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State of the Sikh Panth: Random Notes on the Sikh Situation Today

By GURTEJ SINGH
Gurtej Singh, designated 'Professor of Sikhism' by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), is a former officer of the Indian Administrative Service (I.A.S.) and holds a graduate degree in history. He is the author of Tandav of the Centaur: Sikhs and Indian Secularism and Chakravyuh: Web of Indian Secularism. In addition, he has co-edited Shahid-Bilas Sant Jarnail Singh.

Keynote Speech, Third Annual Conference of the Singh Sabha International, Roseville, CA, Aug. 2, 2003



Since we are all wedded to the welfare of the Sikh people, we need to make a meaningful assessment of our situation. We must come to an understanding about the true status of Sikhism. That will help us to understand why we are all so deeply concerned about its destiny. Our Gurus claim for Guru Nanak the status of:

a) True Guru, and

b) Jagat [universe] Guru

Very simply, this means that the preachings of the Sikh Masters embodies the whole truth as relevant to the highest spiritual and cultural development of humankind. It further means that we possess the key to the happiness and peaceful co-existence of the human race. If what I am saying is true, then we, who have without reservation submitted to the will of God (as affirmed by our willingly and voluntarily donning the hirsute form), are the ones who are to preserve and carry the Guru's message forward. It is, according to our faith, not only a service of love but also a unique opportunity for individual spiritual development - the only goal of human existence.

Before proceeding, it is necessary for us to question whether our claim to be the harbingers of a new and more wholesome world culture is substantiated by facts. For that purpose, let us take a closer look at the propositions that form an integral part of our faith and are at the same time a spiritual and existential leap for humankind:

a) Sikhism believes in one and only one God for humankind. The relevance of this concept in the present day can be gauged from the raging bloody crusades between the three Semitic religions advocating belief in one God. Clearly they are all serving distinct and mutually exclusive 'one' Gods.

b) In a world still reeling under the injustice of inequality of sexes, Sikhism for the first time mooted the possibility of God being a female [is there anything in the Adi Granth to support this claim?].

c) Our Gurus awarded women equal rights to spiritual development and imparting religious instruction. Guru Amardas some four centuries ago appointed women preachers, a step that is being hailed as a progressive one in this year when the first woman has assumed the duties of a Bishop. Female Imams, Rabbis, Shankracharyas or Dalai Lamas remain a distant dream.

d) The Sikh concept of the nature of evil is that it is the product of a self-oriented and God-disregarding mind steeped in importance of self and delusion of the senses. So powerful is this idea that those believing in the independent existence of Satan are slowly and carefully bringing their concepts closer to the ideals of Sikhism. This supports our position as world leaders in the field.

e) Four centuries before Karl Marx, our Gurus spoke of an economically non-exploitative society. They held out visions of a truly democratic world sans difference between the rulers and the ruled, a world in which everyone is an equal partner existing to further the common cultural and economic goals of humankind. Arnold Toynbee suggests that Guru Gobind Singh's Khalsa is the first order dedicated to common wealth.

f) By virtue of its failure to distinguish between the mundane and the spiritual world, Sikhism stands for life as one whole adventure. All life denying ascetic orders holding out asceticism as the ideal cover up unpleasant trails. A worldly person's concern for social well-being is the centre of cultured person's mental equipment. False interpretations (of concepts like 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's') are falling like nine pins.

g) On a more mundane plane, the Khalsa rahit [code of conduct], with its unparalleled emphasis on eka nari jati, is perhaps the world's greatest guarantee against the devastating A.I.D.S. virus. So also our taboo against tobacco alone would suffice to save millions of lives in all countries of the world.

Such advantages are our faith's special gifts for humankind and suffice to clearly point to our Gurus' role as benefactors of all inhabitants on the globe. So perhaps we are not far off when we uphold the proposition with which we started this discussion.

