Last week two politicians from the Sikh community won seats in UK parliament for the first time in history. Both Preet Kaur Gill (MP for Edgbaston) and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (MP for Slough) have received recognition and appreciation for their political accomplishments from across the board. Much attention has been placed on their ethnicity and their affiliation with the Sikh community, which will no doubt continue throughout their tenure as British MPs.
For Preet and Tanmanjeet the real challenge begins now as they set about delivering on their campaign pledges. Their efforts ought to be placed on producing the policies for which they were elected by their constituents and this must remain the focal point of their time in parliament. For them to do this, the Sikh community must be honest enough to accept that as British MPs their loyalty lies in serving the interests of the British public they represent. A similar parallel can be drawn with Harjit Singh Sajjan, who is currently serving as the Minister of National Defence in Canada. His priorities lie in working for the best interests of the Canadian government and its citizens, not for the Sikh Panth. The two are mutually exclusive engagements.
For many Sikhs, this may prove problematic to accept given the myriad of issues that affect the Sikh diaspora. In the UK, the most pressing concern of course remains the issue of self-determination. This is evident from the tens of thousands that showed their support at this years 1984 remembrance rally in Trafalgar Square on the 4th of June. The same support was shown in both Canada and the US at similar rallies. The events marked 33 years since the Indian government’s decision to launch a full-scale military attack at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. The incident was the culmination of a civil rights movement, the roots for which stem back to the partition of Panjab in 1947. For the Sikhs, the incident marked the end of diplomatic efforts to negotiate with the Indian government, unless the formation of an independent Sikh state was on the agenda.
Moreover, the rally in London remains the single largest show of protest from the Sikh community. It has however taken on a slightly different dynamic over recent years following the revelation of British collusion in 1984, which came to surface in 2014. There is no doubt both the newly elected MPs will be aware of this and are preparing themselves for a barrage of questioning from the Sikh community over their efforts to apply pressure into an independent inquiry.
However, there is a much deeper concern for Sikhs living in the UK. Many are coming to terms with the realization that the mainstream projection of Sikh identity is based largely on a Eurocentric understanding of Sikh ideology, which can be traced back to the days of British occupation of Panjab. It was during the period of British rule in Panjab that we saw an alteration of Sikhi itself; when the socio-political revolution initiated by Guru Nanak morphed into a mere “religion” stripped of any social or political significance. After the fall of Sikh sovereignty in 1849, colonial policies infiltrated Sikh institutions and centers of activity. English interpretations of Sikh scripture, swamped under an inevitable quagmire of Abrahamic language, were systematically disseminated to distort Sikhi. The Sikh Panth (Nation) was thrown into a labyrinth of religiosity with the emergence of the religious-secular divide following the colonial encounter. In the absence of sovereign power and authority the Sikh people have suffered many blows, resulting in the misrepresentation and falsification of their way of life.
There are a growing number of Sikhs in the UK and across the Atlantic who are consciously aware of this and are proactively working to decolonise their identity. For instance, intentionally choosing to use the indigenous term Sikhi, as opposed to its colonial imposter “Sikhism”, is one example of acknowledging the long journey towards decolonisation. There is an honest and conscious decision being taken to challenge today’s mainstream Eurocentric understanding and propagation of Sikh ideology which has recently distorted the Sikh community’s approach to resolving Panthic (Sikh collective’/Sikh Nation’) matters.
The current generation of Sikhs, armed with knowledge of the colonial encounter, appreciate that the first generation of Sikhs who arrived in the UK were focused on securing the most basic of needs to survive in a foreign land, whilst holding on to any ounce of Sikh identity that remained. The effect of colonisation particularly to Sikh psyche, had gradually conditioned a Sikh’s own perception of identity, with the religious aspect of Sikhi taking prominence over the political ideology so prevalent in Sikh history and scripture.
Sikhs living in the UK naturally felt obliged to engage in wider society but also agitated and protested to gain recognition and rights for their distinct way of life, be that on grounds of identity or conduct. When accepted, the recognition was restricted to the grounds of “religion”, and from a British perspective, understandably so. Notwithstanding this set back, Sikhs have contributed towards alleviating social ills through active grass roots engagement.
It is their Guru-inspired Sikhia (teachings) which has compelled them to rise-up and attempt to fix broken Britain. Whether it’s groups such as the Sikh Welfare Awareness Team (SWAT) who unilaterally take the Guru’s institution of Langar (communal kitchen) on to the streets of London for the poor and impoverished, or groups such as the Sikh Awareness Society (SAS) who highlight the issue of sexual grooming, particularly in the North of the country; Sikhs continuously provide band aid remedies to the shortcomings of a government that has failed its citizens. I intentionally use the words “band aid” because without the cooperation of the government, the Sikh community, or any other community for that matter whether faith-based or not, is ultimately powerless to tackle the problem at its root cause.
The news of Preet and Tanmanjeet becoming MPs is another example of how a Sikh will always strive to work for the betterment of society. There is a genuine and sincere desire to bring about change, no matter how little or far reaching it may be. However, Sikhs find themselves constantly trying to reconcile Guru inspired principles that demand they work to establish equality and liberty for all, with a system that is not only built on the exploits of its colonial past, for which it has yet to deliver any redemption, but also in recognition of the knowledge that only 33 years ago the very same establishment for whom they now work, colluded with the Indian government to attack the epicenter of the Sikh world.
As Preet and Tanmanjeet make history for Britain and embrace a new chapter in their political careers, the Sikh collective shall continue a long arduous journey upon which they will overcome the unprecedented task of untangling the web of colonisation spun over 150 years. It is a path they must carve themselves and it is up to Britain, and the rest of the world to decide whether they will help provide the tools needed for Sikhs to reach their destination or merely adopt the policies we so often hear are a thing of the past.
By their very makeup, the Sikh community in the UK will continue to engage on a social, economic and political level. However, for far too long the Sikh community have been kept in the dark regarding the UK’s position on the most important matter affecting their people. The only expectation the Sikh community have of the newly elected MPs, in terms of matters pertaining to the Panth, is the expectation of gaining an honest and upfront answer from the UK government on the Panthic objective; which for the Sikhs remains complete autonomy and independence from the Indian State.