the evolution of sikhism and the khalsa identity

Sikhism originally started as an individualistic and pacifist religion, but morphed into a faith focused on a militaristic and warrior approach. Punjab, before Sikhism was founded, consisted of various tribes scattered throughout the state, with a social hierarchy based on the caste system (Singh 2004a:26). In the 1500s, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, created a sense of Punjabi nationalism with his belief in an individual religion with an omnipresent god, focused entirely on self-discipline and equality for all people (Singh 2004a: 45). Earlier passages in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, emphasize the importance of individual enlightenment instead of a communal identity: “Those who take on the mind are the greatest of heroes, Through their knowledge of self they stay merged in the Lord” (Shakle and Mandair 47).  The Khalsa, or soldier-saint, identity developed under the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, as a result of constant invasions into Punjab and became the only way to preserve the faith in these times of tumult. As the Khalsa became more established, it also became a symbol of the strength for the Sikhs. A fully united Khalsa has indicated prosperity and power for the Sikhs throughout Indian history.

Guru Nanak, the First Sikh Guru

As Sikhism was beginning to emerge, Muslim rulers from Persia were gaining more of a stronghold in the Indian subcontinent. Babar was the first Mughal ruler in 1527, and his successors varied in their tolerance towards other religions in India. Emperor Akbar, a powerful and tolerant Mughal king ruled from 1556-1605, respected the growing prevalence of Sikhism in India, even awarding Guru Ram Das the land on which the Golden Temple would later be built. However, the next Mughal ruler, Jehangir, who ruled from 1605 to 1627, was influenced by the prejudiced views of people in his courts and developed a strong hatred of the emerging Sikh religion (Sheob et al 170).  As the Mughals consolidated their control over India, Sikhism was gaining popularity and becoming more mainstream. Many of the Sikh beliefs, such as monotheism and equality for all people, aligned with Islam and went against Hindu traditions of purdah and the caste system. Consequently, these two religions began to form an alliance (Sheob et al 168).. This relationship threatened Brahminic Hinduism as many Hindus held important positions in the Mughal courts. There was a distinct hierarchy in Delhi, with Muslim rulers at the top, closely followed by the Hindu maharajas as their close advisors. As Muslims were in the minority in India, the Mughal rulers offered many more perks to the Hindus in order to appease them, as compared to their Muslim peers. The Orthodox Muslims, or ulemas, grew increasingly disgruntled and critical as the number of Hindus and the power wielded by them, grew in Mughal courts. The ulemas also began to feel threatened by the burgeoning Muslim-Sikh relationship and felt that if these alliances grew stronger it would undermine the preexisting fragile social order, even more (Sheob et al 172).

The ulemas were unsuccessful in spreading Islam under Akbar’s reign, so they proceeded to make a concerted effort with Jehangir to instigate his hatred for the Sikhs. They used flattery and referred to him as the “King of Islam,” in order to heavily influence him. These Muslims, together with the Hindus in the courts, worked together on a warrant for the death of Guru Arjun, falsely accusing the guru of undermining Jehangir’s position and sabotaging his rule (Sheob et al 172). Guru Arjun also had many enemies among the Hindus that were conspiring against him. His brother, Parthi Das, was upset that their father, Guru Ram Das, had picked Arjun, the younger sibling over him and had vowed revenge against his family by complaining to the Mughal courts. Chandu Lal, a Hindu also in the Muslim courts, began to plot against the guru after Guru Arjun refused the marriage proposal between Chandu Lal’s daughter and his son, the fifth guru, Hargobind. Chandu Lal alleged that Guru Arjun had written anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim books and was actively plotting to overthrow the Mughal leaders under the guise of a saint (Sheob et al 172). As the complaints against the Guru grew, they began to infuriate Jehangir; he said that “[The guru] was noised about as a religious and worldly leader… and from all directions fools would come to him and express great devotion to him.” Eventually, he had the guru arrested and decreed that “his property be confiscated, and that he should be put to death with torture” (Singh 57). The guru was tortured while in captivity and ultimately martyred on May 30, 1606.

This event was, perhaps, the pivotal turning point in the transformation of Sikhism from a pacifist religion to a warrior class. This led to the first confrontation between Sikhs and Muslims, and also revealed the growing tension between the Sikhs and the other religions in India at that time. Sikhism was under threat and the Sikhs had no other option than to band together to form a unified identity that could fight against the persecution they were facing (Sheob et al 173).

