Should Sikhs Feel Betrayed by the British Government? Part 1

LONDON, UK—Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib ji positioned the Akal Takht in such a way that from the window of the Political Throne of Akal Takht, one could look out and see the Spiritual Throne of Harimandar Sahib, but not vice versa, i.e., in politics we must continually remind ourselves of our Gurus’ spiritual teachings. Have our current political leaders done the same?

The revelations, and the report, about the British Government’s involvement in the June 1984 attack upon Golden Temple Complex, is one of the first times that young Sikhs have found a ‘Sikh’ story to become mainstream news. Its our view that in their excitement, maybe they have applied the old maxim of “act first, think later.” This flies in the face of Gurbani saying that knowledge must first be contemplated upon before we can help others.

Given that the last 30 years have been a case of running on the spot (mostly due to not thinking things through) it’s to be expected that such bad habits have become ingrained in the older generation. However, if progress is to come, it’s not going to come from repeating the same mistakes. Here is our analysis of typical responses.

(1) “I’m so shocked that they hid this from us”

Unfortunately, this person has never given much thought to politics or how the world works. Most governments are involved in extremely shady dealings that they hide by imposing limits of what can be published, and what is an official ‘secret.’ Of course they would hide this! The documents themselves admit that they wouldn’t wish for this secret to be known.
As our 10th King ordered us, we should study politics. Even a novice student of politics would have be introduced to the reality that “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” is often accompanied by “let’s just keep all this backscratching to ourselves.” When we read daily in Japji Sahib that there are countless sinners, liars, thieves, and murderers, why did we expect that the British Government would behave any differently? Are they enlightened beings living without ego? This brings us to the next point.

(2) “I cant believe that the British would back-stab us like this”

Again, political naivety, but also a lack of historical knowledge. Yes, the Sikhs were loyal soldiers in WWI, and WWII and won accolades for their bravery. Yet this does not mean the Sikhs, and the British, have been the best of friends. The Sikhs first encountered the British in the early 1800s, when the Sikh Kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh was one of the most prosperous, and advanced, Kingdoms in India. Through bribery, treachery, and warfare, the British destroyed the Sikh kingdom, and took its rightful heir away to the UK. They subsequently ordered that the Khalsa be disarmed, or shot. They pushed Christian missionaries into Punjab, and even tried to auction off the very same Golden Temple which is at the center of the current controversy. Having killed, or pushed, out the majority of independent minded Sikhs, they then proceeded to establish control over Sikh gurdwaras, and ensure that they were run by people who supported the British Raj. In line with ‘divide, and conquer”, they then recruited Sikhs into the British Indian Army, and used them to suppress the native independence struggles, e.g., the Bengal Mutiny. Was there any loyalty towards the Sikhs during these times?

During 1900-1939, the British clashed with Sikhs a number of times.
• British India worked to crush Ghadar independence movement (started by young Sikhs from America, and Canada)
• British policemen mercilessly beat peaceful protestors in the “Gurdwara Reform Movement” as they worked to free gurdwaras from British control.
• In the Indian Independence movement, it was the Sikhs who overwhelmingly sacrificed to free India from British colonial rule. The Sikhs did not have a cordial relationship with the British at this time.

Knowledge of the above would amuse a contortionist when observing Sikhs reminding the British of how loyal Sikhs were, and in the next breath, reminding the Indians that they loyally fought the British for Indian Independence.

Sikh soldiers served in the British army in both world wars.

Yes, but what about from 1939-45? Surely the Sikhs were extremely loyal during WWII? It is true that Sikhs were heavily over-represented in the largest ever volunteer army raised for WWII (only 2% of India’s population was Sikh). It’s also true that huge sacrifices were made, and acts of great bravery were carried out by Sikhs. However the bravery, and sacrifices stemmed less from loyalty to the British, and more from the Sikh martial culture as inculcated by the Gurus. The numbers of Sikhs that enlisted was also due to the British promising Independence to India if it helped during WWII. Sikhs delivered the brunt of the Indian part of this trade-off.

What is conveniently forgotten is that whilst Field Marshall Slim was praising the bravery of the Sikh soldiers in Burma, the Japanese, and German, governments had actually sponsored, and set up an Indian National Army to fight the British Indian forces. Sikhs made up the majority of the INA, and its first commanding officer was Captain Mohan Singh. Complicated? Yes. Brave? Yes.
Bond of Loyalty? On a personal level, Yes, but overall, No.

The problem for Sikhs really came in summer 1947, when the Radcliffe line divided their beloved Punjab in two, with half in the newly created, and majority Muslim, Pakistan. 60 years later, Sikhs still speak of those dark times of bloodshed, and some animosity towards Muslims remains. But what of the fact that Britain chose a civil servant (Radcliffe) who had never been to India before, told him to draw his line in 5 weeks, most of which he spent in his air conditioned office? What of the fact that his pen strokes were responsible for making 40% of all Sikhs into refugees? A million people died. Was this loyalty?

How many of us turn around and say, You betrayed us in 1849, you betrayed us in 1919, and you betrayed us in 1947, and damn it, we should have expected you’d betray us again in 1984. Why are we the ones who are surprised? Why didn’t we expect this?

(3) We’ve been such loyal citizens, we feel betrayed

When working for the British Empire, Sikhs were loyal. Even now, we are the most integrated, and law-abiding immigrant community in the UK. But how much of this is because of a ‘special relationship’ with the British? Not much.

It’s more likely, because we are generally ‘the good guys’. We’ve been taught by our Gurus to work hard, be honest, share, and stand up for other’s rights. Sikhs make great citizens. It’s more likely that the British recognized this, and grudgingly gave into Sikhs demands to wear a turban and carry a kirpan. By doing this, they were able to retain the goodwill of such a valuable immigrant community.

Its not our style to do wrong anyway, and yet instead of seeing ourselves as a valuable community, and organizing ourselves to take advantage of our value, until the recent scandal, we were still mostly thanking the British for the ‘concessions’ towards the 5Ks. Even now, we turn to them with distraught puppy dog eyes betraying our naivety.


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