The case for Panjabi ethnicity

Punjabi man holding vinyl player – Photo: Nischal Masand
By Gurnam Singh | UK | OPINION |

Recently, I wrote a short piece evaluating the case for Sikhs to be designated as a separate ethnic group ( This was prompted by a legal case brought by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) to the High Court of England challenging an earlier decision by the UK Government to reject a demand for a separate Sikh ethnicity category in the 2021 census (

The current arrangement is that Sikhs have a separate tick box within the section ‘religion and belief’ but not under ‘ethnicity’, though there is a mechanism to register Sikh ethnicity through ‘self-identification’. This provision is seen by the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) to be inadequate in capturing both the scale and distinctive needs of the Sikh community.  This argument appears to have been vindicated in the 2011 census when a mere 83,000 Sikhs chose to utilize the self-identification provision. Indeed, a simple comparison with 423,000 registrations in the ‘religion and belief’ section appears to add more weight to the argument for an ethnicity box.

However, the problem with such a simple comparison is that it is not clear why the disparity exists. The number 83,000 could be read as an accurate number of Sikhs who are happy to identify as ethnic Sikhs, thus leading to the conclusion that the vast majority of Sikhs do not identify with the idea of a Sikh ethnicity, or are at least ambivalent! In reality, without further triangulation, making any conclusion, either way, would be premature.

Since the original case the SFUK, as reported in the Times of India (9.1.2020), has lodged an appeal with the High Court on the grounds that the judgment handed down on Dec 12, 2019, was premature since a ministerial decision, which should have been made in Oct 2019, had not yet been made.

The crux of the argument I presented in the previous article was that, though in terms of identity politics, Sikhs had every right to make a case for recognition, to label Sikhs as an ‘ethnic group’ was not without its problems and that going down that path could lead to unintended consequences. One of the main problems is the complexities of translating the idea of Sikhs as a ‘quom’ or ‘dharam’ into what are essentially European concepts of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’.  I finished the piece by suggesting that, though not without its own problems, given that most Sikhs appear to identify themselves as ‘Panjabi’ and not ‘Indian’, which is identified as an ethnic category on the census, a Panjabi tick box might offer a more logical and coherent position. In this piece, I want to consider further the idea and feasibility of a Panjabi (also spelled Punjabi) ethnicity category.


One of the dangerous legacies of British colonial rule in ‘Indian’ was to leave the various peoples of what was a vast diverse region spanning almost 2 million square miles divided according to western pseudo-scientific theories of the ‘race’, nation and ethnicity. Indeed, one could argue that across the globe, against the backdrop of European colonial conquest and the French and American revolutions, the period spanning from the late 18th to the 20th Century represents an epoch in human history where the politics of identity, race and nation became established as a universal phenomenon.

Interestingly, it is also this period in which most modern nation-states, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, came into existence. It is noteworthy that the vast majority of the 195 countries, currently full member states or observer states of the United Nations, came into existence less than 100 years ago! This just underlies how precarious claims to statehood are and that, in many senses they are but imaginary entities. Hence, despite claims by some that nations are natural, ethnic and even biologically determined entities, as writers such as Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm note, nations and nationalism are modern ideas functioning to serve political and economic ends.

The modern period of world history has become engulfed in the politics of identity that has been turbo-charged by a dangerous concoction of essentialist manufactured ideologies of race, ethnicity, religion and culture. India, more than most countries, has become a major battleground, resulting in sectarianism and culture wars in which different groups, defined by reference to social background, caste, religion and culture, battle for legitimacy, political and social rights. Though it is quite legitimate for any group of self-identified citizens to make demands of the state, the problem is that groups start competing with each other for legitimacy, and this, in turn, unleashes the kinds of forces of sectarianism which the Sikh Gurus vehemently campaigned against. As Guru Gobind Singh states, “Someone is Hindu and someone a Muslim, then someone is Shia, and someone a Sunni, but all the human beings, as species beings, are recognized as one and the same race” (Dasam Granth P47).

Tragically, despite a wonderful humanitarian messages conveyed by the great Sikh Gurus, Sufi Saints, revolutionaries like Udham Singh, who symbolically changed his name to ‘Ram Mohammad Singh Azad’, and poets like Rabindranath Tagore, who famously described his own identity as a confluence Hindu, Muslim and British culture, we are increasingly seeing the exportation of sectarian thinking amongst the growing Indian diaspora in the UK and across the world. Due to a combination of selective amnesia or manipulation, we forget that much of the current debate, about the identities of people originating from the Indian sub-continent, is framed around what Edward Said famously identified as Western orientalist discourses and theories of the so-called people from the East Indic races.

