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Re-defining Sikh Activism

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Aman Singh, Oct 17, 2009.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    (Re)Defining Sikh Activism
    Sikh Scholars, Ivory Towers, and the Sikh Community
    A critique by Jaspreet Kaur

    The author engages with suggestions made by Prof IJ Singh and charaterises these as efforts "to plug holes that don’t actually exist." She argues against the tendency to manufacture a discourse that paints Sikh scholars as haplessly esoteric and unable to visualize the 'bigger picture' and underlines that the entire argument supporting this claim is feeble.

    In July, Professor IJ Singh published an article, “The Ivory Towers, or Towers of Learning,” which generates a discourse whereby Sikh scholars, particularly those whose work is philosophically inflected, are painted as well-meaning but ultimately isolated theorists who can offer little insight on the community’s practical concerns. Using the figure of the “public intellectual,” he subtly suggests that only social and political activism can be of real value to the Sikh community. While the article claims to express tensions that exist between the community and Sikh studies scholars, it actually produces these very tensions. By relegating Sikh scholars to a so-called “ivory tower,” the article will effectively deprive the Sikh community of much needed rigorous intellectual engagement.

    The minutiae of Professor IJ Singh’s article might be better understood in the larger context of Sikh activity in the United States since 9/11, activity which has been defined by social and political activism. Since 9/11, minority communities in America have been made to feel the urgent need to define themselves as simultaneously distinct yet compliant with American democracy. These minority communities, including Sikhs, have recognized that in order to secure their precarious position they have to define a space for themselves within Western discourse using the very language of Western liberalism. Among educated Sikh professionals, it is thought that now, more than ever, America needs to know who Sikhs are and where they fit in with American society. Thus, fighting for Sikhs’ rights has become inextricably linked with the need to represent Sikhi as inherently amenable to the modernist Western ethos.

    In the intervening years since 9/11, Sikhs in America have created several activist organizations, and many organizations pre-existing 9/11 have become more active than ever. Through their work, such as getting involved in the political process, fighting discrimination through legal means, and taking part in inter-faith dialogues with other religious groups, these organizations are responsible for defining the public image of Sikhs. Reflected in this image is the idea that Sikhs are an autonomous religious community with a distinct physical identity and are comprised of hard-working, entrepreneurial, and civic-minded people.

    Sikh activist organizations also encourage Sikhs to aspire to and assume this self-image. The self-image unites the unswerving solidarity with Sikh identity and the distinguishing characteristics of respected American citizens. It reflects the bourgeois ideal, which includes being fundamentally committed to religious values (at least outwardly), being impeccably educated and accomplished, having upper-middle class status and a non-threatening demeanor, and bearing a moral responsibility to alleviate social ills. In the past two decades, Sikhs have proliferated camps, competitions, conferences, and retreats aimed at bringing Sikh children and young adults closer to inhabiting this ideal. These events mark out the scores of Sikh youth whose relation to Sikhi is often confused and sporadic, and try to stabilize that disconnect using various exercises and activities. These exercises and activities, not to mention the forums themselves, appeal to the participants’ modernist sensibilities. All of this helps consolidate the projected image of Sikhs in America.

    This account of Sikh activism in America is far from complete (I am leaving out, for instance, the vast amount of activism that goes on surrounding the Khalistani movement), but it does illustrate that Sikh activity in America has been relegated to social and political activism which takes place within the narrow parameters of Western liberal discourse. This activism has entirely justified in perceiving that Sikhs need to define a space or mode of existence for themselves, but it seeks to etch out that space within very constricted boundaries. I am not suggesting we abandon this activism; it has made changes in the lives of many people. However, we also need a sustained effort to deconstruct the boundaries imposed on this space and the very narrow possibilities of existence that it affords us. It is only through this process of deconstruction that we will be able to create a more authentic space for ourselves, a space where we need not simply thirst for recognition or acceptance. This deconstruction is not equated to anarchy or a return to pre-colonial life, but rather to a fresh engagement with a focus on participating in the process instead of defining it in any given framework. We can not know in advance what this authentic space will look like, but we know that it will emerge as we continue to interrogate it. All of this is only possible through intellectual engagement, and this intellectual engagement is largely possible through scholarship.

    For most readers this obviously leads to a litany of questions and doubts. For many, this intellectual activity seems tactless. After all, don’t shifting paradigms require shifting advocacies? So, why not just maximize our efforts within whatever “space” is available to us, since we can not possibly enact what seems tantamount to a revolution? At least social and political activism is useful, seeing as how it seems to make our lives more livable, but what use is intellectualism that seems to mean so little in real terms? These questions can not be adequately treated in this article, but one problem with these questions is that they are based on a faulty assumption (which is unfortunately also reflected in Professor IJ Singh’s article) that these two kinds of activity, which we have roughly described as “social and political activism” and “intellectual engagement,” are mutually exclusive and can be mapped onto a binary of “useful” and “useless.” In actuality, they are on a continuum. Intellectual engagement is a more profound and comprehensive form of activism, one that will initiate more authentic change. Devoting ourselves to developing Sikh scholarship will ultimately allow us to act with more freedom, sensitivity, and effectiveness; it will make us better activists.

    One of the most significant efforts to initiate serious intellectual engagement among Sikh students was at UC-Berkeley, in the form of a student-initiated course on Sikhi. The course was taught regularly from 2002 until 2008. It addressed the same themes discussed by the many Sikh retreats and conferences that take place across America, such as cultural translation, the issue of language, human rights, spirituality, history, and many others. The difference is that the course approached these themes with a much richer, more knowledgeable, and more nuanced perspective.

