‘Life was a constant struggle, a battle for survival’

Race and education, Marxism, immigration and state racism, discovering Sikhi and sense of community. Dr Gurnam Singh unpacks his lived experience in an interview with fellow academic Dr Sunny Dhillon for the Sikh Panjabi Scholars Project

Gurnam Singh

Sikh Panjabi Scholars Project: Dr Sunny Dhillon interviews Dr Gurnam Singh

The Sikh Punjabi Scholars Project has been undertaken and edited by Dr. Sunny Dhillon, and consists of a series of interviews with Sikh Panjabi Scholars working in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences from September 2022 – March 2023. The aim was to capture the career pathways and lived experiences of Sikh Punjabi Scholars in the UK. This collection contains lightly edited transcripts of interviews with fourteen such participants. The following transcript is of an interview with Dr Gurnam Singh.

Dr. Sunny Dhillon, Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. (E-mail: sunny.dhillon@bishopg.ac.uk)

Before joining the Education Studies team in November 2021, Dr Sunny Dhillon spent five years as a learning developer at the University of Leeds, as well as at BGU, where he also worked as a Visiting Tutor in the Theology, Ethics and Society department. Sunny conducted his doctoral research through the Philosophy department at Cardiff University, focusing upon the concept of utopia. Owing to his background in Philosophy, combined with Academic Literacies, he is well-placed to help students critically investigate the ostensibly virtuous practice(s) of formal education.

Sunny’s research interests include Critical Theory (The Frankfurt School), Nietzsche, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Utopia, Philosophy of Education and Academic Literacies. His current research projects include two main strands. Firstly, the role of satirical humour, gameplay, and the mythical archetype of the Trickster within Higher Education practices. Secondly, explorations of identity concerning Sikh Scholars working in the Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences in the anglosphere.

Dr. Gurnam Singh, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. (E-mail: gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk)

Dr. Gurnam Singh is an activist researcher, writer, educator, columnist, and broadcast journalist, and has spent much of his adult life fighting against systems of power and oppression. He holds several academic posts, as Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Fellow in Race and Education at the University of Arts, London and Visiting Professor of Social Work, Liverpool Hope University. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Coventry University. He writes a column in the online magazine Asia Samachar and also contributes to community broadcasting as a presenter on the Panjab Broadcasting Channel (PBC). He has previously presented news and current affairs shows on the Sikh Channel and Akaal Channel.

Dr Singh completed a PhD at the University of Warwick in 2005, focusing on anti-racist social work. In recognition of his work in critical pedagogy and higher education, he received a National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) in 2009 and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (FRSA) in 2018. Dr. Singh’s extensive publication record encompasses four books, over 40 peer-reviewed papers, chapters, and review articles, and numerous keynote conference presentations across the world. His work covers a wide range of topics, including race, racism, anti-racism, diversity, decolonization, ethics, higher education,  social work and Sikh and Punjab studies.

SD: So, who is Gurnam Singh?

GS: It’s a difficult one to answer. I could start right back to the 1960s growing up as a child on the streets of Bradford, a hilly, windy, cold and bleak industrial city that, because of the vast networks of mills and associated industries was a magnet for migrant labour from across the globe. But I think in the context of our conversation, the question is, when did I discover that I was an educator and how did I end up becoming a career academic? I suppose it was when I was very young, I was a bit of a black sheep in the family. I was the youngest of four brothers who were all born in Panjab, though being just 3 years old when we came to the UK, unlike my brothers, I had no memories of Panjab. I very much saw myself as British, though at the same time, due to racism, I also felt like an outsider. This somewhat schizophrenic relationship with Britishness, a sense of belonging and un-belonging has formed the backdrop for much of my scholarly work and continues to this very day.

During those early years, life was a constant struggle, a battle for survival and I think much of my education was disrupted by that. I’m not sure if ‘disruption’ is the right word, because, in some sense, I got a different kind of education. I think that experience also defined me and who I have become in profound ways. Much of my early childhood school experience/education was about learning how to fight back both literally and metaphorically and trying to make sense of the violence of race and education that I was experiencing daily.

