Part 1: The Sikhs and Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

My first biases of Gandhi arose from the fact that, throughout his lifetime, Gandhi expressed many anti-Sikh views, ranging from attacking the symbols of the Sikh faith to encouraging Sikhs to abandon parts of their culture and religion in favor of re-absorption into Hinduism.

From the onset of his arrival in India, Gandhi insisted on referring to Sikhs as “Hindus” even though the vast majority of Sikhs at that time expressed their belief that they were a distinct religion and that referring to them as a part of Hinduism was offensive. His insistent comments that the “Sikh Gurus were Hindus” and that Guru Gobind Singh was “one of the greatest defenders of Hinduism” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. 28 pg. 263) deeply hurt Sikh sentiments, but that never deterred him making such statements throughout his life.

Gandhi was so adamant in his view of Sikhism being a part of Hinduism that he went to the extent of condemning the conversion of Untouchables to Sikhism if Sikhs continued to assert their not being a sect of Hinduism. At that time, led by Dr. Ambedkar, over 60 million Untouchables desired to convert to another religion in order to free themselves from their enslavement in the Hindu caste system. Dr. Ambedkar had a very strong interest in the conversion of the Untouchables to Sikhism, to the extent that he even had his own nephew baptized into Sikhism.

Gandhi found this possible conversion to be intolerable in the light of Sikhs viewing themselves as not being Hindus. Gandhi wrote: “I don’t mind Untouchables if they do desire, being converted to Islam or Christianity” (CW, Vol 48, pg 98), he insisted that conversion to Sikhism by these Untouchables was “dangerous.”

“Today I will only say that to me Sikhism is a part of Hinduism. But the situation is different from a legal point of view. Dr. Ambedkar wants a change of religion. If becoming a Sikh amounts to conversion, then this kind of conversion on the parts of Harijans is dangerous. If you can persuade the Sikhs to accept that Sikhism is a part of Hinduism and if you can make them give up the separate electorate, then I will have no objections to Harijans calling themselves Sikhs” (CW, Vol 63, pg 267).

A particularly offensive comment of Gandhi made it clear that he harbored the belief that Sikhs should disown the institution of the Khalsa Panth established by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. He said, “I read your Granth Sahib. But I do not do so to please you. Nor shall I seek your permission to do so. But the Guru has not said anywhere that you must grow your beards, carry kirpans (swords) and so on” (CW Vol. 90, Pg. 80).

Gandhi failed to acknowledge that a Guru had established such symbols for the Sikhs. In particular, Gandhi attacked the kirpan on many occasions. He showed a critical misunderstanding in the beliefs and responsibilities surrounding Guru Gobind Singh’s commandment that his Sikhs should wear kirpans. This misunderstanding gradually turned into a general intolerance, with Gandhi often mocking those Sikhs who wore them.

Gandhi attacked Gurmukhi. In a letter to a friend, Amrit Kaur, he wrote: “I wish you would persuade enlightened Sikhs to take the Devnagri script in the place of the Gurmukhi” (CW Vol. 64. pg 41).

It is important to realize that Gurmukhi is not the language of the Punjab, but rather the language of the Sikhs. The Sikh Gurus created Gurmukhi and it is the script used in the Guru Granth Sahib. It wasn’t as if Gandhi asked Punjabis (who are Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims) to give up the Punjabi language, but rather Sikhs in particular to give up the language of their Gurus. While I respect Gandhi’s desire to have some sort of united language, he failed to realize that by making such statements he was in essence asking Sikhs to disown their culture, their heritage and the Guru Granth Sahib by abandoning their mother tongue in favor of a composite language.

In conclusion, from his various comments, it appears that Gandhi wished for Sikhs to renounce the parts of their religion and culture that he felt prevented them from being reabsorbed into Hinduism. Two of the main obstacles to such an objective were the different language of the Sikhs and the institution of the Khalsa Panth.

Gandhi was particularly fond of making broken promises to the Sikhs, promises that to this day have come back to haunt them. He would never hesitate to appease them by saying: “We have not done justice to the Sikhs” (CW Vol. 38 pg. 315). But this would only translate into promises that were never kept.

During the 1920′s and 1930′s, the British had acknowledged three main groups that would receive power after they left India – the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs who ruled the last kingdom that was annexed by the British. There was talk amongst Sikhs about creating such a country, Khalistan, for themselves.

In order to help persuade Sikhs to join Hindu India, Gandhi made many comments and promises that, looking back at history, seem to have been aimed at deceiving and coaxing them. The first of such promises was when he said: “No Constitution would be acceptable to the Congress which did not satisfy the Sikhs” (CW Vol. 58. p. 192).

This promise was quickly broken right after independence. To this day, not one Sikh has ever signed the Indian Constitution, which goes out of its way to declare that Sikhs are indeed a part of Hinduism (Article 25 of the Constitution).

Then came the promise that was used as a justification by some Sikhs in taking up arms against the Government of India after 1984. Gandhi invoked the sacred name of God and said:

“I venture to suggest that the non-violence creed of the Congress is the surest guarantee of its good faith and our Sikhs friends have no reason to fear betrayal at its hands. For the moment it did so, the Congress would not only seal its own doom but that of the country too. Moreover, the Sikhs are a brave people; they will know how to safeguard their right by the exercise of arms if it shall ever come to that.” He further continued: “Why can you have no faith? If Congress shall play false afterwards you can well settle surely with it, for you have the sword. I ask you to accept my word. Let God be witness of the bond that binds me and the Congress with you” (CW Vol. 45 pg. 231-33).

These were just more appeasement tactics. The mention of “Sikhs are a brave people” and the “exercise of arms” were attempts to mislead the Sikh masses considering the fact that Gandhi did not support any such “exercise of arms”. How ironic was it that the Congress party that Gandhi had declared as having a special bond with the Sikhs was the first to betray them. This was firstly accomplished by depriving them of a linguistic state and a capital after independence and then by massacring thousands upon thousands of Sikhs in and after 1984.

There was no “non-violence creed” displayed by the Congress, only barbarianism that would put the likes of Aurangzeb to shame. The fact remains that more Sikhs have been killed under fifty years of Indian rule than under the one hundred years of British rule. Gandhi’s promises were left unfulfilled and it was the Sikh people who were left to pay for such treachery.

At this point, I wish to elucidate that these statements alone are not the reasons why I am not enthusiastic about Gandhi. I can accept the fact that perhaps M. K. Gandhi just had a deep misunderstanding of Sikhism and that I am just being overly critical of a few comments he made. Perhaps I am just exposing my own inadequacies by blaming him for the actions of those who came after him as well. In either case, the reasons I cited above are not enough to warrant a total dislike for all the accomplishments that Mohandas Gandhi achieved in life. Despite what he achieved though, I disagree with his principles and methods.

To be continued…


  1. Interesting musing… i appreciate the final paragraph and would ask you to explain your disagreement with his principles and methods. I questioned Gandhi a bunch, thinking him celebrated by European powers because he is a less threatening anti colonial leader, but after reading more of his work I have really come to change my mind about him. I no longer see him as a watered down, more palatable independence leader… i think his strategies are held up in simplified form, but in understanding them fully they are quite powerful… thanks!


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