SIKH SOCIAL ACTIVISM : RUMINATE, NO TALK, NO WALK

Social responsibility involves an ethical or ideological recognition that all our endeavors must be informed by a sense of responsibility to society. Social activism is generating pressures to extend this criterion to several other areas. In the West religious leadership has been actively involved in this activism. 

THE SIKH PRECEPT FOR SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE RELIGIOUS LIFE

The Sikh precept has clear markers regarding human social responsibility.

  • Believers are persuaded that it is not enough to understand and espouse the moral and ethical principles but one has to live by them in the real world and if needed be ready to defend what is righteous.
  • Guru Nanak was deeply troubled by the pervasive presence of corrosive influences at all levels of the society – religious leaders, judges, rulers, bureaucrats, lay people
  • In Babarvani Guru Nanak has condemned greed and pleasure seeking ways of people and has strongly deprecated the ruling elite for their failure to protect the country. Even though the Guru seems to chide God for not showing compassion when the suffering screamed in pain, the answer is obvious – it is for the humans to address individually and collectively all that may ail the society.
  • Guru Arjun has talked about a vision of an ideal society and called it halemi raj – ruling through humility, modesty and seva. This ideal of societal transformation is founded on the individual struggle to fight and win over evil propensities. Gursikhs are its exemplars, role models as well as mentors for others to be better citizens.
  • Guru Gobind Singh in Zafarnama makes several comments reflective of the Guru’s thoughts on conflict, its inherent ethical dilemmas and ingredients of righteous ruler ship.

The call for general benevolence, protecting good from evil and victory in righteous endeavor in deg, tegh, fateh and supplication for sarbat ka bhala give expression to the Sikh prayer that their day should be filled with deeds to secure the well being of one and all.

Gurus promoted Sikh seva as an expression of love, not of pity or reciprocity and limited to the like-minded or co religionists. Gurus instituted Daswandh to support collective seva at the community level and dharamsal became the center where prayer and seva moved in tandem.

Characteristic features of dharamsal from the beginning included providing shelter and food for the needy and wayfarers. Thus Gurus gave impetus to collective seva by the community in supporting projects and services for general benefit with Gurdwaras as the nodal points for such activities.

The Gurus also made tremendous sacrifices in the cause of and to secure freedoms, security and safety of the people. Guru Arjun chose the path to suffer gruesome tortures rather than submit. Guru Hargobind transformed Sikh activism to take to armed defense in the face of force. Guru Har Krishan, when just eight years old, died of small pox contracted tending to the sick in Delhi. Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life so Hindus could have their freedom of faith – possibly the only one of its kind in religious history. With Guru Gobind Singh the Ranjit Nagara sounded loud and clear that the Sikhs will protect what was righteous and resist what was not with the use of arms, if needed.

The contours of Sikh activism, its scriptural basis, the way Gurus responses influenced and defined it has two facets –

  • A proactive urge to blunt the ill effects of institutionalized societal discrimination and ameliorate human condition through encouraging social equality, self-reliance, sharing and seva;
  • A reactive response to not give in to oppression or injustice but to resist it through non-violent means even if it means making supreme sacrifices and if all else fails resort to limited use of force to obviate the immediate cause of dissonance.

EARLY SIKHS

Banda received enthusiastic support from Sikhs in his mission of reactive crusade to carve out space that could bring some sense of safety and security in an environment where disparate forces were jostling for power. Groups of Jats, Gujars and Rajputs aligned with Banda.

The carnage he let loose had a salutary effect in bringing down lawlessness. He abolished zamindari and declared cultivators as owners of land. His injunction for troops was strict observance of Khalsa rules of conduct – no use of tobacco, drugs or intoxicants, no theft or adultery. He gave away the wealth seized from Government treasuries to his rank and file. This brought him goodwill but his rule; a mix of benevolence, ruthlessness and revenge dissipated the same stormy way it had risen. 

Similar scenarios were reenacted several times during the tumultuous 18th century. Sikh bands actively fought the rulers and invading forces in a series of drawn out guerrilla encounters and progressively succeeded in gaining the upper hand. They saw their actions as struggle to subdue evil and sacrifices made by Sikh men, women and children memorialized in Sikh ardas became part of history.

During this difficult period too the Gurdwara continued with its proactive activities to the extent possible. Additionally it became the center for deliberations by the community, for taking consensual decisions, for coordinating strategic and logistic effort and keeping the community abreast of developments.

