Ideas of India: Sikh Identity in Kashmir

Shruti Rajagopalan speaks with Khusdeep Malhotra about why the Sikh community remains in Kashmir, maintaining Sikh identity and more

A Kashmiri Sikh man at worship on the birthday of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism. Image Credit: Yawar Nazir / Getty Images

Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on AppleSpotifyGoogleOvercastStitcher or the podcast app of your choice.

This episode is the fifth installment of a series in which Shruti speaks with doctoral candidates and postdoctoral scholars about their research as they enter the job market and the world of academia. In this episode, Shruti talks with Khusdeep Malhotra about her dissertation, “Precarious Citizens, Excepted State: Sikh Rootedness in Kashmir After the Chittisinghpora Massacre.” They discuss commonalities between Sikhs and Muslims in Kashmir, the effects of land ownership on the Sikh community, the role of women in passing on Sikh identity and much more. Malhotra received her Ph.D. from Temple University in geography and urban studies in May 2022. Her research interests include conflict, displacement and minority rights in South Asia.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This is the 2022 job market series, where I speak with young scholars entering the academic job market about their latest research.

I spoke with Khusdeep Malhotra, who received her Ph.D. in geography and urban studies from Temple University in May 2022. We discussed her dissertation, titled “Precarious Citizens, Excepted State: Sikh Rootedness in Kashmir After the Chittisinghpora Massacre.” We talked about Sikhs in Kashmir—a micro-minority—the Chittisinghpora massacre and its impact on Sikh women, and the effect of land ownership by micro-minorities and their displacement, and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.

Hi, Khusdeep. Thank you so much for being here.

KHUSDEEP MALHOTRA: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. This is such a great opportunity for people on the job market like myself, but also, I like that it’s not a super formal forum to discuss your ideas with some freedom and not as much stress. Thank you so much for that.

Sikhs in Kashmir

RAJAGOPALAN: No, this is such a pleasure. I read your dissertation this morning and it’s fantastic. I’m very excited to delve deeper into it. Normally, when one thinks of conflict in Kashmir, it’s either in terms of the nation-state, in terms of India versus Pakistan versus Kashmiri sovereignty and those movements, or it is through a religious lens. It’s a Hindu versus Muslim conflict.

You actually study the same conflict area and region through a different lens, which is through the Sikh community. This is a minority community in India and a minority community in Kashmir. It’s actually a micro-minority, as you call it. Even though Sikhs are a minority and they have experienced extreme violence, in particular the Chittisinghpora massacre, they continue to remain rooted in Kashmir, unlike the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits or other Hindus. What is a good way to think about the Sikh community in Kashmir in this conflict region?

MALHOTRA: You covered some of the points yourself. I think there’s a broader issue at work here, and it isn’t just to think about the minority communities but why we should be thinking about minority communities that live in places of conflict—and that, too, protracted conflict. Kashmiri Sikhs were in Kashmir because of certain historical reasons, and they’ve been there for many, many, many centuries. The question of where one becomes indigenous and where one is an outsider is something which is—I don’t think it’s a useful question to ponder. But suffice it to say that they are Kashmiri like Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits.

There are several other minority groups that are located in Jammu and Kashmir, in Ladakh, and basically across South Asia. This is just who we are. It’s unfortunate that something as complex and nuanced as Kashmir is what you have rightly pointed out—becomes reduced to either a very statist India-Pakistan conflict or a communal Hindu-Muslim conflict.

I am a Sikh myself. I should clarify that my entry point into the research was the experience of my own family in Haryana in much smaller incidents of violence that happened in 1987, and my parents left. My house was burned down, and my parents left for about two years, maybe a little bit more, and went to Chandigarh. And then they came back. I always wondered—and when I gained a political consciousness and started to understand that this is what I wanted to study in my Ph.D., I went back to this question again and again and asked them why they returned. That’s what brought me to this research as well.

