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Symbols, Community and Contest: Jhatka and Tobacco in the Politics of Sikh Identity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 June 2021

University of Delhi


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the process of community-centric awakening was producing the politics of religious identity, mobilisations, and mutual cultural contests between different communities. Punjab being a province that was inhabited mostly by Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs witnessed an identity based triangular contest between these religious communities where the political leadership of each community picked up cultural symbols to mobilise, organise, and consolidate their respective constituencies. While presenting an account of the symbolic manoeuvrings around jhatka and tobacco in the politics of Sikh identity during the colonial and post-colonial contexts respectively, this article examines the role of symbols in community-centric discourses wherein cultural differences are transformed into cultural discord or antagonism. Here, it is argued that the meanings communicated and deciphered through such symbols need to be comprehended by locating their articulations in the field of inter-community power relations.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Royal Asiatic Society

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1 A. D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (New York, 2009), p. 25.

2 H. Deol, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab (London, 2000).

3 P. R. Brass, Language, Religion, and Politics in North India (London, 1974).

4 Yang, A., ‘Sacred Symbol and Sacred Space in Rural India: Community Mobilization in the Anti-Cow Killing Riot of 1893’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, 4 (1980), pp. 576596CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Robinson, Francis, ‘Nation Formation: The Brass Thesis and Muslim separatism’, Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 15 (1977), pp. 215230CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the same lacunae in the Brass's model has been pointed out by C. Jaffrelot in The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s: Strategies of Identity-Building, Implementation, and Mobilisation (New Delhi, 1996), p. 80.

6 F. Barth (ed.), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference (Boston, 1969), pp. 9–38.

7 C. Bhatt, Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths (Oxford, 2001), pp. 179–185; B. Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (New Delhi, 2009); T. B. Hansen, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (New Jersey, 1999), pp. 60–89.

8 In this respect, Narayan's work is a bit different for it does recognise such aspirations while examining the political strategies of lower caste groups. But while accounting the symbolic manipulations of the Hindutva forces, his analysis glosses over the possibility of any such socio-cultural aspirations behind Hindutva's ideological objectives.

9 S. B. Freitag, Collective Action and Community: Public Arenas and the Emergence of Communalism in North India (Berkeley, 1989); R. Kaur, Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism: Public Uses of Religion in Western India (Delhi, 2003).

10 P. van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (California, 1994).

11 Ibid., pp. 7–10.


12 B. Josh and S. Joshi, Struggle for Hegemony in India 1920–47, Volume III: Culture, Community and Power (New Delhi, 1994).

13 Ibid., pp. 17–19.


14 Ibid., p. 31.


15 Ibid., p. 63.


16 Developing on the Weberian distinction between instrumental and value rationality, Ashutosh Varshney opines that motivations in ethnic and nationalistic politics can be understood better by recognising that passions and aspirations in such movements are driven by value rationality wherein “some spheres or goals of life are considered so valuable that they would not normally be up for sale or compromise, however costly the pursuit of their realization might be”. Varshney, A., ‘Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Rationality’, Perspectives on Politics 1, 1 (2003), pp. 8599CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Josh and Joshi have characterised these two strategies as Akbar and Aurangzeb paradigms of cultural hegemony. See Struggle for Hegemony, pp. 87–100.

18 The constraint that cultural internality imposes on the possibilities of effective politics in the name of a community gets reflected in Dhulipala's account of the idea of Pakistan in late colonial India. It describes how this idea was both propagated and resisted by different sections of Muslim ulama through contrasting articulations of the vocabulary and aspirations of shared empowerment which were rooted in the common Muslim cultural internality. On the other hand, the Muslim mass-contact programme of the Congress party failed miserably in keeping the Muslim masses away from the idea of Pakistan primarily because it appealed from the vantage point of a culturally neutral discourse of secularism. V. Dhulipala, Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India (Delhi, 2015), pp. 49–119, pp. 279–313.

