On Saturday evening, I attended the Centennial festivities at the Stockton Gurdwara Sahib in Stockton, California, which, founded in 1912, is considered the first and oldest Gurdwara in the United States. In many ways, for Sikh Americans, this Gurdwara represents our first formal foothold in this country.
Saturday’s event enjoyed a celebratory atmosphere that brought out many local, state and federal politicians and officials, and many of the who’s who within the Sikh American community. During this celebration, it was a special feeling to walk the grounds on which Sikhs first established themselves in this country, and reflect on our history since.
The Centennial celebrations this year included the opening of the Sikh History Museum and Library. The centerpiece of the library is the printing press of the Ghadar Party, a US-based organization of Sikh and Indian Americans founded by Stockton Sikhs in 1913 to promote the independence of India from British rule. Back then, the printing press was used to publish various forms of literature in support of the Ghadar Party’s cause, particularly the publication called “The Ghadar“, which documented and promoted the freedom movement in India.
Looking upon this antique machine, I reflected on the use of the written word by those revolutionaries almost 100 years ago to promote the cause of freedom and independence in India. The first pages that emerged from this machine was the start of our activism in the United States, and a century later, Sikh Americans still turn to the written word for the purposes of advocacy, education and communication. Obviously, we no longer use a hand-cranked printing press, but instead make use of online publishing tools and platforms to communicate our message.
And, beyond the technology behind our written work, the substance has also evolved. While we still advocate about ongoing issues in Punjab and India, much of what Sikhs publish today in this country is a conversation about our rights and freedoms living as Americans. From 1912 to today, from the printing press to the internet, the journey of the last 100 years tells the story of the securing of our place as Sikh Americans.
When I look at the history of Sikhs from this times- it seems is marred by moral ambiguity which is also present in our celebrations.
We celebrate the Sikhs who fought with the British during two world wars including the battle of Saragarhi, and we celebrate those also who tried free India from British colonial rule. The impact of this on our moral identity can’t be undermined in making us morally ambiguous.
I see your point. However, there is a distinction. We honor and celebrate the individual acts of valor and heroism by Sikhs as part of our tradition, even for those who served as part of the military during British rule. This does not mean we necessarily sanction British rule. For example, when we celebrate the Battle of Saragarhi, we are celebrating not the British colonial power of that time, but rather the valor and bravery of those 21 Sikhs in the face of overwhelming odds, which harkens back to the tradition demonstrated by Sikhs across our history.
There is some nuance here but I’m not sure it makes us morally ambiguous, necessarily.
Well! that’s the whole problem that the point of celebration is act of valor and not the values that defined these individuals. Many people can do acts of bravery but it takes a few to stand for the right values that guide the rest.
Morality as such is derived from the values we and others stood for. The Sikhs fighting in world wars were surely brave but they were fighting for the crown which the Ghadharittes would have despised. The Sikhs fighting with the British and the Ghadharites represent a contradictory value system. Celebrating both as such is morally ambiguous.
There is a dilemma, agreed. In terms of against/for the Crown, I can see the moral ambiguity, but much depends on perspective, and I think it’s too easy in some cases to retroactively say what was moral and what was not.
Along these lines, we don’t celebrate or discuss much about the Sikhs who sided with the British in the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, or those Sikhs who fought as part of the Nazi army (former POWs who were then organized into the Nazi “Free India Regiment”) to fight against the British in WWII.
I think the example of the Battle of Saragarhi is of a different character, and this is why it has been recently acknowledged.
I just think these days we have a culture in which we are too eager to celebrate someone just because he is a Sikh without considering what values the person represents. That’s why as in this case also, we are becoming a contradiction in our own.
I felt compelled to reply even though it’s eight years late. To serve the British crown brought in money and prestige, something the Punjab had lost after being annexed by the British. It is similar to the Gadharites who left Punjab in search of a better life, and went on to work for white employers who were mostly racist. Look at the Komagata incident, the Canadian authorities were brutal, should we then have disassociated with all Punjabis who continued living and working in Canada? You cannot club the need to earn a living or to live well with a love for a slyly racist conniving colonial regime. Even today many Americans who choose the army are making a choice to be debt free and provide for their families which in itself is heroic. However you are correct that we should celebrate people’s lives based on the whole of their lived experience rather than picking and choosing parts we like, and that would help in explaining how people are complex with many facets and not simple one dimensional heroes or villains.
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