Sikh Nationalism by Gurharpal Singh and Giorgio Shani

    (Blog about the new book: Sikh Nationalism by Gurharpal Singh and Giorgio Shani (Cambridge University Press, 2021; ISBN: 9781316479940).

    The Sikhs are a distinctive cultural and religious community in South Asia, with a vibrant diaspora and a territorial homeland. There are approximately 26 million Sikhs globally of whom 23 million live India where they are less than 2 per cent of the 1.4 billion population. The vast majority, 18 million (78 per cent) live in the state of Punjab where they constitute 58 per cent of the state’s population. Generally considered an ethno-religious community, Sikhs are not categorised as a ‘nation’ since they do not have state of their own. Statehood remains, despite the impact of globalisation, the sine qua non of nationalism: most states claim to represent ‘nations’ but the two concepts are not coterminous. Following Weber, statehood lies in the monopolisation of the legitimate use of force over a given territory; whereas nationhood refers instead to the ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1991) the state claims to represent. Consequently, the ethno-national dimensions of Sikh identity have been occluded from most academic analyses of the Sikhs whom, since the Partition of the subcontinent, have been studied almost exclusively as a ‘world religion’ and not as a subject of the discipline of international relations (IR).

    Sikh Nationalism seeks to rectify this imbalance by stressing how many Sikhs in the Punjab and the diaspora consider themselves—and may be considered by others—as a ‘nation.’ By focusing on the ‘inner dimension’ of Sikh subjectivity, the book draws on – and seeks to make a contribution to—theories of nationalism, particularly the ethno-symbolic approach pioneered by Anthony D. Smith as well as postcolonial approaches, in order to provide a comprehensive, concise and accessible account of Sikh nationalism which first burst into global consciousness with the events of 1984. On the 5th June, 1984, the Indian army entered the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. The objective was to evict the militants who had been campaigning for greater autonomy for Punjab and had decided to make their last stand in the temple. The consequence was an unfolding of a chain of events that led to the death of India’s Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, pogroms against Sikhs in Delhi, the mobilisation of the Sikh diaspora in the West, and a decade-long campaign for a separate Sikhs state of Khalistan which conservatively cost about 30,000 lives.

    Although sovereign statehood was not achieved, Sikh claims for nationhood entered the international stage. Yet they continued to be ignored in academic where the dominant narrative was to view the Sikhs as a religious community, followers of a universal religion such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. The origins of the ‘religious’ community are traced back to the tradition’s founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1539).Guru Nanak was followed by nine other gurus who contributed to the institutionalisation of the new faith through the introduction of Gurmukhi (a Punjabi script) in which sacred scriptures were written and compiled in a Holy Book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, new scared rituals, and the founding of Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) as the spiritual and, the Akal Takht facing it as the temporal, home of the community. This drew it into conflict with the Mughal Empire which sought, in varying degrees, to impose Islam on the Punjab, and to the martyrdom of several Gurus culminating in the establishment of the Khalsa in 1699. This marked the birth of a new discourse in the Sikh tradition: the Sikhs as a distinct ethno-national community.

    The order of the Khalsa, or ‘community of the pure,’ was initiated by the tenth and final human Guru, Gobind Singh, (1658-1707). Guru Gobind first baptised his followers with five external symbols (5Ks) - kesh (unshorn hair), kacha (short drawers), kirpan (sword) and kanga (comb)— and renaming them as Singhs (for males) and Kaurs (for females) with the new initiates in turn baptising the guru. He then conferred spiritual authority on the Sikh Holy Book, the Granth Sahib, and temporal authority upon the community of baptised Sikhs through the doctrine of Guru Panth – the corporate body of the community (a collective gathering of the Khalsa) in whom his spirit is eternally present. This has led, especially since the religious reformist movement of the late nineteenth century, to the emergence of a dominant discourse that identifies the Sikhs as a political as well as a religious community which shares collective myths and memories dating from the creation of the order of the Khalsa and the subsequent empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Because the overwhelming majority of Sikhs are Punjabis, share a common language (Punjabi), a homeland (the Punjab), and have their own ‘political system’, this degree of religious and sub-national autonomy is deemed sufficient to accord to nationhood. This narrative has waxed and waned since the late nineteenth century but gained prominence after 1984 in the diaspora among organisations campaigning for an independent state. But whether in the diaspora or in South Asia, for most Sikhs this self-identification co-exists unproblematically with the view of the community as also being essentially religious.

    The central argument of Sikh Nationalism is simple: we need to move beyond existing tropes, especially religion, that have defined Sikh subjectivities. An integrated approach to nationalism, identity and diaspora offers a more rounded understanding of Sikh aspirations for self-determination in a globalised age. In so doing, the case-study of the Sikhs offers new insights into religious and minority nationalisms and questions the centrality of the homeland to discourses of long-distance nationalism, thus opening up the possibility of de-territorialised nationalism.

    The structure of this volume reflects our approach. Chapter one provides a comprehensive review of how the Sikhs are framed within the literature on ethnicity and nationalism before outlining our distinctive approach to the study of Sikh nationalism. In Chapter two we examine the development of Sikh identity from the birth of the tradition in the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Chapter 3 provides a detailed account of the rise of modern Sikh nationalism from the end of the nineteenth century to before the outbreak of the Second World War. Chapter four evaluates the partition of India as a seminal moment in the development of Sikh nationalism focusing on the community’s response to the demand for Pakistan and the prospects of being part of Hindu majoritarian India. The subsequent uneasy accommodation of the community into the Indian Union is discussed in Chapter five In Chapter 6 we offer a systematic overview of Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army’s entry into the Golden Temple, its consequences, and the management of the ‘Punjab problem’ up to the 1990s. Chapter 7 reviews the aftermath of the separatist insurgency and the return to conventional politics by mainstream Sikh formations. Chapter 8 provides a comprehensive overview of the Sikh diaspora from its origins to the present day.



    The volume concludes by reflecting on the current condition of Sikh nationalism as a globalising phenomenon and the broader implications of the Sikh case for theoretical understanding of nations and nationalism which should be of interest to an IR audience.


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