For India's Sikhs Amritsar casts a long shadow

Roundup: Media's Take
tags: massacres, Amritsar



Amit Chaudhuri's is a novelist and ­professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is Telling Tales, a collection of essays. He is also a trained and critically acclaimed singer in the North Indian classical tradition

The history of the Sikhs in independent India is a history involving laughter and tears. On the one hand they were identified with both irrepressible joy and industriousness, qualities converging in the figure of the farmer. Propagandist photographs of the success of Punjab's "green revolution" necessarily required a picture of a Sikh on a tractor. The martial Sikh – no one could doubt his valour or patriotism – had taken up, if not the ploughshare, then the latest fertiliser (although a disproportionately large number of soldiers in the Indian army were and are Sikh), and achieved successes on farmland comparable to battles fought and won. Alongside such uplifting stereotypes were ruder ones, comprising the well-known "Sardarji" (the Hindi colloquialism for the Sikh) jokes, portraying a dim but well-intentioned personage.

Here was another cause for celebration and laughter. "Have you heard this Sardarji joke?" was a common query among schoolboys till roughly 1984. This was an age prior to the dawn of political correctness; and anyway Sikhs were presumed to be big-hearted enough and well-to-do and well-loved enough not to mind (Singh – the surname of most male Sikhs – translates as "lion"). If the first two and a half decades of independence in India represent an idyll (granted, an inexorably endangered one), then the Sikhs play an essential role in it of what an idyllic community, even an ideal minority, in a somewhat arbitrarily conceived federal set-up might look like.

The history of tears begins, where the contemporary Sikh is concerned, with the entanglement of Sikh politics in the sort of politics that has always produced, in India, efficacious results in the short term and tragic ones in the long: the policy of divide and rule, inherited from the British and given a personal modulation by Indira Gandhi in her urgent quest to subvert the nuisance of parliamentary democracy. Federalism in India as we've seen it since the late 80s – the discomfiture with an overarching centre; coalitions fuelled by caste, sectarianism and other drives – germinated in Punjab in the form of provincial Sikh coalitions, a development Gandhi felt compelled to unravel in the interests, no doubt, of a strong, secular nation state and herself....




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