Book Title: ‘The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition’
Author: Manpreet J Singh
THis book is the polished byproduct of the research that author Manpreet J Singh undertook to bring into focus the Sikh community in the centenary year of the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when Indians, mostly Sikhs, from British India attempted to emigrate to Canada and were denied entry. This academic pursuit opened many windows for Manpreet, giving her an insightful view into the lives of Sikhs around the world as well as India and prompted her to pen ‘The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition’.
As Manpreet, also a Sikh, steps back to view the community’s men and women from an objective angle, she is conscious of pitting her observations and emotions against “research validated through systems and intellectual scrutiny”. It’s an academic work, replete with references and citations, but minus the jargon.
By tracing the transitions that the Sikhs have gone through space and over time, the author tries to bring to fore how the tunnel view or skewed perception about the Sikh identity is not in consonance with the contemporary lived realities.
Largely, there is a tendency to construct them all on the agrarian and martial aspects or in terms of the politics around their religious identity, or as being heroic, or farcical. The narrative pierces into the stereotype by contextualising the Sikhs’ shifts within their social surroundings, be it migration to greener pastures abroad or their displacement during Partition, or even movements within India.
Taking note of the fact that not all Sikh men and women align with the popular image delineated of them as being upbeat and prosperous, she talks of those from Bihar, Assam and the Deccan who are caught in a time warp due to their poor economic status. The Karnataka Sikh Welfare Society of Bengaluru is commendably providing scholarships to the children of the poor Sikligars living in slums, to ameliorate their lot.
Another track running through the book pertains to the sensibilities arising from their trade and occupational preferences as they branch out far and wide from their roots in Punjab, and strive to keep their religious identity alive in alien cultural settings. One interesting trend relates to the Sikhs who were deployed in British colonies in South-east Asia in the 19th century. The Crown’s “need to control Chinese gang wars, particularly in Singapore, required a dependable police force”. And, the Sikhs were chosen as they were “cheaper” than the Europeans and had already proved their valour from being “effectively deployed in Shanghai and Hong Kong”. They were “determined by their role as policemen in British territories. It not only gave them a privileged position as the strong arm of the power bearers, but also ascertained the survival of their religious identity”.
The trajectories of the Sikh movement abroad spanning two centuries and the fact that their migration continues to this day has also led to “temporal differences between the many layers of exposures”. And, in today’s globalised and inter-connected world, their lived realities are becoming those of greater integration into the mainstream society of wherever they happen to be, even as they grapple with the dissonant image constructed about them.
In the US, this has led to Sikhs preferring to call themselves “Sikh-American to emphasise that they are different from other Sikhs and other Americans”, implying that the Sikh identity cannot be merged into the US ‘melting pot’.