Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world, and yet very few people have heard of it. In fact, there are even more Sikhs in the world than Jews. Sikhism was founded in the late 15th century in the region of Punjab (northwest India and eastern Pakistan) by Guru Nanak, who was born to a Hindu family. The Indian subcontinent was majority Hindu yet was ruled by the Muslim Mughal Empire. Nanak’s philosophy developed as a critique of both prominent religions in the region; of Islam he criticized proselytization and forced conversion while of Hinduism he criticized the inequality of the caste system and gender inequality. Thus, the main tenet of his new movement became equality of all people regardless of religion, caste, socioeconomic status, or gender. There were nine other Gurus, or teachers, who came after Guru Nanak who further developed his philosophy and created the distinct and separate religion of Sikhism. Sikhs are monotheistic and Sikh temples are called Gurdwaras, or houses of the Guru. Sikhs’ holy scriptures are contained in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of singable poetry written by the Gurus, but also by both Hindu and Muslim saints, making it a uniquely interfaith text. Sikhs do not cut their hair out of respect for God’s creation, and Sikh men are particularly recognizable due to their turbans, which were mandated by the tenth Sikh guru as a means of identity (though many Sikh women wear turbans too).
Sikhism has largely remained an ethnic religion; there are about 20-22 million Sikhs worldwide, and the vast majority are ethnically Punjabi, with a tiny minority being an exception to that in Afghanistan and the United States. In fact, Sikhs only comprise about 1.8% of India’s population. There are about 1 million Sikhs in North America, split about evenly between the United States and Canada with California being the state with the highest Sikh population in the US. Sikhs have been in California since the early 1900s. There are also about 750,000 Sikhs in the United Kingdom, mostly in England.
Sikhs as an ethnoreligious group have had a unique history as a minority in South Asia. Sikhs have lived mostly in the Punjab region but were split across the western and eastern regions of Punjab (the west being what is now Pakistan and the east being what is now India) until the 1947 independence of Pakistan from Indian and the partition of Punjab. Partition created immense animosity between Muslims on one side and Sikhs and Hindus on the other as Muslims moved west to their new state while Sikhs and Hindus were forced to flee east into Indian Punjab. Violence was rampant and both sides committed horrific crimes. However, the new India being now a completely majority Hindu state developed a heightened sense of Hindu nationalism as a response to the new Muslim state and furthered the notion that India was, “Hindustan”. Sikhs became caught in the middle of this dynamic, not belonging to either group, and many wondered why Sikhs were also not given their own state.
Over the next 30 years, support grew both in Punjab and throughout the Sikh diaspora for a new Sikh, secular, democratic state, modeled after the state of Israel called Khalistan, to create a homeland in Punjab for the Sikhs. Sikhs in Punjab largely felt that the Indian government had failed and oppressed them in the years after partition. India split Punjab, whose economy is based largely off of agriculture, into two other states—Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, which diverted water resources from Sikh farming areas, hurting the economy. The state-backed Green Revolution in Punjab disseminated the use of deadly pesticides throughout Punjab’s farmland, leading it to have the highest cancer rate in the world today. Even to this day, Sikhs are not recognized by the Indian government as a separate religion, and are legally a branch of Hinduism within the state. These agitations and a host of other issues led to the rise of the Khalistan movement. However, Punjab is a critical state for India’s food production and economy, and India was not going to let it separate.
In June of 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led an attack called Operation Blue Star on the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh temple, in Amritsar, Punjab. Gandhi claimed that “Sikh terrorists and Khalistani insurgents” were hiding weaponry in the temple complex. Hundreds of Indian soldiers and dozens of tanks open fired during a Sikh holiday when Sikhs from around the world were visiting the temple, indiscriminately killing hundreds of men, women, and children. However, only a small number of outdated weaponry not fit for an insurgent army was found, which the temple had kept for self-defense purposes for decades. In addition, about thirty other Gurdwaras were attacked at this same time, further invalidating the notion that the Operation was to eliminate terrorists at the Golden Temple.
Soon after, two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh assassinated her. In November of 1984, New Delhi erupted as mobs of mostly Hindus again indiscriminately killed and raped Sikh women, men and children with brutal methods such as burning people alive or hanging them. Tens of thousands of Sikhs were killed in the city in only a few days. The Indian government had and continues to portray these events as the “1984 Riots”, implying that the Hindu majority population was so angry that their popular Prime Minister had been killed and had lashed out in revenge. However, since then, government officials have come forth admitting that these attacks were planned; police marked the houses of Sikhs the night before the pogroms, or planned attacks, in order to direct the mobs and provided no protection for Sikhs during the attacks. The government also paid poor people small sums and bottles of liquor to join the lynch mobs. Operation Blue Star and the 1984 Pogroms are known to the Sikhs as the 1984 genocide.
The problems did not end there. The late 80s and early 90s continued to be a tumultuous period in Punjab. To justify the heinous attacks in 1984, the Indian government through the Punjab Police initiated a series of “investigations” throughout the Punjab countryside to find Khalistanis. However, the corrupt police, almost always bring unsuccessful, staged fake encounters with turbaned and bearded Sikhs, Sikhs who looked “religious”, and killed or jailed them as way of showing they were dealing with the insurgency. The human rights organization Ensaaf, meaning justice, has found mass graves throughout the Punjab countryside and has created a list of missing Punjabi men, reaching into the tens of thousands, that has been added to over the past thirty years. In fact some human rights organizations believe that between 1984 and 1994, the number of dead and missing Sikhs reaches the hundreds of thousands.
Today, times are more peaceful in Punjab, though little has been done to help the concerns of Sikhs in the country. Support worldwide for Khalistan has lessened, though there are still pockets where is it vigorously supported. The recent election of Narendra Modi, who was formerly a member of the RSS political party, a known right-wing Hindu nationalist party, has once again made Sikhs nervous, as he was in control of the state of Gujrat when recent Hindu pogroms killed thousands of Muslims in the state while he did nothing.