Given our history, there's no reason to discourage Sikhs from joining western armies
By Guest Contributor
21st June 2018

Puneet Singh

On Saturday, 9th June over a thousand British soldiers marched in London to celebrate the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. One soldier stood out from the rest with a black Dastaar (turban) and a full beard instead of the traditional tall bearskin hat.

But the coverage of Charanpreet Singh Lall of Leicester becoming a Coldstream Guards soldier has sparked some fringe, but heavily passionate and personally charged criticism of his decision.

Sukhraj Singh (@SikhTalk on Instagram) posted the pictures above, writing: "I've nothing personal against Guardsman Charanpreet Singh Lall... But I am against this propaganda effort by the Ministry of Defence (and the royal family operation) to present this as some great advance."

He added: "It is not an advance that a Sikh soldier wears a turban in the British army. It's been going on since the British army of India used Sikh NCOs in a policy of divide and rule to hold down a whole sub-continent."

The narrative being adopted by some Sikhs is reminiscent of many Islamic extremists who openly protested British troops while shouting profanity and abuse at soldiers.

This sentiment of painting a black and white picture of all individuals in the army being held accountable for human rights violations by soldiers has also fueled radicalization and terrorist attacks. In 2013 a knife-wielding terrorist maimed and beheaded an innocent British army drummer, Lee Rigby, in the street.

While acknowledging a State and military can be criticized for human rights abuses and lobby to prevent atrocities from happening again, it is still important to not degenerate into a black and white or good vs bad narrative.

The British did colonize Punjab and were responsible in taking the Sikh Kingdom from the Sikhs, but this may not necessarily mean Sikhs can’t join the army or partake in the 21st century politics in a State, even if the state is Great Britain.

How did our Guru Sahiban deal with functioning states that were unjust?

Looking at Sikh history and principles started by the Gurus helps give context and guidance to Sikhs today, even in the 21st century.

First, it is important to understand the relationship between the Guru Sahiban and the Mughal State was complicated and changed constantly.

In Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s bani in Sri Raag, Guru Sahib describes the human being as a merchant (vanajaarha) and the emphasis of partaking in an honest trade (sacha sauda) that is devoid of falsehood.

One of the first things taught in Sikh / Khalsa schools is the history of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and how Mehta Kalu Ji was from a merchant background and wanted Guru Nanak Dev Ji to become either a merchant or a book keeper. Guru Nanak Dev Ji was given 20 rupees at a very young age by his father and was told to go buy goods and resell them to make a profit.

But instead of doing this, Guru Nanak Dev Ji bought food and donated it to needy people thus immortalizing what a True Bargain (Sacha Sauda) really is and immortalizing the tradition of Guru Ka Langar.

In order to understand what type of Panth and system Guru Hargobind Sahib later formalized, understanding the basics of this bani by Guru Nanak is very important. Guru Hargobind Sahib, the 6th Guru, created a standing Sikh army and formalized the concept of temporal and spiritual authority (Miri and Piri).

In the early 17th century Guru Hargobind Sahib wrote letters to the Sikh community that emphasized that performing seva and rozgar (donations) are interlinked.

This instructed Sikhs that by individually doing simran and collectively working as a community the Guru would maintain their rozgar (donations / tribute). In another letter sent by Guru Hargobind Sahib to Patna’s sangat, it is further made clear that doing seva in the sangat, giving donations, being vegetarian, doing kirtan and maintaining community organization, the Guru will bless them.

Naturally, allowing for bhagti while also pursuing financial gain and performing rozgar to the Guru appealed to the Khatri community, and thus many Sikhs during this era were Khatri merchants.

Since there were rival lineages that also competed with Guru Hargobind Sahib for the Guruship Seat, Guru Sahib required funds and the Mughal state was seen as an excellent source of funding. This system of amassing wealth by the Gurus is continued, but transforms from the Masand system to the Hundi system during the time of Guru Gobind Singh.

It is clear the Khatri Sikhs in Delhi were entrenched in the financial and Mughal government in New Delhi. Despite some conflict with the newly established Khalsa in wanting to maintain non-Sikh customs that were banned, Guru Sahib intervened and ruled in favor of Khalsa and the Delhi Sikhs accepted.

What is important in this story is that the Delhi Sikhs were still very much entrenched in the Mughal State and used their position to amass wealth and fund the Khalsa.

It is established that Guru Sahiban not only allowed, but required Sikhs to pursue honest means of earning money, even deeply within the Mughal government, so long as there was bhagti and rozgar (donations) were given to the Guru.

A strong sense of community (panth) was emphasized. This method eventually helped Sikhs out and paved the way for Sikhs to gather enough strength to finally become rulers in Punjab.

How colonialism affects Sikhs today

Colonization has effected almost every society in history. Punjab was colonized by Babur and Mughals in relatively recent history, but was also colonized by Persians and Afghans in different successions, changing powers almost cyclically. The culture, language and influence of colonialism doesn’t only stretch from when the Sikh Raj fell to the British.

To understand colonialism as an inevitable product of time is essential.

In a Sikh context it means changing how we dress, occupations we perform, how or what we eat and how we connect to Guru Sahib. These changes are inevitable as society progresses and technology advances.

Just as Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib in Salok Mahalla 9 tells us that everything is temporary and ever changing, so is our condition, but the only constant is Guru Sahib.

When Bhai Sahib Dr Vir Singh saw the implications that arose from a Sikh panth that was stripped of its dignity with a lost Raj, he found a modern medium, inspired by gurbani, to usher an age of renaissance in Sikh theology, literature, poetry and inspirational fictional cannons with strong Sikh female protagonists.

This is how we must progress in the 21st century to ride the wave of inevitable modernity and ever changing society.

Instead of focusing on an impossible task of decolonizing and reverting time, we must take inspiration from the likes of Bhai Vir Singh and create authentic, organic art fueled by our subjective and independent connection to Guru Sahib to inspire people to become gurmukhs.


Guru Sahib gave Sikhs the liberty to work in a diversified means of enacting change that consisted of diplomacy, working within the system or when all means had failed – to enact justice with the sword. This directly translates to today’s situation of Sikhs in the west.

Sikhs were intelligent enough to be embedded in the system, but still had panthic souch (thinking with the community in mind).

While disconnecting the human rights abuses from their ability to defend themselves, we must be able to create an international lobby that will act in defense of Sikh interests and ensure justice.

In order to do this we need Sikhs in high positions worldwide who, when push comes to shove, will prioritize Sikhi or will have panthic souch and help in any means possible.

We have many hurdles that we will face in both the diaspora and in India, but by connecting to Guru Sahib, the panth will remain in chardikala and face the currents of time with kirpa (blessings) of Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj.

This is an edited-down version of a longer piece by Puneet Singh, which was posted here.

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