SIKH SOCIAL ACTIVISM – THEN & NOW

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Social activism is rooted in and sustained by concern in human equality, common good, compassion, justice and controlling of evil forces that may affect the society. Religious leadership in the West is involved and encourages laity at the congregational levels to get actively involved in socially relevant projects.

SOCIAL ACTIVISM & SIKH RELIGIOUS LIFE

Gurbani sets clear markers for social conduct. Supporting the family by honest endeavor and giving some for the common good is commended as highly virtuous. Discrimination in any form is condemned. So are injustice, corruption and unethical behavior by those in positions of power. They must be held accountable for being just and equitable and open to moral scrutiny. The people also must be consciously concerned and involved and not be apathetic – like effigies filled with straw. Their life styles must be realized in and as a part of the totality of the world as God created it.

The Gurus did not leave these as precepts but built them into praxis. In his later years Guru Nanak settled down at a place that came to be known as Kartarpur, and set up a dharamsal where the devotees used to gather every evening to sing God’s praises and share a community meal. To this assembly, breaking prevalent inhibitions, none was excluded.  The community grew and the dharamsal, over time, became the center where prayer and seva moved in tandem. Characteristic features of dharamsal included providing shelter and food for the needy and wayfarers – integrating inclusiveness and effort for common good with Sikh religious life from the beginning.

The Gurus continued to expand their activist interventions to address emerging needs of the society. Guru Amardas asked Akbar for relief for the farmers hit by drought. Starting with Guru Hargobind, the successor Gurus maintained an armed retinue to protect the community and others from oppression by officials and local satraps. Guru Har Krishan died of contracting small pox tending to the sick in Delhi. Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life so Hindus could have their freedom of faith.

With Guru Gobind Singh the Sikh resolute activism saw its culmination. The Khalsa was ready to protect what was righteous and resist what was not with the use of arms. A chronicle from that time shows that apart from sacrifice for shared humanity some Sikhs had imbibed the message of treating friend and foe alike. As the weary sun was going down after a day of skirmishes an old Sikh, Kanhaiya, was seen tending the wounded of both sides and ministering sips of water to the thirsty. Seeing this the Sikhs were upset and asked Guru Gobind Singh to stop Kanhaiya from comforting the enemy. The Guru asked them to call him and ask – why? Brought before the Guru, Kanhaiya humbly said ‘Lord you told us to recognize all human race as one. When I go tending the wounded and I look at them I see your image in each of them. If you pervade in all, I see only you and no enemy!’

The Gurus thus not only gave Sikhs the theological foundation for social action but also integrated it with their religious life. 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 equality, harmony, sharing, self-reliance and seva;
  • A reactive response to not give in to discrimination, 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.

SIKHS ON THEIR OWN

When Sikhs came on their own post Guru Gobind Singh, with memories of oppression suffered at the hands of local satraps fresh, their will to fight back was strong. It was in this climate that the campaign waged by Banda Bahadur was the start of a long reactive Sikh response to carve out space that could bring some sense of safety and security in an environment where disparate forces were jostling for power.

Banda succeeded and his short-lived rule, a mix of benevolence and ruthlessness, had a salutary effect in bringing down lawlessness. Apprehended Banda and his troops showed exemplary courage and fortitude when tortured to death. Edward Stephenson and John Surman, who had witnessed the scenes, wrote to their governor at Fort William: “It is not a little remarkable with what patience Sikhs undergo their fate, and to the last it has not been found that one apostatized from his new formed religion.”[1]

This scenario was 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. The conflict was seen as struggle to subdue evil forces subjugating the society.

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 to coordinate strategic and logistic effort and other problems of shared concern.

Towards the end of 18th century Ranjit Singh, a young Sikh leader, was able to establish Sikh rule and stop further incursions from across the western frontier. His subjects thus were able to enjoy relative peace for the first time in several centuries.

During the half-century of Sikh rule the Sikh social activism received State patronage and it thrived as well as diversified. Sikhs had earned a lot of goodwill through their sacrifices and 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 governance.

CONTEMPORARY SCENE & ISSUES

The contemporary scene presents a mixed bag. Sikh Gurdwara based traditional activism – langar, serai, seva – has continued and Sikhs have been channeling their offerings to Gurdwaras. Yet closer examination would show that most of the Gurdwaras and Sikhs as a religious group have been negligent of problems like broken homes, environmental degradation, human rights violations, armed conflict etc. that constitute the core issues in contemporary social activism.

We will take a few examples. SGPC recognized the problem of female infanticide only recently when the directive against kurimars has been part of Sikh ethos from the time of Guru Gobind Singh. A lone volunteer took up the mission for the cleanup of Bain Nadi. Till today we have not heard a word of concern from SGPC or the Akal Takhat regarding the poisons running through the water resources of the land where the Gurus sang songs extolling water as pita and jit harya sabh koe.

Even though the religious leadership has been tardy, Sikhs in India are now more visibly engaged in eradication of social evils and improvement in the condition of their fellow beings. I am quite impressed with the range of Gurdwara based programs like hospitals and schools that I have seen grow in recent years. Sikhs have also responded to problems arising from the 80’s to develop activist forums to aid the victims and seek justice. Their help to recent disaster victims has been quick and visible.

Situation relating to the Diaspora however is not as comforting. Their involvement, as a faith group, with the core issues espoused by social activists is only marginal. 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

The lapses in our social activism possibly do not seize our attention weighed down as we are with structural problems of religious authority, identity issues and growing alienation among the youth. We are also still struggling to figure out how to position ourselves as a minority to effectively engage the mainstream as a faith group on issues of broader social concern. In the process we are 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 re-positioning 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 may have to be dissuaded from plunging headlong!

Full citations:

[1] J T Wheeler, Early Records of British India, p. 180.

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