The Sikhs and Gandhi
Sundeep Singh Guliani
My first biases of Gandhi arose from the fact that, throughout his lifetime,
Gandhi expressed many anti-Sikh views, ranging from attacking the symbols of the
Sikh faith to encouraging Sikhs to abandon parts of their culture and religion
in favor of re-absorption into Hinduism.
From the onset of his arrival in India, Gandhi insisted on referring to Sikhs as
"Hindus" even though the vast majority of Sikhs at that time expressed their
belief that they were a distinct religion and that referring to them as a part
of Hinduism was offensive. His insistent comments that the "Sikh Gurus were
Hindus" and that Guru Gobind Singh was "one of the greatest defenders of
Hinduism" (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi Vol. 28 pg. 263) deeply hurt Sikh
sentiments, but that never deterred him making such statements throughout his
Gandhi was so adamant in his view of Sikhism being a part of Hinduism that he
went to the extent of condemning the conversion of Untouchables to Sikhism if
Sikhs continued to assert their not being a sect of Hinduism. At that time, led
by Dr. Ambedkar, over 60 million Untouchables desired to convert to another
religion in order to free themselves from their enslavement in the Hindu caste
system. Dr. Ambedkar had a very strong interest in the conversion of the
Untouchables to Sikhism, to the extent that he even had his own nephew baptized
Gandhi found this possible conversion to be intolerable in the light of Sikhs
viewing themselves as not being Hindus. Gandhi wrote: "I don't mind Untouchables
if they do desire, being converted to Islam or Christianity" (CW, Vol 48, pg
98), he insisted that conversion to Sikhism by these Untouchables was
"Today I will only say that to me Sikhism is a part of Hinduism. But the
situation is different from a legal point of view. Dr. Ambedkar wants a change
of religion. If becoming a Sikh amounts to conversion, then this kind of
conversion on the parts of Harijans is dangerous. If you can persuade the Sikhs
to accept that Sikhism is a part of Hinduism and if you can make them give up
the separate electorate, then I will have no objections to Harijans calling
themselves Sikhs" (CW, Vol 63, pg 267).
A particularly offensive comment of Gandhi made it clear that he harbored the
belief that Sikhs should disown the institution of the Khalsa Panth established
by the tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. He said, "I read your Granth Sahib. But I
do not do so to please you. Nor shall I seek your permission to do so. But the
Guru has not said anywhere that you must grow your beards, carry kirpans
(swords) and so on" (CW Vol. 90, Pg. 80).
Gandhi failed to acknowledge that a Guru had established such symbols for the
Sikhs. In particular, Gandhi attacked the kirpan on many occasions. He showed a
critical misunderstanding in the beliefs and responsibilities surrounding Guru
Gobind Singh's commandment that his Sikhs should wear kirpans. This
misunderstanding gradually turned into a general intolerance, with Gandhi often
mocking those Sikhs who wore them.
Gandhi attacked Gurmukhi. In a letter to a friend, Amrit Kaur, he wrote: "I wish
you would persuade enlightened Sikhs to take the Devnagri script in the place of
the Gurmukhi" (CW Vol. 64. pg 41).
It is important to realize that Gurmukhi is not the language of the Punjab, but
rather the language of the Sikhs. The Sikh Gurus created Gurmukhi and it is the
script used in the Guru Granth Sahib. It wasn't as if Gandhi asked Punjabis (who
are Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims) to give up the Punjabi language, but rather
Sikhs in particular to give up the language of their Gurus. While I respect
Gandhi's desire to have some sort of united language, he failed to realize that
by making such statements he was in essence asking Sikhs to disown their
culture, their heritage and the Guru Granth Sahib by abandoning their mother
tongue in favor of a composite language.
In conclusion, from his various comments, it appears that Gandhi wished for
Sikhs to renounce the parts of their religion and culture that he felt prevented
them from being reabsorbed into Hinduism. Two of the main obstacles to such an
objective were the different language of the Sikhs and the institution of the
Gandhi was particularly fond of making broken promises to the Sikhs, promises
that to this day have come back to haunt them. He would never hesitate to
appease them by saying: "We have not done justice to the Sikhs" (CW Vol. 38 pg.
315). But this would only translate into promises that were never kept.
During the 1920's and 1930's, the British had acknowledged three main groups
that would receive power after they left India - the Hindus, the Muslims and the
Sikhs who ruled the last kingdom that was annexed by the British. There was talk
amongst Sikhs about creating such a country, Khalistan, for themselves.