Since such is the case, no human being can strive sufficiently hard to protect, preserve and broadcast the ideals preached by Gurus Nanak in his ten wonderful forms. As a natural corollary to the above we must explore:

a) Impediments that hinder the progress of the faith we uphold, and

b) The best we can do to propagate its ideals and impulses. That is what we are gathered here for today.

Impediments to the Growth of the Sikh Faith

It may surprise some to know that except for the Guru period, that is from 1469 to 1708, we Sikhs have never interpreted our faith to the world. During the faith's early days, with the notable exceptions of Bhai Gurdas and Bhai Mani Singh, we did not produce any first rate Sikh theologians. Brahmins or brahmin-inspired individuals have given us the rest of our important writings. Kesar Singh Chhibbar, Chaupa Singh, Sarup Singh Kaushis, and so on. Some authentic literature and history was produced during the early reign of Ranjit Singh in expectance of patronage. The other phenomenon that characterised his reign was the revival of some old sects like Minas, Ramraias, Dhirmalias, Gulabdasis, and Udasis. Some new sects under charismatic figures patronised by the state as a policy matter came into existence. Amongst these we count Bedis, Sodhis (collectively called Guruputras), Nirankaris, and Kukas to name some of them.

Ranjit Singh's reign served to reduce the importance of Nihangs and in the twilight of the commonwealth authentic Sikhs like Baba Bir Singh Naurangabadi and Giani Sant Singh were physically eliminated.

After the demise of the Sikh commonwealth, some sects were called into existence by the British colonisers. They also strengthened existing sects that implicitly agreed to toe their line and, like Ranjit Singh's successors, ruthlessly exterminated those that did not. The latter included Baba Bir Singh Naurangabadi's followers such as Bhai Maharaj Singh to name a prominent figure. The legendary Nihangs were encouraged to consume bhang [marijuana] and other intoxicants and were eventually reduced to beggary.

Political leaders of the Sikhs were systematically eliminated (Attari family, Sobha Singh's story), banished from the Punjab (Thakur Singh Sandhawalia), converted to Christianity (Dalip Singh and Ahluwalias of Kapurthala) and driven underground (Sobha Singh Syce) and abroad (Baba Tegha Singh). Support was offered to the Bedis and Sodhis upon whom they depended for keeping the Punjab loyal. These included Baba Khem Singh Bedi the most notorious of the lot. They were patronised by the state, given prominence at certain levels of the administration, and freely allowed to collect tithes from the ignorant, superstitious, demoralised, disarmed, overawed and leaderless peasantry. These negative elements have survived despite the Singh Sabha effort.

As a child I remember hearing of 'Bedi Sahib's thootha (begging bowl).' It was something like a big cauldron placed on a bullock or a camel cart. When it came to your door at harvest time, you were supposed to throw into it a quantity of grain in accordance with your status. It is to this custom that most of the present Sodhis and Bedis owe their legendary prosperity and princely style. Apart from them the institution of Hindu mahants to whom was handed over control of the prominent Gurdwaras including Darbar Sahib at Amritsar. For well over three-fourths of a century they interpreted our faith to us. Most of what we call our maryada at the Darbar owes its origin to that period and is designed to preserve and pamper the clergy class, which clearly as the sun at noon has no relevance in Sikhism.

During this period the word sahaj-dhari [unorthodox] came to be employed to designate shaven apostates. Bhagat Ratnavali, is very unambiguous that a sahaj-dhari must of necessity be a kes-dhari [orthodox] and that there is no such phenomena as a second generation sahaj-dhari.