Sikhs are one of those groups that were constructed by the British colonialists as a uniquely ‘martial race’. It is true that the history of Sikhism is one of persecution and armed conflict and there is no doubt that the ‘warrior’ element clearly emerges after the martyrdom of Guru Arjan and the establishment of Akaal Takht and Sikh temporal authority, thus giving rise to the ‘saint soldier’ identity. But, what often gets missed in stereotypical representations of Sikhs as unthinking warriors is the wide range of other attributes that they developed in addition to their military prowess; as scholars, agriculturalists, artists, musicians, engineers, humanitarians, relief workers, teachers, social workers, peacemakers, etc.  As noted earlier, there can be no doubt that Sikhs constitute a ‘quom’, but this is a unique concept that cannot easily be translated as an ‘ethnic group’, ‘race’, ‘nation’ or even ‘diasporic community’ (though this probably comes close!).



All Sikhs have a cultural identity and, with some exceptions, they have a common heritage which can be traced back to the Panjab. Because of the unavailability of data, one can never be 100% certain, but it would be reasonable to assume that most Sikhs have some affiliation to Panjab and Panjabi culture, through customs, language, community associations and perhaps even property and relationships in Panjab. In the post-partition period, those associations became disrupted because of the division of Panjab, but culturally, as we saw with the recent opening of the Kartarpur corridor, ties between East and West Panjabis are still very strong. Though religious differences clearly exist, there is a conviviality amongst Panjabi’s that seems to transcend these.

If one were to change the focus onto Panjabi identity or Panjabiat, then some of the problems associated both with the colonial constructions discussed above can be overcome. Panjabi identity and ethnicity are not primarily based on race or religion but linguistic and ethnic ties developed over centuries rising out of the unique geography of the land of the five rivers and the mixing of the indigenous people with travellers, invaders, traders and everybody else that settled in the Panjab. If one considers that at its height, in 1911 when the British incorporated Delhi, Punjab had an area of approximately 357,000 km square, which is roughly the size of modern-day Germany! Under the British, Panjab encompassed the present-day Indian states of (East) Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh as well as the Pakistani regions of the (West) Punjab, Islamabad Capital Territory and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The combined population of these territories, based on the present age, exceeds 200 million which would place Panjab in the top 5 countries in the world.  If one also factors in the global Panjabi diaspora, which on rough estimates is in excess of 20 million, seen in this context, one should not be surprised with the global influence of Panjab and Panjabis. Such an extensive ethnic group didn’t emerge overnight but rather it evolved over a thousand years to reach this common identity based on linguistic cohesion. Proof of the fantastic cosmopolitan nature of Punjabi ethnicity is the rich linguistic heritage that has given birth to a major world language and many shades of skin colour, from fair blue-eyed, fair-skinned people in the North to darker-skinned Panjabis in the south.

And so, with the mixing of cultures, tribes and peoples, what we have in Panjab is a unique cultural blend and harmony where the constituent parts and various communities are clearly visible but are at the same time bound together in everyday culture.

The most perfect example of this patchwork can be found in Punjabi wedding traditions and ceremonies. Though the formal religious marriage ceremonies amongst Panjabi Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, etc, are quite distinct, there are deep commonalities in the surrounding cultural practices, song, dance, food, and dress. Similarly, Panjabi folk festivals, such as Lohri, which was recently celebrated, but also Maghi, Holi, Baisakhi, Teeyan, Diwali and Dussehra all have cross-community engagement. Even the major religious festivals, seem to attract Panjabis of all faiths and none. Most significantly, we see events such as the Gurpurabs being celebrated by almost all Panjabis, and this was very much in evidence both sides of the Panjab border during the recent Guru Nanak 550 Celebrations at Kartarpur, Nanakana and Sultanpur.

Punjab has a rich and distinct literary tradition which can be traced back to the poetry of Baba Farid in the 12th century, through to the Mogul and Guru Period traversing the 14th-18th centuries. Over this period we saw the development of Panjabi Sufi poetry, which also influenced other Panjabi literary traditions, such as the ‘Punjabi Qissa’ of Waris Shah, Fazal Shah and Hafiz Barkhudar, the ‘vars’ of Guru Gobind Singh and his many court poets, such as Nand Lal. In more recent times, we see a continuation of the evolution of the Panjabi literary tradition with the Panjabi poetry and novels of such notable writers as Bhai Vir Singh, Professor Puran Singh, Nanak Singh, Amrita Pritam, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Surjit Patar and many others. The rich Panjabi literary tradition continues to evolve not only in the Panjab but amongst the global diaspora. It would not be an overstatement to suggest that Panjabi language and culture are very much rooted at the center of global South Asian diasporic culture. The universal appeal of the likes of Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan and his qawwalis, to Hans Raj Hans, Gurdas Maan, Satinder Sartaj, Nooran Sisters, and many others and their unique take on Panjabi folk music and songs, provided powerful evidence for this claim.

