New Delhi: In a video statement issued Friday, Giani Harpreet Singh — the acting jathedar (head priest) of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs — attacked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, accusing it of suppressing the beliefs of religious minorities in the country.
Singh also alleged that Sikh issues discussed with Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to the Golden Temple in February ahead of the Punjab assembly elections are yet to be addressed. He also claimed that there was an atmosphere of distrust among Sikhs regarding the central government.
Singh was referring to demands for punishment of the accused in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, and for the release of prisoners such as Jagtar Singh Hawara, who is accused in the murder of former Punjab CM Beant Singh.
Singh’s statement followed a late-night address by Prime Minister Narendra Modi Thursday, on the occasion of Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur’s 400th birth anniversary, celebrated on 21 April. Modi had touched upon work done by the Centre for the Sikh community, such as linking places of pilgrimage connected to Sikh tradition.
Modi also referred to how three saroops of the Guru Granth Sahib were brought to India from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover of the country last year, and to the reopening of the Kartarpur Sahib corridor to allow pilgrims to visit the Sikh shrine in Pakistan.
Calling Tegh Bahadur “Hind di Chadar”, who had “stood like a rock” in front of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s tyranny, Modi said, “Religious fanaticism and atrocities in the name of religion could not separate people from their faith and belief even then” and that India was “moving forward with the ideals of its gurus”.
A day before, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said that Guru Tegh Bahadur had sacrificed his life for the protection of the Hindu religion and Kashmiri Pandits, who were persecuted by the then Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb.
“When Kashmiri Pandits narrated to him the atrocities committed against them by the Mughals, he said, go and tell Aurangzeb only after they convert me, they can convert others,” Shah had said.
The BJP’s outreach efforts were intended to build a rapport with the Sikh community, after their perceived alienation during the year-long protest against the three now-repealed farms laws introduced by the Modi government in 2020. Many BJP leaders had alleged at the time that a ‘Khalistani agenda’ was being propagated under the garb of the farmers’ agitation. Many of the agitating farmers were Sikhs.
However, the Akal Takht in a strongly-worded statement Friday said that Guru Tegh Bahadur had martyred himself for the freedom of all religions, and not just Hindus.
“The motive of the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur was to provide the right to practice any faith/ religion to everyone. But today in India, the religious beliefs of minorities are being suppressed, Sikh issues are not resolved, promises made to the Sikhs since partition have not been fulfilled, and that is why there is atmosphere of distrust among Sikhs,” the Akal Takht said.
‘Sense of suspicion’
This is not the first time that Sikh institutions have rebuffed outreach attempts by the BJP and its ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). According to analysts, the community in general has been wary of RSS overtures because of a perception that the organisation’s agenda is to incorporate Sikhism within the Hindu fold.
“There is a sense of suspicion among the Sikh community, which deepened during the farmers’ agitation. They felt alienated — their sense of alienation, which stated during Partition and 1984 (the anti-Sikh riots, following former PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination), has still not been addressed,” said Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science, Panjab University.
He added: “Last year’s farmers agitation has caused more wounds. (Outreach) Efforts by the BJP and RSS are being viewed as an agenda of the larger Akhand Bharat (undivided India) mission, where all religions will be part of the Hindu dharma, which was never accepted by the Sikh community.”
In 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the body that manages gurudwaras across Punjab and several other states, had criticised a Nagpur-based publisher for characterising Sikh gurus as gau bhakts. In July 2004, an RSS push to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib had provoked the Akal Takht to issue a warning to Sikhs to be wary of the Sangh.
In 2019, Akal Takht jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh had demanded a ban on the RSS, after its chief, Mohan Bhagwat, termed India a “Hindu rashtra“.
”If the government wants to end this trust deficit and establish a good relationship with the community, it must take big decisions to end wrongdoing by successive Congress governments,” Singh had said Thursday.
He had added: “The government must address state-level atrocities faced by the Sikhs in this country. Only then we will be ready to cooperate with it. If it is not done, the feeling of alienation in Sikhs will not end.”
According to the Akal Takht jathedar, it would be a befitting tribute on Guru Tegh Bahadur’s birth anniversary if the Union government released Sikh prisoners, handed the management of various Sikh shrines to the community, and took concrete step against hate crimes in the country.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)