Understanding Punjab, Sikhism, and Khalistan: Part 2

  • The British colonial government assumed control over various religious institutions, including Sikh Gurdwaras, as part of their policy of religious regulation.
  • The British implemented land revenue policies that had economic repercussions for the Sikh community, as they favoured one particular community within Punjab.
  • The British made all attempts to subvert Sikhism and create caste divisions, these issues are subject to debate and interpretation among historians and scholars.

(This is the 2nd part in a series on Understanding Punjab, Sikhism, and Khalistan. Part 1 can be read here)

British interference in Punjab and Sikh religion

There have been historical instances of British interference in Sikh religious and cultural affairs during the period of British colonial rule in India, which lasted from the mid-19th century until 1947. The British policy of divide and rule in Punjab, as in other parts of India, was aimed to maintain control and exploit existing social divisions for their benefit. However, the British were very calculating and sinister in their approach when it came to Punjab. So the initiated policies that served the interests of the colonial administration also contributed to long-term social, economic, and political divisions within Punjabi society.

One of the best examples of divide and rule is when the British introduced the horrific 1871 Criminal Tribes Act notifying 160 Hindu Dalit castes as “hereditary criminal tribes”. 6 Crore (30 % of Hindus – 0 Muslims) were forced to register with the police, unable to move freely & many were herded like beasts into barbed wire camps. This law was denotified only in 1952 by the government of India. Introducing the Bill J.F. Stephen testified, “a tribe whose ancestors were criminals from time immemorial, who are destined by caste to commit a crime, & whose descendants will be offenders against the law, until the whole tribe is EXTERMINATED or accounted for in a manner of thugs”. (Twitter @MumukshuSavitri). This sinister example is being used to give the reader some perspective. However, there are many more such instances. 

Some of these instances in Punjab include:

  1. Divide and Rule Policy

The British employed a “divide and rule” policy in India, which involved manipulating and exacerbating religious and regional divisions to maintain control. They sometimes favoured one community or religious group over another to sow discord and prevent the emergence of a united Indian resistance to colonial rule. This policy may have contributed to tensions between different religious groups, including Sikhs and Hindus, during the colonial period.

  1. Anglicization of Education

The British colonial administration introduced an education system that often emphasized the English language and British culture over native languages and cultures. This could have had an impact on Sikh education and culture, as traditional Sikh religious texts and teachings were often conveyed in the Punjabi language.

  1. Control of Religious Institutions

The British colonial government assumed control over various religious institutions, including Sikh Gurdwaras, as part of their policy of religious regulation. This control allowed the British to influence religious practices and leaders’ appointments within these institutions. Sikh leaders and devotees often resented this interference.

  1. Census and Enumeration

The British conducted censuses and enumeration exercises that categorized people not only by religion but they ended up creating more castes and by the time they left in 1947, the British had created three thousand casts in India. While this was ostensibly for administrative purposes, it sometimes led to disputes and divisions within religious communities, including Sikhs. People were categorized into religious groups based on narrow criteria, and this could have had unintended consequences on Sikh identity and politics.

  1. Land Reforms and Economic Policies

The British implemented land revenue policies that had economic repercussions for the Sikh community, particularly Sikh landowners and they favoured one particular community within Punjab. These policies often favoured large landholders and colonial interests over the interests of local farmers and peasants, which could have contributed to economic disparities and social unrest.

It’s important to note that while there were instances of interference and policies that affected the Sikh community during British colonial rule, the relationship between Sikhs and the British government was complex and multifaceted. Sikhs played significant roles in various aspects of colonial administration and the British Indian Army. Additionally, Sikh soldiers were often recruited by the British and served in various military campaigns.

The effects of British colonial rule on Sikh religious and cultural identity were varied, and they continue to be topics of historical study and debate. Scholars and historians may have different interpretations of the extent and impact of British interference in Sikh affairs during the colonial period.

There are claims by some scholars and individuals that the British colonial administration in India, during its rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, attempted to subvert the Sikh religion and create caste divisions within the Sikh community. These claims are part of a broader discussion about the British colonial policies in India and their impact on various aspects of Indian society, including religion and caste.

  1. Subversion of Sikh Religion: Some critics argue that the British attempted to undermine Sikhism by promoting divisions and schisms within the Sikh community. This is often linked to the British policy of “Divide and Rule,” where they sought to exploit existing fault lines within Indian society to maintain control. Critics claim that the British supported sects and leaders who were seen as divisive and who promoted practices at odds with mainstream Sikhism.
  1. Creation of Caste by British Censuses: It is a well-documented fact that the British conducted censuses in India and categorized people by religion, caste, and other demographic characteristics. Historians argue that these colonial censuses played a very important role in solidifying and perpetuating caste identities within Indian society, including among Sikhs.

However, it’s important to note several points regarding these claims:

  1. The impact of British colonial policies on Indian society was complex and multifaceted. While there were instances of policies that had unintended consequences or were divisive, such as certain aspects of the census categorization, however, these policies were intentionally aimed at subverting religious or social groups.
  2. Sikhism itself has a history of resisting caste-based discrimination. The teachings of Sikh Gurus emphasize equality and reject the caste system. Sikhism has its religious code (Sikh Rehat Maryada) that advocates against caste distinctions and practices. Also, when the Khalsa was created, the tenth guru Govind Singh told the “male converts to adopt the common name of Singh or Lion, thereby levelling all caste distinctions and promoting solidarity (Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith Kapur A 1986). “ 
  3. Sikhism’s emphasis on equality and community (Sangat) and its distinct religious practices, such as the Langar (community kitchen), have historically played a role in challenging caste distinctions.
  4. While there may have been individuals or groups within the Sikh community who adopted caste-based practices or divisions, Sikhism as a religion generally opposes such practices.
  5. The relationship between the British colonial administration and various religious and social groups in India was complex, and policies and attitudes could vary over time and between different regions.

The British administration’s Land Alienation Act of 1901 in Punjab had a significant effect on the caste system, particularly through its creation of an “agricultural tribes” category. This designation became almost mandatory for individuals seeking to buy or sell land, compelling caste groups to adjust their caste identity to align with those recognized as agricultural tribes. This law influenced the response of different caste groups to the incentives provided by the British administration (Guilhem Cassan 2009).

In summary, the British made all attempts to subvert Sikhism and create caste divisions, these issues are subject to debate and interpretation among historians and scholars. However, it has often been reported that when the British collected the Caste Census data it turned out to be flawed due to people reporting their occupation or their region instead of their castes leading to more division. It’s important to approach these topics with a nuanced understanding of the historical context and the diversity of perspectives within the Sikh community and Indian society at large.

The next part will focus on Pre and post-independent Punjab Politics, the political mistakes and the rise of Khalistan.

(The author is a freelance writer and has published articles on defence and strategic affairs and book reviews. He tweets @LaxmanShriram78. The opinion expressed is the author’s own)


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