The idea behind studying a Kashmiri community that is not Muslim or Hindu is, first of all, specifically to move us away from these discourses around Hindu-Muslim, around India-Pakistan, and recognize that it is actually a much more complex and a much more nuanced set of issues that are interlinked with each other. And it’s very hard to reduce and separate them from each other and think about just the Hindu-Muslim aspect of it or the India-Pakistan aspect of it.

There’s very little work that has been done on micro-minorities, which is the term that they themselves use to define themselves. And very little of the work on Kashmir is actually focused on, first of all, non-statist narratives. This is a new strand of work called critical Kashmir scholarship. This is a body of work that deliberately foregrounds people’s narratives rather than statist narratives. My work falls in this category.

The idea behind studying Sikhs was, again, to complicate this issue a little bit more than it has been understood. I should just mention—because you said that if there are other scholarly papers or research that is relevant to the discussion I should bring it up, and I will—one of the most in-depth studies of minorities, micro-minorities in Kashmir is actually in the Ladakh region by this scholar named Mona Bhan, who looks at the Brogpas. And her work is, of course, very instrumental in the work of scholars like myself.

I think we should be asking the question of why we should look at really micro-minority discourse, what they can teach us about the conflict, about militarization, its impacts, but also about the way that we experience democracy and the way that we experience citizenship. That was my intention.

Why the Sikhs Stayed

RAJAGOPALAN: When we normally think of any region, we associate it more so with the linguistic association because India got divided—the states got divided through a linguistic model in the ’50s and less through a religious lens. Of course there are certain exceptions, and Kashmir is one exception, Punjab is one exception, for various reasons.

One of the things that you said which was quite interesting was, the Sikhs in Kashmir are Kashmiris. They’re Kashmiri Sikhs. They’ve been there for centuries, and so they’re as much part of that region, with or without conflict, as any other group, large or small. Having said that, when the conflict exploded, not all groups experienced the same kind of violence, and even when they experienced similar levels of violence, not all groups left.

In Kashmir you have this interesting juxtaposition of the Hindus, which is actually a much larger group, even though they’re a minority group in Kashmir—the Kashmir Pandits relative to the Sikhs—but you see this huge exodus in the early ’90s. You don’t see that with Kashmiri Sikhs. What are some of the factors that led to this large-scale displacement of some groups but not for the Sikhs, given that they experienced very severe and high levels of violence, episodic violence especially targeting their community?

MALHOTRA: This is actually the question of my dissertation. I entered with this question of why it was that the Kashmiri Sikhs weren’t displaced after the Chittisinghpora massacre. Of course, the story of the massacre itself is quite complicated. To answer your question, though, it’s really hard, first of all, and it’s important to disclaim that to trace conflict migration is a really difficult thing, because like the topic of migration, the statistics around migration are also very contentious. It really depends on who you ask, what reports you’re looking at, et cetera.

According to the Jammu and Kashmiri Rehabilitation and Revenue Department, which keeps track of these numbers, the last reported number that I think I looked at on the website was around 1,700 Sikh families that have actually been displaced. This means that these people would’ve filed claims that they were displaced as a result of conflict and that they need assistance from the state, and they are currently not living in Kashmir.

Broadly, if you think about the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, it was sort of a near complete exit from Kashmir, even though Nishita Trisal’s work very importantly points out that there are still about 7,000 families of Pandits that live in the valley. In that sense, the Kashmiri Sikhs didn’t experience an exodus, and they very much remain what I am terming “rooted,” without the negative connotations of the term.

Why did this happen? I have a couple of reasons that I think that my research helped me understand. The first reason is that Kashmiri Sikhs were not close to the state in the same way that Kashmiri Pandits were, because historically, we know that they have worked in the bureaucracy, the Kashmiri Pandits. But Kashmir Sikhs, even to this day, allege that they are underrepresented, and we know this to be the case. They weren’t the predominant group that worked in government.