That continued to be our fate until the beginning of the Singh Sabha movement started in about 1873. Significantly, the Singh Sabha movement at its most effective hour made a lasting contribution by literally pulling the cushion from under Baba Khem Singh Bedi and by almost physically throwing mahants out of the Darbar Sahib. Singh Sabha continued their good work by putting the fear of God into the so-called sahaj-dharis, by literally throwing the depraved Nihangs down from the Akal Takht, making the enlightenment drive a part of the revival, and establishing a political party to guide the Sikhs. It gave us our first enlightened, determined and sensitive Sikh writers and commentators. These included Bhai Gurmukh Singh, Giani Dit Singh, Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha, Giani Gian Singh and Karam Singh. A generation later we had another ample harvest of great scholars in the tradition of these giants.

Then came the de-colonisation of India, swiftly and surely leading to the re-colonisation of the Punjab and the political enslavement of the Sikhs in 1947. The terms and conditions on which the Sikhs were to be allowed to exist in India came to be precisely codified. The best method to delineate them would be to read the writings and speeches of the prominent Hindu leaders, particularly those of M.K. Gandhi. This seems to suggest that Gandhi and other leaders had made a thorough study of what constituted Sikh identity, Sikh distinctiveness and had identified the pillars of the sovereign Sikh faith and culture. They sought conformity to the faith of the newly emerged political sovereigns.

For bringing about such uniformity, the magnificent edifice of Sikhism needed to be systematically and thoroughly dismantled. A religiously monolithic state with citizens subscribing to a single faith was deemed by them to be ideal for the preservation of the unity and integrity of the country. The original ideologues were also inspired by the concept of racial purity promoted by Hitler and the regimentation achieved by him and other fascists. Sikhs, Christians, and other minorities are reaping the harvest of an ostensibly secular state conforming to a particular religious ideology.

Causes of Apostasy Amongst the Sikhs

a) The first and foremost cause is the loss of self-esteem amongst the young people. Our young people are facing an internal crisis. The attitudes they pick up from their role models and environment influence the value system that they acquire. So naturally, their value system determines their choices and behaviour. Our influential persons, scholars, singers, and sportspersons do not exhibit or inspire the kind of behaviour worthy of emulation. Our society in general has not taken care to provide the right kind of role models for young Sikhs.

b) Equally important is our status as 'political slaves' in India. Our re-colonisation started a couple of days before Aug. 15, 1947 and was completed at the Akali Dal's Moga Conference in 1996. The Akali Dal had been brought into existence to represent the collective political will of the entire Sikh nation. It has now become a body dominated by 'slave drivers from among the slaves.' Its leadership is maintaining the chains that bind us. This peculiar state has drained the last remnants of self worth from our people. Such a people can have no religion.

c) Our social, educational, and religious institutions have become empty forms, devoid of content. The young do not get any message or human warmth from our Gurdwaras or from our educational institutions. They notice no concern on their part for their wards or their congregations respectively. I can show you a hundred thousand Gurdwaras moving at break neck speed to secure better builing materials, acquire more property, and so on. No one can show me one Gurdwara where an equal amount is being spent on the improvement of the human material that visits Gurdwaras. This is despite the Guru's clear instructions that a needy person's need is the only bank in which daswandh [charity equaling a tenth of income] must be deposited. Our institutions are not reaching out to our people but have become self-serving enterprises concerned about fattening personal purses and bodies.

d) We have not been able to create a social environment in which those known as better Sikhs in their circles can be honourably accommodated. Going a step further we have no system whereby our best men are made to feel that our society cares for them. The story is long and starts with Bhai Mani Singh. I will cite contemporary instances of Sirdar Kapur Singh, Bhai Nandlal Noorpuri and Bhai Harinder Singh Mehboob. At the other end, we can cite Giani Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Dit Singh, Giani Bhag Singh and Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana. These persons have made definite contributions for the betterment of our people and have been mistreated by us.

