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A Nation Without a State
A review of The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood by Darshan Singh Tatla (London: U.C.L. Press); 1999; pp. 327.

Giorgio Shani is associate professor at the College of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan and is also associated with the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. "Nations and Nationalism" is published by the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (A.S.E.N.) via Political ReviewNet.

Nations and Nationalism, Nov. 14, 2001 (volume 7, Issue 1, pp. 113-128)

Photo: The Sikh Diaspora by Darshan Singh Tatla

Darshan Singh Tatla's impressive and comprehensive account of the Sikh diaspora's search for statehood is required reading for anybody interested in the relationship between globalisation, territoriality and identity at the heart of nationalist discourse. Although The Sikh Diaspora is the third volume in the series on global diasporas, it is the first dealing with a particular transnational community. Drawing on empirical research using English and Punjabi sources, it focuses on the transnational linkages that bind the Sikhs of the diaspora to their homeland of the Punjab. Approximately a million Sikh live overseas, the majority in Britain and North America. Whilst the overseas Sikh communities consisting of mainly 'free migrants' do not strictly qualify as a diaspora, Tatla convincingly shows how they have acquired certain necessary elements of a psychological and sociological nature that are essential to its consciousness.

The book opens with a graphic description of 'Operation Bluestar' in 1984, which Tatla considers the 'critical event' that politicised the global Sikh diaspora and encouraged the search for statehood. For Tatla, 'the struggle for a Sikh state arose as a direct result of the Indian state's action at the Golden Temple' (p. 34). The destruction of the Akal Takhat, the spiritual and temporal centre of the Sikh qaum or people, by Indian government troops, is compared to the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (p. 5). Until 1984, Sikh loyalty towards India proved unproblematic. After 'Bluestar,' an independent Punjab, or Khalistan, became the 'imagined homeland' of a significant section of the Sikh diaspora.

Sikh nationalism is seen as reactive rather than primordial. Having existed as an ethnic community under colonial rule, the Sikhs evolved into a nationality within post-colonial India. Partition in 1947 transformed Sikh fortunes by enforcing mass migration into a compact area. A Sikh majority state within India, promised to the Sikhs by the leadership of the Indian National Congress at the time of partition, became a reality in 1966 after the linguistic reorganisation of the Indian state of the Punjab. State violence, particularly the murder of 4,000 Sikhs in state-sponsored riots following the assassination of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, played a key role in legitimising the demand for a separate statehood (p. 34).

Sikh nationalism is also seen as a reaction to Sikh migrants' alienation from the host societies. 'Neither equal citizens, nor having enough power to express their cultural ambitions, the aspiring community leaders have looked back on their 'land of origins' for prestige and honour' (p. 210). For Tatla, the enduring appeal of a Sikh ethnonationalism seems to be because its elites in the Punjab and diaspora perceive a 'Sikh heritage in need of protection' (p. 33). It is the search for statehood, in order to protect this Sikh heritage, which engendered the Sikh 'nation.'

A territorial homeland is seen as central to the imagination of the Sikh 'nation.' In chapters 3 and 4, Tatla provides a comprehensive account of the religious, social, economic and political links between the diaspora and the Sikh homeland. For Tatla, the idea of Punjab as a Sikh homeland goes back to several discrete elements of Sikh history. Punjab, the land of the five rivers, is the community's birthplace; it is dotted with historic shrines and it is the cradle of the Punjabi language (p. 14). This gives rise to two related questions which remain largely unanswered. First, how have the Sikhs come to represent themselves as what Harjot Oberoi terms an 'ethno-territorial community' (Harjot S. Oberoi 'From Punjab to 'Khalistan:' Territoriality and Meta-commentary,' Pacific Affairs, 60(1), 1987: 40)? Secondly, does an alternative deterritorialised Sikh identity exist?

Indeed, it is not clear that the existence of a Sikh national consciousness need take the form of a search for statehood. The Sikh diaspora constitutes a deterritorialised 'nation without a state' and as such challenges the contemporary Westphalian international order based on the existence of a system or society of territorialised sovereign states.

The Sikh 'nation' is sovereign in that all political and spiritual power is located within the Khalsa or 'community of the pure.' No territorial limits are placed upon the sovereignty of the Khalsa. For Verne A. Dusenbery, the Sikhs, in managing to maintain a collective ethno-religious identity without a sovereign homeland, have come to constitute almost a 'paradigmatic example of a transnational community' (Verne A. Dusenbury, 'Nation or World Religion? Master Narratives of Sikh Identity' in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change (1999): 138).

How has a transnational community come to acquire an attachment to a territorial homeland? Although Tatla is unable to provide a convincing answer to this question, The Sikh Diaspora does highlight the contradictions that exist between the master narratives of nationhood and world religion at the heart of modern Sikh identity.