And the second thing is, there is no ethnic alliance with the state in terms of religion, for example. They are Sikh, and our state in most of its iterations has been Hindu. The kind of closeness that people associate with the Kashmiri Pandits and the Indian state in Kashmir, or even the Kashmiri state, is separate from and distinct from what Kashmiri Sikhs perhaps experienced. There’s very little trust in the state. When the question of leaving came—“Where would we go? Who would assist us? How would we make do?”—this variable of having very little trust in the state definitely acted as a deterrent.

Several people told me that, “Look at the Kashmir Pandits.” What happened with the Kashmir Pandits is a tragedy which keeps on unfolding. There’s been no redress genuinely of people that have found themselves displaced. I’m not talking about the people that have gone to Delhi and Bombay, but the ones who live in the camps in Jammu. That became a cautionary tale, and people said to me, “Look, we didn’t want to become dependent on the state like the Pandits ended up becoming, and we wanted to retain our independence.” This suggests that there was some notion of possible safety that could be maintained, the reasons for which we can talk about later.

But also, the Sikhs had some ability to exercise agency in staying and not leaving. I think that there are two reasons for this. The first reason is that they’re Sikh. And in Kashmir, everybody lives in a position of precarity. But for the Sikhs, this is a unique position because they’re neither allied with the state, like I said, because they’re not Hindu, and they’re not allied with Muslims either. They’re somewhere in between. Maintaining a separation from both allows them to be safe in a way that perhaps the Kashmir Pandits were not.

Then the second thing is that Kashmiri Sikhs, like Sikhs everywhere, are a landed community. I’m not talking about the Mazhabi and the lower-caste Sikhs who don’t have land, but in general, they are a landed community. They have deep connections with the land. Of course, people are attached to the land. One of the things that one respondent said to me, which I don’t think I’ll ever forget, whose father was actually killed in the Chittisinghpora massacre and who lives right opposite the Gurdwara where it happened—he said, “My father’s blood is spilled in this land. Why would I leave it?”

That attachment is of course there, but economically there is a political economy around land. Of course, it’s a question of subsistence. As another respondent said, “Land is a fixed deposit, and how can we leave our fixed deposit and go?” Because you can get assistance from the state, but land is something that stays for eternity unless you decide to sell it. It keeps on giving. It’s an entity that keeps on giving. To leave that behind was very difficult in the context of very little assistance from the state, very little trust in the state.

Having land and having decided to continue living in Kashmir, the way that Kashmiri Sikhs interact with the majority community, the way that they’re able to stay there, land has become a mechanism which allows them to exercise agency. And this agency is something that they were unwilling to give up because they would be dependent on the state, because they would leave their land, and really they wouldn’t have the status that they have in Kashmir now.

These are the reasons that I was able to unearth in my research, which perhaps led to their staying in Kashmir. But I should also add that one of my respondents reminded me that nothing is possible in Kashmir unless the majority community makes it possible in terms of conflict and mitigation. There are some very serious solidarities that exist between Muslims and Sikhs. And on their part, the majority community, at least that’s what I’ve heard, were very against this idea that the Sikhs may also leave and they have to deal with another exodus. On their part, there was some support, some solidarity, as contentious and as fraught as these are in such a situation. Perhaps that had something to do with that as well.

Sikhs and the Indian State

RAJAGOPALAN: The timing of this made me think about what was going on in India in the late ’80s and ’90s. We see that there is a huge Union government coercion imposed on Sikhs in Punjab because of what were dubbed the insurgent movements in Punjab through the ’80s and ’90s. And we’re all familiar with the level of violence that was used by the state to quell these movements.

Did this kind of Union government oppression change the perception of what was going on in Jammu and Kashmir in the sense that is this another source of solidarity between the Muslims and the Sikhs and they ally? Because in this instance, during those two decades, the common oppression was perceived to be the oppressive Union government, which for all practical purposes, both in Jammu and Kashmir and also in Punjab, was thought to have a Hindu face even though they are secular governments.

