Discourse on separatism
M Rajivlochan

Religion, Identity and Nationhood: the Sikh Militant Movement
by Paramjit S. Judge. Rawat Publications, Jaipur.
Pages 272. Rs 550.

Religion, Identity and Nationhood: the Sikh Militant MovementParamjit Judge has been most judicious in this book. He takes a magisterial view of historical sociology, treading with equal majesty over the terrain populated by historians and sociologists. In the process, he gives us one of the most balanced explanations of the imbrications between religion, the nation and identities, both personal and collective. He anchors his analyses on the Sikh militant movement, but his explanations hold true for so much more that is significant to the history and sociology of our nation. Judge has already established himself as an important expert on the sociology of terrorism. Those who have read his earlier book, done in collaboration with Puri and Sekhon, will see that Judge is carrying forward ideas that were nascent then.

He begins with mapping the Sikh community, discusses the emergence of communal politics and how it resulted in the reconstruction of Sikh identity. This story draws heavily upon the history of the Sikhs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It spans the partition of Punjab and that famous statement attributed to Nehru (or some would say the States Reorganisation Commission), that a separate state would not be given to the Punjabi speakers in 1955 because Punjab was a border state and of considerable strategic significance.

The reform movements of the early 20th century and the struggle for a distinctive language-based state helped in crystallise an identity for Sikhs. The process seemed to falter during the hassle-some years of the Emergency and the following downturn in the national economy. Having defeated the Congress at the hustings the Akali Dal looked forward to consolidating its control over the polity of the Punjab. The Congress, however, was too wily. Spouting the rhetoric of secularism, it lost no time in posing as the better saviour of the panth.

The Akali Dal, claiming to represent both, the religious community and also the agriculturists, seemed to not know what hit it. It floundered and soon lost power. The Jats and the Sikhs simply shifted away to the Congress. Judge does not make much of such under-hand dealings of the Congress. Instead, he lays emphasis on the absence of a civic spirit in Punjab. Rising high in the capitalist economy did not imply that other social norms of the capitalist society too had gotten embedded in Punjab. The tendency to resolve conflict through violence remained dominant. As a good Punjabi, I noticed, Judge forgot to mention at this point that the capitalist way of conflict resolution is through the courts of law and that the law courts in Punjab had withered away for a considerable time. But were they ever effective in the first place? On this too he remains silent.

Of great interest to me was Judge’s description of the manner in which Bhindranwale went about constructing the distinctions between the Hindus and the Sikhs. He bases himself on a detailed content analysis of the speeches of the late saint. His analysis of the nature of militancy and martyrdom informs us well while also analysing why the saints crudest depictions of the two communities seemed to gel so well in the hothouse atmosphere of the 1980s. After the death of Bhindranwale the violence that he had let lose escalated even further. But, Judge notes, there was a difference. Now an effort was also made by the votaries of violence to impose new social norms. Mores often do make societies, but only when they come from within or have been internalised. The society that the 10 Gurus had crafted over 300 years had had considerable social legitimacy. So when one of them wanted volunteers to be armed and sacrifice their lives for the community, he had no dearth of volunteers. The terrorists, even when claiming to be serving the panth were very different. Their impositions did not acquire any legitimacy.

Judge analyses in detail the manner in which this tortuous process worked out, traces its roots in history, and suggests that this was the logical culmination of the way the Indian nation was imagined in the colonial period. Does that mean that defeating terrorism in the Punjab was but the first concrete step in exorcising the colonial mindset from our midst?