Nationalist Sikhs Remember a Past in New Delhi

NEW DELHI—A crowd of approximately 100,000 people gathered on the esplanade in front of the Red Fort in New Delhi. One could hear chants and drums sounding from different directions. Men made their way through the crowd while riding on the backs of pompom decorated-horses and elephants. Others stood on trucks and cars that trundled forward. The men proudly sported turbans and outfits that were either deep blue or saffron colored – some even boasted a bright yellow. Those are the traditional Sikh colors. Many were flying the Sikh flag, the Nishan Sahib. It’s often referred to as the “saffron flag” because of its bright orange color. The triangular banner features a dark blue emblem that represents a khanda, a double-edged sword and a traditional Sikh weapon, at its center. Although the flag is often used to locate temples, it is also a symbol that historically connotes military strength and independence for the Sikh community.

Video courtesy of guru ka taal on YouTube.

The crowd had gathered on March 20th to commemorate the Sikhs’ historic victory over the Mughal Emperor in the eighteenth century. In 1783, a military general by the name of Baghel Singh had conquered Delhi. He marched his troops over the capital and unfurled the saffron flag at the top of the Red Fort, then the seat of Mughal power in Delhi. There could not be a greater symbol of victory. Today, the Red Fort is one of New Delhi’s most important historical landmarks, but in India’s psyche, it remains a symbol and seat of political power.

“The meaning is huge because this is about capturing Delhi. In Indian history, whoever captured the Red Fort ruled India,” explained Harinder Singh, the head of the Sikh Research Institute in New Jersey. This was only the second time this was commemorated publicly in the streets of Delhi.

Many experts link this commemoration with the rise of nationalism in the country. Almost a year after Narendra Modi’s election, many are saying that Sikh nationalism is on the rise, on the heels of Hindu nationalism. For the Sikhs, the event commemorates not only a victorious battle, but also the end of an era of religious oppression under the Mughal rule. In the context of today’s politics, it’s an affirmation of identity and a craving for recognition from the Hindu majority.

“The efforts are being made to make it an annual programme,” said Manjit Singh GK, the president of the DSGMC during a press conference held on March 11. “The two-day event commemorates the glorious past of Sikhs and their valor. The important facts of the Sikh history remained ignored for many years.”

Recognition from the Hindu majority is important. Despite the parade’s joyous and apparently peaceful atmosphere, there has been a growing concern among India’s religious minorities since the BJP’s rise to power. Attacks on Christian minorities and cases of  of forced conversions and discrimination have made headlines. In its 2015 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) noted that “religiously-motivated and communal violence” had increased in the last three years – blaming BJP leaders and the Modi government.

The commemoration is a sign of the changing political landscape, and of the need for new alliances – both within the Sikh community and on the national level. For the first time this year, the Delhi Sikh Gurudwara Management Committee (DSGMC), who organizes the ceremony, invited representatives from Sikh communities throughout India. Among the guests was the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the DSGMC’s sister organization that supervises Sikh temples throughout Punjab, the Sikhs’ holy land.

That’s an important but “contentious” move, said Harinder Singh, because the two organizations used to be rivals. Historically, he said, they were backed by two different political parties. The Indian National Congress – also referred to as Congress, it’s India’s historically dominant and left-wing party – backed the DSGMC. The SGPC on the other hand, was supported by Akali, a party that promotes a right wing nationalistic agenda. Today however, this rivalry has subsided: both the DSGMC and the SGPC support the Akali Dal, which is part of  BJP coalition, NDA.

At first glance, it’s hard to see where the celebration of a Sikh victory fits in the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Harpreet Singh, a scholar of religious nationalism at Harvard University, explained that there are growing connections between the BJP and the different Sikh groups. Newly appointed members to organizations like the SGPC and the DGMC are either party members or corrupted, bringing “a BJP perspective to their affairs”. For him, allowing this celebration is a way of taming separatist factions within the Sikh community.

“The BJP and the RSS have hijacked these kind of activities so that they can be done in a controlled fashion and so these events have very little meaning. It takes away the meaning of the events,” said Harpreet Singh.

As such, the Fateh Diwas March is therefore a sign of new political alliances, rather than an evolution that serves the Sikh community – despite the fact that the celebration is an “empowering narrative” for the community, said Harpreet Singh.

“For that narrative to be hijacked by the BJP is brilliant. There’s very little this party [the DGMC] can do without the BJP, because they’re allies,” he added.

In fact, granting the Sikh community to celebrate the Fateh Diwas could even play in the BJP’s greater scheme. Harpreet Singh said that it is an effort to assimilate Sikh history in a larger Hindic narrative. A Hindic narrative opposes religions that can be considered native to the Indian subcontinent – namely, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism – to foreign elements such as Islam or Christianity. As such, the Sikh victory over the Mughal rule, often associated with religious oppression, can easily be instrumentalized.

Kanika Singh, a doctoral student in history at Ambedkar University, explained that “this marks a shift from earlier celebrations of the character of Baghel Singh as a hero.” She said that although the event was mentioned in some Sikh books and magazines, she’s not aware that it was ever celebrated before. In her opinion, the event demonizes the Mughal rule using different events in Sikh history.

The cortege, headed by five head priests who represented the five Sikh regional authorities in India, made its way from the Red Fort through the historical neighborhood of Chandni Chowk. Ultimately, it reached a Sikh temple named the Gurudwara Sis Ganj. It’s another symbol of resistance against Mughal rule that has become a religious landmark overtime. In 1675, the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahagur, had opposed the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after he tried to make  Hindus convert to Islam by force. The Guru was beheaded by the Emperor and the temple was built in memory of his sacrifice and courage.

The Fateh Diwas celebration therefore brings together the military victory and the memory of martyrdom. The latter is an important element in the Sikh historical narrative, especially under the Mughal rule. Its memory is still very vividly kept thanks to a tradition of historical paintings exposed in dedicated museums next to the temples in Delhi and Amritsar. The gurus are portrayed as war heroes, as merciful saintly men or as being persecuted and slaughtered by Mughal emperors. The paintings are often graphic – beheadings and men burnt or boiled alive. They’re meant both as a way to keep the memory alive and as a way to educate the public. Families visit the museums, explaining the meaning of the scenes to the children.

The Fateh Diwas march fits this existing narrative as much as it is a sign of the new political landscape. As of now, scholars like Harpreet Singh or Kanika Singh remain cautious. Both agree: it’s hard to assess the full political significance of the event. Kanika Singh thinks that the BJP government and its far-right politics has probably provided a context for such a celebration to be relevant. Modi has, at several times, used history to further his political agenda.  Despite this far-right interpretation of history by India’s current prime minister, Kanika Singh does believe that the event could also have been organized had Congress been at the center of the coalition. “It shows strength for the community,” she said, “but in the political sense I don’t know how it will play out. It doesn’t seem to be a progressive development.” This celebration of Sikh history raises important questions about the past and the present, questions whose answers may only become clear in the future.

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