How much do you think this played a role in this kind of solidarity? Because there is also a past memory of Partition and a huge exodus of Sikhs leaving Pakistan where, once again, the people on the other side were Pakistani Muslims—or British-Indian Muslims, let’s call them that. The “Pakistan” came later. How does one think about this in the political movements, and who becomes the oppressor in the 1940s versus the 1980s and ’90s?

MALHOTRA: It’s a very interesting question and a very difficult question to answer but let me get the elephant out of the room first. We know that we have always heard it’s really hard to substantiate to what extent Punjabi insurgents went to Pakistan, got support from there, continue to get support from there, all of that. People mention it all the time in interviews, both Sikhs and Muslims, but really, it’s just impossible to chase that proof or find any sort of empirical evidence to substantiate any of that. At least I don’t have that level of access.

The interesting thing here is that it does generate solidarities but not because “We want separation from India; at one point you do, too, so you understand what we are going through,” but really because of what it means to be a minority in the Indian Union. It means that there can never be any guarantee of loyalty, of safety, no matter what you do.

It’s very clear that Sikhs have made many sacrifices in the freedom struggle, as have Muslims. They have contributed so much to the nation-making project, as have Muslims and even Kashmiri Muslims. Yet the construction of being a minority can never be free of the tensions of Partition, loyalties, what happened in Punjab, what happened in Kashmir. The weight of these labors and these histories is always there, especially in Kashmir at this moment. And what happened in Punjab certainly affects Kashmir Sikhs, and it does generate solidarities. But it’s not because everybody wants independence from the Indian Union but really because of what it means to be a minority.

To be citizens who are contested citizens is something that I think is deeply felt on both sides, and it makes Sikhs and Muslims understand that they live in Kashmir and they must continue to live in Kashmir and maintain peace because there is nowhere else to go. There is nobody else to trust. In that sense, I wouldn’t say there’s been a reversal of the Partition history because in Kashmir, particularly in north Kashmir, there is a very specific Partition history, which another Kashmiri Sikh scholar herself, her name is Komal J.B. Singh, has worked on.

That history is that thousands, some people say up to 30,000 Sikhs were actually killed in what is known as the tribal raid. Of course, again, there are many versions of these histories, but Sikhs remember this. There’s even a Partition memorial in a village near Baramulla and all of that. That history is there. There isn’t trust which is absolute, there aren’t solidarities which are absolute, but they’re there. And they’re there because they’re both minorities; they both live in a place of conflict. They both want to continue to live and belong and make claims on this place. I don’t know that I can give you a better answer than that.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I think it’s complex. I wasn’t looking for like a silver bullet answer, more a way to think about these questions. Right?

MALHOTRA: Yes. I just remembered, there’s a young group of Sikhs who are very disappointed with the Indian Union because of what happened in 1984. They don’t expect that there will ever be any justice for the pogrom in Delhi and across other cities in India. They pointed out to me that in 1984—in Kashmir at least, maybe not in Jammu, but in Kashmir—there was no violence against the Sikhs.

Even today, when something happens, something as small as—I shouldn’t say small, but for example, the harassment of the Sikh women in college. Not the intermarriage issue but the harassment issue. The Muslim leadership came at once and apologized, and said, “Look, we will launch an inquiry. We will bring the perpetrators to justice.” They say, “Look, we have some sort of ohada [status],” as they say. “We’re respected here, and agency in a way that we don’t think we can ever be in India because look what was done to us in 1984.” That’s sort of lurking in the shadows.

Effects of Land Ownership

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to go back to the issue of the Kashmiri Sikhs being landed. This is important. Now, there are two aspects to being landed. Of course, the people who own the land don’t want to leave it because all their gains and agency and their roots in the community come from the land ownership. On the other hand, they’re also very easy targets for expropriation, which also happened with Kashmiri Pandits as far as I understand. Right?


