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Temple Plots and Holy Men


The Indian Express, Nov. 21, 2001

Politics in Punjab is complicated business. Almost 40 years ago, on his first visit to India, V.S. Naipaul had written, 'Sikh politics, consisting of temple plots, holy men, miraculous fasts, Wild West rivalries punctuated with gunshot . . . certainly seemed both comic and fierce. There was energy no doubt. But perhaps it was too much for India: against the Indian background the Sikhs were always a little alarming.'

On the face of it, nothing much seems to have changed. Given the nature of news, Punjab springs into the Indian consciousness in sudden bursts. And temple plots, holy men and Wild West rivalries continue to dominate the news that filters out of Punjab. But to anyone based in the state, recent events have not taken place in isolation.

Ever since peace returned to the state, a number of Sikh religious issues have taken centrestage in Punjab. To an outsider, some of these may seem rather arcane, and Naipaul's description particularly apt - the use of chairs in the gurdwara langar, the adoption of a new calendar for observing Sikh rites and festivals, a new gurdwara bill relating to the administration of gurdwaras, the position of sects such as the Namdharis or even the recent controversy over the writings of a self-styled sant, Pyara Singh Bhaniara.

But the issues taken together point to a community seeking to deal with questions of identity in the aftermath of terrorism. The search for a distinct identity has been a perennial theme for the community, but it is as if the matter has acquired new urgency ever since peace returned to Punjab. In the recent past, the debate over the gurdwara bill has been dominated by the proposed definition of a Sikh and the avowed motivation for a new calendar is the need to distance Sikhism from Hindu rites and observances.

In his book The Context of Ethnicity: Sikh Identity in a Comparative Perspective, sociologist Dipankar Gupta observed: 'There was no good reason prior to 1980 for the Sikhs to fashion a sharply defined image . . . of themselves . . . For the majority of the Sikhs to be a Singh was to observe Sikh practices somewhat invisibly and habitually. This was the kind of primordial identity the Sikhs possessed till 1980, or, to be more specific, till Operation Bluestar in 1984. All that changed after Operation Bluestar which was followed soon after by the November killings of the Sikhs nation-wide.' For most Sikhs, it suddenly became necessary to come to terms with an identity that one could be killed for. And what could not be debated in times of terror has now come to the foreground in years of peace. This quest for identity is openly admitted.

In the normal course of things such a process should be of concern only to the community and a few academics. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the Akali party, the quest for identity is the very stuff of politics in Punjab. Sikhism has never witnessed the separation of church and state, and the Akalis seek to control both the Assembly and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee [S.G.P.C.], which looks after gurdwara affairs. As a result, debates over religious issues have sent the state into periodic turmoil in the recent past. A government which has a comfortable majority often finds itself in the midst of a crisis due to events which should be kept a safe distance from politics.

Incidents, such as the recent cases of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib, where the government's role should be restricted to controlling the law and order situation become occasions where the chief minister's personal beliefs come into question, ministers have to defend themselves against charges of apostasy. Under these conditions, it takes very little for events in Punjab to stir up a large number of people. Any one of these issues related to Sikh identity can snowball. The huge turnout in response to the recent cases of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib was but a case in point. And what the Akalis set in motion while in power, they seek to exploit in opposition.

The Assembly elections are around the corner and an electoral defeat may well force the Akalis to once again adopt demands and tactics which saw the situation in the state deteriorating just two decades earlier.

This is where outsiders often fail to understand Punjab. The question is frequently asked of the Sikhs, why does a prosperous, modern community inexplicably sink into the morass of what appear to be medieval disputes? Several decades later, on another trip, Naipaul was to observe, 'The establishing of a Sikh identity was a recurring Sikh need. Religion was the basis of this identity; religion provided the emotional charge. But that also meant that the Sikh cause had been entrusted to people who were not representative of the Sikh achievement, were a generation or so behind.'

There is no getting away from this fact. The progressive sections of the community do not control or influence the events that unfold in the state. And what passes for debate among the Sikh intelligentsia comprises drawing-room discussion in Chandigarh among a few retired judges and bureaucrats, all of whom tend to hark back to a golden age of Sikhism.

Once again Naipaul captured the essence of this failure. Referring to Gurtej Singh, who quit his I.A.S. job and became the S.G.P.C.'s national professor of Sikhism, Naipaul remarks, 'What was unexpected . . . was how much he took for granted. The Constitution, the law, the centres of education, the civil service with its high idea of its role as guardian of the people's rights and improver of their condition, the investment over four decades in industrial and agricultural change - in Gurtej's account, these things which distinguished India from many of its neighbours were just there.'

The community has succeeded in India by building on exactly these strengths of the Indian state. But the institutions of Sikhism have failed to come to terms with the modern world.

Today, the evolution of the community is inseparable from Akali politics and most Sikhs have no voice in the way institutions of the community are run. Neither is there any sign that a reformation separating church and the state is likely in Sikhism. The traditional view is that such a separation is against the tenets of the faith. This may well be true, but the modes by which the Akalis skirt the secular requirements of the Indian state are very precarious.

Till this fact is accepted and mechanisms are put in place, an occurrence unlikely in the near future, the outside world will continue to hear of a Punjab in periodic disarray over temple plots and holy men.