Who can be a Sikh?

The Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) is the body which manages the religious institutions of the Sikhs in India. In March 2016, the Rajya Sabha passed the controversial Sikh Gurudwaras Act (Amendment) Bill which sought to bring changes in the Gurudwaras Act 1925. This amendment sought to disenfranchise Sehajdhari Sikhs from participating/voting in the SGPC elections. The Bill has now been passed by the Lok Sabha in the form of Sikh Gurdwaras (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The Centre is of the view that since only those who are qualified can stand in elections, similarly only those who are qualified can vote in those elections.

These developments have opened the debate on the existence and practice of multiple Sikh identities and the move towards defining an ‘authentic’ Sikh identity and body. This development should be seen in the light of the state’s attempt at rigid and narrow definitions, which can easily categorize and slot populations. While the facade of the Bill seeks to lend immediate legitimacy to who can contest and vote in SGPC elections, the implications and ramifications of its provisions are far more damaging. This Bill seeks to define who is and is not a ‘Sikh’. The provisions in the bill seek to widen the gap between multiple identities and pit them in opposition to each other: the Keshdharis v/s the Sehajdharis and/or the Singhs in opposition to every other Sikh. Keshdhari Sikhs follow the Five Ks said to be laid down by Guru Gobind Singh, namely kesh (unshorn hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (dagger or sword), kadha (bracelet) and kaccha (breeches). Amritdhari Sikhs are those who follow these injunctions and have been baptized through the amrit ceremony. They are also referred to as the ‘Khalsa’ and also use the moniker ‘Singh’, one who is imbued with lion-like qualities. Sehajdhari Sikhs on the other hand are considered to be born in non-Sikh families, do not necessarily follow all the injunctions and are considered ‘slow adopters’ of the religion. This raises another pertinent point that the question of defining who constitute ‘Sehajdhari’ Sikhs is contentious. The Keshdhari v/s Sahejdhari debate is a product of the dominant Jat caste’s hegemony over religion and politics in Punjab. The Jats were one of the first ones to be baptized by Guru Gobind Singh. Ravinder Kaur, in her essay on the Jat Sikhs in Punjab has pointed out that the Jats (land-owning elites), the dominant caste group in Punjab, became the exemplar normative Sikh. There were many other groups that followed the injunctions but were not necessarily baptized, and there were also the Sahejdhari’s, who were born in mixed families, or were from Hindu families but brought up as Sikhs (there was a prevalent practice among many Punjabi Hindu families to bring up at least one of their sons as a Sikh). Inserting themselves in this debate is also the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Punjab has gone to the extent of using this as an opportunity to bring the Sehajdhari Sikhs ‘back’ into the fold of Hinduism, in many ways suggesting that this ‘Ghar Wapsi’ is the only way for them to gain respect and start living as Hindus again. This has obviously been rejected by Sehajdhari Sikhs, who see this as an attempt to weaken their protests against the homogenisation and essentialization of Amritdhari/Khalsa/Singh Sikhs as ‘authentic’ Sikhs.

The broad consensus is that Sehajdhari Sikhs believed in Guru Nanak but did not adopt the Khalsa principles, and the construction of their identities was less rigid or bound by the Khalsa norms, such as not keeping their hair uncut, wearing the turban, or other outward visible signifiers which would mark them as Sikhs.

This move, to alienate a group of people who do not conform to the hegemonic template of who is a Sikh, is deeply enmeshed in the project of constructing an ideal, normative Sikh, defined by the dominant groups from within the community, wielding religious and political power, through a certain reading and interpretation of scriptures, and more recently, through religious jurisprudence. Conjunctively, the politics of the production of normative identities through the apparatuses of the state and religion is closely associated with the production of hegemonic masculinity among the Sikhs.

