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How The 1947 Partition Of Panjab Still Impacts Sikh Activism

Across the globe today, national borders typically reflect ethnic, linguistic, and sometimes religious divisions.

Take Europe: countries like Italy and Spain are largely home to people who speak Italian and Spanish. Similarly, in places such as Croatia and Hungary the predominant ethnicity is Croatian and Hungarian, respectively. For many across South Asia however, it is a different story altogether. These nations are largely defined by the idiocies of colonialism, and not by the heritage of its indigenous people. The region of Panjab is an obvious case.

The partition of Panjab in 1947 initiated one of the harshest and most enduring ironies of decolonization. It is estimated that up to 18 million people were displaced and two million killed in the sectarian violence that followed.

The power broker behind the partition of Panjab was the departing British, whose exit was clumsily improvised. The hastily-arranged decision to split Panjab triggered a perilous era of economic, social and religious subjugation within the region.

As preceding rulers of Panjab and natives to the land, the Sikhs were actively engaged in fighting to remove the British, who had taken official occupation of Panjab in 1849. The activism was no surprise, as the Sikh mandate to acquire political power can be traced back to the Sikh Gurus themselves, who not only exercised sovereignty but also made it an integral part of the Sikh movement. Love for freedom and justice had become basic elements of the Sikh psyche and the soil of Panjab is soaked with the blood of Sikh martyrs; a testament to the continued movement to protect Sikh sovereignty.

However, in many ways 1947 signalled an inevitable turning point for the Sikhs, as the effects of the colonial encounter, which overtly began in 1849, coupled with the intrusion from their Indian counterparts, wreaked havoc on their political aptitude. Sikh psyche had endured wave-after-wave of attack during British occupation of the region. Now armed with a foreign notion of activism, the colonised Sikhs resorted to placing hopes of liberty and freedom in the hands of another.

Many insist that it was the promises made by the likes of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru which convinced the Sikhs to throw their lot in with the Indians. Both Master Tara Singh and Baldev Singh, two prominent leaders of the Sikh community, were influenced by the politicking of Indian leadership into believing the best solution for the Panjabi-Sikh populace scattered across Panjab was to join India.

Whether the decision to throw their lot in with the Indians came through betrayal or blunder, is an irrelevant matter of opinion. The harsh reality remains that it was a clear deviation from the polity of the Khalsa Panth that was prevalent under Banda Singh Bahadur's Sikh Republic of 1710, and the sovereign states of the Sikh Confederacy that followed in the 18th Century.

It is imperative to remember that following the creation of India, both Sikh members of the Constituent Assembly refused to sign the Constitution. They declared vehemently that "the Sikhs do not accept this Constitution. The Sikhs reject this Constitution Act." In subsequent years, all the personal laws of the Sikhs were abolished and eventually replaced by Hindu statutes, such as the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955.

The words of renowned Sikh academic and scholar Prof Puran Singh proved true when in 1932 he had predicted a bleak prophecy of civil turmoil. He wrote "self-government in India means Government by the very few cunning and aggressive people who, once put in possession of the authority, would twist all letters of law and constitutions to their individual wills and make them work on the communal or the so called religious bias".

Under the guise of democracy and secularism, the social, historical and geographic wounds of Panjab caused by the barbarity of colonial policies were ripped open for Sikhs by Indian legislation.

For the next 30 years Sikhs attempted to initiate various movements to preserve their identity, language and culture. During this time Panjab was reduced to a mere fraction of its size, with river water diverted to neighbouring states. The capital, Chandigarh, fell under the direct control of Central Government. The efforts to agitate for civil rights were compromised because the mode of activism, fell largely within the constraints of Indian law and not from a position of sovereign authority.

The futility of their actions is best exemplified when we attempt to draw a parallel with someone like Banda Singh Bahadur. How absurd would it sound if we were told he tried to petition the Mughal government for civil rights or led protests against their injustice and called for them to recognise his rights? For him, and many others that followed, the mandate from the Guru was clear; acquire political power and establish Khalsa Raj.

By the early 80s, a concerted effort was made to realign Sikh psyche with the Guru's mandate. The Sikhs became astutely aware of the pitfalls of placing all hope in the Indian establishment, no matter how democratic the system appeared.

Inevitably the declaration for a separate Sikh homeland was made on 26 April 1986. Despite efforts to suppress Sikh political activism in Panjab, the resolution passed in 1986 received unanimous support and remains the political mandate of the Sikh people. Today, some of the largest gatherings amongst the Sikh diaspora are made in support of that resolution with protests usually taking place every year in the month of June. The show of solidarity not only commemorates the fallen freedom fighters of the Sikh movement but also reaffirms the calls for an independent Sikh homeland.

It was Guru Nanak who first openly criticised and challenged those indulged in corruption and it is He who advocates that a person in authority should honour his/her office and do so conscientiously.

Sikhs took inspiration from the writings of the Guru, for example (when referring to the Pathan administration) He writes "the ruler administers justice if his palm is greased". The Sikhs understood that the whole paraphernalia of government in India was corrupt and people at every rung of the establishment indulged in such acts.

Today an informed Sikh recognises that their liberty will only truly arrive when they exercise the sovereignty bestowed upon them by the Guru.

This was the example set by illustrious Sikh leaders from the pre-colonial era who acquired and exercised political power. Sikh rulers such Banda Singh Bahadur who founded the first Sikh Republic or Nawab Kapur Singh and Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, to name just two leaders from the sovereign states of the Sikh Confederacy. The same traits were found in rare gems such as Bhai Maharaj Singh and the Babbar Akali from the late 19th century and early 20th century, who swore their allegiance to none other than the Khalsa Panth. They were staunch anti-colonialists and understood the need for Sikhs to re-establish political power to fulfil the requirements of the House of Guru Nanak.

In the years leading up to 1984, Sant Jarnail Singh, Bhai Fauja Singh and their Sikh compatriots became the most recent in a long line of illustrious leaders to have rekindled the spirit of Sikh sovereignty from centuries past. From the way that they dressed to the manner of their speech, they seemed to challenge the effects of colonialism that had engulfed so many of their contemporaries. Having pledged their allegiance to the House of Guru Nanak, they encouraged Sikhs to re-enter Anandpur, if they were to truly liberate themselves and deliver on the Guru's mandate.

The Khalistan movement seeks to challenge the religious and political domination of the Indian establishment, which undermines the moral fabric of a society envisaged by Guru Nanak. As such the events of 1947 carry no less, or no more significance, than the events of 1849 when Panjab was annexed by the British, or the events of 1716 when Banda Singh's Republic met a brutal end. These episodes from history merely serve to remind Sikhs of their duty to deliver on Guru Nanak's mission of emancipating society from the clutches of totalitarianism, no matter what the odds.

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