Shamsher Singh: Sikhs Will Never Get To Define Indian-ness

How and when “indian” is used also tells us a lot

Shamsher Singh
January 26, 2021 | 4 min. read

Nobody speaks “indian”. 

In fact, the proposition thinly masks its own absurdity. Like “india” itself - the word is a political construct that exists to serve a disciplining function, born from the racist imagination of the Firanghi (European coloniser).

Growing up I vaguely remember a show on a British TV channel where one white man says “dots not feathers” to another in his bid to describe “indians”. Then, as now, I find no place within that racist differentiation. To me “indian” will always be a racist term that homogenises over a billion Brown people from different regions, ethnicities, cultures, and spiritual traditions.

How and when “indian” is used also tells us a lot. 

Clearly, it is not something Sikhs will ever get to define, rather it is used as a political project which seeks to define (‘civilise’) us. So when the indian army invaded Sri Darbar Sahib, it came to save a certain type of “indian” Sikh from another - a distinction that is maintained till this day by the word “terrorism”. We are forced to prove our loyalty through patriotism, lest we are demonised by the indian project as “anti-national” and become targets of indian “salvation” (read violence).

The foundation and justification of these violent parameters of indian-ness lie within its birth. 

After securing a military victory over Sikhs, the Firanghi began the process of asserting structural domination over the Sirkar-i-Khalsa and rolled out his project to occupy, exploit, dominate, and dispossess the people and the land. The Firanghi imposed his economic and political structures in a bid to erase our indigenous sovereignty (patshahi) and replace it with an authoritarian state that could efficiently exploit the land and people for the profit of the empire.

This is the same repressive structure that celebrated “independence” in 1947. 

The indian constitution exists as the legal foundation of a communal majoritarian Hindu rule with republic day being a celebration of indian nationalism through militarism.

The negotiation with Sikhs on joining india was based on an agreement with the Indian National Congress (INC) in which Punjab would remain autonomous within a decentralised indian republic. The ‘centre’ was to deal with defence, foreign relations, and currency. Within such a structure Sikhs hoped they could exist free from domination and determine a relationship with the indian republic on their own terms.

The head of the Akali Dal, Master Tara Singh advocated for Sikh sovereignty within the proposed indian republic, which was at the time seen as a compromised stance by the Panth.  However, even this much-criticised Sikh leader would come to realise Sikh sovereignty was impossible within the proposed system, as an indian republic - by its very nature - would require Sikhs to surrender their sovereignty.

When the indian constitution was drafted, the idea of this new india became clear. There was harsh centralisation, with Delhi exerting political control over each state. Article 25 categorised Sikhs (along with Buddhists and Jains) as Hindus, and Sikh personal law was replaced with Hindu personal law. Sikhs saw this as a refusal by the INC to recognise the autonomy of Punjab and Sikh sovereignty. As a result, Sikh representatives refused to sign the indian constitution. 

Hukam Singh, who went into the Constituent Assembly to represent Sikhs through the Akali Dal stated his refusal to sign the constitution on record by saying:

“Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this Constitution.

I wish to record an emphatic protest here…The minorities and particularly the Sikhs have been ignored and completely neglected. There is enough provision in our Constitution… to facilitate the development of administration into a fascist state.”

Master Tara Singh summed up the Sikh response in his address to the All India Sikh Conference on March 28, 1953:

“The English-man has gone, but our [Sikh] liberty has not come.  For us the so-called liberty is simply a change of masters, black for white. Under the garb of democracy and secularism, our Panth, our liberty, and our religion are being crushed”

Today, Hindutva dominates indian civic life, political institutions, academia, the media, and the geography of india. Any conversation about sovereignty or independence is seen as a betrayal of “mother india” (a mythic Hindu deity) and colonial-era sedition laws are used to silence dissent that threatens the “oneness” and “unity” of being indian. 

The idea of what it means to be “indian” was constructed by colonisers through a long process of physical and epistemic violence - the impact of which means we still allow india to define our liberation.

Since the annexation of Punjab by colonisers - Sikhs have fought to regain their political power and independence -  and this fight continues till this day. Through Khalistan, Sikhs still pursue a vision for a political structure that will allow Sikh society-polity to flourish.

In the words of an awakened Master Tara Singh:

“Without a determined and grim struggle, we shall get demoralised and will disintegrate, losing our identity and perish in the dust. It would be cowardly to accept this fate. If we struggle and fall, we die a brave and noble death and if we struggle and win, we live an honourable life. So the choice is clear.”


Shamsher Singh writes from Southall, UK, and is the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF). He is an influential Sikh activist and his work centres on Sikh being and Khalistan. As a naujawan Panthic jathebandie NSYFs work has featured in national and international media, documentary films, books, and academic papers. 

Shamsher Singh works to build solidarity with racialised communities, and to create space for Sikh expression centring on Sikh sovereignty, and Sikh resistance, pushing back against the erasure of Khalistan and it’s martyrs. He currently works as program director for the newly established Khalistan Centre, which is dedicated to supporting and cultivating Gurmat-driven leadership to further the struggle for Khalistan.

You can find Shamsher on Twitter at @anandpur_exile

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