Shuranjeet Singh Takhar unpacks the harmful tropes of ‘Sikh terrorism’ and how it is being used to discriminate and oppress Sikhs both locally and globally
Last month, a man was assaulted in Canada and his dastaar (Sikh turban) stolen after his attackers had confirmed that he was a Sikh. Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scottish Sikh, has been held in police custody in Punjab, India, for over one-hundred-and-sixty days without formal charge. Recently, four Sikh youths were arrested in Punjab on allegations of engaging with Sikh ‘terrorism’ on social media .
Though these events may appear unconnected, they have something deeply harrowing in common – they are all acts marking a rising trend in violence targeted towards Sikhs.
In this article I ask why violence against Sikhs appears to be increasing, arguing it can be best explained by the re-emergence of the ‘Sikh terrorist’, a deceptive media representation which has been weaponised to marginalise Sikhs and to legitimise increased surveillance of the community both in India and abroad.
I will begin by tracking the history of the ‘Sikh terrorist’ trope and its role in justifying extreme violence against Sikhs. I will then discuss its re-emergence in a contemporary India shaped by Hindu nationalist rhetoric, and finally, I will consider the international iterations of the ‘Sikh terrorist’ and its recent replication in Canada, and possible transfer to the United Kingdom.
The Emergence of the ‘Sikh Terrorist’
The idea of a ‘Sikh terrorist’ was used to justify the Indian state’s violent suppression of the ‘Khalistan Movement’. To provide some context, the term ‘Khalistan’ refers to an expression of Sikh sovereignty which gained international currency throughout the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Khalistan’ represented a call for socio-political reform under an increasingly centralised Indian state where structures of caste, gender, and religion worked to marginalise many to the peripheries of society.
Activist and revered Sikh saint, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, sought reform through the implementation of the Anandpur Resolution, a document which requested a de-centralised state structure and the affordance of constitutional rights and equality to all citizens. During the two years of collectively mobilising Sikh activists and organising economic, social, and political protests, the Indian government became increasingly hostile towards the Sikh population and their apparent inability to assimilate into the nation-building project .
At the same time, Indian media representations begun painting Sikh activists as ‘anti-Indian terrorists’ a particularly salient term considering that ‘India’ had only formally existed for around thirty-five years. The Indian nation-state was very much in its ‘developmental’ phase, and by calling for reform, Sikhs were perceived as a threat to the wider stability of a collective national consciousness.
On June 1st 1984, the Indian army surrounded the Harmandir Sahib complex, the Sikhs’ premier site of temporal and spiritual sovereignty. On June 4th, over 70,000 troops raided the complex, killing prominent Sikh activists as well as an enormous number of Sikh pilgrims. Casualties were estimated between 675 and 20,000. Thousands of innocent Sikhs were killed.
The raid was framed as a success for India against ‘anti-national terrorism’. However, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, the country witnessed one of the darkest times in its history. On October 31st, 1984, and for several days thereafter, Sikhs were targeted and killed throughout northern India in organised pogroms operating within a wider anti-Sikh genocide, facilitated by Indian state apparatus: military, media, and government.
In these pogroms, over 3,000 Sikhs were killed , the majority of whom were in Delhi, but these estimates are far from reliable as even today mass-graves of Sikhs are being found in more rural parts of India. This puts the number of estimated deaths at a considerably higher number.
Despite sustained efforts by human-rights activists, individuals and governments are yet to be held to account for conducting and deploying a genocide against Sikhs, and many who orchestrated and delivered the killings are yet to be charged. The role of the media in painting the ‘Sikh terrorist’ helped to justify the violence occurring in the 1980s, pitting Indian citizens against Sikhs.
‘Sikh Terrorism’ in India
Today, representations of Sikhs as ‘terrorists’ are being resurrected. The biggest Indian media houses look to the past to resurrect a way of ‘explaining’ the actions of Sikhs in 2018. Characterised as ‘terrorists’ by an increasingly nationalistic government, Sikh activists still struggle to have their voices heard, as their calls for a fairer society are silenced and their basic freedoms curtailed.
In the last few months and under the guise of ‘Khalistani separatism’, Sikhs have been locked-up throughout the Punjab, often being held with no formal charge with flimsy, and in some cases anecdotal, evidence. Jagtar Singh Johal (Jaggi) has not been charged, has been denied private consular access, has been denied an independent medical examination, and there has been no evidence presented to the court of his wrong-doings. Jaggi will be held for another four months following a delay in his hearing, which should strike concern within human-rights activists when considering that in 2017, over nine-hundred people died in either judicial or police custody in India.
