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The Emergence of a Sikh Diaspora
A review of The Nation's Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of the Sikh "Diaspora" by Brian Keith Axel (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press); 2001; pp. xi + 297.


The Tribune, Jun. 9, 2002

Photo: The Nation's Tortured Body by Brian Keith Axel

The study of diaspora communities has recently emerged as an important area of research in departments of literature and social sciences. Continuous flow of migrations from all over the world into the Western countries has made many of them quite diverse in terms of the ethnic origins of their populations. The old approach of expecting the migrants to assimilate into cultures of their host societies has been given-up almost everywhere. Under the new policies, such as, multiculturalism, the minority communities are encouraged to retain their own 'ways of life.' The process of globalisation and the possibilities opened up by the revolutionary advances in media and communication technologies have also made it much easier for migrants to keep contact with their native lands 'alive.' The countries of origin have also begun to see migrants as a useful resource for acquiring hard currencies or, at times, lobbying with the Western powers.

Interestingly, until a few years back, it was only for the Jews, dispersed in different parts of the world, that the term diaspora was commonly used. It also had a rather negative connotation. As the case was with the Jews, the word diaspora meant a homeless people. However, in its current usage, the term has come to acquire a new meaning and has become a much more neutral category. The term diaspora is now applied to all kinds of migrants who possess a sense of self-identity and cultural traits that distinguish them from the majority communities in the host countries.

Though not a very big community, the Sikhs living abroad seem to have become a rather popular subject for diaspora studies. Apart from individual scholars carrying out research on the Sikh diaspora, some Western universities have also opened centers and established chairs devoted to the study of the community and its religion. The Sikhs living there have also taken a great deal of interest in presenting themselves in positive terms and have been financially supporting some of these efforts.

According to estimates mentioned by the author, of the total Sikh population of around 20 million, as many as 3 million (roughly 15 per cent) are currently living in and moving between North America, Africa, East and Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Their largest concentration outside India is in Britain, the United States and Canada.

The primary focus of Brian Axel's book is, however, theoretical, concerning the prevailing conceptions of diaspora. He contests the popular notion, which looks at diaspora communities as homogenous people, united by their 'place of origin.' Such an understanding assumes that diaspora 'is essentially produced by the homeland.'

The problem with such an approach, Axel argues, is that it tends to substitute/confuse 'one kind of spatio-temporal totality (the nation state) with another (global capital).' Diasporic perception emanates from the spatio-temporal context of the globalised world and it is from within this new global reality that 'diaspora is supposed to derive its definitive quality as diaspora.' The case of Sikhs seems to fit rather well in his frame of things.

Though it was after the happenings in 1984 that the Sikhs living abroad got involved with the Khalistan movement, Axel contends that they already had a notion of Sikh homeland. This notion of homeland was, in a way, different from the notion of nation-state and was produced primarily by their experience of migrations and displacement. Thus, instead of a distinctive Sikh diaspora having been produced by a shared 'homeland,' Axel argues that, for the Sikhs, it was diasporic experiences that produced a discourse of homeland.

He illustrates by examining the case of Glassy Junction, a pub opened by the Sikhs in South Hall. The pub was started by the Sikhs essentially to assert their sovereignty and negotiate with the dominant white culture. In other words, the pub was not merely a place for entertainment but also a mode asserting distinctive identity. When it was opened, it had a life-size portrait of Maharaja Dalip Singh. It now also has symbols of rural Punjabi life and a map of the Indian Punjab hung on its walls. A visit to the Glassy Junction has come to symbolise a visit to the homeland Punjab.

Axel offers many refreshing ways of looking at the Sikh diaspora and, through that, at Sikh history. It is a book that should engage not only those interested in diaspora studies but also those trying to understand how the processes of globalisation are changing our social identities.