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Gobind's Shorn Flock

This article presents useful data. However, its analysis is superficial. The writer fails to acknowledge that the masses are often smarter than the elite. Many Sikhs are rejecting outward form because they don't believe it leads to greater spirituality. Such an interpretation is, in fact, congruent with the rejection of symbolism that lies at the core of Sikhism's founding (for example, Guru Nanak's rejection of Hindu idols, sacred threads and forehead markings, Guru Granth, p. 467).

Outlook, Oct. 23, 2006

Photo: A typical rural scenario - the patriarch of a large family (in turban) with his sons and grandsons who got their hair cut, Adliwal village near Amritsar

It's the crest of Sikh identity. But the clergy is worried as rural Punjab shaves its locks.

One is often told that a Sikh without his flowing hair and turban is like a king without a crown. But, across Punjab, and more so in the countryside, young members of the community are giving up the most visible religious symbol of Sikh identity - long hair and the turban. The trend, which has been growing in the last four to five years, has reached 'epidemic' proportions and now has the Sikh religious leadership worried. So much so that desperate campaigns have been launched to revive the use of the turban.

When Outlook began examining this trend, Sikh organisations engaged in saving the turban estimated that about 80 per cent of the Sikh youth in rural Punjab have cut their hair and discarded their headgear. An exaggeration, one thought. But president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.), the highest decision-making body for the Sikhs, Avtar Singh Makkar, confirms this trend. He told Outlook: 'Yes, it's true that in many places about 80 per cent of Sikh youth have indeed cut their hair. Sadly the 'dastaar bandhi samaagam' (a turban-tying ceremony for young boys), too, has become rare in villages because very few boys of 13 or 14 years of age have long hair.'

Does this mean that the day is not far when a Sikh village in Punjab won't have a single turbaned male to show? This is not just in the realm of possibility but an inescapable reality according to a dismayed and rather helpless Sikh leadership.

But why are Sikhs, otherwise very dedicated to their religion, saying goodbye to turbans and going in for haircuts? Scholars say it is a combination of various factors, both social and economic, at play. The most common reason cited is the convenience of not having to go through the elaborate rigmarole of maintaining a beard and tying a turban. Says Baldev Singh, the patriarch of a large family in Adliwal near Amritsar, 'Except I and my two brothers, all our sons and grandsons have shorn their hair. It does pain me to see my family like this but no one listens to us nowadays.' His daughter-in-law Roominder Kaur is quite happy with a clean-shaven son as she doesn't have to go through the tedium of combing and tying his hair each morning.

Everyone agrees that the turban problem is acute in the villages where the land-owning Jat peasantry resides. One reason, perhaps, is the rural Punjabi youth's overriding desire to go West. Sikh scholars feel that in the aftermath of 9/11, when Sikhs are being mistaken for Muslims and attacked for sporting a beard and turban, there is a tendency among members of the community to adopt a more assimilative appearance so that they 'look like others.' It becomes easier to get past immigration.

It is common knowledge that drug abuse and liquor consumption in Punjab has reached unprecedented levels. Sixty per cent of the youth in the 14-25 year age group are estimated to be drug users. Sikh intellectuals link this with the trend to shed turbans. This is because Sikhism prohibits smoking and use of intoxicants. Points out the Akal Takht jathedar [chief], Joginder Singh Vedanti: 'Smoking or taking drugs with a turban on one's head makes a Sikh feel more guilty of breaching his faith. The absence of his kesh (long hair) and turban frees him from such qualms.'

The politicisation of the Sikh clergy, which is not doing enough to spread religious awareness in the younger generation, is another oft-cited reason. It is alleged that in recent years the Sikh clergy has become a handmaiden of the Akali Dal and has neglected its role as protector and preserver of Sikh religious traditions. Notes Dr. Kharak Singh of the Chandigarh-based Institute of Sikh Studies [I.O.S.S.]: 'The Sikh religious symbols like 'kesh' represent certain values. If a person holds these dear to himself, then he will never shed them, but unfortunately there is no one nowadays to teach the youth all this.'

Ironically, the trend of clean-shaven Sikhs has picked up in Punjab at a time when the community is engaged in an international campaign to create awareness about the Sikh identity and the importance of wearing religious symbols like the turban and kirpan. Following the ban on wearing turbans in French schools in 2004, and also several cases of hate crimes against Sikhs after 9/11, Sikh organisations began a drive to create awareness about the Sikh faith in Europe, U.S. and Australia.

