Oct 122013

(Nishaan (Nagaara) Issue IV, 2012 Pages2-4, 2012)Editorial


I.J. Singh

The spell of the past is always enchanting, sometimes empowering. Is it a prison or can it set us free? History never leaves us.  It makes us what we are, so it is ever with and within us.  And we continue to make history every day.

Today, I focus on how we interpret some of the reality that surrounds and shapes us.  Perhaps close to two out of 25 million Sikhs live outside the Punjab and India, with as many as almost a million making their home in North America and the UK.  Keep in mind that Sikhs of India and those in the diaspora are living in very different worlds: the context is different as is the language, culture, music, cuisine, social mores, etc.  My purpose is to briefly explore Sikhi in North America and India, to see how the two continue to evolve while emerging from common roots but impacted by very different social and cultural realities.


A thoughtful analysis of Sikh presence in North America by Gurinder Singh Mann, one of the few US based academicians of Sikh Studies, traces the Sikh community from our beginnings in Stockton in 1906 to the 2012 shooting of Sikhs in the gurdwara in Wisconsin.

Horrendous as the shootings were they were neither unique nor rare in this society.  I will not list the plethora of mass shootings and killings of unarmed people by crazed killers with easy access to guns.  Keep in mind that we have seen more fatalities on the streets over the past decade than all the American soldiers killed during the same time in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As victims we do not stand alone in the more than 200 year old history of this nation. Just Google the matter; it will open your eyes.  The truth is uglier than we think. We know this was once a country of Native Americans with a rich culture before the Pilgrims, other Europeans and slaves created these United States, but in the timeline of history this is young nation of less than 300 years.

Note that Sikhs have had a remarkable presence in North America for more than a century; for instance, they worked on the Panama Canal in 1903-04. But it was different country then.  The Asian Exclusion Act prevented Asians from owning land or becoming citizens.  Interracial marriages were against the law and Indians could not bring spouses from the home country.  (Many Sikhs settled in California and so, many of them married Mexicans, instead.)  Remember also that most of these Sikhs were poorly educated, if at all; farming jobs often at subsistence wages was how they made their way.

They struggled mightily.  Their primary goal was one of free people everywhere:  independence from serfdom, the right to vote and own property.  Their struggles have been well documented by scholars and, in time, they prevailed.  However, they did not neglect India’s struggle for independence from the British and contributed memorably to it.

Notwithstanding myths created by Hollywood and its oaters, the West was not opened by the likes of John Wayne alone: Italian, Chinese and Sikh laborers had a hand in it. It took almost half a century for the discriminatory laws to change – only in the mid-20th century.

After the Second World War, Sikhs started arriving in the USA as students and professionals, first in a trickle and then a mighty stream when immigration quotas were set aside in the early 1970s to be replaced instead by qualification and ability.  These Sikhs are the founders of the Sikh communities and the over 200 gurduaras that adorn this country’s landscape today.

The progeny of this generation is the product of Sikhi but more connected to this culture, language, cuisine, even music, or habits of thinking than to any values or worldview rooted in India. Inevitable, wouldn’t you say? But it surely sets up tension and gap, not easily spanned between immigrant parents and their progeny.  Again inevitable!  All immigrants face this reality, no matter where they came from; we are neither alone nor the first.

Immigrants create institutions to capture the sights, smells and sounds of home that may be thousands of miles away.  For their progeny the home is different, as are the sights, smells and sounds. Christianity has traveled the globe and now has over 250 denominations and sects, some will say over a couple of thousand (it depends on how you are counting).  The Jews, too, show a wide variety in their understanding of the faith; some sects refuse to recognize variants of their faith and label them as heretics.  The way Christianity is practiced in America is not the same as it is in Italy, France, Germany or Haiti.  My comments here apply pretty much to all existing religions – from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, to myriad other faiths of mankind.

With time and travel interpretations come to differ and seemingly contradictory practices take hold in differing cultures.  In the final analysis it is the culture, language, cuisine, music and the habits of the heart that give structure to communities, religions and nations.  Don’t forget that it is religion that is often the binding glue that unites people as a community.

With that in mind I would include human movements like Communism or Socialism and even strident Atheism in my list of religions.  In this, my definition of religion is more expansive.

Such is the history of all religions and of all people.   Even as offshoots of the same stream, many rivulets, sects and denominations arise from a single stream and then continue to diverge as they travel along.

When did humans embark on their earthly journey?  Unfortunately to this questions there are as many, if not more, answers as there are religions. Humans now inhabit every continent. Science tells us that we broke off from the Chimp evolutionary line perhaps 5 million years ago.  A primitive human (Homo Habilis) dates from about 2.2 million years ago; Homo Sapiens may have appeared about 250,000 years ago.  Mitochondrial DNA and fossils indicate that the first humans originated in Africa some 200,000 years back. The Biblical date of Creation, 6000 years ago, finds no scientific support and is best metaphorically interpreted.

Modern evolutionary biology points to a single source in Africa for the origin of human populations.  But now thousands of years later what makes us into the many unique populations are matters like language, culture, geography, climate, cuisine and history.  They formed and shaped us, and continue to do so, if ever so slowly.

