21st May 2020   •   video
What does the Sikh community look like after Coronavirus? An interview

What does the Sikh community look like after the Coronavirus?

Gurdwaras, the langar (community kitchen), the nagar kirtan (street processions) and all community events involve a lot of people in one place. Many say such events won’t be allowed anytime soon. Maybe even until a vaccine is found. Will Gurdwaras have to change? What are Sikh leaders thinking about?

I spoke to Gurpreet Singh Anand, managing trustee at Central Gurdwara Khalsa Jatha, aka Shepherd’s Bush Gurdwara (London), the oldest and most iconic Gurdwara in Britain.

The full conversation was recorded last week over Zoom.

Mr Singh Anand talks about how Sikhs are keeping in touch with Gurdwaras through technology; how this is a time of transition and change for Sikh institutions; how Gurdwaras are planning to keep Sikhs safe in the future.

He also said he felt the UK government hadn’t consulted Sikhs with experience of running Gurdwaras in the guidelines they had drafted. Most importantly, his advice for Sikhs right now is to pray from home until it’s fully safe. “We don't want to lose more people,” he says quite firmly.

Below are only some excerpts from the full video interview above.


What have Sikhs been saying to you over the last few weeks?

“People have been very positive that although they've not been able to come to the Gurdwaras, and they've been at home they found it's actually, you know, helped them focus more on their Sikhi and bring them closer to the Guru. So people have been very active using Zoom as we are here. We've seen kirtan sessions going on Zoom, paath sessions going on on Zoom. So the community is very adaptive. We know how to adapt when we face situations, and that's been historical for us.”

When we spoke earlier the Gurdwara was already under threat from the local council. You said to me that even a small drop in takings would affect the financial situation of the Gurdwara. Are you worried about the status of Gurdwaras?

“I'm not worried. What this has allowed us to do is look at how we operate, where our Sangat is, and allowed the Sangat to give to the Gurdwara. So we've just changed how we operate. So the Gurdwara saab has implemented a very high tech live stream solution to allow us to stream 4k quality videos of a divan out and that's helped us actually bring out to Sangat that we've got globally. We're no longer operating within the confinement of four walls.”

Going forward, how are Gurdwaras going to change? The makeup of Gurdwaras have largely been around community events, around those four walls. Now you’re looking global. Will other Gurdwaras have to do the same? And do you think that’s going to change how Gurdwaras work?

“They would need to or they will be impacted because if they don't have Sangat coming in, obviously one of the main sources of funding for many Gurdwaras is their golak (collection box). And if that declines and they're unable to pay staff and unable to pay their bills, they will be impacted and will be under threat.”

What do you think about events such as nagar kirtans, or even doing langar. Are you looking to change how that works in the near future?

“Well, we have, at the moment made a change in that we are sending langar out to NHS workers to homeless hostels, to food banks and also to other community organisations, which are distributing langar around to the elderly and needy. We are taking Guru Nanakji’s message out and taking it into the wider diaspora, to the wider community and serving everyone around you. Doing sarbat da bhalla, and as a result, from what we've been doing, it's created awareness around the work of the Gurdwara, and we've been receiving donations from people but not even Sikh.

Have government officials been in touch with you about opening up the Gurdwara, or even closing down. What was the process in closing the Gurdwara? Were their discussions at the time with govt officials?

“We’re not sure who government officials spoke to because from what we understand Gurdwaras did not get spoken to. We understand there are various representative groups, but whatever advice they gave to the government seems to be not based on actual knowledge of the running of the Gurdwara, or how Sangat interacts with the Gurdwara. In the initial guidance that came out, we felt maybe the Sikh community had been overlooked in the funeral guidance and we fed back into the minister we noticed there were some changes and clarifications around how a Gurdwara could operate.”

So you are actively involved in conversations with other Gurdwaras in the UK, perhaps abroad, about how Gurdwaras could open up and how they could keep people socially distanced?

Yes, that's right. And with each Gurdwara you'll notice it's going to be different. We’re quite different to Southall. Southall [Gurdwara] will have a larger number of Sangat to deal with so they will face different challenges.

They all have different challenges based on their building, the size of their building, some of the new Gurdwaras can deal with the footfall a lot easier. It's figuring out how many people are coming in, where they're coming in from, where they're going to walk, how do you keep them distanced? How do you control like the joda ghar, for example when goes to take their shoes off?”

So it's planning around that and then having sevadars dotted around the Gurdwara, in their PPE, able to direct people and keep them safe and keep everyone safe and just keep that flow smooth.”

And what about the elders? I mean, would you advise elders to come to the Gurdwara right now? Or in the near future? What would you say to them?

“Not until it's safe. So many of our elders have been lost to COVID and we don't want to lose more people. We want them to be safe. We understand there is a desire to come to Guru Ghar. I would ask them, please utilise this live streaming with the Gurdwara that we’ve arranged have members sent to them, we'll try and keep them as close as possible to the experience of being here”

I would say people who are over 70, or have underlying health conditions that put them at risk, or anyone in the at-risk category, should continue staying at home until the government and Public Health England say it's safe for them.”
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Sunny Hundal has been a journalist and commentator since 2004. He is editor-in-chief of Barfi Culture
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