Arrests of Jagtar and fellow Sikh activists have been rationalised under the ‘terrorist’ trope and many have subsequently turned a blind-eye to their mistreatment. Casting Sikhs as ‘terrorists’ further marginalises them within a state where minorities are being suppressed, harassed, and openly killed .
Since the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014, Sikhs have felt vilified within a Hindu nationalist imagination of India, an ideology known as Hindutva. Looking to silence and erase those who do not conform to its beliefs, Hindutva posits that India is a state solely for ‘Hindus’, that India must ‘reclaim’ an essence lost through experiences of invasion and colonialism, and to ensure that this never happens again, India must take a hard-line stance on those who are perceived to threaten the stability of its borders. Within this interpretation of politics, minorities have all been increasingly persecuted and violence against them has been largely justified.
Such rhetoric looks to persecute ‘Sikh terrorists’ on a more fundamental level, positing them as antithetical to the Hindu nationalists’ utopian view of a ‘Hindu’ India.
‘Sikh Terrorism’ in the West
Following the recent surge in Indian media, the ‘Sikh terrorist’ has been revitalised within the West, notably in Canada.
Upon his first official state-visit to India, Justin Trudeau encountered the narrative of ‘Sikh terrorism’ being used to denigrate his international identity. The Canadian Prime Minister’s apparent proximity to ‘Sikh terrorists’ was used as a lever against which Narendra Modi and the Indian government could enact control, steer conversation, and issue demands. It was apparent that Trudeau’s visit was a disaster, a further consequence of which was the renewal of the ‘Sikh terrorist’ within Canadian media and its use to defame the character of NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, and Sikhs more widely.
The attack noted at the beginning, involving a Sikh man and the stealing of his dastaar (Sikh turban), represents an important break in targeted hate-crime. Occurring after Canadian media had circulated and embedded the ‘Sikh terrorist’, this attack cannot be considered under the umbrella term of Islamophobia, as many attacks on Sikhs have, correctly, been labelled in the past. However, this man was asked specific questions as to properly ascertain his faith identity, including whether his hair was uncut – a cultural marker associated with Sikhs specifically. This attack can be considered as fundamentally anti-Sikh and should certainly be considered alongside the rise of the ‘Sikh terrorist’ in Canadian media looking to justify violence against Sikh bodies.
While visiting the United Kingdom, we can expect Narendra Modi to raise the issue of ‘Sikh extremism’ and allude to instances of ‘Sikh terrorism’, but it is important to remember the wholly fallacious logic upon which these representations are built. If Narendra Modi communicates Sikhs as ‘terrorists’, it would be prudent to remember the experiences of Sikhs in India historically, having been oppressed, targeted and killed little more than thirty years ago.
Transporting the ‘Sikh terrorist’ trope to the United Kingdom would also involve being complicit in the far-right nationalistic politics of the BJP government and their persistent persecution of minority communities. Media outlets may not be cognisant to the historic construction of the ‘Sikh terrorist’, but it is integral that Sikhs are amplified to contest such labels and reveal their hateful, insidious undertones. Dr Jasjit Singh at the University of Leeds, in his foremost work on deconstructing ‘Sikh radicalisation’ has outlined the various types of Sikh activism within the United Kingdom, demonstrating a more careful understanding of Sikh sentiment detached from the damaging notion of ‘Sikh terrorism’, and such responses have been essential in giving voice to the Sikh community.
It is vital that such violence is not replicated in the United Kingdom and the oppressive structures of the Indian state are realised. Through constructing a prominent counter-narrative to challenge the influence of Indian media, it is imperative that minorities persecuted by the Indian state are able to voice struggles on their terms. Only by educating people as to Sikh realities will dominant narratives face scrutiny and coherent challenges as they are transported outside of India and around the world.
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Shuranjeet Singh Takhar is a current graduate student at Oxford University where he is reading Modern South Asian Studies. As well as writing on contemporary Indian politics and its impact on diaspora, Shuranjeet is interested in shaping how the Punjabi community in Britain understand mental health with his initiative Tarakī (www.taraki.uk).