It was through this experience that I started to become conscious of the history of coloniality, especially because I was growing up in Bradford; a very multicultural community where Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Caribbeans, Eastern Europeans and white working-class British people were living cheek by jowl. So, a mix of race, class, gender, religion and ethnicity was everywhere, and much of my time was spent on making sense of my lived experience; If I am honest, those early years were quite alienating.

Because my family valued the importance of getting an education — my dad used to say the only reason he came to the UK was to enable us to get a decent education — even though it was alienating, my attendance was good. Though I struggled to achieve good grades, I used to be quite interested in all the subjects, especially the hard sciences, history and religious education.

Although I’ve never been a believer in the popular conception of ‘God’ as a white-bearded old man living above the clouds, as far back as I can remember, I was always interested in questions related to religious identity, faith and belief. I think this was possible because it enabled me to think about the big questions in life, such as, what is the nature of being? what/who is God? Why are many drawn to him? and what is the purpose of human life? And so, whilst I didn’t have much time for organised religion, I was always keen to fight against injustice and do moral good. I think I was a Marxist before I even knew who Marx was, but it was his ideas about capitalism, the exploitation of people and the role of religion, which I began to explore in my mid-teens, that enabled me to make sense of life as I was experiencing it.

SEE ALSO: Why I abandoned religion to get closer to the divine!

Being surrounded by all kinds of violence and oppression, especially racism, meant that each day was a painful learning experience. From home to street to school, there were no safe spaces. Even when we were not being subject to direct violence, the fear of racist attacks was ever-present. As for school, the tirade of racist abuse had deep psychological effects to the point where I began resenting my identity, including taking solace when I was given the honorary status of being white when my white ‘friends’ would say that ‘I was not like the others’! 

But it was the question of immigration and state racism and a specific experience of the deportation of a close family member in 1976 that had a life-changing impact on me. The person in question was my cousin from Punjab who had entered the UK illegally and had been living with and working in a local factory for a year. We were of a similar age and very close; I was 16 years old, and he was 17, though his illegally procured passport had him as over 20. One day there was a raid at a local mill in Bradford where we had been working and, along with many others, he was arrested.

It was normal for migrants in such a situation to destroy their papers to avoid summary deportation, and this is what we did for my cousin. This resulted in him ending up in prison pending deportation. The issue of migrant workers being held in prison had become a political issue and the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) started a campaign and planned a protest outside Armley Prison, Leeds, where a significant number of migrants were being detained without trial. I am unsure how, but the SWP found out that my cousin was one of the detainees, so they came to my mum’s shop on Leeds Road and asked me to join the protest that was going to take place outside the prison, so I went along.

This was my first ever such protest and I was both excited and nervous, especially as everybody else seemed so much older and bigger than me! My anxiety turned into shock when one of the activists, who was aware that my cousin was one of the detainees, asked me to ‘make a speech’! I responded: ‘What’s a speech’? Then before I knew it, a burly white activist pulled out an empty milk crate, picked me up onto the temporary platform and thrust a microphone into my hands. It must all have happened in a matter of seconds and without thinking about my words, proceeded to make my first-ever speech, which consisted of a two-minute rant laced with many expletives about the racist British authorities; it was a surreal experience.

In hindsight, I believe this experience had a transformative effect. I guess that was the first time that I realised that there was something locked up inside that needed to be released and that I had agency, I had power, I could resist and in this sense, was my first real exposure to political activism. Well, you could argue that my disruptive activities in school were acts of resistance, but they were more reactive rather than a self-conscious and organised political act; I think the protest speech was the first one. 