RAJAGOPALAN: Especially those who were landed. A part of the program to target Kashmiri Pandits was to expropriate their land and businesses and homes. The Sikh community has also experienced this during Partition. Landed Sikhs were driven out because that land had to be grabbed, so to speak, by people who were entering the other side or who were already there. Why is it that in this instance the fact that the Sikhs were landed was actually protection for them and didn’t make them a target for expropriation and pushing them out?

MALHOTRA: Again, this is a very difficult question to answer just given that there’s just no clear way to get at this. One thing is that what happened in Chittisinghpora is not clear, right? It isn’t clear that it was a militant attack. In fact, people have come to believe, for whatever reasons, that it wasn’t a militant attack as it was suggested initially, but rather the work of Indian agencies. Again, I use that term very cautiously.

The idea was to create a displacement because Bill Clinton happened to be visiting on that day, and the perception needed to be created that minorities are in trouble in Kashmir and its militarization needed to be justified. This is a narrative that has become predominant over time. The language that people use is hum nahi kehe sakte. We don’t know who did this; they were unknown assailants. It’s really murky what has happened.

I’m not sure whether the goal really ever was expropriation. There have been efforts at creating pushes to push out people from their land, as there are in other cases of conflict. I’m not saying that it’s very pure and that has never been an issue. For example, the state, where it chooses to build, let’s say, a canal, or which fields it can irrigate, where it can take the water away from, it also affects your ability to farm. And Kashmir, because of its terrain, a lot of the land is not naturally irrigated. Farming is a very difficult enterprise in Kashmir, and when in the ’90s militants used to frequent Sikh lands as well, there were efforts at expropriation, asking for money, all of that.

It’s something which is hard to quantify. It’s something which is hard to say with a lot of certainty that didn’t happen, but it does in these tangential parallel ways. But yet the situation has never been so bad that there would be just a complete severance and leave the land. It’s a really good question and it’s one which I want to think about a little bit more deeply.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, because I think it’s interesting. Is it that that land was not easily expropriable by other groups; you needed a highly specialized knowledge and centuries of traditional knowledge to be able to farm on that land? Is it the solidarity question? Is it an interaction between all of these? None of these things are ever simple.

Sikh Women and the Narrative of Violence

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to switch gears a little bit to talk about a slightly different issue that you do bring up in your dissertation. Now, normally the way we think about conflict and violence, it is very much through the lens of men experiencing the violence, men perpetuating the violence—so both in terms of the victims and those perpetuating, and also men who are telling the stories and men who are recording those stories. This is not surprising because of the high degree of militarization in this area. There’s already a greater level of displacement of women out of the narrative.

Now, what you do is you look at the impact of these events, this kind of violence, this kind of militarization through the lens of women, and in particular Sikh women. You’re now not just talking of the micro-minority religiously; you’re also thinking about it in a gendered sense. How is it different for Sikh women relative to Sikh men, but also relative to all women? Because there are two points of difference in what you’re trying to capture.

MALHOTRA: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and it’s a very, very contentious topic, and I’ve avoided it a little bit myself because of all the things that I’m afraid that it means. These are uncomfortable conversations even for me to be having with myself. Let me just get that out of the way.

The way that I think I want to think about it is by seriously engaging the concept of what is known as situated citizenship. I was recently reading a paper actually written on Sikh women by this woman named Behl on what she calls their situated citizenship. It is a feminist lens of looking at citizenship as something which is more than just the legal contract between the state and the citizens. Rather, she’s saying that it’s also a contract between two citizens, and it’s affected by people’s identity, their politics, et cetera. We should look at it contextually to understand whether people are full citizens or not in the sense of what it means to be a democracy.

