Demystifying Sikh Narrative

To me it seems that the Sikh story and US story could have some parallels because the historical period nearly overlaps and in many ways the Sikh Gurus envisioned even more just, equitable, empathetic and humane social values with as much, if not more, zeal for the society to be guided by theistic ethical and moral values.

FLASHBACK: President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Singh of India walk along the Cross Hall of the White House towards the East Room for the arrival ceremony. November 24, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
By Nirmal Singh | OPINION |

Several of us, especially the US residents, would be getting releases from Civil Rights Advocacy organizations like SALDEF, of the following kind:

“This weekend SALDEF will present the third part of the series Demystifying U.S. History and Activating Sikh Action for Black Justice Movements. Part III of the series Fighting for Civil Rights / From Liberation Movements to the Movement for Black Lives with Dr. Ashley Howard will talk about the role of “white leagues” in maintaining white supremacy; why was the Black Panther Party formed, and how it served the people; and what role internationalism played in the Black Power movement to connect South Asian and Black struggles.

While the immediate objective of this series by SALDEF is possibly to mobilize the Sikh vote to influence outcome of the US election in a certain direction, I am bringing it up for very different reasons.

To me it seems that the Sikh story and US story could have some parallels because the historical period nearly overlaps and in many ways the Sikh Gurus envisioned even more just, equitable, empathetic and humane social values with as much, if not more, zeal for the society to be guided by theistic ethical and moral values.

The struggle, by migrant Pilgrims against the tyrannies they had experienced, took political form, and “the Pilgrims’ story became a central theme in the history and culture of the United States.” After a violent struggle against the indigenous people, the migrants established control over the land mass and set up their envisioned state structure that became a beacon for others to emulate for over a century now.

The Indian society which had its own institutionalized weaknesses like caste system and chronic disunity that kept its people compartmentalized and had debilitating influence on social cohesion leading to political control by migrant invaders – seen by locals as oppressive and discriminatory.

One more parallel that I see is of ‘paap ki janj lai kabuloon dhaaya‘ – the minority migrant bosses were not paragons of virtue – they had their flaws – in India for loot and rapine and in the US for their disenfranchised ‘slave’ labor.

The US Black movement was for their own ‘freedom’ from ‘slavery’ under the new white ruling elite followed by civil rights and justice for a still beleaguered minority community. The leading characteristics of societal balance continued to be defined by this struggle till very recently albeit with increasing numbers and influence of the Black minority.

FLASHBACK: President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talk with Prime Minister Singh of India in the Cross Hall of the White House. November 24, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In India, the parallel was offset both in time and the character of beleaguered segment – it was the majority community in distress under centuries of Muslim invader’s rule. To the Hindus aid, an emerging minority, the Sikhs, picked up the cudgels and eventually succeeded to weaken hold of oppressive Muslim regime sufficiently to set up their rule over a vital part of India till another, but perhaps seemingly less threatening invader, the British, got the upper hand and subdued both the ruling Muslims and Sikhs to establish their rule.

This change gave the Hindu majority a breather. All the three communities reorganized to cope with the changing administrative and political environment. Sikhs did not have the numbers but made up somehow to build and retain their influence in the decision processes and new political formations seeking freedom from foreign rule.

British left in 1947. India was divided into a Muslim dominated Pakistan and Hindu dominated India. According to Akhtar Sandhu, a Gujrat University, Pakistan, Professor, Sikhs not only got nothing in 1947 but also lost the position of being an influencing group. This is not only Akhtar who says this – I have faced similar questions from lay Pakistanis after my presentation ‘tussi khatya kee hai? Shaheedian dena thheek hai par mila kya?’

Sikhs got nothing and joined India but things kept getting worse. The loss of political influence became too irksome but reactionary Sikh stances made it worse. The result was the attack by the Indian Army on Golden Temple complex in 1984 to eliminate holed up Sikh militants, followed by revenge killing by two Sikh security guards of PM Indira Gandhi which caused the pogrom to mercilessly kill Sikhs in Delhi and several other places in Nov 1984. The Sikhs had touched their lowest point of influence in history perhaps comparable to 1606 martyrdom of Guru Arjun.

The Sikh and US story comes together in time and space once again when Manmohan Singh, by accident or otherwise was picked by Congress to be the PM of India for a decade during 2004- 14 and Barack Obama was elected the first Black President of US for two terms – 2008 to 2016.

This was no small achievement by a Sikh and should have given a boost to flagging Sikh morale but the Sikh response was – ‘he was not even a Sikh’ or words like that effect. Sikhs were wary of Congress to which Manmohan Singh belonged and Dr Singh’s own obsessive sense of propriety made him stay aloof from the Sikhs as a community.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy was celebrated by even the Republican Party top Black leaders who openly supported Obama and he got almost 100% of Black vote. Sikh dispersal that had started post 1984 continued and in spite of a bump, their influence has continued to recede.

The successors of Obama and Manmohan Singh draw upon narrow majoritarian nationalism as their lead policy which has tended to marginalize minorities. The Black response in the US has lately turned into a very sophisticated paradigm of journey from slavery to not ‘freedom’ from slavery but to ‘informed influencers of state policies’ and perchance again a shot at Presidency! Sikhs on the other hand are revisiting their past and ruminating over the failures of their leaders even as their down slide continues unabated in India.

Sikh narrative was rooted in high ideals and had egalitarian and equitable political objectives. Sikhs saw glory and high recognition but now seem to be mystified by an array of problems. The prototype put together by minds like Obama and other thinkers and communicators demystifies the militant streaks in Black narrative and sharpens focus on connecting with similar justice and liberty aspirations of other groups.

Sikhs had almost similarly burnished their endeavors a century or more back when their radical acts were recognized as patriotic sacrifices and their lead in successful espousal of non violent protests made the entire nation look to them as exemplars – cementing their place as part of the group to decide the country’s future. Sikhs thus made it to become ‘influencers’ in pre independence India and retained that status till 1947 even though they lost the baton in the last lap and have not since been able to get their hand to it.

Let us therefore try to stop escaping to the past, pull ourselves up and reshape our present to regain some of the luster that we lost in 1947 and after in the rough and tumble of the Indian polity. It is not impossible. We have the wherewithal and we have the need!

[Nirmal Singh has written six books on Sikhs and Sikhi and several of his articles have been published in journals like Sikh Review, Journal of Sikh Studies and Comparative Religion and Abstracts of Sikh Sudies (IOSS) as well as in the US mainstream news media. Resident in Orlando, he spends considerable time in Delhi]


Conundrum of religion for peace and tricky reality for Sikhs – Part 1 (Asia Samachar, 20 Jan 2020)

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