It’s that time of year again in the UK when the sun disappears, the leaves start to brown and the heating comes back on, but it’s not all grey and gloomy; the autumn season heralds a new beginning for footballers, school children and tv series’, amongst others. It is also at this time that the incumbent officers of University Sikh societies awake from their slumber and feverishly start to plan the academic year ahead for their members. Little do they know, that they’re already too late if they wanted to make real change.
Sikh societies have existed at Universities in the United Kingdom since the 1970s. Sikh students from amongst the first significant wave of migrant Punjabis, East Africans and South-East Asians to enrol in higher education came together to support, socialise and learn alongside one another forming official clubs/societies within their Student Union. Activity gathered pace throughout the 1980s as a new generation of UK-born Sikh students made their way through degree programmes seeking each other out, spurred on by the events that were taking place “back home” in the Punjab. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the reality of just what had been going on in the Punjab became clearer and it is no coincidence that this was the strongest era for University Sikh societies. At a time when the activism of their peers in Punjab’s colleges were all but silenced, the UK scene grew stronger.
But this wasn’t going to be allowed to last. There is today in hindsight, a clear and direct course of action that was taken by a number of individuals to divide University Sikh students and disenfranchise the vast memberships at key institutions. Once that rot had set in by the start of the new century, the reputation of ‘Sikh socs’ had become sullied, so much so that visionary and informed students chose to ignore it entirely. The vaccuum was filled largely by nothing – sure, things kept ticking along, but it was without the drive and direction that had been witnessed just a decade earlier. In all fairness this was a reflection of the Sikh Diaspora as a whole, polarised unnecessarily by their views on issues that to this day are incomprehensible to most, including vegetarianism, Sikh sovereignty and caste. The once all-powerful national organisation that unified UK Sikh societies continues to exist to this day, but for a range of unfortunate reasons is a shell of the body it once was.
I entered this space about six years ago, shocked and appalled by an event a young student encouraged me to accompany him to. What annoyed me before anything else was that I was allowed in at all – the University clubs and societies I belonged to when studying for my degree did not allow non-students to attend for quite obvious reasons. What I witnessed once inside was worse still – conclusions being drawn about all manner of topics based on a poor interpretation of Sikh ideology – but what was most shocking was how students were lapping it up, zombie-like and without question. None of the statements that were being made were referenced, Gurbani was being quoted out of context and the general lackadaisical attitude drove away the one or two students who looked like they had actually turned up to learn something. I realised that I was in a position in my life where I could provide support and attempt to make things better by encouraging students to operate more professionally, independent of external parties and in collaboration with one another. I set out to provide advice when it was requested, create tools that would be utilised and provide financial support without requiring anything in return.
Now some years on, thousands of pounds later, I have had to accept that my own incursion was a failure. The key goal that students had identified in my earliest engagements with them was to foster an environment where University Sikh socs rid themselves of the amateurish operations that embarassed them and their membership. They wanted to find ways in which to develop year-on-year in a way that would inspire not only the Sikh students of the future, but the wider Sikh community. They envisaged planning events and activities well in advance like so many other University societies and clubs who don’t start afresh every September. The solution I had put forward to make this happen was for them to document their year for the benefit of the incumbent officers who could see what had been done before them and how to build upon it. These annual reports were intended to provide a space for financial reporting (no matter how simplistic) that could inform budgets for future years; contain lists of resources and assets that would not need to be re-invested in; offer analysis of previously held events to determine what worked and what didn’t… in short, the facilities afforded by the Annual Report were comprehensive. However, what I hadn’t encountered on was the chronic undesirability for reading in our community, the disdain for writing something that ‘you didn’t have to‘ and most importantly the inability to promote the benefits of the whole endeavour. That last point is where I failed the students I have sought to assist. Our resources website SikhSocs.com has been grossly under used and is not fulfilling its purpose; for whatever reasons, I have not been able to inspire students to take ownership over it or the ideas that we had propagated. Where once we boasted Annual Reports from over thirteen University Sikh societies, this past year there wasn’t a single submission. This alone of course would not have provided a solution to Sikh student apathy, but I had seen it as being the foundation from which to build and reading a report at random right now fills me with that same belief. Within those reports lie the answers to half a dozen email queries I have fielded this week from new officers of University Sikh societies, all who are seemingly going to repeat the mistakes that were made in previous years. Perhaps this is how it’s meant to be, that every year a University Sikh soc starts up afresh to reinvent the weekly discussion, reinvigorate the simran session, and waste time and money organising an event that serves little or no purpose. The Annual Reports are quite clear about the pit-falls and positives that previous years have experienced, but like the Panth has been doing as a whole, perhaps we are meant to continuing making the same mistakes again and again – starting afresh every autumn.