By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
Most people will be familiar with the idiom, ‘one step forward, two steps back’. Well I sometimes feel when it comes to Sikhs, it is a case of ‘one step forward, five steps back’.
Sikh history is replete with heroic accounts of struggle against oppressive rulers. And often for very modest demands, and we have been successful in gaining concessions and much more. For example, the struggle to gain control of the Gurdwaras with the Gurdwara Reform Movement (Sudhar Lehar) in the 1920’s, to the establishment of Sikh rule during the periods of Banda Singh Bahadur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 18th and 19th Centuries. However, because of a combination of infighting, complacency and divide-and-rule strategies deployed by state actors, often as a panth, we have ended up losing more than we have gained and this has resulted in a roller coaster history of collectivism and fragmentation.
Sadly, when one looks across the world, in the age of social media, it does appear like Sikhs have entered a phase of deep divisions over any range of issues, from demands for a Sikh State in India, doctrinal differences and Sikh representation. This rupture is possibly most powerfully illustrated in the fact we currently have two jathedars of the Akaal Takht, the supreme temporal authority of the Sikh Panth, namely, Jathedar Harpreet Singh, who was appointed by the SGPC and Jathedar Jagtar Singh Havara, currently serving a life sentence in Tihar Prison, Delhi, who was appointed at the Sarbat Khalsa gathering on 10 Nov 2015.
In an age of social media and the internet, even if the source of conflict is local, the ripples rapidly spread across the world and we all become impacted.
A good example is the personal dispute between Sikh preachers (parcharaks) Harnam Singh Dhumma and Ranjit Singh Dhadriawal. After a period of trading insults the dispute resulted in the tragic murder of Bhai Bhupinder Singh following an armed assault on Ranjit Singh’s conclave on 17 May 2016. The fall-out of this dispute rapidly spread across the Sikh world resulting protests and conflict in Gurdwaras from Australia to Europe and North America. Sadly, today Sikhs are more likely to ask which preacher one is following rather than what Guru Granth Sahib is teaching us!
Presently, most Sikhs are preoccupied with coping with the COVID-19 crisis, and sadly many have been directly or indirectly touched with the tragic ill health and death of loved ones.
Due to government enforced lockdowns, many Gurdwaras have been closed off for months and this enforced separation from the Guru and Sangat (congregation) has been a source of much distress and grief. On top of this, Gurdwara management committees are having to deal with the dramatic reduction in donations, which has massively destabilised their finances. In spite of these challenges, to their credit, many Gurdwaras have been performing amazing voluntary service, including providing langar and clothing to the most needy and front line professionals fighting the virus.
In the UK, we are seemingly entering a new phase where the novel coronavirus is in recession and the Government therefore wants to slowly reduce the lockdown by opening schools, work places, shops, etc. To facilitate this, the Government recently established a ‘Task Force’ to look at the opening up of places of worship, including Gurdwaras. As stated by the Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, on 15 May 2020, their role is to “develop a plan to enable the phased and safe reopening of places of worship when the evidence shows it is the right time to do so”.
One might have thought this was a pretty uncontroversial move and Sikhs would have welcomed this. However, when the members of the task force were announced, and it was revealed that the Sikh rep would be Jasvir Singh from an organisation called City Sikhs, there was uproar amongst significant sections. Though an eminent barrister and public personality, the view was that as a ‘non-practicing’ Sikh with little involvement in or experience of gurdwara management, he was not a suitable person to be identified as a Sikh ‘faith leader.’ Furthermore, it was felt that given the representatives for the other faiths were the very high status personalities, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chief Rabbi, this move by the UK Government was adding insult to injury.
Subsequent to the appointment, there has been a major fallout between various representative Sikh groupings. On one hand, we have the well-established Sikh Federation UK and the Sikh Council UK, who have openly challenged the Governments move and totally rejected the appointment of Jasvir Singh. In the other camp is the relatively newly established groups called Sikh Assembly and Gurdwara Aid, who have adopted a more pragmatic stance and have sought to engage with the task force.
