Saturday, October 20

Radicalism and Schisming damanging Sikhism

An outsider’s perspective on the Sikh radicalism in West that that has failed to subside even three decades after Op Bluestar, Jonathan Kay writes in National Post, a Canadian newspaper, that murderous violence has become institutionalized within radical Sikh circles and that this radicalism, and the general schisming of the Sikh diaspora into Khalistani and non-Khalistani factions, is damaging Sikhism as much as anything that happened in 1984.
The words ‘Operation Bluestar’ are little known in the West. But in South Asia, the Indian army’s June, 1984 invasion of the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar is considered one of the most important, and infamous, events in the region’s modern history. Many Sikh activists call it a “massacre” — and even compare it to the Sikh holocaust perpetrated by the Mughals 250 years ago. To this day, Bluestar represents a rallying point for Sikh militants seeking greater autonomy from India.
In truth, bloody though it was, Bluestar cannot be called a deliberate pogrom. In the years leading up to the assault, Sikh separatists and radicals had turned much of the Punjab into a war zone — with peaceable Sikhs being the primary victims of the chaos. Amidst the upheaval, the Golden Temple — which contains the holy text of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib — was taken over by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a charismatic Sikh fundamentalist (some saw him as a full-on prophet) who’d surrounded himself by gun-wielding zealots.
Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister (who later paid with her life for the events that would unfold at her command in 1984) realized that the situation in Punjab was untenable. Some feared that Pakistan, which already was making common cause with India’s hardline Sikhs, would recognize the independence of a breakaway Khalistani state, should one be declared, and send soldiers into Indian territory. Khalistani separatists were beginning to distribute their own currency. It was clear that taking the temple back from the zealots was a national imperative for India. And so Gandhi sent in the army.
Bhindranwale and hundreds of his fighters went down fighting inside the temple compound. Many innocents — pilgrims whom Bhindranwale effectively had taken hostage — also were among the victims. The Indian military estimated that about 500 civilians died in the crossfire. Unofficial tallies are an order of magnitude higher.
Yet Bluestar was in no way intended as a campaign of extermination by Hindus against Sikhs, even if that is how it is sometimes presented in propaganda tracts. In fact, the military commander of the Bluestar operation was himself a Sikh: Lieutenant-General Kuldip Singh Brar, a veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. A majority of his senior commanders also were Sikhs.
In a series of interviews he conducted in 2004, on the 20th anniversary of Bluestar, Gen. Brar said that he saw no conflict between his duty to his nation and his religious faith:
I am religious but in moderation. I am not a person who has to be in a temple every single day, but I have a fear of God. I respect religion, and respect the fact that I am a Sikh. But as I said earlier, a Sikh or a Hindu has no meaning here [in the armed forces]. You don’t even think about it. You are convinced you are not acting against any religion but against a section of misguided people [led by Bhindranwale] who have held the country to ransom, who are ready to fragment this country.
Nor was Gen. Brar the only Sikh in the Indian military who felt this way. Prior to the assault on the Golden Temple, Gen. Brar announced to his men that if any one of them did not feel he could participate in the operation, he should step forward and leave the staging area without fear of reprisal.
“In the fourth battalion, one hand went up,” the former commander recalls. “It belonged to a Sikh officer, Second Lieutenant Jasbir Singh Raina … [He] had a request: he wanted to be the first person to enter the Golden Temple to wipe the militants who had defiled his holiest shrine. I was very happy and [said] that Raina must be allowed to lead the first charge. The moment Raina entered, he came under a withering fire and suffered serious injuries to his legs. Yet, he refused to pull out … Months later, when he received the Ashoka Chakra [the highest bravery award in peace times], he came to receive the award in a wheelchair. I had tears in my eyes.”
Gen. Brar retired from the Indian Army in 1992. But civilian life proved just as hazardous as life in the military: In the years following Bluestar, militant Sikhs went on a spree of assassination attempts against commanders who’d been involved in the operation. Gen. Brar lives in a well- guarded compound, and spends much of his time radical monitoring Sikh web sites with names such as “Kill Brar.”
The former commander also is dismayed to see a resurgence of exactly the sort of Sikh radicalism he sought to extinguish back in 1984. “There are increasing signs of the youth in Punjab being motivated and indoctrinated by hardcore pro-Khalistan elements abroad,” he told an interviewer earlier this month. “This is happening, particularly in the US, Canada, UK and West Europe by glorifying the deeds of the Bhindranwale cult and by circulating doctored footage of Operation Bluestar … Pakistan’s Intelligence agency ISI is also collaborating with pro-Khalistan cells abroad to propagate the ideology of separatism.”
Much of this is happening right out in the open. Recently, Gen. Brar notes, a memorial function was held inside the Golden Temple complex — with the honorees being the men who assassinated Gen. A.S. Vaidya, a fellow Bluestar commander. And here in Canada, Sikh activists earlier this year staged a noisy public campaign called “I am Rajoana” — a reference to an unrepentant Sikh terrorist, Balwant Singh Rajoana, who masterminded the killing of a Punjab chief minister (who himself was a Sikh). At Sikh parades in British Columbia, other Sikh killers have been memorialized as “martyrs” on parade floats.
This month, while Gen. Brar was in London, England on a private trip with his wife, a group of four people attacked him near the east end of Oxford Street. In the melée, he was knifed in the neck and face, but survived without life-threatening injuries. British police arrested a dozen suspects. Two are being charged with intent to do grievous bodily harm.
The crime itself is shocking. But it’s also disturbing to see that the Sikh community in England is divided in its reaction to it. A Tribune India reporter who visited Southall (aka “Little Punjab”) in recent days interviewed some moderate Sikhs who found the attack on Gen. Brar to be appalling. But others embraced conspiracy theories to the effect that the assault was a “false flag” operation, hatched by India as a means to discredit Sikhs. Here in Canada, similar anti-Indian conspiracy theories circulated in regard to the destruction if Air India Flight 182 in 1985.
The fact that men such as Gen. Brar still live in fear for their life 28 years after the Bluestar operation shows that murderous violence has become institutionalized within radical Sikh circles. This radicalism, and the general schisming of the Sikh diaspora into Khalistani and non-Khalistani factions, is damaging Sikhism as much as anything that happened in 1984.
Yet Gen. Brar himself tells an interesting, personal tale about such schisms — and how they can heal on a personal level.
My own mama [mother’s brother] who lives in London — he didn’t keep long hair, he used to smoke, visit pubs, and I used to stay with him whenever I was visiting the UK — suddenly changed [in the 1980s]. He began to grow his hair and beard; he used to regularly participate in the functions at Southall [in London] where the Sikhs vowed revenge [for Bluestar]; he went to Pakistan; he swore he’d have never have anything to do with me. He broke ties with my parents — his own sister. [But] then, just three years ago, I was in London and found out he was dying of cancer. I decided I must see him and went to the hospital. The staff told me he had about 24 to 48 hours to live. When they informed him of my presence, he told them to bring me to his bedside and he held my hand; he had tears rolling down his cheeks and he told me he now understood I had to do whatever I did.
The recollection provides a hopeful symbol of the spirit of reconciliation that, one hopes, will eventually render Sikh political violence a thing of the past. Like Gen. Brar and his late uncle, Khalistani Sikhs — in the Punjab, Canada and everywhere else — should step back and look at what their cause has done to their communities and even their families. In that respect, this month’s shameful knife attack on a 78-year-old man, walking the streets of London with his wife, perhaps can serve as a wake-up call.
— Jonathan Kay is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Wednesday, October 17

Punjab drug fight loses in Akali-Congress battle

Political bickering over the issue has actually trivialised the severity of the problem afflicting the state, reports Jatinder Preet in The Sunday Guardian

