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Religion Library: Sikhism

Modern Age

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Soon after the establishment of a secular India in 1947, the Akali Dal, the main Sikh political party, demanded a state in which Punjabi language and culture were protected. The Indian leadership in Delhi saw this as a thinly veiled guise for Sikh autonomy within Indian federalism. After a decade and half of agitation, the map of Punjab was redrawn in 1966 to create a state where Punjabi was the language of the majority population, and where Sikhs were a majority of the population. However, the conflict between the central Indian government and Sikhs in the Punjab continued for several decades thereafter.

Militancy was a major part of Sikh history of the 1980s and 1990s, as many Sikhs in Punjab and abroad participated in, or supported, a movement toward a separate Sikh state. Sikh separatists acted violently to draw attention to their political demands and the Indian state reciprocated with violence, resulting in thousands of deaths, the exact number of which is contested. The Indian army's brutal 1984 invasion of the most sacred of Sikh spaces, the Darbar Sahib complex, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Sikhs and great destruction, and in revenge, two Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Pogroms throughout India ensued in which Sikhs were targeted; thousands were killed and tens of thousands were displaced.

Although not all Sikhs supported the idea of a Sikh state or the use of violence to achieve it, the Indian army's actions continue to be a deeply painful collective memory for most Sikhs. Today, Sikhs enjoy a more peaceful co-existence within India, as even a Prime Minister of India has been a Sikh (Manmohan Singh). However, the issues surrounding the injustices against Sikhs during the period of violence have not been forgotten.

Today, about 10 percent of the Sikh population, over two million people, lives outside of India, and is influential in several ways. Time will tell what changes these members of the community initiate. Sikhs outside of India today have begun to address issues of Sikh tradition and innovation. There are some people from Sikh backgrounds who renounce their heritage in order to assimilate into their host cultures. Other Sikhs choose to limit their interactions in non-Indian settings to people of their own kind and clique, entrenching themselves in what they may see as a distinctively Sikh way of life. The vast majority of Sikhs, however, would fall somewhere in between these two poles: navigating integration to other cultures while celebrating traditions from their homeland.

Study Questions:
1.     What were some of the major changes that emerged in colonial period?
2.     How did Sikhs respond to the changes of the 19th century?
3.     What were the major events in 20th-century Sikh history and what motivated them?