How the call to protect Kashmiris comes from the Sikhs

What drives them is the memory of the 1984 riots and the hate crimes against them, despite the RSS’s attempts to win them over.

ByVrinda Gopinath
How the call to protect Kashmiris comes from the Sikhs
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In the bedlam over the sudden abrogation of Article 370, the downgrade of Kashmir from a state to a Union Territory—and the ensuing lockdown in the Valley where political leaders, activists, lawyers have been jailed amidst a communication and media blackout—one story has been evaded by the media. It’s the story of the singular and spectacular resistance of Sikhs against Article 370. Amidst the deafening silence by all, from the judiciary to political parties, civil society and media, the Sikhs have stood out extraordinarily, giving their call for compassion and protection to Kashmiris all over the country, in gurudwaras and homes; from Delhi to Pune, Dehradun to Bengaluru.

Did their valorous cry dissuade blood-thirsty gangs from attacking Kashmiris this time, from students on campuses to traders on the street? Unlike the assaults post-Pulwama, where Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal activists beat up students in Dehradun, terrifying Kashmiri students all over the country, and the calls of social boycott and attack on traders by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated groups, there were no untoward incidents this time. However, it has put the brakes on the RSS’s stealthy attempts to co-opt the Sikhs into the Hindutva fold. There are already attempts to paint Sikhs as separatists and anti-nationals, with the dreaded Khalistani tag resurfacing once again on social media.

How did the story unfold?

Days after Home Minister Amit Shah declared the abrogation of Article 370 in Parliament, the plucky rescue of 32 Kashmiri girl students in Pune received a hurried mention in the national media. The audacious operation was conducted by three young Sikh men from Delhi who not only paid for their air tickets but escorted the students from their college to their homes scattered across five regions of the Valley. The national media dutifully beamed visuals of one ecstatic student running into the arms of her relieved parents in Shopian, the most dangerous part of the Valley, that too taken by the Sikh trio as the media was largely curtailed from moving around. 

But the press has dodged the challenge that is coming from the Sikh community against the Hindutva hate campaign targeting Kashmiri Muslims in the country. Yet it has not diminished the resolve of Sikh groups who are waiting to help any Kashmiri in distress.

It’s a self-assured Harminder Singh Ahluwalia, a 40-year-old software employee of an MNC and the prime mover of the Pune escapade, who sits with his compatriots in the tiny cabin of Jagga Properties in the jostling heart of East Delhi. He is flanked by Armeet Singh Khanpuri, a property dealer, Jagtar Singh Jagga, the proprietor, and Baljeet Singh Babloo and Gurpreet Singh Sonu, both takeaway restaurateurs. There’s an air of satisfaction and accomplishment among the band of bearded troopers, gentle and self-effacing. But make no mistake, they are ready to battle anyone who dare harm defenseless Kashmiris.

Gurpreet Singh Sonu, Baljeet Singh Babloo and Jagtar Singh Jagga.

“We saw what happened after Pulwama, when the saffron gangs of RSS-BJP people attacked Kashmiri students in Dehradun, and the kind of hate speeches they made then,” says Ahluwalia. “This time too, I knew something big was going to happen in Kashmir after troops were being sent to the Valley. I kept a close watch as rumours were floating about abrogating 370. And so in preparation, I did a Facebook live where I announced that any Kashmiri in the country who feels unsafe should go to the nearest gurudwara for help. I even posted my mobile number for them to call in any emergency. The prime minister made the announcement the next day.”

Ahluwalia says this time, they were fully prepared after their successful arrangement for the passage of students from Dehradun, Ambala and Chandigarh to Kashmir post-Pulwama. Says Khanpuri, “No one knew about our efforts at the time, perhaps because of the celebratory mood in the country after Pulwama, but we arranged for tempos to send the students home.”

This time, it was Jagga who paid the money upfront to a travel agent for the tickets, saying he would wait for the donations, if they came at all. “I was happy to do sewa (charity),” he says matter-of-factly. All are in agreement when Ahluwalia says that every Sikh carries a sense of duty and compassion in his heart, especially in this atmosphere of hate and violence. “I feel this even more after RSS-BJP types trolled me and made disgusting remarks about Kashmiri girls,” says Ahluwalia. “Their leaders were making lewd remarks in public, like the Haryana CM saying now Kashmiri girls can marry in Haryana and suchlike. We had to protect their honour.”