So, then I started to hang about with socialists, reading and hanging about in left-wing book shops and organising all kinds of anti-racist protests. The ironic thing is that, though I spent a considerable part of my secondary education truanting from school, along with hanging about on the streets, I would spend most of the time in the Bradford Central Library reading about history, politics and philosophy, something that was denied at school where the curriculum was very UK/Eurocentric! Though I didn’t know this at the time, I now realise that I had become an autodidact, that is I was largely self-taught. 

Though I was struggling at school, in a strange twist, despite my discomfort with the concept, without knowing it, I think I was assimilating the identity of a particular kind of intellectual. I am not talking about the notion of a traditional Oxbridge-educated white male intellectual, but an amalgam of what the Italian critical theorist, Antonio Gramsci, termed an ‘organic intellectual’, and the Canadian educationalist, Henry Giroux’s conception of a ‘transformative intellectual.’ I gradually began to see my vocation in life as one of enabling lives to be transformed through critical pedagogy. Indeed, I think I was practising ‘critical pedagogy’ before I ever came across the work of Paulo Freire and his seminal text ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. Indeed, my passion for critical pedagogy resulted in establishing the Midlands Critical Pedagogy Group and also co-editing a book in 2013 entitled Acts of Knowing: Critical Pedagogy in, against and beyond the University published by  Bloomsbury.

And so, despite struggling at school I managed to get a clutch of GCSE’s and A Levels and went off to university in 1978 to do a degree in Applied Chemistry. Like many other Sikh parents, mine had dreamt about me going off to medical school, hence I did science A levels, but, like many others of my generation, I simply didn’t have the grades and chemistry became my fall-back position. To be honest, at a time when only 6% of the population, mostly from white middle-class backgrounds, went to university, just getting into university was an achievement. In those days, going to university was less about the subject one was studying and more about an opportunity to ‘find yourself’, which for me meant moving 200 miles from Bradford to London. Though I occasionally went back home at the end of term, the next 3 years of my life were mostly spent furthering my anti-racist activism in London, but also in building a deeper connection to my Sikh roots. I spent most of my time between University in Uxbridge, Southall, Shephard Bush and Central London. 

1981 was a pivotal point in my life and indeed many others from my generation when the UK went up in flames. From Brixton in South London and Southall in West London, and eventually across the country, in 1981 we saw a wave of protest and riots against racist violence and police brutality. I was still in London and was in Southall when on 23rd April 1981 we saw the streets going up in flames following the National Front march and the counter-protest by the Anti-Nazi League. As well as the riots this event is also remembered because of the death of Blair Peach, a teacher and anti-fascist activist who most believe was killed by a blow to the head by notorious Special Patrol Group branch of the Met Police; his death remains an unsolved crime. Because Southall Broadway had been cordoned off, I was not part of the main protest, those events deeply impacted both my activism and academic career in ways that I could never have imagined. 

As I recalled earlier, after the protest outside Armely Prison, I started to become active. This activism led to the establishment of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement in 1976 (https://www.tandana.org/data/pg/aym/aym_02.htm). I was one of the founders of the Bradford chapter, which was the first of many such groups in most major UK cities. Under the slogan, ‘self-defence is no offence’, we were fighting racism on various fronts, from resisting police brutality and racist immigration laws to defending the community against Far-Right groups from racist hate attacks, which were a daily occurrence. Unlike many of my fellow activists, I was lucky I escaped becoming criminalised. That was I believe a pivotal moment for me as I am convinced that had I been convicted of any criminal offences, my career trajectory would have been quite different.

So, it was and remains a precarious life for me, a life on the edge, on the boundary. But in some sense, because it’s lived on the edge, it gives you clarity and a perspective that you wouldn’t otherwise have as an ‘insider’. And I suppose I have taken that perspective through into my academic and professional work. For example, having the audacity to contact academics and scholars whom you would have been frightened to approach; just emailing them and realising they’re just ordinary people was a revelation to me in that it disrupted the sense of othering I had felt as being ‘other’ to clever intelligent people! If I am honest, though less so, I still carry the scars of being an outsider, and imposter if you like, and this continues to inform much of my academic work.

