Punjab

Why BJP's changing approach to Sikhs is akin to playing with fire

September 21, 2018 09:35 PM

By Shekhar Gupta

For several years now, some hyper-patriotic commando-comic channels have been behaving as if they are a strategic asset of the BJP. Every evening you can find more than one of these channels putting either a maulvi, a Kashmiri activist/politician or a retired Pakistani general in the dock, in an abusive manner. At least the Pakistani veterans are handsomely compensated for suffering such nationalist admonition. The rest are just fodder for the TRP mill.

It is useful politics. You can see it written all over the BJP spokesmen’s faces on these channels. The implication is that unless proven to be a patriot, an Indian Muslim’s loyalty is suspect, Kashmiris are in Pakistan’s pocket and are all terrorists. You can then draw a straight, diabolical line. You can see how cornered Indian Muslims, 200 million of our fellow countrymen, must feel.

Tuesday morning on, it seems even Sikhs, a much smaller minority, have also been marked out for the same treatment. In unleashing the same propaganda machine against the Sikhs, especially as it pertains to an issue linked to one of their holiest shrines, the karmabhoomi of their founder, Guru Nanak Dev, the BJP may be playing with fire that patriotic, and smart, Indians would rather not.

Since Sikhs are only about 2% of India’s population, we need to understand what Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan means to them. This is where Guru Nanak Dev lived, tilled the lands, and, as Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu reminds us, gave Sikhism its leitmotif, or its three pillars: naam japo, kirat karo, vand chhako (work hard, chant God’s name, fairly divide and enjoy the harvest). Guru Nanak spent the last 17 years of his life here. The Gurudwara, Kartarpur Sahib, was built at the spot where he died. For the Sikhs, as well as several crore Sindhis who pray to Guru Nanak, this is among their most hallowed shrines.

Founded at the end of the 15th century, Sikhism is the world’s youngest major religion. Its founders were the most liberal and large-hearted saints who drew what they saw as the best from all religions, especially Hinduism and Islam, and the teachings of other Sufi contemporaries. Because the faith is so young and vibrant, it is given to rapid transformations, even upheavals, and revivalist streaks. The last time it happened was in the 1980s under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Sikhs are also a little like the much older Jews in that, remembering their martyrs, victims of (mostly Mughal) excesses and the many holocausts is central to their prayers. As is the wish to visit/reclaim the holy places they left behind in Pakistan because of the Partition. Sikh pilgrim “jathas” (groups) are organised to these places. Some, like Nankana Sahib and Panja Sahib, are deep inside Pakistan, near Faisalabad and Attock, respectively.

Kartarpur Sahib is next door to our Punjab, just across the Ravi. On clear days, devotees climb to any little mound along the Ravi river for a “darshan” of the shrine across the borders. A proposal for the construction of a causeway and visa-free access to pilgrims has been floating between the two governments for decades. If the borders were opened here, literally millions of Sikhs and Sindhis would go for just a few hours’ pilgrimage. This is what Pakistani Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, promised Sidhu, who duly wrote to external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to move it forward.

In Punjab, this unleashed competitive politics. There’s no way the Akalis, the BJP’s allies, would let the Congress run with this credit. The Badals will thwart it, but without seeming to look like they are denying their fellow Sikhs this opportunity. And “jealousy”, as the most recent Sidhuism goes, “is the jaundice of the soul”.

Therefore, the strategy of making it out to be a giant Pakistan Army-ISI plot, Sidhu their gullible pawn, if not an agent. Then it grows into a Bikram aur Betal kind of fantasy: This is a ploy to make our Punjab release more water in the Ravi; that the Sikhs going for pilgrimage will be brainwashed by the ISI. The vaults of the intelligence agencies have suddenly been opened, Official Secrets Act lifted, and “files” opened up to prime-time patriots. Of course, our James Bonds, Jack Ryans and Agent Vinods already have all foreign conspiracy plots well-documented. Now, calling the Indian Muslims names, raising questions on their patriotism is bad enough. But you think you can get away with giving the Sikhs the same treatment? And really, do you want to teach the Punjabis in general, and Sikhs in particular, the virtues of patriotism?

You are playing with fire that could burn you, and much else. That an experienced party like the BJP, in power, is falling for this, is disappointing. It could lose Punjab for a long time. Worse, the temptation of also pitchforking the devout Sikhs in this idiotic “patriotism” debate has self-destruction written all over it. A quickest possible retreat is called for. So please call the commando-comedians back to the barracks.

 

(Published with thanks from The Hindustan Times)

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