It’s also the memory of the brutality of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that fires them. At that time, thousands of businesses and homes were destroyed, men killed and women raped and children left orphaned. “We went through these hate crimes too,” they chorus. “Just like the Kashmiris today, we too were demonised as a community and religion, and called terrorists and anti-nationals. Every Indian attacked us saying we deserved what we got. It’s the same story playing out again.”

Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, an agitated Mohinder Jit Singh is working towards creating a coalition of 40 Sikh NGOs in Delhi (the meeting is scheduled for August 24) apart from aligning with other Sikh organisations in the country. Singh is a  businessman and director of Unite Sikhs, a global advocacy group for civil and human rights.  

“There was a lot of dilemma amongst our directors about reaching out to Kashmiris for fear of becoming politicised,” says Singh over the phone. “But we went ahead after we got the go-ahead from our international directors as we were doing nothing illegal or wrong.” Singh says he has seen how hate crimes vitiate the atmosphere after he visited Shillong last year for rehabilitation work, when anti-Sikh riots broke out in the region.

Singh is pained that the SGPC (Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee) which is responsible for the management of gurudwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh is not following the path of the Guru Granth. “The SGPC has joined the RSS. It allowed RSS schools to indoctrinate thousands of schoolgirls in Punjab to dilute the tenets of Sikhism with Hindutva. Neither has it come out in support of the Kashmiris. We don’t believe that gurudwaras should be politicised but it is our constitutional right to protest if the government is doing something wrong.” 

Armeet Singh Khanpuri and Harminder Singh Ahluwalia.

Singh says he financially helped a Kashmiri student in Bengaluru as the student’s parents could not transfer money for his college fees after the lockdown in the Valley. But by and large, he says, there were no distress call in the South.

 For years the RSS has stealthily tried to merge Sikh identity with Hinduism—it even has a Sikh wing called the Rashtriya Sikh Sanghat—but the Sikhs have always been wary of the RSS idea of a Hindu rashtra which seeks to subsume the Sikhs within its fold. 

To the RSS’s credit, it has been undeterred in its pursuit of Sikhs despite several of its leaders being gunned down by Sikh hardliners in Punjab over the last few years.

However, while the Modi government got the support of the Akali Dal in Parliament on abrogating Article 370, the move was outrightly condemned by the Akal Takht Sahib, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, when the Jathedar issued an edict urging Sikhs to protect Kashmiri women under any circumstances, reminding the flock how women were abused during the 1984 riots in Delhi. The Punjab government of the Congress’s Amarinder Singh came out vociferously to protect Kashmiris, even inviting those living in the state for an Eid meal. Apart from various Panthic groups, student associations have all come out in support for Kashmiris in the state.

Professor Balveer Arora, former rector of JNU and presently chairman of the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, says the “othering” of Kashmir has been a long process, similar to what happened in Punjab. “There are a lot of similarities between Kashmir and Punjab and the people are naturally empathetic with each other. Both have strong religious affiliations but it goes beyond religion. For the Sikhs, 1984 is playing out in this form for the Kashmiris, they are caught in something similar, the price that a religious minority has to pay for wanting more independence from the Centre. Also, both feel they have been let down—after all, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973 also demanded greater autonomy for the state, and more powers to be devolved from the Centre to the states. Kashmir is an abstraction for most Indians, many Indians don’t even know that other hilly states enjoy similar restrictions on outsiders rights as in Kashmir. Unfortunately, communalism has crept into perceptions.”

Sikhs today are cautious of the slur of separatism slapped on them by Hindutva forces, especially in the aftermath of taking on anyone who threatens to harm the Kashmiris. They have faced trolls threatening their life and calling them names, from being ISI agents to being pro-Pakistan. However, they believe their sense of duty and justice overcomes the smear campaign. They blame both the Congress and BJP for using hate politics to come to power: in 1984, the Congress won over 400 seats; in 2019, the BJP has come with over 300 seats. 

“Both parties have nurtured the RSS to spread hate and come to power,” says Ahluwalia, “the Babri Masjid was demolished in Congress rule, and now abrogation of 370. When madrassas are targeted for teaching hate, why can’t RSS schools that teach hate about a particular community and a particular religion not be shut down?” 

Khanpuri adds: “If Khalistan and Dravidastan is wrong, then Hindu rashtra is also wrong. Funny, but can the RSS and BJP explain why the Sikhs, who are also a minority in Kashmir, have not been targeted in the Valley and made to flee like the Kashmiri Pandits? Sikhs are flourishing in Kashmir, they have thriving businesses, they have never been harmed by Kashmiris and live together without any problem. Isn’t it a mystery?”

Perhaps, herein lie the answer to communalised politics and its deadly consequences and eventuality.

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