Sikh collective memory does not often hold fondly those from our community who have sided with oppressors.
There is no shortage of such history right from the times of the Gurus. Prithi Chand, the brother of fifth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan, was said to be favorable with the Mughal rulers of the day. Similarly, Ram Rai, the son of the seventh Guru, Guru Har Rai, ingratiated himself to the Mughal regime and was excommunicated. During the fall of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire in the mid 19th century, the cis-Sutlej Sikh states formally allied with the British as his rivals and even contributed soldiers against him in the Anglo-Sikh wars, and, to this day, it is only Ranjit Singh’s whose kingdom we collectively recognize as the Sikh kingdom.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre at the hands of the British rulers in Amritsar in 1919 was considered a watershed moment in India’s battle for independence. Hundreds to thousands (the historical record is conflicted) of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were killed in this peaceful protest and its legacy is still commemorated today with nary a historical glance towards the Sikh regiment — the 54th Sikhs — who were part of the firing squad.
In this vein, it is worth mentioning that as Sikhs are, in this moment, also commemorating the 36th anniversary of the Indian government’s invasion of Harmandir Sahib resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent pilgrims, destruction of our holiest sites and of rare historical artifacts, the invasion itself was lead ostensibly by a Sikh general and included Sikh soldiers. Among many (if not most) in the Sikh community, these individuals are not held in high esteem.
There are many more examples of such behavior whose legacies today exhibit how our community holds such allegiance. As time moves forward, we should also consider how our actions and allegiances today will be looked upon by future generations. In America, the Sikh community finds itself in one of those moments.
“All lives matter!”
The United States is embroiled in many crises today, and obviously not the least of which one that was touched off by the murder of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The widely circulated video of his unjustifiable killing follows many other such incidents against black Americans by law enforcement (and others) and evidences the issue of disparate treatment based on race in general.
Many have rallied around the “Black Lives Matter” movement during protests and demonstrations in reaction to the Floyd’s murder. The demonstrations are showing a growth in size and composition as many Americans from a variety of backgrounds have joined in the cause.
It is a polarizing issue, largely bifurcated along the typical American fault line — labeled conservative versus liberal or Republican vs. Democrat but often actually manifesting as whites versus minorities. In the midst of our own commemoration of Operation Bluestar this week, while many Sikhs have shown sympathies or support to the issue of disproportionate killing of black people (in quantity and in action), others have adopted the slogans of those who wish to suppress this movement, including the “All lives matter!” response.
This response itself was created to oppose the Black Lives Matter campaign and is intended to erase any focus on the inequitable experiences of blacks at the hands of law enforcement and other systemic institutions. It’s often espoused only in the context of this issue by right-leaning individuals, and implies a mutual exclusivity. In effect, it defaults to the perpetuation of injustice against a long-suppressed community in America.
One may wonder why many Sikhs have taken to the “All lives matter!” slogan, particularly because it is difficult to find any Sikh spiritual or historical precedent whereby the Gurus or the Sikhs attempted to erase the oppression or disparate treatment of the marginalized.
On the contrary, Sikh history and the Guru Granth Sahib offers almost limitless examples and lessons of allying and standing up for the oppressed and marginalized. The precedents are glaringly ubiquitous and obvious, and a few include:
- In his travels, Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs promoted honest living and sharing with the poor. In fact, he preferred the company of the poor and marginalized than that of the wealthy or high-caste. An account of his preference to stay and partake of a meal with the carpenter Lalo instead of the wealthy Malik Bhago exemplifies the Guru’s emphasis on social justice: “Look Malik Bhago, wealth gathered by cruelty and corruption towards the poor is like sucking their blood which you have done.” (link)
- In the 17th century, Hindus from Kashmir who were being forcibly converted to Islam came to Guru Tegh Bahadur to seek his assistance. The ninth Guru of the Sikhs challenged the Mughal regime on their forcible conversions and was subsequently executed.
- In the 18th century, Afghan invaders plundered Punjab, terrorizing the population and kidnapping Hindu women. Sikh Misls regularly rescued kidnapped Hindu girls from Afghan invaders and returned them to their families.
- Numerous shabads and excerpts from the Guru Granth Sahib speak to seeing the equality of all people as an outcome of adoration of the Divine. Those that manifest this Love will see all as this Love. Moreover, a shabad on Ang (page) 1292 has struck me in its description of liberation of the oppressed from the hands of higher castes/classes through loving devotion of the Divine: Calling me low-caste and untouchable, they beat me and drove me out; what should I do now, O Beloved Father?
In the context of our history and scripture, it’s difficult to reconcile the position many in our community have taken in relation to the disproportionate and brutal ways black people have been treated by our law enforcement and other systems; I submit that the “all lives matter!” rebuke, in the way that it is being used by many Sikhs, runs contrary to our religious ethos.
However, the traction that “all lives matter!” has among many in our community may be rooted in our tendencies towards public relations, garnering favorability, and is an attempt to position us in proximity to the white majority (as a model minority) rather than articulate the values of sovereign Khalsa founded on the teachings of the Gurus of the Sikhs and accountable to only the Divine.
It is certainly any person’s right to take what position they please, but those who subscribe to the teachings of the Gurus in word and/or who honor our community history may wish to reevaluate along those lines. We have always celebrated and recognized those who have lived up to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib and lived up to the exemplary standards in our history. Accordingly, Sikhs would be well-advised to consider that those among us who have supported the oppression or marginalization of people — Sikh or non-Sikh — particularly in ways contrary to our teachings, are often left forgotten or condemned by future generations.