While the Akalis and Congressmen spar over the Rahul Gandhi's figure of seven out of ten Punjab youth addicted to drugs, both can be accused of trivialising the severity of the problem afflicting the state.
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary, while addressing a meeting of National Students' Union of India (NSUI) in Chandigarh on Thursday said that seven out of ten youth suffer from drug problems in the state. While the problem of drug addiction is acknowledged widely, the senior Congress leader putting a number to it stirred the hornets' nest.
The president of NSUI, Punjab chapter, which hosted Rahul Gandhi in the meeting where he made the remark said it was he who first mentioned the figure from the affidavit, which was later quoted by Gandhi. The affidavit mentioned that seven out of 10 college-going students abuse one or the other drug in the state. But the veracity of the claim in the affidavit has always been in doubt. The state government had not done any assessment of its own to gauge the extent of the problem when the affidavit was submitted.
There have been academic studies by university departments and others based on varied sample surveys. Ravinder Singh Sandhu, sociology professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, who has done one such study, said he has seen his figures been misquoted many times. Prof Sandhu found that 73% of the 600 drug users and addicts he surveyed were in the age group 16 to 35. This has been often misrepresented as 73% of youth in the state having drug problems, he says. The book on his study was published in 2009 before the affidavit was submitted, although he said he can't say whether his figures formed the basis of the assertion in that. This confusion over figures has only served to ignore the real problem of drug abuse, he lamented.
Television artiste and senior People's Party of Punjab leader Bhagwant Mann, who has been highlighting the drug menace in the state, said even though the 70% sounds alarmist but one could not run away from the fact that Punjab was facing a serious drug abuse crisis. Instead of quibbling over the figure politicians should concentrate on how to fight the menace, he said.
While Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal was quick to demand an apology he, ironically, himself went on to claim that total recoveries of drugs in the state were more than half of the national recovery even as he attributed it to an intensive campaign by the Punjab police. He held the Ministry of Home Affairs, under whose command the Border Security Force operates, responsible for increasing trans-border smuggling of drugs and ammunition from across Pakistan.

Thursday, August 16

The absence in Punjabiyat’s split universe

Nationalist politics and official patronage to a selective narrative of Partition have not succeeded in wiping out the memory of a composite pluralistic culture, writes Ajay Bhardwaj in The Hindu
Punjab, 1948 Henry Carrtier Bresson
The partition of Punjab in 1947 created a paradoxical situation that Punjabis had never experienced before: they were one people, but with two mainlands now — India and Pakistan. In that sense, Punjab ceased to exist; by and large, Punjabis took to perceiving their world through the prism of nation states and national boundaries, shaped by whichever side of the divide they found themselves in.
In the process, the self became the other. The universe of Punjabiyat — a shared way of life — was marginalised. It was replaced by perceptions of contending identities, which have found an echo in the dominant power politics of east Punjab these past 65 years. However, the idea of Punjabiyat has not been totally erased. In ways seen and unseen, it continues to inhabit the universe of the average Punjabi’s everyday life, language, culture, memories and consciousness.

Living paradoxes

Born almost two decades after Partition, my first realisation of a composite Punjab, ironically, was through the presence of absences. Behind my grandparents’ house in our village Akalgarh, in district Ludhiana, is a narrow street. To this day it is called Rajputan de Gali (the street of the Rajputs). This is where the influential community of ‘Rajput Muslims,’ as they were addressed, lived before Partition. The villagers’ reference to the Maseet Wala Gurdwara (literally the mosque turned gurdwara) is yet another symbol of the once powerful presence of Muslims in Akalgarh.
Similarly, there is a pond called Taru Shah da Toba, named after a wandering fakir Taru Shah, who preferred to stay on in our village. Over the years his shrine in the old graveyard has grown in size and stature. Yet there are no Muslims in the village.
To me, these living paradoxes spoke unequivocally of the presence of an absence of Punjabi Muslims from east Punjab. It was a reminder that any imagination of Punjab which excluded Punjabi Muslims would only end up ghettoising east Punjabi society.
The last six decades have witnessed two parallel trajectories in east Punjab as a response to Partition. One trajectory is defined by a dominant mode of politics in the domain of national contestations; the other, reflecting an organic response of people in their everyday lives, emphasises local continuities.

Contestations & continuities

In spite of occasional expressions of bonhomie during a cross-border cricket match, offerings of prayers at each other’s holy shrines for the benefit of competing media cameras, or photo-ops centred on prisoners granted amnesty across the border, it is a fact that politics in east Punjab has always engaged with west Punjab strictly within a nationalist framework — just like India would deal with Pakistan.
Strangely, the State’s Akali leadership, which is never shy of confronting the Centre on any issue, big or small, imagines Punjab no differently. Such is the influence of national boundaries in imposing constricting visions that Punjabi Muslims and west Punjab have been rendered completely invisible in the conceptualisation of the Punjabi self by this brand of politics in east Punjab.
For instance, the complete silence over the killings of Punjabi Muslims in east Punjab during Partition could be explained away by the nation state as a “side effect” of the birth of a nation. But, equally, east Punjab’s political class has chosen to be silent on this issue of Partition, which had a totally different meaning for Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs who shared so much in common with Punjabi Muslims in terms of culture, language, traditions and spirituality.
In all these years, the same east Punjabi political class has shown little interest in articulating any expression of regret for the killings of Muslims during Partition. As for the idea of a reconciliation which would help recover the self banished as the other in 1947, that has never been part of any political agenda.
This gives rise to a significant question. If this is how the State’s political leadership has envisioned Punjab, how is it any different from the Hindutva politics of Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan? Often, the justification of this silence stems from a positioning based on playing the blame game. It is a political stance that has been used by the likes of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to invoke Newton’s third law of motion during the killings of Muslim minorities in his State in 2002.
In the year of the Gujarat killings, the Rashtriya Sawayamsevek Sangh (RSS) held a massive function in the heart of Amritsar to honour its cadres who had actively participated in the genocide of Muslims in 1947, ostensibly to protect the Hindus and Sikhs in east Punjab. At this Shaurya Smriti Samman function, (honouring the memory of valour), the RSS made an audacious attempt to appropriate iconic Punjabi revolutionaries of the anti-imperialist movement like Shaheed Udham Singh and Kartar Singh Sarabha.
The counterpoint to this trajectory is to be found at levels closer to the ground, in the responses of the Partition generation that witnessed the genocidal violence of 1947 in east Punjab. In the villages straddling the Malwa region of Punjab, people of this generation can often be heard talking about the fate of the perpetrators of the killings, the accounts disturbing in their sharp details. They never fail to describe how the perpetrators, who were from their own community, met with miserable ends. The widely shared faith of this generation in a morality based on the belief that those who commit inhuman acts, suffer in their own lifetime, that there is always a payback, carries within it a great humanist and universal message.
While shooting my documentaries in this region over a decade, rarely did I come across anyone valorising the killers of Muslims. This fast fading generation’s expressions of guilt and remorse seem to be a way of cleansing the soul, with the potential to heal the scars of a traumatic past and show the path to reconciliation.

Memorialising — what and what not

Yet there has been no acknowledgement of this articulation anywhere on a formal level in east Punjab. No memorials have been erected for the one million people who perished in 1947. At the same time, building memorials has been an unceasing political activity in the State. The pertinent ones in this context are the memorials of Wada Ghalughara, Chhota Ghalughara and the Banda Bahadur War Memorial. They are largely meant to invoke the heroic battles of the Sikhs against the Mughal state’s oppression. The point worth pondering is that these acts privilege a memory that is exclusivist, selective and sectarian, over the historical pluralist ethos of Punjab. This act of institutionalisation of memory is not very different from the manner in which Hindu nationalist forces and the RSS invoke the memory of Maharana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji as saviours of Hindus from Muslim oppression.
Away from the glare of such grandstanding lies the universe of the common Punjabi. In so many villages across east Punjab, people throng the shrines of Sakhi Sarvar — Lakh Data Pir or Nigaha Pir as he is called, whose main shrine is located near Dera Ghazi Khan in Pakistan. This is a vibrant living tradition outside the domain of the dominant faiths of east Punjab that has survived Partition — and is evident in multiple spaces of shared spirituality, especially Sufi shrines.
The political class has never bothered to argue on behalf of such cross-border traditions which speak of multiple expressions of identity. It is more interested in picking and choosing elements which have the potential to harden the identity politics of Us against the Other.

The silencing of language

There is one more interesting dimension to this rubric and it has to do with language. Post-Partition, in west Punjab, the imposition of Urdu virtually decimated the Punjabi language; in east Punjab, Urdu became a casualty of Punjabi. I remember having an animated conversation about Urdu with four elderly men under a pilkhan tree in a village in Ludhiana some years ago. “A beautiful language, with nuances neither Hindi nor Punjabi can equal,” said one. “It’s our language, forged from Arabic and Punjabi,” said another. The third one remembered how, when Partition was announced, “all of us in Class III, studying lesson number 14 in Urdu, threw our Qua’ida in the air and said, ‘Urdu ud gaya, Urdu ud gaya’ [Urdu has flown away].” The fourth friend ruminated: “We used to think Urdu belonged to Muslims; nobody knew it was a language.”
Here, too, the dominant trajectory of politics, with a skewed sense of Punjab’s history, continues to deny the organic links between Persia and Punjab — cultural, spiritual and linguistic. It has ghettoised the Punjabi language by keeping Urdu and Persian at bay. Ironically, while people in villages celebrate Gaus Pak Pir from Baghdad, students in Punjab are denied the option of studying Persian or Urdu as a second language.
This underlines the nationalist perspective echoed by east Punjab politics; it is certainly not a Punjab perspective.

