The Sikhs of the Punjab in Post-1947 Politics and Fiction

E.L. Weeks, ‘Across the Pool to the Golden Temple of Amritsar’, painting oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Amritsar 1882-1883.

The Sikh a People and a Story

Sikhs, or shishya (Sanskrit for disciple), are adherents of Sikhism. This is a Punjabi monotheistic religion founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1538). He was an inquisitive individual who wanted to know what the meaning of life was. As a result, he met with representatives of Hinduism and Islam. He also meditated on the mysteries of life and the perspectives of others on some fundamental questions of life. Nanak traveled extensively during the first 15 years of the 16th century. During this time, he met with representatives from nearly every religion from Islam to Hinduism. In the end, he settled in the city of Kartarpur in Punjab, to disseminate his findings. Many people came to see him here, and his supporters spread the word.[1]

Some believers modified Nanak’s original vision throughout the years. Puritanism arose in the late nineteenth century as a result of a return to Nanak’s teachings, which included cultivating virtue in daily life, rejecting idols and priests, and worshiping a formless god. They sought to revert to a purer form of Sikhism in certain aspects. This also led to a lot of discussion of Sikh secession at the time.[2]

This wish for independence was however older than the late 19th century, for example multiple uprisings can be noted. There were some Sikh rebellions against the different Mughal and British overlords in 1605, 1675, 1707.[3] Between 1767 and 1849 there even was an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.[4] Thus the Sikh had a fighting spirit, they would sometimes rise up to fight for independence and actually had an independent state until the British annexed it.[5] The British domination of Sikh lands lasted until 1947.

In 1947, the British understood their position had become untenable, and arrangements were made to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent. The British hired lawyer Cyril Radcliffe (1899-1977) to devise a strategy for dividing the British Raj. He divided a whole subcontinent in seven weeks using out-of-date maps and incorrect census data.[6]

During the partition of 1947 a strong demand of a separate Sikh state was aired, but nevertheless it never materialized, and Punjab was even split between the newly created Pakistan and India.[7] Thus the Sikhs did not receive an own state, even worse their home state of Punjab was split.[8] Partition proved to be a massive tragedy in terms of devastation and displacement.[9] A lot of Sikh lives got upturned and many fanned out across India and the world.[10] However the wish for an independent state did not vanish in post 1947 India.

This brings us to the central theme of this essay. This is the representation of Sikhs in media and politics in post-1947 India. A pertinent issue here is, ‘How are Sikhs represented in post-1947 politics, what kinds of topics do they political engage with, and how do the political themes emerge in post-1947 media and literature?’. The first section of this article will address how Sikhs are represented in post-1947 Indian politics. This essay will employ secondary historiographical materials in the form of articles and books to address this question. The second section will look at how the ideas discussed in the chapter concerning politics are reflected in media representations of Sikhs in post-1947 India. For this section, secondary sources will be studied, but it will also look at Sadaat Hassan Mantoo’s (1912-1955) book Toba Tek Singh and Getting Even, authored by Ajneya S.H. Vatsyayan (1911-1987).

Representation in Politics

Following the partition of India in 1947, the country became a democratic state. In 1949, it was ruled that religious minorities had no place in a federal republic with a parliamentary democracy based on adult suffrage. As a result, proportional reservation with the option to contest extra seats was repealed.[11] This put Sikhs at a disadvantage because their chances of obtaining seats in parliament had reduced. Nonetheless, certain Sikh parties won a few seats in the first general election in 1952.[12] The Sikhs also succeeded in establishing a zone where Punjabi, the Sikh language, would be the medium of education and communication. The Sikhs continued to seek the establishment of a Sikh state in Punjab, but the Hindu administration feared secession and therefore denied them this.[13] This did not deter the Sikhs. Master Tara Singh (1885-1967) spearheaded a massive protest movement in the Punjab in 1957 for more regional Sikh autonomy, but as in the past, the government suppressed this movement in 1961-62, their demands were not realized, and the movement gradually faded down.[14]

Sikhs, as previously noted, were also politically engaged outside of politics through protest movements such as the current Farmers Movements of 2020. In the Sikh-dominated Punjab, large-scale protests have been organized. These demonstrations emerged as a result of the government and large globalist businesses and institutions such as the World Trade Organization changing the regulations. They produced three pieces of legislation targeted at pricing regulation, and in certain aspects, they wanted to establish an agricultural industry geared toward export.[15]

Many people, including many Punjabis, stood up and staged large-scale protests. This was due to the Punjabis’ negative memory of the outcomes of government-spurred agricultural restructuring in the 1960s. These restructurings resulted in environmental deterioration, opiate addiction, and fast societal disintegration. The widespread usage of pesticides resulted in the greatest groundwater problem and the highest cancer rates. Furthermore, the Sikhs rejected government intervention and centralization; they did not want interference in their autonomy, and therefore the threat of separatism was present.[16]

To wrap this part up, like stated earlier many Sikhs served as politicians inside the political arena after 1947 they are served as members of parliament or cabinet members, and between 2004 en 2014 there even was a Sikh prime minister named Manmohan Singh (1932).[17] Outside of the political sphere, however, things did not always go well. The attention of India and the world was attracted to the Punjab in the 1980s.

