Sixty-seven years ago this week, the Indian State formally enacted the Constitution on the basis of which the country came into being and continues to exist today. After almost three years of deliberations and redrafts, the so-called biggest democracy in the World built upon the ‘freedom’ won from the British in 1947, and on 26 January 1950, Indians celebrated Republic Day for the first time as the Constitution came into force. But not everybody agreed that the Constitution reflected the desires of its citizens; two notable Sardars representing Punjab, and speaking on behalf of the Sikh community dissented, and asserted that the Sikhs rejected the Indian Constitution.
This is not a story you’ve probably heard before. Ask your grandparents and parents about the Punjab they left behind and you’ll hear stories about green fields, long cycle journeys and fresh milk, but few will tell you the tale of Punjab’s rejection of the Indian Constitution on day one of the nation’s official birthday. Before my family adopted a path more in line with the Sikh way of life (they were always Sikh, just not very attentive or well-informed), my grandfather sought to leave the sub-continent so that his earnings would reflect his graduate education and that he could perhaps go on to seek redress of the issues that were even at that time destroying the Punjab. Chief amongst these was the Punjabi rejection of the Constitution. That he stayed on in the UK and his offspring went on to settle here is a story for another day, but his political leanings were passed on to my father who even in his alcohol-happy days vented frustration with the ebbing memory of Punjab’s rejection of the Indian Constitution. It wasn’t until the invasion of the Darbar Sahib by the Indian State that he like so many other Punjabi-Sikhs awoke to the gravity of the Indian project and it’s homogenisation of distinctive sub-continental cultures. As a Khalsa, his direction became all the more pronounced, but that recollection of Punjabi (and with his new-found enlightenment, Sikh) rejection of the Constitution remained untainted.
Following almost three years of deliberations over the wording of the Indian Constitution by the Constituent Assembly of India, two Sikh members who represented both the Punjab and the vested interest of the wider Sikh community saw that their (and others’) arguments would not significantly influence what was rapdily being concluded as the final draft. On Monday 21st November 1949, they took the opportunity to express in lengthy terms their willingness to work towards improved sentiments and resolution of their gravest concerns, but in the failure to do so they would not in good conscience sign the Constitution.
Sardar Bhopinder Singh Man stated, “I will be failing in my duty if I do not give you the reactions of my own community, the Sikhs of the East Punjab, so far as this Constitution goes. Their feeling is that they cannot give unstinted support or full approval to this Constitution.” His peer, Sardar Hukam Singh, opined, “Naturally, under these circumstances, as I have stated, the Sikhs feel utterly disappointed and frustrated. They feel that they have been discriminated against. Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this Constitution. I wish to record an emphatic protest here. My community cannot subscribe its assent to this historic document.”
That both Sardars went on to serve in the Assembly beyond the enactment of the Constitution is not a matter of consternation – their role before and during it’s drafting was to put forward the Sikh position and argue for a better case. Like their Sikh predecessors of the previous hundred years and more, what other option did they have but to sit and continue to fight for restitution in the way that was put before them? Disecting their individual roles prior and post the drafting of the Constitution requires deeper analysis that is not my aim in this article, but highlighting that we have forgotten that they – representatives of the Sikh community – refused to endorse the Indian Constitution, on the record, is, as is the implied consequence that the Sikhs have never endorsed the Indian State coming into being. My argument is not to boycott ‘India’, or protest against it; as a community we are some way from engaging in even the simplest forms of democratic protest (not to mention the small fact of considering what has come to pass since(!)) In my opinion, the first step every Sikh must take is to learn how the Constitution came to be framed, and appreciate how the passing of time has aided the conductors of the Indian project to (mis)direct and channel our community’s attentions onto unproductive paths. Only then can we begin to get to grips with what comes next.
For even writing this article I will be rebuked for stoking tensions, perhaps even termed as an extremist, and in this lies the successful perpetuity of the problem that I am tackling. At the heart of this topic today is how 21st century Sikhs view the Indian State. From the language we use to talk about the homeland to the plans that we make for future generations, it is my contention that we have fallen deeper into the colonised mindset. So much talk in the Diaspora focuses on the influence of the British invader, that the overtures of the dominant Brahmins onto the Sikh psyche are not only unrecognised, but unacknowledged even at a rudimentary level.
For example, many Sikhs travel to Punjab, not ‘India’, yet our conversations suggest otherwise – “Yaar, meh India chalehya“… “Nehi veereh, tusi Punjab chaleh hau“. It’s a small point, but the devil lies in the detail. Endorsement of the Constitution and the State by the collective is unneccesary, when with the passage of time we as individuals adopt the State and by proxy extinguish our own prevailing State.
In a further example, the bhangra competitions I spent the last five years establishing in the UK celebrated Punjabi folk dancing, yet year after year far too many Sikh students and audience members would talk about the stage performances being wonderful representations of Indian culture (an utterance made all the more exasperating because much of Punjab’s folk dances originated or developed in what is today Pakistan!) That a non-Sikh makes this statement was of no significance to me and beyond correcting them I did little else, but when I’d correct the Sikhs saying this, the vapid look they gave me in response told a story of its own.
Further yet, we see in both Punjab and the Disapora that Bhagat Singh is lauded as a revolutionary hero, but as the Babbu Maan song asks, “Where is the name of Kartar Singh Sarabha?” The former’s left-leanings made him ripe for propagandists to hold up as an Indian patriot, a palatable Punjabi-Sikh hero, whereas his idological hero Kartar Singh Sarabha has been ignored because of his dominantly Sikh Gadharite association.
I can see why Indian nationalists feel so threatened by this chapter from their history and why Sikhs themselves are so afraid of picking at this errant thread woven into the fabric that is ‘India’, but whoever said that the path to freedom was easy? I do not begrudge any fervent Indian their celebration this week on Republic Day, or indeed the grand celebrations later this year on the 70th anniversary of winning ‘freedom’ from the British; that is their right as they have done what they set out to do having not had power in their grasp for almost a thousand years prior. But of my fellow Sikhs I do ask that you switch off the television for a few moments to sit and discuss this most important chapter of our recent history with your kith and kin; that you refrain from degrading the question over Punjab to the pathetic rendering of whether it should be spelt ‘Punjab’ with a ‘u’ or ‘Panjab’ with an ‘i’ (FYI it should be spelt ਪੰਜਾਬ); and that you determine for yourself whether you are Indian or Punjabi, because my friends, you can’t be both.