The writer is a documentary filmmaker

Thursday, July 5

Bhangra Nation and Punjabi Identity

The collective experience of Punjabi nationness may be negotiated in the interstices, in the overlap between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim difference, writes Anjali Gera Roy in Journal of Punjab Studies 

Those of you who do not belong to my generation will live to see Punjab’s identity overcome the effects of the religious divide of 1947 and enjoy the fruit of a prosperous and happy Punjab which transcends the limitation of a geographical map.
(Khizar Hayat Tiwana, one of the staunch critics of the two nation theory, was the leader of the Punjab Union as the Indian subcontinent was being divided, speaking in 1964)

Several attempts to carve out a distinctive Punjabi identity have been made before and after the 1947 Partition, including ethno-linguistic constructions such as Azad Punjab and Punjabi suba movements or ethno-religious ones such as the movement for Khalistan or the Sikh Nation. This paper examines the new global imaginings of punjabiyat and the Punjabi nation to propose an ethnocultural and ethnospatial definition of the Punjabi nation by examining the new meanings of punjabiyat and communities produced in relation to Bhangra performance. BhangraNation is similar to the Sikh Nation in being a deterritorialized transnational topos of community that invokes primordialist objects to interrogate nationalist cartographies. But it is an inclusive narrative, which not only erases but also extends boundaries to transform the meaning of punjabiyat in the global village. My contention is that the self-fashionings in BhangraNation cross national, linguistic and religious boundaries to converge on cultural contiguity. At the same time, they point to future elective identities where commonality of concerns and interests rather than birth will be community producing.
The homepage of Punjabi Network, a Punjabi website, appears to voice the shared Punjabi nostalgia for the ethnolinguistic community splintered by nationalist cartography in 1947. The collectivity invoked on the site is disengaged from territory and made to converge on an ineffable primordiality located in speech, consciousness and customs in turns. Language and culture are privileged over location and religion in a desire to recover the undivided Punjabi memory prior to its compound fractures.
Punjab - is a state of mind.
You may live in any part of this earth but if your mother-tongue is Punjabi you are a Punjabi. Punjab is wherever a Punjabi lives! It has nothing to do with any religion or belief.
Having defined Punjabi in quasi mystical terms, the website continues by inviting Punjabis of all hues, classes, castes, nations and sects to reconstruct the lost ethnocultural community.
Global Punjab?
Global Punjab has more than 150 million people worldwide with majority living in Pakistan and India and rest scattered over in Africa, Europe, Asia and North America.
In Global Punjab - all are welcome. There are no biased restrictions nor any fundamentalist ideas about life. Punjabi culture is so ancient that having seen so many invasions, so many heavy mistakes and tragedies, Punjabis have become more global than any other community. Their globalness may not be very apparent at first, but inside every Punjabi is a global citizen, striving to make it in this life.
We are attempting to unite all Punjabis and not dividing them by classes, castes, religions or nationalistic systems, which have been means to screw us up[sic] in last thousands of years. Enough of all that! That has only made us poorer, ignorant and a rural lot.
Senior Punjabis lament for the lost homeland, invariably expressed as a question, mourn the multiple fissures suffered by the region eponymously named after its five rivers (Punj five aab water). The rhetorical question, Punjab reh kithe giya? (What remains of Punjab?), interrogates Indian history’s unfathomable silence on the Partition experience. If taxonomy could be used as a guideline to Punjab’s sacred cartography, how can the region retain its name with two rivers left behind in another nation? Only three of the rivers (Sutluj, Beas, and Ravi) remain in the territory of present day Indian Punjab, the other two having gone to Punjab Pakistan. But traces of the old Punjabi place, superscripted by national cartographies, are still clearly visible in Punjabi markings of the homeland. Unlike the self-imaginings of other Indian regions, these homeland memories are disloyal to national borders as they follow the passage of the five rivers flowing in total contempt of national barriers. The imagery of overflowing rivers washing down frontier checkpoints and controls connects these primordial attachments to the contemporary globalizing wave that has put the national constellation into question.
What accounts for the appeal of this originary narrative of an organic community? Edward Shils’  answer is that social bonds such as those of blood, religion, language, and race are taken as ‘given’ and natural and evoke stronger emotional loyalties than the instrumentalist ones mobilized in the formation of civic nationalisms. Clifford Geertz concurs that the ‘overpowering’ and ‘ineffable’ coerciveness of ties believed to be primordial creates ‘conflicting loyalties between primordial ties and civic sentiments’ threatening the unity of the nation state. Anthony D Smith testifies to the persistence, change and resurgence of ethnies in the nation state and mentions the emotional appeal of the ethnic past in shaping present cultural communities, particularly in the formation of post-colonial nation states in non-western societies. What role can primordialist self-definitions play in the postmodern, post-colonial constellation? While some see little space for sub-national identities in the postindustrial nation state, others discern a distinct resurgence of sub-national and ethnic movements fostered by electronic networks. What are the factors propelling the new ethnolinguistic or religious ‘tribes’ in the postnational constellation? Whether primordial identities will have a place in the global world and whether they would provide fixity, as Melucci maintains, or create further fragmentation, it seems unlikely that the ethnic myths of descent and ethnic heritage will cease to have impact. If it is true that ethnies have always been fissured and have permitted multiple identities, does the representation of Punjabi difference in postmodernity require the mobilization of a monolithic ethnic essence or can it accommodate conflicting narratives and accretive identities? Will Punjabi difference be articulated in interstitial diasporic spaces or would it be translated in the sending areas through hybridity to reinscribe the metropolis and modernity? Arguing that the shared performative cultural heritage of the Punjabi speech community including music and dance remains the sole resisting space for interrogating the multiple splintering of  Punjabiyat, the Punjabi identity, this paper will focus on the reconstruction of a new punjabiyat in relation to the Bhangra revival of the eighties. Bhangra was rediscovered and appropriated in the articulation of two forms of cultural difference, the one signaled by what Hall calls ‘the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject’ and the second by the end of, what one might call, the essential Indian subject. Ethnic loyalties to village, family, place, or clan subsumed in the symbolic construction of ‘a people’ in the making of the nation-state returned through the hyphenated, in-between spaces of British Asian music groups splitting the marginal space of blackness in Britain and the dominant narrative of Indianness in India. The musical production of British Punjabi youth reintroduced ethnicity into the identity politics of the marginalized, destabilizing identarian constructions based on nation and race in Britain as well as India. In the process of producing a unified Punjabi identity to oppose an essentialist blackness with Asianness, Asian youth subcultures helped to produce global punjabiyat.
Though the punjabiyat so produced was appropriated in diasporic Sikh separatism, it paradoxically enabled the reconstruction of a unified Punjabi space. The linguism of the Sikh demand recovered the Punjabi speech community from the palimpsest of Hindi and Urdu. Similarly, the summoning of ‘core’ Punjabi values in the constitution of the Sikh diaspora made them available to the entire ethnos. This happened for the simple reason that the pastoral Punjabi past that was mobilized in the construction of punjabiyat has never been exclusively Sikh. The dancing Bhangra body, consecrating the Sikh nation’s primordial wholeness in the amritdhari bodily iconicity, also put together the unbroken Punjabi body. The performance of Punjabi identity through shared cultural rituals like Bhangra released the Punjabi ethno spatial space for reclamation by Hindu and Muslims in addition to Sikhs. As Punjabi harvest ritual, Bhangra revived the unified ‘village’, bioregional identification before its sectarian and nationalist cracks. A separatist movement, invoking a pre-given ethnic essence in its self definition, therefore, inadvertently led to ethnospatial restoration and reunification.
Arjun Appadurai, in Sovereignty without Territory, examines new nationalisms in relation to the problematic of sovereignty and territory and concludes that ‘territory is still vital to the national imaginary of diasporic populations and stateless people of many sorts’. It is interesting that Appadurai should cite Khalistan as an example of the ‘new postnational cartography’ of the post Westphalian model, which borrows the spatial discourses of the nation. This view of the Sikh nation as a ‘deterritorialized’ nation without a state is shared by Verne A. Dusenbery, who maintains that ‘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’. Though the nation might be imagined differently from the territorial nationstate, calls to solidarity in postnational constellations continue to be made in the name of the nation.
