Why India’s farmers’ protests have Sikhs fearing violent attacks

Religious pogroms are horrifyingly common in India. There was a minor pogrom against Muslims in Delhi in January last year, a major one in Gujarat in 2002, and…

Religious pogroms are horrifyingly common in India. There was a minor pogrom against Muslims in Delhi in January last year, a major one in Gujarat in 2002, and more in Mumbai in 1992. Christians have faced a rise in violence since 1998. And for Sikhs like me, the year 1984 – the year of what we call the Sikh Genocide – is firmly etched into our collective memory.

That year, India’s then-prime minister Indira Gandhi launched a military assault on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, which was occupied by groups demanding greater autonomy. After Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation, thousands of Sikhs across the country were murdered in religious pogroms, with the connivance of Gandhi’s governing Indian National Congress party.

Many Sikhs now worry that a second massacre is on the way. They have good reason. “Repeat 1984” has become the rallying cry of some Hindu nationalist social media users who support Modi’s government.

Some activists, driven by the ‘Hindutva’ Hindu nationalist ideology that underpins Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have already started holding menacing rallies outside Sikh places of worship. They had implicit sanction from the top when Modi claimed, falsely, that the Indian flag had been “insulted” by the protesters who stormed the Red Fort. (It wasn’t. Farmers didn’t touch the Indian flag.)

A country where Hindus come first

The BJP and its allies are using a classic divide-and-rule tactic, which they have copied from British colonialists. But it is part of a broader strategy to turn India into a Hindu theocracy.

The government sees India as a country for Hindus, first and foremost. All others are second-class citizens who must continually prove their loyalty. Hindu nationalists like to say that Sikhs are part of “the Hindu umbrella” and therefore an integral part of India – unlike Muslims and Christians – but recent events have exposed the hollowness of their claim.

India is a multi-faith country being transformed into a country where Hindus are top-tier citizens and everyone else is below them on the pecking order. Anyone who disagrees is painted as ‘anti-national’. Last year, when Indian Muslims protested peacefully against a law that aimed to exclude many Muslims from citizenship, they were accused of being potential terrorists working for Pakistan. During the pogrom in Delhi in January 2020, erroneously framed as a “riot” by many media outlets, police either stood by or took part.


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