In order to help persuade Sikhs to join Hindu India, Gandhi made many comments
and promises that, looking back at history, seem to have been aimed at deceiving
and coaxing them. The first of such promises was when he said: "No Constitution
would be acceptable to the Congress which did not satisfy the Sikhs" (CW Vol.
58. p. 192).
This promise was quickly broken right after independence. To this day, not one
Sikh has ever signed the Indian Constitution, which goes out of its way to
declare that Sikhs are indeed a part of Hinduism (Article 25 of the
Then came the promise that was used as a justification by some Sikhs in taking
up arms against the Government of India after 1984. Gandhi invoked the sacred
name of God and said:
"I venture to suggest that the non-violence creed of the Congress is the surest
guarantee of its good faith and our Sikhs friends have no reason to fear
betrayal at its hands. For the moment it did so, the Congress would not only
seal its own doom but that of the country too. Moreover, the Sikhs are a brave
people; they will know how to safeguard their right by the exercise of arms if
it shall ever come to that." He further continued: "Why can you have no faith?
If Congress shall play false afterwards you can well settle surely with it, for
you have the sword. I ask you to accept my word. Let God be witness of the bond
that binds me and the Congress with you" (CW Vol. 45 pg. 231-33).
These were just more appeasement tactics. The mention of "Sikhs are a brave
people" and the "exercise of arms" were attempts to mislead the Sikh masses
considering the fact that Gandhi did not support any such "exercise of arms".
How ironic was it that the Congress party that Gandhi had declared as having a
special bond with the Sikhs was the first to betray them. This was firstly
accomplished by depriving them of a linguistic state and a capital after
independence and then by massacring thousands upon thousands of Sikhs in and
There was no "non-violence creed" displayed by the Congress, only barbarianism
that would put the likes of Aurangzeb to shame. The fact remains that more Sikhs
have been killed under fifty years of Indian rule than under the one hundred
years of British rule. Gandhi's promises were left unfulfilled and it was the
Sikh people who were left to pay for such treachery.
At this point, I wish to elucidate that these statements alone are not the
reasons why I am not enthusiastic about Gandhi. I can accept the fact that
perhaps M. K. Gandhi just had a deep misunderstanding of Sikhism and that I am
just being overly critical of a few comments he made. Perhaps I am just exposing
my own inadequacies by blaming him for the actions of those who came after him
as well. In either case, the reasons I cited above are not enough to warrant a
total dislike for all the accomplishments that Mohandas Gandhi achieved in life.
Despite what he achieved though, I disagree with his principles and methods.
A LOOK AT NON-VIOLENCE
Even before Gandhi came to India in 1915, the Sikhs had been peacefully
protesting for the right to run their Gurdwaras (after the Sikh kingdom had been
annexed, the Gurdwaras had been turned over by the British to Brahmin Hindus to
run). Gandhi was very critical of the 'Sikh way' of civil disobedience. He said:
"The Akalis (Sikh Warriors) wear a black turban and a black band on one shoulder
and also carry a big staff with a small axe on the top. Fifty or a hundred of
such groups go and take possession of a gurdwara; they suffer violence
themselves but do not use any. Nevertheless, a crowd of fifty or more men
approaching a place in the way described is certainly a show of force and
naturally the keeper of the Gurdwara would be intimidated by it." (Collected
Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 19 pg. 401).
This is where I do not understand Gandhi's teachings. On the one hand Gandhi did
not believe non-violent resistance should be "passive," but rather that it
should be, in essence, a "force". On the other hand, he criticized Sikhs for
practicing non-violent civil disobedience in seeking control of their Gurdwaras.
Their methods were even praised by British leaders. Reverend C. F. Andrews
wrote: "The vow (of non-violence) they (the Sikhs) had made to God was kept to
the letter. I saw no act, no look, of defiance."
As far as the spirit of the suffering they endured, the Reverend said "It was
very rarely that I witnessed any Akali Sikh, who went forward to suffer, flinch
from a blow when it was struck. The blows were received one by one without
resistance and without a sign of fear."
Still, Gandhi could not reconcile this manner of civil disobedience, for he
decided that the Sikhs participating in it harbored "hatred in their hearts" and
thus never gave his blessings to such forms of agitation. Gandhi could not
understand why Sikhs would peacefully protest while wearing arms. To him, this
constituted cowardice, that one carries arms while walking in peace.
