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LOCATION: India (Punjab state)
POPULATION: 19,215,730 (Census of India, 2001)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India


Sikhs are members of a religion that has its origins on the plains of the Punjab in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. Founded by Nanak (ad 1469–1538) at the very end of the 15th century ad, Sikhism was a branch of the Hindu bhakti (devotional) movement that combined aspects of Hindu religious thinking with elements of Islam, in particular Sūfī mysticism. The word Sikh comes from the Sanskrit word for "disciple" (sisya), the Sikhs being disciples of Nanak and the nine other Sikh gurus (teachers) who followed him.

Although in its early years Sikhism was nonviolent in nature, the history of the Sikhs after Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the tenth and last guru, is one of continual strife and bloodshed. The 18th century saw the Sikhs in continual conflict with the Mughals in northern India, with bloody uprisings in the Punjab met with equal ferocity by Muslim imperial forces. Sikhs faced invasions by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah in 1738–39 and the Afghans between 1747 and 1769. In the power vacuum following these conflicts, Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) created a powerful Sikh state in the Punjab that extended from the Sutlej River to Kashmir. This marks the apex of Sikh power and prestige in northern India.

Following Ranjit Singh's death, the Sikh kingdom rapidly disintegrated, and the Punjab was annexed by the British in 1849. After almost a hundred years of relative stability, the Punjab again erupted into violence when British India was partitioned in 1947. Some 2.5 million Sikhs fled western areas of the Punjab that were to become part of Pakistan and settled in India. The communal strife that accompanied the creation of the independent states of India and Pakistan pitted Hindu and Sikh against Muslim, and an estimated 1 million people were killed attempting to cross the borders of the newly formed countries.


Some 19.2 million people, or 1.9% of India's population, are Sikh. Sikhs (there are estimated to be c. 23 million world-wide) are concentrated mostly in and around the Indian state of the Punjab, in the northwest of the country. The general location of this homeland reflects the historical association of the Sikhs with the Punjab, but the political outlines of the Indian state of Punjab have come about relatively recently. The Punjab, literally meaning "Land of the Five Rivers," refers to the fertile plains in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent drained by the five great tributaries of the Indus River—the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. This region was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947, with Sikhs migrating to the Indian Punjab, or "East Punjab" from Pakistani territory. Agitation over the next two decades by the Sikhs, who regarded themselves as culturally quite distinct from their Hindu neighbors, caused the Punjab State of India to be divided in two in 1966 by the central government. The northwestern area was separated to create a smaller Punjab State in which Sikhs formed a majority, and the rest became Haryana State. Sizeable communities of Sikhs, i.e. greater than 200,000 people, are found in the Indian states of Haryana, Rājasthān, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttaranchal, and Jammu and Kashmir.

The land occupied by the Sikhs today is but a remnant of their former homeland (the present Punjab State in India retains only 14% the size of the original, undivided Punjab territory). It is located on the Indo-Gangetic divide, an area of flat alluvial plains that separate the drainage systems of the Indus and Ganges rivers. Western areas are drained by upper courses of the Beas and Sutlej rivers, but most of the "Land of the Five Rivers" now lies in Pakistan. The region has fertile soils, and agriculture, based on canal and well irrigation, is extremely productive. Punjab is a major producer of wheat and other grains and is considered the "bread-basket" of India. Sikh farmers are regarded as among the best in India.

Sikhs are found in all the major cities of India, although their largest concentration is in Delhi. Sikhs have also migrated to East Africa, the United Kingdom, North America, and commercial centers of Asia, such as Singapore and Hong Kong.


The language of the Sikh religion, as well as of Sikh culture, is Punjabi. A member of the Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family, Punjabi is written in the Gurmukhi script. This was developed during the 16th century by Angad, the second Sikh guru, for the purpose of recording the scriptures of the Sikhs.


Sikhism, as a recent, monotheistic religion with a relatively complete recorded history, lacks the elaborate mythology and legend that characterize some other South Asian religions. However, a body of sakhis (stories) has grown up recounting the supposed miracles performed by the gurus. The "Hundred Stories" (Sau Sakhi) is a collection of prophecies ascribed to Guru Gobind Singh. The Sikh heroes are the gurus who died for their beliefs, and Sikh temples (gurdwaras) often have paintings or murals of the two gurus who were martyred by the Muslims. Sikhs, who are Sikh by religion, are also Punjabi in culture, and they share in the folklore and traditions of the Punjab region.