19 David Gilmartin seems to allude towards this distinction when, in relation to the Muslim community in colonial India, he identifies two discourses of the Muslim community, one that was rooted in colonial sociology and the other in the self-perception of Muslims. Gilmartin, D., ‘A Magnificent Gift: Muslim Nationalism and the Election Process in Colonial Punjab’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 40, 3 (July 1998), pp. 415436CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 R. Singh, State Formation and the Establishment of Non-Muslim Hegemony: Post Mughal 19th Century Punjab 1780–1839 (New Delhi, 2015).

21 For an instance of the characterisation of Ranjit Singh's reign as secular, see M. Kaur, The Regime of Maharaja Ranjit Singh: Historians' Observations (Chandigarh, 2007), pp. ix-xv.

22 For policies of Ranjit Singh's rule that symbolised the non-Muslim counter-hegemony in Punjab, see T. Hasan, Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India (New Delhi, 2015), pp. 35–6; M. Athar Ali, ‘Mughal Empire and its Successors’, in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. V, (eds.) C. Adle and I. Habib (Paris, 2003), p. 319.

23 M. Condos, The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 67–102.

24 H. Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (Oxford, 1997), pp. 207–216.

25 For a detailed discussion on the changes brought by the intervention of colonial State in the modes of conceiving religious identities in colonial India, see Hansen, The Saffron Wave, pp. 29–39.

26 For the importance of numbers in modern politics and its impact on the communitarian perceptions in Indian politics, see S. Kaviraj, ‘Religion, Politics and Modernity’, in Crisis and Change in Contemporary India, (eds.) U. Baxi and B. Parekh (New Delhi, 1995), pp. 295–316.

27 B. R. Nayar, Minority Politics in the Punjab (Princeton, 1966), p. 78.

28 The perception of decline among the Sikh elites in Punjab can be compared to the observation of a similar perception prevalent among the Muslim elites of the United Provinces in the late nineteenth century. In both cases, the decline was more relative than absolute. For the case of Muslim elites in United Province, see Robinson, F., ‘Nation formation: The Brass Thesis and Muslim Separatism’, Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 15, 3 (1977), pp. 215230CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Gilmartin, ‘A Magnificent Gift’.

30 Jalal, A. and Seal, A., ‘Alternative to Partition: Muslim Politics between the Wars’, Modern Asian Studies 15, 3 (1981), pp. 415454CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 For more on the constitutional demands made on behalf of the Sikh community during such debates, see Nair, N., ‘Partition and Minority Rights in Punjabi Hindu Debates, 1920–47’, Economic and Political Weekly 46, 2 (2011), pp. 6169Google Scholar.

32 Ibid.


33 For Fazl-i-Hussain's preoccupation with the upliftment of the Muslim community and the ideological differences which he had with the Muslim League in pursuing Muslim interests, see I. H. Malik, ‘Localism and Trans-Regionalism in Punjab: Inception of Muslim Modernism in Sir Fazl-i-Husain’, Journal of Pakistan Vision 10, 2 (2009), pp. 22–49.

34 G. S. Reki, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia and his Relevance in Sikh Politics (New Delhi, 1999), pp. 117–123.

35 For the nature of Akali Dal's accusations against the Unionist ministry, see H. S. Dard, Panth: Dharam te Rajniti [Community: Religion and Politics] (Jalandhar, 1949); and D. Singh, The Valiant Fighter: A Biographical Study of Master Tara Singh (Lahore, 1942), pp. 122–137.

36 For an account of major sectarian riots between 1937 to 1939 in different parts of north India, see B. R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India (Bombay, 1945), pp. 172–175.

37 María, A. H. S. and García, I. M., ‘Communalism in the British Punjab During 1937 to 1939: Focus on Religion and Language’, Al-Hikmat 35 (2015), pp. 121Google Scholar.

38 For an example, see K. Singh (translator), Rattan Singh Bhangoo: Sri Guru Panth Prakash : Vol. 2 (Chandigarh, 2006), p. 87.

