The Sikh Identity: Through History's Veil

The article delves into the historical and contemporary portrayal of Sikh identity, unveiling a legacy of misrepresentation, propaganda, and pivotal events. From the British manipulation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s bloodline to the 1984 attack on Harminder Sahib and subsequent branding of Sikhs as terrorists, it highlights the community’s struggle against state-sponsored violence. The narrative explores the British recruitment of Sikhs in the military, their valor, and the subsequent shift from liberators to labeled threats post-independence. It emphasizes the quest for autonomy through Khalistan and the continued conflict, citing human rights violations and unmet promises, shaping the enduringly conflicted Sikh image

In the sections below you will be able to read for yourself the history of Sikhs plight for freedom and the betrayal by their ‘so-called’ allies. Again we have not exaggerated any story and many of the accounts come from independent sources.

Unraveling The Sikh Identity: Through History's Veil

Sikhs have long been on the other end of media campaigns, misrepresentation and propaganda. This has caused much of the world and the Sikh diaspora to form different views around the image of Sikh’s and what they stand for. We will now unpack the use of Sikh’s in the present and past, and how that has shaped the image of the community today. One key word being Khalistan which we will now look to dissect further.

Perhaps the most recent and recognizable attack on the Sikh identity is the 1984 attack on Harminder Sahib and the mass killings post then, however there have been many other notable attacks on the Sikh identity, trying to mis-align Sikhs from their faith.

The identity and use of Sikh image dates back centuries but more recently the British empire’s shaping of this image is something to consider. The British originally came into India as the “East India Company” to trade with India for spices and goods. When they first entered, Indians were speculative of their true intentions. However, after years of gaining their trust, they promptly used this as a disguise, and climbed up the ranks and slowly took power all over India.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the great unifying force of the Sikhs. As King of Punjab, he prioritized education and equal rights for all. The last thing the British needed when conquering India was a united Sikhs and a united nation, as Sikhs were the protectors of India. To conquer this problem, they terminated Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s bloodline. Dilip Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was separated from his mother Rani Jind Kaur at the tender age of five. Once taken into custody by the British, he was subsequently brainwashed and groomed by British appointed guardians, Mr. & Mrs. Logan, into converting into Christianity and cutting his hair. Maharaja Duleep Singh, at the age of ten, signed the Treaty of Lahore, in 1849 forcing Punjab to renounce all claims of sovereignty. After assimilation into England, Maharaja Dilip Singh was never allowed to go back to Punjab. Interestingly, the rest of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s children were not able to have offspring to continue the bloodline. Thus, the British effectively suppressed any potential for a united Punjab by eliminating all heir to the throne.

After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British wasted no time on recruiting Sikh people into the military because of the perceived martial status of Sikhs, loyalty, and similarity in belief. During British rule, the Sikh community was forced to redefine itself in the face of British and native pressures. Yet, their reputation and image of absolute bravery proved true as a whopping 20% of the British Indian Army were Sikhs, despite being less than 2% of the Indian population. The British knew from the battle of Saragarhi (1897) that the values enshrined within Sikh’s from their Guru’s were fulfilled even in the face of certain death. In terms of the ratio on the odds faced, only a few battles come close to those faced by 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikhs in Saragarhi, Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP) in present day Pakistan. On September 12, 1897, these 21 Sikh soldiers were up against approximately 10,000 – 14,000 Afridi and Orakzai tribes of the Pashtun. The staggering ratio of 1:500 stacked against the Sikhs is both unmatched and unprecedented, ensuring their “last stand” will never be forgotten in history.

By the beginning of the first world war, there were more than 100,000 Sikhs in the British Indian Army, making up 20% of the force. Before 1945, 14 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Sikhs, which was a per capita regimental record. 83,005 Sikhs were killed serving in both World Wars, wearing their Turbans. 109,045 Sikhs were injured surviving in both World Wars, wearing their Turbans. In 2002, the names of all Sikh Victoria Cross and George Cross recipients were inscribed on the monument of the memorial gates on Constitution Hill, next to Buckingham Palace.

With the independence of India in 1947, the Sikhs by this point had cemented their image as the saviors and liberators of India. From 1947 till 1984 with the attack on Harminder Sahib, Sikh’s who were previously seen as the liberators, were now branded as terrorists. In June of 84, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a full military assault on the holiest shrine Harminder Sahib (i.e., the Golden Temple), in Amritsar, Punjab. The attack killed thousands of civilians. On October 31, 1984, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. Her assassination triggered genocidal killings around the country, particularly in India’s capital city, New Delhi. Frenzied mobs of Hindu thugs, thirsting for revenge, burned Sikh-owned businesses, dragged Sikhs out of their homes, cars, and trains, then clubbed them to death or set them aflame before raging off in search of other victims. All of this was states sponsored and orchestrated. According to official reports, within three days nearly 3,000 Sikhs had been murdered, at a rate of one per minute at the peak of the violence. Unofficial death estimates are far higher, and human rights activists have identified specific individuals complicit in organizing and perpetrating the massacres. “Almost as many Sikhs died in a few days in India in 1984 than all the deaths and disappearances in Chile during the 17-year military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990,” pointed out Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times bureau chief in New Delhi, in a report for World Policy Journal.

A lesser-known fact which is also crucial to note is that the Indian government in 1984 had hired a company to do a negative campaign on Sikhs globally. It was India’s largest advertising agency called Rediffusion based out of Bombay. It was driven by Rajiv Gandhi. Created by his cousin Arun Nehru’s friends in Rediffusion, the campaign depicted Sikhs as enemy, out to divide and destroy India.  The campaign involved a series of ad’s which portrait Sikh’s negatively. Rediffusion continued its collaboration with the Congress for the 1985 Punjab elections and the 1989 general elections, but Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 marked not only the end of the creative and strategic relationship, but also the end of any political advertising work from the agency entirely.

With the divide of Punjab to Haryana in 1966, and the green revolution, Sikh’s felt that promises made to them before independence were never going to be honored. In the build up to 1984, Sikh’s were requesting more autonomy for their region, and this was formalized with the Anandpur Resolution. With the 1984 genocide now taken place, the community felt that having sovereignty was the only answer: Khalistan.

Post 1984 for the following 10 years saw unprecedented human rights violations take place in Punjab under various codeword operations by the Indian Government. Violence in the state by all parties reached unprecedented levels in late 1990. By year’s end some 4,000 persons were reported to have been killed, mostly civilians. An Asia Watch delegation visited Punjab and New Delhi in November and December 1990. The team traveled throughout large parts of the state — including the particularly violent border districts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur — interviewing lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, farmers, traders, and other Punjabis. Asia Watch also interviewed many Hindu families who had fled to relief camps in New Delhi. Subsequently, Asia Watch asked the government of India to respond to several questions concerning human rights conditions in Punjab. No response was given. No formal apology has been issued by the Indian Government for the genocide on the Sikh community.

It is for all these critical events in history that the Sikh community desire the glow of freedom that they were once promised by Nehru, and until autonomy is given to the community, the Sikh image will continue to be conflicted and divided.