All Sikhs are united by the common bond of religion, in particular their reverence for the Ten Gurus and the teachings that are set out in the sacred scriptures.

Nanak, the founder of Sikhism and its first guru, was born into a Hindu caste in a village in the Punjab. At the age of 30, he underwent a revelation that led him to commence his ministry among the peoples of the region. In his teachings, he embraced the concept of one God, the lack of any need for priests or ceremonial rituals, a classless society, and the equality of women. He worshiped at both Hindu and Muslim holy places and is even said to have gone on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

At Guru Nanak's death, he was succeeded by Angad (1538– 1552), who was followed by Amardas (1469–1574). Amardas appointed his own son-in-law, Ramdas (1534–1581), to succeed him and from this time, all the remaining gurus came from the same family. The fifth guru, Arjun Mal (1563-1606), son of Ramdas, began the compilation of the Adi Granth, the sacred book of the Sikhs, in 1604. This was a collection of verse containing the writings of the earlier Sikh Gurus, as well as that of Hindu and Muslim saints from northern India. Th is eventually led to Arjun Mal's death. He was ordered by the Mughal emperor Jehangir to remove all passages of the Granth that contradicted orthodox Muslim belief. Arjun Mal refused and was tortured to death in 1606.

The martyrdom of the fifth guru saw the beginning of the Sikh tradition of militarism. Hargobind (1595–1645), Arjun Mal's son, organized the Sikhs into a military brotherhood and often came into conflict with the ruling powers in northwestern India. Although the next two gurus, Har Rai (1630–1661) and Har Krishnan (1656–1664) are of minor importance, the ninth guru, Tegh Bahadur (1622–1675), was imprisoned and executed by the emperor Aurangzeb.

Gobind Singh, Tegh Bahadur's son, succeeded his father at a young age, becoming the tenth and one of the most important of the Sikh gurus. He announced that there were to be no more gurus after him because the Sikhs had an eternal guru in their scripture (the Adi Granth, also called the Guru Granth Sahib). But, as important, he was also responsible for converting the formerly pacifist Sikh religion into a powerful military and political movement. In 1699, he formed the Khalsa (the "Pure"), a fighting fraternity of Sikhs who all took the surname "Singh" ("Lion"). He required the Khalsa to wear their hair long and keep their beards unshaven and also to carry a sword on their person. The Khalsa were forbidden to smoke or drink alcohol. These, and other rules established by Gobind Singh, form part of the Sikh religion today.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion. There is only one God, who is the Creator of the universe and all things in it. Humans alone in the universe have the ability to enter into a voluntary relationship of love with God. However, attachment to the physical world (maya) leads to rebirth (samsara) as a result of past actions (karma). The only way to achieve liberation (mukti) is to become God-conscious and God-filled (gurmukh). Th is can be achieved by following the path set out by the Gurus and the scriptures.

Worship, either at home or in the temple, is central to the Sikh community. At the gurdwara, Sikhs bow before the Granth with great reverence. The holy book is placed on a special altar, it is offered flowers, and a temple attendant fans it day and night. On special occasions it is carried in procession, accompanied by the singing of sacred songs. Gurdwaras are more than just places of worship, for they have meeting rooms, and kitchens (langar) for providing free food. Surmounting the building is a flag-staff flying a triangular yellow flag bearing the symbol of Sikhism, a quoit with a dagger in the center and two swords crossing beneath. Gurdwaras are found wherever there are Sikh communities, even outside of India. However, the Golden Temple at Amritsar in the Punjab is the most sacred site in the Sikh religion. It was the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army in 1984 in an attempt to dislodge Sikhs opposing the central government that led to the assassination of India's then prime minister, Indira Gandhi.


In the 16th century, Guru Amardas initiated the custom of assembling the Sikhs at the time of three important Hindu festivals (Vaisakhi, Divali, and Holi). His purpose was to wean them away from Hinduism, and today these occasions continue to be celebrated as Sikh festivals (melas). Vaisakhi, which falls in the middle of April, marks the beginning of the New Year in the Punjab. It is of particular significance in Amritsar, the traditional gathering place of the Sikhs, where it remains an important religious, political, and social occasion. Divali, the Festival of Lights for the Hindus, has much the same meaning for the Sikhs. Gurdwaras are decorated with oil lamps or electric lights, fireworks displays may be held, and small children receive presents. Holi, the spring festival of the Hindus, was originally a time for the Sikhs to gather and undertake military exercises. Today, the principal location of the Sikh Holi is Anandpur, where a fair is held, pilgrims gather, and the flags of all the local gurdwaras are taken out in procession.

