By Tom Deegan (with inputs from Sat-Bhambra)
Sep 2009, London
Some disgruntled Akali leaders are encouraging separatists to destabilise the Congress government in New Delhi.
EARLY MORMONS on their trek from Illinois to Utah in 1846. Their descendants today have so much in common with American compatriots that the idea of any separation from the U.S. would be risible
Those familiar with the Mormon faith (a Christian sect) will recall that it began with the Prophet Joseph Smith's discovery of some divinely inscribed golden plates in America in 1827. Evidently, the sacred plates did not survive. However, according to Mormons, their sacred inscriptions were recorded and represent Mormon doctrine to this day. There are now some 10 million Mormons worldwide, most of them in the U.S. state of Utah. This poses the question: should the Mormons in Utah start a separatist movement to gain independence from the rest of the United States? This may seem laughable now but, in fact, history teaches that if there is just one common factor such as ethnicity, cultural, tribal or religious differences, which can be used to divide people from their neighbours and compatriots, then some people, sometime, somewhere, will seek to exploit the situation to undermine the natural unity of man in favour of division and separation. Their motives are either a genuine concern to put an end to a perceived persecution of their people, in which case they may be heroes; or else they are simply personally ambitious, in which case they are certainly demagogues. The critical factor in determining the nature of the separatist cause is the existence or absence of persecution. The early Mormons were persecuted by orthodox Christians.
Their claims to be a 'chosen people' and their belief in a new 'latter day' prophet angered Christians. Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844. After that, the Mormons trekked to Utah where they established Salt Lake City in what was a virgin country at that time.
The world has plenty of separatist movements born out of the desperation of a persecuted minority population but, alas, there are also far too many such movements inspired by ambitious little people who see themselves as very important figures in their own districts, counties or provinces but not quite so important on the larger canvas of a big nation. Why be just a mayor or a governor when it might be possible to be a president? Usually, but not always, as the partition of the subcontinent itself proves, separatist movements which rely upon nothing more than religious differences fail to divide people sufficiently to split up a united country. If, on the other hand, there is persecution of a minority people by a majority exercising hegemony then the separatists will usually, but not always, gain support and will ultimately divide a country or bring about an end to the persecution.
This writing was inspired by recurrent news items in the UK press about resurgence in the activities of expatriate Sikh separatists in the UK and North America. It is a subject about which there appears to be very little information outside the Sikh community. As a correspondent with Irish republican sympathies, this writer decided to search for the raison d'être of the Sikh separatist movement. That is, to reveal the religious or other forms of persecution that motivated some Sikhs who, just twenty-five years ago, engaged in the armed occupation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, murdered an Indian prime minister and went on to slaughter Hindu men, women and children on a train in Punjab and destroy a full Boeing 747 passenger aircraft over the Atlantic ocean. These horrific events and terrorist outrages are about as much as people in the West would be likely to know about Sikh separatism.
The Sikh religion emerged in India in the latter part of the 15th century as a sect of Hinduism. In fact, it was inspired by the first Guru, Nanak, as a reconciliatory spiritual movement during a period of tension and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. The central belief of the Sikhs is that it matters not what name a man gives to God, Jehovah, Allah or Vishnu, because He is the same creator. This was an early exposition of anarchic thinking about religion (that each should be his own church). Later, another Sikh Guru, Govind Singh, reformed the previously peaceful Sikhs into a new army to defend their own faith and that of the Hindus from the conversion pressures and persecution initiated by Islamic fundamentalists. Thereafter, Sikh males adopted the name Singh (lion). Guru Nanak had no ambitions for statehood or the office of a presidency. Rather, he identified with the older culture and traditions of India, which have unity as a social principle. He was a unifier of man according to the available literature on him and the subject.
The fact that most of the converts to Sikhism happened to live in Punjab was a coincidence, unlike the Mormons, who actually trekked to Utah from the eastern seaboard and developed that territory which was not then part of the United States. So, which of these two religions, if at all, has a case for independent nationhood?
Can a nation come to exist, to secede from an established and unified social, cultural, political order simply because at some point in its history most of its local population adopted a new faith? The Mormons welcomed the later inclusion of their territory as a new state of the American Union because they had so many cultural values and traditions in common with the rest of America, including, of course, a common language. The only thing different was that the Mormons believed in a new Christian prophet. This can be compared to the Qadianis, a sect of Islam, who believe in a new 'latter day' prophet. Interestingly, there are no Mormon or Qadiani separatist movements. Like Sikhs and Hindus, the descendants of the Mormon trekkers have so much in common with their American Christian compatriots that the idea of separation is risible. Any Mormon separatist movement would be laughed out of existence very quickly by the Mormon community. The idea just would not fly in America because, for all its faults, the United States is a secular society, tolerant of all religions and the Mormons have nothing to complain about. They enjoy equal constitutional rights and, of course, they know the value of being part of a big, influential country. Furthermore, their majority in Utah ensures that they rule that state in the same way that Sikhs rule Punjab.
India is also a religiously tolerant and secular society. Sikhs are not now and never have been persecuted by Hindus or by the modern Indian state. The communal violence against Sikhs in India after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was mob violence of the sort that killed Joseph Smith and other Mormons in Illinois in the 19th century. An earlier persecution of Sikhs was carried out by Muslim fanatics in the 17th century but Islam has declined in Punjab since. So why is there a separatist Sikh movement today but no equivalent amongst the Mormons in the U.S.? Could it have something to do with the ambitions of a few leaders who are not satisfied with their present positions in the larger nation? History is replete with examples of demagogues who whipped up racial, sectarian or tribal conflicts because they stood to gain most from a separation or because they were mentally unbalanced, electing themselves as 'messiahs' of their people. Their legacy is always death, destruction and suffering for the people they seek to govern, most likely as dictators.
