Following RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech on Dussehra, during which he said India is a Hindu nation, Sikh community leaders such as Akal Takht jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh and SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) president Gobind Singh Longowal have reacted sharply. A look at the RSS view of Sikhism, and its relationship with the community over the years:
Arya Samaj, Sikhs and RSS
“The Hindu-Sikh tension… was a thing unknown during the Sikh rule up to middle of the last [19th] century,” historian Dr Ganda Singh wrote in his paper ‘The origin of the Hindu-Sikh Tension in the Punjab’.
In 1875, the Arya Samaj published the book Satyarth Prakash which, Sikhs held, made defamatory references to Sikh gurus. It was followed by the Singh Sabha movement which, while countering these references, focused on a larger objective of asserting the Sikh identity as unique.
The SGPC, formed in 1920, adopted the Sikh Rehat Maryada code of conduct, defined “who is a Sikh” and also underlined that Sikhism is an independent religion.
The RSS has had differences with the Arya Samaj, which shows in their relationship with Sikhs too. The RSS and late V D Savarkar have often praised the Sikh gurus; the RSS also celebrates their birth anniversaries.
How RSS defines Sikhism
In the RSS understanding, all religions originating in India are part of a Hindu Rashtra, an idea that the Akal Takht finds problematic.
G S Gill, president of RSS affiliate Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, said: “Mohan Bhagwat has said nothing new or objectionable. It is the basic concept of the RSS that India is a Hindu nation. But the RSS chief has explained what ‘Hindu nation’ means: it means all communities who have been participating in the development of the nation. Also Bhagwat has widened the vision of Hindu Rashtra by saying that all indigenous religions are part of it.”
Dr Sukhpreet Singh Udoke, a writer who has officially advised the Akal Takht on RSS issues in the past, explained the RSS view. “The RSS thinks that Sikhs fought Mughal invaders and saved the indigenous ideology,” he said. “The RSS treats Sikhs as part of a Hindu nation like Jains and Buddhists, and unlike Christians and Muslims. Sikhs oppose this RSS idea about them; they believe their history is not about fighting Muslims… Sikhs also see themselves as an independent religion and with a unique identity. They fear the RSS wants them to assimilate into Hinduism.”
“Unlike the Arya Samaj, the RSS has respect for Sikh gurus. But the problem is that most of the RSS and BJP leadership in Punjab came from Arya Samaj and Congress backgrounds. The local leadership didn’t understand that the RSS approach to Sikh gurus is different from the Arya Samaj approach. So there is a problem within RSS about how they want to see Sikhs, which is complicating the relationship with the Akal Takht,” said a professor of religion with Guru Nanak Dev University.
Beyond the RSS leadership, stands taken by the Jana Sangh and the BJP leadership on key issues have contributed to creating differences between the RSS and Sikhs.
In Jalandhar in 1960, then RSS chief Guru Golwalkar said Punjabi is the mother tongue of every Punjabi. RSS affiliate Jana Sangh, however, had joined the “Save Hindi agitation” launched by the Arya Paritinidhi Sabha in 1956. Its participants sought to convince Punjabi Hindus to mention Hindi as their mother tongue in the 1961 Census.
In 1984, the BJP extended support to Operation Blue Star on the Golden Temple complex. In 2009, the party revised its stand and the late Arun Jaitley described the operation as a ‘historical blunder’ of the Congress.
In 1999, then RSS chief K S Sudarshan visited the headquarters of the Damdami Taksal, which was once headed by the militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Akali Dal was already in alliance with the BJP then.
On July 13, 2004, the Akal Takht issued a directive cautioning Sikhs about activities of the RSS and Rashtriya Sikh Sangat. Both organisations had taken up celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib, and published literature that the Akal Takht read as an RSS interpretation of Sikh beliefs.
Rulda Singh, former Rashtriya Sikh Sangat president who played a key role in organising Sudarshan’s 1999 visit, was shot dead in 2009. In 2016, when RSS state vice president Brig Jagdish Gagneja was killed, police said Sikh militants were responsible. In 2017, when RSS leader Ravinder Gosain was murdered in Ludhiana, the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat said misconceptions among a section of Sikhs, allegedly created in the name of an Akal Takht decree, could be a reason behind the murder.
Rashtriya Sikh Sangat spokesperson Avtar Singh had said: “The RSS is always open to dialogue and discussing the misconceptions with Akal Takht.”
The Rashtriya Sikh Sangat has of late been taking up issues on which the SGPC used to be the sole voice earlier, such as Sikh prisoners, Sikhs on a government blacklist, or justice for the 1984 riots. The RSS has been staking claim to campaigns such as ending the blacklisting and celebrating Guru Nanak Dev’s birth anniversary in Indian embassies. The Sikh Sangat has also been criticising the SGPC over a range of issues.
Meanwhile, the BJP government at the Centre has been negotiating with former Sikh militants. One of them, Jaswant Singh Thekedar, back in India after decades, has said on record: “It is not the Akali Dal that has ended the blacklisting; it is the Narendra Modi government…”
Giani Harpreet Singh, the Akal Takht jathedar who has objected to Bhagwat’s remark, said: “When we oppose the RSS, then it is not opposition of Hindus; it should be clearly understood. The RSS can preach Hinduism; we have no problem with that. But they should stop defining Sikhism. Sikhs have many institutions to decide who they are. We don’t want outsiders to tell us who we are… We are not part of the Hindu nation of the RSS.”