I completely disagree. Gandhi failed to realize the differences between
non-violence of the weak, and non-violence of the strong. The importance of
carrying arms was to show that they were indeed brave enough and capable of
using them, but that they were instead consciously choosing not to. It is a
discipline that only a few select can conquer. A coward who is weak and scared
will never wear arms and walk in peaceful protest because, as soon as the first
signs of oppression arise, he will be scared and use his weapons in haste.
Similarly, the weak and the scared will never have the capacity to make
non-violence their way of life. To them it will only be something useful when
they are helplessly bound in shackles.
To be able to wear arms and to not retaliate or show the slightest bit of anger
or attempt self-defense against someone who is attacking you is the highest form
of non-violent protest. It implies a complete resignation to peaceful ways and
an absolute belief in the power of non-violent protest despite the ability of
the protestor to respond violently. It is one thing to walk in peaceful protest
that is born out of a feeling of helplessness and quite another to walk
peacefully, inviting oppression and suffering upon himself despite being fully
armed, while totally being able to fight back. The first constitutes cowardice,
the second a force.
I can't help but think that the sort of non-violence practiced by Gandhi's
followers in India was that of the weak, that of the helpless. I believe that
most did not truly understand the principles of non-violence in the manner in
which Gandhi preached it. Rather they just thought they would be unable to win
independence through other means. I come to this conclusion because of the
history of Indians both before and after Gandhi.
An obvious fact is that Indians as a race have been oppressed for the last
several hundred years by the Moguls (and later on by the British). Many of them
never uttered a word of protest against the atrocities that were committed
against their kith and kin, atrocities which were much worse than those
perpetrated by the British. Even fewer actually took up actions against the
Moguls (the major exception of course being the Marathas in the south).
It was quite common for invaders such as Abdali and Nadir Shah to invade India,
take Indian jewelry and Indian women and head back to Afghanistan. Yet there
were very few strong voices that opposed this. This was because of fear. This
fear is what stopped them from participating in any course of action besides
submitting to their oppressors. It seems like over time most Indians have
developed a "learned helplessness". Following Gandhi's ideas arose from this
feeling of helplessness. Indians followed Gandhi's beliefs not because they
thought non-violence was a superior weapon in dealing with social problems, as
Gandhi had preached, but rather because they felt they had no other alternative.
This in itself defeats the whole purpose of non-violence.
It was quite common for Indians to one day be peacefully protesting and the next
day to form lynch mobs. The only conclusion I can come to in order to reconcile
these two thoughts is that they had no idea what the real essence of non-violent
agitation was. The simple fact that after Gandhi his philosophy of non-violence
has been completely abandoned by the people of India at large seems to point
toward this conclusion.
To me, Gandhi came across as being an uncompromising extremist. A non-violent
extremist, but an extremist nevertheless. His letters to the British people
during World War Two encouraging them to "allow yourself, man, woman, and child,
to be slaughtered" by "peacefully surrendering" to the Nazis in order to further
his fanatic ideas of non-violence is a perfect example (CW Vol. 72 pg 229 231,
CW Vol. 72 pg. 177). When pressed even further, he went to the extent of calling
Guru Gobind Singh, the Maratha Shivaji and George Washington "misguided
patriots" for taking up arms in defense of their people (CW Vol. 26 pg.
Had Gandhi lived under the likes of Aurangzeb, in almost all likelihood he would
have been arrested and hanged for even showing the slightest bit of defiance to
the Mogul Empire. His non-violent ways worked because the British were not total
tyrants, rather just concerned with exploiting Indians for their own economic
gain. The aim of the British was not to annihilate them, as Aurangzeb and Hitler
had attempted to do to their subjects. Thus the situation was ideal for the
implementation of non-violent agitation.
According to Gandhi, only "evil and violence" came about from those who use
violence. He seems to totally disregard the idea of a "noble cause", basing his
ideas of whether a movement was right or wrong on his narrow view of whether or
not non-violence was being used. No doubt history has shown that those who used
violence for the sake of unworthy causes ultimately did perpetuate violence and
evil upon themselves. But, at the same time, those who used violence because of
noble causes (as in defense of their people), the rule did not apply.
There is a certain undeniable beauty in watching or reading about others who are
fighting for noble and legitimate causes. Perhaps one of the best examples I can
bring up is reading about the American Revolution. There is certain
magnificence, certain holiness, about those people fighting for their rights.
The fact that they used arms to achieve their freedom did not discount the
righteousness of what they did.
