As an activist and writer I appreciate the importance of providing an informed perspective when it comes to matters affecting the Panth. Knowledge of Sikh history, ideology and polity provides an educated and competent viewpoint. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and any attempt made to open dialogue on matters affecting the Sikh Panth must be commended. That said, one’s opinion of Sikh affairs will lose any iota of credibility if it is devoid of Gurmat inspired analysis. That is and always has been the benchmark for resolving Sikh affairs.
An article entitled ‘Sikh Extremism‘ was recently published on the Critical Muslim website. Seemingly out of place, a few paragraphs in, it becomes clear why this piece is on the site along with articles such as “The Top 10 Jihadi Janes”.
Written by Sunny Hundal, the article sensationalises a handful of protests and the behaviour of a few individuals to tarnish a whole community as having an “extremist” issue. The author has a track record of denigrating members of the Sikh community with his offensive and mostly ill-informed articles. The real issues which he attempts to discuss lose focus due to his belligerent vilification of the Sikh community with misguided viewpoints that only serve to create controversy. This latest article of his catapults aimlessly from one issue to another in an attempt to provide support for his proposed theory of “Sikh extremism”. He relentlessly babbles on about the threat of division within the Sikh community with twisted evidence that is grossly out of context.
In opening, he refers to the xenophobic behaviour of two individuals who supported the fascist groups, the BNP and EDL in 2005 and 2010. The author then compares the isolated behaviour of the aforementioned individuals to what he terms “puritanical” Sikhs, thus demonstrating the existence of a division in his own mind with the more “liberal” Sikh. His oxymoronic depiction thus dictates the tone of his entire article and exposes the flaws in his understanding and analysis of Sikh history, ideology, psyche and current affairs. Branding one side “religious extremists” and another “liberal”, he instantly tarnishes one group whilst simultaneously painting a positive perception of the other. He appears to show concern over a “growing movement of puritanical Sikhs”.
This division which the author talks about exists because of his perceived (mis)understanding of Sikh affairs, which is contrary to Sikh polity and Sikh ideology. There can be no “liberal”, “conservative” or “secular” Sikh, as suggested by the author. These terms are a relatively new occurrence created to cause division – rather than point out division – amongst the Sikh Panth. Derived from the democratic political spectrum, the terms hold no relevance within the Sikh Panth. Secularism, a term used to describe the separation of state and church, is a foreign concept for Sikhs and an affront to the concept of Miri-Piri. This is what I like to term classic neo-colonial objectification; trying to define and view a community and its institutions within the constraints of a foreign system, the master’s system. The Guru challenged such systems and instilled a spirit amongst the people which not only saw them clash with empires and Governments for their exploitative and suppressive ways but also saw them challenge the manipulation of religion by high ranking priests who had misled the people into idol worship, superstition and empty rituals.
The Guru’s mission was to empower the plebeian cause and he created the Panth as an example of how an egalitarian society should function. The implementation of concepts such as Halemi Raj, Miri-Piri, Sarbat da Palla, Sangat and Pangat all serve as a testament to this fact. The Guru created a Sikh, whose very existence throughout history has been enough to challenge all the xenophobic and bigoted societal norms. Guru Nanak’s Sikh is liberal by nature. Yet Sunny Hundal still feels the need to create a sub-category of Sikh, as if to distinguish between those in tune with Sikhi and those on the “conservative” periphery. The idea that a Sikh who follows the Guru’s mandate is the same today as they would have been in the 15th century seems to create some discomfort for him.
These labels can be traced back to the systematic categorisation of Sikhs during the colonial encounter. This manner of division is counterproductive to the Sikh narrative and must be challenged at every opportunity. The prospect of walking the Guru’s path, as shown by the Guru and great Sikh scholars, poets and warriors, is not enough for some new age followers of Sikhi. They feel compelled to label those traditions and codes of conduct as archaic. This is done to justify their own bastardisation of the order; to suit their lifestyle, to claim they too follow Guru Nanak but only on conditions which fit around their own interpretation and implementation of the Guru’s instruction, thus creating a total paradox of Sikhi. Hundal seeks to validate this paradox just to seemingly create a point of discussion which he then becomes a self-made expert on.