SEE ALSO: Echoes of Identity and Rebellion: My Journey Through Elvis, Rock ‘n’ Roll, into Sikhi

I suppose although I never consciously wanted or planned to become an academic or writer, I have come to think of ‘writing’ as ‘walking’. Unless one has a significant disability, then everybody is can walk, is a walker and the challenge is to walk a bit longer, a bit faster. Likewise, to be a writer at the basic level is to write, which most can do, so the challenge is to develop one’s capacity to write. So, whilst I have come to value my ability to write, I’ve always had an uncomfortable, you could say ambivalent, relationship with the label academic or intellectual. As a status symbol, I see it as part of the problem, but on the other hand, as a kind of necessary evil that goes with working in Higher Education. And so, my writing and research about education and universities is informed by the idea of being against a type of exclusivist intellectuality that we tend to see especially within the elite institutions, but still respecting intellectual pursuits. So that’s where I am difficult to pin down. I guess I am a reluctant intellectual who, following Gramsci, also believes that all human beings or homo sapiens, by virtue that they are thinking animals, are ‘intellectuals’, or at least have the potential to be so.

SD: That was some answer! The first way you described yourself was as an educator, and you’re from Bradford. Shifting gears, what does your Panjabi heritage mean to you?

GS: It’s a great question because I was brought up in a very secular home and my parents were preoccupied with providing us with our basic needs, there were few discussions about religion and identity.  That said, my dad was adamant that I go to the gurdwara and Panjabi classes at the weekend. So, whilst my father had cut his hair, and adopted the typical work white working-class male lifestyle drinking and smoking and adopting an anglicised name, somewhat paradoxically, I think he was also concerned about the transmission of cultural identity. My mum was quite religious; I recall her reciting Gurbani and refraining from meat and alcohol, but she had to just do what was culturally required of her as a woman. On Sunday mornings I played football, initially for my school team and then for a local Punjabi team called Albion Sports. So, whilst my parents would insist on me attending the Gurdwara, and Panjabi class, I wanted to play football. The fact that the teachers were violent, like, properly violent didn’t help! These teachers were everything that teaching and pedagogy, should not be. I guess they were just acting out colonial pedagogies really; the way that they learned things. So, I rebelled, against everything and never progressed further than learning the Gurmukhi alphabet.

Gurnam Singh (standing, left) with the Albion Sports (Bradford) football team in early 1980s- Photo: Supplied

It was around the age of 17 when my life began to take on a different direction. From fighting my Punjabi tradition and history, I began to develop a thirst for it.  This began with reading books on British colonial history and the few books that were present on the Sikhs at the Bradford Central Library. I began to learn about the Indian independence movement, and the Gadar party and I started to think quite differently about my sense of identity and my uncritical adoption of Western cultural forms. Reading about the struggles of freedom fighters against British Rule led me to reconnect with my family history, of the struggles of my parents, grandparents and ancestors from the days of the Moguls through to the partition in 1947 and the painful migration stories, was quite transformative. This led me to keep my hair and, given he had removed his turban on arrival in the UK, with a sense of irony (for him),  I asked my dad to tie me a turban; ‘Pagh bandho’!

He was taken aback and expressed some doubts. He thought I might get involved in a cult or something. I said ‘No, I just want to put a pagh on’, and so I did, and felt OK about it. I never really became religious. Two years later, when I went to university in London, in 1979 I took Amrit (‘nectar’ signifying baptism as a Khalsa Sikh).  This gave me a renewed sense of purpose and identity. I had always been keen on fitness sport, and a healthy lifestyle and it seemed like Amrit was a good thing as not only did it encourage me to look after my body, but it also helped to nourish my mind and desire to reclaim my lost identity.  I also liked it because I could attach myself to a martial tradition, a tradition of revolution, which aligned with my growing interest in left politics. I went back to reading Sikh history, and I realised that true Sikhi was a far cry from those violent priests and teachers that I experienced in the Gurdwara. I discovered that Sikhi was about resistance to priestly classes, imperialists and landlords. So, that allowed me to bring my Marxism and materialism together with this discovery of heritage, culture and identity.

