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The Sikh Experience in the Diaspora
A review of Five Myths: Musings on the Sikh Condition by Puneet Singh Lamba (Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi, 2006; ISBN 81-89540-06-8; pp. 56; $5.00).
By LAURIE BOLGER
Laurie Bolger is conservation librarian at the University Club Library in New York City. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. This review has also been reproduced in the Sikh News Network (April 19, 2006).
The Sikh Times, Mar. 25, 2006
Photo: Five Myths
Written in an appealing, readable style
Puneet Singh Lamba, a Boston-based software engineering manager, is founder of The Sikh Times, a major online source of news and commentary on a wide variety of issues related to Sikhism. His writings are meant to arouse much-needed debate and discussion. The five essays in this, his first book, Five Myths: Musings on the Sikh Condition, are no exception. They were originally published in The Sikh Times, The Sikh Review and The Sikh Bulletin. N. Gerald Barrier, professor emeritus in the social sciences at the University of Missouri, has provided a very informative introduction.
The first piece, 'Permeating the Wall of Separation - I,' commemorates the 20th annniversary of Operation Blue Star. It gives an in-depth summary and analysis of articles, editorials and letters to the editor appearing in The New York Times regarding the Indian Army's devastating attack on the Golden Temple in June 1984.
Lamba captures the change in tone of these Times pieces. Although initial reporting of Sikh grievances was evenhanded, later it changed, and the Sikh uprising was cast as a 'two-year-old Sikh terrorist movement,' with little recognition of its peaceful roots. Lamba parses the coverage - how the catalysts for Operation Blue Star were described, the circumstances surrounding Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale's death, estimates of casualties and arrests, and the role played by Indira Gandhi. This piece ends with a well-documented assessment of Sikh reaction both in India and abroad.
The second piece, 'Accountability, Impunity, and Governance in India: A Conference Report,' is a well-rounded assessment of this conference, organized jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), in November 2003.
When it comes to human rights, India, as the world's largest functioning democracy, has a poor record. However, because of its growing economic and military might, especially vis-a-vis China, the world has been very forgiving of its sins. Lamba thoroughly explores this issue of accountability, and its lack in India. The conference featured a panel discussion on the issue of accountability by five specialists, and, according to Lamba, provided a balanced assessment of it.
The third piece, 'Permeating the Wall of Separation - II,' details one session of the International Youth Symposium Finals, held at the Milford, Massachusetts gurdwara in August 2004.
This session was a debate on 'Church and State - Religion and Politics.' While discussing 'separation of church and state,' the young participants often argued for equal influence of all religions upon the state, rather than favoring a 'wall of separation' between church and state. The contestants went on to explore the concept of miri-piri, the role of religions in war and peace, the role of politics in gurdwaras, the idea of a theocratic Khalistan, and related issues. Lamba gives a large and well-deserved measure of credit to the Sikh writer I.J. Singh in his role as moderator, for his 'masterful job of prodding the discussion along with incisive questions and critical remarks.'
This piece brought to the fore how Sikh youth perceive their traditions and the issues facing the Sikh community, in the context of their lives in the diaspora.
The fourth essay, 'Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale: Five Myths,' perhaps the most provocative of this book, was written on the 20th anniversary of the death of Bhindranwale. Although his admirers before he rose to prominence may have been few, what was perceived as his 'return to basics' on Sikh values enjoyed tremendous popular appeal, and his martyrdom has elevated him to iconic status.
In this article, Lamba undertakes a debunking of five myths surrounding Bhindranwale's life and death. They are dealt with in reverse order.
The fifth myth is the assertion that he is still alive, due to the sketchy reports on the circumstances of his death.
The fourth handles his claims that he was not interested in political power. Lamba asserts that he did indeed have political aspirations. His power lay in their covert nature, as many political players curried his favor and considered his potential responses when planning their own actions.
The third myth, that Bhindranwale did not demand Khalistan, Lamba argues, is also not true. He suggests that Bhindranwale indeed felt that accepting anything short of a separate state would be tantamount to disaster for the Sikhs.
The second myth, that he is revered as a martyr by only a few is shown to be equally false, as Lamba thoroughly documents his well-accepted status as a martyr, both in India and abroad.
The first myth, that Bhindranwale was not a terrorist, Lamba contends, is also untrue. He did, Lamba concludes, incite violence by his many bellicose statements encouraging the use of illegal, often lethal, force against those who disagreed with him. Lamba reasons that those closest to him could not have perpetrated their own violent acts without his consent.
Lamba depicts Bhindranwale not only as possibly 'the most polarizing figure in Sikh history,' but emblematic of the paradoxes facing Sikhism today.
The fifth piece, 'Vaisakhi 2005 in New England,' is a report on the Nagar Kirtan organized by New England Sikhs in Milford and Millis, Massachusetts in April 2005. It ably portrays the interactions of Punjabi Sikhs with the followers of Yogi Bhajan's 3H.O. organization. Along with different perspectives on culture and ideology, women enjoy equal participation in 3H.O. The 3H.O. gurdwara is adorned not only with images of Sikh Gurus, but of Yogi Bhajan. It uses guitars and sitars in its kirtan and even cooks up a 'health food' version of karah parshad.
Lamba gives two major participants in this event especially thorough treatment. One is the chief official of the Millis gurdwara, Hanuman Singh, a follower of Yogi Bhajan. He reads a bizarre poem referring to Guru Nanak as God's incarnation and the Guru's two sons as manifestations of Shiva and Vishnu. Equally offensive to traditional Sikh sensibilities was Hanuman's bowing to a near lifesize idol of Sri Chand. The other is 'Raja' Mrigendra Singh; according to Lamba, his impassioned speech not only was almost totally unsupported by Gurbani, but also advocated the 'worshipping' of the Gurus. Throughout, Lamba offers the reader an analytic and entertaining look at what was undoubtedly an action-packed event.
The book ends with an original poem composed by Lamba, amusingly recapping, in rhyming verse, the events of the Sikh world in 2005.
Although Lamba's essays deal with different events, the Sikh experience in the diaspora is a unifying theme throughout the book. Both as individuals and as part of a greater community, diasporan Sikhs of Punjabi background must struggle with finding an appropriate degree of connectedness to their roots half a world away. Many attempt to shed the 'cultural baggage' of Punjab, while keeping the Sikh religion relevant in their lives. As the two are closely intertwined, this proves to be a difficult undertaking.
Moreover, a younger generation of Sikhs, born and raised far from their Indian roots, perceives this question of connectedness to Punjab very differently. They, as well as Sikhs of non-Punjabi descent, must also find ways of formulating their own decisions about how their religion defines their identity and integration in North American society.
Puneet Singh Lamba's book is written in an appealing, readable style, and is well documented. It does not hesitate to approach and explore many controversial issues. These essays are very successful in stimulating discussion and debate on a wide variety of topics that urgently need to be addressed by the Sikh community.
The major drawback of this book is actually quite a small one - its title. Perhaps the work should have been called Five Myths and Other Musings on the Sikh Condition. The title was a bit difficult to understand and somewhat obscured, at least initially, the purpose of the book.
Apart from this minor point, I agree with N. Gerald Barrier that this provocative collection has too few essays. Lamba obviously has much to say and certainly knows how to get his point across. He should have indeed written more - let us hope that in the future, he will!