Faith and identity

Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Sturdy independence and patient vigorous labour are perhaps the strongest characteristics.... No one can rival him as a landowner and yeoman cultivator. He is rather expensively inclined in his food, and likes rum, meat and sugar; his fondness for the first of these three sometimes outruns his discretion....

- A.E. Barstow, The Sikhs: An Ethnology, 1928, cited in Brian P. Caton "Sikh Identity Formation and the British Rural Idea, 1880-1930" in Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change, eds. Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier.

MEDIA coverage of the tercentennial celebrations of the Khalsa panth show how little perceptions about Sikhs have changed since Barstow's Orientalist account of the Sikh peasantry. "This is not a creed for the self-conscious nor for the fainthearted," wrote one glossy national magazine. "Sikhs", author Khushwant Singh asserted in a recent article, "have an enormous resilience and self-confidence born of the convictions that anything others do, they can do better." Khushwant Singh proceeded to attribute to the creation of the Khalsa what he asserts is a miraculous absence of beggars among Sikhs.

The proliferation of essentialist themes rooted in colonial discourse - the inherent entrepreneurship, valour, hedonism, irrationality, humanism of the Sikhs - has done little to explain for ordinary Sikhs the significance of the tercentenary celebrations. Much of the discourse seems to be plagued by a search for what might constitute an authentic Sikh identity. Debates over young Sikh men trimming their hair and beards, and the religion's sometimes troubled relationship with Hinduism, have emerged in mainstream discourse over several years. Many of these debates have an explicitly political resonance, connected with the battle for legitimacy in the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Curiously, these anxieties and tensions were almost invisible at the Anandpur Sahib celebrations themselves. The crowds at Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal's enormous tented pavilion outside the gurdwara, and that of deposed Akal Takht Jathedar Ranjit Singh a short distance away, were dwarfed by the numbers of ordinary pilgrims who showed a casual indifference to the politics of the day. Dark predictions of violence between Akali centrists and Right-wing Akalis neither deterred pilgrims nor excited their interest. Even the promises made by the Punjab Police to frisk each pilgrim were broken soon in the face of the mass of visitors from India and abroad.

Efforts to revive themes of the Khalistan movement found no audience at all. Right-wing organisations which sought to place alleged human rights abuses carried out during the anti-terrorist operations between 1985 and 1992 found few takers. Even the resurfacing of the formerly banned Dal Khalsa International provoked only mild curiosity. The organisation staged demonstrations on the last day of the celebrations against the Chief Minister for the release of Sikh prisoners held under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and controversial human rights activist Jaspal Singh Dhillon, who was recently arrested for his alleged role in a bomb plot.

Popular religious sentiment in the State appears to have little to do with the aggressively communal themes that have emerged from political players. The tercentenary had led many Sikh believers to take the final step of becoming Amritdhari (baptised) members of the Khalsa panth and adopting the way of life laid out by Guru Gobind Singh on Baisakhi day in 1699. Keshgarh Sahib Takht Jathedar Manjit Singh told Frontline that he estimated that some 1.25 lakh people had been baptised at Anandpur Sahib during the celebrations, which perhaps is a conservative estimate. Yet, the process of baptism was shorn of the ugly ultra-conservative political resonance the practice had been vested with at the outset of the Khalistan movement: it was a simple engagement between individuals and their faith.

The devotion and good humour of ordinary pilgrims were evident as they patiently dealt with arrangements that at times seemed made exclusively for the convenience of VIP visitors. Excruciating traffic snarls, the thick crush of visitors, and even the furnace-like April heat did little to fray tempers or deter the pilgrims. On occasion, the celebration almost acquired a carnival atmosphere. Fireworks and a laser display on April 13 led many to throng the site late, while displays of traditional arts during the inauguration again provided a riveting spectacle.

Early government estimates suggest that more than 70 lakh pilgrims from Punjab and around the world attended the Anandpur Sahib celebrations.

THE creation of the Khalsa panth by Guru Gobind marked a defining moment in Sikh history. The Panj Piare, five volunteers from different castes and regions, were the first recruits to a new spiritual order based on complete self-surrender and trust in God and the Guru. The five were taken into a tent, the legend goes, where they underwent a death-like experience. Clad in yellow robes and blue turbans, they were then brought out before the congregation. Along with the new ceremony of consecration through amrit (nectar) came the five distinctive signs of uncut hair, the comb, the steel bracelet, the drawers and the sword that would set the Khalsa followers apart from their milieu.

The creation of the Khalsa, scholar Gurdharam Singh Khalsa has argued, marked a movement "from a non-syncretic orientation to an active anti-syncretic one", a disengagement from both Hindu and Muslim traditions. Others dispute the proposition. For instance, Harjot Oberoi says that "considerable ambiguity and fluidity when it came to religious identities in India." Whatever the truth, the second phase of sharpening of the Khalsa identity took place in the late 19th century, driven by British administrative moves and Army regulations premised on the notion of the community as a suitably loyal class of peasant proprietors. Sikh organisations like the Singh Sabha, born in opposition to Arya Samaj conversions to Hinduism, also drove the religious revival.

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Many Sikh believers took the final step of becoming Amritdhari (baptised) members of the Khalsa panth. The rituals in progress.

Post-Independence politics has also been argued to have had a role in the shaping of the Khalsa as it exists now. Historian Attar Singh wrote: "The cumulative effect of various Sikh religious and social reform movements had emphasised Sikh distinctiveness from Hindus, but the admissibility of the Sikh sects other than the Khalsa order, such as the Udasis, the Nirmalas, the Sewa Panthis, the Sahajdharis, the Namdharis, Nirankaris, etc., had never been questioned or restrained." He added: "But in actual practice, the working of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee marginalised all these sects and cults, some of which were even pushed out, like the Sant Nirankaris." The changing character of class in Punjab, including the rise of the Jat peasantry, was enmeshed with these developments.

Apart from the role it may have in the making of a community, the Khalsa tercentenary is certain to have a dramatic short-term impact in the State. With the construction of the Khalsa memorial at Anandpur Sahib, scheduled to be completed early in the next century, the city will have a major new physical space for the Sikh devout. The Union Government and the Punjab Government, which have cumulatively spent some Rs.300 crores on the celebrations, hope that the memorial will emerge as a major tourist destination in the future. The celebrations have transformed Anandpur town, which has been "renovated" and painted white, to the irritation of conservationists who have challenged Government-led development in court.

The real significance of the Anandpur Sahib celebrations, however, will be decided by Sikhs in Punjab and around the world. If the celebratory ambience is any indication, the community is considerably better equipped to cope with the challenges a changing world poses to faith than at least some of the politicians and intellectuals who claim to represent it. Within the State itself, a consideration of Guru Gobind Singh's egalitarian premises will hopefully lead to greater public participation in efforts to eradicate caste and gender oppression.

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