Last weekend the Independent newspaper published an article by Sunny Hundal about the current issue concerning non-Sikhs participating in an Anand-Karaj. It is a topic that is being widely debated by many Sikhs, Punjabis and the wider South Asian community, sadly, on the whole, without any real depth or reference to ideological and historical events. However, something much graver was instigated in Mr Hundal’s article and has serious implications for the Sikh community not just in the UK, but worldwide.
Sunny Hundal is a freelance journalist and writer who lectures on digital journalism at Kingston University. He has written for a range of publications in addition to establishing his own online platforms, ‘Barfi Culture’ and ‘Asians in Media’ amongst others (both now defunct). Last year, we published an article he wrote in favour of non-Sikh participation in Anand Karaj – a decision I took to further the conversation that had begun to take place around this topic. Mr Hundal’s article did not incite animosity as I saw it, and laid bare the argument, or lack thereof, in support of the proposition he supported. He was at first hesitant to send me the article, suggesting that I would not dare publish it, but as a media platform that aims to further and advance people’s understanding of the World and in particular the issues that are of importance to the Sikh and Punjabi community worldwide, he had under-estimated what we stand for. Although a constructively written piece, albeit one without much factual substance reliant instead on Mr Hundal’s misguided perception of Sikh values, the article highlighted just how weak the argument being made was, but hinted that perhaps there was something else lurking behind this issue, waiting to come out.
This issue is and never has been in opposition to a Sikh wishing to marry a non-Sikh; people are free to do as they wish, Sikhs or otherwise. The concern has chiefly been about the growing mis-use of the Anand Karaj, a ceremony that is NOT a blessing of a marital union, but a mark of commitment by two Sikhs to their Guru. That there are many ‘Sikhs’ who have been abusing this ceremony for decades too is of great importance, but one can see why the participation of non-Sikhs in a ceremony that they have no commitment for might be more obvious and hence, highlighted. I can recall when I was a young boy, my local Gurdwara performing an Ardas for at least one couple who were not both Sikh that sought the blessing of the Guru for their union. My father was then on the committee and I remember asking him to explain what was happening, why they weren’t performing the laavan and instead the couple had arrived at the end of a service to stand in an Ardas. The answer was quite simple – that one of the couple was not a Sikh and so an Ardas to the Guru for strength and peace of mind was sought, instead of the commitment and desire to follow the Guru that is integral to the Anand Karaj. Even then in the late 1980s the significance of the Anand Karaj to Sikh identity was appreciated, at least by those who knew their history. Legal recognition of the Anand Karaj as a distinct Sikh ceremony was fought for throughout most of the ninteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century, before the creation of the Indian nation state in 1947 reversed that hard-fought victory. In the time since, considering everything that has occurred from the Punjabi Suba movement to the dynastic dictatorship that dominates Punjab’s political arena today, it’s not hard to see why the meaning behind the Anand Karaj as well as so much else has been forgotten. For those of us who migrated to the West, this reality is brought into even sharper focus.
So just what could be of more concern behind Mr Hundal’s article? It is the language and labelling that he has employed. The article comes across as an opening shot at the way Sikhs interpret their way of life here in the west, and suggest that there is a media salvo to follow that might demonise Sikhs in the way Muslims have been in recent years. He argues that “Sikh radicalism is rarely debated in the media” going on to depict the community “as a model minority who aren’t embroiled in controversies or plagued by extremists“, before warning that there is however, a “growing divide between the liberal and more conservative Sikhs“. The piece would not look out of place in an Indian publication like ‘The Hindu’, perhaps unwittingly inspired by Mr Hundal’s birth and upbringing in that country where his father was a member of the Armed Forces. Perhaps the latter point is why he speaks of the Sikh community as a model minority – Imperialists like to define their subjugated citizens with such denigrating terms, and members of India’s Armed Forces who couldn’t see that prior to June 1984, and even those who haven’t been able to since, hide behind the caresses of their Masters that blinker the unfettered truth of their situation. That he speaks of the Indian Govenment’s invasion of the Darbar Sahib Amritsar as an “anti-separatist attack” which “led to a defensive mentality” that “lies behind their radical puritanism” only adds to the rhetoric behind Mr Hundal’s article, highlighting his lack of knowledge on not only Sikh ideology and history, but it’s most recent past, one in which it continues to suffer. There is no Sikh radicalism because Sikhi itself is a radical way of life; Sikhs are not plagued by extremists because the spectrum of belief and adherence to practice, common in World religions, cannot be placed onto the Guru’s way (the Shabad); and, there is no growing divide between liberal and more conservative Sikhs, just a diminishing in knowledge and comprehension of what Sikhi is, one that is not unique to any one side of the argument where this issue is concerned. Guru Nanak and his earliest Sikhs were a model minority in that they fought against the status quo which held people back from realising their true potential and openly challenged the superstitious and downright illogical practices that were imposed into their lives by the powers that were – that is a model minority, not one that sits quietly at home whilst the World around them is ablaze.