Guru Arjun’s son, Guru Hargobind, assumed the title of the next Sikh Guru and started to assemble an army and construct a fortress to defend against the series of clashes between the Sikhs and Muslims following the death of Guru Arjun. During the ceremony celebrating his accession as the next guru, Hargobind held two swords, which depicted him both as a spiritual and a political leader of the Sikh community. He said that his “rosary shall be the sword-belt,” showing the intersection between spirituality and a warrior identity (Singh 2004a: 60). Even the leisure time of the Sikhs was characterized by military exercises as Guru Nanak’s peaceful hymns turned into long discussions about battle strategies and victory songs. However, based on the sheer disparity in numbers of Sikhs and Muslims (the Sikhs being in the minority), the Sikhs realized that they would be unable to fend off Muslim attacks over an extended period of time (Singh 2004a:63). Guru Hargobind built a battle fortress near Amritsar and named it Lohgarh, which means castle of steel. Jahangir viewed this change in the Sikh identity as a threat to his throne and jailed Guru Hargobind for twelve years. The Guru was released after this time in exchange for a commitment of Sikh assistance in defending the Mughal throne against the other states in India that were beginning to mutiny against Mughals (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Hargobind”).

Guru Hargobind’s son, Guru Tegh Bahadur, became the ninth guru after the deaths of Guru Har Rai and Guru Har Krishen. The Mughal ruler at this time, Aurangzeb, was arguably one of the cruelest and most prejudiced Mughals (Sheob et al 175). He started his rule by demolishing Hindu temples, imposing taxes on non-Muslims and forcing conversions on Sikhs. When Guru Tegh Bahadur refused to convert to Islam, he was brought to Delhi and publicly executed in 1675. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s torture and subsequent execution further bolstered Sikh unity, so they could defend themselves from further persecution (Singh 2004a: 71).

This uncompromising unity became the first line of defense and survival and fully culminated into a distinct appearance for the Sikhs with the tenth and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh. With Aurangzeb’s increase in power after the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the Sikhs experienced more aggression from the Mughals: their food supply was halted and they were trapped inside of their fortress. Guru Gobind Singh established the Khalsa and selected the Panj Pyare, or the five chosen ones in 1699. The Khalsa formalized the official metamorphosis of the Sikhs from pacifists to an organized military group, with a focus on external identity as the unifying force (Singh 2004a: 80). The Khalsa identity was defined by the five ‘Ks’: Kesh, meaning uncut hair, which was a symbol of strength, but also provided easy recognition of other Sikhs; Kara, a steel bracelet, showed a tangible connection to the guru; Kanga, a comb, demonstrates a pure body and soul; Kaccha, an undergarment, represents chastity; and finally, Kirpan, a symbolic sword, defines the warrior aspect of the saint-soldier Khalsa (BBC, 2009). The Guru’s four young sons were martyred by Mughal forces for their refusals to convert to Islam, so Guru Gobind Singh determined that the Khalsa and the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text, would become the path to practice Sikhism. Thus, the formation of a united warrior class became a necessity in order to preserve Sikhism, and is yet another example of the faith adapting with the circumstances at that time. This idea is illustrated in the Dasam Granth, a literary collection composed by Guru Gobind Singh. The Zafarnama section, written as a letter between the Guru and Aurangzeb, the Guru states, “Surrounded with no choice, in turn I too attacked with bow and gun. When matters pass all other means, it is allowed to take up arms” (Shackle and Mandair 140). This quotation highlights that the only way to defend Sikhism against cruelty and injustice was to form a warrior identity and fight back.

The Ten Sikh Gurus, with Nanak at the centre (Wiki Commons, Public Domain)

Banda Bahadur, a general in the guru’s army, fearlessly promoted the Khalsa and spread the guru’s word, after Guru Gobind Singh’s death in 1708. He was the first strong military leader of the Sikhs who was not a guru (Mahmood 108). He led a revolt that minimized Mughal power in Eastern Punjab and Haryana, but in retaliation, Banda, along with 700 other Khalsa soldiers were killed. With the loss of a strong leader, the Sikhs became outlaws, living in jungles where they would not be found and killing anyone who was associated with the Mughal Empire. This way of life became the only way for Sikhs to protect themselves and their faith. There was no strong Khalsa leader who could organize them militarily and, ultimately, this led to the persecution of Sikhs and diminished their power (Singh 2004a: 114).