BhangraNation is the name of the most prestigious Bhangra event held in Toronto every year with Bhangra bands from the world over competing for the first position. A Punjabi folk dance competition conducted in a diasporic location, boasting of participation from groups from the homeland and the diaspora, might well serve as a metaphor for the collectivities clustered around Bhangra performance in real and virtual places. BhangraNation’s topos of national identity resembles that of the Sikh nation in being a topos of community that contests the topos of the nation and national cartographies. But BhangraNation is as an inclusive, ethnospatial narrative permitting porous, intersecting boundaries opening out to all Punjabi and non-Punjabi ethnies in opposition to the exclusivist, reactive, ethno-religious Sikh nation. Imagining Punjab as an ethnospatial rather than ethno-linguistic or ethno-religious complex conforms to Harjot Oberoi’s notion of the ethno-territorial community in The Construction of Religious Boundaries.
I view BhangraNation as recalling the memory of the Punjabi ethnospatial complex overwritten by religious and scriptural identifications. Oberoi’s definition of Punjab as a geographical as well as a cultural area, which he opposes to humanly constructed political and religious boundaries, meets the postmodern concept of the bioregion conceived by Peter Berg and Larry Dasmann in the 70s, referring to ‘both a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness.’ Emphasizing the interpretation of the Punjabi places of culture, healing and worship at the level of popular village religion and everyday practices, Oberoi shows how they were overwritten by formal religions. Peter van der Veer places this rupture at the turn of the twentieth century in the emergence of tomb cults signaling the region’s Islamization, which were followed by the birth of Islamic and Hindu nationalism. While the intersection of Sikh with Hindu boundaries was fairly common knowledge, the collapse of Sikh and Hindu with Islamic boundaries uncovered by Oberoi adds new dimensions to the understanding of Punjabi identity.
John Connell and Chris Gibson, in examining the relationship of music with space and identity, show that musical cartographies cannot be read outside political and social cartographies. Bhangra’s generic classification reflects the fluid, porous boundaries of the old Punjabi place. Bhangra performance illustrates the complex interweaving of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh strands in Punjabi identity, which were separated in the emergence of sectarian and linguistic nationalisms. Though certain genres might have a sectarian provenance in being attached to specific Sufi, Sikh or Hindu practices, participation is dictated by the rules of performance rather than by concrete identities. Like all other aspects of Punjabi identity, Bhangra is not the exclusive legacy of any particular group but forms a part of that shared ethnospatial past, which resisted sect, language and nation based boundaries. The contemporary Bhangra space retains Bhangra’s traditional boundary crossing feature though it collapses further boundaries to enable non-Punjabi participation. A visit to this performance space returns one to Oberoi’s Punjabi pastoral insensitive to nationality, geographical location, religion or class. Even where visible markers might provide a clue to location, their porousness prevents the fixing of identities. Performing on a transnational network in a music album produced by a local company, the Bhangraplayer could be located on any site on the BhangraNation. The alphabetical arrangement of Bhangra artists on a Bhangra website crossing several boundaries illustrates the transnational character of the contemporary Bhangra map. Neither the artists’ names, nor those of companies can provide reliable clues to their sectarian, national or locational coordinates.
A.S. Kang, Abrar Ul Haq, Achanak, Alaap, Amar Arshi, Amar Singh Chamkila, Amrit Saab, Anakhi, Apna Sangeet, Atul Sharma, Avtar Maniac, Babbu Mann, Bally Sagoo, Bhinda Jatt, Daler Mehndi, Didar Sandhu, Dilshad Akhtar, Gurdas Maan, Hans Raj Hans, Harbhajan Mann, Harbjan Shera, Hard Kaur, Heera Group, Inderjit Nikku, Jagmohan Kaur, Jasbir Jassi, Jassi Premi, Jaswinder Kaur Brar, Jazzy Bains, K.S. Makhan, Kuldip Manak, Kulwinder Dhillon, Malkit Singh, Manmohan Waris, Mohammad Saddiq, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pargat Bhagu, Parminder Sandhu, Premi, Punjabi MC, Ranjit Kaur, Ranjit Mani, ahotas, Sangeet Group, Sarabjit Cheema, Sardool Sikander, Satwinder Bitti, Satwinder Bugga, Shamsher Sandhu, Shazia Manzoor, Silinder Pardesi, Sukhbir, Sukhdev Sukha, Sukhshinder Shinda, Sukhwinder Panchi, Surinder Shinda, Surjit Bindrakhia, Surjit Gill, XLNC, Yamla Jatt
As Urdu names are as common in Punjab as Hindi, how is one to conclusively prove if an artist is Hindu, Muslim or Sikh? Even if Sikhs dominate the Bhangrascape, the beard and the turban do not function as definitive identity signifiers for there are as many clean shaven Sikhs as there are bearded Hindus.
Is the clean shaven Gurdas Mann a Sikh and the bearded Hans Raj Hans a Muslim? The popular cultural compulsions of creating powerful brand images complicates bodily semiotics further. Apache Indian and Jazzy Bains use Punjabi lyrics but, with names evocative of the Wild West, they could be from anywhere. Sikh Muslim imbrication occurs even in Sikh names through the appendage of the ustad’s name as in Daler Mehndi’s case. Not only concrete identities but also their discursive representation reflects the interpenetration of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh boundaries. Since Bally Sagoo’s remix of Malkit Singh’s gud nalon ishq mitha inserted the inimitable Sikh in the visual narrative of a Hindu wedding, it has become customary to dissolve Hindu Sikh boundaries in Bhangra music videos. Jassi Sidhu’s virji vyahon chalya with the Sikh performing at his Hindu brother’s sehrabandhi is particularly evocative of the Hindu Sikh kinship destroyed by separatism. Similarly, Hans Raj Hans’s adoption of the Sufi idiom in the julli genre has the bearded Hindu rehearsing the Muslim gestures at the pir’s tomb resurrecting the shared spaces of Punjabi worship. Despite their deep commitment to the Sikh cause, Sikh Bhangra artists have reserved their commitment to sikhi in their devotional rather than Bhangra albums. Given such frequent border crossings, it comes as no shock when the Muslim Sabri brothers compare the beloved to God, using the Punjabi term rab (not Allah), or when the Sikh Harbhajan Mann invokes His Islamic name, Wallah, to warn against lovesickness.
BhangraNation’s character as a transnational virtuality was brought home at the first Punjabi popular music award in 2004. A young Sikh, Jassi Sidhu, received the Best Newcomer award at the first ETC Channel Punjabi Awards in 2004 for his Punjabi album. His location was revealed only when he peppered his pure Punjabi ‘thank you’ speech liberally with Cockney asides. When pure Punjabi is as likely to be found in Birmingham and British Columbia as in Jallandar and Lahore, punjabiyat ceases to be anchored to geography. I see the Bhangra cartography as reinscribing the geographies of nation states to construct a translocal Bhangrascape with specific local inflections. While studies of specific Bhangra ‘scenes’, particularly from Bhangra’s new British capitals, have been particularly helpful in illuminating Bhangra’s participation in local cultural politics, I wish to call attention to the translocal identity spaces formed in relation to Bhangra that reveal a complex negotiation with local identities.
Steven Grosby, in ‘The Inexpungeable Tie of Primordiality’, explains that though primordiality might be socially constructed and largely ‘an affect issue’, human beings ‘do make classifications of the self and the other in accordance with such criteria’. Grosby holds that ineffable attachments and ties to certain objects depend on beliefs about these objects. Bhangra participates in the construction of global punjabiyat through the activation of cultural resources to which ‘primordial sentiments’ are attached. Whether the primordial return is possible or not, Bhangra texts celebrate an apriori Punjabi ethnicity in romanticized narratives of the Punjabi homeland. The objects mobilized in the construction of Punjabi ethnicity include consanguinity, religion and language but also common territorial origin, conspicuous biological features as well perceptible differences in the conduct of everyday life. In my opinion, the attachment of affect in Bhangra texts to territorial location, customs and culture rather than to religion rescues it from the ethnic absolutism and exclusivism of the Sikh nation.
Bhangra texts repeat a rap like nostalgia for a primordial punjabiyat captured in the trope of return. The myth of return undergirding Bhangra texts grows stronger in inverse proportion to the impossibility of return, literal and metaphoric. The text invariably opens with the protagonist’s returning home, often accompanied by a westernized partner, and concludes with his reintegration into an exoticized Punjabi sociality. Though the return trope underlies most texts, some articulate it more unambiguously than others. The unofficial anthem of the BhangraNation by the Punjabi poet laureate Gurdas Mann needs to be quoted in detail as an introduction to the objects to which primordial sentiments come to be attached though the use of the conditional might hint at the impossibility of return.