Ethnicity is a complex concept whose meaning is very much contingent on time and space. Its etymological roots are from the  Latin ethnicus, and Greek ethnikos, referring to people or nations bound together with specific characteristics, shared culture (music, art, cuisine, dress, etc), customs and a way of life. Where it becomes problematic and contested is when one uses religion, race and caste-based markers to identify the cultural characteristics.  Indeed, though by definition ethnicity is a relatively fluid concept, where it becomes deployed as a proxy for racial and national pride, as well as binding people’s, it can also become a source of conflict as we see in the case of the kinds ethno-nationalism across the world. The problem is that ethno-nationalist movements tend to be politically and ideologically driven, and therefore, as Anthony Smith points out, rely on selective, essentialist and manufactured differences. In reality, ‘real’ ethnic bonds are not sustained by ideology, but deeper historical rootedness that is established through culture, traditions, common values, language and shared history. In this regard, any search for Panjabi ethnicity needs to be wary of arguments that are solely motivated by ideological and political expedience.

Though the Panjab, as a land of five rivers, existed before human civilisation, it is argued that the sense of Panjabiat emerges in parallel with the development of Sikhi. The historian and poet,  Professor Puran Singh, particularly through his anthologies, ‘Sisters of the Spinning Wheel’ and ‘Spirit of the Oriental Poetry’, makes this very point. For him, Punjab’s scripture, (with Guru Granth Sahib being absolutely pivotal), its literature, history and folklore all come together in a harmony to define what it means to be a Panjabi. For Puran Singh, ’panjab vasda gura te nam te’ (Panjab is alive because of the spirit of the Gurus). Capturing the relationship between the material and spiritual constitution of the Panjab, Puran Singh says ‘ann da swaad we naam da swaad hai’ (the pleasure that comes from eating grain is the same pleasure that comes with Naam).

The simply practical ethical spirituality of  Guru Nanak, who at Kartarpur ploughed the fields in Punjab and instilled a dedication to ‘kirt karni’ (earning and honest living), ‘vand ke shakna’ (sharing one possesions with others) and ‘naam japna’ (being perpetually conscious of a universal divine presence)forms the backbone of Panjabi ethnicity.

And so, whilst there are distinct religious traditions in Panjab, there is also a real sense that Panjabis are spiritually connected, with the opening up of the Kartarpur corridor and the massive undertaking by the Pakistani Government in the construction of the Kartarpur Gurdwara complex, coupled with the celebrations that took place at Nankana Sahib and Sultanpur Lodhi, there could be no doubt that the spirit of Guru Nanak, who is universally recognised as the Guru who transcends religious traditions (jagat guru), and the land of the Panjab, are inseparable.

Historically, disputes over recognition are rarely settled through reasoned and judicious intellectual arguments. Populist demands and precedence tend to trouble politicians more than historical precision. The fact that the British state has already given partial recognition to Sikh ethnicity through the Mandla V Dowel- Lee judgment, and this coupled with the historical legacy of the British construction of Sikhs as a ‘martial race’, probably means there is every possibility that the UK Government will concede to the demand by the Sikh Federation UK for a separate Sikh ethnicity tick box, and time will reveal if their claims about significant undercounting of Sikhs established.

Ever since Sikhs began arriving in the UK, mostly originating from the Panjab, they have sought to preserve their cultural identity by whatever means they have been able. Since 1984 and the terrible events in India following the storming of the Darbar Sahib in June and the Sikhs Genocide in November, there has been a growing sense of urgency to protect, preserve and promote a separate Sikh identity. There is nothing wrong with this, but at the same time we must not forget identities are multi-layered, and for the vast majority of Sikhs in India and the diaspora, connections to and concerns for Panjab and Panjabiat also form an important component of who we are. It is worth recalling, the destruction of the Panjab, first by the British through annexation in the 19th Century then it’s dismembering during the 20th Century, is a great source of anguish for many Sikhs. Moreover, we must not forget, the genesis of the present-day Sikh struggle in India is the Anandpur Resolution, which was essentially calling for rights of all Panjabis, including autonomy to Punjab.

The post-1947 period has seen the retrenchment of Pakistani (Islamic) and Indian (Hindutva) nationalism and this has had a serious impact on Panjabi identity and culture, most critically, Panjabi language, which is being systematically erased. A Panjabi ethnicity is not without its problems and questions such as differences between communities originating from East and West Panjab. But, by joining forces, the strength of numbers can give us a real political influence in terms of policymaking as well as undermining the divide and rule strategies that are and have historically been deployed by the British state.

As we see the rise of all kinds of sectarian hate crimes and authoritarian nationalisms across the world, if there ever was a time for all Panjabis to unite, it is now. Celebrating Panjabi ethnicity far from undermining religious affiliations can act to strengthen these, and what greater evidence can we have for this than the emotional scenes we have witnessed with the opening up of the Kartarpur corridor and the outpouring of love and reverence for Guru Nanak on his 550th birth anniversary.


[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]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


The need to recognise Sikh ethnicity (Asia Samachar, 31 July 2019)


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  1. I note that Dr Gurnam Singh’s comment in response to mine has disappeared from his earlier article.
    These are circular arguments on parallel logic tracks. Otherwise called, “Paani wich madhaani” in Panjabi.
    Nothing more to add to what has already been said.