Unsurprisingly, Hundal’s use of the term “religious extremists” is swiftly followed by a short and ill-equipped reference to the events of 1984 and the continued suppression of Sikh political activism. The author deems both to be as big a problem as his perception of “Sikh extremism” which he alleges “can fuel hate crimes”. Statements such as this – that unresolved issues around 1984 are as big a threat to the Sikh community as Tommy Robinson appearing on the Sikh Channel – are where Sunny Hundal loses all credibility and descends into the realms of absurdity. Has he forgotten the peaceful agitations made to discuss and resolve the denial of social, economic and political rights of the people of Panjab before the Government of India responded with tanks and machine guns? Has the author no knowledge of how Sikhs in Panjab have been systematically robbed of their rivers, land and their language? At what point will it cross the author’s mind to consider any real destabilisation of Panjab and the Sikh community is/was orchestrated by the violence of State sponsored military operations? Instead the author wishes to condemn the actions of those who justifiably agitate for a separate Sikh state. Who are the real extremists in all of this? As a Nation, the Sikh community has been in a constant state of war with those who wish to dilute the Sikh way of life. When Sunny Hundal labels Sikhs “extremists” based on his own petty interpretations, he either unknowingly or maliciously supports this war against the Sikh Panth.
Next, the author attempts to build his case for the “extreme Sikh” by turning the reader’s attention to the general racial and religious intolerance shown by Asians in Britain before delving into a personal story from his days at university. He ends this section by questioning the efforts of the ‘Sikh Awareness Society (SAS)’ who work tirelessly to highlight the problem of sexual grooming in the UK. The murky depths of grooming circles in the UK largely perpetrated by Muslim men has only recently come to light. SAS have been speaking about this issue for over a decade. Sunny Hundal has the audacity to state that the Sikh girls targeted by Muslim groomers were not targets for conversion, rather for sexual exploitation alone. It is strange of him to say this after admitting a leaflet was found to encourage Muslim men to convert Sikh girls in the mid-90s. It seems he will not let facts get in the way of demonising Sikhs, instead suggesting the SAS were speaking out to create anti-Muslim sentiments. This is his own conclusion based on his own knowledge and experience. It is in no way conclusive or accurate, and citing a “BBC Asian Network investigation” on the issue does not validate his claims either.
So why did the author choose to make such an absurd claim? Well, he is building towards his favourite topic of inter-faith marriages; a topic in which he fails to recognise that much like most of the problems we face amongst the Sikh diaspora, the issue of inter-faith marriages is very simple. The Anand Karaj is not your conventional “wedding ceremony”. Most “marriages” in other faiths are legally binding contracts between man and wife regulated by the law of the land. The Anand Karaj at no point specifies responsibilities or duties commonly found in orthodox wedding vows. That is because the Anand Karaj ceremony is a union of two Sikhs (in my opinion practicing Sikhs, so there is no confusion over how one defines a Sikh), with the Guru. The first laav is effectively a declaration of allegiance to the Guru and the Sikh way of life. All four stanzas of the Anand Kaaraj are about commitment to the Guru. This is something that is completely undeniable fact, yet remains largely ignored in debates on the topic. So for someone to get “married” by way of an Anand Karaj, it is only logical that they are a practicing Sikh, otherwise what they are doing would simply be hypocritical. To partake in an Anand Karaj without fully embracing the Sikh faith belittles Guru, which is why this entire subject causes much distress to practicing Sikhs who hold our Guru in the highest regard possible. Taking part without this reverence for the Guru is usually done to appease either family, friends or a partner, or to do what is required of a “Sikh”. Allowing only Sikhs to part take in an Anand Karaj is not “discrimination against non-Sikhs” like the writer has alluded to, rather it is the most logical method to adopt for anyone that wishes to respect the Guru.
With regards to the author’s vilification of the Sikh protestors: on 23rd August 2015 the Sikh Council UK (SCUK) facilitated a meeting in which over 180 representatives from UK Gurdwaras passed a resolution that only a Sikh, in accordance with the Sikh Rehat Maryada definition, is allowed to participate in the Anand Karaj ceremony. To do something other than this is simply bending the rules for personal appeasements, which not only devalue the Anand Karaj but also question the validity of the Sikh Code of Conduct. Sikhs do not need to adhere to anyone else’s view of what equality is other than our Guru’s. Furthermore, in a statement televised on Sikh media outlets, the SCUK recognised the efforts of those who protest against inter-faith marriages and described them to be in line with Sikh principles.
The author then jumps on the topic of protests made by “dozens” according to the Guardian, regarding the film Nanak Shah Fakir. Whilst I agree the calls of blasphemy seem a little far stretched, the author makes a mountain out of a mole-hill. With many Sikhs believing the film should have been allowed to have been shown, it is an issue that calls for dialogue between Sikhs, something which Sunny Hundal himself looks to prevent by simplistically labelling protesters “extremists”.