e) Modern time springs of faith at the ground floor, the Gurdwaras, have been monopolised by a couple of almost schismatic sects. They have their own peculiar understanding of Sikh theology and have developed into autonomous systems for which there is no universal acceptance or proper theological justification. In many ways, these are mutually exclusive. (Ones who take pahul [initiation] from the Damdami Taksal or the Akhand Kirtani Jatha do not freely socialise with others who, for instance, accept pahul from the Akal Takhat.) The very instruments of our unity have become the fundamental causes of our disunity. New entrants as well as practising Sikhs are confused about the fundamentals of the faith because practice differs so widely from precept. It is not a conducive atmosphere for those who would like to be steadfast. The very concept of what exactly constitutes gurmat [Gurus' teachings] is disputed violently and depends upon the stance of parent sects.

f) In the recent past (especially the last two decades) young Sikh men and women have suffered loss of life in the hundreds of thousands. Those who survived have been through hell. Very loud and clear signals originating with the state have been broadcast to our people: any young and steadfast young person is liable to be shot dead with questions asked later. This policy has been laid down with the tacit support of all relevant political parties. To be a Sikh today is as dangerous as it was in Mughal India some three centuries ago.

g) As a corollary to the above, it must be understood clearly that we, on whose behalf these people were martyred, have failed completely and in every conceivable way to honour or even perpetuate the memory of the martyrs. We have failed to collect information about the circumstances under which they were killed and have failed to expose the sinister state policy with regard to them. This renders the recurrence of the event a practical possibility and is a definite hindrance in the Sikh way of life becoming popular.

h) The most significant development in the modern Punjab is the decline of basic education. In consequence, every village is full of dropouts and semi-educated young people with no hope of getting a job. They also cannot make two ends meet in the context of the dwindling farm incomes as consequence of the widely prevalent farming crisis. Educationally inadequate and psychologically devastated people fall prey to converting evangelists and are moving farther and farther from Sikhism.

Politics of Scriptural Interpretation

The Western world has come to accept academic work performed by universities as the most authentic form of knowledge. Therein, it is the professor who is deemed to be the most competent interpreter. The knowledge thus generated is disseminated through reputed publishing houses, which again turn to university professors to be advised on what they must publish. Another force that has entered the arena of knowledge dissemination comprises 'media managers.' Their management of the events made the recent Harry Potter book an instant hit. They can be seen lurking behind every successful venture in one form or the other.

Encouraged and covertly abetted by the government of India, a class of certain Christian missionary scholars have recently gained currency as the most authentic interpreters of Sikhism to the West. Certain Eurocentric elements have, over the course of time, infiltrated the process. Clever manipulations and misplaced enthusiasm of sincere Sikhs who have recently become prosperous has been utilised fully for financing these operations. This has demonstrably vitiated the process of discovery and the spread of knowledge. Sikhs themselves, of course, under the cloak of 'university autonomy,' have never had the chance to intervene in this 'nexus of the evil-intentioned.'

Sikhs have never appointed professors of their choice to university chairs. It is also well-known [to whom?] that brilliant Sikh scholars having a stake in authentic interpretation have been kept at a distance. The result is that, in the fashion of judo techniques, these have been turned into instruments for misrepresenting the Sikhs and Sikhism. The Sikhs as a people have never evaluated the work produced by the different chairs established at Western universities with Sikh money.

This has developed into a self-contained academic operation devastating to the original character of Sikh theology and history. It is in the nature of a closed well-knit clique difficult to penetrate either by better understanding of ideology or superior narration of facts. Three instances of books by Kapur Singh, Daljeet Singh and Jagjit Singh may be cited in this context. Mention of specific instances of ignoring formulations pertaining to 'militant Jat influence on development of the Sikh panth' by Jagjit Singh and 'sovereign stance of Sikh ideology' common to Kapur Singh and Daljeet Singh may be made. Western scholars continue to blindly follow Dr. McLeod.

These great scholars do not even get the courtesy of being mentioned, though they are most relevant and demonstrably more objective. Presumably, this is primarily because none of these persons was from an established university and their books do not exhibit the names of publishers who are the darlings of certain kinds of scholars. They are, therefore, denigrated as 'self-styled scholars' and their books as 'self-published' ones. One scholar dismisses Jagjit Singh's book on the grounds that it is 'not priced.' But it must also be admitted that a genuine scholar, honestly interested in the truth, would have ready and easy access to their books.

