The Khalistan stick

The Sikhs are the proverbial bone stuck in the RSS’s gullet

Bikram Singh Majithia, cabinet minister in the Punjab government at the time, ties a turban on Narendra Modi, who was then a prime ministerial hopeful, during an election campaign in Amritsar in April 2014. Sameer Sehgal / Hindustan Times
25 September, 2023

The transformation of the relationship between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sikhs embodies the problems the community faces in a climate where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s worldview prevails in the country. The story begins with a photo the Bharatiya Janata Party would once display with great pride, of a turbaned Modi disguised as a Sikh, to hide from the government clampdown during the Emergency. Nearly fifty years later, stranded on a flyover in Punjab because of protesting farmers, Modi was to declare that he felt his life was in danger from the same community that he once used as a shield.

This change in perception says less about the Sikhs than it does about Modi. His disguise was only an acknowledgement that the single most determined opposition to the Emergency had come from the Sikhs, and he was seeking shelter among people he was sure would keep him safe. But in doing so, he was also traducing the most basic facet of the Khalsa identity. The physical appearance of the Khalsa was always meant as an open declaration of one’s identity, especially to anyone who would want to threaten or persecute it. To use this identity as a disguise against repression was an insult to the very spirit in which the identity was instituted.

Such cowardice was again in evidence on the flyover. The farmers protests had promoted no violence, and the prime minister had the opportunity to just walk over to citizens of his country and talk to them about their concerns. Instead, he sat in his car, surrounded by his security wielding weapons against a non-existent threat. As he left from the nearest airport in Punjab, he reportedly said, “Thank your CM that I returned to the Bathinda Airport alive.”

The ease with which Sikhs transitioned from being protectors to threats in Modi’s mind is in keeping with how the RSS views the community. The community is to be praised when it is a useful instrument in institutions such as the army, but as and when it voices its own self-interest in terms unacceptable to the RSS, it becomes a threat.