Gurnam Singh in 1981 in Southall during his university days in West London.

But it was also a ‘secular spirituality’, which may sound like an oxymoron. Let me explain; It’s a spirituality without a traditional external God, one that lives in the sky and a strange place called Heaven! I later realized somewhat ironically that many of the ideas I had internalised about God and religion more generally were imported from Christian models. So, in realising I had inadvertently rejected my tradition, I began on something of a journey of discovery. My starting point was realising that Sikhi was about ‘learning’ and to be a Sikh in a very literal sense was to be a learner. As I had always felt that I was a learner/student, embracing Sikhi felt compatible with my educational identity, as a lifelong learner. I’m a lifelong Sikh! So, Sikhi and University happened around the same time, and then 1984 happened and, like many other Sikh youth at the time, I became involved in the Khalistan movement. However, as I would later realise, my activism was more about opposing India and its oppressive actions than fighting for an independent state of Khalistan. I gave some talks on Khalistan and attended many demonstrations, but to be honest, I have never felt that this was compatible with my universalist, non-sectarian socialist outlook.

SD: So, when I asked about your Panjabi heritage, from the response it seems as though a Panjabi-ness and Sikhi are almost the same for you? How would you divorce the two? Or can that even be done?

GS: Well, it’s interesting because I grew up in a very multicultural community with a significant Panjabi population. Some of my best friends were (and still are) Muslims. I did not know about partition and sense of the politics of division and as far as I was concerned we were all one. I know my Dad would always say, ‘Don’t trust these Muslims’, which left me puzzled as some of his best friends were Muslim! It was only later that I got to know about the horrors of partition and that my parents had first-hand experience of the violence.  They were there in the thick of it and they survived! I guess it was this traumatic experience that had left an indelible mark on their psyche, hence their ongoing mistrust of Muslims.

Though we lived cheek-by-jowl with many minority communities, and though none of my extended family members wore turbans, I did have a sense of my separate Punjabi Sikh identity; I recall the kara (steel bracelet) being recognised as a marker of Sikh identity in those days. But it wasn’t until much later when I began to think about the struggles and the history of Panjab, that I began to realize that Panjab was a much bigger space, and much more cosmopolitan than I’d imagined previously. In more recent times, especially since the opening of the border crossing border at Kartarpur, between Indian and Pakistan Punjab, I’ve been much more aware of the common heritage of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu Punjabis and through the Panjabi research group was set up in 1984 and the advent of the internet, despite having lived in the UK for practically all my life, I feel much closer to my fellow Punjabis in Panjab and across the world.

Gurnam Singh: Walsall 23 Sept 1984 – Photo: Bhai Satnam Singh, Southall

SD: You described yourself as a secular spiritualist, that your route to Sikhi was informed by your Marxist ideology and members of the Gadar party, including self-identifying atheists such as Bhagat Singh, to what extent do you ‘practise’ Sikhi today, and what does it mean to you now?

GS: I suppose my conception of what practising Sikhi means and how it manifests in my daily life has been changing over the years. From a point where I had rejected Sikhi as another religious ideology, during my late teens I began to see it much more as an identity. Hence, from my decision to keep my hair, tie my turban and eventually take Amrit at the age of 18 I was very much focused on the external and performative aspects of Sikhi. You know, focussing on my appearance, becoming better at reading bani, bathing in the ‘correct’ way, waking early in the morning and performing morning prayers, making sure I don’t eat certain things that may be ‘impure’ and so on. I did all that, yet at the same time, in all honesty, it all felt a bit superficial; it felt a bit antithetical to what I felt were Sikh values, such as opposing ritualism, irrationality and exclusivity. So, I began to develop a self-critique, which led me to conclude that contrary to the basic teachings of Sikhi, of equality, inclusivity and spirituality, as an Amritdhri (baptised Khalsa Sikh) I was thinking and acting as if I were superior to non-Amridharis. To some extent, I am still struggling with this issue insofar as I realise that the root cause was ego which in Sikhi philosophy is identified as the greatest challenge human beings have to face in their lives.

