Pulling up the roots of radicalism

In light of Punjab’s much changed socio-political landscape, it is time for sections of the Sikh diaspora to rethink their involvement in radical activism, argues Ramindar Singh

Since events in the Punjab during the 1980s, Sikh activism in various forms has been a cause for concern in India as well as in the Sikh diaspora. A 2017 research report* concluded that the impact of Sikh activism in Britain, sometimes called Sikh radicalisation, is limited to ‘Sikhs on Sikhs’ and poses no threat to the British state or the public in general, any more than minor timely law and order problems.

However, the alleged moral and financial support from some British Sikh organisations,openly and persistently committed to the Khalistan ideology, to their parent or associated groups in Punjab is a continuing concern for the Indian authorities.

Yet Sikh NRIs returning from their regular visits to Punjab confess that, in reality, the people there openly express their feelings of anger and frustration against these Khalistani voices in the Sikh diaspora. They give little credence to the rhetoric of those spinning fantasies of establishing a sovereign Sikh state in Punjab, the perceived traditional homeland of the Sikhs.

Today, Punjab is riddled with problems: widespread cancer, drug addiction, a high suicide rate, a scarcity of jobs and a poor standard of education, not to mention a diverse caste population, corrupt bureaucracy and politicians supported by criminal gangs who exploit scant state resources for their own self-interest. Punjabis are struggling with these serious issues and in meeting their everyday needs within an inflationary economy. This is the real contemporary Punjab, not the Punjab of the 1980s, with which most of the radical diaspora Sikhs are familiar.

To the people of Punjab, the present is always evident and a preferred option to an opaque, uncertain future. No wonder they vote at every election for the existing political structure and parties, however inadequate they may be, with fresh hopes that things will one day improve. This presents serious difficulties when it comes to getting a positive response from ordinary Sikhs to any alternative model of administration, and it is little surprise that pro-Khalistan candidates in Punjab elections repeatedly experience voters’ unwillingness to buy dreams and political rhetoric.

No one is questioning the authenticity of the links – historical, social, economic and religious – that diaspora Sikhs, Khalistani or otherwise,have with Punjab, or their desire to preserve them. By virtue of these links, people in Punjab welcome their generous financial contributions towards welfare and other charitable community projects, which create opportunities to develop a prosperous, fair and cohesive society. They acknowledge NRI Sikhs’ moral right to claim, preserve and further strengthen their Punjabi identity.

What they do question, however, is their entitlement to interfere in Punjab affairs. As those living in Punjab have different life priorities from diaspora Sikhs, they demand that the latter keep out of the region’s politics, refrain from preaching the notion of Sikh slavery in Hindu-dominated India, and leave them to concentrate on finding appropriate resolutions to their economic and political problems. It is a hard reality that NRI Sikhs have forfeited their right to participate in the democratic processes of Punjab, having settled abroad and adopted a foreign nationality, with no intention of permanent return. Therefore, one can appreciate the popular viewpoint in Punjab that the idea of a sovereign state for Sikhs in Punjab is merely a cherished dream – an act of self-indulgence, even – of radical Sikhs enjoying a secure and comfortable life abroad.

Even in Britain many Sikhs express serious concerns regarding their radical brethren’s protracted campaign for a separate state, and its likely impact on Sikhs in India and on the future of Sikhs in the western world. Any vision of establishing an independent Sikh state must relate to present-day Punjab, and nowhere else.  Yet those professing and promoting Khalistani views within the diaspora have failed to fully grasp the contemporary demographic, or the economic and political circumstances of the Punjab.

The proportion of Sikhs that make up the population of Punjab has been gradually declining over the last two to three decades due to low birth rates among Sikhs, their internal and external emigration, and a continuous inflow of non-Sikh, Hindi-speaking workers from other parts of India during the green revolution of the 1970s. Similar to the pockets of Sikhs heavily concentrated in certain areas of British industrial cities (all to of amiliar to diaspora Sikhs), colonies of non-Sikh migrants have swelled in large industrial centres of Punjab such as Ludhiana and Jullundur Punjab. The political implications of such religious and linguistic diversity are not difficult to guess. The emergence of various dairas and traditional sects such as Radhaswamis and Nirankaris within broad-church Sikhism has gripped the minds of the socially and economically deprived, and a kind of religious populism has gained strength. These groups feel alienated from the land-owning Jat Sikhs and urban-educated business and professional group, the so-called establishment and elite of Punjab that dominate the region’s economy and politics.

Furthermore, so far the political and religious leadership of the campaign for a separate Sikh homeland has been unable to produce a single concrete political model of a Sikh state for people to consider, examine and support. Moreover, the advocates of such a state are persistently involved in internal squabbling –this year’s August 12 rally of the Sikhs for Justice on Referendum 2020 in London is a classic example.

As a one-time Punjabi immigrant, now a British Sikh, I feel that we diaspora Sikhs are secure, prosperous and comfortable. We enjoy the full benefits of state welfare provisions, social and political equality, freedom of speech and the liberty to maintain our distinctive religious lifestyles. While we are gaining footholds in local economic and civic institutions, we still need to participate morefully and vigorously in the institutions of our adopted countries. Such involvement in local power bases is becoming increasingly urgent as anti-immigration and far right forces gain ground in most western European countries and political populism is rife. Today you hear slogans of ‘Islam-free Germany’ in Bavaria, and calls for ‘No burqas in public’. Who knows: it could be ‘No Sikh turbans here’ next.

Perhaps it is time to pause, contemplate and adjust our priorities. Our perpetual preoccupation with Indian, and particularly Punjabi, politics is only creating divisions within the diaspora and in India. We need to acknowledge that the essential economic, political and demographic ingredients needed to make the concept of an independent Sikh state in India, or in the Sikh diaspora,a reality are now here to be seen. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should ignore inequalities, atrocities and injustices wherever they occur in the world, including in Punjab and here in the UK. Being true Sikhs, in line with our religion’s basic teachings and in the name of peace and prosperity for all, we remain vigilant and ready to act appropriately, within our individual and collective means, to fight against these evils and work towards alleviating them.

Dr Ramindar Singh MBE is a former Director/Head of Contemporary Studies at Bradford College (UK), past Joint Deputy Chair of Commission for Racial Equality (UK) and author of The Future of UK Sikhs and Punjab to Bradford: The Life Stories of Punjabi Immigrants in Bradford

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