FALLING SHORT OF TRUE GREATNESS
There are a few situations where I question Gandhi's approach to dealing with a
problem. Take fasts, for example.
In his lifetime, Gandhi fasted for many issues ranging from stopping mob
violence to preventing Untouchables from having separate electoral ballots. It
seems that his fasts unto death were just a method of coercing others into
obeying him. There was no "teaching someone the error of their ways", but rather
people ceded to Gandhi's demands because they realized they had more to lose if
he died as a result. Seeing how this "moral enlightenment" obviously wasn't
occurring, I don't see what the difference would have been had the army been
sent in to stop the rioting by force. In either situation, the people would not
have been any more enlightened to the error of their ways, except in the latter
situation less people may have died.
One problem I see is that Gandhi had no peers, only followers. In essence,
Gandhi's words became the "Rule of Law" in India during that time. That's why I
believe his influence on most Indians died with him. Though Gandhi may have
lived with the underprivileged, there wasn't anyone that stood as his equal, not
even Jawaharlal Nehru or Vallabhai Patel. There wasn't anyone who was in any
position to question Gandhi's beliefs or authority. They were basically forced
to follow what Gandhi said, whether agreeing with it or not. Thus after he was
assassinated, there was a vacuum and India was once again left as a nation of
For me, this is what separates Gandhi from rising into the realm of great people
in history. Great leaders seek to free their people from the chains of mental
slavery. They voluntarily give up their political power and their ultimate
authority in order to give their kith and kin a sense of empowerment, something
Gandhi did not do.
Gandhi may have asked Indians to spin their own thread, but he was always a
level above the average Indian. This is what prevented him from ever truly
leading Indians down a path of self-empowerment and self-determination. The
inferiority complex, which has always been at the root of the problem, was thus
never eliminated. Contrast this to the examples laid by the Sikh Gurus, such as
that of Guru Gobind Singh in raising the Khalsa.
Despite being a Guru and the word of God to his followers, Guru Gobind Singh
repeatedly lowered himself to the level of his followers in order to instill in
them a sense of power, authority and sovereignty. It was the flame of
self-respect and empowerment that he spent his entire life inculcating in his
people that sowed the seeds of a nation that would prosper.
Upon initially baptizing the first five Sikhs into the Khalsa Panth in 1699, the
Guru himself bowed before his own followers and begged them to baptize him into
their own way of live, to in essence accept him as one of their own. It was at
this point that he became a Guru only in name. He chose to give up his absolute
authority as Guru and take on the path of a disciple, something that a being in
his position had never done before.
Guru Gobind Singh voluntarily gave up his total say in matters related to Sikhi
and, instead, entrusted his Sikhs to take up such issues in his place. There are
many instances in Sikh history where Guru Gobind Singh was ordered to do
something by the Khalsa. There was even such an occasion that he was fined by
other Sikhs for what they felt constituted a "waiver of faith".
Here was a situation where his own followers were fining a head of a faith, a
prophet, for what they thought violated an article of the faith. The Guru
happily obliged and paid his dues, happy at the sense of empowerment that had
grown amongst his Sikhs. By the end of his life, Sahib Guru Gobind Singh had
dispersed all of his power to his people, for his people.
By sacrificing everything he had for them, Guru Sahib gave his Sikhs a sense of
dignity in his own physical lifetime; something Gandhi never had the privilege
If we take India to be the microcosm of Gandhi's teachings and influence, I
don't see how we can come to any other conclusion except that Gandhi's ways are
a complete failure, even after only fifty years of his death. Gandhi preached
non-violence. Non-violence was totally abandoned in India. Gandhi preached
self-empowerment, yet the average Indian is no more empowered before Gandhi than
after Gandhi. Gandhi preached peace, yet India is constantly drifting toward war
in one form or another. Gandhi wanted his people to "love the British" who were
oppressing them. That was the foundation of his beliefs in the power of
non-violence. Yet the fact remains that "love" was the last way to describe the
way in which Indians viewed Britain, even despite the fact that India was
created without a war.
In conclusion, though I may not have a strong admiration of the man himself,
there is a profound appreciation of what Gandhi preached. I am a full-fledged
believer in non-violent civil disobedience. It has many practical uses today and
most definitely in the future as well. At the same time, I do not believe in the
extremism that Gandhi did, which makes it impractical and thus lays the seeds
for it to be abandoned in the future, as it has been in India today.