Sikhs are victims of India, and anybody who dissents from this conclusion is a traitor to a higher cause. This is the manifesto of the separatist shicer Amritpal Singh boiled down to its essence. Singh, much like his model Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, is a barely literate dropout. The admixture of Sikh supremacy and victimhood he purveys is ornamented with phrases usurped from other personalities and causes. He speaks of self-determination, portrays Sikhs as slaves of the Hindus, and demands proof from Muslims of their fidelity to Punjab.
Our tribune of the plebs is embarrassed by his own curriculum vitae—he worked as a driver in Dubai—so a fictitious backstory has been hastily contrived to portray him as a selfless sant who sacrificed a big business career in the United Arab Emirates to lead the oppressed Sikhs of Punjab to the ethnoreligious land of the pure. Most Sikhs are appalled by him. But he expands his constituency by inciting feelings of inferiority and then assuaging them with assurances of inherent Sikh superiority. His coreligionists are not descended from Punjab’s Hindu peasantry — they are a distinct and superior race, ennobled by their faith, and can only preserve their eminence by erecting walls around themselves to keep out non-Sikh contaminants.
Asked if he recognises the Indian Constitution, Singh retorts by asking if the Constitution recognises him. Contrary to Singh’s claim, Article 25 of the Constitution does not subsume Sikhism into Hinduism — it, in fact, recognises Sikhism as a distinct religion while preserving the State’s authority to effect laws facilitating the provision of social welfare by keeping liturgical institutions open to people of all backgrounds and classes. Far from stamping on the Sikh faith, it makes special allowances for the expression of Sikhism: Not only does it treat the dagger as an article of the Sikh faith – it even subordinates the expectation of safety of non-Sikhs to Sikhs’ right to carry the kirpan into secular spaces.
Article 25 also equally affects Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist institutions. If there is a fault here, it is that India doesn’t enforce it robustly enough. It displays a tremendous capacity for tolerance when it comes to certain religious communities. Last month, when Singh’s acolytes, brandishing swords and guns and using the Guru Granth Sahib as a shield, overwhelmed a police station, the officers inside did not open fire out of deference for the Sikh holy book.
The true grievance of Singh and his myrmidons is not that Sikhism is disrespected or deemed in law to be Hinduism—but that they are denied the right to impose a theocratic way of life on their fellow Sikhs in the cause of apotheosising their procrustean interpretation of a pluralistic faith. Singh wants more than the personal laws enjoyed by Muslims. He wants the right to order every aspect of life in Punjab. His belief that he is a victim of India, he clearly feels, warrants it. (For what it’s worth, Muslim personal laws, enacted to reassure an especially insecure community in the wake of Partition, are now a farce that ought to be brought to a hasty end.)
So little about Singh is original. His slogan of slavery, demand of self-determination for Sikhs, and depiction of non-Sikhs as traitors to his exalted cause are all a mimicry of Bhindranwale. But if people are receptive to his pirated soundtrack, it is partly because it plays to some genuine fears. The treatment of Kashmir—which was not merely bleached of its autonomy but abolished as a state and demoted to a Union territory— is perhaps the most potent exhibit in Singh’s argument against Delhi.
How can India, having moved under Prime Minister Narendra Modi from defective secularism to de facto Hindu supremacism, credibly invoke the logic of inclusive non-confessional nationalism to hold on to minorities? Singh claims to want for Sikhs what Modi is seen to be granting to Hindus — the status of primary citizens.
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The fallout of Article 370
“Modi has activated a thousand dormant separatist impulses across India by abolishing the state of Jammu and Kashmir …”
I wrote those words in the aftermath of Modi’s abrupt revocation of Article 370 in 2019, the basis of Kashmir’s accession to India, and the termination of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. One didn’t have to be a clairvoyant to surmise the effects of annulling a covenant, however flawed, that guaranteed a special status to a vulnerable minority within a Union forged in the immediate aftermath of the horrors of India’s Partition.