Stranger perhaps is the treatment meted out to Dr. J.S. Grewal. It cannot be denied that his methodology of history presentation can be termed superior to that of Dr. McLeod. His conclusions are by no means the most popular amongst Sikhs or particularly traditional. He has held very prominent positions in the academic world and has been a successful academician. He is a serious author more prolific than McLeod. Granted even that he does not speak as loudly as McLeod and does not use as many non-academic shrill phrases and formulations as McLeod, yet his being ignored by the Western academic world is inexplicable.

The net result is that we have Doris R. Jakobsh Relocating Gender in Sikh History and Louis Emanuel Fenech defining martyrdom for us. Under the influence of this school, a brand new scripture with an editor other than Guru Arjan was invented for us [reference to Gurinder Singh Mann's work] and likewise a new synthetic identity has been generously gifted to us by one of his students [reference to Harjot Oberoi] while McLeod is harping on Who is a Sikh?.

The strangest part of these laboriously conducted exercises, meticulously undertaken according to famed Western methodology, is the familiar Rastriya Swayumsevak Sangh crude formulations put together with a view to destroying Sikhism root and branch. Strangely still, all the formulations of this group, as also of their mentor McLeod, are negative. He tops his system by telling us that Sikhism is a religion of interiority. Muttering the Nam [remembering God] incessantly, telling the beads eternally and observing a deadening formalism and cant is our divine destiny while others rule over us and maintain our interpretation of the Sikh scripture and its conversion into information for mass consumption forms the weakest link in our situation today.

Like governments before them, the present Indian government fully controls the interpretation of Sikh scripture. If we closely observe the scenario, we will find that all the popular pseudo-saints who distort the Sikh religious doctrine are directly supported by the state and the media under its control while the true Sikh doctrine is discouraged and distorted. When the story of the Bhaniarianwala cheat broke into limelight, it became known that he had been allowed to occupy hundreds of acres of government land belonging to the Forest Department. Dignitaries like Buta Singh and Gurdev Singh Badal frequented his dera to lend him the prestige of their political eminence.

Something similar is being said of Sant Shamsher Singh Jagera who was caught red-handed in the act of raping a young married inmate of his dera [resort]. It was clearly stated [where?] that he was set on the path of eminence by Parkash Singh Badal and was assisted in grabbing valuable land. The whitewashing started the same day in the English press and on the following day in the Punjabi press.

The promotion of conflict between the Dalits and the Jat Sikhs has taken place right before our eyes, orchestrated by the erstwhile Akali government led by Badal. The tree is bearing fruit in Talhan today. You will see a lot of bloodshed soon. Sikhism is slated to be drowned in its own blood.

Political Eclipse

The Sikhs have been a political nation ever since Banda Singh Bahadur first assumed political power on behalf of the Sikhs in 1710. He presided over a short-lived sovereign Sikh commonwealth. This miracle did not last and the Sikhs lost power in a fight to the finish with the Mughal empire spread all over rest of the sub-continent. In about 1765, the Sikhs again attained to political sovereignty after a long spell of bloody battles with foreign invaders and their Indian satraps. This new Sikh commonwealth went through many difficulties and lasted until 1849. In that year the Punjab was colonised by the British people.

Our struggle to free ourselves from the British yoke, particularly because of the self-denying approach of our ignorant, confused and na´ve political leadership, concluded in the rest of India being de-colonised in 1947. We ourselves were however re-colonised and our land for which we had repeatedly fought bloody battles was divided. Western Punjab was added on to the Muslim empire while the eastern portion became a part of the Hindu empire. This transpired during the period from Aug. 14, 1947 to Jan. 26, 1950.