There are factual inaccuracies in the article that worryingly suggest this is more a work of propaganda, perhaps intended to appease an establishment agenda than raising concerns as Mr Hundal would have the reader believe. He refers to a Polish Christian groom and a British Sikh bride who had adorned “a cream and red dress, while he wore a red turban, in keeping with Sikh traditions“. The problem with this statement is that there is no Sikh traditional attire or dress code; both of the examples he presents are customary only in the Punjabi or wider South-Asian communities; Sikhs may dress as they choose for an Anand Karaj. This is just one clear example of how Sikh matrimony has been muddied with Punjabi and other South Asian customs, knowledge of which is hugely lacking amongst Sikhs including Mr Hundal. He goes on later to state that, “The controversy has barely affected India, home to 90 per cent of the world’s 20 million Sikhs, where interfaith marriages (especially to Hindus) are common.” In a country where there are 20 million Sikhs, what recorded figures is he pointing to that suggest inter-faith marriages are common? That they occur is not in doubt, but what is the barometer to deem them common-place? Does Mr Hundal think so little of the reader that he could make such a bold statement about a country where marriages across class and caste divides still lead to ostracisation, kidnap and even murder? Mr Hundal further pointed to a survey by the City Sikhs Network where the majority of its members were in favour of non-Sikhs being permitted to participate in an Anand Karaj. He alluded to their membership as “a 6,000-strong organisation representing professional Sikhs in the UK“, a sizeable number that points favourably toward his idea of a divide between “liberal and more conservative Sikhs” – the professionals being educated, inferring the conservatives are not. But Mr Hundal conveniently did not reveal that only 372 people participated in the survey, 74% favouring non-Sikh participation in an Anand Karaj, hardly representative figures from a “6,000 strong organisation“. That being said, even if 60,000 Sikhs returned a survey question in favour of non-Sikh participation in an Anand Karaj, couldn’t it be argued that that was more reflective of the growing number of Sikhs who don’t understand the meaning behind the Anand Karaj?
There is no doubt in my mind that a multitude of factors have motivated the demonstrators and that the unique concentration of Sikhs in foreign cities like London and Birmingham has had an impact on them. Similarly the concerns raised by Mr Hundal about patriarchy in the wider South Asian community are valid to discuss, but he has let himself down by shaping his article in such a demeaning light and on the whole has brought into question his motives for being so vocal on this issue. The attempt to provide some balance of ideology in the article quoting Shamsher Singh of the National Sikh Youth Federation, and conversely Amandeep Madra of the UK Punjab Heritage Association, was equally represented in a sleighted manner. The former, whom I know quite well, was presented as non-representative of the Sikh community: “while many Sikhs are integrating into British culture, others gravitate towards religion as their main primary identity. Shamsher Singh is one.” Shamsher Singh is shown as not like the rest of us, he is religious, not progressive; unsurprisingly given this depiction that he spoke about the value of Anand Karaj as a ceremony and what it’s meaning is. The latter individual, Amandeep Madra was not presented in any such light when perhaps one could argue that his personal beliefs warrant such; he is a close associate of Nihang Niddar Singh, a controversial individual who has been prevented from appearing at a number of Gurdware in the UK, a fact which might question his depiction of Sikhi as consisting of pluralistic traditions. Personally I would not have brought the background of either into the context of an article for a national newspaper as it is not the forum for such (for the record I also know Amandeep Madra and have had interesting conversations with him, despite our differing schools of thought in some areas of Sikhdom).
Mr Hundal derides the “backlash from conservatives” that he has received, but when the opportunity was put to him to sit alongside persons like myself in discourse (following our publication of his article) he was not forthcoming. Instead of finding a way to engage in dialogue about this issue and get to the heart of it which is what some of us are trying to do, Mr Hundal’s article has instead brought his motives into question. Having met him only twice, once incidentally with Shamsher Singh at a BBC Radio London broadcast about the events of 1984, I found him to be well-spoken and not nearly as stubborn as his articles make him out to be. There was a vast difference of opinion between us on a number of topics, but we were able to have a cordial conversation. My door is always open to discussion that furthers society as a whole, even with those whom I know work hard against that which I as a Sikh stand for; Mr Hundal will still be welcome. But following this article, it will be difficult not to question his agenda, his background and the motives that might lie behind what he says.