    The course drew upon a variety of resources, most of which were academic. The students in the class most certainly had a hard time following the complicated material and lectures. Sikh scholars operate within a field which is complex, and therefore, are not easily comprehended. However, it would be absurd to suggest that the course was out of touch with reality simply because students could not understand all of it. After having taken the course for several semesters, I know that many students did gain a lot in understanding and inspiration, and I can safely say that the course brought the students closer to reality. The class is one of the few efforts in the country that creates genuine intellectual ferment among Sikh students, and it is something that the community should support with its fullest might. It is currently not being offered at UC-Berkeley, but perhaps it can be revived.

    In light of this entire context, Professor IJ Singh’s article is highly problematic. To begin with, his assertion that Sikh scholars only communicate with a limited audience is simplistic and misleading. Professor Singh creates a typology in which he delineates three different levels of writing and communication produced by scholars: that which is meant for other scholars in their sub-specialty; that which is meant for other scholars beyond their sub-specialty, and that which is meant for the educated lay person. He suggests that Sikh scholars have rarely ventured beyond the first, narrowest sphere of communication, and implies that this renders them somewhat useless to the community at large. But his dichotomy between scholar and community simply does not hold up.

    Not only do Sikh scholars engage in discussions spanning across several disciplines, there have been several examples in recent years where Sikh scholars have successfully participated in events that initiated discussion with non-academic community members. Two years ago, Professors Arvind-pal Mandair, Balbinder Singh Bhogal, Pal Singh Ahluwalia, and Gurharpal Singh (professors who rigorously engage with philosophy and critical theory) participated in a 4 day conference in which they interacted with, not other academics, but undergraduate students and community members. This past June, Professor Bhogal attended a 4 day conference in which he lived and interacted with Sikh youth. Just a few weeks ago, these aforementioned professors, as well as several other academics, participated in a 2 day seminar at the UC-Berkeley campus that was widely attended by community members. At the most recent seminar, community members not only attended the event, but actually participated in the dialogue happening among the scholars by asking questions and making thoughtful comments. Undoubtedly, many of them did not understand what was being said, and neither did many students. But I could just as easily spot community members who felt that they understood enough to make the entire conference a worthwhile experience for them and the community. These examples suggest that we already have Sikh scholars who are “public intellectuals.”

    Professor Singh also asserts that Sikh scholars are inaccessible largely because of their language and style. This creates the impression that Sikh scholars are being unnecessarily abstruse and that their inaccessibility is due to the superficial matter of language and style, which they could easily change if they so wished. It is certainly true that community members often express dissatisfaction with Sikh scholars for being difficult to understand or failing to directly address issues that are important to them, but this dissatisfaction is due to their perception about what it is that scholars are doing (or not doing) rather than any actual conflict of interest between what is deemed “scholarly concern” and “community issues.” Scholars investigate issues that are wholly relevant to the community. The difference is that they approach these issues using more penetrative and sophisticated tools. For this, they necessarily need a highly penetrative and sophisticated language and style, but their work cannot be reduced to those elements. At the recent conference in Berkeley, scholars discussed the same issues that the community often wants to talk about, such as memory, history, state violence, and martyrdom, but their discussions were necessarily of a different character.

    Professor Singh offers up two concrete solutions to the problem has attempted to present us with: offering research fellowships and research support. Unfortunately, he does not adequately explain why either of these initiatives is necessary or beneficial. When discussing research fellowships, he points out political figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Kofi Annan who have taken up academic positions, and cites this as an example of non-academic lay persons influencing and enriching academia. But, when he suggests that Sikh Studies programs adopt this approach, I am left horribly confused, and with several questions. The first and most fundamental question is: if political actors who have vested political interests, and who have never entered into rigorous intellectual engagement, begin to influence the kind of scholarship that is being produced, how can we possibly take this as a positive development? Also, how exactly could we apply this model in the Sikh Studies paradigm? We can only presume that Professor Singh means to imply that Sikh community activists be given ad hoc positions in Sikh Studies departments. Just who these activists are and what qualifications they bring is anyone’s guess. If Professor Singh’s primary concern is that scholars are divorced from the community’s concerns, then this particular initiative does not seem to be the best solution for bridging the supposed gap. As illustrated above, there are other ways to create a dialogue between the lay community and Sikh scholars, and this initiative would certainly introduce community politics into Sikh Studies departments.

    Professor Singh’s other suggestion is that the Sikh community adopt a funding model similar to the one used by NIH, where a committee of academics considers proposal from other academics for specific projects and gives grants based on merit. Here again, Professor Singh does not give details about how this would be adapted by the Sikh community. Who would be on the committee controlling the dispensation of funds? If it would consist entirely of community members, what role would academics play, if any?
    My purpose in pointing out these puzzling questions that Professor IJ Singh’s proposed solutions leave us with is to draw attention to the fact that Professor Singh’s article tries to plug holes that don’t actually exist. The article manufactures a discourse in which Sikh scholars seem to be haplessly esoteric and unable to visualize the “bigger picture,” and where the gap between Sikh studies and the community has become alarmingly large. It implies that there is a need for a completely new kind of scholar, one who will have the sensitivity and sense of moral obligation that current Sikh scholars apparently lack. The entire argument supporting this claim is feeble.

    What is troubling about Professor IJ Singh’s article is that irresponsibly disseminates a discourse that deprives the community of badly needed intellectual engagement, and will ultimately do more damage to the community than good. The community should re-evaluate its priorities. While we should certainly continue with the considerable amount of social and political activism we do, we need to be expending just as much effort on developing thriving Sikh scholars who have a powerful, internationally-recognized voice in academia. And we should certainly not be dismissing this scholarship (however implicitly) as useless or unconcerned with the community’s general welfare.

    The author is a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.
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