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Since the 1920s, Sikhs have experienced many struggles concerning their status within India and their demands for Khalistan.
Sikhs Gain, Then Lose
When independence was achieved and the partitioning of the Punjab occurred in 1947 (see Partition, 1947), most Sikhs fled to the Punjab area of India. In 1948, the Indian government combined the Punjabs princely states into one unit, called Pepsu, which had a Sikh majority. Encouraged by gaining a majority status, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the chief political party of nationalistic Sikhs, began to call for a Sikh state within the Indian union.
Fearing that the Sikhs might demand greater autonomy or even independence, Jawharlal Nehru tried to weaken Sikh political strength by combining Sikhs and Hindus into a larger state. In 1956 the Indian government merged Pepsu with other areas (todays Haryana and parts of Himchal Pradesh) to create the state of Punjab. The government also declared that Punjab was a bilingual state with both Punjabi and Hindi being designated official languages. In the merged state, Sikhs made up only 35% of the population and lost the majority status they had held in Pepsu. Many Sikhs were angered by the Indian government's actions.
Sikhs Regain Their Majority
The boundaries of the Indian state of Punjab were again revised (see 1966 map). Some land was added to the existing state of Himchal Pradesh; the rest was divided into two states: Punjabwhich was almost 60% Sikh, and Haryanawhich was 90% Hindu.
The revisions of the state boundaries served two purposes: to eliminate Sikh discontent over the 1956 creation of the state of Punjab, which eliminated the Sikhs' majority status, and to reward the Sikhs for their loyalty, patriotism, and contributions to Indias war with Pakistan in 1965.
The creation of the state of Punjab in 1966 was designed to give Sikhs a state in India where their religion and language would have local dominance. However, it is important to note that the creation of this new Punjab state went against Jawaharlal Nehrus vision of a secular India. Nehrus vision led him to oppose reorganizing state boundaries on the basis of religion even though he did permit it for linguistic reasons (see Politics).
For some Sikhs, the creation of the state of Punjab in 1966 gave them the majority status that they had long demanded; others demanded a Sikh state independent of India.
Indira Gandhi Angers
In 1980, Indira Gandhi attempted to gain political power for her Congress Party by exploiting differences among Sikhs. She supported a radical Sikh teacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, to weaken the Shiromani Akali Dal. Indira Gandhi believed that by supporting Bhindranwale she could split the opposing Sikhs into two camps and thereby ensure that her Congress Party would gain control of the legislature of the Punjab.
Bhindranwale's radical demands soon attracted dissatisfied young male Sikhs. His most important radical demand was the establishment of an independent Khalistan that would be separate from India. He armed his followers, and they began attacking Hindus and moderate Sikhs who did not support an independent Khalistan.
Realizing that she could no longer control Bhindranwales movement, Indira Gandhi tried to suppress the growing violence in the Punjab. In June 1984, she ordered the Indian army to invade the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Bhindranwale and his followers had barricaded themselves. Between 500 and 1,000 Sikhs were killed. The Golden Temple was (and still is) the Sikhs holiest shrine and the Sikh people were deeply shocked and angered by Indira Gandhis actions. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh body guards on October 31, 1984. Riots immediately broke out all over India in response to Indiras death. Hindus beat and killed thousands of Sikhs, who could easily be identified by their distinctive appearance (see Sikhism). Photo: A bullet hole in one of the Sri Guru Granth Sahibs at the Golden Temple from the 1984 invasion. Photo © 1999 Guru Mustuk Singh Khalsa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Radical Sikhs Begin
Revolution But Are Suppressed
In reaction to the revolution, the Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, dismissed Punjab's government and imposed presidential rule on the state. His actions were permitted according to the Indian Constitution. The Indian army sealed off the Punjabs border with Pakistan in an attempt to end the flow of money and arms from Muslims to the Sikh rebels. The police force was doubled in size, given better weapons, and permitted to do whatever was necessary to defeat the rebels.
Sikhs are demanding justice for the thousands of Sikh youth who were illegally detained, tortured, and murdered by the police. Private Sikh organizations and the Indian government are currently investigating the abuse of power by police during the campaign against the rebels.
Since 1995 stability, order, and some prosperity have returned to the Indian state of Punjab. Political power has been returned to local authorities. The Shiromani Akali Dal and its allies won the elections in 1997 and replaced the Congress Party at both the state and federal levels of government.
The revolution has been suppressed and order has returned to the Punjab, but one can only wonder how long it will last since so many Sikhs remain dissatisfied.
Sikhism Faces Present
Sikhs argue that they are not Hindus, and they demand that Hindus recognize their distinctiveness. However, some Sikh behaviors conform more closely to Hindu beliefs than the teachings of Sikh gurus. For example, Sikh gurus denounced caste distinctions, yet the caste system has persisted amongst Sikhs. Caste is one of the most deeply rooted aspects of Hindu belief and behavior. When Sikhs adhere to the caste system, they weaken the argument that they have a distinct religion and increase the risk of Sikhism being assimilated into Hinduism.
A second threat to Sikhism is the difficulty the Sikhs who live outside of India (40%) have in balancing their religious practices with the expectations of modern life. It is sometimes difficult for those Sikhs who associate closely with other cultures to avoid including practices in their lives that are not acceptable to Sikhism. It is likewise difficult for them when living outside the Sikh community to rigorously adhere to practices required by Sikhism. It is these changes in lifestyle that threaten Sikhism and have created differences of opinion among Sikhs over who belongs to the Panth (see Sikhism). Such differences of opinion have divided the Sikh community and have occasionally led to violence among themselves.
A third threat to Sikhism is that Sikhs are losing their religious majority status in Punjab. Young, educated Sikhs are leaving India's Punjab for better career opportunities in Europe, North America, and even other parts of India. At the same time, poor Hindu Indians are moving into the prosperous Punjab to pursue better job opportunities for themselves. With this shift in religious populations comes the threat of Hindu oppression. Sikhs fear that as they become a religious minority they will lack the power to maintain their religious identity. Photo: Two young Sikhs on the steps of the Golden Temple. Photo © 1999 Guru Mustuk Singh Khalsa (email@example.com)
In response to these threats, many Sikhs want an autonomous state within India that they can control and where Sikhism is given special status. Other Sikhs believe that having an independent country separate from India is the only way to prevent being assimilated into Hinduism.