Winter is coming: why Sikhs need to prepare for the imminent storm
Sikhs in the diaspora have to get ready

by Sunny H
20th May 2018

Winter is coming, Jon Snow frequently warned in Game of Thrones. I feel a bit like that sometimes.

Sikhs are a small global community, closely connected to each other through blood, tradition, history and, of course, the internet. And so I want to say that 'winter is coming'.

The global Sikh community is about to face new challenges and we need to prepare for them.

A few weeks ago I was invited by the World Sikh Organization (WSO) of Canada to speak with others on how we could challenge the negative media coverage Canadian Sikhs had been receiving. But the challenges that Sikhs now face are global, not just in Canada.

I don’t look like a Sikh, nor do I claim to be an expert on Sikhi.

In fact my knowledge of Sikhi is terrible. But I am a keen observer of politics. So I’m offering my views as neither a 'Sikh leader' nor with aspirations to be one. I am offering these warnings, suggestions and ideas for debate.

The first storm: tensions between Sikhs and the Indian government will grow again

India's BJP government knows the power of the diaspora.

They knew it in 2002 when UK groups were exposed as sending money to fund hate. They learned more in 2003 when American charities helping the BJP were investigated. They saw its power when the diaspora lobbied to ban Narendra Modi from entering the UK and USA. They knew its power when they tapped British and American Gujaratis for money and for the 2014 elections.

So Narendra Modi knows that a clash with Sikhs abroad is inevitable.

The Sikh diaspora, unafraid of the Indian government, will keep demanding justice for 1984 and highlight human rights violations. To neutralise such accusations the PM of India has repeatedly accused Sikhs of funding terrorism without proof (in 2015 and 2018, in UK and Canada). This clash won't just continue but is likely to grow as the Sikh diaspora matures and becomes more powerful (as I wrote a few months ago).

Modi also knows a clash with Sikhs in India is inevitable.

The party has already whipped up hate against Muslims (in UP, Bihar, Karnataka), and Dalits and Christians for elections.

Why should they spare Sikhs? They want to win elections in Punjab too.

I know it sounds a little bit paranoid, except their script is already playing out in public: The BJP line is that Khalistani terrorists are targeting Hindus and being funded by Pakistan and Sikhs abroad. The evidence doesn't exist. But the narrative splits Sikhs and makes Hindus rally to the party. The Congress reaction in Punjab has been to look tougher by promising a bigger crackdown on Khalistanis. The over-blown case around Jagtar Singh Johal looks like a prime example of this strategy.

While the British media largely ignored India's silly claims, but the Canadian media did not. This effort by the Indian government is only going to intensify, and its aim will be to split the Sikh community.

Why is this suddenly a bigger issue now? Because Modi's right-wing government is ruthless and its RSS arm has long wanted to absorb Sikhi in its fold.

And because Canadian and British Sikhs have been thrust into the political limelight since 2015.

The second storm: More hostility and tension in the west

Canadian Sikhs are also facing increasing hostility (example 1, example 2) because of this new limelight.

Sikhs are a much larger proportion of the Canadian population (500k out of 30 million) than in the UK (500k out of 65m) or the United States (700k out of 325m). And they are concentrated in certain cities in Canada, so they are more influential during elections.

Every minority group including Catholics and Jews has faced similar treatment in the past, so Sikhs are not alone in that. American Muslims are going through those pains right now. So we have to be prepared for it.

But there are added complications for Sikhs, just like Muslims face.

First, Some leftists and liberals think Sikhs threaten secularism because they are visibly religious (unlike Catholics and Jews). This is a European - attitude prominent in France and Quebec. It's also why Jagmeet Singh faced some hostility in Quebec. Its an attitude Britain could also develop over time as most people drift away from religion.

Secondly, the British and Canadian media have an inbuilt aversion to any political movement that talks about 'separatism' (because of Scotland and Quebec) - which is what Khalistan sounds like to them. If they equate Sikh political activism with demanding Khalistan they will naturally be hostile to it.