The question that most ordinarily Sikhs are asking, how could we have come to a situation where the Sikh Council UK, which until recent times was recognised by the UK Government as the legitimate voice of Sikhs, has been side-lined at such an important moment? To answer this question, we need to delve into the recent history of Sikh politics in the UK.
HISTORY OF UK SIKH POLITICS
Some 10 years ago, in the UK, with the onset of Sikh television media, we saw the establishment of the first ever Sikh TV Channel, called The Sikh Channel. Its mission was simple, ‘to bring millions of Sikhs together’. I was honoured to have been part of this history as a presenter of a weekly debate show in front of a live audience called ‘Panth Time’. The aim was to create an open platform for Sikh communities across the world, but mostly in the UK, to engage in open and respectful dialogue about all matter of things concerning the Sikh Panth.
It was a very successful show and we managed to create a real interest in Sikh affairs, especially amongst educated Sikh professionals and those who perhaps were previously less interested in Panthic matters. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the show was the establishment of the Sikh Council UK, which also became a blueprint for other such councils across Europe and further afield.
One of the consistent demands from Sikh Sangats up and down the country was for the establishment of truly representative a national body. This would enable Sikhs organisations to come together with a single voice to resolve internal issues, but also to make representations to government on policy matters concerning Sikhs.
So, to advance this demand, we held a “National Panth Time” which was held almost 10 years ago in April 2010 at the Maharaja Jassa Singh Ramgharia Hall in Birmingham, UK. It was a historic event with over 300 representatives from across the UK coming together in what seemed like a Sikh Parliamentary occasion. At this event, which was televised, a unanimous resolution was passed to establish an umbrella body for UK Sikhs.
For the first 6 years or so the Sikh Council UK went from strength to strength and could rightly claim to have the active engagement of the vast majority of UK Sikh Gurdwaras and organisations. And as a result, the UK Government began to consult them on a whole range of matters.
However, due to a mixture of jathebandhic and individual rivalries, personal egos and no doubt Indian and British state interference, the Sikh Council split and other bodies emerged, with some coming directly out of former Sikh Council members. Over the past few years the Sikh Council UK has without doubt hemorrhaged much support and there is now a view amongst Panthic circles that, if not being run by the Sikh Federation UK, it is significantly influenced them.
Now, concurrent to the COVID-19 crisis and the UK Govt Task Force, the Sikh Federation UK had been fighting a long campaign to have Sikhs identified as an ethnic group in the forthcoming UK wide census in 2021. However, this was rejected both by the courts and in parliament and as a result the Sikh Federation UK has launched a legal appeal against, which is to be heard soon. So when one takes into account the political developments and the fact that the Sikh Council UK has arguably lost much of its broad base, along with the Sikh Federations ongoing activism around the ethnicity tick box, it is no surprise that the UK Government has chosen to bypass them!
This year represents the 36th anniversary of the Indian State assault on the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, resulting in terrible death and destruction and a decade of insurgency and state terror. Sikhs across the world commemorate the 6 June 1984 army assault, infamously known as ‘Operation Blue Star’, by holding protests, vigils and programmes in gurdwaras. Sadly, due to the lock down restrictions, these are likely not to happen on the scale as in previous years and for sure Sikhs will have to develop new creative ways to remember the martyrs (shaheeds) of 1984. Sadly, it feels like the growing disunity amongst Panthic groups is likely to adversely impact the commemorations as well. It seems at the moment, rather than focussing our fire and energy on the Indian State that continues to oppress Sikhs and other minorities, much of our energy and anger is being aimed at each other. And I am certain the Indian State and those who would wish to harm the Panth will be very satisfied with this state of affairs.
So, if Sikhs are to achieve some semblance of justice, both in India and in our adopted countries across the world, we really need to put our petty differences aside and begin to work together, and the only way we can achieve this if we all put our egos to one side and follow out true leader, namely Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The ONLY faith leader Sikhs have is our Guru and we are all the Sikhs of the Guru. And if we can achieve this, then perhaps we can take many steps forward without falling back.
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Time to flip some prevailing ideas (Asia Samachar, 24 April 2020)
Sohan Singh Bhakna: Founder of revolutionary Ghadr Party (Asia Samachar, 21 Jan 2019)