Location: Punjab state, north-western India, Delhi and elsewhere in India
Population: India 13 million; Punjab 10.2 million (1981)
% of population: 1.9% of Indian population, 60% of Punjab population
Religion: Sikhism
Language: Punjabi

The Sikhs are an Indian minority living, for the most part, in the north-western state of Punjab. They comprise one of the most visually distinctive groups in India, notably because of the beard and turban adopted by orthodox male Sikhs, and also because of their conspicuous presence in the transport sector and the military. They number over 14 million, of whom over one million live outside India. The 13 million living in India comprise less than 2% of its total population, although 80% are concentrated in their home state, Punjab, where they are a majority of 60%.


The founder of Sikhism was Guru Nanak, a Hindu of the high-ranking Khattri caste who lived from 1469-1539. Dissatisfied with the teachings of Hinduism and Islam he formulated an egalitarian doctrine which transcended both, and could be summarized in the commandment to “adore the Divine Name, practise one’s livelihood and share its fruits”. The Guru established a community of Sikhs or “disciples” who were mostly Hindu in origin. In contrast to the ascetic ideals prominent at the time, the practical existence of the householder was held to be the ideal, and devotion consisted of private prayer and the congregational singing of hymns written by Guru Nanak and the embodiment of his teachings in poetic form. Sikhism, from the first, laid strong emphasis upon equality within the community, between castes and between men and women. Temples are open to all and there is no priestly hierarchy.

Guru Nanak appointed a successor to himself who was to be a spiritual guide, and between 1469 and 1708, a period known to Sikhs as the age of the Gurus, there were 10 such leaders; during this period the authoritative scriptures of Sikhdom, a collection of hymns known as the Adi Granth or “Original Book” was compiled and a new community named the Khalsa or “Company of the Pure” was formed by the tenth Guru. Members of this company assumed unshorn hair, beard and turban and were given the martial name of Singh or “lion”. The creation of this community marked a change of emphasis which led Sikhdom away from its traditional peaceful course into a more war-like stance, and although not all Sikhs adopted the baptismal tokens, bearded and turbanned members of the Khalsa came to be recognized as guardians of Sikh orthodoxy.

Throughout the next 150 years the Sikh Khalsa was involved in conflict with the invading Afghans and the Muslim governors of Lahore. In 1746 the city of Amritsar was sacked, the Golden Temple defiled, and Sikh forces massacred by one such governor, and another massacre occurred in 1762, this time perpetrated by the Afghans. The Afghans were unable to conquer the Punjab, however in 1799 a Sikh chieftain became Maharajah of the Punjab. Some Sikh states maintained a separate existence under British rule but elsewhere in the Punjab the Sikh Khalsa remained independent. Factional fighting gave the British a chance to intervene and after two Anglo-Sikh wars in the mid-nineteenth century the British gained control of the whole of the Punjab, and the Khalsa army was disbanded, although its actions during the “heroic” age have never been forgotten by the Sikhs.

Sikhs in British India

The British were impressed by the fighting qualities and loyalty of the Sikh troops and began to recruit Sikhs into its forces. By the time of World War I, Sikhs made up 20% of the Indian army. The Jat peasantry, which formed the core of the Sikh community or Panth, were especially eager to take up newly irrigated land in the western Punjab, and many prospered through working the now fertile region. The Jats have given Sikh society its traditional rural bias, although there is a small but influential urban Sikh minority. Many Sikhs took advantage of their British citizenship to emigrate to other

1This refers to the undivided Punjab which covers the approximate areas of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana and the Pakistani province of Punjab.

parts of the Empire where, for the most part, they prospered although enduring prejudice and initial hardship.

Elected provincial governments began to exercise more power and as independence approached Sikhs put forward proposals for alterations to the Punjab’s boundaries in order to exclude the largely Hindu and Muslim areas to the south-east and west; or alternatively for increased Sikh representation to protect their interests. These proposals had little effect, however, and the largely Muslim Unionist party retained control over the province. During the 1940s there were increasing demands made by the Muslims for a separate Muslim state after independence. Muslims urged the Sikhs to join with them in the new state but there were too few cultural or religious links between the two groups to make this a feasibility. Afraid of their numbers being split up between India and Pakistan, Sikh leaders, in 1946, called for the creation of their own independent Sikhistan or Khalistan but without success. The situation deteriorated rapidly into violent outbreaks between the Muslims on the one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other.