The Sikhs also observe a number of gurpurbs, holidays related to events in the lives of the gurus. Many of these are local affairs, but three are celebrated worldwide: the birthdays of Guru Nanak (November) and Guru Gobind Singh (December) and the martyrdom of the fifth guru, Arjun Mal (May–June). At these times, the Granth is taken out in procession in the streets of the village or city, bands and speakers are arranged for entertainment, and free food is distributed. A complete reading of the Granth, which takes about 48 hours, is often held at this time.


The birth of a boy or a girl is equally welcome among the Sikhs. After a baby is born, the entire family visits the gurdwara with traditional offerings of money, sweets, and a rumala, a piece of brocade or silk for the Granth. After readings from the Granth, the book will be opened at random, and the first word on the left-hand page is read aloud to the parents. The parents will then choose a name beginning with the first letter of the word. The granthi, the scripture reader, then announces the chosen name to the congregation, adding Singh ("Lion") after a boy's name and Kaur ("Princess") after a girl's.

In a strict sense, Sikhs are not born Sikhs but are baptized into the religion. (Converts to Sikhism in the West are known as gora Sikhs, or "white" Sikhs). Initiation rites are the same for Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Initiates should be over 14 years of age and in possession of the five "Ks" of Sikhism. Th ese are the five symbols Guru Gobind Singh instructed his Khalsa to wear: uncut hair (kesa), a comb in the hair (kanga), a steel bracelet (kara), a sword (kirpan), and shorts (kachha). The ceremony includes readings from the Granth, an explanation of the principles of the Sikh faith, and the ritual preparation of amrit (nectar or sugar water), which is given to the initiates. A newcomer to Sikhism is given a Sikh name in the same manner as a child.

Sikhs cremate their dead, although burial is permissible. Ashes are usually placed in the nearest river. Death rituals are a family affair with the body being washed by members of the family, who ensure it is wearing the five symbols of the Sikh faith. Prayers may be offered in the gurdwara and, when the mourners return home, it is customary for a complete reading of the Granth to occur. The final act is the sharing of a meal by family and mourners, symbolizing the continuity of life and normal social activities in the face of death. Sikhs do not build funeral monuments.


The proper form of address for Sikhs is Sardar (Mr.) or Sardarni (Mrs.). If one does not know a man's name, he is addressed as Sardarji, or Sardar Sahib. Among the peasantry and the working class, a man is usually referred to as Bhaiji, or Bhai Sahib (Brother) and a woman as Bibiji (Mistress), or Bhainji (Sister). The title Giani is used for a scholar or a theologian.

Two forms of greetings are traditional among the Sikhs. In the more common one, a Sikh joins the palms of his or her hands and says "Sat Sri Akal" ("God is Truth"). The second form is practiced by men, especially when addressing large gatherings. The palms are joined and the man says "Wah Guru Ji Ka Khalsa" ("The Sikhs are the Chosen of God"). The response to this is "Wah Guru Ji Ki Fateh" ("God be Victorious").


Most Sikhs in the Punjab live in comfortable homes, built around a central courtyard. All villages in the Punjab are electrified, and most households have radios and televisions. Refrigerators and other conveniences of modern living are available to those who can afford them. Road and rail transportation facilities in the region are excellent.


Guru Nanak rejected the caste system of the Hindus. Features of the Sikh religion, such as the common surnames, the common kitchen, and the absence of priests, were intended to remove the distinctions of caste. Yet, Sikh converts were drawn from local Hindu castes, such as the Jats, and caste (jat or zāt) has not been completely eliminated from the Sikh community. Sikhs will eat together and worship together, but marriages are still usually arranged among the same subgroup or caste, such as Jat, Arora, or Ramgarhia.

Among Sikhs, marriage is not so much an arrangement as it is a joint decision based on considerations like the desires of the couple, caste, social status, and economic considerations. The Sikh family structure is based on the extended family, so the compatibility of the bride with her potential in-laws is a concern. Above all, however, a Sikh should marry a Sikh. The bride and groom may meet each other before the wedding but never alone; Sikhs disapprove of dating. An engagement may occur, but this is not necessary. Child marriage has always been shunned by the Sikhs. The legal age for marriage in India is 18 for women and 21 for men, and Sikhs generally adhere to this practice. Sikhism does not condone the taking or giving of a dowry.

