Sikhism is a peaceful religion, whose traditions emphasize helping others. In worldwide history, less violence has been conducted in the name of Sikhism than in most other world religions. But there are four topics that risk fresh eruptions of Sikh extremism:
Martial Imagery abounds in Sikhism1, risking encouraging pseudo-military endeavours and personal violence. The Khanda, the primary symbol of Sikhism, is comprised of four pointed-up weapons, and of the "Five Ks" - Sikh dress and appearance - three are related to aggression: The steel of the kara bangle represents strength, the Kirpan is a small sword or dagger and the Kacchera (short trousers) "signify readiness to ride into battle".
The Khalistan movement saw 20 years of Sikh violence in an attempt to partition off part of India as a new independent Sikh state1; hundreds were killed in fights and by Sikh terrorist actions2. It culminated in the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard in 19843. Although most Indians consider Bhindranwale a terrorist, he is still described as a 'martyr' by Akal Takht (Sikh highest religious authority).3,4.
The Sarbat Khalsa is a Sikh gathering in times of emergency2: these have been used almost always to conduct violence and revenge, especially in the 18th century when the Muslim Mughal empire was exterminating Sikhs2. It was called in 1986 as Sikhs suffered from the backlash after they assassinated the Indian Prime Minister2.
The Threat of Disproportionate Violence to Prevent Blasphemy Against the Granth Sahib as a result of the way they treat it as a living teacher. When torn pages of the Granth Sahib began showing up in Punjab in 2015, Sarbat Khalsa was called again, and 100,000 Sikhs gathered and called for a jailed violent extremist to return to a leadership role2. Nothing came of it, but It's easy to imagine such a gathering resulting in widespread violence on future occasions.
The symbolism of Sikhism is rife with imagery that can encourage pseudo-military endeavours and personal violence. The Khanda, the primary symbol of Sikhism, is comprised of four weapons: two swords, a double-edged sword in the centre, and a chakram (circular throwing weapon). In many military cultures, downwards-pointing swords represent peace: all three blades on the Sikh symbol point upwards. Of the "Five Ks" - Sikh dress and appearance - three can be construed as being related to aggression and violence: The steel of the kara bangle represents strength, the Kirpan is a small sword or dagger and the Kacchera (short trousers) "signify readiness to ride into battle".
“Since the tenth guru [Gobind Singh] reformed the Sikh community into a military order... Sikhs have venerated militarism, and all Sikh men are required to carry the kirpan, a ceremonial steel sword. This martial rededication eventually produced significant Sikh military power. The king Ranjit Singh took Lahore in 1799 and established the first Sikh state. His kingdom encompassed the entire Punjab, and Singh became the Sikhs' national hero.
[But] when emboldened Sikhs made provoking incursions into neighbouring British-protected territory, two bloody Sikh wars in the 1840s put the Punjab under British control.”
The Sikhs lost against Britain after invading their neighbours, but the dream of acquiring a country of call their own permanently lived on1 due to the natural inclination of religious communities to segregate themselves from others. This led to severe disappointment when their hopes were dashed in 1947.
“When India became independent in 1947, the new country of Pakistan was created. The border between what was then West Pakistan and India cut through the middle of the Punjab. Many Sikhs were bitterly disappointed. They had hoped that Sikhs would be given their own country. Sikhs felt that they had to leave Pakistan, and thousands of people were killed in riots. Sikhs in India felt that they were treated unfairly, and their leaders began a protest campaign. After years of unrest, things came to a head in 1984, when fighting between Sikhs and Hindus led to the Indian government taking direct control. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, ordered the Indian army to occupy the Punjab [which] caused much anger and bitterness among Sikhs all over the world. [...] Many Sikhs would like to create an independent Sikh country, which they would call Khalistan.”
The Khalistan movement saw 20 years of Sikh violence in an attempt to partition off part of India as a new independent Sikh state; hundreds were killed in fights and by Sikh terrorist actions2. Under the militant Bhindranwale, hundreds more of innocent Hindus were killed in the 1980s, in attempts to assert Sikh identity in a Hindu nation6,3. 39 Sikhs were also killed, for opposing the sectarian movement. It culminated in the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard in 19843. This caused a backlash and thousands of Sikhs were killed in Delhi and Sarbat Khalsa was called again in 19862. Although most Indians consider Bhindranwale a terrorist, he is still described as a 'martyr' by Akal Takht (Sikh highest religious authority).
“In the early 1980s Akali Dal, a Sikh nationalist party, demanded greater autonomy [and] militants in the party continued to stage violent demonstrations. As fighting between Sikhs and Hindus became widespread in the Punjab [in] by April 1984, 50,000 troops occupied the Punjab and the neighbouring state of Haryana. In June 1984, Indian troops attacked the House of God (Golden Temple) in Amritsar where the militants had established their headquarters. [...] This angered many Sikhs and was believed to have led to the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh members of her bodyguard later that year.”
The "Encyclopedia of Terrorism" (2003)4 lists several international Sikh terrorist groups: "Babbar Khalsa, Azad Khalistan Babbar Khalsa Faorce, Khalistan Liberation Front, Khalistan Commando Force and Khalistan National Army. Most of these groups operate under umbrella organizations, such as the Second Panthic committee"4. It notes that international Sikh terrorist groups receive funds from Sikh communities in India and elsewhere.
“Sikh terrorism is sponsored by expatriate and Indian Sikh groups who want to carve out an independent Sikh state called Kalistan from Indian territory. [...] Sikh attacks in India have been mounted against Indian government officials and facilities, other Sikhs, and Hindus. Their tactics have included assassination, bombing, and kidnapping. Sikh extremists were probably responsible for two bombings that occurred on the same day in June 1985. One involved the explosion of a bomb in an Air India jet over the Irish Sea, in which 329 passengers and crew were killed, [the other on a] flight from Vancouver, Canada... killing two Japanese baggage handlers.
In 1991 Sikh terrorists tried to assassinate the Indian ambassador to Romania. The man had once been India's senior police officer in Punjab (from 1986-1989). Sikhs also kidnapped and held the Romanian chargé d'affaires in New Delhi for seven weeks. In January 1993, Indian police arrested Sikhs in New Delhi as they were making plans to detonate a bomb to disrupt Indian Republic Day, and in September that year, Sikh militants tried to assassinate the Sikh chief of the ruling Congree Party's youth wing, using a bomb.”
The Sarbat Khalsa is a Sikh gathering in times of emergency2: these have been used almost always to conduct violence and revenge, especially in the 18th century when the Muslim Mughal empire was exterminating Sikhs2. Thankfully since then, it has only been needed a few times2.
Sikh superstitious attitude towards their holy book means that they are easy to bait: When torn pages of the Granth Sahib began showing up in the Indian state of Punjab in 2015, the martial Sarbat Khalsa call was raised, and 100,000 Sikhs gathered, and called for three allegedly placid Sikh High Priests to be removed and replaced2. 'One of the chosen replacements happens to be a pro-Khalistan separatist, in jail for assassinating a chief minister of Punjab in 1995'2. Thankfully, Sikh moderates endured, and the extremist fire burnt out2. But it is easy to imagine that any persistent disrespect towards their holy book a disproportionately violent response.