Apna Punjab hove To be in our own Punjab
Ghar di sharaab hove Where homemade liquour flows free
Ganne da danda hove A sugarcane
Baan da manja hove A string cot
Manje ute baitha jat And the peasant reclining royally
Oye Banya nawab hove on the string cot
Pehle tod vari vichon In the very first gulp
Duja peg lava hoye downing the second peg
Gandala da saag greens
Vaddi bebe ne banaya hove cooked by grandmother
Muhn de vich rakhde e The taste of raw spices
masale da swad hove tickles my tongue as I put it in my mouth
Saron de saag vich main To mustard greens
Ghyo te ghyo paayi javaan I keep adding dollops of butter
Makki dian rotiyaan noon Countless homemade maize corn bread
Bina gine khayeen javaan I go on eating
Khoon te jaake ganne choopan I saunter across to the well suck fresh sugarcane
Oye ghar da kabaab hove Oh for homemade kebab

The rap remix of the song translates the song’s centrality to Bhangra’s ‘return to roots’ identity performance in the diaspora. A deep male voice announces ‘We are now returning to the roots’, before playing the soundtrack peppered with Jamaican patois. Other Bhangraplayers share and repeat Mann’s ‘makki di roti’ nationalism revealing an emotional attachment to everyday items and rituals. Malkit Singh’s new album echoes Mann’s homeland yearning, once again translated as food.
Vekh Li Valait I have had enough of foreign lands
Yaaro Vekh Li Valait Friends, enough of foreign lands
Mera Maa De Hata Diyan
Pakiyan Rotiyan Khaan Nu Bara Hi Dil Karda
I ask for nothing more than bread made by my mother’s hand The song trails off with the protagonist being escorted back to India by family.
Other examples of homeland nostalgia abound.More often than not, this mystical, elusive Punjabi essence translates into a female iconicity comprising the mother, the sister and the beloved. As in Indian nationalism, the Punjabi woman’s body becomes the site for the negotiation of Punjabi modernity. The female body is draped or undraped to inscribe quintessential Punjabi values. The veiled Punjabi woman apotheosized as virgin or mother is set in opposition to the mem or the westernized urban or diasporic woman, whose journey back home must parallel the male protagonist’s for her to transform into the beloved.
Br-Asian Bhangra artists first apotheosized the virginal Punjabi woman to tease Punjabi difference out of essentialist blackness. Since Apache Indian’s romanticization of the ‘gal from Jullundar’ in Arranged Marriage, the sohni kudi has fed reels of Bhangra homeland nostalgia. The village belle, or jatti Punjab di, has conquered many an urban male heart as much by her fabled beauty as by her personification of a valorized Punjabi rusticity. The fetishization of the sohni, virginal but coquettish, sublimates the Punjabi male desire for the homeland.
Alternatively, the homeland may be visualized as mother. If the sohni is made to serve the Punjabi male fantasy of pristine sexuality, the bebe, or ma, is made to conform to the idealized image of the selfless, nurturing mother who nourishes the male without demanding anything in return.
Eis Duniya Vitch Jine Risthe All worldly relationships
Sab Juthe Te Beroop Are false and ugly
Maa Da Rishta Sab To Sachcha The only authentic bond is with the mother
Maa Hai Rab Da Roop Mother is the very image of God
While the representation of the homeland as maternal is characteristic of romantic nationalism in general, the Punjabi male’s mother fixation invests the image with a particular emotive appeal. Both the sohni and ma, embodying the primordial tie with the rustic homeland, are contrasted with the westernized temptress or the mem who must be socialized into essential punjabiyat before being accepted into the Punjabi fold. It figures directly as place as well, albeit a place constructed as much by ecology as by practices of everyday life. Bhangra’s originary location in the doabas, or deltas, of Punjab’s five rivers, customarily invoked in the boliyaan, enables Punjabi subjectivity to be grounded in concrete, material reality. Along with reconstructing Punjabi topography by retracing Bhangra genres to their originary doabas, Bhangra texts also rebuild the cultural and sacred geographies of undivided Punjab around built spaces.
These texts close in to fix a specific locus with the result that the homeland they return to is an extremely small place, a province, a town or a village reflecting the longing for the face to face community displaced by the new imaginings of collectivities in nationalism or globalization. Though a few Bhangra texts name a specific region or city, the locus of punjabiyat in contemporary Bhangra texts is the Punjabi village, a pind, illustrating the mapping of transnational Punjabi identity on a rural Punjabi imaginary. They retrace the topography of the five rivers and their deltas to recount the history of multiple erasures and recoveries older than those affected in the making of nations.
Eh Punjab vi mera e This Punjab is also mine
Oh Punjab vi mera e That Punjab is also mine
Eh sutluj vi mera e This Sutluj is also mine'
Oh chenab vi mera e That Chenab is also mine
Sara jism Of the broken body
Tukre jod deyo Put together the pieces
Hatthan jod deyo Join hands
Sarhadaan tod deyo Break all borders
Biological difference is recognized another object of primordial attachments. The body has turned into a key codifier in the iconicity constructed to produce Punjabi identities. From the stereotyped portrayal of the Punjabi in the popular Indian imagination as all brawn but no brain to the materialism ascribed to Punjabi core values, the body comes to acquire a centrality that might be useful in the understanding of the production of Punjabi subjectivity in the present. Bodily icons and signifiers construct a particularly masculine ethic centered on labour, battle and pleasure. The beautiful virginal or nurturing maternal female body is juxtaposed against the laboring or warrior male body. Punjabi subjectivity has traditionally employed the body and bodily signifiers as the site for representing difference. As Brian Keith Axel has pointed out, the iconicity of the male Sikh body was constructed to separate Sikh identity from other Punjabi ethnicities. Similarly, the female body has inevitable served as the site for marking or invading boundaries between different Punjabi groups. The celebration of physical strength and energy in jatt self-definitions converges equally on the body and bodily signifiers. An imagery is generated in relation to the body in Punjabi ascriptions and self descriptions equating the body with the body politic. Bodily markings and coverings, such as hair, beard, or headdress merely signify Punjabi identity-indifference before the rupture. The rupture is signified through images of the bruised, dismembered broken male bodies and violated female bodies in narratives of Partition and of anti-Sikh riots. The Partition violence, the nightmare of burnt, torn, bleeding, dismembered bodies, aids the representation of the division of Punjab as a physical rupture. The images of bleeding, wounded broken bodies return post 1984 in Sikh nationalism but are now contrasted with the wholeness of the amritdhari Sikh body.

