Sikhs and Sikhism


Followers of an original religion, the Sikhs live mostly in the Republic of India (in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi). Some of them have migrated to Western countries. A way of life and a philosophy well ahead of its time when it was founded over 500 years ago, the Sikh religion today has a following of over 20 million people worldwide

To understand the construction of the Sikh identity, it is compulsory to analyze first the main principles and the history of the Sikh religion. In a second part, the situation of Sikhism both in Indian affairs and in world politics will be focused on.


I. Sikhism and the construction of the Sikh identity


A. Origins and principles of Sikhism


The word “Sikh” in Punjabi means “disciple”. The Sikh philosophy has several guidelines. The main idea is that there is only One God who is the same for all people of all religions. The goal of life is to lead an exemplary existence so that one may merge with God. Sikhism condemns blind rituals such as fasting, pilgrimage, idol worship and preaches that people of all races, religions or sex are equal in the eyes of God (which includes the full equality of men and women).

These guidelines were written down in the early 1930’s, in a book called the Reht Maryada. Its implementation, although quite recent, has successfully achieved a high level of uniformity in the religious and social practices of Sikhism.


The founder of the Sikh religion was Guru Nanak (1469). As he was born a Hindu and was deeply influenced by Muslim scholars, Sikhism is usually considered a syncretism. However, it has developed its own message of love, tolerance and understanding. Guru Nanak passed on his enlightened leadership to nine successive Gurus.


During his life (1666-1708), the last Guru, Gobind Singh, established two fundamental principles that became pillars of the Sikh religion:

- He created the Khalsa, an military order that upheld the highest Sikh virtues of commitment. It was a group formed by male and female soldiers who strictly followed the Sikh Code of Conduct and wore the prescribed physical articles of the faith[1].

- He declared that the Sikhs no longer needed a living Guru. He appointed his spiritual successor as Guru Grant Sahib (the Sikh Holy Spirit) and his physical successor as the Khalsa (the soldier-saints order).

The most significant historical religious center for the Sikhs is Harmiandir Sahib at Amritsar, in the state of Punjab. However, it is not a mandatory place of worship.


B. Main events of the 20th century


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Punjabi population continued to fight against the Mongol armies, except under the Empire of Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) when it developed its own flourishing culture and prosperous economy. In 1849 they came under British rule.

Early 20th century : renewed influence thanks to the action of the Singh Sabha[2].

1920 : creation of the Akali Dal, a political party representing Sikh interests.

Early 1940s : Sikh leaders advocated for the independence of India.

1947 : partition of the Punjab divided between Pakistan and India. The new Punjabi state was made out of Sikhs (35%) and Hindus (61%). It created among Sikh followers a deep nostalgia for an independent Khalistan (the historical name of the Punjabi-Sikh empire).

1948-1965 : During several years, the Sikhs asked for the creation of a Punjabi suba (state) within the Indian Republic, gathering all members of the Sikh community.

1966 : Punjab was severed of territories where Hindus were dominant. In the new Punjabi state, Sikhs represented 60% of the population.

1978 : Several people were killed during riots between Sikhs and Nirankaris, members of a heretic Sikh sect. It marked the awakening of a violent Sikh activism.

April 6th, 1984 : Following Indira Gandhi’s order, the Indian army invaded the most sacred of all Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple, to flush out and kill Sant Bhindranwale, a Sikh leader.

October 30th, 1984 : Indira Ghandi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, which opened an era of tough repression against Sikhs.



2. The Sikh identity since 1984


Following the events of 1984, members of the Sikh community, both inside and outside Punjab, became aware that their identity was threatened.


A. The Sikhs involvement in Indian affairs


The Sikhs represent only 2% of the population of the country (83% of Hindus, 11% of Muslims) and 6 to 11% of the Indian Army thanks to their excellent reputation as great warriors.

In the central government they occupy a much higher proportion of jobs than other communities do. In economic terms, they are relatively secure (highest per capita income and life expectancy).

Since they have so much ascendancy over the political and economic life of Punjab and India, some scholars are reluctant to consider the Sikhs as a minority. Actually, it has to be noted that the Sikhs never claimed for a separate homeland, but rather for a state within the Republic of India (which they obtained in 1966).


However, throughout the 1980-1990s, they faced a series of tragic events that aimed at alienating their community: first from the Indian government and second from extremist Sikhs from the inside.

After 1984, the situation remained very tough for Sikhs. In the absence of any defined state policy regarding minorities, a repressive state apparatus emerged to strengthen national cohesion. The process of destroying the Sikh identity culminated at the end of 1984 with systematic search of Sikh houses, interrogations and tortures. After a short period of normalization following the election of Rajiv Gandhi (Indira’s son), the process was interrupted by dissensions within the National government.


