Opinion

The case of the Kashmiri Sikhs

Khushdeep Kaur Malhotra | Updated on August 11, 2019 Published on August 11, 2019

For this predominantly agrarian minority community, the biggest worry is not religious persecution but economic hardship

On March 20, 2000, armed renegades cold-bloodedly murdered 35 Sikh men in Chitti Singhpora village in South Kashmir on the eve of US President Bill Clinton’s visit to India. A “micro-minority” in Kashmir, the violence was a first for the Sikh community, who have lived for generations alongside their Muslim counterparts in harmony in the Valley.

Although the reasons behind the violence and the identity of the perpetrators remain shrouded in mystery, Kashmiris — both Muslim and Sikh — believe that its intent was to create communal fault lines and drive out the Sikh community. Yet, 19 years later, as they still await justice, the Sikhs have stayed on.

As India debates the recent abrogation of Article 370 and the conversion of J&K into a Union Territory, one of the most resounding justifications for this unconstitutional move by the Modi government has been the correction of a historical wrong — the exodus of Kashmir’s other minority community, the Kashmiri Pandits, who left the Valley overnight in January 1990, following violent threats made against Kashmiri minorities.

While shameful and unjust, the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits is not a unique outcome of identity-based violence — violence targeting a particular community on the lines of ethnicity or religion; in India it is, in fact, the norm. Whether one looks at Nellie (Assam), Delhi, Ahmedabad, or Muzaffarnagar (UP), identity-driven conflicts almost always lead to displacement of the violated community. Given this, why is the Kashmiri Sikh case different? How do we understand Kashmiri Sikhs’ decision to continue living in Kashmir?

Now, more than ever, this is an important question to ask, in order to challenge the communal narratives accompanying the Pandit exodus and Kashmiris’ struggle for self-determination, and that one hears resonated in the celebrations following abrogation of Article 370.

Using evidence from ethnographic fieldwork completed between March and October 2018, I show that the decision to stay in the Sikh case is driven by a combination of economic necessity, attachment to land, and distrust of India. Furthermore, while harm from violence is a general concern, religious persecution is categorically stated as a non-issue. Despite violence, Sikhs and Muslims continue to cohabit neighbourhoods in close proximity to one another.

The Sikhs of Kashmir

A microcosm of India’s famous “unity in diversity,” the Valley is home to several distinct religious and ethnic communities. While Muslims comprise around 96 per cent of its population, Hindus comprise 2.5 per cent and Sikhs a mere 1 per cent. Predominantly an agrarian community, Sikh households own anywhere between 5-180 kanals (0.5-22.5 acres) of land, on which they grow rice, beans, and vegetables (non-cash crops) in addition to apple orchards and walnut trees (cash crops).

The largest of 14 Sikh villages in Anantnag district in South Kashmir, Chitti Singhpora is home to around 400 Sikh households, which form its core, and 30-40 Muslim households, which live along its peripheries.

Never before the target of violence, the Chitti Singhpora attack came as a shock to Sikhs and Muslims alike in the Valley. Believing they were finally the target of militants, Sikh community leaders deliberated migrating en masse like their Pandit counterparts in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.

But 19 years on, with hopes for justice fading and violence on the rise again, the majority of the community still remains rooted because economic prospects outside Kashmir, for a community whose main source of income is its land, are dim. Harjant Singh, a government worker in his fifties, says: “Assi kyun rahe ethe? Saddi compulsion hai… zameena” (Why did we stay here? We are bound…by our land). Pashaura Singh, a young officer in the Finance department, too, explains that Sikh rootedness comes down to two things — land and government jobs. Almost all urban Sikh families have at least one government “mulazim” (employee), making leaving an unfavourable option.

Although several families have sold small parcels of land to buy property in the adjoining Jammu region to construct housing if things get too bad, many Sikhs don’t perceive a personal threat from the insurgency. Sikhs insist that it is not religious persecution, but the economic distress resulting from the violence and the frequent shutdowns in the Valley, that will eventually make them leave.

Gurpal Singh, a 35-year-old engineer who works as a primary school teacher because engineering positions are hard to come by, and has two young school-age daughters, clarifies, “Jad tak twada income source nahi milega, tussi kithe nahi rehe sakde” (until you have a source of income, you cannot stay anywhere). Gurpal’s family owns about 15 acres of land. But for him, this land is not just an economic asset; it holds meaning. On it, he says, is spilled the blood of seven family members who were killed in the post-partition violence.

Importantly, while the older generation cites economic necessity and attachment to their land as reasons to continue living in Kashmir, the younger generation of Sikhs prefer to remain rooted for fear of religious persecution in India.

Jaspal, a 19-year-old activist and convener of a group disseminating Sikh political and religious education, explains, “Ethe sanu respect mildi hai” (we feel respected here). Amanpreet, a 20-year-old student and Sikh activist, reciprocates this sentiment.

These youngsters’ antagonism towards India stems from the brutal attack in 1984 on the Golden Temple in Punjab to evict Sikh extremists demanding a separate homeland.

The way forward

The politics of the Pandit exodus and the ensuing communal discourses in its aftermath conveniently ignores stories of the other side: minorities who continue living in Kashmir.

While their exodus was near-complete, Nishita Trisal documents the experiences of nearly 7,000 Pandit families who did not leave the Valley due to economic constraints or attachment to land. By their own account, these families, like the Sikhs, face no religious persecution, but have little economic opportunity; they are passed over for migrant families who have received generous government support recognising their hardships. Despite Chitti Singhpora, the Sikhs’ biggest worry, too, is not religious persecution but economic hardship.

If indeed the abrogation of Article 370 will bring economic gain to Kashmiris, the government’s “development” approach now, must not ignore the economic hardships of micro-minorities like the Sikhs and remaining Pandits (and, of course, the majority Kashmiri Muslim community) at the expense of the migrant Pandit community, which already receives government benefits disproportionately.

As it mulls strategies to repatriate migrant Pandits, the government must also acknowledge these clearly articulated concerns and costs of conflict borne by those who have continued living in the Valley despite violence. To prevent further exodus, it must really move beyond communally motivated policy responses that threaten demographic restructuring in the Valley.

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.

Published on August 11, 2019
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