The unseen community: A brief history of Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir

By Komal JB Singh. Dated: 8/21/2019 12:30:20 PM


KASHMIR IS BACK in the news. This time it is about the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A. There is a constant debate on TV channels on social media and in the news. Everyone is jumping in, mostly driven by a sense of nationalism. The aspirations of Ladakhis, Buddhists, Dogras, and Muslims are being debated. Yet, Kashmir is under an information embargo, Kashmiris are forbidden to participate in the discourse the nation is busy fathoming for them.
Whether it is these debates or the geo-political regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, they are all based on the basis of 'us' versus 'them'. The stronger the identity consciousness, the more intense is the debate. In all this Sikh community - with a population of 2,34,848 across the region, which is more than the total population of Buddhist 1.33 lakh remains as invisible as have been its aspirations over the years.
Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir constitute 1.87% of the total population. Today as I am writing this piece there are seventy thousand Sikhs in valley and many others in Rajouri and Poonch districts. They all remain cut off due to the communication blockade. They remain unseen in the larger suffering of Kashmir.
The Unseen Community
When I asked a friend from the Kashmiri Sikh community about Article 370 and 35A abrogation, the response was, 'Na koie fayada na koien uksan.' This roughly translates to: it is neither good nor dangerous. The implication is it does not matter (to her) since she is hardly noticed by anyone. Yet, there are a few who believe that the abrogation has some impact on their cultural identity. Some are apprehensive that it might become more difficult to live in border districts.
Many Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir maintain a residence in Jammu. This divides not only the community but also families. Another Sikh friend says, 'We are silently migrating from Kashmir, it's just that nobody is ready to see us. But is Jammu safe?'
Other views from the community are:
l 'Neither can we say anything, nor we can remain silent.'
l 'It is suffocating to live with our identity.'
l 'We are exactly where we were seven decades ago.'
This is because the larger debate remains about Hindus and Muslims while the Sikhs remain trapped in between those communities. There is another layer to this: while a few Sikh families who migrated in 1990 along with majority Hindus and benefitted under the migration scheme, they are seen as enemy within the family or the local community. The tussle is that those who left got something and those who lived on are not even recognized by the larger society.
The diverse and plural society of Jammu and Kashmir is today reduced to Kashmir represented by Muslims, Dogras represented by Jammu and Buddhists represented by Leh. Alongside Kashmiri Sikhs and Jammu Sikhs, this manner of representation skews the regional aspirations and grievances of Jammu Muslims, Kargil Muslims, Doda Hindus and they all remain unseen and unheard.
Around 70,000 Sikhs live in the valley and 1.5 lakh Sikhs live in Jammu. In Kashmir, the Sikhs are a minority community.. In Jammu, most of the Sikhs live along the LOC from Kathua to Rajouri and Poonch. Life on the border is never easy but there is no end to mainlanders talking about the border.
No Political Representation
While the Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir have a long history of suffering, their religious injunction- Chardi Kalan which means high spirits or - forbids them from living with a sense of victimhood. This itself imposes a sense of silence on them. That is why perhaps, since Partition until now, the stories of Sikhs seldom finds place in narratives outside community.
Over the last three decades the Sikhs of Jammu and Kashmir have stayed proud of their distinct cultural identity. Yet, their political aspiration remains silent. Kashmiri Sikhs have had no political representation to present their issues and ambitions. Until now, the national minority commission has not been applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmiri Sikhs have been demanding a minority status in the state but to no avail. No political party gives the Sikhs tickets for elections, or for any representation. Now when the statehood is lost, the long pending demand of Sikhs to have reserved seats has also gone.
35 Sikhs were massacred at Chattisinghpora in 2000
Three decades of Kashmir turmoil has had a severe impact on Sikhs in Kashmir. It's not easy to live as minority especially when the Kashmiri society is not diverse. In March 2000, when Sikhs were killed by unidentified men in Chittisinghpora, as a community they remained silent.
Today the lives of Sikhs are on the edge between Kashmiryat and Insayinat. The Kashmiryat is alive because we are still part of the Kashmiri society and Insaniyat because we are just seen people who are voiceless. Yet, the Sikhs have always been there to help others.
Way Forward
The mistake that politicians and policy makers commit is to view Jammu and Kashmir through the lens of the Muslim and Hindu binary.
However, it must be recognized that today the close to two and a half lakh Sikhs in Jammu and Kashmir are in an important and historical position in the society. They are the connecting bridge between Hindus and Muslims. They have larger role to play as the peace makers. It is this historical call to which the community must respond. It is this historical position of the Sikhs the powers that be must recognize to bring peace to Jammu and Kashmir.
(Komal JB Singh is a native Kashmiri and Doctoral Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)
(This piece was earlier published in Punjab Today)



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