In the rainbow of Indian democracy, green and saffron don’t mix on the ground. The only exception is the National flag.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who defined himself as a “Hindu nationalist’ after he won the 2014 election, and minorities have an uneasy relationship. It’s the same story with another shade of saffron—Sikhism.
Since Independence, the Sangh Parivar has miserably failed to win over the minorities, using cosmetic measures. Though Modi refrains from wooing Muslims, he has been nurturing the Sikh community, which is less than one per cent of India’s voting population.
Sikhs worldwide hold important political positions, run highly successful businesses and influence the local narrative. Their anti-Congress stance makes them a powerful global ally in promoting the Modi legend. He doesn’t lose any opportunity to be seen with them, speak for them and sing paeans of praise to their revered ten gurus, their sacrifices and their contribution to Indian heritage.
Last week, he drove down to the Lodi Estate residence of National Commission for Minorities Chairman Iqbal Singh Lalpura, a retired IPS officer and Punjabi author, on the eve of Guru Nanak Dev’s 553rd birth anniversary. It was an auspicious occasion attended by many prominent Sikh leaders from Punjab, Delhi and other parts of India—a powerful platform to connect with the community. Though it was just a five-kilometre drive from his residence, Modi was closing the distance of centuries. His objective was to minimise the Indian version of anti-Semitism against Sikhs, thereby sending a strong message that his governance model is based on the principle that majority rule needs support from a vocal and credible section of the minorities whose roots are in India.
In fact, Modi has chosen a political route to persuade Sikhs to join the BJP. The RSS adopted to connect with the Sikhs culturally by celebrating Sikh valour at its shakhas. Guru Gobind Singh has always been an integral part of RSS nationalist discourse. But what RSS could not achieve, Modi has taken upon himself to complete the unfinished task of integrating the Sikhs with the Sangh parivar.
This isn’t his first rodeo. Modi would attend religious functions at the residence of his former minister Harsimrat Kaur, wife of Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal. Even after SAD left the NDA, Modi regularly visited Punjab’s prominent Gurudwaras on special occasions. He has been hosting Sikh delegations at home more frequently than even Manmohan Singh. Modi is the first PM to invoke the teachings of their gurus in his I-day addresses at Red Fort. He has initiated various political, administrative and infrastructural moves to bring Sikhs into the mainstream. As BJP general secretary in the late 1990s, he had frequently visited prominent Sikh leaders in Punjab, Himachal, Haryana and J&K. During his first UK visit, he perhaps became the first Indian premier to hold structured meetings with important British Sikh leaders. Since England is perceived as a sanctuary for extremists, he even invited alleged Khalistan supporters. Subsequently, the Indian government funded a Chair in Guru Nanak Dev’s name at the University of Birmingham in 2019. The statement read: “It is anticipated that the Chair holder will extend and develop the University’s work in Sikh Studies, Interfaith Relations, Religion and Politics, and Peace and Reconciliation.” This was not just an academic gesture; Modi’s government has promised a similar chair in a Canadian University.
His real reason for creating an academic haven for Sikh intellectuals is to isolate fringe elements and promote inclusive Sikh culture and faith. Modi has asked the UN to translate the teachings of the ten gurus into international languages.
In November 2019, he fulfilled a long-standing demand by inaugurating the Indian side of a 4.5-kilometre corridor connecting Dera Baba Nanak Sahib and Kartarpur Sahib near Lahore and facilitated visa-free access to believers. He was taking to the logical conclusion Vajpayee’s proposal to build the Kartarpur Sahib Corridor. Modi has promised many infrastructure projects, including a ropeway for Sikh pilgrims to visit Hemkund Sahib, situated at over 15,000 feet in Uttarakhand. Modi has promised many infrastructure projects, including world class amenities for Sikh pilgrim places spread all over the country. He has instructed all government agencies to name prominent academic institutions and infrastructure projects after Sikh gurus and include their teachings and life stories in the school curriculum.
Both he and Amit Shah have taken many measures to allay Sikh fears. For example, the Home Ministry withdrew the list of black-listed Sikhs abroad; they were regarded as radicals and denied Indian visas. The list was drawn up in the ‘80s and augmented after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The BJP government introduced the CAA, which granted citizenship to Hindus and Sikhs from neighbouring countries. Though the law is primarily to protect Hindus fleeing Bangladesh, it came as a major relief for Sikhs from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Modi has also revived his old contacts with prominent Sikh intellectuals based in India and abroad.
Surprisingly, Modi’s Sikh outreach hasn’t been dialled down even after the BJP’s disastrous performance in the recent Punjab elections. He aims to identify future, winnable Sikh leaders after the marginalisation of SAD and Congress created a political vacuum. The BJP hopes to raise a credible Sikh leadership to counter Pakistan and secular propaganda against the PM. But not a single home-grown Sikh leader with grassroots support has been found so far. Hardeep Puri, a retired diplomat, is the BJP’s only symbolic presence. National is notional—the party hasn’t given more than a dozen tickets to Sikh candidates. Only defectors from SAD and the Congress got inducements to join the saffron brigade. Lalpura is perhaps the first Sikh member of the BJP Parliamentary Board.
Modi’s excessive bonhomie with Sikhs hasn’t paid political dividends yet. He has to keep in mind that Sikhs, a highly motivated and emotional community, need more than photo ops or plum posts. He must demolish the negative hype that Hindutva wishes to subsume Sikh identity. Perhaps, the unhealed wounds inflicted by Mughal tyrants on both communities may finally unite them under a single protective umbrella of culture and faith. Mission Modi is turning the tide by creating a global wave in the land of five rivers.
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