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Sikhs Beyond Separatism

As India's hindu-nationalist-led government headed toward collapse in New Delhi last week, a few hundred miles away 6 million Indians squeezed into the small Punjab town of Anandpur Sahib to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of modern Sikhism.

The gathering marked more than a unique anniversary at the holy shrine of a monotheistic religion. It also signaled a coming of age of modern Punjab, a state that has long been India's granary and a model of agro-economic innovation for developing countries. For much of the last two decades Punjab had also been a seedbed for a violent Sikh separatist campaign, and last week's milestone, too, highlighted that such terrorism had been countered --not just by Indian authorities who frequently used ruthless tactics but by the sustained efforts of Sikhs themselves. The coming together of such large numbers of Sikhs and Hindus also suggested that the communal fissures that deepened during the separatist era had at last been sutured, if not entirely sealed.

The formal occasion for last week's celebrations was the founding of the Khalsa, a Punjabi word that translates as "pure." The Khalsa was a militant fraternity started in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the last of Sikhism's 10 gurus. By the time he'd assembled five trusted lieutenants in Anandpur Sahib that year to re-energize the faith in the face of invading Islam's onslaught, Sikhism had already existed in one form or another since its creation 200 years earlier by Guru Nanak as a protest against Hinduism's suffocating casteism. Calling his five disciples "panj piyarey" ("the five beloved ones") it was Guru Gobind who named the Sikh fighting fraternity the Khalsa. The Khalsa were told that their last name would be Singh ("lion"). He directed them to observe the "Five Ks": kesh (not to cut hair); kangha (to always carry a comb in the hair); kuchha (to wear underpants, as a sign of cleanliness); kara (to wear a steel bangle); and kirpan (to carry a dagger indicating the Sikh martial tradition). Thus was modern Sikhism born--and with it the distinctive appearance of turbaned and hirsute Sikh males.

Sikhs number only 16 million of India's 1 billion people; most of them live in Punjab. There are perhaps another 5 million Sikhs in Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada, the United States, Australia and the Caribbean. Sikhs have distinguished themselves in India's military: of the 40 Victoria Crosses--the highest medals for battlefield valor-- that the British awarded to Indian soldiers since 1914, 21 were given to Sikhs. Sikhs created Punjab's "green revolution," which transformed India from a famine-stricken, grain-importing country into a food exporter. In Silicon Valley, Sikh venture capitalists have been at the leading edge of new technology. Says Patwant Singh, a Delhi-based historian and author of a book, "The Sikhs," "The adversities of their history have helped them emerge stronger after each trial."

No trial--not persecution by India's Mughal rulers over three centuries, not battles against the British imperialists in the 18th and 19th centuries--proved more debilitating for Sikhs than their separatist campaign of the last two decades. Driven by fulminating politicians and fundamentalist preachers, Sikh militants blew up school buses and attacked Punjabi Hindus. Such terrorism hurt Punjab's economic development and it emboldened separatists in other parts of India. They received funding and weapons from Sikh brethren in Europe and North America. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who had earlier tacitly supported one militant faction in its internecine political squabble with another) finally sent in troops to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar in June 1984. Four months later, two Sikh bodyguards murdered the prime minister in the garden of her New Delhi home. In the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination, more than 5,000 innocent Sikh men, women and children were killed across northern India by rampaging mobs.

Those mobs were led by Hindu politicians, few of whom have been apprehended after all these years. The attacks and that gross travesty of justice still rankle Sikhs in Punjab, and decent Indians everywhere. But moderate Sikh political groups such as the Akali Dal, and the high priests of Guru Gobind Singh's 300-year-old Khalsa, have worked hard to persuade separatists and their supporters to lower the rhetoric of militancy; separatist sentiments may not have altogether disappeared but they have certainly diminished significantly. Everyday Sikhs realized that the separatists--who fought for an independent state that they wanted to call Khalistan--were little more than extortionists. Britian, Canada and the United States cracked down on local fundraising for Khalistan. Last week's celebrations in Anandpur Sahib and other places around the world suggested that in a secular state there can be ample room for a deeply religious community that is willing to abide by the political rule of moderation. The Indian government demonstrated a willingness to invest new monies in Punjab so as to accommodate the aspirations of young educated--but jobless--Sikhs who resented the lack of economic opportunities outside of traditional agriculture. Sikhs have shown that, notwithstanding historical militancy, they can renew the social contract of convivial tolerance with India's majority Hindus. Of course, social fabrics are always vulnerable to sudden tearing, especially in a volatile, culturally kaleidoscopic country such as India. Still, at a time when Hindus elsewhere are engaging in terrible acts of violence against Christians and other minorities, the Punjab's catalytic experience offers a valuable lesson of how communal divides can be breached--no matter how painfully and tentatively--in the common cause of strengthening a modern nation-state.