Voices for independence arose, and the Khalistan movement developed in the 1980s, seeking a separate state for Sikhs. During this decade, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) used a strong authoritarian style with an ambitious centralization goal, which sparked a conflict with the Punjab Sikhs because it infringed on their autonomy.[18] The Punjabis resisted, but the central authority pushed back even more. Tensions rose, and radicalism arose.[19]

The movement caused instability in the region which led to devastation and assassinations, which was exacerbated when the army intervened to restore calm. However the Sikhs refused to stand down and on the 6th of June 1984, the army stormed and damaged one of Sikhism’s holiest sites, the Golden Temple. As an act of vengeance prime minister Indira Gandhi was brutally murdered by her Sikh bodyguards.[20] As a result, additional massacres, human rights abuses, and extrajudicial killings of Sikhs by Hindus and the government occurred in various areas, primarily in Delhi.[21] Another notable incident was the increase of Sikh terrorism that followed the events of 1984, namely the bombing of Air India Flight 182.[22]

As a result, it is fair to say that the partition of 1947 is still very much alive among Sikhs today, and they still desire to have a homeland or some form of regional autonomy. The issue of identity, which is linked to language, geography, and religion, also plays a part in this. As a result, the Sikhs are a visible actor on the political scene.

Representation in media and literature

In Bollywood and literature, the political tale of the Sikh as a people caught between worlds may be witnessed. So, in this section of the essay, Bollywood and novels will be analyzed to see how the previously mentioned political themes and reasons recur in different contexts. This article will begin with Bollywood and then go on to books.

The theme of autonomy, identity, a quest for a home, and belonging also are visible in some Hindi cinema. Following the conclusion of ‘the Punjab crisis,’ which resulted in the increasing mobilization of Sikh identity, and increased visibility of Sikhs in prominent positions, a revision of the Sikh in the national imaginary was required.[23] While a few Hindi films, like Rang De Basanti, utilized the concept of the Sikh warrior/revolutionary in a nationalist context, other Sikh characters continued to function as comedic or heroic foils to the Hindu hero.[24] So the theme of nationalism, a quest for an own state also returns.

Earlier films frequently dealt with the theme of not belonging. Sumita S. Chakravarty (1965) wrote the book National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947– 1987 on Hindi cinema. In this study, she demonstrates the presence of othering in the formation of the contemporary Indian citizen-subject. Her study of nation-state politics reveals the restrictive techniques through which the country has established itself in films. Stereotypes, for example, are used to characterize the other. Sikhs are othered in these films, implying that they do not genuinely belong in India and so lack belonging.[25]

Sikhs have mainly regarded the community’s depiction in Hindi cinema as degrading, leading to the resurgence of the Punjabi film industry as an attempt at true self-representation.[26] Which also shows that there was tension between different identity groups and the longing for autonomy over ones own representation.

Next to that there is partition literature, and this is the most appropriate type of literature for this essay. This type of writing focuses on the 1947 split and its consequences. Furthermore, political issues such as autonomy, concerns of identity, a loss of home and belonging, and a homeland may be found in this style of literature. This section will look at two partition novels: Getting Even and Toba Tek Singh. It should be noted, however, that these two sources do not reflect the full body of partition stories including Sikh protagonists. These two serve as instances of how political issues emerge in fiction.

Sadaat Hassan Mantoo wrote Toba Tek Singh in 1955. This narrative is set in an insane asylum a few years after the partition. At first, the story is about a few different insane inmates, but beginning in chapter 6, the story focuses on Bishan Singh, a Sikh.[27]

These chapters represent the Sikh narrative in its entirety. The narrative depicts how the Sikh forebears’ ancestral lands were divided between Pakistan and India, albeit on an individual basis. Bishin Singh is the protagonist of this narrative, and he owns a house in Toba Tek Singh, but he has no idea where Toba Tek Singh has ended up. As a result, he is unaware of how the Punjab was divided between Pakistan and India. This is evident throughout the tale, as he continually asks where his home is in these chapters, but he never receives a satisfactory explanation.

So, in a way, this narrative depicted the alienation of a man who had lost his home due to the division. The notion of return and reclaiming his land and home is also present, particularly near the conclusion. Bishing Singh is at the border crossing at this point in the tale. At this moment, he is irritated since he has no idea where to go. He discovers that Toba Tek Singh is located in Pakistan. Following that, he rambles some incomprehensible phrases and expresses a desire to go into Pakistan to reach his home. Nonetheless, he is apprehended and detained in the area between India and Pakistan.

