The Akal Takht’s call to ban RSS reiterates Sikhism’s long resistance to a Hindu Rashtra

Well over a century after the question of Sikh identity was fully settled, the RSS continues to insist that Sikhism is not a religion but a sect of Hinduism, thereby antagonising the community. SONU MEHTA / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
15 October, 2019

On 14 October, Giani Harpreet Singh, the chief of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, called for a ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, during an interaction with journalists in Amritsar. Singh’s remark came in the backdrop of a statement by Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, during an annual Sangh event the previous week, stating that “Bharat is Hindustan, a Hindu Rashtra” and that “all Bharatiyas are Hindus.” In response, Singh noted, “The remarks by RSS leaders are not in the interest of the nation. It would hurt and draw a new line of division in the country and destroy it.”

Historically, the RSS’s vision for a Hindu Rashtra has been in conflict with the Sikh faith and the Akal Takht. In 1985, the RSS had floated a Sikh wing called the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. In the following excerpt, from an April 2018 piece on the RSS’s position on a separate religion for the Lingayats, Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor at The Caravan, traced the backlash that the Sangat faced in Punjab when it began to advocate its ideology—the inseparability of Sikhs and Hindus. Bal wrote, “In Punjab, where the mix of religion and politics is often combustible, the Sangat’s activities remain one of the biggest sources of mobilisation for Sikh hardliners.”

The RSS’s ideologue and second chief, MS Golwalkar’s view of the Sikhs as “communalists” who are “tearing asunder” the golden thread of Hinduism has been the basis for much of the RSS’s activities among the Sikhs in Punjab. In 1985, at the height of the crisis in Punjab, the RSS floated a body called the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Initially, the Sangat was supposed to focus on spreading the message of a shared Sikh and Hindu heritage but in truth its aims were to propagate what Golwalkar had articulated: the inseparability of Sikhs and Hindus. The journalist Dhirendra Jha, in his book Shadow Armies, devotes a chapter to the Sangat (much of the work of the Sangat noted here relies on Jha’s exposition). Jha writes:

Rashtriya Sikh Sangat: An introduction, a booklet in Punjabi published by the Sangat’s office in Ludhiana after the completion of its first decade … explains the “conspiracy” of the British government and Macauliffe (historian of the Sikhs) to “artificially” create an independent identity for Sikhs … It further claims that during “the Muslim period”…the Sikhs “considered themselves Hindus” and their Gurus never thought of forming a separate religion. “Now it is our responsibility,” the booklet says…, “to understand the root cause of the problem and to make people aware of the truth.

As the militancy in Punjab came to an end and a Bharatiya Janata Party government came to power in the state in a 1997 alliance with the Akalis, the Sangat more overtly followed its goals. At one of its meets, a resolution was passed, demanding “that a magnificent temple of Shri Ram should be made.” It was a move that had no resonance among the Sikhs, but was reflective of the ideology that the Sangat was advocating.

The Sangat organised a march of 300 sadhus to Amritsar during the tercentenary celebration of the Khalsa—established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 by instituting a baptism ceremony that required his followers to don the five symbols, including uncut hair, that are now identified with Sikhism. A pamphlet distributed by the Sangat at the time claimed, “The followers of Lord Rama, Krishna and Guru Sahiban are not different but they are part of one society and that is the Hindu society.” Resentment began building up within Sikh institutions even though they were largely under the control of the Akalis.

In December 2002, the Sangat planned a programme of the recitation of the Granth Sahib in Hindu temples in Punjab. Stating that the Granth could not be recited in the presence of idols, Sikh institutions strongly criticised the move. The Sangat was forced to cancel its plans, but now the backlash from Sikh bodies could not be contained. The jathedar, or head, of Akal Takht—Sikhism’s most important temporal institution—declared, “In its outlook the RSS is like Aurangzeb. The latter wanted to convert everyone to Islam, either by sword or otherwise. Similarly, the RSS also wants to convert everybody to Hinduism. Its ideology is dangerous not only for the Sikhs but for all other religions.”

When the Sangat planned a nationwide march in 2004 to commemorate the four-hundredth year anniversary of the compilation of the manuscript of the Granth Sahib, Jha reports that “the Akal Takht issued a directive, naming the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat an ‘anti-Panth’ organisation which was trying to ‘mislead’ Sikhs in order to obtain their support for its ‘anti-Panthic activities.’ The directive asked the community and its religious bodies not to extend any support to the Sikh wing of the RSS.”

Over the next few years, the Sangat scaled back its activities to a considerable degree, even as its leaders alleged that the Sikh clergy was acting at the behest of Sikh hardliners abroad. In 2009, the Sangat chief Rulda Singh was shot dead in Patiala, in all likelihood by hardliners opposed to its activities in Punjab. It was the most visible act of terror in Punjab since 1993. After lying low for the next five years, the coming to power of Modi has seen the Sangat once again trying to revive its activities. Mohan Bhagwat has taken a direct interest, and this has once again invited a warning from the Akal Takht.

In Punjab, where the mix of religion and politics is often combustible, the Sangat’s activities remain one of the biggest sources of mobilisation for Sikh hardliners. Well over a century after the question of Sikh identity was fully settled, the RSS continues to resist the reality of what has unfolded. In doing so, it constantly threatens to unsettle the fragile balance of peace in the state, and at the same time it continues to provide encouragement for Sikh hardliners who would otherwise have little traction in the community.

This is an edited excerpt from Hartosh Singh Bal’s April 2018 piece, “In Bad Faith.”