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Sikh Misls, Part II:
Rights & Obligations of Citizenship

by I.J. SINGH

 

 

The Roundtable Open Forum # 57 

 

In Part I of this two-part series I explored the history and traditions of Sikh Misls as a possible model for modern Sikh institutional structure. No matter how sensible or workable the system hat we design, its acceptability hangs on how we count our members - Sikhs.

I ended part I with the admonition that we face one deeply rooted and critically substantial hurdle that cannot be swept aside by good intentions alone: How membership in each misl would be regulated.

In the 18th century, membership was restricted to male amridharis. Do we need to change the rules? How is the leader of a misl to be anointed? By democratic elections alone?

Keep in mind that criteria for membership or leadership in democratic political systems are not always quite so simple. As a citizen I, like many of my readers, enjoy largely equal rights and obligations except that, not being American born, the Presidency of the country is not open to me. (This is not to suggest that I am hankering after or deserving of such an opportunity. But it is pertinent to the discussion.)

Many models for self-governance are possible - from monarchy, plutocracy and oligarchy to representative democracy. History convinces us that democracy is a pretty messy system that is easily corrupted except that it is better than the alternatives.

I promised to explore these caveats in this the second part of what we started. Let's step into this minefield with eyes wide open. The first and foremost question that would likely suck us into its quicksand is: Who is a Sikh?

Our success or failure depends on how we respond to this one primal question.

During the heyday of the misls in the 18th century, the misl member was only a male amritdhari Sikh. This seems to have been the agreed upon definition. It is direct, simple and apparently easily enforceable, since it does not seem to intrude into the lifestyle or character traits of the person. The criterion of good moral character may enter into the equation if he is to be considered for a leadership role, but then it hinges on the public opinion about the person.

But how else does one evaluate character in the public persona in the absence of a legal record of criminal behavior. Also remember that religions, at their core, are forgiving institutions and guarantee second chances for sinners. Religions are not for perfect people and Sikhi is no exception.

I know that in the 18th century Sikhi's warrior misls were restricted to amritdhari males. I also know that the Gurus strove mightily to push the society of the day towards gender equality. In the new world this is now the accepted norm if not yet the reality. Also, we continue to fight wars everyday but it is now increasingly with knowledge and weapons of the mind. The global village offers a different turf and previously undiscovered goals. Changed they are but they are not inconsistent with what the Gurus taught.

I see that we now have at least three kinds of Sikhs around us: those that are amritdhari and many of them even live the reality of their commitment; there are also those who perhaps look like Sikhs but their commitment swings between merely cultural loyalty on one extreme and a deep seated attachment to the teachings and character traits of Sikhi on the other; and then there are those who, for whatever reason, are not recognizable Sikhs - here, too, the commitment and feeling for Sikhi represents all possible gradations.

But they are Sikhs, nevertheless. Why do I say that? Of the many possible arguments I offer only one.

When Guru Gobind Singh staged the dramatic event in 1699 that created the institution of the Khalsa, history tells us that perhaps upwards of 80,000 Sikhs attended, and about 20,000 became amritdhari during those days. Yet there is no record that Guru Gobind Singh berated or rejected those who did not. He did not say to them "You are not my Sikhs; get out of my face." We need to keep that in mind.

There is also another reality that we should not forget. To every nation or institution that people belong to there are two essentials: first an individual identity, definition and sense of self; and secondly, the corporate or institutional definition of identity. Our corporate identity is rooted in the Sikh Code of Conduct (Sikh Rehat Maryada). Like the Constitution of any country it is open to amendment but only after a careful deliberative process; it is not a document to be arbitrarily toyed with. And the fundamentals remain sacrosanct.

Often I have argued that I see the Sikhs of the world like runners in a marathon. Some will near the endpoint in a couple of hours; many will take half a day, and some will never get there. Yet to me they are all working their way in the same direction on the same path though they are not at the same place at any given time. The direction of movement is critical.

I would then argue that our institutions, our misls and the gurdwaras, should remain welcoming and open to all who desire to walk the path, but I would counsel a hefty dose of humility, tolerance and humor to all the amritdharis and to the wannabes.

What I am asking is this: Wouldn't it be better to design institutions that are open to women and all shades of Sikhs as well?

Another question is how to anoint the leaders? Humanity's history tells us that the democratic process of voting plurality is divisive and easily corrupted. Perhaps we could draw upon the example of how Roman Catholics elect their Pope. It is by unanimity via secret ballot irrespective of how many times the balloting has to be repeated. I am not suggesting that we adopt this model; only its thoughtful analysis. We are not electing a Pope, nor should we.

This emphatically does not mean that we set aside the teachings of the Gurus on the need and the goals of an amritdhari life. My take here is merely recognition of human failing and I would ask  those who walk the path only half-heartedly to keep that in mind. They need to approach their role in Sikh institutions with an acceptance of the teachings and a sense of their own weakness and not stride in with a sense of entitlement.