Harjot Oberoi in The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, has argued that the history of the Sikh tradition must be studied again because scholars have written as if the kind of Sikhism that is currently dominant is the only kind that has ever existed. Sikh beliefs and practices seem to take the Khalsa as the standard without bothering about other forms of Sikhism that did and do exist. He in fact goes on to suggest that there were considerable efforts in the late nineteenth century to create a narrow religion as “Sikhizing the Sikhs”.

There has been a privileging of Khalsa identity as the Sikh identity, thereby making the Khalsa Singh identity as the dominant and often hegemonic representation of Sikhism. This emphasis on the Khalsa Sikh identity also leads to the effacing of other subordinate identities within the community, which are not considered the ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ forms of Sikhism. Dominance within the Sikh panth then can be seen in the form of projecting the Khalsa identity as the normative male identity imbued with a martial masculinity. This is visible from the order of following the Five Ks, the rahitnamas and the Singh Sabha and Tat Khalsa’s move towards projecting an ‘authentic’ Sikh identity, which sought to define and authorize the meaning and being of a ‘Sikh’. Ironically the diversity in the panth however is visible from the marginal discourse of Sahejdhari’s, Udasis, Namdharis, Nirankaris, Nanakpanthis and other groups which were seen in opposition to the Khalsa identity, and hence as non-normative.

Oberoi has called it the “Tat Khalsa episteme”, which eventually came to be associated with the standard Sikh identity. He points out that Tat Khalsa in fact structured the modern Sikh community. In the Guru phase the category, Sikh, was still relatively flexible, and empty without signifiers. It required a historical intervention to imbue it with signs, icons and narratives. In the early decades of the twentieth century it was made fairly rigid. Hence in this period, the label Sikh denoted a particular section of population but did not possess any meaning at the connotative level.

Following the injunctions laid down by Guru Gobind Singh in by the end of the 18th century, the number of Singhs increased tremendously. It is generally believed that on the day of Baisakhi in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh instructed the first five who he initiated to adopt the Five Ks or panj kakke. These were five symbols, which became requisite for Sikhs. These were kesh (unshorn hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (iron/steel bangle) and kaccha (breeches). While the turban is not mentioned in the Five Ks, the turban came to assume significant importance in the lives of male Khalsa Sikhs. More importantly, the external appearance of baptized Sikhs made them readily identifiable and distinguishable from others and also helped in establishing a distinct religious identity. But they did not represent the entire Sikh panth.

During the Colonial period, Sikh reform movements like the Singh Sabha and the Akali movement took away the fluidity of the Sikh identity which was not as essentialized or ritualized around a particular religious custom. A new version of what meant to be Sikh was established. In his seminal work, Loins of Punjab, Richard Fox also mentions that there was no single distinct Sikh religious community even in the late 19th century. In fact the Census Report of 1891 reveals that very few people had the outward markers of what could be seen as practitioners of Sikh religion, and furthermore not everyone followed the codes of discipline. Georgio Shani in Sikh Nationalism and Identity in a Global Age goes on the argue that, “Sikhism today may be seen to have a hegemonic Keshdhari cultural framework… a result of the Singh Sabhites’ strategic and ideological elucidation of a Tat Khalsa discourse which negated a large terrain of Sikh belief and practice”.

It is significant to note that there were many who had not been baptized but continued to consider themselves as Sikh. Jeevan Deol in his essay “Eighteenth Khalsa Identity: Discourse, Praxis and Narrative in Sikh Religion, Culture and Ethnicity” points out that while every Sikh might not have been a Singh, however Singhs became dominant in the community. This completely effaced the diversity and ideological differences within the panth. There was a fundamental difference between the Singhs and Sehajdharis. The Singhs believed in the Guruship from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh and the end of personal Guruship after Guru Gobind Singh. The Sehajdhari Sikhs on the other hand, regarded Guru Nanak as their founder and respected the successive Gurus. They also adopted distinct Sikh rituals for birth, death and marriage. However they did not insist on baptism by the double-edged sword.

