Defining Sikh identity
This year is the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. There will be many celebrations and functions in India, Pakistan and various parts of the world where Sikhs have settled in large numbers. But this column is about the Sikh identity. I am a proud Sikh, though not a practising one. I maintain my beard (trimmed), though not my long hair and turban. I am what is called a “mona” Sikh, or, in modern parlance, a “cut-Surd”. Yet, my non-Sikh friends still call me “Sardar”.
By Rahul Singh
My late father, Khushwant Singh, was also a non-practising Sikh, who rarely went to a gurdwara, considered himself an agnostic, but maintained his long hair, beard and turban. He had a deep attachment to these outward symbols, though he could not really explain why. He was convinced that if Sikhs gave them up, as they were doing in increasing numbers, the Sikh faith would die and become engulfed by Hinduism. He was hurt when I cut off my hair, as was my mother. However, he abhorred the fundamentalism of the likes of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Simranjit Singh Mann, just as he hated the Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism.
He also felt that the Sikh religion, as it was being practised nowadays, went against the tenets laid down by Guru Nanak. Foremost among those tenets was equality and the doing away of the Brahmanical-ordered caste system, including the repulsive practice of untouchability. The langar, whereby everybody, high and low, from any religion, was fed at gurdwaras, was symbolic of this egalitarianism. Unfortunately, the caste system has continued among the Sikhs, especially in the rural areas, where “Dalit Sikhs” are still denied entry into gurdwaras.
Some years ago, I appeared on a Barkha Dutt TV programme focusing on the Sikh identity. There were many turbaned Sikhs in the audience. When I pointed out the continued practice of untouchability among the Sikhs, there was an uproar. Later, I asked the audience, “How many of you know that Kanshi Ram (mentor of Mayawati) was a Sikh?” First, a stunned silence, and then another uproar, along with angry shouts of denial from the Sikhs, despite the fact that what I had just said was the reality. When I was coming out of the studio, some infuriated Sikhs threatened to beat me up, and Barkha had to call the police to escort me out!
Let me now turn to the equally contentious issue of different types of Sikhs and the attitude of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the so-called highest spiritual authority of the Sikhs (though it behaved in the most cowardly fashion when Bhindranwale was riding high), towards them.
Three years ago, the Gurdwara Act (1926) was amended to bar the Sehajdhari Sikhs (those, like me, who do not sport long hair and turbans) from voting in the SGPC elections. This was a shocking amendment which has not received the attention it deserves. Almost a decade ago, another regressive judgment was passed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court defining the Sikh identity. An SGPC-run medical institute denied admission to a Sikh student, Gurleen Kaur, because she had plucked her eyebrows and hence “was no longer a Sikh”. The HC agreed with the SGPC. That is fundamentalism at its virulent worst. The court may have twisted logic behind its judgment, but it certainly had no common sense.
Actually, the SGPC has another category, “Patit”, namely a person who is initiated into the Sikh faith but then violates its precepts. So, we have “Keshdhari” (those with long hair and beards), Sehajdhari and Patit Sikhs. There is another one — “Amritdhari” Sikhs, those who have been anointed in a special ceremony. Though the SGPC excludes Sehajdhari and Patit Sikhs from its elections, it is only too happy to get their donations!
So, do you blame Sikhs if they are confused about their identity? Also, no need to wonder why so many Sikhs, including cricketers like Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh, become devotees of “deras”. Organised Sikh religion had failed the Sikhs, from the lower castes or Dalits, so they turn to the deras.
Finally, numbers. Nowhere could I find a definitive figure of Sikhs worldwide. It varies from 18 million to 25 million. According to the 2011 census, there are 14 million Sikhs in Punjab, which is 60 per cent of the state’s population. According to the SGPC, only 5.5 million are Keshdhari, or “real” Sikhs. I would contest even this figure. How many of them trim their beards, or, regards women, pluck their eyebrows? I suspect many of them are not “real” Sikhs, going by the definition of the SGPC. In fact, by this definition, Sikhs are a minority in Punjab, not the majority!
Isn’t it about time the SGPC faced the reality and, instead of examining plucked eyebrows, tried to bring the Sikhs together, shorn and unshorn, into one vibrant, progressive community?
— The writer is a veteran journalist
Courtesy: The Tribune