The anand karaj of Manjit Kaur and Gurnam Singh in Birmingham on 20 Jan 1985 – Photo: Supplied

So, I began digging deeper into Sikh teaching and history and found that some of the struggles I was encountering in my own life around ‘authentic’ Sikhi were reflected in Sikh literature. For example, I learnt that ever since its beginning in the Fifteenth Century,  Brahmanical hegemony has had and continues to cast a large shadow on Sikh practices. I realised there were different ways, different wings, to Sikhi and that this was no different to other great world faith traditions. Yet, at the same time, I was immensely proud of and motivated by the Sikh traditions associated with anti-racism/castism, gender quality and anti-imperialism. I was always interested in South American Liberation Theology, from the work of Paulo Freire, and for me, this resonated, deeply in Sikhi. So, faith and spirituality were very important, but less so in terms of personal salvation. I was always motivated by the need to engage with an unjust world. For me, Sikhi was a progressive ideology, a social and political movement, if you like, that very much mirrored European enlightenment traditions that were taking shape roughly parallel to the evolution of Sikhi from the 15th to the 19th Century.

So, inspired by Liberation Theology and the revolutionary ideology of Marxism, I began to widen the canvas of what Sikhi meant to me, such that some of the religious practices became much less important to me. For some people, they are important, and that is fine; I have never been one to condemn people for that. The outward manifestation of Sikhi remains important culturally for me, but my conception of Sikh identity is now much more concerned with actions, what I do in the world, and how I engage in the struggles in the world.

SD: In the connection, you made between Liberation Theology and Sikhi, would it be fair to say that you ascribe to the notion of miri-piri (temporal power and spiritual authority)? To be a Sikh, for you, requires both spirituality and that sense of militant struggle or resistance.

GS: Yes! I think the way I would see it is that the spiritual dimension allows you to nurture your mind. We can think about the mind in lots of different ways, such as being disturbed, troubled, unbalanced, and unfulfilled, and for me, the spiritual aspects of Sikhi are essentially about training the mind to achieve a state of ‘sehaj’ or equipoise. Though I was able to avoid such matters other than a short period in my mid/late teens, I began to consume alcohol, I had seen lots of activists around me whose ‘heads’ had gone somewhere else completely; be it through drugs, alcohol or the pressure of life. Sikhi felt like a really good way to mitigate that risk. So, in that sense, I suppose for me, spirituality was about developing that clarity of thought and mind, ethical reflexivity, emotional awareness and inner strength. I felt Sikhi was good for reflection, and that listening to Katha (sermons) and reading bani (Sikh scripture) was very relaxing. It was very empowering in that sense. Partly, when I started to understand Gurbani (Sikh scripture), it wasn’t giving me a list of dos and don’ts. It was asking me to reflect and think. So, I felt it was very conducive to the kind of life I wanted to live. Of course, it also instilled discipline. I think that was important. That kept me very kind of committed to the family. Ethical living was important.

All those things have been my guiding principles, rather than looking for God somewhere in the sky, in a building, or some other place or person, for me, spirituality it’s very much a personal affair, a search for the divine within, but also in nature. That’s how I relate to Sikhi today, and I know this may be troubling for some people who invest heavily in a religiousness that I don’t. I understand why some people might feel like that, and I don’t hold anything against them, I have found that the best way to deal with people who radically dissent from my perspective is to engage in constructive dialogue.

SD: It’s a fine line to tread, isn’t it?

GS: Well, it is, especially given my public profile.  Guru Nanak faced the same kind of challenges, didn’t he? So, I’m happy to follow in his footsteps and teachings.