One can look at the position of Sikh women through the lens of situated citizenship to understand that their experiences of conflict are, of course, very different from those of Sikh men. I don’t have to tell you that the first and foremost thing that women lose in conflict is their ability to be full citizens because of where they’re allowed to go, the way they dress and such. To some extent, of course, security and safety is a concern not only because of conflict but also because of state violence and what that has meant at least for Kashmiri Muslim women. That is one thing, of course.

The second thing is, how could I not look at this from the lens of women because in Chittisinghpora it was specifically the men that were targeted. The story is told by people in the village and men in Kashmir, but these women lived the story. They are the ones who have lived with this loss for all of these years. They carry it within their hearts. They, in small ways, have led their fight for justice. It is very important if one is looking at an event like Chittisinghpura. It’s only fair that women’s voices are front and center. They tell the stories because the stories are theirs to tell.

Why is it different for Sikh women from the men and also from other women? Let me just quickly point out what the similarity is first. Which is that, in the case of Partition, in the case of Delhi in 1984, Gujarat in 2002 and even in international conflicts, we see that they even become weapons of war. We’ve seen that happen in the Indian subcontinent as well. The question of protecting our women and the honor of the whole community falls on their backs. In that sense, their experience is similar to other women.

It’s also different in this case because there is a genuine anxiety about safety in Kashmir for the Sikhs. They are in a precarious position. They must always maintain neutrality. They can’t take sides in the conflict, not the side of the state, not the side of the majority community. That is an additional burden that Sikh women have.

For example, intermarriage between Sikhs and Muslims has always been a contentious issue. In the case of Kashmir, it becomes particularly contentious because I think it threatens to dilute the boundaries, the separation that is maintained between the Sikh and the Muslim community. That creates, on a very practical level, an issue of safety. For that reason, not only is the burden of honor and building a strong bond on the backs of Sikh women; the very real issue of safety is something that gets actualized through Sikh women and the choices they make, the political subjectivities they articulate and who they choose to marry, basically. That’s certainly a point of difference.

Sikh Women and Identity

RAJAGOPALAN: There’s two things going on. You rightly pointed out that sexual assault and rape are the mainstay of ethnic conflict. We’ve seen this in Bangladesh, we’ve seen this in the northeastern border of India, we’ve seen this in Gujarat, Partition and so on. In this instance, the men were targeted, and what you have left behind is the widows.

Now the widows are more precarious, but on the other hand, they’re also now in a new position of being the head of the family. They are the ones who are making the important decisions. They are the ones who are passing on the Sikh identity to the next generation, in some sense, which has always been the role of the patriarch, but that changes. One is that these widows are no longer in the same kind of seclusion that you see in, say, Gujarat. They are not secluded. They are the ones running the show, in one sense. They have to assert their identity through neutrality and various other ways.

Then there is an intergenerational aspect to it, which is the next generation—not those who are widowed by the massacre, but the children, the grandchildren, the nieces, the nephews, nieces particularly—they have an additional burden of now maintaining the Sikh identity because now the Sikh female identity is a little bit different from just the Sikh identity because of what has been passed down through this large group of widows. What is a good way to think about that aspect of this particular conflict and massacre?

MALHOTRA: Your question has several aspects, but the thing that I’ll discuss is what I picked up very quickly, which was the intergenerational experience not only of the trauma but also of, what you said, the burden of being Sikh and passing on that identity.

This is something that was playing out in really interesting ways in Kashmir because, like you said, it fell on the women to now run the show, to take on the role of the men, to go to the fields and make sure that they were taken care of, to get jobs and provide for the families. In a sense, their roles were not gendered anymore. They had to do it all. But unfortunately, despite that, there is still a patriarchal fold within which they operate. They have been invisibilized in the way that widows often are in South Asia. That’s the unfortunate part.

There hasn’t been that much advocacy around the massacre like here has been, let’s say, around Bilkis Bano or like Delhi 1984. One can ask the question of why that is. Perhaps it’s because it’s Kashmir. It is really the periphery, even in our minds. Perhaps it’s because the scale of this massacre was much smaller in terms of the killings; 35 people lost their life, but it was not thousands. Whatever the reason is, it’s that they are no longer the center of the massacre.

