Sovereign Cybernation of Sikh Diaspora @ K300

Since separatist sentiments have abated among Sikhs in India, the most vocal supporters of a separate Sikh nation, or Khalistan, are now active in the diaspora. The movement is deeply troubled; few have any idea as to how to convince the Indian government to agree to relinquish such a strategically crucial region as Punjab, and not even the most fervent Sikh nationalists seem to have the stomach to pursue violence at this stage in the game. Herb Dhaliwal, the Revenue Minister of Canada and one of the most influential Sikhs in the diaspora community, has argued for a plebiscite to be taken on secession among residents in the Punjab-which may be the only way to resolve the issue in a purely democratic and permanent manner. Like the recent plebiscites in Quebec, this would allow the people to resolve the issue for themselves — and as with that plebiscite, it can be taken as far from assured that the measure would pass. That said, one could be fully assured that neither a BJP nor a Congress government will ever allow such a plebiscite to occur. India's democracy is not Canada's.

By putting the situation in this way and by asking the following questions, I should be clear: I mean neither to endorse nor to refute Sikh nationalism. Rather, I am suggesting that nationalism survives as a virtual, rhetorical dream (which is not at all to say 'merely' a dream) in Sikh diaspora discourse: a theory, a virtual nation, a cyberspace sovereignty. In other words, Sikh nationalism in the diaspora is successful as a virtual movement. As a virtual nation, the Sikh Diaspora is both more free than any actually sovereign country could ever be-of debt, foreign relations concerns, corruption, social injustice-and less free, in the obvious sense that it denotes no real territory.

1999 marked the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa panth, or 'K300', as some t-shirts at the Washington DC march proclaimed. As an index on the state of nationalist feeling, K300 may have had more in common with the syntax of an event such as Y2K, the much-hyped global millennial computer bug, than with nationalism in the territorial, real-life sense. The analogy might look like this: Y2K is to global capitalism what K300 is to Khalistan. Y2K, as a cyberspace apocalypse, is the only mark of the Christian-Western calendar's millennium that appears to have the potential for any measurable economic or political disruption, though ironically the most likely sites of disruption are in the third world. Similarly, K300, which took the form of an array of marches that took place in real space and time on the occasion of the Vaisakhi in April, 1999, disrupted in certain ways the virtual ideology of Sikh nationalism as it exists on the web and in diaspora Gurdwaras. The marches were in general not very nationalistically or even politically defined, and were for the most part represented by the mainstream media of global metropolitan communities in terms of 'cultural heritage,' not nationalist rhetoric.

Major Vaisakhi celebrations and marches occurred both within and outside of India. The largest of the gatherings was of course at Anandpur Sahib, India, where Parkash Singh Badal's Anandpur Sahib Committee prepared for the event. Possibly upwards of 3 million Sikhs gathered — peacefully and with dignity — for the anniversary. That such a visibly quarrelsome (and notoriously temperamental) group as the Sikhs could gather in such large numbers can only be read as a sign of a very vital community of believers. Nevertheless, coverage in the mainstream Indian print media, in venues as diverse as The Hindu, Outlook India, and The Statesman emphasized the "muddying" of the mood posed by the ongoing feud between Badal and Gurcharan Singh Tohra. The coverage posed Badal's leadership as shaky and vulnerable in the upcoming elections (which will have already taken place by the time this essay appears). Many of the articles that appeared around the Anandpur Sahib celebration also pointed to a future characterized by factionalism and renewed violence within the Sikh community. For those of us absent from the event, the slant of this coverage of the Vaisakhi seems to contradict the positive indication written in the sheer numbers and peaceful character of the celebration. Indeed, in this case I am inclined to trust the western media more than the Indian. Take, for instance, Pamela Constable's April 14 article in the Washington Post on the Anandpur Sahib march. Constable's article is alone in addressing the "Jubilant" and "peaceful and orderly" mood of the Anandpur Sahib gathering. As one of Constable's sources, a Punjabi-Sikh doctor, put it: "A few people at the top are sitting on their chairs and fighting, and that has created a bit of fear, but this is our birthday. We want to be proud and happy... This is the first time we are able to celebrate as free people, not as slaves."

Khalsa marches also happened all over the United States and Canada, the U.K., Malaysia, and Singapore. A search of Lexis-Nexis reveals hundreds of articles on the marches in a vast array of newspapers globally, including coverage of substantial gatherings in Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Glasgow, London, Dublin, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Berhad (Malaysia), and Singapore.