I offer you equally simple ways to look at such transformations of religions.  I look at Sikhism, its pristine message and its progressive worldview, way beyond the narrow interpretations of reality of many other faiths of mankind.

In the final analysis a man’s religion is an individual’s choice.  What I mean is that religion provides a lifestyle governed by a set of behaviors and rules, much as a family, a community or a nation is.  A code of conduct delineates a community or a population group from others: neighboring communities who may be like us in many ways but also unlike us in some critical detail.  It is like fences between neighbors that are absolutely essential, but they must never become walls that shut neighbors off from each other.  Yet, it becomes very much an individual onus how to interpret a particular directive or doctrine of one’s community or religion.  How I should obey a particular recommendation or a specific ukase is such that I have to make my own choice about it.

Simply stated, I suggest an experiment.   Invite some followers of the many existing religions – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Sikhi, or a lesser known brand.  Now ask each person of a given faith: “What it means to you to be what you are – a Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh or what have you?” I am certain even in the face of a preponderance of agreement among the members of the same religion, there will emerge subtle differences in how the individual members of the same faith will answer.

In other words, the answers will be specifically personalized by each member.  Some individual practices, feelings or expectations of a religion will reveal telling differences.  Yet there will be enough commonality for them to embrace and stay under the same label.

I can bet that Sikhs born and raised in the Punjab and those now growing up in the diaspora will show subtle but unmistakable differences in matters that some may find critically more important than others. Where the differences emerge from is not so difficult to discern.

I submit that Sikhs of India and those in the diaspora are living in very different worlds: the context is different as is the language, culture etc.  I illustrate my view by a self-evident example.

Today, better than 90 percent of Sikhs exist in the country where the religion arose – India.  The value system and the governmental structure differ from that of, say Great Britain, Canada and the United States, in major ways.  The expatriates interact with Judeo-Christian communities and spiritual traditions, while Sikhs in India are more intimately impacted by Hindu society and to a lesser account by Islamic presence.

Think, for a moment, of the Shromini Gurduara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the premier Sikh elective body in India.  It came into existence during the British colonization of India and was created under British law.  India is now independent but the law defining the scope of the SGPC still exists.  This means that since its formation in 1925, for over a century, this organization acts under charter and authority of the government of India.  I know of no other religion anywhere that is subservient to a secular government!

The SGPC, in many ways makes crucial decisions for Sikhs, how to define them under law.  To the Indian Sikh the hand of the government in Sikh affairs may or may not be galling but to Sikh living outside India it is both unwanted and unwarranted.

Another example:  the Indian Sikh is materially affected if there are quotas for recruitment into the Indian armed services, education institutions or job opportunities.  To a Sikh living abroad those issues have meaning but the more critical reality is how to deal with similar matters where they live, for instance in American society where laws are different as is the process of how to deal with them.

The issues are similar for Sikhs anywhere or everywhere: whether they are of jobs, housing social justice, and the killings of 1984.  The question always is how to change the existing institutional framework to recognize an equal place at the table of society for all, including Sikhs. The growing divergence between Sikhs in India and Sikhs abroad comes from the societal and governmental institutions, the culture, language and the legal framework that exists or can be constructed to respond.

That is why I am absolutely wonderstruck at the institutions a new generation of young Sikhs in the diaspora have founded such as the SALDEF (Sikh-American Legal Defense & Educational Fund), Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs and Sikh Research Institute (SikhRI).  They exist to help create for the Sikhs an equal place at the table of this complex society.

The first two are largely dedicated to legal issues ranging from bullying in schools to hate crimes, job discrimination and recruitment into the US Armed Services.  The primary mission of the United Sikhs is to aid the larger community (Sikhs and non-Sikhs) during disasters like floods, earthquakes by aid and medical missions etc.  SikhRI has a unique mission of internal development of the community.  It recognizes that Sikh immigrants are often poorly informed of the fundamentals of their own faith and, therefore, inadequate representatives of their rich faith. The better Sikhs they are, the better citizens they would become.

Unquestionably, if Sikhi is to remain vibrant and universal it must find roots outside the soil, culture, language, cuisine, music, people and worldview of the Punjab and India.  If Sikhi is to remain eternal its message must speak to us today as it did to countless others 300 to 500 years ago.

That’s why I find that India-based Sikhs and Sikhs abroad are on a divergent path – but that’s the way to adaptation and progress without compromising the fundamentals. It is also necessary to keep in mind that we remain branches of the same tree and the same roots. The connection has to be nurtured; it should never sunder.

How best to define this path?  In my view by creating several semi-autonomous regional, national and, finally, supranational organizations that collectively focus on three realities: (1) think globally, (2) act locally and (3) always nurture the fundamentals.




 Posted by at 6:43 pm

  One Response to “A Distant Beat, A Different Drummer”

  1. A great article by Dr. I. J. Singh. Appreciate the wisdom inherent in this article and realities that it depicts of the diaspora Sikhs and the Indian Sikhs.

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