While reading The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition, three incidents sprang to mind. A quarter of a century ago, I was walking along the inner streets of New Orleans. I had taken off my turban for the afternoon and worn my long hair in a ponytail, perhaps to blend in better. A smart gentleman in a beret was having tea with his wife on a balcony. On seeing me he leaned over the wrought-iron railing and said: “You are a Sikh from the Punjab.”
My attempts at blending into the crowd having been hit for a six, I quickly claimed my Sikh identity and asked him how he had guessed. Was he perhaps a frequent visitor to Punjab? He replied that he had never visited India but “there’s something in your walk and something about your nose.” I accepted his reply as a compliment.
The second incident is from the 1980s. I had to make an unplanned train journey in an unreserved railway compartment in West Bengal. The trauma of 1984 in which innocent Sikhs had been murdered in trains was still fresh; I decided to replace my turban with a black knitted cap. A few minutes later, my co-passenger addressed me as “Sardarji” and that was that.
The third incident, more recent, was a diasporic dispute between a young Sikh and a compatriot from another part of India. When tempers rose, the Sikh, who no longer wore a turban and had shorn his long hair and beard shouted: “Oye, I may not wear a turban but I am a Sikh,” and in a show of the proverbial Sikh machismo pulled out his belt to better make his point.
Pluralism in Sikh identities
At one level these incidents may be passed over with a smile. But they reveal the complexities of a communal identity. What is the Sikh identity? And is it always the same, everywhere? Do the stereotypes that so readily attach themselves to it do it any justice, or are they only partially representative, if at all? How does a Sikh adjust to the wider world, to a diasporic existence, to racism and to inevitable othering? Is he feared or does he live in unspoken fear? And so on and so forth. These are some of the difficult questions that Manpreet J Singh has set herself in this competent, much needed and deeply-felt work which has already been successfully published abroad and now comes to Indian readers.
Her fundamental premise is that the Sikh identity is not homogenous but envelops within itself various heterogeneities that have different historical trajectories. Each of these streams is impacted by its lived experience and worldview which can sometimes be different from each other. While there is an increasingly accepted physical and cultural image of the community – well-built, boisterous, colourful, turbaned, there is insufficient understanding of the reality of this image across the community. And of those strands that may fall short, or differ from it. Do those strands then struggle to catch up with that image, or do they submit to its dominance and agree to live with what the author calls a “skewed perception of the community?”
This is a premise that one sees being played out daily in the media, the cinema, in party conversations, and in cheap jokes being traded on WhatsApp. What we see mostly, to quote the author, are “images of men in bhangra regalia dancing in mustard fields and the obtuse Santa-Banta stereotype, between the dichotomous images of valorous soldiers and hated terrorists, the blingy sardar of Bollywood movies and the exotic Nihang.”
So dominant are these stereotypes, that the Sikh next door – the quiet householder going to a desk job every day, or the urbane Sikh lawyer or doctor – who may well be a vegetarian by choice and may not be able to make out the difference between a field of maize and wheat is lost somewhere beneath, or forced to go along. Dare he take only a small drink and not invite the question: “Arre, not even a Patiala, what’s the matter with you?” Or dare he eat a peach (with apologies to TS Eliot) instead of a chicken tikka? And God forbid that he may only be able to speak polite, hesitant, urbane Punjabi not sprinkled with the mandatory MC, BC embellishments. He will instantly open himself to the charge of not being a “proper Sardar,” whatever that means.
The heart of Singh’s analysis of the heterogeneous nature of the community lies in the competing dynamics between the rural-based Jat Sikhs and the Khatri Sikh urban traders and professionals. While the Khatris drew their influence directly from the Sikh Gurus, and later the intellectual leadership of the reformist Singh Sabha movement, the Jats gained considerable land, wealth and influence during the misl period, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom and the colonial creation of a martial race and heavy recruitment in the army. This was further strengthened by the success of the green revolution.
The fault lines
The urban Khatri Sikhs, on the other hand, suffered a major blow with the death, destruction and displacement in West Punjab during Partition. Those who survived had to relinquish the “citadels of Sikh life like Lahore, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Lyallpur...” and come to North Indian cities as refugees. Having lost their wealth, their historical and cultural references, and most importantly, their dignity and sense of belonging, they had to build their lives back from scratch. Another blow was dealt to their reconstructed existence by the tragic massacres in Delhi and other places in 1984. This was the ultimate instance of “othering” when even the normal Sikh next door was suddenly seen as a “terrorist”, “Khalistani” or “assassin.”
The killers did not stop to think that the poor Sikligars of the resettlement colonies of east Delhi or the businessmen of Tilak Nagar had no sympathy with the radical, Bhindrawale-inspired elements in Punjab. In that moment of anger, or evil political expediency, they were all Sikhs. All this, according to Singh, has also led to a dilution of the Khatri cultural identity: “The printed turbans of the Sikhs of Rawalpindi and Lahore have given way to the solid colours worn by Sikhs in East Punjab…Dialects of Punjabi like Potohari and Saraiki have gradually disappeared…” Consequently, Sikh culture is today represented, at least in popular understanding, by Jat images, “the concepts of pind, khet, makki di roti, sarson da saag, bhangra, gidda, phulkaris and Patiala turbans...”
There are other fault lines in the community that are closely examined in this book. Of particular interest is the existence of Sikhs outside Punjab – in Bengal, Assam, Nanded and Hyderabad. These communities differ very significantly from the Punjab community – many do not even speak Punjabi – but they are nevertheless part of the larger Sikh fold. Many are the descendants of those who travelled with the Gurus or as Ranjit Singh’s soldiers. Singh examines at length the cultural interplay between their remembered cultural inheritance and local customs. This interplay extends to the very sanctum sanctorum of Sikhism: to realize this you only have to compare the evening ceremonies at the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar with those at the Hazur Sahib in Nanded.
The diversity within the Sikhs extends naturally to diasporic communities too. These communities are governed by the contexts of their departure from India as well as of their arrival, the processes of adjustment that they had to face as well as the political and economic choices they had to make. The cloth merchants of Thailand, the farmers of California, and the bankers in New York and Singapore may bear the same external identity but carry within them a world of diversity. Ultimately all this is not too complicated: communities are usually complex and become more so as they grow in time and space. What is missing in the case of the Sikhs is the popular level analysis and work of the kind done here by Manpreet J Singh, for which she has to be richly commended.
Navtej Sarna is the former Ambassador of India to the US and the author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.
The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition, Manpreet J Singh, Bloomsbury India.