A quick survey of the differences in the media representations tells a lot, certainly, about the different marches, but it also says something about the differences in the Sikh communities in different parts of the diaspora. The coverage in California and Canada, where the Sikh communities are established and well-known, emphasize the history of the local communities, the size of the local Sikh populations, and fairly localized controversies. For instance, a story in the Glasgow Herald focuses on problems of intra-Sikh caste relations at Glasgow Gurdwaras. While caste is certainly an issue in many Sikh communities, the particular breakdown of the Glasgow situation is definitely unique. In contrast, coverage in places where there are very small or very recent Sikh communities, such as Atlanta and Indianapolis, is entirely benign and free of controversy, emphasizing local pride in the new Gurdwaras in these cities. The coverage in Indianapolis, one gathers, is the very first time the local Sikh community has been referenced in the newspaper. Finally, the impressive slew of articles in the Malaysian New Straits Times are uniformly upbeat and celebratory in tone, as in the following exemplary title: "Fun and Frolic for Sikhs at Vaisakhi event."

Reading through this coverage, it seems the march in Washington, DC may have been one of the few marches where explicitly separatist rhetoric was reported as a guiding principle of a march in a given locality. One gathers that a certain amount of separatist sentiment was indeed present — at, for instance, the London marches. But only in Washington, DC did Khalistanist ideas receive substantial media coverage. The DC march was organized by veteran Khalistan lobbyist G.S.Aulakh, the President of the Council on Khalistan. Originally, a second march in downtown DC was also planned, to be organized by moderate area leaders, but this was later cancelled behind the scenes. The story on the local march in The Washington Post (which appears four days after Pamela Constable's coverage of the Anandpur Sahib gathering) supports Aulakh's perspective. The title of the piece is "Sikhs Parade and Pray for Separate Nation," and quotes Aulakh substantially: "In the Sikh religion, politics and religion are inseparable . . . We are aware that without political power no religion can flourish."

Many religiously-inclined diaspora Sikhs I have spoken to about the marches have issues with Aulakh's merging of religion and politics. The separation is especially pronounced among young people. As children of Generation X (or, to add another Sikh coinage, 'Generation K'), Sikhs of Punjabi descent raised in the U.S. often think 'politics' in the passive language of a television dominated culture. But just as often, the separation is an important way of filtering the 'true' (the spiritual) from the constructed, the artificial, and the manipulated. The separation of religion and politics, religious community and nationalism, rather than uniformly pointing to the secularization (and possibly even dissolution) of the Sikh community, might be a defense mechanism which allows the faith to be transmitted without the confusing baggage of the recent past.

One Sikh woman, Jaspreet, attended both the DC and San Francisco marches. In her email to me, Jaspreet says she preferred the relatively apolitical and outgoing atmosphere of San Francisco march to the political "slant" of the DC march. She was particularly impressed by the interaction of the San Francisco marchers with demonstrators at a march in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal occurring simultaneously: "the people at [the 'free Mumia' rally] came over to our end to enjoy our lungar... they were so amazed and pleased to see the free food and simple generosity of the Sikhs." In Jaspreet's interpretation of this moment of cross-cultural interaction, Sikhism definitely carries a social and ethical significance — generosity. But while there is a good deal of overlap between religion and social ethics, there is a clear border between religious ethics and political activism: Jaspreet is pleased to see the Mumia marchers join the Sikh celebration, but she is not exactly encouraging involvement the other way around.

The difference between the views of Jaspreet and the ideology of G.S. Aulakh mark two points on the wide array of manifestations of Sikh identity and community that exist in the diaspora. Though the tendency among many committed, religious Sikhs raised abroad follows Jaspreet in separating religion and politics, this is not necessarily the only available interpretation of Sikh scripture. The distinction between politics and religion is undeniably influenced by western secularism — Punjabi Sikhs raised in the US educational system are taught, often crudely, the separation of church and state. Just as importantly, that separation is the result of an interpretation of Sikh communal identity that predominates in many moderate diaspora Gurdwaras.

