The Sikhs and Gandhi

The Sikhs and Gandhi


Sundeep Singh Guliani

 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.


A Look at Non-Violence


  Even before Gandhi came to India in 1915, the Sikhs had been peacefully protesting for the right to run their Gurdwaras (after the Sikh kingdom had been annexed, the Gurdwaras had been turned over by the British to Brahmin Hindus to run). Gandhi was very critical of the ‘Sikh way’ of civil disobedience.   He said:

 ”The Akalis (Sikh Warriors) wear a black turban and a black band on one shoulder and also carry a big staff with a small axe on the top. Fifty or a hundred of such groups go and take possession of a gurdwara; they suffer violence themselves but do not use any. Nevertheless, a crowd of fifty or more men approaching a place in the way described is certainly a show of force and naturally the keeper of the Gurdwara would be intimidated by it.” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 19 pg. 401).

This is where I do not understand Gandhi’s teachings. On the one hand Gandhi did not believe non-violent resistance should be “passive,” but rather that it should be, in essence, a “force”. On the other hand, he criticized Sikhs for practicing non-violent civil disobedience in seeking control of their Gurdwaras. Their methods were even praised by British leaders. Reverend C. F. Andrews wrote:

“The vow (of non-violence) they (the Sikhs) had made to God was kept to the letter. I saw no act, no look, of defiance.” As far as the spirit of the suffering they endured, the Reverend said “It was very rarely that I witnessed any Akali Sikh, who went forward to suffer, flinch from a blow when it was struck.

 The blows were received one by one without resistance and without a sign of fear.” Still, Gandhi could not reconcile this manner of civil disobedience, for he decided that the Sikhs participating in it harbored “hatred in their hearts” and thus never gave his blessings to such forms of agitation. Gandhi could not understand why Sikhs would peacefully protest while wearing arms. To him, this constituted cowardice, that one carries arms while walking in peace.

 I completely disagree. Gandhi failed to realize the differences between non-violence of the weak, and non-violence of the strong. The importance of carrying arms was to show that they were indeed brave enough and capable of using them, but that they were instead consciously choosing not to. It is a discipline that only a few select can conquer. A coward who is weak and scared will never wear arms and walk in peaceful protest because, as soon as the first signs of oppression arise, he will be scared and use his weapons in haste. Similarly, the weak and the scared will never have the capacity to make non-violence their way of life. To them it will only be something useful when they are helplessly bound in shackles.

To be able to wear arms and to not retaliate or show the slightest bit of anger or attempt self-defense against someone who is attacking you is the highest form of non-violent protest. It implies a complete resignation to peaceful ways and an absolute belief in the power of non-violent protest despite the ability of the protestor to respond violently. It is one thing to walk in peaceful protest that is born out of a feeling of helplessness and quite another to walk peacefully, inviting oppression and suffering upon himself despite being fully armed, while totally being able to fight back. The first constitutes cowardice, the second a force.


I can’t help but think that the sort of non-violence practiced by Gandhi’s followers in India was that of the weak, that of the helpless. I believe that most did not truly understand the principles of non-violence in the manner in which Gandhi preached it. Rather they just thought they would be unable to win independence through other means. I come to this conclusion because of the history of Indians both before and after Gandhi.


An obvious fact is that Indians as a race have been oppressed for the last several hundred years by the Moguls (and later on by the British). Many of them never uttered a word of protest against the atrocities that were committed against their kith and kin, atrocities which were much worse than those perpetrated by the British. Even fewer actually took up actions against the Moguls (the major exception of course being the Marathas in the south).


 It was quite common for invaders such as Abdali and Nadir Shah to invade India, take Indian jewelry and Indian women and head back to Afghanistan. Yet there were very few strong voices that opposed this. This was because of fear. This fear is what stopped them from participating in any course of action besides submitting to their oppressors. It seems like over time most Indians have developed a “learned helplessness”. Following Gandhi’s ideas arose from this feeling of helplessness. Indians followed Gandhi’s beliefs not because they thought non-violence was a superior weapon in dealing with social problems, as Gandhi had preached, but rather because they felt they had no other alternative. This in itself defeats the whole purpose of non-violence.

 It was quite common for Indians to one day be peacefully protesting and the next day to form lynch mobs. The only conclusion I can come to in order to reconcile these two thoughts is that they had no idea what the real essence of non-violent agitation was. The simple fact that after Gandhi his philosophy of non-violence has been completely abandoned by the people of India at large seems to point toward this conclusion.


To me, Gandhi came across as being an uncompromising extremist. A non-violent extremist, but an extremist nevertheless. His letters to the British people during World War Two encouraging them to “allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered” by “peacefully surrendering” to the Nazis in order to further his fanatic ideas of non-violence is a perfect example (CW Vol. 72 pg 229 231, CW Vol. 72 pg. 177). When pressed even further, he went to the extent of calling Guru Gobind Singh, the Maratha Shivaji and George Washington “misguided patriots” for taking up arms in defense of their people (CW Vol. 26 pg. 486-492).