The marriage ceremony is usually held before sunrise. It takes place in the bride's village and can occur anywhere, as long as the Granth is present. The ceremony is accompanied by the chanting of hymns that give advice on marriage, and readings from the Granth. The bride and groom give their consent to the union by bowing towards the Granth. The bride's father ties the end of his daughter's scarf to one worn by the groom, and the couple, led by the groom, circles the Granth four times. At the last circling, flower petals may be thrown. Following the marriage ceremony and further celebrations at the bride's home, the marriage party leaves for the groom's home where the bride begins her new life. Sikhism does not recognize divorce and has no restrictions against widow remarriage.


Traditional dress for the Sikh is tight-legged trousers, covered by a long shirt (kurtā) worn hanging down outside the trousers. This is accompanied by a turban, most commonly the peaked "Patiala" style, the most distinctive item of a male Sikh's clothes. The turban, which is a symbol of religious and social identity, may be of any color. White is often worn at a time of mourning, pink at weddings, and yellow at the spring Basant festival when the mustard crop is flowering. The hair is uncut, tied into a topknot under the turban, and the beard is worn full. Traditional Sikh dress is completed by the remainder of the five "Ks," the comb, the bracelet, the sword, and the shorts. (The wearing of traditional Sikh dress has sometimes raised legal issues in the West, for instance, in countries and states that have motorcycle helmet laws or laws against carrying concealed weapons.)

Sikh women wear the trousers and tunic (salwar-kamiz) that is usually associated with Muslims but that is really the regional dress of the Punjab. Along with this, they wear a scarf (dupattā) over their shoulders or around their heads.

Western-style dress (pants, shirts, and suits) has become common among men, although the turban is still worn with it. Women have taken to wearing the Indian sārī, although only the elites in large cities have adopted modern women's styles of clothing.


The staple diet of the Sikhs is typical of the Punjab—wheat, buffalo milk, and milk products. A typical meal consists of flat bread (rotī) made from wheat or maize, a cup of lentils or other pulses (dāl), and hot tea or buttermilk. In winter, vegetables made from mustard or other greens and served with butter may be added. Though Sikhs are nonvegetarian and are particularly fond of goat meat, the cost of meat means it is only eaten on special occasions. Sikhs are forbidden to eat halal meat, that is, meat from an animal whose throat is ritually cut (Muslims can only eat halal meat). Sikhs share the Hindu view on eating beef, and many devout Sikhs will not eat meat, fish, or eggs.

Most Sikhs observe the prescribed taboo on tobacco, but not on liquor. Opium and hashish (bhang) are also widely used in rural areas.


Education, both traditional and modern, has come to be an important aspect of Sikhism. One of the aims of the Singh Sabha, an organization founded in the late 1800s, was to promote education. The Singh Sabha opened hundreds of schools and a college in Amritsar where Sikh religion and Khalsa traditions were included in the curriculum. The Sikh Educational Conferences, meeting annually since 1908, are responsible for promoting education in the community.


The Sikhs have their own traditions of music, painting, and architecture. The sacred music of the Sikhs is called Kirtan, which means singing the praises of God in melody and rhythm. The gurus based their compositions on classical Indian music, combined with elements of popular Punjabi folk tunes. Importance is placed on vocal music, although hymns are accompanied by the drum, the harmonium, and other musical instruments. Although there is no distinct Sikh school of painting, Sikh artists have been part of the Pahari, Kangra, and other traditions of painting that have flourished in northwestern India. A Sikh tradition of portrait painting flourished for a short while under the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Sikh architecture, as seen in the gurdwaras, represents a combination of Mughal and Hindu styles, developed in a uniquely Sikh manner.

Beyond their own traditions of sacred literature, Sikhs have also made important contributions to modern Punjabi literature. Sikh writers include Vir Singh, Nanak Singh, and, more recently, the poets Purana Singh, Amrita Pritam, and Prabjhot Kaur. Khushwant Singh, a noted author and journalist, has devoted much of his life to the study of Sikh culture.


