Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Golden Temple in Punjab, wearing a saffron turban, has sparked a controversy in the state, with many saying it brought back memories of the militancy period as ‘kesari’ was a colour used by Sikh militants.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee Manjinder Singh Sirsa posted an edited video of Gandhi on Twitter in which Gandhi is purportedly asking how the ‘kesari’ colour is different, to which Punjab Congress president Amrinder Singh Raja Warring answers that there is no such difference.
“Besides being the colour of holy Nishan Sahib, Kesari is the colour of Courage & Commitment & is a colour in our national flag also! Everyone in this video including @RahulGandhi are ignorant about the significance of dastaar. He wore it without any emotion or respect. How fake!!,” Sirsa said in a tweet, posting a video shot soon after Gandhi landed in Amritsar on Tuesday.
As Gandhi’s photos in the ‘kesari’ turban went viral in Punjab, social media posts pointed out how the colour had been used by Sikh militants in Punjab in the 80s and 90s and a ‘kesari’ turban on the head was enough cause for the police to stop youth and detain them for questioning.
The colour blue holds great historical and religious significance for Sikhs. Most historical references mention the colour being used for religious and martial practices before Maharaja Ranjit Singh established the Sikh Kingdom in 1799. However, some references also mention the use of ‘kesari’ flags during the era of the first Sikh gurus.
The ‘kesari’ colour became popular among Sikhs during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s era though different battalions of his army had different colours and styles of flags. The Udasi and Nirmala sects, which are considered more aligned with Hindu traditions, also played a role in the spread of ‘kesari’ colour, especially in gurudwaras. With ‘kesari’ and ‘bhagwa’ shades being closely associated with Hinduism, some Sikh writers have argued that the hegemony of the saffron colour among Sikhs is a result of popular Hindu culture.
The Nihang bodies and their gurudwaras, however, only use blue flags. The official Sikh Code of Conduct published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) mentions ‘basanti’ and ‘blue’ colours for Sikh flags, not ‘kesari’. However, the flags at all SGPC gurdwaras are ‘kesari’ in colour.
The ‘kesari’ turban and militancy
Though the ‘kesari’ colour was used in Sikh flags, it became popular as a turban colour only during the militancy period. After the call of militants, many private schools in the state had started using the colour in school uniforms. With militants popularising the colour, the police started suspecting anyone wearing a ‘kesari’ turban or dupatta of being a sympathiser of militants.
At the peak of militancy in Punjab, Punjabi singer Hans Raj Hans, now a Delhi MP, had sung a song ‘Patta Patta Singhan Da Vairi’ wearing a ‘kesari’ turban. Though the song was purportedly about 18th-century Sikhs targeted by Mughals and Afghans, it was seen as speaking about contemporary Sikh militants who used to wear ‘sunehri’ turbans, as the song mentioned. The song was a big success in the early days of Hans Raj Hans’s singing career. There are many similar songs that mention ‘kesari’ colour to glamourise militants.
In 2012, a campaign was launched against the execution of the death sentence for Balwant Singh Rajoana, convicted in former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh’s murder case. ‘Kesari’ flags were hoisted on houses across Punjab by sympathisers of Rajoana and his death sentence was deferred.