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Challenges to Religious Freedom: Apprehensions Regarding Sikhs in Modern-day India
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From the very inception of the Sikh nation and the autonomous faith of Sikhism, a recurring trend of targeting by Hindu supremacists has been observed. In response to state-sanctioned persecution within India, a substantial number of Sikhs sought refuge abroad, only to find themselves confronted by continued pursuit and fatal consequences in foreign lands.

Presently, Sikhs in India encounter a diverse array of challenges, spanning socioeconomic inequality, political underrepresentation, violence, and institutional discrimination across crucial sectors such as education, employment, and public services. These collective hardships culminate in their social marginalization and subject them to a state of victimization.

Historical Context of Sikh Marginalization

Sikhism emerged in a region characterized by religious diversity and frequent conflicts. The teachings of the Sikh Gurus, emphasizing egalitarianism and the rejection of social hierarchies, posed a challenge to the prevailing power structures, including the caste system. The Sikh community played a pivotal role in resisting external invasions and protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of their religion.

Sikh-Hindu tensions have been present throughout history, with periods of peaceful coexistence and instances of conflict. These tensions were often rooted in differences in religious practices, cultural norms, and political power struggles. Sikh Gurus and their followers faced persecution and violence at times, particularly during the Mughal Empire's rule.

Before India gained independence from British colonial rule, Sikhs experienced discrimination and marginalization on multiple fronts. The British administration implemented policies that favored certain communities and perpetuated social and economic inequalities. Sikhs faced limited access to educational institutions, employment opportunities, and political representation, which contributed to their marginalization within society.

Khalistan Movement and its Impact

The Khalistan movement emerged in the late 1970s, primarily driven by demands for an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan. Supporters of the movement sought to establish a separate nation in the Punjab region, citing perceived injustices and marginalization faced by Sikhs in India. The movement gained traction during the 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in violence and unrest.

The Khalistan movement was marked by violent clashes between separatist groups and Indian security forces. This period witnessed numerous terrorist attacks, assassinations, and bombings in Punjab and other parts of India. The violence had a profound impact on the Sikh community, leading to loss of life, destruction of property, and a sense of insecurity.

In June 1984, the Indian government launched Operation Blue Star, a military operation to flush out armed Sikh militants who had taken refuge in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab. The operation resulted in significant damage to the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, and led to the loss of many lives, including civilians. This event deeply hurt Sikh sentiment and further strained Sikh-Hindu relations.

In the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination in October 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, anti-Sikh riots erupted across India. Mobs targeted Sikhs, their homes, businesses, and Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). Countless Sikhs were killed, women were subjected to violence, and properties were destroyed. This wave of violence resulted in widespread fear, trauma, and a sense of victimhood within the Sikh community.

Contemporary Challenges and Discrimination

Despite constitutional guarantees of equality, Sikhs in India continue to face various challenges and forms of discrimination. While progress has been made in certain areas, significant disparities persist, affecting their socioeconomic status, political representation, and access to opportunities.

Sikhs often encounter socioeconomic disparities, including lower literacy rates, limited access to quality education, and fewer employment opportunities. This can be attributed to various factors such as historical marginalization, unequal distribution of resources, and biases in hiring practices. Additionally, Sikhs have voiced concerns about underrepresentation in political offices and decision-making positions, which affects their ability to influence policies that impact their community.

Sikhs in India have been subjected to targeted violence and hate crimes due to their religious identity. Instances of mob attacks, assault, and vandalism against Sikh individuals and their places of worship have been reported. These acts of violence perpetuate a climate of fear, insecurity, and victimhood among the Sikh community.

On 15 June 2023, 35 year old Avtar Singh Khanda , a Khalistan movement leader poisoned to death. Khanda suddenly felt unease and was rushed to a hospital in Birmingham (UK) where he mysteriously died. Khanda had developed “excessive blood clots” that caused serious and fatal complications – indicating he has been poisoned or administered something that caused clotting of the blood. He was in the forefront of the protest demonstration (May 2023) staged in front of Indian mission in UK where Indian national flag was brought down and Khalistan flag was hoisted.

Sikhs often encounter systemic discrimination in various spheres of life, including education, employment, and public services. They may face hurdles in accessing quality education, with limited availability of Sikh history and culture in curricula. In the job market, Sikhs may experience bias and unequal treatment, including religious discrimination. Moreover, Sikhs have reported instances of discriminatory practices in public services, such as airport security checks and identification procedures.

Sikh Diaspora and Transnational Issues

Sikhs have migrated and settled in various parts of the world, forming a significant diaspora. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States are home to sizable Sikh communities. Migration patterns often stem from historical, economic, and political factors, as well as the search for better opportunities and religious freedom.

The Sikh diaspora has played an active role in advocating for Sikh rights, justice, and recognition of their unique identity. Sikh organizations and individuals have engaged in raising awareness, lobbying governments, and supporting legal initiatives aimed at addressing issues faced by Sikhs in India and promoting Sikh civil rights.

On 18 June 2023, police recovered dead body of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, president of Sikh Gurdawara in Surrey in Canada’s British Columbia province from a car parked in the parking area of said Gurdawara, Nijjar’s body was bearing close range multiple gun shots. He was care-taker of the Gurdawara at its parking area his dead body was found. Nijjar was the head of Khalistan Tiger Force and active in the forum Sikhs for Justice – a collective voice that highlights the injustices against Sikhs in India

Under the Modi regime, there have been allegations of actions targeting Sikh diaspora leaders and organizations critical of the Indian government. These actions include surveillance, restrictions on travel, and alleged harassment of individuals associated with Sikh advocacy groups, which has raised concerns about the suppression of dissent and violation of human rights.

The treatment of Sikhs in India and actions by the Indian government have drawn international attention and raised concerns about human rights violations. Human rights organizations, international bodies, and foreign governments have expressed their concerns regarding issues such as religious freedom, hate crimes, and the treatment of minority communities, including Sikhs.

Sikhs actively work to preserve their cultural identity and religious practices. The Sikh community places a strong emphasis on maintaining religious institutions, practicing the Sikh way of life, and passing on Sikh values to future generations. This resilience contributes to a sense of unity and collective identity within the Sikh community.

Within India and the diaspora, there are numerous grassroots initiatives, organizations, and community leaders working tirelessly to address the challenges faced by Sikhs. These initiatives focus on raising awareness, advocating for Sikh rights, providing support to victims of discrimination, and promoting social and political equality for Sikhs.

Muhammad Wasama Khalid is a Correspondent and Researcher at Global Affairs. He is pursuing his Bachelors in International Relations at National Defense University (NDU). He has a profound interest in history, politics, current affairs, and international relations. He is an author of Global village space, Global defense insight, Global Affairs, and modern diplomacy. He tweets at @Wasama Khalid and can be reached at Wasamakhalid@gmail.com

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