At the end of the narrative, he dies in the area between India and Pakistan, which the narrator of the story then declares to be Toba Tek Singh. This illustrates how some individuals belonged neither to Pakistan nor to India and were stuck between two worlds. This section depicts the bodily stress produced by being labeled as a person who does not belong in any country. Manto emphasizes the relationship between a person’s identity and his home in this way.[28]

Then there’s the second tale. Ajneya, also known as S.H Vatsayan, authored Getting Even. This story revolves around two Sikhs who were uprooted after the partition of India in 1947. They left Pakistan, and in the story, they are on a train between Delhi and Aligarh, where they encounter some other individuals.[29]

A Muslim woman boards this train, but she is terrified. She discovers she has boarded a train full of Sikhs, whose stares are pitiless and unblinking.[30] As a result, the Sikhs may be said to be riding this train in search of a new home. And because the situation is presented as a Muslim stranger entering a Sikh railway carriage, the religious identity component is there.

When two Hindus board the train, the religious identity conflict intensifies. At this point, the Muslim woman want to leave but is stopped by an elderly Sikh man.[31] Later on board the train, the Hindu began to tell about the awful things that had transpired in Delhi, and it is revealed that the elderly Sikh had lived through this. This section emphasizes that the elderly man lived there for a long time, yet he was nevertheless chased away and rendered homeless.[32] The not-belonging element is reiterated a few words later when the Hindu asks what the Sikh would do in Aligarh, because the Sikh responds that he just has his son and is still deciding where he will go.[33] So again belonging and identity is highlighted.

Another subject that comes up during the talk is the Hindu’s ignorance and the Sikh’s surprise at this. The Hindu appears to be perplexed as to why there is such animosity between Hindus and Sikhs. This is surprising considering he previously said that Hindus massacred Sikhs in Delhi.[34]

As a result, one may infer that this story, like Toba Tek Sing, illustrates how Sikhs lost a sense of home and were forced to wander India, yet their religious identity was something that could not be taken away.


This article began with a question, a question about representation. This question was as follows; ‘’How are Sikhs represented in post-1947 politics, what kinds of topics do they political engage with, and how do the political themes emerge in post-1947 media and literature?’. And, this essay has attempted to show the politics and the literature. This will be replayed shortly.

When it comes to politics, Sikhs are visible as politicians in parliament and even as prime minister. However, their importance in the corridors of power pales in comparison to their importance on the streets. As previously noted, there were certain mass movements in which Sikhs played a significant role.

These movements may be traced back to various times in the post-independence period. The 1950s saw a separatist movement led by Master Tara Singh, the 1980s and 1990s had the Khalistan movement, and 2020 saw the Farmers Movement in Punjab. All of these movements have one thing in common: they oppose central authority and advocate for increased autonomy for Punjabi Sikhs.

This article may also correctly infer that politics, literature, and media all reflect each other. The same issues of identity, belonging and autonomy that may be found in politics can also be found in literature and the media. This is also present in Hindi cinema wheee elements of identity and belonging are used in the process of othering the Sikhs.

Furthermore the elements can also be seen in books. Toba Tek Singh depicts a madman without a home, wondering where he belongs, and dying as if he belonged nowhere. Getting Even depicts Sikhs on the move, maybe looking for a new home, as well as religious identity conflicts between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs.

[1] J.S. Grenwal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge 1998), 7-8.

[2] P. Robb, A History of India (Basingstoke 2011), 248.

[3] Ibid., 86, 90, and 98.

[4] Ibid., 107 and 127.

[5] Ibid., 127.


[7] Robb, A History of India, 218-219.

[8] Ibid., 223.


[10] Robb, A History of India, 223.

[11] Grenwal, The Sikhs of the Punjab, 182-183.

[12] Ibid., 185.

[13] Ibid., 188-189.

[14] Ibid., 194-199.

[15] T. Singh, P. Singh & M. Dhanda, “Resisting a ‘Digital Green Revolution’: Agri-logistics, India’s New Farm Laws and the Regional Politics of Protest”, Capitalism Nature Socialism 32 (2021) 2, 1-21, there 11-21.

[16] Ibid., 11-21.

[17] Robb, A History of India, 316.

[18] R., Jetly, “THE KHALISTAN MOVEMENT IN INDIA: The Interplay of Politics and State Power”, International Review of Modern Sociology 34 (2008) 1, 61–75, there 63,

[19] Ibid., 67-68.

[20] Robb, A History of India, 312.

[21] Ibid., 325.

[22] S. Purewal, “SIKH DIASPORA AND THE MOVEMENT FOR KHALISTAN”, The Indian Journal of Political Science 72 (2011) 4, 1131–1142, there 1137.

[23] A. Gera Roy, ‘REPRESENTATION OF SIKHS IN BOLLYWOOD CINEMA’, Sikh Formations, 10 (2014) 2, 203-217, there 207.

[24] Ibid., 208.

[25]Ibid., 205.

[26] Ibid., 204.

[27] S. Hasan Manto, Toba Tek Singh (Pakistan 1955).

[28] S. Alter, ‘Madness and Partition: The Short Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto’, Journal of Comparative Poetics 14 (1994), 91-100, there 97-98.

[29]R. Allen and Harish Trivedi, Literature & nation : Britain and India, 1800 to 1990 (London and New York 200), 345.

[30] Ibid., 346.

[31] Ibid., 347.

[32] Ibid., 348.

[33] Ibid., 349.

[34] Ibid., 349-351.

Copyright © 2021

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