A community that stays central to India, Indianness

5 min read

NEW DELHI : This happened in December 2006. We were aboard a plane carrying the then prime minister Manmohan Singh and an Indian delegation to Tokyo. During the flight, the prime minister’s media adviser, Sanjaya Baru, came up to the gallery unexpectedly and told me: “PM is waiting for you.” I had told Baru before boarding the flight at the New Delhi airport that I wanted to meet the prime minister.

I was led to the meeting room aboard this Air India special aircraft. Two of the five chairs in the room were already occupied. Singh was seated on the chair in the centre, and the editor of a well-known Punjabi publication was sitting on another. They were conversing in Punjabi and Hindi. Upon seeing me, Singh broke mid-sentence, and asked me: “Yes, tell me?”

I hadn’t meant to ask the PM any questions. However, the process of assembly elections was under way then in Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. There were reports in the newspapers that electoral rallies were being planned for practically every Congress politician who mattered, but the prime minister’s name was not on the list.

So, I just said: “You must visit most, if not all, Sikh-dominated areas of Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. Palia in Uttar Pradesh, and Rudrapur in Uttarakhand have a large Sikh community. You should also spend at least one night in Amritsar and offer prayers at the Golden Temple. This will not only calm the Sikhs but also take the wind out of the sails of separatists.”

Manmohan Singh had already made a few trips to Harmandir Sahib before as Prime Minister. Singh became pensive by the time I finished. The room fell into an awkward silence. I took leave of the PM quickly.

Some time later Baru approached me, smiling, and in his unique style said, “You have increased my work. The prime minister has requested that the visit to all the three places be planned.” Singh later visited all the three places. His visit to the Golden Temple heralded a new era of peace in Punjab.

The point to be noted from this narrative is simple and straightforward: Some people in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other western countries are attempting to rekindle the fire of Khalistan. They sometimes attack diplomats, threaten Hindus to leave Canada, and try to plant provocateurs such as Amritpal Singh on the soil of Punjab. They claim that the Indian government is adopting double standards towards the Sikhs. They are only trying to deceive folks with these falsehoods.

Singh’s tour is a thing of the past, but it is important to gain insights into the position and attitude of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi on attempts at separatism. In the last nine years, the Prime Minister has paid respects at the country’s major gurudwaras, including the Golden Temple. He has highlighted the patriotism, bravery, service, and dedication of the Sikhs.

The Opposition is also not lagging. Earlier this month, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi offered voluntary service at the Golden Temple for two days. He cleaned utensils as part of langar service, and did joda sewa, or the cleaning of shoes.

When it comes to national unity, the differences between the ruling and Opposition parties vanish. No Indian can imagine this country without Punjab, Punjabis, and Sikhs.

To emphasize the point, I quote what Maneka Gandhi had told me during an informal conversation we had on the sidelines of a programme Hindustan organized in Agra a few years back: “Everywhere you go [in India], you’ll see women wearing salwar kurtas. Without dal makhani, paneer masala, and tandoori roti, no large hotel or restaurant can run. What do you want to call it?” She hit the nail on its head when she said the clothing and food of the Punjabis were the most popular in the entire country.

Maneka, herself Sikh, did not touch upon one other important facet of the community during our conversation, but I’d like to add it to this list. Without the Sikhs, the trading world of no great city or town is complete in India. You’ve probably seen Sikhs pulling rickshaws, but you’ve probably never seen them begging anywhere. They are self-reliant, confident, courageous, and inclusive. That is why they are widely accepted and respected throughout the country. People address them by the prefix “sardar ji” rather than only by their given names. The Sikhs of our country understand this sentiment of their compatriots and fulfil it in every possible way.

Why don’t Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and the ISI brass realize this simple truth?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. Views are personal.

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Updated: 09 Oct 2023, 12:13 AM IST

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