In 1751, the Afghans began to invade Punjab, and there was a strong resurgence of the Khalsa, which led to the creation of the Sarbat Khalsa. The Sarbat Khalsa was a group of 11 different  misls, or tribes, led by strong leaders such as Jassa Singh Ahluwalia and Hari Singh Bhagi. These misls met twice a year in a large gathering in Amritsar (Singh 2004a: 116). The Sikhs once again emerged overwhelmingly victorious against Afghans, because of strong leadership which unified the army through the spirit of the Khalsa. This approach radically changed the Sikhs from outlaws into an organized group of freedom fighters, with the strength of the religion unifying the community (Singh 2004a: 117). The unified Khalsa army became a necessity against the enemy, especially as the Afghans greatly outnumbered the Sikhs. Unfortunately, despite the unity of the Sarbat Khalsa, the Afghans easily overpowered the Sikhs in the Wada Ghallughara, or the Sikh genocide, in which almost a third of the Sikh population was killed in 1762. After this event, Ahmed Shah Abdali tried to attack Amristar and the Golden Temple, but the Sikhs were able to regroup and defend themselves, and eventually were able to reestablish control over all of Punjab (Singh 2004a: 147-48).

Unfortunately, as the misls began to disintegrate, there was a rise in conflict amongst Sikhs over land and the Khalsa became more about gaining individual power or wealth (Singh 2004a: 174). Sikhs also began to form alliances with the British, who were just starting to make their presence in India known, in order to create a Sikh stronghold in India. During this time, the Punjab was heavily divided and difficult to rule politically, causing the state to be particularly susceptible to attacks from invaders (Singh 2004a: 185). Finally, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was able to reunify Punjab and unite the Sikhs so they could defend themselves. He was able to accomplish this through a common language and way of life. He established a secular kingdom that honored Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and advocated for the peasants, who made up the majority of Punjab. This sense of Punjabi identity and nationalism reinvigorated the Sikhs and strengthened the military spirit of the Khalsa. At the height of Ranjit Singh’s rule, the Sikh empire extended from modern day Afghanistan in the east to China in the west, even though Sikhs were a minority in India. The Maharaja was able to achieve both Guru Nanak’s dream of uniting the Sikhs and Muslims as well as Guru Gobind Singh’s vision of military brotherhood (Singh 2004a:193).

During this time of harmony in Punjab, the British Raj was beginning to gain more power in the rest of India. The first encounter between Sikhs and the British was in 1809 when Ranjit Singh attempted to conquer Malwa, but the British were able to defend themselves successfully. This conflict led to the Treaty of Amritsar which certified that the East India Company would not interfere with the Sikh kingdom from that time forward, as long as Singh would only expand north of the Sutlej River, but not south of it (where New Delhi is located) (Singh 2004a: 221-223).

Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839 led to yet another series of conflicts in Punjab. The lack of a central authority weakened the Durbar, and the sense of Punjabi nationalism was lost without a strong leader. Prospective leaders were more focused on personal gain and the succession for the throne which meant that there was less of a focus on the needs of the people of Punjab (Singh 2004b: 5). The insecurity caused the army to become the most powerful political body in Punjab. It was called the Army Panchayat and claimed to act in the name of the Khalsa. In response to the anarchy, British troops began to move closer to the Punjab border under the pretext of restoring order. By offering Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son, Sher Singh, and the Sandhawalia family special privileges to sabotage their own armies, the British Raj was able to quickly infiltrate Punjab (Singh 2004b: 18-21). Other leaders of Punjab, such as Maharani Jindan, Raja Lal Singh and Tej Singh were willing to sell Punjab to the British in exchange for their own personal safety. With a weakened Sikh army that was not united under one cause, the East India Company was able to conquer Jammu and Kashmir from the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War in 1845; commanders of the Durbar army, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, were in communication with the British throughout the war. In the Battle of Ferozeshahr, Lord Hardinge, who was first to declare war on the Sikhs, issued a proclamation saying that those who left the Durbar would receive protection from the British, so once again, a weak Khalsa identity led to the defeat of the Sikhs (Singh 2004b: 49).

