Religion and Nationalism in India

Ingredients of Punjabi nationalism

Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab

by Harnik Deol.

Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia,

Routledge, London, New York. Pages 200. Rs 1,400.

Review by Roopinder Singh

NATIONALISM is a term that means different things to different people at different points of time. Trying to pin down the concept can be a daunting task. Add to it a touch of religion and the odds mount up.

Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjabet this is what the writer of this book has done, and managed to come out unscathed rather well. In its simplest sense, nationalism is the devotion to the interests or culture of a particular nation. For the author nationalism represents an ideology and movement on behalf of the nation and incorporates both political and cultural dimensions.

She notes that many scholars like the historian J. D. Cunningham argue that the Sikhs constituted a nation during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The way the notion of nationalism developed in India is different from the historic developments in Europe, which is seen by scholars against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. In India, nationalism had a cultural and religious context and “religion dominated the social bond that defined the characteristics of the nation.”

One agrees with Deol in that it would be misleading to examine the emergence of Hindu nationalism as a single phenomenon. Religious groups have subsections and are divided on caste, regional, linguistic and other lines. She traces the recent resurgence of religious nationalism to the weakening of political instituitions and loss of faith in secular institutions. One would also add here a general weakening of the moral fabric that has lead to divisiveness where religious masks masquerade as moral exemplars.

Tracing out the historical routes of Sikh consciousness, the author maintains that Guru Nanak’s emphasis on Gurbani, and not on personal devotion to himself was of great significance, especially in the egalitarian community that he established at Kartarpur. The tradition of combining religious and social aspects, the establishment of the instituition of langar at Kartarpur, the compilation of the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan Dev are all significant to the establishment of a common communal consciousness. With the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev under the orders of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, who was concerned about the growing influence and the expansion of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind, his son, proclaimed the Miri-Piri doctrine under which religious and temporal aspects were bonded.

The period after the Gurus, till the annexation of Punjab (1706-1849), saw the rise of the 12 “misls” and the Sikh kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sikhs were only 10 per cent of the population of this kingdom, with Muslims constituting 80 per cent and the Hindus 10 per cent. Sikh rule was secular and it gave the Sikhs a successful institutional framework for articulating political aspirations.

With the advent of the British came fresh challenges, especially in the form of state-supported Christian missionaries that gave rise to reform movements like the Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha. It was during this period that the Sikh voice for a distinctive identity took the form expressed in Bhai Kahan Singh’s book Ham Hindu Nahin! This was also the period of the gurdwara reform movement when mahants were removed from gurdwaras and eventually the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee came into being. The handing over of the keys of the toshakhana of Darbar Sahib to the SGPC by the British authorities was greeted by Mahatma Gandhi with the following telegram: “Congratulations, first decisive battle for India’s freedom won” (The Tribune, January 17, 1922).

The SGPC gave the Akali Dal, which has dominated it since its inception, a considerable hold over Punjab politics. The Akalis participated in the nationalist campaign for Independence, though they had their grouse with the majority communities, especially the decision to grant 33 of the 175 seats in the Punjab Legislative Assembly to the Sikhs, which constituted an 18 per cent representation.

Deol argues that the interplay between the general growth in literacy, communications and the expansion of imperial bureaucracy, on one hand, and the socio-religious reforms on the other, gave birth to religio-linguistic nationalism at the end of the 19th century in Punjab; print capitalism facilitated the historic formation of languages of everyday life to the sacred languages of scriptures.

After Independence, the demand for “Punjabi Suba”, or a Punjabi-speaking state, dominated the politics of Punjab from 1950 to 1966. During the linguistic re-organisation of states in 1956, the demand of Punjabi being the basis of such reorganisation was not initially recognised. The prospect of having little political leverage as a minority community raised Akali apprehensions as they sought to protect the language and religion in a Hindu-dominated society. The Arya Samaj protagonists aggressively promoted Hindi as the language amongst the Hindus and opposed the adoption of Punjabi as an official language in Punjabi-speaking regions of the state.

This lead to confrontation and much acrimony. The Akali demand was rejected by the State Reorganisation Commission and the Akali Dal launched its Punjabi Suba agitation and eventually it resulted in the trifurcation of the state in September, 1966, and saw the emergence of the Akali Dal as the ruling party.

The Anandpur Sahib resolution of 1973 became the subject of considerable controversy, though various Akali leaders have gone on record saying it had no secessionist overtones, though this is what the Congress alleged. The prolonged and often acrimonious negotiations for socio-economic demands of the Akalis and the Central government, to which they were opposed, are “partially responsible for beginnings of the Sikh armed struggle”.

Deol contends that the lack of tacit support for guerrilla resistance by a broad cross-section of the rural and the urban Sikh population lead to the virtual disintegration of the movement.”

She maintains that the Green Revolution was an agent of change for the Sikh peasantry and the new agricultural technology was unfavourable to the lower strata of the population.

Commenting on the role of the vernacular Press, Deol says it has “played a critical role in heightening religious identification in recent years by reinforcing the linguistic basis of religious identity. Consequently, a composite Punjabi identity, shared by all religious communities failed to emerge in Punjab. This underlines the widespread support that the Sikh movement for Khalistan elicited from the Sikh peasantry.”

One would point out that there is a distinct Punjabi identity that emerges at many forums, including various interactions amongst the Punjabi diaspora. The divisive politics that had overtaken the state at the time did find reflection and support among elements of the diaspora, it did not obliterate the commonalities, and they were merely swept under the force of the vents and have re-surfaced.

Deol has undertaken, as noted in the beginning, a difficult task. She has covered a vast canvas in this study, which is a revised version of her PhD thesis on sociology presented at the London School of Economics in 1996. She is now based in Geneva and works for the United Nations Council for Trade and Development, UNCTAD. Routlegde is to be commended for publishing a work that is sure to be a reference point for further studies as a part of its modern history of Asia series.

This review was published in The Tribune on May 27,2001