Partition and independence

Independence came to India in August 1947 and the Punjab was divided into two parts, with the larger, western portion being allocated to Pakistan, now a Muslim state. In the terrible holocaust that followed, hundreds of thousands of Punjabis were killed and millions fled from one part of the province to the other. The Sikh community had been split down the middle and over 40% were forced to flee Pakistan for India, leaving behind them homes, land and many sacred shrines. The majority of Sikh refugees settled in the Indian part of Punjab although many moved to Delhi and other neighbouring regions.

Sikhs quickly established themselves as a successful and enterprising section of Indian society; nevertheless many felt they had somehow been cheated by the partition of the country. The Hindus had India, and the Muslims Pakistan, but the Sikhs had not been granted a state of their own, and in India they were a small minority. In only one of the Punjabi states — that of the former princely states, known as PEPSU — were they a majority. In the south-eastern districts they were hardly represented and in the rest of the eastern (i.e. Indian) Punjab they constituted one third of the population. In the north-west they were in the majority in the rural areas but were outnumbered by Hindus in the principal cities. In order to promote local political autonomy Sikhs called for the creation of a new state, a combination of the Sikh majority districts of Punjab and PEPSU. Since the government of India was opposed to meeting any such demands made on purely religious grounds, the Sikhs’ demand was for the creation of a state for Punjabi speakers, the majority of people in the Punjab speaking either Hindi or Urdu.

In 1955, mass demonstrations in favour of separatism provoked a police invasion of the Golden Temple at Amritsar; however, the demonstrations also resulted in the merging of PEPSU into a large new Punjab and the regulated use of Punjabi and Hindi in their respective regions. In 1966 the state of Punjab was divided into the new states of Punjab (Punjabi-speaking and mainly Sikh), Haryana (Hindi-speaking and mainly Hindu) and Himachal Pradesh (the mountainous areas to the east). The Sikhs now constituted a 60% majority in Punjab state but various complex issues remained unresolved. Firstly, the city of Chandigarh, which lay on the border between the two new states, was now the capital of both, and the water supply from the Punjab rivers was divided between them in what the Sikhs saw as an unfair manner. As was the case in 1947, many religious and linguistic groups found themselves on the wrong side of the boundary after the division, with Punjabi Hindus constituting a majority of the urban population in the Punjab and a sizeable Sikh minority remaining in Haryana. Nor were the majority Sikhs politically united. The Akali Dal represented for the most part the Jat Sikh farmers but the state Congress Party attracted many Sikh voters in addition to Hindus. The Punjab was now declared a unilingual Punjabi state with safeguards for the use of Hindi.

Between 1966 and 1984 these conflicts were not resolved. Relations between Sikh political leaders became strained and there were disputes between the Punjab and neighbouring states, especially Haryana. These were exacerbated by Indira Gandhi’s domination of the Indian political scene and her centralization of power rather than granting greater autonomy to many of the country’s regional movements, including that of the Sikh Akalis. In 1969 there was tension over the status of Chandigarh. One Sikh fasted to death in order to gain Chandigarh for the Punjab and, after another threatened fast, Indira Gandhi awarded the city outright to the Punjab in 1970, after a five-year interim period, in return for which Haryana was awarded the Hindi-dominated areas of Abohar and Fazilka.

Economic developments

The Punjab has seen remarkable economic and agricultural growth in the second half of this century, largely as a result of the introduction of high-yielding strains of wheat, chemical fertilization and tubewell irrigation schemes during the 1960s. Despite their relative wealth, old grievances had not been forgotten. Sikhs believed that there should have been greater acknowledgement of their huge economic contribution to India’s growing prosperity. Small-scale industries expanded rapidly and per capita income was higher than that of any other Indian state. The Punjab was contributing half its grain production to India’s protected economy and it was felt that this contribution had not been sufficiently recognized in economic terms, neither had the allocation of river waters been altered as a result of earlier complaints.