Contemporary Sikhism owes its current formation to a group of political activists and intellectuals known as the Tat Khalsa. They were driven towards actively disassociating Sikhs from other religions, especially Hinduism, and to carve a separate Sikh identity. Oberoi has also argued that The Tat Khalsa also formed the genesis of what we now know as the Akalis or members of the Shiromani Akali Dal political party. The Akalis have been instrumental in getting this Bill passed in both the Houses. At present the Akali Dal controls majority of the votes in SGPC.

It would be useful to think of the construction of Sikh identity through the prism of hegemonic masculinity that has occupied a dominant site in Sikhism. Khalsa identity became hegemonic, because it was posited as ideal, and also had religious institutional backing from the Tat Khalsa, Singh Sabha, and the SGPC. With a dominant position of these institutions in Punjabi society, their interests converged, to uphold Khalsa identity as the normative identity and also legitimize it by lending their authority to it. In the Weberian sense, the Sikh Rahit Maryada code seems to provide rational-legal authority, ensuring that Sikhs obey its authority. Of course a point of contention could be that do all Sikhs follow the code strictly and in entirety at all times? Additionally, the social construction of Khalsa identity as hegemonic, subordinated the diversity within the panth, and groups such as the Nirankaris, Namdharis and Udasis, to name a new. Precisely because they do not wield the same authority and do not have institutional backing, they are made to assume a subordinate position.

The emphasis placed on projecting the ‘correct’ and ‘authentic’ representation of Sikhs, as essentially Khalsa and embodied in the Keshdhari Sikh, has also seen the community. The spokespersons of the community such as the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC)5, see any creative interpretation as a potential threat to the image of Sikhs. For instance in 2008, the Hindi film Singh is King, courted controversy when the protagonist of the film was projected as a Sehajdhari Singh, and therefore patit or a non-follower and as a Sikh who has trimmed his beard. Additionally, in some quarters the style of the turban was also seen as problematic. The SGPC went to the extent of urging the producers of the film to change the script and re-shoot the scenes that were found unacceptable. It was only after the producers re-shot some of the ‘unacceptable scenes’ that the SGPC was placated. If the Sikh Khalsa identity is so sacred, natural and stable, why does the SGPC feel that it needs to be protected from perceived ‘threats’? Significantly this throws light on how hegemonic identities are also unstable in the sense that they need to be continuously worked upon, and perhaps this process is never entirely complete. Hegemonic identities are then like an illusion, they seem to be secure and constant in opposition to the ‘other’ which is considered split and subordinate. Hence we must question the ‘natural’ element of these identities, and map out the power relations on the basis of which they continue to dominate.

The assertion of Khalsa Sikhs as the dominant image of the community, also made it possible for other ‘marginal’ Sikh identities to exist, and be accepted and regarded as ‘non-Khalsa’. We must disrupt this discourse of linearity, which has discouraged any investigation into the formation of Sikh identity. Pashaura Singh and Louis E Fenech in The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies note that this hegemonic image of the Sikh identity, reproduced on the internet, in the Sikh organizations and in the consciousness of the community, squarely defines Sikh identity within the boundaries of the Sikh Rahit Maryada, the Khalsa code as well as the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. Hence the dominant narrative, which requires others to conform to it, seems to flatten differences, conflicts and contestations in the formation of this identity, and the competing groups within Sikhism. The need perhaps is to question conventional hegemonic interpretations of social history and social identity, and find newer ways of seeing, knowing and interpreting. We need to challenge religious and political forces which are seeking to define identities in narrow terms, under neat categories, for the purposes of ‘efficient’ governance and disciplining the bodies of citizens. The current development only seeks to consolidate the dominant consensus on ‘Who is a Sikh?’ and exemplar Sikh masculinity, through political institutionalization and essentialization of Sikhs as a category.





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Aakriti Kohli Written by:

Aakriti Kohli is Assistant Professor of Journalism at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce of University of Delhi

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