The dancing Bhangra body returns against the backdrop of the bleeding Punjabi body offering glimpses into the vision of wholeness before the fragmentation. In Bhangra performance, the body stands unadorned and unburdened by visible identity markers signifying difference. Shorn of facial or head hair, or other identificatory marks, the body signifies similarity rather than difference. Casting away divisive identity markers, it dons the peasant Bhangra costume to return to the Punjabi life-place. But the dancing Bhangra body plays on differences of caste, class, region or gender without unifying them into an unchanging Punjabi essence. In performing Bhangra moves, Punjabis cast aside all other identity markers to reclaim the habitus they were dislocated from to perform a punjabiyat, located in body language and movement.
Bhangra is the harvest ritual that Hindu, Sikh, Muslim Punjabis may perform to reenact a peasant memory. Bhangra belongs to the living-in-place habitus, to particular ways of doing or saying things, which bind members of the community together. Bhangra body and bodily movement, embedded in the tribal Punjabi place, offer an elusive unifying moment in which a shared punjabiyat might be performed transcending all barriers. The body and its movements, ritualized in Bhangra performance, mark out individuals as Punjabis. In performing stylized Bhangra movements, shared across differences, Punjabis reinhabit the lost place. Through the performance of shared kinesics, it attempts to resist the splitting of the Punjabi memory further. The shared knowledge of the rules of performance about when to say what, where, to whom, in what manner, reaffirms a tribal solidarity enabling them to shed, at least during the performance moment, their new identifications overwritten on the older bioregional memory.
Bhangra’s boundary crossing space enables all concrete Punjabi identities to perform their punjabiyat in dance and music. ‘We only have to start singing Heer Waris Shah from our border post at the Wagah and let’s see how the fellow on the other side responds’. Ishtiaq Ahmed, agrees. Bhangra’s performance and speech nationalism enables Punjabis to congregate crossing all boundaries in contrast with ethno-religious nationalisms predicated on scriptural  difference. The Bhangra performance space alone offers a commingling of Punjabis of all complexions, classes, castes, religions, nations, locations and gender that interrogates the imaginings of nations, secular and sacred.
The myth of return to the Punjabi homeland dramatized in several Bhangra texts might suggest organic identifications. But the impossibility of return, literal or metaphorical, disables an uncategorical affirmation of punjabiyat as the Punjabi memory itself reveals deep gashes. Heated discussions on Punjabi culture on the website foreground multiple claimants to punjabiyat speaking in the name of language, religion, culture and class. Most chats conclude in vituperative exchanges nipping the dream of a global Punjab in the bud. As the confusion of categories defining punjabiyat on these website reveals, punjabiyat is still under construction. It would be more pertinent to inquire, therefore, what imaginings of punjabiyat are produced in the mobilization of various identity spaces in Bhangra texts and how the Punjabi subject is transformed in assuming that image. The problem of Punjabi identification can certainly not be the ‘affirmation of a pre-given identity’ but ‘the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image’.
Bhangra’s identity politics reveal the negotiation of several aspects, such as religion, nation, class, language, generation or ethnicity, which might overlap as well as contradict. The collective experience of Punjabi nationness may be negotiated in the interstices, in the overlap between Hindu, Sikh and Muslim difference. The Punjabi difference represented at these intersections can be produced in relation to a Punjabi anteriority that accommodates the experiences of invasion, displacement and migration. The ‘unhomeliness’, which Bhabha marks ‘the condition of extra-territorial and cross-cultural’ constructs a Punjabi homeland defined in relation to displacement and migration. Following Anthony D Smith, T K Oommen regards the notion of homeland as the ‘irreducible minimum for a nation to emerge and to exist’. ‘In the case of nation formation, territory is the first requisite’; he declares rejecting the claims of both language and religion to nationhood. The new punjabiyaat destroys the isomorphism between place, space and nation that has been noted in nationalist organizations of space illustrating the non-contiguous places enabled by global connectivity. The absence of an originary Bhangra location in the context of its multidirectional flows interrogates and challenges essentialist, universalized or fixed identities. At the same time, the desire to fix a homeland in a specific locus reflects the pull of primordial ties. In the absence of territorial materiality, the reconstruction of the lived place in the memory can produce only an image. Though the BhangraNation returns to the physicality of place to root itself firmly, the place can exist only in the imagination, corresponding to the real place but not quite the same. The attempt to reconstruct the old place in new lands in changed environments and settings results in recovering the semblance of the place without its sensuality. Arjun Appadurai’s distinction between territory as soil, the ground of emotional attachment, and territory as a civil arrangement shows how post-Westphalian nations can exist without territorial sovereignty. BhangraNation proves that the nation can exist outside the territory but not the soil.
In the process of engaging with the variety of subject positions it unfolds, punjabiyat is transformed. The Punjabi identity constructed in relation to Bhangra disengages ethnicity from nation and religion and returns it to language, region, culture, and the body. Unlike Sikh nationalism, which mobilized religion and language to appropriate punjabiyat for sikhi, BhangraNation manipulates primordial ties attached to the bioregion, biology and everyday conduct and rituals in reaffirming an inclusive punjabiyat. The realignment of the ethnocultural identity along these lines might be disjunctive with allegiance to national or sacral solidarities unless the new imagining of community can accommodate contradictory multiple narratives of the self. The recall of the Punjabi ethnospatial place in Bhangra texts can produce a new nonessentialising imagining of punjabiyat, which enables multiple tenancies of language, religion, caste, gender and location.

(Anjali Roy is Professor, Humanities & Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur)

Sunday, July 1

Sikh community takes note of caste based Gurdwaras

The Sikh community has been forced to acknowledge existence of caste-discrimination with the Sikh clergy speaking against Gurdwaras on the basis of caste, reports Jatinder Preet in The Sunday Guardian.
Five Singh Sahibs, together constituting a Sikh equivalent of clergy, passed a resolution last week to this effect. In a strongly worded directive they said: “A gurdwara is a place of reverence, a place where anyone, irrespective of caste, colour, creed or religion, could pay obeisance. Hence, the management committees of all shrines are directed to ensure that there is no form of discrimination or restriction on the entry of devotees.” The meeting presided by Giani Gurbachan Singh, Jathedar of Akal Takhat Sahib took note of numerous complaints from Sikh community worldwide requesting action on Gurdwara’s serving to people of specific castes. Giani Gurbachan Singh said that the foundation of Sikh religion was laid to counter the caste system which was prevalent amongst Hindus, however ignorant people have failed to recognize the ills of the caste system and have started practicing it as a part of the Sikh religion.
While the Sikh clergy’s directive showed the community has acknowledged the existence of “caste-based” gurdwaras, at last, it also brought to fore the fact that caste-system has taken roots in Sikhism too. This is ironic for the community that takes pride on its origin as a caste-less religion. As a commentator on Dalit issues Bhupinder points out “The Sikh gurus’ attack on casteism, though admirable by medieval standards, did not go far enough, and was a far cry from modern sensitivities towards caste.” Not surprisingly Sikhs, mandated to identify themselves only with common surnames Singh and Kaur, still classify themselves according to their castes. While Sikhs in Punjab constitute about 63% of the population, about 31% of the state population is classified as Dalits.
Noted scholar Harish K Puri concurs that Sikhism did not lead to the creation of an egalitarian community or end of caste hierarchy and discrimination. It only led to a change in the caste pattern leading to the construction of a Sikh caste hierarchy, parallel to that of the Hindu caste hierarchy.
This explains the Sikh clergy taking note of what has come to be known as labels like Jattan da gurdwara or Mazbhi Singhaan da gurdwara. Dr SS Jodhka, a sociologist from Jawahar Lal Nehru University conducted a study in in 2001-2002 in 51 villages of Punjab. 41 of the surveyed villages had separate gurdwaras for dalit Sikhs and nearly two-thirds of the villages had separate cremation grounds for upper castes and dalits. In a similar survey of 116 villages in one sub-division of Amritsar districts Dr Puri found 68 villages had separate gurdwaras of the dalits and there were separate cremation grounds for Dalits in 72 villages.
According to Dr Puri, the large scale construction of separate gurdwaras by the Mazhabis, Ravidasias Kabirpanthis and other caste groups is a significant marker of the resistance against a sense of discrimination among the scheduled caste Sikhs.

