Saturday, July 6

Kashmiri Sikh, not a Punjabi

Religious identity and cultural identity are two different things and we need both to distinguish them from each other and to appreciate them, writes Komal JB Singh in the Viewpoint

Is every Sikh a Punjabi? Does every Sikh belong to Punjab? No. Every Sikh is not a Punjabi and every Punjabi is not a Sikh. These are questions I have to answer, clarify and justify every time someone new gets to know me. The dilemma is around regional identity and religion. Needless to say, most often Sikhs are considered Punjabis and vice versa. In the case of India, Punjab is a state in the North of India and people living there are called Punjabis. All of the major religious communities live in the Indian side of Punjab. During partition in 1947, most of the Punjabi speaking Muslim population migrated to the part of Punjab that is in Pakistan. Similarly Punjabi speaking Hindus migrated to the Indian side. Ideally anyone who speaks Punjabi and lives in Punjab is a Punjabi irrespective of the religious faith.
Pre-1947and post-1947 Punjab is a historically important region in Sikhism as it is its place of origin. Sikhism has flourished in this region. It is the same with all the religions in the world; they originate in one place and then get adopted by different regions and are colored by their native culture.
I am a Kashmiri Sikh woman by birth who studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I grew up like any other Kashmiri. Whenever I tell someone I am a Sikh, it is assumed that I am a Punjabi and like anyone really touchy about my region, I explain that being a Sikh has nothing to do with me being a Kashmiri. I have to explain that I am not from Punjab, that I don’t speak Punjabi or eat typical Punjabi food. I have never seen fields of mustard and corn as this is a usual inquiry. I only know of lush orchards of apples and pears, cherries, walnuts and huge chinar trees as a Kashmiri. I have met a lot of Sikhs like me who are judged because they don’t belong to Punjab or speak Punjabi.
The dilemma does not originate solely in the relationship between being Sikh and Punjabi but in being a Kashmiri. The general assumption is that if you are a Kashmiri looking person then you must be Muslim or perhaps Hindu. When I was growing up in Kashmir and studying in St. Joseph’s Baramulla, I never felt that my identity was unknown to the world outside the valley. I was very happy having some Sikh friends and many Muslim friends. However while studying in Aligarh Muslim University two years ago I became conscious of this fact. Most people assumed I was a Muslim because I identified myself with Kashmir. Although I was accepted as a Sikh woman, because most people think that “every Sikh is Punjabi”, questions became focused on me being Punjabi. I would love to be thought of as a Punjabi if I was a Punjabi. After all, who would not love to be associated with such an amazing culture? What upset me was that I was not judged by who I am.
It is often said that we are not conscious of things until they affect us seriously. The dilemma of needing to prove my identity all the time has led me to write this. Being identified as a Muslim by appearance and Punjabi by name has made me conscious of the need to reflect on this. Bearing a Sikh name we can be part of many different cultures. I don’t know how many other people like me face similar problems. It’s really tough to have to explain who you are all the time.
What hurts is the fact that the stereotypical image showcased by the media often means people do not take us seriously. Stereotypes and segregation based on religion needs to be condemned and stopped. It further divides this already cracked society of ours. Religious identity and cultural identity are two different things and we need both to distinguish them from each other and to appreciate them.
So from now on whenever you come across a Sikh, please don’t relate him to Punjab and assume s/he is Punjabi. It is better to ask him/her about him/her native place and its culture. As G.B Shaw once said “Beware of false knowledge; its more dangerous than ignorance.”

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