The Sikhs attempted to regain their land in the second Anglo-Sikh War of 1848, but the lack of a strong leader on the Sikh side resulted in yet another British victory. This event signaled the fall of the Sikh empire and culminated in the Treaty of Lahore, allowing the East India Company to take over all of Punjab by 1849 (Singh 2004b:81).

In order to prevent another Sikh uprising, the British assigned religion-based jobs in Punjab: Hindus conducted administrative work, Muslims were in the police force and Sikhs formed the army. Maharaja Dalip Singh, one of Ranjit Singh’s sons, was removed from India to prevent another nationalist movement; the Sikh flag was replaced by the Union Jack throughout Punjab, and the Rupee was introduced throughout India, instead of the Sikh currency. Lord Dalhousie, the governor-general of India at the time, also wanted to destroy the Sikh identity to ensure that there was no chance of revolt, which he accomplished by turning the Hindus and Muslims in Punjab against the Sikhs. Sikh army soldiers were no longer trusted or deemed loyal, and as an unfortunate result, the Sikh soldiers lost their strong Khalsa spirit and became criminals (Singh 2004b: 87-88).

The Mutiny of 1857, a revolt that originally began between Bengali sepoys and British soldiers and spread to the rest of India was caused by the growing resentment against the British and their decrees including punitive taxes and forced conversions by Christian missionaries. The British used the old tactics of the Mughal rulers to convince the Sikhs to distrust Hindus and Muslims, in order to convince the Khalsa to side with the British during the riots. Together, the Sikhs and the British were able to conquer Delhi, capturing the palace of Bahadur Shah, the last heir to the Mughal throne. In exchange for their loyalty to the British during this tumultuous time, the Sikhs were given territory, money and palaces by the British (Singh 2004b: 109). They were also allowed back into the army and permitted to wear turbans, keep their beards and practice the tenets of the Khalsa to further foster the East India Company-Sikh relationship. This allowed the Sikhs to keep their identity, but also illustrates how the Sikhs had become more of an individual community within India without a sense of Indian nationalism or unity at this time (Singh 2004b: 112).

With the rise in Sikh conversions because of the advantages offered to them at the time by the British, different sects of the religions began to emerge. The Nirankari sect believed that the faith was beginning to merge into Hinduism (Singh 2004b: 123). To prevent this, they created their own ceremonies and disapproved of the militant Khalsa. The Radha Soamis established their own lineage of gurus to preserve the original message of Sikhism (Singh127). The Radha Soamis also disapproved of the military version of the Khalsa. Finally, the Kuka sect which followed the teachings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh more strictly than other Sikhs and interpreted the Guru Granth Sahib literally (Singh 2004b: 135). These sects emerged from a need to preserve the Sikh power.

Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, Pune, India

When England entered World War I in 1914, the British promised freedom to India in exchange for soldiers, weaponry and money. Sikhs formed 20% of the British army in the War, even though they only made up 2% of the Indian population at that time. Over 74,000 Indians fought in the war, most of them in trenches throughout Europe (BBC, 2015). They returned to India, expecting to be hailed as heroes, but instead were treated the same way as before (Singh 2004b: 161). During the war, the British began to impose heavy taxes on Indians, even though most people in Punjab were still recovering from a famine and an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1907. The government became significantly stricter in order to prevent another uprising in India during the war and instituted the Defense of India Act in 1915 (Singh 2004b: 183). With the end of the war, Indians expected these restrictions to loosen, but the Rowlatt Acts replaced these regulations in 1919. These acts essentially allowed Indians to be tried and imprisoned without a jury trial. Mahatma Gandhi called for a peaceful strike against these acts throughout the country. After several Punjabi political figures were arrested, violent riots began all over Punjab (Singh 2004b: 163).

