But the organisation's current programme has at least as much to do with its concerns about its core constituency as its expansionist agenda. Through the tercentennial celebrations, the RSS' Hindu chauvinist constituency had been incen sed by the SAD's aggressive identification of the state with the panth (Sikh community). Sikh rituals had, for example, preceded the national anthem at district-level Republic day functions last year, and senior SAD Minister Manjit Singh Calcutta had raised eyebrows by promising to introduce Sikh prayers in schools. The RSS had to vest the BJP's affiliation with the SAD with some legitimacy in order to contain its cadre's discontent.

SIKH chauvinists had similar compulsions, for as in the case of the RSS their own real faithful were becoming increasingly restive. Despite growing resentment against Badal among the SAD MLAs, the Chief Minister has so far managed to resist efforts by To hra and other dissidents like Ravi Inder Singh to bring down his government. And, as the triumph of the Badal faction in the Delhi Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) elections in mid-May illustrates, Tohra's control of his own traditional bas es of support is under threat. If Badal had used religion to establish his political legitimacy, Akali dissidents needed to establish that the Chief Minister, because of his alliance with the BJP, was in fact cohabiting with the enemies of the faith.

As the Sikh Sangat controversy developed, Badal's detractors discovered that they had the platform which they so badly needed. Even centrist Sikhs affiliated with the SAD mainstream were deeply uncomfortable with the RSS' characterisation of their faith as a component of Hinduism. Fears of Hindu hegemony run deep in Punjab's Sikh communal politics, and in this case, Badal was in no position to address them. Dependent on BJP support for his continued survival as Chief Minister, all that Badal could do wa s to call for restraint on the issue. The Sangat's Chiranjeev Singh, for his part, attempted to undo some of the damage, conceding at the end of the national executive meeting that Sikhs did indeed have a separate identity. This separate identity, he sug gested, was a "shield to protect national identity, as Sikhs were the sword arm of Hindus".

Chiranjeev Singh's strenuous efforts did little to help matters. Dissident Akali politicians responded by calling for a ban on the RSS in Punjab, a demand that was backed by a spectrum of far-right voices. "The absence of a strong Sikh leadership, both i n the religious and political field, has led the RSS to try and infiltrate Sikhism," the World Sikh Intellectual Council's S.S. Nishan claimed.

For reasons the Congress(I) best understands, its State chief, Amarinder Singh, chose to enter the fray. At a press conference in Ludhiana, he attacked Sudershan, arguing that Sikhs did indeed have a separate identity, one that came into existence after the foundation of the religion by Guru Nanak. But he remained silent on the revanchist postures taken by Badal's detractors.

Predictably, the matter made its way to the Akal Takht. Despite Badal's efforts to ensure that the issue was underplayed, the recently-appointed acting Jathedar, Joginder Singh Vedanti, proclaimed Sikhs to be a separate qaum (nation) with "a disti nct ideology and physical characteristics". This he did at a May 14 gathering, made up almost entirely of Badal's far-right opponents. Vedanti ordered the SAD to participate energetically in the ongoing review of the Indian Constitution, and ensure that the Sikh distinctiveness be reflected in a revised Constitution. Politicians of the SAD-A, the AISAD and the Dal Khalsa proclaimed triumph, and promised a renewed campaign against the RSS and the Sikh Sangat.

Badal's problems are replete with irony. The politician made his career two decades ago by burning copies of the Constitution. He had then charged that sections of the Constitution which made Hindu personal laws applicable to Sikhs were offensive and dri ven by communal hegemonism. Now his alliance with the BJP compelled him to remain silent. Through Punjab's decade-long Khalistan insurgency, Badal had flirted with far-right terrorists, only to abandon them for the BJP when peace returned. And although B adal had historically opposed the Hindu right's assertion that Sikhs were simply keshdhari (those who do not cut their hair) Hindus, he had sent his party cadre to Ayodhya in 1993 to participate in the Hindu fundamentalist mobilisation that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

If the far-right Akalis have used religious issues to gain political space, they are deploying tactics pioneered by their centrist counterparts a decade ago. Just as Badal joined the campaign by revanchist preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale against the Nirankari sect in the late 1970s, Tohra's AISAD has now demanded the expulsion of the Namdhari community from the Sikh fold. On May 12, AISAD general secretary Sukhdev Singh Bhaur demanded a ban on a 1979 Namdhari book by Mehar Singh Kanpuri which, he cl aimed, threatened the "distinct identity of Sikhism". Bhaur, whose calls were endorsed by Punjab University Vice-Chancellor Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia, said the Namdhari belief in a living Guru excluded them from being part of the Sikh panth. The Namd hari community, traditional supporters of the Congress (I) in Punjab, evidently incurred Tohra's wrath for backing the SAD in recent months.

Feuds involving Akali factions have already led to violence. On May 13, AISAD and SAD workers attacked each other at a meeting of the SGPC-funded Sikh Educational Society at Guru Gobind Singh College in Chandigarh. The violence was provoked by the SAD's efforts to purge Tohra faction members from the society, and ended in the spectacle of State Minister Suchcha Singh Langah and AISAD leader Prem Singh Chandumajra attacking each other. The prospect of violence between Sikh communal formations and the RSS ' lumpen cadres too is real. These efforts could prove dangerous; it was the process of sharpening the boundaries between Sikhs and Hindus on the one hand, and among Sikh sects on the other, that drove the carnage of 1983-1993. The SAD centrists have no one to blame but themselves. Ever since the tercentennial celebrations, the SAD has repeatedly sought to counter the fall in its popularity by striking aggressive communal postures. In recent months, for example, SGPC president and Badal confidante Jagir Kaur initiated a battle to move away from the Bikrami almanac to a new Nanakshahi calendar. In practice this meant that Sikh festivals, which are now celebrated along with Hindu religious events, would fall on different dates. Badal went along with the proposal, despite bitter opposition from then Akal Takht Jathedar Puran Singh and other religious leaders. (The SAD-controlled SGPC has sought to hold sway over almost every aspect of civil society, even proclaiming on May 4 that non-Sikh actors would no t be allowed to perform Sikh roles without its permission.) "Under Badal," says veteran Communist leader Satpal Dang, "the affairs of the state and the affairs of the panth have become indistinguishable. Punjab has in effect become a theocratic st ate. And this is at the root of the crisis we see today."

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's offer on May 14 to release Khalistan terrorists held in jails, an unconcealed effort to gain support from the far-right Akhand Kirtani Jatha and Damdami Taksal seminaries as well as other Sikh communal organisations, is just one sign of how far the Hindu right is willing to go to give legitimacy to the Sikh Sangat. As Sikh communal organistions scramble to ward off this new threat, and to undermine the Akali centrists, the intensity of their polemic could sharpen.

Mercifully, despite this charged discourse on Sikh separateness and Hindu hegemony, ordinary people in both communities appear little exercised by the issue. The Rashtriya Sikh Sangat has found few Sikh members, and even fewer recruits among Hindus outsi de the RSS cadre. The protests against it, too, have attracted thin participation. It does not take a lot, however, to set off avalanches. If one does not take place, it would not be for lack of effort on the part of Punjab's politicians.