The Sikh Question: two thoughts


Jawaharlal Nehru to Baldev Singh, 23 November 1948 (JN SG File No. 15 Pt.-II):

‘[Your] note about the Sikh position in East Punjab…I was surprised and depressed to read it. I entirely agree with you that we should help the Sikhs wherever possible. But [your] proposals seem to me basically opposed to the very things we proclaim and stand for. Our government as well as the Constituent Assembly have declared themselves to be totally opposed to communalism. We may not be able to put an end to [it], but in all governmental activities we can give it no place…The Constituent Assembly [came] to certain decisions last year in regard to minorities which are applicable to all of them…no government can apply one principle to one community and totally different principle to other communities…This means joint electorates, reservation where desired by the minority, but on the basis of population only and no weightage.

Regarding the carving out of a new province or transfer of Gurgaon district to Delhi, I have been opposing suggestions for provincial redistribution or division…I believe that something of this kind will have to be done but [not] I at this particular time when we are grappling with very difficult problems…Let this matter be considered dispassionately somewhat later. The Punjab, as you remind us, is a frontier province now and we cannot allow the situation in the East Punjab to deteriorate. Nor will it be desirable to think in terms of communal provinces when refashioning our provincial areas…Any untoward development in East Punjab might have serious repercussions on the Kashmir situation…As for the formation of constituencies, any attempt made to gerrymander in favour of this or that group would also lead to bitterness and conflict.

I would very much like to do something to convince the Sikhs that their fears are groundless. Indeed, I do not myself see why a progressive and enterprising community like the Sikhs should be afraid of the future…It would be doing an ill-turn to the Sikhs to treat them as the Muslim League wanted the Muslims to be treated before the Partition. What I have been specially distressed is the strained similarity between the present demands of some of the Sikh leaders and the old Muslim League demands…Can we not learn from bitter experience? You have rightly complained of some articles and cartoons in the few Delhi papers. But whatever these papers may have written, it pales into insignificance before the speeches and statements of Master Tara Singh…extraordinarily irresponsible…open incitement to war and to internal conflict…upset me a great deal’.

Tara Singh (District Jail, Banaras) to Nehru and Patel, 19 April 1949 (JN SG 23 Pt.-I):

‘Since I read in the “Statesman” that the consideration of formation of linguistic provinces in northern India has been indefinitely postponed, I have been deeply thinking how to convince you that the Sikhs are in urgent necessity of maintaining Panthic entity in order to protect their religion…the Sikhs in order to exist, must have a home in the Indian Union where they have some power to practice and advance their culture, religion and language according to their own light…Why should the Congress yield to the communal demand of the Hindus of the Punjab and be a tool in the hands of the communalism of the majority? The vocal section of the Hindus in the East Punjab wish to dominate us and use us as chowkidars…it was the Hindu press which was the first to write that the Hindus cannot live in a province where the Sikhs be in majority…this is the mentality of the so-called nationalists…if the Hindus who have majority in the central government cannot stay in a province where the Sikhs may have majority, how can the Sikhs stay in a Hindu-majority province when they are in hopeless minority in the centre also?…It is of course easy for those in majority to pose as purely nationalists, for best nationalism and worst communalism coincide here…

I feel I am the person responsible for bringing the Sikhs to the present position…In 1929, when [Motilal] Nehru report was published, the Sikhs as a community went out of the Congress…I, with some colleagues, [persuaded] the leaders of the Central Sikh League to come to a settlement…I, with others, came back to the Congress. If the Congress now forgets its promise, I am not going to shirk my responsibility…I may give an example. A [Sikh] deputation met Sardar Patel some time ago and put some demands. He did not agree to any one of them. One of the demands was that while granting certain privileges and concessions to depressed classes, no distinction on religious ground be made…at present, if a Hindu of a depressed class embraces Sikhism, he is deprived of these privileges and if a Sikh of a depressed class embraces Hinduism, he gets the privileges…Congress leaders had [said] that if that distinction was removed, some of the depressed class Hindus would embrace Sikhism. This is how cat was let out of the bag…

Most of the Punjab Hindu leaders [are] communalist at heart…a Sikh protects every religion…Guru Teg Bahadur sacrificed himself to protect Hinduism…so I claim that the Khalsa Panth is not communal…most Hindus do not realise it…independence to them appears Hindu domination…I do believe in the fundamental oneness of the Hindu and Sikh religions, but I do not call myself a Hindu…I wish to save the Khalsa Panth which will prove a pillar of strength of the country, as it did in the past…Sardar Patel does not seem to realise this…my only hope and my only weapon is righteousness of my cause and my faith in Him who saved Prahlad…I make the following two demands: 1) Sikhs and Hindus of the depressed classes should have the same privileges and concessions; 2) a Punjabi-speaking province shall be created so that the bulk of the Sikh population shall not live under Hindu domination on provincial basis…I have never demanded and do not demand now an independent Sikh State…I do demand a self-governing unit within the Indian Union…we are a religious minority in dire need of protection…if my above two demands are not granted, I shall start my fast unto death…Kindly do not enter into technicalities while replying…’

Read further:

J.S. Grewal, Master Tara Singh in Indian History. Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Sikh Identity, (OUP, 2018)

J.S. Deol, Baldev Singh (1902-1961), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

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