Such a failure opened opportunities for Sikh extremists who claimed leadership. In the early 1990s, terrorists took advantage of the political void to impose a drastic code of conduct for the Sikh population: prohibition of alcohol, vegetarian regime, dress code, use of Punjabi language, etc. Instead of appealing to a spontaneous identification process, they attempted to use force, which triggered a strong popular reaction. Even though this ephemeral dictatorship only lasted for 3-4 years (1989-1992), it constituted a true trauma in the Sikh spirit because it made them realize that they had to fight against outsiders of course (Hindus are largely dominant in the Indian state), but also against insiders that were threatening their integration in the national Indian community.


B. Sikhism on the international public scene


The Sikh diaspora is very powerful in Great Britain and the United States since many Sikhs migrated there as early as the late 19th century (see map).

Throughout the 20th century, they were perpetuating the Sikh spirit via celebrations and worship, but religion was loosing ground. To integrate more rapidly into their new countries, many Sikhs had come to accept to cutting their hair and beards. Until the end of the Seventies, activities of the Sikh communities consisted mostly in the management of their local gurudwaras, the “House of the Gurus” (except for those politically implicated in the anti-colonialist movement of the mid-1940s).


It changed radically when the events of the 80s reminded them of their fellow brothers’ tragic destiny. Actually, it’s out of India that the Sikh communautarism has drawn its ideology and its logistic support for a decade. The international spread of protest actions proceeded mainly through separatist Sikh organizations funded in Great-Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States in the early 80s.


Several important organizations[3] were created which spread the idea of a free Khalistan and brought support to terrorist networks in India. Although they had received no clear requests from their motherland, they launched a virulent anti-Indian propaganda, meeting up with American senators and members of the Pakistani administration, gaining credibility in front of international institutions and mobilizing funds to finance rebel movements. Such a mobilization illustrated the concept of identity  diplomacy.[4]


In this perspective, one may think that the international spread of the Sikh issue weighed largely in the decision of Indira Ghandi to put an end to a movement that was getting out of control. After the Golden Temple assault by the Indian army, new migrants, more orthodox and politically more implicated than first generation migrants, took control of gurudwaras and turned these worship places into anti-Indian propaganda forums. Both sides had reached a deadlock.

The radicalization of Sikh communitarianism originated largely in the exploitation abroad of communitarist feelings by “identity entrepreneurs”. Tensions may actually have worsened due to press coverage of the conflict on the international public scene. Outside mobilizations progressively diverted the original function of the protest that was merely to improve living conditions and to restore collective dignity of Punjabi Sikhs.


As Laurent Gayer puts it: “Identity politics in diasporas and in the motherland may diverge totally if migrants turn their community’s cruel destiny into a way of getting integrated in their new nation. On the ground of defending their fellows, they try to acquire more visibility on the political public scene”.



The event of 1984 are still deeply entrenched in Sikh collective minds. It largely shaped the Sikh communitarian consciousness, both outside and inside Punjab. However, as the separatist movement abroad is running out of steam and the normalization process in India is stabilizing, one may hope that feelings of belonging to a certain community will strengthen regional cohesion and decrease risks of national disintegration. India is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state that is meant to protect local identities through a process of open democracy. As an illustration of the normalization process, Manmohan Singh became the first Sikh Prime Minister of the Republic of India in March 2004.



  • Situation of the Punjab in the Republic of India.
  • Repartition of the Sikh population in the world.



L. BAYER, Les politiques internationales de l’identité, t.2 “Significations internationales des mobilisations identitaires des Sikhs et des Mohajirs”, 2004.

S. WOLPERT, A New History of India, Oxford University Press, 2000.

K. SINGH, A History of the Sikhs, Princeton University Press, 1963

J. S. CHIMA, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, “Back to the future in 2002? : a model of Sikh separatism in Punjab”, 2002.




[1] Amongst these elements were : unshaven beard and uncut hair, a ceremonial sword, knee-kenght shorts, a bracelet and a turban (the turban was included in the recent French “loi sur le voile” and is forbidden in French public schools).

[2] Association that aimed at restoring the Sikh faith in its original form and obtaining from the British school programs respectful of their identity.

[3] The National Coucil of Khalistan (GB, Germany, Canada, USA), the Dal Khalsa (Germany, USA), the Babbar Khalsa (Canada) and the Akhand Kirthani Jatha (GB, Canada) must be cited among the most effective organizations.

[4] According to Laurent Gayer, the identity diplomacy consists in publicizing the identity and aspirations of a minority group on the global scene in order to shield the group from the oppression of its proper authority.

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