Hindus vs Sikhs: Another colonial legacy 

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Himanshu Shekhar 

Mumbai, 24th May 2023: We all have heard of how the British divided Indians and ruled over us. This is something that makes at least one pillar of popular discussion when it comes to the British Raj and its perception of it. This is the cited reason for the division between Hindus and Muslims. There is another angle to it that is not discussed much. 

Farm law protests that took place a couple of years ago seem to have given a fresh lease of life to a bogey this generation has only heard of – Khalistan. To think of it, this generation never witnessed Khalistan terror. These protests also made me realize a similar fault line running between Hindus and Sikhs as well. 

Yet, a pertinent question that many people are not even questioning is, Are Hindus and Sikhs fundamentally different entities? How do they share so much history, rituals, and festivals and yet in the modern perspective be seen as different? These answers lie in the 500 years of complex Sikh history. Let us scratch a small part of it. 

Our story begins in the 19th century. Geopolitically speaking, this was the time when “The great game” was being played amongst chief world powers of that time, i.e., Russia and the United Kingdom. In short, this was a rivalry for influence over Persia, Afghanistan and later Tibet. To give you a brief overview, it was the same time period when the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839 and lost, culminating in the disastrous retreat of 1842. This was also the time period when the Sikh Empire was teetering after the demise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. Fast forward 15 years and the British suffered badly in the first war of Indian Independence in 1857. Fortunately for them, Sikh nobility by and large chose to side with the British or stay neutral just like the Rajputana and various others. But it had impressed upon the British that had they chosen the side of ‘Mutineers’, it would have been difficult to recover from initial losses.

Coupled with the perceived threat from Russia, they went back to drawing boards with one line of thought to treat Punjab as a buffer between British India and Afghanistan. In this churn, it was decided to cultivate Sikhs and their Martial tradition for the empire which would, in the long term, make Sikhs more Pro British. Hence started what I call the great British Sikh project. Sikh and Hindu traditions are deeply linked due to drawing from the same religious texts and ethos. With every firstborn male child pledged to be Sikh, Hindus and Sikhs were literally joined by blood. This made the change slow but the British were nothing if not meticulous. They learnt the local language and traditions to convince vulnerable Sikhs to switch sides.

Around the same time, British intellectuals started discussing the question of “Are Sikhs Hindus?” They started encouraging power-hungry factions of Sikh society. John Campbell Oman in his book ‘Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India’ which was first published in 1908 explains this plan and its execution well. He talks about how the British Government wanted Sikhism to be divorced from Hinduism and establish its identity as a separate cult with a view of creating a valuable recruiting ground for its army. He also explains how Old Sikhs still wanted to be known as Hindus, but a schism was already developing between Hindus and Sikhs nonetheless. 

While we are on the topic, it is imperative to talk about Max McAuliffe and his legacy built on lies. Max McAuliffe was an Irishman in the Punjab judiciary. Like a lot of his colleagues, he started being fluent in the local language to increase collaboration with the local populace. Soon he was a self-proclaimed expert on Sikhs and Sikh religious texts. He delivered a lecture in July 1903 in Shimla titled, “The Sikh religion and its advantages to the state.” He laments in this lecture saying, “(During census)…Village Sikhs in their ignorance mark themselves as Hindus, though in column for sect, they often described themselves as Sikhs, but they were frequently totalled up as Hindus, as indeed they virtually were.” He managed to get a grant of Rs. 15000 from the British government to translate Sikh religious texts. 

He used his writings to propagate myths in the name of our revered Gurus. He writes about these stories extensively in his book, ‘The Sikh Religion’. Guru Teg Bahadur, when imprisoned by Aurangzeb, apparently told him, “I was looking in the direction of Europeans who are coming from beyond the seas to tear down thy pardas and destroy thine empire” and ‘..these words became the battle cry of the Sikhs in the assault on mutineers in Dihli (Delhi) in 1857.’ It was his objective to show the “catholicity of the Guru’s teachings.” 

About Guru Gobind Singh, he says, ‘Then shall the English come, and, joined by the Khalsa rule as well in the east as in the west… The combined armies of English and Sikhs shall be very powerful, as long as they rule with United Councils.’ If this was indeed true, why did Sikh empire fight the British in 1845? 

‘A Sikh who shows the least sign of reluctance to go…, when called by his benefactor the King-Emperor to fight his Majesty’s enemies, no matter how strong they may be, will be condemned by the Gurus.’ He also laments the fact that many Sikhs donate money for upkeep of Hindu temples in Rishikesh and Varanasi against Guru’s teachings and reports with some contempt that about hundred thousand Sikhs visited for the holy Kumbh Mela. These were the first seeds of separation sown between Hindus and Sikhs. 

On an economic front, the British decided to make a colony within their colony. The ‘Punjab Canal colonies’ was a name given to parts of western Punjab where “Barren” tracts of land were brought under the Crown and were brought under cultivation by making multiple canals. This agricultural colonization took place in 9 distinct areas of Punjab between 1885 to 1940. They were situated in doabs, west of Beas-Sutlej & east of Jhelum. Canals were constructed along these rivers and people were brought in from other parts of Punjab to cultivate that land. The canal colonies were situated in tracts designated as Crown Waste Lands, which meant that the land belonged to the State. It had the right to dispose of the land in whatever manner, for whatever purpose, and to whomever it wished. The State also controlled the canal system and the water source. The entire agriculture system of the state here was dependent on these canals. The bureaucratic apparatus that managed water distribution held powers of life and death over the colony population. Not only that, Land was granted to people who were loyal, had good service in the army and there was a distinct focus on hiring Sikhs in the army. In the words of Gov. Hailey, “Punjab has been accustomed for many years to see rewards of this nature granted…. The system of rewards has sunk too deeply into the life of the province.” “In the last few years we have had to meet the shock of Non cooperation, the Khilafat movement and the Sikh agitation and I think that those who have loyally assisted us during this difficult period have a stronger claim to consideration..” 

Author Sanjeev Sanyal highlights another aspect of British policy that still haunts us. During the Ghadar movement, a lot of Sikhs were working in the US and Canada for freedom. In British Columbia and Canada they functioned through a network of Gurudwaras. British Intelligence was aware of these activities and soon started infiltrating these Gurudwaras. This task of infiltration was given to a secret agent named Hopkinson with all the resources possible to create a wedge between Hindus and Sikhs. The Ghadarites were aware of this as well and they started hunting all those who they suspected of treason. However, slowly the British started replacing and supporting loyalist Sikhs in these Gurudwaras in UK and Canada. And not surprisingly, the same Gurudwaras which Hopkinson had infiltrated 100 years ago are the ones at the forefront of Khalistani agitation. 

Hindus and Sikhs are the same. Let us not be divided due to what a few radicals on any side want us to be divided. I shall finish this with a passage from Campbell Oman’s book. He describes a passage which was affixed on a plate on the golden temple in 1907. “This building was erected by the great Guru Ram Dass, King of Kings and incarnation of Ram who gives blessings and receives worship from all creatures.” 


(About the author: Himanshu Shekhar is an aviator, social worker and a student of history. After writing numerous articles for various online publications, he is now working on his first book decoding India’s complicated history. As an optimist and realist, he aims to spread awareness about our country and its hidden past to our youth.)