Whenever the memorialization happens, and I try to go every year in March, it’s really sad that they’re just pushed aside. They’re in the backdrop of everything that’s unfolding, and the story has become larger than itself. The memory has become the main purpose of the event and not the women and how their lives unfolded, what their stories are. That’s one aspect of it. One could say that this is what older Sikh women, especially the widows, have experienced.

In the case of the younger women, the effect is completely different. One could say they’ve become hyper-visible in conflict even though you would think that safety would make you keep a low profile, and that’s what happens. People become visible when they need to and invisible when they need to. But in the Sikh case, it’s hard to become invisible especially if you are wearing the external markers of Sikh identity, which is the dastaar and the kara and all of that and the kirpan. It’s very easy to identify anybody who’s Sikh.

In the case of young women, what’s happening is that at a very young age they’re being charged with duties and responsibilities which are generally reserved for men, even though theologically in Sikhi, men and women are accorded equal status in principle. But we haven’t seen that in the Gurdwaras. We haven’t seen Sikh women do kirtan in the Golden Temple, for example, or take prominent positions in Gurdwara politics and such. There are very few examples of that.

In Kashmir what’s happening is that, from a very young age, they are being given this political and religious consciousness. I attended a service in June in 2018 in Tral where young women, and I think the youngest was eight or 10 years of age, did actually the entire service of the Gurdwara. June, as you know, is a very special month for the Sikhs given what happened in Amritsar, and this was actually a commemoration.

I was quite amazed and happy to see that this is happening. And I asked the granthi, “What is the reason? I’ve never seen this happen before.” He said, “Look, one thing is that the men are just not reliable. They’re getting influenced by all of what is happening. In Punjab, for example, they’re getting very Bollywood-ized. In Punjab, Sikh men don’t cut their hair, but they’re not taking the mantle of Sikhi very seriously. And so we have to engage the women, and we have to put it on them to do this.”

What is underlying this explanation is also, like I said, the very real anxiety about safety and the demographic anxieties that come with being a small minority. You’re a visible minority. You’re creating young Sikhs to be visibly Sikh. One, that earns you respect because you are close to your religion. Kashmir is a very religious society. Second, it helps you maintain, again, a separation from Muslims.

Third, in a perverse way it serves the purpose of dissuading people from intermarriage. It’s considered to be a big issue in Kashmir, and it’s not something which is looked upon favorably. In fact it’s, I would say, the thing that makes the Sikh community feel more threatened than anything else. In that sense, they’re being actualized into the identity much more strongly than I have seen elsewhere in India and in a more special way than one would expect. That’s a very clear generational difference that one can see.

Sikh Identity and Marriage Exogamy

RAJAGOPALAN: This is super interesting. I was recently in Amritsar. I went to the Golden Temple, and the Golden Temple is also an interesting place because it is the intersection of the religious, the military and the political. You can see all three aspects of what affects the Sikh community intersect.

I went to the Sikh Museum, which is inside the premises of the Golden Temple. It’s two kinds of images that you see in the Sikh Museum. One is pictorial depictions and paintings of various conflicts and massacres and violence against the Sikh community, but also just galleries upon galleries of photographs of martyrs. In one sense, the Sikh community has done an exceptional job of remembering all the loss but, as you say, not such a great job of remembering who got left behind. You see very few women in the Sikh Museum being commemorated in this particular way.

Is what is happening in Kashmir, specifically because it is such a small group and the numbers are so small and that they must rely on both men and women, and if the men are not reliable then the burden falls upon women? Or is it more about the second aspect that you mentioned, which is the threat of exogamy, which is marrying across faith? Which is not such a serious problem when you think about Punjab, where Sikhs are in a majority. More recently, the relationships between Hindus and Sikhs have, in a sense, improved and stabilized, and interfaith marriage is really not that big of an issue in Punjab the way one would expect in Kashmir.