Many Sikhs who had left India for Britain, North America and the Middle East were sending remittances to relatives in the Punjab and these funds were of help in the expansion of small industry in urban areas. The labour shortage created by this emigration was filled by Hindu labourers from other regions, and this pattern of immigration affected Sikh perceptions of the balance between communities. Increasing numbers of young Sikhs from poorer Jat families found themselves without work in a society moving from an agricultural to an urban-based economy at a time when military recruitment of Sikhs was declining.

Political developments

Although most Sikh politicians started their political careers as members of the Akali Dal many later turned to the Congress Party which offered more opportunity for those with political ambitions; the Congress Party was successful in the state elections of 1972. In the following year, the Akali Dal issued a manifesto known as the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR) which was designed to protect Sikh interests in India and called for increased autonomy within a larger Punjab, extended to include Sikh communities in adjoining regions of neighbouring states. The ASR also aligned the Akali Dal with other autonomy-seeking minorities in India. During the Emergency of 1975 many Akali leaders were arrested, but after elections in 1977 the Akalis formed part of an anti-congress coalition government, which remained in office until Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980.

The youth wing of the Akali Dal, the All-India Sikh Students’ Federation (AISSF), had become active during the 1970s. In 1978 a radical Sikh named Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who had been involved in a number of violent incidents, became popular amongst members of the AISSF. Increasingly bitter relations were developing between the Akali Dal, the Delhi government — which now had a Sikh as its President, and Bhindranwale’s extreme nationalists. Negotiations between Indira Gandhi and Akali leaders were held in 1981 and 1982 to discuss the questions of more autonomy for the Punjab and guarantees of minority status; however, these discussions proved fruitless and the Akalis launched a “Holy War Agitation” supporting the ASR. The campaign was met by repression from the Punjab government which in turn provoked more extreme action by the Akali Dal. Threats made by Sikhs to disrupt the 1982 Asian Games staged in Delhi were countered by blatant discrimination directed at prominent Sikhs who were travelling to the Games.

“Operation Bluestar”

As tensions grew, Bhindranwale’s role became ever more central. By late 1982 he and his young followers were established in the Golden Temple complex from where he directed “hit squads” mounted on motorcycles. One such squad was responsible for the death of a senior Sikh police officer in 1983. Because Bhindranwale so publicly espoused the Sikh cause, it was difficult for many more moderate Sikhs to oppose him directly and the Indian government had soon labelled all Sikhs as extremists who posed a threat to national integrity. In 1983, following the hijacking of a bus and murder of its Hindu passengers, the state government was dismissed and President’s rule was imposed. Within the refuge of the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple, Bhindranwale continued his operations secure from police action. There was increasing violence against police officers or Sikhs hostile to his cause which in turn generated Hindu support for militant Hindu organizations. In addition there were anti-Sikh riots.

In June 1984, the army was sent into Amritsar in “Operation Bluestar” with orders to eliminate the Sikh extremists from the Golden Temple. It was unprepared for the fortifications within the Temple precincts and many of Bhindranwale’s supporters escaped. Some 150 were arrested and imprisoned and the remainder were killed after the army had resorted to the use of tanks which damaged many of the Temple buildings. Many innocent victims died in the crossfire as the attack took place during one of the most important festivals of the Sikh year when pilgrims were present. The storming of the Golden Temple caused outrage among Sikhs throughout the world. Even those who had previously felt no sympathy for the Akali movement now felt obliged to make public their fury. Bhindranwale, who had been killed in the attack, was increasingly seen as an heroic martyr, and there was an upsurge of support for the demand for a separate Khalistan. A mutiny by Sikh troops throughout the country was quickly suppressed and those involved were imprisoned, provoking further resentment among Sikhs. Several hundred Sikhs, including Sikh pilgrims to the Golden Temple, were taken into police custody and there were allegations of torture, later substantiated by a government enquiry.

After the assault on the Golden Temple, the army presence in the Punjab was increased and the level of terrorist activity was reduced. Work was rapidly started on the restoration of the Temple; however, while the Indian government was in control of the Temple it was not possible to find members of the Sikh community willing to carry out voluntary manual labour according to traditional practice, and work was eventually undertaken by the leader of a minority sect hostile to the Akalis. Although the restoration work was quickly and efficiently executed, considerable ill-feeling had been caused by the flouting of Sikh law by the use of paid-labour under a compliant Sikh figurehead.