In April 1919, 10,000 civilians were gathered at Jallianwala Bagh, a garden in Amritsar to celebrate Basakhi, a spring festival. As large public gatherings were banned because of the ongoing riots, General Dyer, one of the officers of the British army and his troops opened fire on the families, killing almost 400 and injuring over 2000 people. After this incident, martial law was imposed in Amritsar and later included other districts in Punjab, including Lahore, Gujranwala, Lyallpur and the state of Gujarat (Singh 2004b: 164). The aftermath of World War I and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre caused a huge surge in nationalism throughout India and instead of a fragmented insurgency against the British, all of India became united against one common enemy. Protests against the Rowlatt Bills increased in aggression after Jallianwala Bagh, and British infrastructure, such as bridges, churches, and post offices were burnt and telephone and telegraph lines were cut. In response, General Dyer shut off Amristar’s water and electricity and Indians were forced to crawl on their stomachs on streets where British people had been attacked. These measures later spread to other districts in Punjab (Singh 2004b:165). Under Gandhi’s guidance, the Central Sikh League was created to oppose the Chief Khalsa Diwan, a Sikh political party established in 1902, who continued to support the British and General Dyer in order to gain more political standing. Once again, there was discord among the Sikhs and no common ideology to fight for, which weakened the religion (Singh 2004b: 167). However, after these incidents, in order to regain the Sikh favor, the British allowed Sikhs to carry kirpans with them and Sikh prisoners could wear turbans, showing that the best way to appease Sikhs as a whole revolved around preserving the Khalsa identity.

Before World War I, many Sikh peasants immigrated to Canada where they laid railway tracks for the Canadian Pacific Railways. After Canada passed its Immigration Law of 1910 which prohibited ‘artisans or laborers, skilled or unskilled’ from entering British Columbia, Sikhs immigrated to the United States, particularly California (Singh 2004b: 173). As a response to the large numbers of Sikh immigrants, Asiatic Exclusion League was established as a part of the US Immigration Department attempt to stop Indians from entering the country because of disease and violation of the “alien contract labor law” (Singh 2004b: 174). With the extreme racism against Sikhs, gurdwaras (Sikh temples) became safe havens for Sikhs and other Indians. The Khalsa Diwan Society was established in 1907 in Vancouver to build gurdwaras and religion once again became a factor that strengthened the Sikhs’ ability to defend themselves against the turmoil they were facing at that time (Singh 2004b: 175).

The Komagata Maru was a Japanese passenger ship chartered by a Sikh businessman named Gurdit Singh in the early 1900s, specifically to confront the unfair immigration laws in Canada and the US towards the Indians. The ship sailed from Hong Kong on May 23, 1914 via Shanghai and Yokohama and arrived in Coal Harbor, British Columbia, Canada, but was not allowed to dock because of the passengers’ race. The thoughts of the Canadians were clear: Canada was meant to be a “white man’s country” (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).  The British, who also controlled Canada’s immigration laws, were afraid that the new Indian immigrants would cause more rebellion on the eve of World War I. Finally, the Canadian government decided that they would only allow 24 immigrants of the 376 passengers to stay, of which 20 were returning citizens, and the Komagata Maru returned to India on July 23, 1914. When the ship arrived at the Kolkata harbor in India on September 27, 1914, all the passengers were declared enemies of the Raj. When the ship finally docked at Budge Budge Harbor, 20 supposed leaders were arrested. This created a violent riot, and the British killed 19 other passengers. Out of the remaining, a few managed to escape and the rest were sent back to their villages in Punjab and kept under village arrest for the duration of WWI (The Canadian Encyclopedia, Johnston).

This incident outraged Sikhs in Canada and large numbers of Sikhs congregated at gurdwaras, as they were one of the only places where they could be free of the racism they faced. As a result, political parties began to emerge, one of them being the Ghadar party. Funded by Sikhs in British Columbia and California, this was a Sikh communist party that was the first to declare war on the British Raj after the Komagata Maru incident (Singh 2004b: 175).  At the time, most Sikhs in India were preoccupied with World War I, so even though the Ghadar party used religious festivals to garner support, their ideas did not gain much traction in Punjab. This is yet another example of a split in the Sikh identity; there were now various Sikh political tribes in different parts of the world, which is a theme that affected the latter half of the 20th century as well.

In Punjab, the British government had taken over many gurdwaras for their political gain, impacting the extremist Central Sikh League’s management of temples. As a result, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) was established, a loyalist group associated with the Chief Khalsa Diwan. The Shiromani Akali Dal was also created later that year to work under the SGPC on gurdwara reform (Singh 2004b: 194-98). In 1921, there was a famine in Punjab which brought economic failure to the state, leading to more anger towards the government and the loyalist parties, such as the Chief Khalsa Diwan. Extreme nationalist leaders were able to rise to power quickly and join the Akali party. In 1921, the SGPC also radicalized, passed a resolution that would boycott British goods. As more political parties were trying to follow the Non-Cooperation movement of Gandhi, the British understood that any violence against them would make the Raj look poorly (Singh 2004b: 200). Instead, to weaken supporters of Akalis, the British government proclaimed that the Akalis wanted a Sikh only state. However, this had the opposite effect as the Sikhs wanted a political party that gave them their freedom and their territory back to when the Khalsa was the most powerful. This message once again resonated and unified the Sikhs and the Akali party. The British reacted to this alliance by banning the Sikhs from serving in the armed forces if they continued to echo their support of the Akalis (Singh 2004b: 210).