Wednesday, June 6

June, 1984

"Sikhs being rounded up by the Indian Army, after they had taken control of Amritsar and Punjab from the administration, in a measure to deal with Sikh extremists," says the caption by Magnum Photos. © Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

Tuesday, June 5

A Community Led by Dunces

From the veneration of Bhindranwale to the denial of divorce, Sikhs are being led by men who have no right to speak on their behalf, writes Hartosh Singh Bal in Open
The problem with religious orthodoxy in our times is that it is mainly manned (and the emphasis on gender is deliberate) by those most opposed to modernity. Men who believe that the truth has already been revealed in a manner that allows for no argument also tend to believe that history can be read only in one way. It almost goes without saying that they believe they have the exclusive right to decide what the proper reading of history is.
On 20 May, karseva (voluntary work) for the construction of a memorial to the victims of Operation Bluestar began at the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) Complex in Amritsar. The memorial is overdue—many of the victims were ordinary people, caught in the wrong place in an ill-timed and ill-thought-out operation. But not all those who died fall in the same category, and it is for this reason that the karseva and memorial is problematic.
The karseva was started by Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh and the head of the Damdami Taksal, Baba Harnam Singh Khalsa. For those who have forgotten Punjab’s recent history, the Damdami Taksal is the seminary once headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. For good measure, Ishar Singh, Bhindranwale’s son, also spoke on the occasion. No one will say this upfront but by its very nature, the memorial, whether we like it or not, will also be a tribute to Bhindranwale.
Our memory is short and events less than 30 years old seem as if they belong to the distant past. Many Indians outside Punjab need to be reminded that Bhindranwale was the man who necessitated Operation Bluestar in the first place. He was not alone to blame, this turn of events would not have been possible without considerable help from Indira Gandhi, who, irked by the Akali resistance to the Emergency, had propped him up to challenge the Akali hold over the Sikh orthodoxy. As she discovered, he was not a man so easily controlled and was soon enough acting on his own.
Bhindranwale was no thinker. He had no coherent position on any complex issue, but was willing to mouth the rhetoric that ensured the Akalis were afraid of losing their own constituency, and he was willing to do something the Akalis had never done, use violence to achieve political ends. His hitmen, such as Surinder Singh Sodhi, assassinated a number of people who earned his wrath. He had also dabbled in politics, openly supporting Congress candidates against the Akalis at one point and then trying to put up his own candidates for elections to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the Sikh body that controls all gurdwaras in Punjab, with little success.
This man, a terrorist who thought nothing of using violence to terrorise and kill his opponents, whether Sikhs or Hindus, a man who never enjoyed popular support within the Sikh community (despite the impression being sought to be conveyed today), was truly converted into a sant (holy man) by the stupidity of the Indian State. Whatever the facts and events that led to Bluestar, the lasting image the operation created was of a man who died defending the Harmandir Sahib against an attack by the Indian Army, in the company of hundreds of innocents. The truth about the man has since faded in the face of this last image, and it is this image that remains dangerous, it is this image that the memorial will seek to propagate.
It builds on something already visible in the Sikh community that outsiders find difficult to understand. In Punjab, Bhindranwale has re-emerged in the imagination of some young Sikhs as their counterpart to Che Guevara. Posters, T-shirts, and car stickers bearing his image do brisk business. Much as the Left has never really bothered with the truth of Che Guevara, a lunatic who enjoyed shooting his opponents in cold blood, for many young Sikhs in Punjab, Canada, the UK and US, Bhindranwale has emerged as a symbol of self-assertion, and they accept the iconography around his name without question, without an understanding of the absurdity that this often represents. Today, in west Delhi, it is possible to find Afghani Sikhs, who have been given a home in India after fleeing the Taliban’s oppression, wearing Bhindranwale T-shirts.
This kind of romantic idealisation, which does not care about facts and does not deal in truth, has always been evident among the young (and many of the Left), but the men who are seeking to make use of Bhindranwale’s image today are not young and romantic, they seek to use this image for their own ends. The Bluestar memorial is the result of an SGPC initiative, and no minister from the ruling Akali government was present when the karseva started. But that this is a pretence is evident only to those who know Punjab. The SGPC is controlled by the Akali Dal, and if there is a memorial being built, if there is a karseva underway, it is because this is what Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir want. Much as the Congress once thought it could surreptitiously control Bhindranwale, the Akalis now believe they can exercise a similar behind-the-scenes control over his image.
For almost a decade, the mainstream Akalis became irrelevant to the politics of Punjab thanks to Bhindranwale and other extremists who have laid claim to his image after his death. It was not because they lost popular support among Sikhs; even in the worst phase of violence in Punjab, the terrorists enjoyed little popular support. They did much the same as Bhindranwale did when he was alive. They claimed to be spokesmen of a community on the strength of the gun, which was used in equal measure against opponents within and outside the faith.
The Akalis are determined never to let the extremist fringe override the popular support they enjoy within the community, but they are doing so not by challenging the control extremists have over Sikh institutions but by ensuring that they have their own equivalent of these extremists in place in such institutions. As the Congress should now know, such men are not easily controlled when the time comes for them to make their bid for power.
Ironically, the Akali Dal under Sukhbir has attempted to reach out to communities largely seen as outside the party’s traditional sphere of influence, such as urban Hindus and Dalits who are not Sikhs, and this was one of the factors that saw it re-elected earlier this year. This leads us to the current paradox: while the party that represents the voice of the community’s majority has opted for a more inclusive and open Punjab, it has also ensured that the community itself is short-changed. The Sikh orthodoxy and its institutions represent the worst aspects of the community, close-minded and bigoted, a parallel to the hardline mullahs of Islam. And this is reflected across the globe in the Khalistanis who are often seen to speak for the community across Canada, the UK and US, even when they cannot win a contest in their own gurdwara.
The impact of such thinking is visible in many ways. Two years ago, the BBC aired a documentary by one of its then news presenters, Sonia Deol. It was titled 1984: A Sikh Story. It attracted 1.3 million viewers, but the media focus was on the few who felt affronted. They became spokespersons for all Sikhs. Consider some of the objections. Someone called Sadhu Singh, chairman of the Council of Sikh Temples, was quoted as saying that people were angered because the BBC showed Bhindranwale looking like Bin Laden: “They used pictures of him wearing a turban and holding a gun. To someone who doesn’t know what Sikhism is about, it would be very misleading.” It is another matter that Bhindranwale revelled in getting himself so photographed. He also said, “Some people are very upset that the documentary also showed Sonia Deol dancing with Hindus as if there is no problem between Hindus and Sikhs.” This is in 2010, when there is no such problem in Punjab but somehow there is in the UK.
The hold that the most regressive in the community have over the orthodoxy plays out in ways that affect others of the faith. On 22 May, the Lok Sabha passed the Anand Marriage Act, which allows Sikhs to register marriages under the Anand Marriage Act instead of the Hindu Marriage Act, which for many of the faithful has the symbolic value of reinforcing a Sikh identity. What the media in Delhi did not do was report in detail the nature of the debate that had taken place in the orthodoxy before this Act was passed and how removed it is from the views of the community in general. This is in keeping with how the mainstream media, whether here or in the UK or US, represents minority issues, letting the orthodoxy speak for the community.
A few days before the Act was to come up in Parliament, it was pointed out that the Act fails to even mention the word ‘divorce’. It is worth quoting what the orthodoxy felt:
“It is not appropriate to resort to divorce in Sikhism and therefore it has not been included in the Bill”—Avtar Singh Makkar, SGPC chief
“The Anand Karaj takes place in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. So it is imperative for an individual to uphold his/her marital ties all his/her life”—Giani Gurbachan Singh, Akal Takht Jathedar
“As divorce is not in consonance with religious sentiments of Sikhs, the Bill doesn’t talk about it”—former Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University SP Singh
While divorce will be possible by taking recourse to the Hindu Marriage Act, the comments on this issue sum up the kind of people, whether from the clergy or universities, who have come to speak for Sikhs in general. Left to these people, if the escape clause of using the Hindu Marriage Act did not allow divorce, people getting married under the Anand Karaj Act would never be allowed this possibility. By denying the option of divorce, the Act takes no position on the kind of compensation and maintenance a woman deserted by her husband is entitled to. This is being done in a community where violence against women is widespread. It is in keeping with the fact that women have been systematically kept away from any role in Sikh institutions. It is no surprise that no woman seems party to this debate over divorce.
From the resurgence of Bhindranwale to the denial of divorce, the voices that represent Sikhs do not speak for them. They represent the most regressive impulses of the community, and in ordinary settings, they would not be able to speak for a roomful of Sikhs, leave alone the entire community. They owe their position to people such as the Badals who hope to use them when necessary, but as the past has shown, such men are not amenable to control. The quality of leadership matters. If we have to draw any lesson from Bluestar, it is that tragedy awaits a community that makes space for people such as Bhindranwale and a nation that reposes faith in politicians like Indira Gandhi even after the Emergency.

