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In accepting Sikhism as a separate religion and its votaries as a community with an identity of their own - distinct from that of Hindus - the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is only recognizing an established fact. However, it marks a significant departure and a paradigm shift of sorts from what the Hindutva outfit has been propagating vigorously in Punjab over the past two years and more. In a devious attempt at subsuming Sikhism within the Hindu fold, the RSS and its offshoot - Rashtriya Sikh Sangat - have been projecting, through a calculated revanchist campaign, the idea that Sikhism is a branch of the Hindu religion and the Sikhs are but the sword arm of the Hindus. Its retraction from that position, which came about at the interaction an RSS delegation had with the National Minorities Commission on Tuesday, has to be seen in the context of the looming threat of a backlash from not only radical Sikh elements but also the religious establishment of the community. Although the Akal Takht Jathedar, Giani Joginder Singh Vedanti, reacted sharply in mid-2000 by issuing an edict condemning the sinister designs of the anti-Panthic forces to create confusion about the unique and distinct identity of the Sikhs, it was the RSS' outrageous move to observe Guru Purab and install the Guru Granth Sahib in Hindu temples that proved the proverbial last straw; to the Sikhs, who do not believe in idol worship, nothing could be a greater affront than to see their holy book placed in the sanctum of a Hindu shrine. That the plan had to be dropped ultimately is however a different matter.

The RSS' initiatives, aimed at integrating the Sikhs with the Hindus by appropriating their religious texts, symbols and apostles, are but part of its overall strategy to realise its objective of founding a Hindu Rashtra. Tactically speaking, this approach differs from what the Sangh Parivar is seen to adopt towards other communities, notably Muslims and Christians, which is marked by a mix of animosity, intimidation and conciliation. The `assimilation' route in the Punjab context, one must realise, is fraught with serious consequences for the reason that at the back of the Khalistan movement was the perceived threat to the Sikh identity from what was seen as a majoritarian hegemony. At present, the State may be free from the scourge of militancy, but anything that tends to rekindle in the Sikhs the fear of their religious identity being invaded or subsumed is bound to give a handle to the extremist elements which, as of now, remain marginalised. Worse, even the moderates might feel compelled to swing to the far right. The fact that the RSS went about its calibrated, well-crafted Sikh-embracing game plan only since the coming to power of the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP coalition is very significant. It used the Central Government-aided tercentenary celebrations of the Khalsa to step up campaign and the Chief Minister, Mr. Prakash Singh Badal, himself chose to play along with it, evidently for reasons of political expediency.

Given the definitive signs of the RSS' plan becoming too much of an embarrassment even to the centrist elements in Mr. Badal's SAD, the reversal of the Sangh's position vis-a-vis the Sikh faith could, one suspects, well be a tactical shift, dictated by the compulsions as much of the SAD as of the BJP itself. Apart from being too good to be true, the claim of the RSS spokesman that the organisation had a firm belief in the plurality of religions and that denying the distinctiveness of different faiths went against the very grain of the RSS flies in the face of the Sangh's declared ideological plank and its track record. Its credibility on this score is all the more strained when considered against the known penchant of the Sangh Parivar leadership, including the leading lights of the BJP, for indulging in prevarication.

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