39 R. Singh, Jhatkā Mās Prath āi Tat Gurmat Nirṇay (Amritsar, 1973). For more recent reproductions of Singh's views, see J. S. Talwara, Tau Kyu Murgī Māre (Amritsar, 1999); J. P. Sangat Singh, Sikh Dharam aur Mās Ṣarāb (Amritsar, 2008).

40 N. S. Saral, Jhaṭkā Prakāsh (Amritsar, 1966), pp. 8–10; Gurbaksh Singh Kala Afgana, Mās Mās Kar Mūrakh Jhagaḍe (Amritsar, 1996), pp. 33–42.

41 Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, pp. 350–351.

42 K. Singh (ed.), Hardinge Papers Related to Punjab (Patiala, 2002), p. 83.

43 ‘Muslims Excited over Animal Slaughter’, Times of India, 24 August 1935.

44 ‘Communal Tension in Lahore’, Times of India, 3 September 1935.

45 The account of the incident has been summarised from a report in the Subject Files, File no. 109 (1937), Sunder Singh Majithia Collection, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Another account of the Jandiala Sherkhan events with minor differences are published in a biography of Kartar Singh Jhabbar by N. Singh, Akāli Morche ate Jhabbar (Patiala, 1959)

46 According to Narain Singh, Bagga Singh along with some other Sikhs had appeared before the District Commissioner on the agreed date (26 August 1937) but neither Ghulam Hussain nor any of his nominees turned up. Singh, Akāli Morche ate Jhabbar, p. 248.

47 The Sri Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.) is a body of Sikh representatives elected by the Sikh electorate, instituted by the Sikh Gurudwara Act (1922), and entrusted with the control and management of Sikh shrines and gurudwaras (places of Sikh worship) in India. Since its inception, the S. G. P. C. has been a stronghold of the Akali Dal and its various factions.

48 The additional condition regarding cow slaughter, which was considered as a sacrilege by both Hindus and Sikhs, conveys that the Akali leadership was now interested in raising the episode of Jandiala Sherkhan to renegotiate cultural power on behalf of the non-Muslim enclosure in Punjab. For the cow protection movement in Punjab, see J. R. McLane, Indian Nationalism and the Early Congress (Princeton, 1977), pp. 305–306.

49 For such a portrayal of benign, apolitical and harmonious everyday life, see M. Hasan's chapter, ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: Pre-History of Communalism’, in his Moderate or Militant: Images of India's Muslims (New Delhi, 2008); Ashis Nandy, ‘The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance’, in Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, (ed.) V. Das (Delhi, 1990) pp. 69–93.

50 Freitag, S., ‘Sacred Symbol as Mobilizing Ideology: The North Indian Search for a “Hindu” Community’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, 4 (1980), pp. 597625CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Singh, The Valiant Fighter, pp. 171–4.

52 V. Grover, Political Thinkers of Modern India: Volume 28: Master Tara Singh (New Delhi, 1993), p. 72.

53 Oren, S., ‘The Sikhs, Congress, and the Unionists in British Punjab, 1937–1945’, Modern Asian Studies 8, 3 (1974), pp. 397418CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 C. Chatterjee, The Sikh Minority and the Partition of the Punjab 1920–1947 (Oxford, 2019), pp.108–110.

55 L. Carter (ed.), Punjab Politics: 1940–1943: Strains of War, Governors' Fortnightly Reports and Other Key Documents (New Delhi, 2005), p. 417.

56 T. Y. Tan and G. Kudaisya (eds.), The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (London, 2000), p. 213.

57 Gosal, G. S., ‘Religious Composition of Punjab's Population Changes: 1951–61’, Economic and Political Weekly 17, 4 (1965), pp. 119124Google Scholar.

58 Nayar, Minority Politics in the Punjab, pp. 11–56.

59 Figures of the distribution of religious communities in the rural and urban areas of Punjab have been taken from P. Kumar et al., Punjab Crisis: Context and Trends (Chandigarh, 1984), p. 51.