Even though late in the century Sikhs succeeded in bringing significant parts of Punjab in their control but there is evidence that their endeavor was not always driven by motive to establish their rule. Sikhs agreed to retire most of their soldiery in Delhi back to Punjab on an understanding that Baghel Singh would be allowed to build seven Gurdwaras in Delhi to commemorate their sacred sites. His troops also kept peace and order in the city.

Ranjit Singh emerged as the Sikh leader who in a systematic manner worked to create a well-governed Sikh rule. He also was able to bring order to the western frontier and stop further invasions. Population in the region was thus able to enjoy relative peace for the first time in several centuries.

Sikhs had earned a lot of goodwill through their sacrifices and good conduct. As the ruling elite now they displayed the sagacity to be non discriminatory, just and generous. It was a period when for a short while the society did not need reactive activism from them – it was ensured through good governance.

COMING OF THE BRITISH

A couple of developments seem to be relevant to our discussion. Firstly the British tended to acknowledge Sikh martial traits and reinforced their self-image of valor. This provided a continuing link with their immediate past experience and sublimated into Sikh readiness to continue to espouse causes that they held dear or in patriotic fervor unmindful of sacrifices that it may entail. The other was the competitive as well as assimilative pressure that Sikhs began to experience, especially from Hindus bringing the question of Sikh identity into forefront. 

The sacrifices they made and even their successful non-violent movement in 1920’s did not help Sikhs become participants in the mainstream political or social conversations. Evidently under the new political dispensation, being small in numbers and with limited resources the ability of Sikhs to make a difference in the social arena was severely constrained. Fears of assimilation played into this sense of being marginalized and turned them inward in a self-critical mode, not quite sure how to position themselves in and engage with the emerging social milieu. 

CONTEMPORARY SCENE & ISSUES

Whereas the Gurus displayed deep sensitivity to serve continuing as well as emerging needs, most of the Gurdwara funds have begun to be used up to pay those providing liturgical services and langar; with the bulk of capital expense being incurred to construct ostentatious Gurdwara buldings. Langar is becoming more of a signature Sikh practice. Shared mainly by the sangat it is acquiring the character of a fellowship meal in place of its egalitarian social and altruistic purpose. The three trends come together to reinforce the inward turn among Sikhs.

SRM extols Sikh collective activism saying that ‘the concept of service is not confined to fanning the congregation, service to and in the Guru ka Langar etc. A Sikh’s entire life is a life of benevolent exertion. The most fruitful service is the service that secures the optimum good by minimal endeavor. That can be achieved through organized collective action. A Sikh has, for this reason, to fulfill his/her Panthic obligations, even as he/she performs his/her individual duties’ [Article XXIII].

Obviously Sikh activism as understood and practiced in Gurdwaras is not what it is intended to be either in terms of gurbani or its temporal application as enunciated in the SRM.  

 

There are several needs and problems that call for collective effort by the community but are not on the agenda of Gurdwaras:

  • Helping the poor and needy;
  • Environmental degradation;
  • Societal moral and ethical degradation;
  • Socially corrosive political values and practices;
  • Advocacy and media relations for bringing change;
  • Promoting arts and culture and
  • Developing relations with the mainstream society.

Some issues that tend to be particularly stressful for families but have not received any active support or even attention from the Gurdwaras include:

  • Marital maladjustments, divorces, single parenting
  • Dysfunctional families, domestic violence, extended family tensions
  • Youth alienation, teen suicides
  • Loneliness, isolation, absence of support system
  • Cultural inhibitions

Some of this neglect could be traced to structure of Sikh religious hierarchy. Gurdwaras as an institution delivered in Guru’s times because the authority was vested in the Guru who provided spiritual guidance and leadership. In the present set up the source of authority and its line of flow is fuzzy.

This problem becomes critical when we try and relate to other faiths or to the agencies in the secular world. Taking the interfaith issues first. To bring about reconciliation and to move beyond historical animosities the dialogical engagement would benefit if the interlocutors could influence change within their faith setting. In our case the engagement is at local activist level and it is an accomplishment if a Gurdwara functionary comes to a meeting. There is no talk of forgiveness or reconciliation or agreement to permit inter faith service in the Gurdwara precincts because it will cause – maryada ulanghna – breech of tradition.