On October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Some Sikhs felt that this was just revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple; many others were shocked. A wave of Hindu violence was unleashed against the Sikh community, in many cases allegedly with the compliance of the police and the political support of Congress Party politicians. There was massive destruction of Sikh property and at least 2,150 Sikhs, mainly males, were killed in Delhi and over 600 in other parts of India. Some 50,000 left Delhi and other places to return to the Punjab. The army took over after three days and restored order but the killings created a deep and residing bitterness among Sikhs. As the Punjab was at this time still under President’s Rule Sikhs were now effectively without a political voice. In June 1985 an explosion on an Indian airliner was ascribed to pro-Khalistan Sikhs in Canada — an indication of the, by now, international dimensions of the conflict.

The “Punjab Accord”

On July 24, 1985, an agreement was reached between Rajiv Gandhi, the new Indian Prime Minister who had been elected by an overwhelming majority in December 1984, and Longowal, the Akali leader who had been initially taken into custody and later released. According to the Punjab Accord of July 1985, which granted many of the demands of the ASR, Chandigarh was given to the Punjab, whilst the issue of river water was to be decided by a commission; Sikh control of their religious affairs was to be extended, release of detainees was to be speeded up and fresh investment was promised for the Punjab. These measures did not go far enough to meet the demands of many Sikhs and Longowal was assassinated shortly afterwards by an extremist Sikh group. Although many called for a boycott of elections due in September there was a substantial turnout and the Akalis, under Surjit Singh Barnala, were returned to power with a large majority — an indication that most Sikhs supported a negotiated political situation.

In 1986, a group of AISSF members took over the Golden Temple and started to demolish the Akal Takht on the day before traditionally-organized labour was due to begin. On this same day, Chandigarh was to have been handed over to the Sikhs but the provision was hampered on a technicality; three months later the zealots in the Temple declared an independent Khalistan. The police then moved in and cleared the Temple.

President’s Rule

In the months that followed, terrorist attacks on both sides increased, with extremist Hindi groups organizing counter-violence against Sikhs, and in May 1987 Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the Barnala government on the grounds of its alleged inability to deal effectively with the violence. He then instituted President’s Rule. The army and police presence was intensified and emergency powers of search, arrest and detention were used extensively, resulting in allegations of police and army brutality and harassment of civilians. None of these measures, however, stopped terrorist activity; in fact it increased over the next two years with armed gangs of Sikhs and Hindu extremists deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Between May 1987 and March 1989 almost 3,000 lives were lost, the vast majority of whom were civilians, although the targets of police killings were invariably described as “terrorists”. There were also divisions between the extremist groups; by early 1989 at least 15 such Sikh groups had been identified. In May 1988 some of these groups were again established in parts of the Golden Temple, resulting in yet another siege, “Operation Black Thunder”, which, however, was conducted with considerably more sensitivity than “Operation Bluestar”, and resulted in much less public alienation.

There have been tentative moves by the central government to reach a political solution to the crisis in the Punjab. From March 1988 Rajiv Gandhi began to release some of the “Jodhpur detainees” who had been held for over four years after “Operation Bluestar” without trial, although some were later re-arrested. However, appeals to commute the death sentences of the two Sikhs found guilty of Indira Gandhi’s assassination were not heeded, and the two were hanged in Delhi in January 1989. Announcements were made to the effect that local government elections would be held between May and September 1989 (to date these have not taken place). However, the general consensus was that these measures were too little and too late and that the situation in the Punjab would continue to fester, with polarization of both Sikh and Hindu communities. No date has been set for the restoration of elected government.

The Sikhs however remain as a majority within the Punjab, a majority that is likely to increase as other communities move from the area. Especially poignant is the situation of the low-caste migrant labourers who came to the Punjab during the boom years of the 1970s and early 1980s when Jat Sikhs were more likely to expand into farm management and small-scale industries than agricultural labour. These labourers generally come from the poverty-stricken regions of Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh and can earn far higher wages in the Punjab than in their home areas. There have been deliberate terrorist attacks on these labourers, forcing them to flee. Nearly 15,000 had left the Amritsar District by May 1988 and the resulting labour shortages are likely to affect agricultural productivity.

(See also Kashmiris; Muslims of India)