Exactly how interpretations of the faith are debated and transmitted through the cultural edifice of the Gurdwara is a complex anthropological question I cannot fully address here. What I can say, however, is that there is more than a little truth to G.S. Aulakh's particular claim that religion and politics are inseparable in Sikhism. There is, for instance, a strong symbolic argument supporting the idea for Sikh political autonomy encoded into the very idea of the 'Khalsa', defined by Guru Gobind Singh exactly 300 years ago. Initiation into the Khalsa requires a ritual type of baptism (taking Amrit), and strict adherence to a way of living, symbolizing commitment to the community and to God. Most religious historians identify the creation of the Khalsa as the moment that solidified Sikhism as a 'religion' distinct from Hinduism (notably, the OED and Microsoft's Encarta continue to define it as a 'sect').

Partly because of the symbolic aspects of the constitution of the Khalsa, what may be emerging in the diaspora community, as a median perspective between the poles of my two sources above, is a disaffection with the ideology and methods of Khalistan partisans, without a corresponding reemergence of identification with the national community of India. The events of 1984 never fully resolved themselves: for years, no one apologized for or even particularly mentioned the massacres in Delhi, and none of the Congress party or police participants in the Delhi massacres have ever been tried. The bitterness in the Sikh community was consequently extremely strong. The real possibility of secession was eventually discredited when the military arm of Sikh nationalism was brutally crushed by the Indian army in the late 1980s. But the concept behind the drive to secession — that Sikhs are a distinct religious and cultural entity who should be in charge of their own affairs — remains in the minds of many diaspora Sikhs to this day: we are not Indian, many would say, but Sikh.

A perusal of some Sikh nationalist literature on the web (see;; the postings on soc.culture.punjab) leads one to ask some speculative, practical questions hinging on the always-vexed relationship, which G.S. Aulakh's statement in the Washington Post foregrounds, between religious and national community in the contemporary moment. For instance, to what extent are Sikh nationalists ready to acknowledge Punjab residents who happen to be Hindus or Muslims? Would Khalistan leaders be willing to work with separatist Muslim Punjabis in Pakistan in the service of a larger, independent Punjab? Without thinking through these and other issues, a realized Khalistan would likely be subject to a Partition II, in which millions of Hindus and Muslims would be driven out of Punjab and millions of Sikhs would be driven out of Delhi and North India. Or, a Sikh-centered Khalistan might have the perennial instability and probable violence characterized by other countries with religious charters. And yet, fending off either of these scenarios with a true democratic, pluri-religious (as opposed to nominally secular) national charter, would result in the formation of a nation-state not so different from... India.

To close this discussion of an unresolved, possibly unresolvable, conflict within the Sikh Khalsa at the 300th anniversary of its formal birth, it may be necessary to take recourse in an extremely unlikely measure — a Sardar joke. The joke is the high point of what is otherwise a rather unpleasant article by Khushwant Singh in the March 29 Outlook. Rather than celebrating the tercentenary of the community with fresh insight in his article, taking advantage of his position as the senior statesman of the moderate Sikh community, Singh dwells morbidly on his perception of the disintegration of the community. But he ends the article with another example of what may go down in history as his singular contribution to the Indian public sphere — a fine, crafted joke:

The Khalsa are outgoing, loud and obstreperous. They were among the first Indians to seek their fortunes abroad — not as bonded labour but as farmers and entrepreneurs. They prospered wherever they settled, on the west coast of Canada and the US as lumbermen and farmers, in east Africa as industrialists and tradesmen, in Arab countries as building contractors, in Malaysia and Singapore as shopkeepers, in northeastern Australia as growers of bananas and avocado pears, in New Zealand as cattle-breeders, in every country in the world, a few Sikh families will be found. The story goes that when the first American astronauts landed on the moon, they ran into a sardarji taking his family for a stroll. The Americans, more than surprised, asked: "When on earth did you get here?" The sardarji replied: "Oh, we came here soon after the Partition."

Singh's joke, with its affectionate emphasis on labor, strikes several chords. First, it turns a disabling set of stereotypes into an explanation of the travel bug. The joke then maps a good deal of the ungainly Sikh (also South Asian) diaspora, before turning to the Americans, the one national community whose 'diasporization', post World War II, is driven by the singular principle of expanding rulership. Finally, the invocation of the Partition in the punchline of the joke reverberates back through the joke's narrative of Sikh diasporization, slyly suggesting that perhaps this desire to leave India, the subcontinent, even Earth, has something to do with that disaster of nationalism whose trauma continues to complicate Sikh identity to this day. Sikhs, the joke suggests, seem to show up everywhere — whether outer-space or cyber-space — as shadows.


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