The Sikh separatists call themselves Khalistanis, Khalistan being their chosen name for the Sikh-dominated Punjab. It is not clear what case they were making for separation before 1984, the year Indira Gandhi was assassinated. They were certainly not a persecuted minority. As far as this writer can gather, the modern Khalistani separatist case seems to rest upon the historic events of June and October 1984 when a Sikh separatist leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, led hundreds of his followers, armed to the teeth, into the Golden Temple in Amritsar and occupied it in defiance of the temple's elected management committee and the law of the land. The Golden Temple is the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion. It is a huge complex of buildings with large food and water resources and electricity generators. Accounts of this armed occupation differ, depending upon which media one consults, but it is clear that the insurgents built barricades inside the temple complex and that the occupation was a direct challenge to the authority of the democratically elected Indian government and the Punjab state government. It is also clear that the insurgents held hostage hundreds of visitors who were already inside the temple as human shields to deter attack. They would not allow anybody to leave. They did, several days later, release some people who were old or sick. Many of the remaining hostages died in the ensuing fighting when the Indian Army, led by a Sikh officer, stormed the building and killed most of the insurgents in a massive military operation known as Bluestar, which cost hundreds of casualties amongst the insurgents, the army and the unfortunate hostages.
The then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had attempted to negotiate an end to the occupation for a week or so before, ill-advisedly, authorising Bluestar. A few months later she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards and that triggered widespread mob violence whipped up by frenzied Hindu leaders and, no doubt, by some Hindu politicians. This communal violence led to the deaths of two to three thousand Sikhs in and around New Delhi. No prosecutions took place against Hindu leaders or politicians or against those police officers who made no serious effort to prevent the riots. That is the history which Sikh separatists use as a rallying cry for an independent state.
If a future Mormon religious or political leader fancied himself as the president of an independent Republic of Utah, he might be able to raise a few followers from among his community. If he then spent large sums of money, possibly derived from enemies of America, promoting separatist ideas, he might attract a few more followers from among the Mormon community. But, even then, the movement would be unlikely to get very far because the unifying factors in American society are strong enough to withstand any shallow claims to separate nationhood made by our hypothetical demagogue. Nevertheless, if he was to pay criminals or incite fanatics to start a war with the non-Mormon community by committing an atrocity against innocent non-Mormon men, women and children in the knowledge that there would be a retaliatory atrocity against Mormon people by non-Mormon diehards, then the tit-for-tat conflict could easily escalate into a full-blown civil war. Civil conflict is meat and drink for separatist demagogues.
That appears to be the game plan of the so-called Khalistanis in Punjab. Most of the separatist leaders live safely abroad in Pakistan, Britain, Europe and North America from where they encourage separatist ideas and acts of terror against Hindus. They appear to be well financed by sources that remain hidden, although Pakistan's ISI is the prime suspect. So, even in the absence of any sort of persecution, religious, political or economic (Sikhs are the most prosperous sector of the Punjabi population), they still manage to create division and fear. These expatriate would-be Sikh republican leaders seem to have been easily able to recruit misguided or socially alienated young men or criminals to commit outrageous acts of slaughter against the Hindu minority in Punjab in order to destabilise the state and facilitate their take-over. Their failure to create the chaos and civil war they wanted is a tribute to the majority moderate Sikh population who do not subscribe to the idea of separation. Most Indians, and more than just a few Pakistanis, know only too well the consequences of partitioning countries whose population has so much in common. Nevertheless, unity is strength only when there are no cracks to be exploited by those minnow in a lake that would prefer to be pike in a pond. There appears to be quite a few Sikh 'leaders' looking for cracks.
The moderate Akali party, composed entirely of Sikhs, lost power in Punjab in recent elections (Sikhs represent about 60 per cent of the population with the remainder being mostly Hindu) but some disgruntled Akali leaders seem to encourage the separatists as a means of destabilising the existing Congress government who won the election with the votes of both Sikhs and Hindus. The threat of a resurgence of the Khalistani movement is used by some of these people to try to lever themselves back into power in the state but it is a dangerous political gambit. This sort of politicking can lead only to a renewal of communal violence and some of those Akali leaders who have a moral duty to accept the will of the people may well find themselves among the victims if the criminals and fanatics are incited again.
The most recent Sikh separatist activity in the UK seems to be based entirely upon the events of 1984 and the storming of the Golden Temple with its consequent deaths and then the following mob violence and attacks upon Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That is the persecution upon which the separatists stake their claim. There is also a spurious claim made by the separatists that the Sikhs were promised an independent nation when British rule came to an end in 1947. There is no historical record of any such commitment by British or Indian leaders of the time. A recent demonstration in London organised by Sikh separatists displayed a banner announcing that 'Khalistan is the Only Solution' and that begs the question, solution to what problem?
British police raided a mosque in London after the terror attacks of July 2005 because it was known to be a base for Islamic extremists who were promoting terrorism. Earlier this year, Belgian police raided a Sikh temple and arrested several Sikhs who were running a lucrative immigration racket from inside the temple. Protests about this police action were made by Sikhs around Europe. Regrettable as these police or military raids may be, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians cannot reasonably protest when their temples, their mosques, their synagogues or their churches are used by terrorists or criminals as sanctuaries which are then raided by state authorities. That is a violation of sacred ground for which the terrorists and criminals are solely responsible and that applies to the Golden Temple as much as it does to any other sacred place of worship in any religion.
As a believer in the unity of people of the world and as an independent observer, this correspondent's recent research reveals no moral, political or economic case for the creation of a republic of Khalistan, or for Utah. Readers who disagree should write to me at this magazine to explain the error of that conclusion.