The majority of Sikhs are peasant farmers living in hamlets and villages scattered across the Punjab plains. It was the Sikhs and other peasant farmers in the Punjab who were largely responsible for the success of the Green Revolution in India during the 1960s, when India went from "famine to plenty, from humiliation to dignity." The Green Revolution tripled food production, and the Punjab became known as the "breadbasket of India," with Sikh farmers adapting their farming methods to more mechanized techniques, using high-yielding hybrid seeds, the application of fertilizer, and irrigation. One consequence of this was an in increase in the material wealth of the Sikhs—the Punjab had the highest per capita income of any state in India during the 1960s. However, many Sikhs are now leaving the land. India's 2001 Census found that only 39% of the working population of Punjab State was employed in agro-business.

There is a strong martial tradition among the Sikhs dating to the formation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The fighting qualities of the Sikhs were acknowledged by the British after the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 19th century when the British incorporated the Khalsa regiments into their fighting forces. The Sikh regiments remained loyal to the British during the 1857 sepoy uprising and saw distinguished service during the two world wars of the 20th century. At this time, Sikhs made up 20% of the British Indian Army, though they accounted for only 2% of the Indian population. The tradition of military service continues today in the police and armed forces, in which Sikhs have reached the highest officer ranks. Today, Sikhs make up an element in India's armed forces, which is out of all proportion to their population in the country.

Sikhs have also achieved high office in politics and government service. Swaran Singh was appointed to Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru's cabinet after Independence and served in various ministerial capacities in several Indian governments. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister in 2008, was finance minister in the Union (central) government from 1991 to 1996, and Giani Zail Singh was president of India from 1982–87.

Manmohan Singh was born in the Punjab in 1932. He is considered one of the most influential figures in India's recent history, mainly because of the economic liberalization he had initiated in 1991 when he was finance minister under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. Manmohan Singh, as of 2008, headed a rather weak government formed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of 12 political parties led by the Indian Congress, but which only retained power with the support of the Left Front (which was not a part of the coalition), a group of Indian Communist parties. Th is caused problems for the prime minister. Since the 1980s, India has been under a nuclear trade embargo by the United States, primarily because it is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States has tended to favor General Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan as a result of their assistance in the War on Terror. In early 2006, however, President George W. Bush of the United States visited India and negotiated a treaty, highly favorable to India, which would allow for U.S. nuclear trade with India and cooperation in the areas of domestic nuclear development. Ratification of this treaty by the Indian Parliament, was blocked by the Left Front, which threatened to withdraw its support from the government if the UPA were to bring the treaty to a vote. But Manmohan Singh persuaded the Samajwadi Party (SP), a former adversary based in the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, to back it over the nuclear deal. So as of 2008, the treaty might be salvaged after all.


There are no sports associated specifically with the Sikh religion. However, Sikhs, who as a group are of impressive physical stature and among the more imposing of the peoples of India, have excelled in the sports arena. Bishen Singh Bedi, the Test (international) cricketer, and Balbir Singh, the Indian field hockey player, are just two of the many Sikhs who have achieved national and international honors in Indian sports.


There are no forms of entertainment and recreation associated specifically with Sikhs, although they enjoy Punjabi games, folk songs, and dances. In keeping with the Sikh martial tradition, sword-play is a popular pastime among men. Sikhs are also fond of telling jokes about themselves.


Among the arts and crafts for which Sikhs are known is hand embroidery work on cloth known as Phulkari. The Rumala offered to the gurdwara on the occasion of a birth is a piece of brocade or silk embroidered with religious symbols and lettering that is used to decorate the Guru Grant Sahib. In Amritsar there is a tradition of ivory-carving, with images of Hindu deities, Sikh portraits, and replicas of the Golden Temple being offered to the pilgrim visiting the city.


A major problem that the Sikh community faced in the recent past was that of Sikh separatism. Despite the creation in 1966 of a Punjabi-speaking state with a Sikh majority, a section of the Sikh community continued to demand a greater degree of autonomy. The Akali Dal, a religious movement originally founded in 1920 to gain control of the community's gurdwaras but that has since developed into a political party, set out its demands in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution in 1973. Implicit in this resolution was the idea that the Sikhs were a nation separate from the Hindus, and this eventually led to extremist demands for an independent Sikh state of "Khalistan."