When the French ban was announced, Sikh organisations - political, social and religious - in India and abroad protested. On the urging of the S.G.P.C., P.M. Manmohan Singh, too, took up the issue with the French government. But as Jaswinder Singh, an S.G.P.C. member and president of the Akal Purakh Ki Fauj (an organisation engaged in popularising turbans and long hair in Punjab), points out, 'If the French government comes to know of the situation in Punjab now, it will be embarrassing for us. How can we fight for the right to wear long hair and turbans abroad when people are abandoning the same in the home of Sikhism?'

Is a Sikh without his 'kesh' or long hair a lesser Sikh? In popular parlance, a clean-shaven Sikh is a 'patit' or an apostate. Says Professor Sher Singh of the Institute of Sikh Studies, 'Of all the five Ks - 'kesh, kada, kirpan, kanga and kachha' - which Guru Gobind Singh had made mandatory for all Sikhs to wear, the 'kesh' comes first and is foremost and indispensable to a Sikh's identity. Without the 'kesh', the other symbols are meaningless.'

In recent years, several organisations have sprung up in Punjab to revive the tradition of keeping long hair and wearing turbans. The 'Kesh Sambhal Prachaar Sansthaa' is one such outfit which, among other things, runs two turban-tying schools in Jalandhar and Amritsar, where young Sikhs are taught how to tie a turban. Says the Sansthaa secretary, Sukhdev Singh Sandhawalia, 'The most common excuse boys give for cutting their hair is that they don't know how to tie a turban.'

Another organisation holds a popular competition to select 'Mr. Singh International' which is open only for turbaned Sikhs. Among other things, the contestants have to participate in a round called 'Meri Dastaar, Meri Shaan, Meri Pehchaan' (My turban, my pride, my identity) where they are judged on how well their turbans are tied. The latest champion of the turban and long hair in Punjab is former cricketer and the B.J.P.'s Lok Sabha M.P. from Amritsar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who held a procession in Amritsar to revive the use of turbans and instil a sense of pride in Punjabi youth in wearing one. Ironically, Sidhu is under flak for trimming his beard and allowing his son to cut his hair.

Why and how did things come to such a pass? Many feel the custodians of the Sikh heritage like the S.G.P.C. cannot escape criticism. Says G.S. Lamba, Sikh scholar and editor of Sant Sipahi, a popular Sikh community journal: 'The S.G.P.C. has abandoned its traditional role of preserving Sikh values and heritage and is more embroiled in politics. When the Shiromani Akali Dal (S.A.D.) abdicated its role as a religious party and adopted a secular garb, the S.G.P.C. should have taken its religious duties seriously. But unfortunately it's the other way around. The S.G.P.C. has become an organ of the S.A.D., and has neglected preaching in villages. It's also shameful that the two are projecting a 'patit' like Navjot Singh Sidhu as a role model for the Sikh youth for the coming elections.'

He points to the recent controversy over Harbhajan Singh appearing in an advertisement with his hair open as an example. 'This shows the S.G.P.C.'s double standards. They are picking on Harbhajan Singh just to get some good publicity with the Sikh masses. If they are serious about the issue, they should start by taking action against the families of the S.G.P.C. members who have shorn hair and also the clean-shaven cadres of the S.A.D.'

Though Harbhajan Singh apologised to the Sikh clergy for the offending representation in the advertisement, his comment on the matter is telling. 'I apologise if I have hurt the feelings of my people, but why should the S.G.P.C. compare me with Monty Panesar (English cricketer of Sikh origin who sports a turban and beard) and not Yuvraj Singh and singer Gurdas Mann both of whom have cut their hair?'

Clearly, the situation has gone beyond hair-splitting as rural Punjab's tryst with the barber keeps growing. The land-owning Jat Sikhs have all but shed the turban, whereas the more conservative trading 'Khatri Sikhs' in urban areas are less inclined towards the new trend. One reason is that most of the Sikh gurus were 'Khatris' or from the trading community which is why this section of Sikhs are more staunch believers.

But go to rural Punjab and there are some tell-tale indicators of change. Where earlier, the sole barber in a village had to supplement his income by selling sweetmeats, now, most villages have three to four barbers. The feisty land-owning Punjabi Jat farmer has always been known for his enterprise and desire to try new things. True to form, it is he who is leading the 'no turban' trend even though it makes him an apostate in the eyes of his religion.