Hundal also provides a brief analysis of Panjab which provides no real substance or wider context to the social problems faced by women, or even men for that matter. The writer wrongfully implies the problems exist explicitly as a result of the shortcomings of the Sikh community, ignoring actions imposed on the State of Panjab by the central Government. As a journalist he discredits himself when discussing the issue of female infanticide in Panjab by not mentioning the Sikh Guru openly declared anyone taking part in this practice can no longer be called a Sikh. Yet, “Sikh extremist” remains his most sellable product, so he ignores the fact this stems from cultural and not religious issues. I concur with the Hundal’s comments regarding the silence of UK Sikh leaders on issues such as honour killings, however most of the social problems referred to are due to the imposed cultural tendencies in Panjab that create this type of behaviour amongst the diaspora. Such behaviour has no place in the teachings of the Guru. There is a difference between cultural behaviour and conduct based on the teachings of a certain faith. It seems this subtle difference is lost on many, including the author. In this light, maybe to make his article less absurd he could have named it “Panjabi Extremism”.
An insinuation from Sunny Hundal that 1984 was the tipping point for a defensive mentality where everything reverts to discussions of Khalistan among the Sikhs is unfounded and misleading. The movement for a Sikh homeland began with Guru Nanak when he founded the city of Kartarpur with subsequent Guru’s building more cities and raising armies to fortify Sikh space and ward off acts to undermine Sikh sovereignty. This is a fact lost on many people today, partly due to colonial history, partly due to the continued suppression of Sikh political activism by the Indian Government and its agencies and partly also due to the ignorance of misguided writers and academics.
In the closing paragraphs the author showcases his limited understanding of how an independent Sikh homeland would look. His rhetoric appears to be based on classic anti-Sikh propaganda churned out by the Indian Government. The author suggests Khalistan would be a theocratic state, with little explanation for why he believes this to be the case. It is glaringly obvious that the author needs to be educated on Panthic matters so that he can hold informed and intelligent discourse on the subject of Khalistan.
The culture of sexism and alcoholism as categorised by Hundal is not a challenge faced by the Sikh community alone, it is a problem faced by every single society on this planet. Due to the soul-draining demands of capitalism, people are glorified based on their gender, women are used as symbols of sex and multi-billion dollar companies have a frighteningly expansive advertising budgets to market and sell alcohol. Instead of disproportionality placing the blame with the Sikh community, how about starting a conversation to tackle the problem of sexism and alcoholism at its root?
The author has left the most bemusing and laughable statement till the end; “they [the Sikh community] haven’t yet addressed how to keep Sikhs within the fold even if members start to adapt to different lifestyles and cultures”. This is Sunny Hundal at his oxymoronic best. The Sikhs have never relied on numbers to uphold the House of Guru Nanak. If a Sikh adapts to a different lifestyle and/or culture which advocates anything contrary to the tenets of Sikhi then they are no longer a Sikh. It is that simple. Historical precedence shows when 40 of the Guru’s Sikh left Him during war, he didn’t label them apostates, he simply allowed them to follow another path in that moment. When they later approached the Guru to re-join the Panth, he allowed them back in to the fold. The chali mukte (40 liberators) themselves did not attempt to legitimise their stance by saying to their Guru “we will still be Sikh, but we are just pacifist Sikhs that no longer wish to fight”, they understood the position of their Guru and agreed they would no longer be his Sikhs after leaving his side. They were Sikh as long as their conduct and actions defined them as Sikh.
This article is in no way intended to deny the serious issues that affect Sikhs which the author mentions. However, the tabloid-esque manner of his reporting, combined with a clear lack of understanding of Sikhi itself, do more to harm than help relations within the Sikh community. It must also be noted, that along with the relatively small rise of things such as Anand Karaj protests, is a comparatively massive rise in seva (selfless service) by Sikhs. Statistics compiled by the Sikh Press Association show approximately 10,000 meals a week are served to the needy on the streets of the UK by Sikh charities. There is also the recent opening of a free education centre (the first of its kind opened by a minority community in the UK) and increased encouragement towards practices such as meditation and community integration, all stemming from UK Sikhs maintaining a more adherent approach to Sikhi.
Contrary to the author’s belief, Sikhi will continue to prosper under what many will deem the direst of circumstances, as it has done since inception. The Sikh Panth has faced many external foes but it has learnt that the most destructive enemy is one which lingers within. It would seem the latest threat comes from the many self-appointed writers and commentators who attempt to promote this pseudo Sikh lifestyle and condemn those who follow the Guru’s system as too puritanical. It would be more beneficial for them to reflect on their own actions and try walking the journey, before judging those on the path.