SD: In terms of being a visible Sikh in the spaces you occupy, such as the University of Warwick, Coventry, and in your discipline of social work and so on, what does it mean that you’re in those spaces, being who you are, and looking the way that you do [Dr. Singh keeps his hair and wears a turban], not only for yourself but the people that have a stake in your being there? For example, your students, colleagues, etc.?

GS: To what extent does my Sikh identity impact or influence or inform my teaching? I’ve never hidden away from my Panjabi identity. When we go into most social spaces, especially, universities, there is a sense that people feel compelled to conform to a particular kind of white Western culture and performativity. And the students do that as well. One of these markers of conformity in the spaces is that you speak English and adopt a particular dress code. Things have changed since I entered Higher Education as an undergraduate over 40 years ago, but because of internationalisation and widening participation, university spaces are much more diverse and multilingual. Today, I feel much more comfortable in my Sikh identity, both within university spaces and in the wider society; I guess this is a sign of progress!

By wearing a turban and beard, my Sikh identity is highly visible, and unlike some, perhaps many South Asians, I refuse to apologise for being different. I’ve always used Panjabi [the language] as well in white spaces. It’s interesting because if I meet Panjabi students on campus, and it doesn’t have to be Sikhs, it could be Muslims or Hindus, I always try to speak to them in Panjabi, and often they get taken aback by that! I’ve even started using Panjabi words and phrases in lectures, partly because I find it to be a powerful pedagogical tool, but also to try and show some kind of authenticity. It’s interesting to watch the reaction of the Panjab-speaking students. Because I think they feel like they’re being exposed because when I speak in Panjabi, they can be defensive, but often they do come up to me after class to say, that they found it to be both ‘disruptive’ and ‘liberating’.

So, I’ve always been proud, but not in an egotistical sense, of being Panjabi. For me reclaiming my rich linguistic tradition has been a powerful way to resist the ongoing impacts of racism and whiteness; how do you struggle against the dehumanising effects of this kind of oppression if you haven’t got a strong alternative? Even if it’s an imagined alternative, one needs an alternative narrative to the one that is constantly fed to you.  In some senses, and I know this is far from reality, I have developed a romantic view of the lives of the Sikh Gurus, the Sikh Raj of Ranjit Singh, and even village life in Punjab. I recall something that the historian Benedict Anderson observes in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism which explores the concept of nationalism by arguing that nations are socially constructed entities created through shared cultural symbols, language, and a sense of belonging. In this sense, the role of the nation-state in shaping people’s identities and the idea that nationalism has been an important tool has allowed me to develop a counternarrative to white European supremacy, even if that narrative itself is itself in part constructed through the imagination.

SD: In the 1980s, the term ‘politically Black’ was a lot more popular. 40 years on, the term ‘BAME’ (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic) has put a wrench into that, and there are also further subdivisions. Sikhs I speak with are very often keen to point out that they don’t want to be seen as Indian; they want to be seen as Panjabi, Sikh, or Khalistani. Do words like Indian, or South Asian, mean much to you?

GS: I think if somebody asks, ‘Where are you from?’ my instant reaction is that I’m from Bradford because that’s where I grew up and entered adulthood, where my two children were born and where both my parents were cremated. I’ve been to Panjab a few times, but it’s only felt like home for a very short period, and I quickly have the yearning to return home to the UK. Ironically, in Punjab, I am referred to as the ‘Blighty’, which is from the Urdu word vilayati which means foreign, British, English or European! In Punjab, because it doesn’t quite fit into the kind of romantic sense of the imagined home, my romantic version becomes quickly exposed, not least as I am reminded by resident Punjabis that I belong somewhere else, in England!

For me, Bradford and Yorkshire more generally are probably the closest I get to calling home, although I left 30 years ago. I continue to feel an affinity with people who have a Yorkshire or even Northern accent. Interestingly, though it’s mellowed and rounded off at the edges nowadays, people are still curious about my accent and will often say, are you from the North and sometimes even ask if I am from Bradford! And so, though politically I have little time for any form of aggressive ethnonationalism, and see myself as a traveller, I would say that Bradford provides a kind of geographical rootedness, and Panjab is a kind of imaginary homeland. But amongst South Asians, wherever I go in the world, I tend to be identified as ‘Sardar ji!’, so I guess, because of my outward appearance, my Sikh identity travels with me everywhere.