The Sikhs made up the majority of the Indian army at that time, with almost 80,000 Sikhs serving. They were also the most active participants in the Indian government and had the highest proportion of voters compared to the other religions in Punjab. However, the government in Punjab did not reflect that. The Minto-Morley Reforms of 1909 allowed Muslims to have their own representation as they were a religious minority in India. Even though Sikhs were also a minority, these guidelines did not apply to them and their voices were quelled by Muslims and Hindus (Singh 2004b: 218). The councils in Punjab also did not fairly represent the Sikh population: the Punjab Legislative Council had 93 members, out of which only 15 were Sikh. The Central Assembly consisted of 145 Indians, with only three Sikhs and the Council of States had 60 members, out of which one was a Sikh (Singh 2004b: 222). Yet again, Sikhs were frustrated with the government, leading to nationalist leaders being elected to offices in Punjab.

The elections of 1936 brought about the creation of another Sikh political party: the Khalsa National Party, whose entire stance was anti-Akali. Because of all the various Sikh political parties, there was no unified Sikh front, and therefore, they were not a powerful group that could make a major impact in Punjab (Singh 2004b: 223). It was difficult to create impactful change because the Sikhs did not know what they collectively wanted.

Similarly, the different political parties held different stances on World War II, which Britain had just joined. The Chief Khalsa Diwan encouraged Sikhs to enlist in the war, whereas the Congress party Sikhs did not support the effort, and Akalis only agreed to help the government if there were more Sikh soldiers involved. As the war began to come to a close, India itself was divided on what freedom meant for them. The National Congress Party wanted freedom for the entire country, whereas the All-India Muslim League wanted a separate Muslim state. Sikhs were apprehensive about complete freedom as that would mean losing their separate privileges from the British. They were also against a Muslim state as that would cause the split of certain areas of Punjab as well. This opposition to Pakistan became a unifying factor for Sikhs as they could either live in a majority Muslim state or have their land taken away because of it. The Sikhs came to a consensus that they would either support a united India or create their own Sikh state if Pakistan came to fruition (Singh 2004b: 238). The Sikhs were not originally involved in the Hindu-Muslim violence leading up to Partition, instead offering shelter for both religions in gurdwaras, following the peacemaking vision of Guru Nanak. But the Sikhs could be easily identified through their turbans and uncut hair, many Punjabi villages were destroyed, and Sikhs were raped, killed, kidnapped and forcibly converted. The militant Akali groups, such as the Akali Dal, the Akal Fauj, and Akal Sena were not real military groups with strong leaders, so the Sikhs did not have a strong fighter identity and it was difficult for them to defend themselves in the riots (Singh 2004b: 269).

Because so much of Punjab was lost after Partition, there was another surge in nationalism, eventually leading to a Punjabi-speaking state in 1966. Akalis claimed that Punjabi with the Gurmukhi script should be the only language in Punjab and the idea of Punjabi Suba, a Sikh state, started to gain more traction. Because of this, Punjab was further divided into three different states: Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh (Singh 2004b: 303). Master Tara Singh, one of the key figures in organizing the SGPC, believed that with a Sikh majority state, Sikhs would be able to preserve their identity and traditions (Singh 2004b: 306).

In Punjab itself, some Hindus regarded Sikhs as a militant sect of Hinduism, with the only difference between the two being the Khalsa identity. Several fundamentalist leaders tried to give Sikhs an identity beyond the Khalsa. For example, President Giani Zail Singh created celebrations for each Guru and opened hospitals and universities with their names (Singh 2004b: 313). Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a nationalist Punjabi leader, tried to spread a message of returning to the traditions of Guru Gobind Singh by forbidding “modern evils”, such as alcohol and drugs. He believed that the only way to be a ‘true’ Sikh was to be baptized into the Khalsa and that all Sikhs should carry kirpans as well as modern weapons. He did not acknowledge the caste system, created differences between the Hindus and Sikhs and instigated communal violence (Singh 2004b: 324).