Effect of Political Slavery

Our effort to keep Hindu and Muslim India united into a modern, secular democracy failed miserably. The two theocratic states of Pakistan and Hindustan came into existence. The very first consequence of our political slavery was to be split into two halves ruled by the two theocratic successor Hindu and Muslim states. It led to the biggest migration in history.

Sikh Quarantine

Hindu India took effective steps to convert the newly colonised Punjab into a Sikh quarantine. These included the following economic measures:

a) An economic stranglehold over the Punjab was established. Sikhs migrating to India from Pakistan were forced to settle into the west of Indian Punjab although Muslims had migrated to Pakistan from all over India. This portion of the state did not have as much land as the Sikhs had left behind. Cuts on land-holdings were imposed. The migrating families received only 25% of the land they lost.

b) Water from our three remaining rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) was appropriated by the non-riparian Hindu majority states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. Eighty per cent of the river water distributed by the new colonial power after 1947 went to those states and a bare 20% was allocated to the Punjab. Our hydroelectric power was also looted at gunpoint in the same proportion and we were forced to depend upon stupendously costly and cumbersome thermal power.

c) The effect of the two above-mentioned measures was that the Punjab, and consequently the Sikhs, lost forever the economic benefits which would have accrued from increased agricultural production and suffered all industrial disadvantages consequent upon lack of industry because of power shortage. The accumulated loss adds up to mind-boggling figures. The Punjab and the Sikhs stand economically deprived to impoverishing levels.

d) From 1947 to 1966 the Punjabi speaking area of the new Punjab was completely denied the benefits of industrial development. All such development took place only in the so-called Hindi region that was expected to be separated from the Punjab some day. The cumulative effect of it all is that the Punjab stands denuded of Sikh population due to migration on a gigantic scale. It is likely to turn into a desert twenty years from now.

e) In recent times there have been large-scale changes in the demography of the Punjab. There has been a deliberately managed migration of people from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other Hindi speaking states. Their mannerism and cultural particularities have literally inundated the last remnants of Punjabi culture. The cultural downward march had begun earlier. It may be traced to the wanton and unnecessary clause in that document of surrender, which goes by the name of 'Longowal-Rajiv Accord of 1985,' and the propagation of so-called Punjabiat by certain cultural leaders of the Punjab.

One part of this scheme was to popularise lewd songs with double meanings. This continued to be supported as the new cultural expression under the new policy of Punjabiat divorced from Sikh culture. To promote these new concepts, a number of Hindi papers were thrown into the state and made available to the new cultural elements at a rupee per copy. The aim was to organise them and to make them the carriers of the new Punjabiat. Whosoever was monitoring this new revolution appears to have succeeded exceptionally well. Sikhs are already looking to the diaspora for preserving Sikh culture.

f) Elementary education in the Punjab has received a great setback in recent decades and government-managed schools in the villages have been rendered dysfunctional. In a few years, when Punjabi is replaced or made an associate language at the school level, under the political pressure of the new cultural elements, the circle will be complete.

g) The most disturbing element in the entire scenario is that except for a few ill-equipped individuals, there is no institution of the Sikhs which is monitoring these serious concerns. Were there to be such a body, it would be totally ineffective for lack of media support. The Sikhs in the past have singularly neglected to muster appropriate media. This clearly is an invitation to disaster.

We appear to have come to a dead end. Another factor strengthening our impression in this regard is the general lack of awareness among the Sikhs on what destiny appears to hold for them. By and large, they appear to be oblivious of the fact that to get out of this 'death-dealing situation' (to use Sirdar Kapur Singh's phrase) a great effort is required. If we do not make proper provisions for the future immediately, we are clearly in the grips of a death wish. It is only reasonable to assume that no Sikh will tolerate the obliteration of the wholly beneficial work of our great Gurus and something surely will be done in the right direction.

The aim of this 'State of the Panth' message is to encourage abler people to do some creative thinking on the issues.