Think I'm exaggerating? The recent Canadian media coverage has led to protests like this below. Expect these people to grow.

So how should Sikhs respond? Here are some of my suggestions, in brief.

1. Sikhs need infrastructure

Canadian Sikhs are not complacent. They have faced a suspicious media for years so they have advocacy groups such as the World Sikh Organization. The WSO talks the language of human rights and they have been building strong links with other communities for years. The Sikh Coalition in the US has been doing the same.

In contrast, British Sikh groups aren't as well mobilised, connected or resourced. The Sikh Press Association is one attempt at changing that (which I support), but British Sikhs are nowhere near ready for what is coming.

Sikhs don’t need more Gurdwaras, they need think-tanks, advocacy groups, research organisations. They need Political Action Committees. The coming challenges we face cannot be overcome with guns or praying, but through our brains.

We need to build an infrastructure that is democratic, transparent and accountable. We need to build institutions that can last, institutions that are representative of the gender and cultural diversity of our communities. We need organisations that will create the leaders of tomorrow. Every other significantly-sized minority community in Britain has such organisations. Except Sikhs. This has to change.

2. Sikhs need to get much better at internal disagreement

I understand why many Sikhs worry about the Indian government. But this has also had a destructive impact on internal debate.

A community that cannot have a vigorous and healthy disagreement becomes oppressive. It becomes stale and decayed. Sikhs cannot go down that path.

A Sikh community that allows disagreement is more unified than one where different views are suppressed. It sounds paradoxical but its true. We are a global community spread out all over the world and we come into contact with different ideas, cultures and people. Maintaining cohesion in coming generations won't be easy. It can only be done by accepting different views rather than trying to drive them out. (I'm not arguing for allowing alcohol and meat at Gurdwaras!).

What do I mean by this?

I mean theological differences should not lead to someone's turban being knocked off at a Gurdwara. It should not mean that inter-faith marriages get disrupted by threats.

I also mean we should tolerate views we may disagree with or find offensive. Guru Tegh Bahadur gave up his life for the right of Hindus to practise their faith even if the Mughal emperor found them offensive. The ninth Guru stood up for free speech and freedom of religion, why can't we? Yet Sikhs protested a positive movie about Guru Nanak!

Sikhs really needs to develop a thicker skin. Barfi Culture was criticised just for publishing this story on how a disabled Sikh felt let down by Slough Gurdwara. Since then I've heard many more similar stories from other disabled Sikhs. Should their voices be silenced? Sikhs cannot have an healthy internal debate without a free exchange of views.

3. Sikhs have to better communicate with the outside world

It’s worth emphasising again how little the outside world knows about Sikhs. Changing this had become my brother Jagraj Singh’s mission. He made videos in Spanish, Chinese and other languages so people would hear what Sikhi was about in their language.

Sikhs have to do the same with English. And we have to get better at communicating that through the media. That doesn’t mean issuing more press releases, it means talking to people in a language they understand.

Politically, this means our language has to become universal: human rights not just Sikh rights. We have to stand with other minority groups when they are attacked. Build solidarity.

We also have to stop being hostile towards the western media and see it as a necessary channel of communication, even if we cannot control it. Some of the bad coverage Sikhs get could be improved merely through better media communication and less hostility.

I have no intention of becoming a media spokesperson for the Sikh community. I genuinely don't. I'm a firm believer that lots of Sikh voices should be represented in the mainstream, even if they disagree with each other.

But I do support Sikh politicisation. Our community has become too obsessed with money and success, rather than wielding our power and using our brains and knowledge for the good of the world.

Just before he fell deeply ill, Jagraj Singh said something important: "Guru Sahib has told us - where ever we are, take hold of power and change! For whom? Change not for our benefit but… working for the benefit of everyone. Giving food, giving justice to everyone. Sikhs are the ones who are willing to put their lives on the line to give other people freedom."

I believe its time we paid more attention to that goal.

Also, Sikh PA are holding an event on Sikh Politics on Tuesday 22nd May.

Opinion published on 20th May 2018 in the Politics section