India is an improbable nation. Nothing about its existence as a modern democracy is divinely ordained. Its unity is the consequence of history’s most audacious nation-building project that sought to harmonise a bewilderingly continental diversity into a reasonably coherent nationhood. India’s founders bequeathed us the most competent instrument to administer the conflicts and competitions of the Union they constituted.
The Constitution was never envisaged as a divine charter: It was disfigured with revisions and amendments by its own creators. But what Modi—and, before him, Indira Gandhi—did was uncommon. He extinguished the awe and reverence the Constitution commanded among Indians. His hauteur, vanity, and self-importance could not comprehend or abide the most delicate arrangement in it. This is one reason why he proceeded to stamp on it with such crudeness. The vote to revoke Article 370 in Parliament was preceded by the most elaborate lies ever told in the public square. India’s intelligence agencies were tarnished to weave the fable that a terrorist attack was imminent in Kashmir. The administration that was plotting secretly to trample the Constitution lulled Indians into the belief that it was moving proactively to protect them.
The process bore all the hallmarks of Modi’s special brand of ineptitude. In 2016, the Prime Minister had banned notes without printing new currency—and when he did print new currency, it was too big to fit into existing cash dispensers. The same genius, three years later, decided to “fix” the Kashmir problem without a moment’s consideration for the ramifications of his actions for India’s external relations, particularly with China, or its implications for the country’s internal unity.
Almost four years of self-congratulation by the Prime Minister, who shrieked “All is well” in Punjabi to his expatriate worshippers in America, are now culminating in the resurgence of centrifugal currents in Punjab. Separatist yearnings have of course always existed in Punjab and other regions of India — Modi’s hubris has renewed the market for them.
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The task before Indian secularists
Modi’s malicious Hindu nationalism does not, however, sanctify Singh’s Sikh separatism. The people of Punjab have genuine complaints—from the menace of drug cartels and the sand mafia to the torment of corruption. But there is no malady for which the mutilation of India can be a remedy. The urgent task before Indian secularists is to reclaim the republic from Hindu nationalism without yielding along the way to other chauvinisms that cite Hindutva to seek legitimacy for their own schismatic ends.
Modi’s reign has done profound damage to India—but not all who point their finger at it do so because they wish to repair it. Many of the most fervid critics of India under Hindu nationalism are not champions of equal citizenship. They are opportunists who invoke Modi to advance their own dream of inventing new ethnoreligious states that will be Modi’s India in miniature—but none of the human variety that makes India worthy of rescue. “Self-determination” is often the battle cry of bigots whose greatest aspiration is to convert supposedly oppressed minorities into actually oppressive majorities.
Singh does not (yet) possess the means to wage war against Delhi. But he is making progress each day. His agitation embarrasses and gives the appearance of weakness to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab—and this helps the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Might this be one reason why Singh has been lavished with endless attention by our capital’s notoriously solipsistic media? It’s certainly odd that in a country where students have been detained for months under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Singh, who surrounds himself with men wielding heavy weapons, is at liberty to propagate his pernicious message of disunion.
It was a similar partisan calculation that prompted Sanjay Gandhi to patronise Bhindranwale — he was plucked from obscurity by Indira Gandhi’s son, who even paid the bill for the inaugural meeting of the sant’s party, Dal Khalsa, at Chandigarh’s Aroma Hotel. Sanjay had hoped to use Bhindranwale as a puppet to neuter the Akali Dal. Instead, he spawned a disaster that devoured a generation in Punjab.
Singh is slightly more polished than Bhindranwale, with infinitely more sophisticated tools of communication at his disposal, and may soon win—if he hasn’t already—the sponsorship of India’s adversaries in Islamabad and among the militant quarters of the sprawling Sikh diaspora. To fail to confront him now is merely to postpone the confrontation.
Kapil Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India. Folow him on Telegram. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)