Had Gandhi lived under the likes of Aurangzeb, in almost all likelihood he would have been arrested and hanged for even showing the slightest bit of defiance to the Mogul Empire. His non-violent ways worked because the British were not total tyrants, rather just concerned with exploiting Indians for their own economic gain. The aim of the British was not to annihilate them, as Aurangzeb and Hitler had attempted to do to their subjects. Thus the situation was ideal for the implementation of non-violent agitation.


According to Gandhi, only “evil and violence” came about from those who use violence. He seems to totally disregard the idea of a “noble cause”, basing his ideas of whether a movement was right or wrong on his narrow view of whether or not non-violence was being used. No doubt history has shown that those who used violence for the sake of unworthy causes ultimately did perpetuate violence and evil upon themselves. But, at the same time, those who used violence because of noble causes (as in defense of their people), the rule did not apply.

There is a certain undeniable beauty in watching or reading about others who are fighting for noble and legitimate causes. Perhaps one of the best examples I can bring up is reading about the American Revolution. There is certain magnificence, certain holiness, about those people fighting for their rights. The fact that they used arms to achieve their freedom did not discount the righteousness of what they did.


 Falling Short of True Greatness 


 There are a few situations where I question Gandhi’s approach to dealing with a problem. Take fasts, for example.

In his lifetime, Gandhi fasted for many issues ranging from stopping mob violence to preventing Untouchables from having separate electoral ballots. It seems that his fasts unto death were just a method of coercing others into obeying him. There was no “teaching someone the error of their ways”, but rather people ceded to Gandhi’s demands because they realized they had more to lose if he died as a result. Seeing how this “moral enlightenment” obviously wasn’t occurring, I don’t see what the difference would have been had the army been sent in to stop the rioting by force. In either situation, the people would not have been any more enlightened to the error of their ways, except in the latter situation less people may have died.


 One problem I see is that Gandhi had no peers, only followers. In essence, Gandhi’s words became the “Rule of Law” in India during that time. That’s why I believe his influence on most Indians died with him. Though Gandhi may have lived with the underprivileged, there wasn’t anyone that stood as his equal, not even Jawaharlal Nehru or Vallabhai Patel. There wasn’t anyone who was in any position to question Gandhi’s beliefs or authority. They were basically forced to follow what Gandhi said, whether agreeing with it or not. Thus after he was assassinated, there was a vacuum and India was once again left as a nation of followers.


 For me, this is what separates Gandhi from rising into the realm of great people in history. Great leaders seek to free their people from the chains of mental slavery. They voluntarily give up their political power and their ultimate authority in order to give their kith and kin a sense of empowerment, something Gandhi did not do.


Gandhi may have asked Indians to spin their own thread, but he was always a level above the average Indian. This is what prevented him from ever truly leading Indians down a path of self-empowerment and self-determination. The inferiority complex, which has always been at the root of the problem, was thus never eliminated. Contrast this to the examples laid by the Sikh Gurus, such as that of Guru Gobind Singh in raising the Khalsa.

Despite being a Guru and the word of God to his followers, Guru Gobind Singh repeatedly lowered himself to the level of his followers in order to instill in them a sense of power, authority and sovereignty. It was the flame of self-respect and empowerment that he spent his entire life inculcating in his people that sowed the seeds of a nation that would prosper. Upon initially baptizing the first five Sikhs into the Khalsa Panth in 1699, the Guru himself bowed before his own followers and begged them to baptize him into their own way of live, to in essence accept him as one of their own. It was at this point that he became a Guru only in name. He chose to give up his absolute authority as Guru and take on the path of a disciple, something that a being in his position had never done before.

Guru Gobind Singh voluntarily gave up his total say in matters related to Sikhi and, instead, entrusted his Sikhs to take up such issues in his place. There are many instances in Sikh history where Guru Gobind Singh was ordered to do something by the Khalsa. There was even such an occasion that he was fined by other Sikhs for what they felt constituted a “waiver of faith”. Here was a situation where his own followers were fining a head of a faith, a prophet, for what they thought violated an article of the faith. The Guru happily obliged and paid his dues, happy at the sense of empowerment that had grown amongst his Sikhs. By the end of his life, Sahib Guru Gobind Singh had dispersed all of his power to his people, for his people.


 By sacrificing everything he had for them, Guru Sahib gave his Sikhs a sense of dignity in his own physical lifetime; something Gandhi never had the privilege of seeing.


 If we take India to be the microcosm of Gandhi’s teachings and influence, I don’t see how we can come to any other conclusion except that Gandhi’s ways are a complete failure, even after only fifty years of his death. Gandhi preached non-violence. Non-violence was totally abandoned in India. Gandhi preached self-empowerment, yet the average Indian is no more empowered before Gandhi than after Gandhi. Gandhi preached peace, yet India is constantly drifting toward war in one form or another. Gandhi wanted his people to “love the British” who were oppressing them. That was the foundation of his beliefs in the power of non-violence. Yet the fact remains that “love” was the last way to describe the way in which Indians viewed Britain, even despite the fact that India was created without a war.

 In conclusion, though I may not have a strong admiration of the man himself, there is a profound appreciation of what Gandhi preached. I am a full-fledged believer in non-violent civil disobedience. It has many practical uses today and most definitely in the future as well. At the same time, I do not believe in the extremism that Gandhi did, which makes it impractical and thus lays the seeds for it to be abandoned in the future, as it has been in India today.



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