SD: Going back to the start, you mentioned you’re the youngest of four brothers. How do you think that your loved ones and family consider your professional choices, achievements, and your direction of travel?

GS: Well, my dad wanted me to be a medical doctor, which was the stereotypical profession that most South Asians aspired to, so, I was pushed to pursue the sciences at school and ended up doing Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology for A levels.  Needless to say, I didn’t get into medical school and I ended up doing Chemistry at University.  At one point I wanted to join the Air Force and complete the entry exams, but, somewhat ironically, my dad said ‘No, you can’t go!’ I argued that he served in the border security force, my grandfather was a military man, and so were my uncles, so why couldn’t I? He was against it, fearing my death, particularly as the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its height, and joining the services didn’t seem like a simple career choice. My Dad, because of his service background, was quite a disciplinarian and the fact that I was underperforming in my schooling exams meant that received regular beatings. So, it was kind of crazy: him beating me into being a doctor, and there was me doing everything to resist. The irony was, though I never became a medical doctor, he passed away 6 months before I received my PhD.

It was only much later in life that I realised why he felt education was such a bulwark against racism and the like. Coming from India, he and his co-workers had to take race a lot of racism. His motivation for me getting an education was to not have to experience that. He always said, ‘We came to this country for education’ and I know he had dreams of returning having become financially secure.

So those days growing up in Bradford are full of mixed memories and emotions. Against the backdrop of all kinds of violence, both within the family and outside, I do realise the value of living in strong, cohesive families and communities that can protect you both from direct racial violence and from some of the structural impacts of racism. For example, despite deep levels of poverty, we never went hungry, and we never went without a roof over our heads. We felt secure in the community, even though we were under attack. And I think for that reason, despite the many contradictions, community has always been very important to me.

Coming back to identity and my academic work, in some of my earlier writings, I was staunchly defending political blackness, but I think Stuart Hall blew political blackness out of the water with his writing on ‘New Ethnicities’, which provided legitimation for ethnic identification, particularly on the Left. However, I have been and continue to be heavily influenced by the work of the Sri Lankan Marxist and anti-racist activist, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, who was opposed to the turn towards ethnic identification which he correctly predicted would lead to a divisive politics of identity, a strategy that the British imperialists in India widely deployed. 

So, I have always been very wary of cultural relativism and the politics of identity. For instance, we see some very worrying trends linked to a violent kind of identity politics. A prime example of this trend is the BJP in India which deploys Hindutva ethnonationalism to justify its colonial attitudes towards minorities, poor people and women. I am also disturbed by white supremacist and Islamist groups, who play a similar game. These are highly organised groups who are willing to use violence for political ends and it takes considerable courage to call them out. More recently, I have been much troubled by some Sikh nationalists, whose tactics and politics seem to mirror those of the Hindutva.

SD: We’ve come to the last question. Is there anything that you wish I’d have asked that I didn’t?

GS: Well, what you didn’t ask me is maybe what kind of racism I have experienced within academia, which will probably require a new interview. But in summary, in my 40 years in HE, both as a lecturer and student, I have come across some wonderful people, staff and students, black, brown and white. But, mainly to do with subtle racism and widespread nepotism, I feel like much of what I have achieved has been despite, not because of the institutions I have worked in. I’ve always felt that I had to work twice as hard for half the rewards. But the key to my survival and success has been to build strong networks inside and outside of the institution and to never forget my historical roots. I’ve always tried to use my experience to support other black and Asian colleagues and students along the way and, through my writing, I have tried to articulate their voices and experience.


Atheism, Sikhi and duality (Asia Samachar, 24 Sept 2023)

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