As religious violence between the two communities became more and more intense and Bhinderwale’s Khalistani, or Sikh-only state, vision gained traction, he moved to the base of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and declared war against the government. The Pakistanis aided the Khalistanis and provided them with weapons hoping that Pakistan would gain access to Kashmir through Punjab (India Today, 2014). After the Indian government unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the militants, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi commenced Operation Bluestar in 1984. The army surrounded the Golden Temple, but underestimated the firepower of the terrorists. After a 24 hour standoff, the Indian army was forced to enter the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. Based on the government’s report, almost 1600 militants were apprehended but there were 500 casualties, including many civilians that were in the gurdwara as the gunfire started. However, actual estimates place the death toll between 1500-5000 (Singh 2004b: 364).

In the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, the Sikhs were seen as enemies of India. The Sikhs’ houses were searched for any arms and Sikh men were brazenly beaten and tortured in the streets by the police. Bhindranwale’s followers began plotting revenge after the attacks on the Golden Temple, targeting both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zail Singh. On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards shot and killed her. Her assassination set off a cascade of anti-Sikh violence: Sikh-owned stores and gurdwaras in Delhi were burned and robbed and Sikhs were murdered and raped, while the police did little to quell the violence. The Khalsa identity made the Sikhs easy targets, with their turbans or uncut hair. The Congress Party, the political party in power, believed that Sikhs “should be taught a lesson”(Singh 2004b: 378). By the end of the riots, over 10,000 Sikhs were killed, with another 50,000 that were displaced and living in refugee camps (Singh 2004b: 378-79).

A Sikh prays at a Gurudwara in Montreal. A poster speaks of the Sikh homeland of Khalistan. The display of weapons is prominent.

The resentment, tragedy and alienation the Sikhs faced during this time, once again, unified them. The nationalist, Khalistani movement grew in popularity, and was funded primarily by Sikhs living in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The 1985 elections in Punjab resulted in the appointments of people who were extremely anti-government and held extremist views (Singh 2004b: 399).

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 was the Sikh response to the tension between the Indian government and Sikhs. On June 23, 1985, the Air India flight en route to London from Toronto was bombed off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 passengers on board. This was coordinated with the Narita Airport bombing in Tokyo that killed two people. The intended target was the Air India Flight 301 headed to Bangkok (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). There are many conspiracies about the real perpetrators. One of the theories is that the attack was executed by Sikh militants as a display of power after the 1984 riots and subsequent unrest in India (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v., “Air India Flight 182 Disaster). Only one person was convicted for the attack, Inderjit Singh Reyat (Roach 1). He was later freed in 2017.

Young Sikhs practice traditional music at a Gurudwara, keeping their tradition alive.

While there is a huge disparity between how Sikhism evolved from Guru Nanak’s original vision of a pacifist faith focused on internal enlightenment into a warrior-saint identity, ultimately it was Guru Nanak’s ideology that has united the Sikhs throughout history. The Sikhs were forced to adopt the warrior persona primarily because of Punjab’s geographical location which made it particularly vulnerable to invaders, starting with the Mughals in 1527. Shortly after the decline of the Mughal empire, the Afghans began their occupation of Punjab, resulting in the Wada Ghallughara, which wiped out a third of the Sikh population in 1762. This was followed by the Anglo-Sikh Wars and the British annexation of Punjab. As a result of this constant turmoil, the Sikhs were forced to form a united front and a stronger, militaristic identity in order to preserve themselves and their religion. As has been documented throughout history, whenever the Sikhs were united under one cause, the Khalsa, a warrior style identity, the entire community emerged stronger. The Khalsa continues to be such a powerful uniting force for the Sikhs because of Guru Nanak’s original teachings of peace and equality for all. Guru Nanak’s message was emphasized both under Guru Gobind Singh and Ranjit Singh’s leadership as well as the Sarbat Khalsa. Over time and in the context of the larger Sikh diaspora, the idea of unity has changed and the political ideology of the Sikhs has taken on different forms to different people throughout the world, but the Khalsa identity remains the pivotal unifying aspect of Sikhism.

Works Cited

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This article was written by a sophomore at San Francisco University High School, Ria Dhillon (May 2020), who is solely responsible for its content. It was completed in partial fulfilment of an Independent Study conducted there, and submitted to the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lethbridge, with permission granted for publication on