60 For more on the ideas of Sikh nationhood articulated in late colonial Punjab, see T. Fazal, Nation-State and Minority Rights in India: Comparative Perspectives on Muslim and Sikh identities (Oxford, 2015) pp. 169–186.

61 I. Banga, ‘Sikhs and the Prospects of Pakistan’, in History and Ideology: the Khalsa over 300 years, (eds.) J. S. Grewal and I. Banga (New Delhi, 1999), pp. 190–199.

62 V. Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (London, 1991); S. Purewal, Sikh Ethnonationalism and the Political Economy of Punjab (New Delhi, 2000).

63 P. Singh, Federalism, Nationalism and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (Oxford, 2007); P. R. Brass, ‘The Punjab Crisis and the Unity of India’, in India's Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations, (ed.) A. Kohli (Princeton, 1988), pp. 169–213; P. Wallace, ‘Religious and Ethnic Politics: Political Mobilization in the Punjab’, in Dominance and State Power in Modern India: Vol. 2, (eds.) F. R. Frankel and M. S. A. Rao (Delhi, 1990), pp. 416–481.

64 P. R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India, Table no. 7.3, 7.4, pp. 360–362; For a more general account of the religious composition of Punjab Vidhan Sabha since 1967, see A. K. Gupta, Emerging Pattern of Political Leadership, A Case Study of Punjab (New Delhi, 1991), pp. 81–83.

66 K. Singh, A History of the Sikh: Vol. II: 1839–1988 (Oxford, 1999), pp. 327–8.

67 Kumar, A., ‘Electoral Politics in Punjab: Study of Akali Dal’, Economic and Political Weekly 39, 14/15 (2004), pp. 15151520Google Scholar.

68 Singh, A History of the Sikhs, pp. 337–344.

69 Ibid., Appendix 6, pp. 471–477.


70 The implications of such a hegemonic position can be gathered from Foucault's observations about the nature of power struggle. See D. F. Bouchard (editor and translator), Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault (New York, 1977), p. 149.

71 For an account of the clash, see S. K. Singh, They Massacre Sikhs! - A Report by Sikh Parliament S.G.P.C. (Amritsar, 1978).

72 The immediate shock and indignation in the Sikh community can be gathered from the content in publications like Baisakhi 1978 dā Khūni Sākā (The Bloody Incident of Baisakhi 1978), the special edition of Gurmukhi magazine Soora (Amritsar, 1978); and Singh Sabha Patrika (Amritsar, 1978). For such sentiments in English-language periodicals claiming to voice Sikh opinion, see ‘Second Biggest Massacre of Sikhs in the Century’, The Sikh Review, 24 April 1978, and ‘American Sikhs Express Solidarity with the Panth over Massacre’, The Spokesman Weekly, 15 May 1978.

73 The All-India Sikh Students’ Federation (A. I. S. S. F.) was established in 1943 as a student wing of the Akali Dal but it emerged as a crucial ally of Bhinderanwale after the Amritsar clash of 1978. For an account of the establishment of militant organisations in the wake of this confrontation, see J. S. Chima, The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India: Political Leadership and Ethnonationalist Movements (New Delhi, 2009), pp. 47–48.

74 Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindernwale was the head of Damdami Taksal which is an institution of Sikh orthodoxy with its headquarters situated in Amritsar. See Harjot Oberoi, ‘Sikh Fundamentalism: Translating History into Theory’, in Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance, (eds.) M. E. Mary and R. S. Appleby (Chicago, 1993), pp. 256–285.

75 It was a characteristic feature of Bhinderanwale's public statements to question the panthic commitment of the Akalis. For instance, in a public gathering held for paying homage to the deceased Sikhs, he addressed the Akali leaders and exhorted, “…you asked for time to give us justice and we shall wait. Please take care that the time is not wasted”. Afterwards, facing the crowd he continued: “… if the leaders show any weakness and we do not get any justice, I shall be the first one to offer myself at the sacrifice”. See ‘Thousands Pay Homage’, The Tribune, 23 April 1978.