Monday, May 28

Rediscovering Heritage

The eastern facade of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi. It has frescoes of guardian figures that Dr Nadhra Shahbaz Naeem Khan from Lahore University of Management found after scraping thick layers of whitewash. They have since been covered with more layers and lost again. Dr Khan’s PhD dissertation was a study of the ornamental program of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Samadhi in Lahore. This led her to study other Sikh monuments in Punjab. In the process, she has built an impressive photographic archive documenting some endangered sites. Most of the monuments lie dilapidated, on the verge of being erased from history. (Hosh Media)

Monday, April 30

Without Prejudice

Long after Bhindranwale raised the bogey of discrimination against Sikhs in the army, and it was demolished by our most distinguished Sikh soldiers, we did hear it raised again but a PIL tried to revive fears long buried by giving communal twist to naming of next Army chief until the apex court threw it out, writes Shekhar Gupta in his regular column National Interest in The Indian Express
By 1983-84, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had perfected his sharp narrative of discrimination against the Sikhs. A key element was the “Indian” (read Hindu) lack of gratitude for the sacrifices the Sikhs had made for them in the battlefield. The “evidence” was a “well laid out” conspiracy to ensure no Sikh ever rose to be the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) even though the Indian Army “couldn’t last a day in a war without its Sikhs”. He had his homework done. Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora liberated Bangladesh for us, but was not made the chief. Major General Shabeg Singh raised and trained the Mukti Bahini but, rather than being sent even a little thank-you note, was victimised “only because he was a Sikh”. So Shabeg Singh now sat at his feet in the Akal Takht, the supreme religious and temporal seat of Sikhism that Bhindranwale had made his home in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, raising and training his army of the faithful.
Bhindranwale shared the common weakness of great polemicists: of beginning to unquestioningly believe their own mythologies. So when the first army units arrived on that June afternoon in 1984, marking the launch of Operation Bluestar, he was calm in what was to be his last supper of sorts with his fighters, and some reporters, including this one.
“Keep your cool (Thanda damaag rakho),” he said, “we will win, but we have to be mentally prepared to fight Russian commandos.”
“Why Russian commandos?” many surprised voices asked the same question.
“Because Sikhs of the Indian Army will never agree to fight us, the topi-walas (his favourite pejorative for Hindus) are incapable of fighting. So what will bibi (Indira Gandhi) do except ask her Russian friends for help?” he said.
The scenario that unfolded later that evening was a little bit different. Of course, there were no Russian commandos. Operation Bluestar was led by two of the army’s finest Sikh generals: Major General Kuldip Singh “Bulbul” Brar, GOC of
9 Infantry Div that did the bulk of the fighting, and the legendary Lieutenant General Ranjit Singh Dayal, chief of staff at Western Command (under Sundarji) who planned the operation with great care so as to minimise the damage. Does the name ring a bell? He was the lion of Hajipir Pass who, as a Major with 1 Para, took from Pakistan what is often described as Kashmir’s Golan Heights, in an impossible operation on a freezing, squally night, and won a Maha Vir Chakra. A little note of regret and apology, which is institutional as well as personal, is in order here: Dayal, after spending nearly a quarter century in relative anonymity imposed on all the key figures involved in Bluestar, passed away unsung on January 29 this year. Nobody seemed to have remembered to even write a footnote to the fading away of one of the greatest Indian soldiers ever. Apology and regret, because this newspaper and this writer too missed his departure until strategic expert and former navy officer Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar mentioned it to me. The newspaper finally wrote him a small tribute on February 21 (‘India-Pak war: The man who captured the Hajipir Pass’). But it was late, and not enough.
In the early 1980s, someone as formidable as Bhindranwale raised the bogey of discrimination against Sikhs in the army, and it was demolished by our most distinguished Sikh soldiers. You haven’t heard it raised again since then, not at least in our public debate and, in January 2005, when General J.J. Singh rose to be India’s first “Sikh” army chief, it was a proud moment for all of us. That is why a PIL filed by a group of prominent citizens against the elevation of the next chief, Lieutenant General Bikram Singh, needs close reading. And even though it has been dismissed by a wonderfully liberal and wise Supreme Court within hours, we need to discuss and debate it. And worry about it.
Because the central premise of the PIL is not the alleged fake encounter etc, that Bikram Singh was said to be involved in. It is, most shockingly, that his elevation was somehow plotted and preordained through a Sikh conspiracy at the very top, starting with General J.J. Singh. As government lawyers underlined in the SC, while dismissing it as a “communal sideshow”, it mentions such utterly communalist slurs as “langar talk”, “orders from above”, insinuates involvement of the “Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)” etc. Please do read the full text of the PIL ( d96ueo6), specially paras 2.10, 2.11-2.25, 2.36, 2.37, and it may embarrass you as a modern, patriotic Indian.
Because when was the last time such communal or caste colour was given to a top appointment anywhere, least of all in the army, in a legal challenge at the highest level? And this one was signed by a group of highly respected and accomplished retired leaders from the forces, civil service and the media. This needs to be underlined and debated because the issue is not whether Bikram Singh is or isn’t the most competent general to lead the army. Maybe there are smarter generals who did not make it. But can his being a “Sikh” general be a problem? Or, even an issue of debate?
Think. India’s Sikhs did not let it become an issue in the traumatic 1983-84 when they were being incited by someone as persuasive as Bhindranwale. Just how smart do we sound now, making a reverse communal slur on what is, after all, one of our tiniest minorities, a minority of a mere 1.5 per cent? Surely, there is always gossip and talk, whether at a langar or in a mess, or a club — although the nasty reference to “langar talk” is particularly uncivil, given how central the “langar”, a common, spartan kitchen, is to the basic Sikh spiritual tenet of social equality and egalitarianism. There is gossip and talk and whispers in the corridor whenever a so-called Kayasth or Kashmiri Brahmin, or Allahabad University, or Stephanian, or Tambrahm, or Nair “mafia” comes to dominate the top bureaucracy. It is just gossip and talk. Has anybody been so mindless as to challenge a cabinet secretary’s appointment, calling it a communal, caste, or alumni conspiracy?
Let us avoid cliches like Sikhs are our “most patriotic” minority. That suggests somehow as if others are any less. In the India of 2012, the patriotism of any law-abiding Indian is never to be questioned. You can say they are as patriotic as any, but if you have Sikh friends, as all of us do, you’d know one thing about them: they wear their “minority” status most lightly. It may be their confidence, self-assurance, or maybe just the belief in Guru Gobind Singh’s invocation of the principle of one Sikh being as good as “sawa lakh” (1.25 lakh) others that you rarely find a Sikh talking like a victim. That, probably, is also the reason why the community has forgotten 15 years of terror and violence, and forgiven us, the rest of the 98.5 per cent, particularly the residents of Delhi, for the massacres of 1984 that put Gujarat of 2002 in shade, and moved on. And we are now being asked to run howling and squealing to SC because “another” Sikh is becoming our army chief? For decades now, the stereotypical Indian hockey player or soldier is a Sikh. Should anybody have a problem if the Indian Army is about to get only its second Sikh chief of the 26 in 65 years? We have proudly celebrated having Christians and Parsis on this illustrious list. In fact, the one regret should be that we haven’t had a Muslim there as yet. But it will happen, if you look at the number of brilliant Muslim officers rising to the top echelons now. And when that box is checked, let’s hope nobody would go rushing to SC, insinuating communal conspiracies.
Back to that PIL. Broadly, it says that on becoming the chief, General J.J. Singh set in motion a deep plot to ensure that only Bikram Singh, a Sikh, would succeed General V.K. Singh. He did so by “eliminating” many others “unfairly”, and also opening the issue of V.K. Singh’s date of birth so he will retire early enough for Bikram Singh to succeed him. This, accordingly to the petitioners, was called “Operation Moses”, though you might legitimately ask why such a devout Sikh “conspiracy” had to find its inspiration from the Bible. More important is how, the PIL says, the “plan” was taken to its logical conclusion even after J.J. Singh had retired and was in no position to influence things. This was done because of “orders from above”, says the PIL. It states that while Defence Minister A.K. Antony was “sympathetic” to V.K. Singh, he maintained that “his hands were tied” (exactly who did Antony say this to?) and that “the predetermined line of succession had to be maintained at all costs”. Then it goes on to say that “orders from above virtually gave the bureaucrats in MoD licence to flex muscle....”
Now, what is this “orders from above” business? Let us stop pussyfooting around this. Also, because there’s been plenty of vicious whispering on this in the preceding months during which, as Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati rightly told the SC, the army “has been through a lot.” You can call Dr Manmohan Singh anything you want. You can even choose your favourite abuse because he is, after all, in public life, and at the very top. Or you can call him weak, silent, apolitical, whatever. But there are things you can never call him: corrupt, lacking in intellect, unpatriotic and most, most certainly you can never call him communal. That is why India owes the Supreme Court a debt of gratitude, for not dignifying this with any further discussion or argument. And that is why we need to read, discuss and debate what brought us to such an unfortunate pass.