The situation gets murkier when we come to the most pressing problems facing humanity viz broken homes, human rights violations, environmental degradation, armed conflict and the like. The faith of miri-piri and manas ki jaat sabhai eko pehchanbho is totally out of depth here. Where and in what activist manner are we seized of these issues as a faith community? Who should the agencies working in these areas get in touch with as a concerned group? The problem of female infanticide has just received promise of active interest from SGPC when the directive against kurimars has been part of Sikh ethos from the time of Guru Gobind Singh. The cleanup of Bain Nadi has been accomplished by a lone volunteer and till today we have not heard a word of concern from the SGPC or the Akal Takhat regarding the poisons running through the water resources of this land of five rivers where the Gurus sang songs extolling water as pita and jit harya sabh koe.[1]

Another reason is that Gurdwaras presently do not afford any opportunity for sangat to consult internally or be in the loop on decision processes, choice of projects or asked to get involved in socially responsible intervention with the world external to the Gurdwara. This explains why initiatives of the type at Duxbury are not even heard of in our sangats.

Social engagement of religious groups is not bounded within the confines of beliefs, rites and rituals or esoteric symbolisms. Faith traditions grow within certain cultural milieus and some culture related characteristics come to be associated with religious groups. In our case our potential for effective social engagement using our cultural heritage is inhibited by our rigid separation of the religious and the secular.

I also sense that our inability to consolidate our gains and build on our successes has contributed to our declining ability to make an impact socially. We are endowed with an excellent theology on social responsibility. We were the last religious group to cede rule to the British. In independent India we achieved early economic success by taking avidly to the green revolution. However we either kept our advantage under sacred wraps or squandered it away.

Thankfully in India there is a growing sense of buoyancy among Sikhs and they are now more visibly engaged in social service projects. I am quite impressed with the range of Gurdwara based programs like hospitals and schools that I have seen grow over the last two decades. Sikhs have also responded to the problems arising from the 80’s to develop activist forums and their help to disaster victims has been quick and visible. There are several other initiatives that are reassuring that Sikh activism is reviving.

Situation relating to the Diaspora however is not as comforting. Their involvement with issues of social concern is only marginal, if so. Their main focus has been to establish Gurdwaras and organize Sikh camps for the youth. In recent years some initiatives to reach out to the mainstream gained urgency because of post Sep. 11 experiences. There also have been some projects to establish Sikh chairs in a few universities, exhibitions of Sikh art and artifacts at some well-known galleries and film festivals. The core issues that remain the concern of social activists have not witnessed Sikh involvement as a faith group. The reasons for this phenomenon are the same as in the Indian situation, only a bit more pronounced. At the individual level too Sikh giving has found its way more to India than to local causes ostensibly in a nostalgic bid to reconnect with their roots or possibly because of other pragmatic considerations. There too most of contribution is intended for religious projects with only a small portion going for other socially relevant initiatives.

CONCLUDING

We do have problems in our social activism at the present time. This lapse possibly does not seize our attention weighed down as we are with internal identity issues and growing alienation among the youth. We also are still struggling to figure out how to position ourselves as a minority to be able to effectively engage the mainstream as a faith group on issues of broader social concern. In the process we are turning inwards, talking more about what the Gurus said and did rather than trying to carry their example and mission forward. We have to move beyond ruminating. We can recall our acts of social responsibility a million times in our ardas – it will not enable us to engage effectively in causes that are of importance in today’s context. That ability will only be enhanced if we talk about what is impeding us presently to become more engaged and involved as a faith group. Once we are able to think through I have no doubt we would succeed in repositioning ourselves as concerned social activists very quickly and effectively. Sikh transition from ruminating to talking will not come easy. Walking is not a problem once they get to know the way – if at all they will have to be dissuaded from plunging headlong!


[1] The reader may find the following extract from the executive summary of A BITTER HARVEST: Farmer suicide and the unforeseen social, environmental and economic impacts of the Green Revolution in Punjab, India as instructive: ‘This report takes issue with these declarations by exploring the Revolution’s darker side. In so doing, one quickly encounters an increasing, unmistakable and brutal pattern of farmer suicide across the state. The links between the Green Revolution and this suicide epidemic are found in a web of interconnected crises that have enveloped rural Punjab over the last several decades; crises born of the same processes that so greatly increased rice and wheat yields to begin with. This report examines three such critical issues: increasing rates of rural inequality, ecological collapse both in soil and water systems, and skyrocketing levels of debt among Punjabi farmers.



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