By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
The Chairman of the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee recently put out a call to experts to submit their suggestions for the exclusion/inclusion of the history content in the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks. Through the aegis of the NCERT, an autonomous organisation set up in 1961 by the Government of India to assist and advise the Central and State Governments on policies and programmes for qualitative improvement in school education, the expressed intention of the consultation is to remove references to “unhistorical facts and distortions about Indian national heroes from textbooks, ensuring equal or proportionate references to all periods of Indian history, and highlighting the role of great historic women heroes”.
Though I am generally sceptical about most actions of the Indian state, in terms of process, on this occasion, their call for submissions from interested parties concurs with democratic ideals of public policy formation. Time will tell if they listen to the case being presented on behalf of Sikhs.
My fear is that, because of the lack of competence and total loss of credibility on the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee SGPC, the ‘Panthic’ perspective may well become undermined by submissions from shady groups claiming to represent the Sikh voice. For example, what is stopping the Sikh version of the RSS making their own submissions, or groups like the Sant Smajh who largely accept beliefs and practices associated with Vedanta and Sanatan Dharam?
As well as ensuring the Panthic perspective is represented, there is perhaps a deeper challenge we face, and that is the one of translation. For example, though I totally agree that Sikhi is completely distinctive from all the major world faiths, I do not accept it is a ‘religion’, but, as Bhai Gurdaas Ji points out, a ‘Panth’, which has a completely different meaning.
Moreover, our concept of God or the divine being, of life and death and a whole range of other theological precepts is completely different, but tragically much of the mainstream literature maintains that ‘Sikhi is an off shoot of Hinduism, or that is an amalgam of Hinduism and Islam.
The problem with trying to fit Sikhi into the dominant Vedic and Islamic paradigms within the context of India, is that by doing so the distinct essence can be lost. We face the same challenge the world over as we try to constantly fit our narrative into the broader Abrahamic paradigm.
But if we are to establish out claim for distinctiveness, we must seek to elevate our own concepts, the two central opens in this regard being, ‘panth’ and ‘quom’. That also means we need to stop using the term ‘Sikhism’, which is nowhere to be found in any historical Sikh text, and instead normalise the term ‘Sikhi’, which is. I am sure that if we referred to Christianity or Islam as ‘Christianism’ and ‘Islamism’, followers of these faiths would not be too pleased.
I think ultimately the only solution to the perennial problem of misrepresentation of Sikhi and Sikhs and the issue of national RE curriculum is for the establishment of an international body that is recognised by the United Nations to represent the Global Sikh Panth. Like the World Council of Churches or the World Jewish Congress, such a body could bring ALL the main Panthic bodies together, to compile, amongst other things, a complete official compendium of Sikh history, theology and rehit (code of conduct).
I know this is a big ask, but I am unsure how else we can resolve the many divisions on range of issues that the Panth is experiencing. Such a document would not be designed to undermine critical scholarship or debate, but to act as a reliable reference point for policy makers. It may just also help to create some clear water between the true Panthic Sikhs and those who have ulterior motives!
As for the Indian Government and the national curriculum, I don’t hold out much hope as I believe their intentions to establish Hindutva are clear. But we should not need prompting from the Indian state to put our own house in order.
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.firstname.lastname@example.org]
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Science, religion and the Covid-19 crisis (Asia Samachar, 30 May 2020)
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