MALHOTRA: I have to give you a bit of context. This paper was read by a Kashmiri Sikh, and I got a lot of pushback from him, and rightly so, in the way that I was thinking about this issue. Theologically, again, there is supposed to be no difference between Sikh women and men in terms of what they can participate in, how they can experience the religion, but there is a difference.

I think in Kashmir, this burden is being put on women for all of the reasons that you mentioned. It’s, again, hard to get statistics on how much intermarriage is happening, but I agree with you, I don’t think that it is a very major issue. It’s not an issue that one can look at in isolation because it gets tied into the demographic anxiety. They are a very small group. They are only 2% of the population. Also, genuinely finding some anchor to Kashmir and to Sikh identity, to keeping Sikhism strong and thriving in Kashmir—I think a combination of all of that.

It’s interesting. Maybe it is that men are migrating more for work, and they lose that attachment more quickly, and women are not migrating as much—they stay more in Kashmir—that perhaps the gentleman told me that the mantle of Sikhi, “We can’t trust the men, they’re out of our hands, but the women are still physically rooted here.” Perhaps it’s that, but certainly it is that the issue of who Sikh women choose to marry is not something that can be separated from the fact that they are a small group, and they must do everything they can to maintain safety on the ground, not only because of the blurring of community lines but also because the solidarity . . .

Also because the solidarity that I’m talking about has limits, and this is one of its limits. Every time there is a case of intermarriage, it gets stretched, it breaks and it creates havoc for everybody. At least that’s the messaging. But yes, I can’t discount that this is something that the religion says, theologically, that this should be the case. Our gurus gave us equal status to men, but it gets mixed with all of this messaging around projecting a strong demographic strength.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and the militarization, which is part of modern, contemporary Sikh culture as much as anything else.


Other Projects

RAJAGOPALAN: This is super interesting. What else have you been up to? You’ve written a bulk of your dissertation through the pandemic. You did some of your fieldwork before, so what’s been going on the last couple of years while you’ve been working on this project?

MALHOTRA: Well, I should talk about the fun stuff. I left India after my master’s, and it was really nice to be able to come back and do this here, but not only in Kashmir but also work with colleagues in like Madhya Pradesh. I think it’s really important to do that because in academia you can be in this sort of bubble and full of self-importance about the very great research question you’re asking and what you’re doing.

I think it’s quite humbling and quite grounding to have been able to go around different places like Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and certain other places like that, and to genuinely understand that there are people at the heart of these stories, and one must never forget that. I don’t know if the last three years have been fun, because personally, COVID was not very good for me. I lost my father.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m so sorry.

MALHOTRA: Thank you. It really was writing through the pandemic, but also through that, I just cannot believe the amount of kindness and love that I have received from colleagues, from my advisers, people on my committee. It’s been unbelievable. I think that whenever I’m in my low moments—like right now I’m looking for a job; I’m applying to all these postdoc positions, academic positions. Sometimes I just feel like, why am I doing this?

Then I remember that I was at this really bad point, and people encouraged me to believe in myself. They believed in my work. You were willing to have this conversation with me, for example. I think every time you talk about your work to somebody, you learn to look at it in new ways that you hadn’t. That has definitely been the more endearing aspect of it.

In fact, after my father died, I wasn’t able to write for a long time. And one of the people on my committee, Mallika Kaur, who is a fantastic scholar, she genuinely nurtured me and got me back to writing. I just have to acknowledge that that has been part of this tumult. Yes, so that’s been the happy part.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you for sharing that. This was such a pleasure, Khusdeep. Thank you for coming on the show and talking about your research, and good luck with all of this.

MALHOTRA: Yes. Thank you so much for the platform and for the ability to talk about it without much fear of anything really. I really enjoyed it. I also learned a lot from your questions, things which I wasn’t thinking about and which I will now. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.

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