76 S. Jacob and M. Tully, Amritsar: Last Battle of Mrs. Gandhi (London, 1985), pp. 65–114.

77 For growth of militant assertions of Hindu identity, see Kumar, P., ‘Communalisation of Hindus in Punjab’, Secular Democracy 15, IX (1982), pp. 5358Google Scholar.

78 K. Nayar and K. Singh, Tragedy of Punjab: Operation Bluestar and After (New Delhi, 1984), p. 7.

79 For the detailed accounts of such legends and rahitnāmā injunctions, see the web pages and blogs devoted to the discussion of the issue of tobacco in Sikhism, e.g. ‘Do Not Smoke’, (accessed 30 August 2019); and (accessed 29 January 2020).

80 P. Singh and M. Kaur (eds.), Pārāśarpraśn: The Baisakhi of Guru Gobind Singh by Kapur Singh (Amritsar, 2001), pp. 82–96.

81 Letter to the Editor, The Tribune, 4 June 1981.

82 See fn. 49.

83 There is no provision of the status of holy-city in the constitution of Indian; however, according to these organisations cities like Haridwar, Varanasi and Kurukshetra, which have religious importance in Hinduism, were officially recognised as ‘holy-cities’ as the government authorities had prohibited the sale and consumption of meat and liquor to maintain the religious sanctity of these cities. For more on the anti-tobacco campaign, see Chima, The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India, pp. 59–61.

84 ‘Agitation on Amritsar’, Times of India, 3 June 1981.

85 ‘Amritsar, City of the Golden Temple, Limps Back to Normalcy after Fracas over Tobacco Ban’, India Today, 15 July 1981.

86 ‘Khalistan March in Amritsar’, The Tribune, 25 May 1981.

87 ‘Continued Tensions’, Spokesman Weekly 30, 41, 8 June 1981.

88 ‘Amritsar, City of the Golden Temple, Limps Back to Normalcy after Fracas over Tobacco Ban’, India Today, 15 July 1981 (slogan translated by the author).

89 ‘Continued Tensions’, Spokesman Weekly 30, 41, 8 June 1981.

90 ‘Amritsar's Tobacco War’, The Tribune, 29 May 1981.

91 ‘Longowal's Appeal’, The Tribune, 31 May 1981.

92 ‘Amritsar, City of the Golden Temple, Limps Back to Normalcy after Fracas over Tobacco Ban’, India Today, 15 July 1981.

93 Speech delivered on 11 May 1983, in R. S. Sandhu (translator), Struggle for Justice: Speeches and Conversations of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale (Ohio, 2000), p. 107.

94 Speech delivered in the Golden Temple on 23 May 1983, Ibid., p. 143.

95 A. Lavers (translator), Roland Barthes: Mythologies (New York, 1972), pp. 110–115.

96 Operation Bluestar was a military operation of the Indian Army which was carried out from 1–8 June 1984 under the command of Major General K. S. Brar with the objective of killing or arresting Bhinderanwale and his followers who were taking refuge and building fortifications in Amritsar's Golden Temple. For the detailed first-hand account of the operation, see K. S. Brar, Operation Bluestar: The True Story (New Delhi, 1993).

97 Singh and Nayar, Tragedy of Punjab, p. 19.

98 The five Ks of Sikhism include kes̕ (unshorn hair), kanghā (comb), kaṛā (metallic bangle), kacherā (soldier shorts), and kirpāṇ (ceremonial sword). These core symbols of the religion comprise only one part of the whole spectrum of the ‘symbolic content’ of Sikh identity politics, which also includes symbols drawn from the history of Sikh State formations and the Punjabi language (written in the Gurumukhi script), see Chima, The Sikh Separatist Insurgency in India, p. 27.

99 Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism, pp. 23–26.

100 For a detailed exposition on the categories of gurmukh and manmukh in Sikhism, see B. S. Bhogal, ‘Gur-Sikh dharam’, in Routledge History of World Philosophies: History of Indian Philosophy, (ed.) P. Bilimoria (New York, 2018), pp. 487–495.

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