For over 20 years, the Punjab was the scene of a struggle between Sikh militants and the central Indian government, with moderates from both sides caught in the deadly crossfire. In the 1970s and 80s, a movement, which was probably not supported by most Punjabis, began in the Punjab to secede from the Indian Union and create a separate, sovereign Sikh state of "Khalistan." Allegedly supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the movement reached its peak during mid 1980s under Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. It then slowly ebbed, primarily due to the loss of popular support. The movement also hindered economic investment, became increasingly militant, and threw Punjab into a state of anarchy with increased levels of terrorism. The movement resulted in counter-terrorism operations conducted by the Indian Army and the Punjab Police which caused the deaths of thousands of innocent Sikhs according to Human Rights Watch. Politicians and leaders were assassinated, the lives of common people were disrupted by terrorism, and hundreds—if not thousands of Sikhs were murdered. In Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army was sent to attack the Golden Temple in Amritsar to dislodge the followers of Bindranwale, the extremist Sikh religious leader who opposed the government in Delhi. This violation of the most sacred of Sikh holy places led directly to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh security guards. In reprisal for her death, hundreds of Sikhs were killed by Hindus in Delhi and other northern cities. After the bombing of Air India Flight 182, an alleged attack by Sikh separatists that claimed the lives of 329 Canadian civilians over the Irish Sea in 1985, support for Khalistan lessened considerably.

However, the anti-Sikh riots across Northern India in 1984 had repercussions in Punjab State. Th ousands of innocent Hindus and Sikhs were killed by extremists of both religions, trains were attacked, and people were shot after being pulled from buses. In 1987, 32 Hindus were pulled out of a bus and shot, near Lalru in Punjab by Sikh militants. According to Human Rights Watch, "In the beginning of the 1980s, Sikh separatists in Punjab committed serious human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, attacks upon non-Sikhs in the state, and indiscriminate bomb attacks in crowded places." Indira Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother as India's prime minister, tried unsuccessfully to bring peace to the Punjab. In 1985 an Accord was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Sant Harchand Singh Longowal, president of the Akali Dal, yielding to many of the Sikhs' demands (e.g. transfer of Chandigarh to Punjab as its state's capital), but Longowal was assassinated in 1985. Few of the Accord's terms were implemented by New Delhi. Between 1987 and 1991, Punjab was placed under the president's rule and was governed from the center. Elections were eventually held in 1992 but the voter turnout at 24% was very poor. A new Congress (I) government was formed, and it gave the police chief of the state K. P. S. Gill a free hand to quell the insurgency. Gill was ruthless against the insurgents, and his methods severely weakened the insurgency movement. However, Gill's reign is also regarded as one of the bloodiest in the history of the country: thousands of innocents were killed in fake encounters and countless disappeared from their homes. The Punjab police were also accused of crimes, such as rape and torture of women and children, according to several reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Life in the Punjab is slowly returning to normal. Sikhs and Hindus have lived side by side for almost 500 years, and many deplore the violent events of the last several decades. But a lasting solution to the Punjab problem seems to depend on at least two fundamental issues: Sikh recognition that no Indian government could ever grant independence to such a strategically important region, and New Delhi's willingness to resolve legitimate grievances of the Sikhs. The third and, perhaps, unknown factor in this equation remains the Sikh religion itself.


Although the Sikh gurus preached gender equality, in actual fact in Sikh society women are treated very much as they are by Hindus and Sikh women face many of the same issues as are found in Hindu society. Thus, Sikh families have a preference for male children and boys tend to be treated much better than girls. Female infanticide and sex selective abortions are a problem and the Census of India 2001 shows that the Sikh community has the lowest ratio of females to males of any religious community in India. The ratio of men and women in Punjab is so out of balance that young, light-skinned girls from poor areas such as Nepal are being brought to the Punjab where they are sold as wives to wealthy peasant farmers.

Women cannot participate in Panj Piaray and other Sikh rituals and the way they are treated by men certainly belies their theoretical "equality." Only in 2005 did the religious promotion and affairs committee of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC)—the governing body for Sikh shrines—decide that Sikh women would be allowed to perform kirtan (singing hymns) and palki sewa (carrying the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib in a palanquin) on religious occasions, a decision that caused an outcry in the Sikh community.

It is not uncommon for Sikh women to be subjected to physical and sexual abuse by their husbands, while rape, torture, and killings—committed by both militants and Indian security forces—was a problem during the recent "troubles" in the Punjab.


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—by D. O. Lodrick