Think for a moment. Most of us immigrants here are now citizens and enjoy an equal place at the table of this great society - well, almost equal. The Presidency of the country is not open to us because we were born outside the United States. In other words, the process of Americanization is in our bones for less than a generation. We recognize the inequity and yet accept it because we understand intuitively that it takes a lifetime (and not just a few years) to become steeped in a way of life and that means a way of thinking and being, not just the superficial changes of attire, accent, language and passport.

What I am aiming at is a conversation about how we look at ourselves and what institutions we create to carry us forward. In other words, how to connect our past with our present and how then to think of our future is the meaning of my exercise today.

I assure you the devil is in the details. But if we don't take on these matters, who will? And if not now, when?

 

I invite readers to share your thoughts on the aforesaid, and on the discussion we had last week under Part I of this piece. Please post your comments below.  

 

ijsingh99@gmail.com

January 12, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Surjan Singh (Ireland), January 12, 2011, 1:47 PM.

My humble suggestion: Representatives of local communities should meet the following basic prerequisites: a) no criminal record; b) amritdhari, sehajdhari or patit, they should believe ONLY in One God; be guided by the teachings of the eleven Gurus; and believe in the efficacy of Amrit Parchar; c) have minimum B.A. level formal education; d) read, speak and write Punjabi/ Gurmukhi. Leadership roles at a national or international level should require the following basic requirements: a) rehat in accordance with the Rehat Maryada; b) amritdhari; c) no criminal record; d) minimum of B.A. level formal education; e) fluency in English and Punjabi; demonstrable skills and history (unblemished) in community leadership. These are some quick thoughts ... others please add, if I have left out anything crucial.

2: Liv Kaur (California, U.S.A.), January 12, 2011, 1:54 PM.

Any one representing Sikhs, locally or otherwise, must refrain from using any last name other than Singh or Kaur. Any reliance on caste affiliation or politics should be an automatic disqualifier, even while holding office.

3: Didar Singh (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), January 12, 2011, 3:31 PM.

I don't know how this can be done - but it has been done, I'm told, successfully in a number of Sikh ventures in Toronto, for example. And it is imperative that it be integral to the process being recommended by Dr. I.J. Singh ji. Here's what it entails: All representative groups selected by congregations must be fully cognizant of, and inclusive of the fault-lines in the body of the community: male/ female, young/ old, turbaned/ unturbaned, caste affiliations, professionals/ entrepreneurs/ unskilled workers, etc, new immigrants/ local born ... and so on. And care must be taken to ensure that ALL constituencies are catered to, heard, involved and represented. The venture will succeed only if all these sections are made part of the solution. How one does it is up to the thinkers and planners. I realize it's a bit of a mine-field - does one write this in the constitution or should it be left as a moral imperative? But there is NO problem which cannot be solved.

4: Maney G. (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), January 13, 2011, 12:37 AM.

I would hesitate to restrict leadership roles to those that are fluent in Punjabi or who have to be Amritdhari or restricted to an education level, etc., etc. This shows that we have restrictions when in fact I don't read or write Punjabi nor do I wear a turban but I consider myself as much of a Sikh as anyone. I don't believe the Gurus posed restrictions on people and we should not pose restrictions on our own people. Regarding using last names, I would say that is unimportant. I know my last name, I know my caste, but I don't use it to judge others or myself. When one knows what they are "told" to be, yet they CHOOSE to be open, that is true open mindedness. Eliminating one's last name and using Kaur or Singh does not always produce open mindedness, it's the acceptance of diversity which makes the world an interesting place and a strong mindset that makes it a joyous one. Let's not lose that.

5: Ajay Singh (Rockville, MD, USA), January 13, 2011, 4:11 PM.

This is a huge task, considering the sacrifices Sikhs have made to attain the institutions we have at the present time, namely, S.G.P.C., Akal Takth, Akali Party, etc. I am not sure if this type of forum will be productive but I could be wrong. Nevertheless, it will not stop me from giving my two cents, particularly on management affairs, S.G.P.C., etc. I think a good starting point will be to reflect and analyze the successes and failures of the S.G.P.C. and build upon that body of experience. Some of the failures: 1) Very early on, it fell prey to "Jis ki laatthi, oos ki bhains," by that I mean people who made the sacrifice and were at the forefront of the Sikh Movement of the 1920's. Namely, peasantry, uneducated, village folks. There were no Rai Bahadars or Sardar Bahadars, no doctors or lawyers who bore the laatthis or bullets, at any of the morchas. I could be wrong but there is no doubt that S.G.P.C. was and is fronted by men who can relate to the peasantry. I think this is perhaps the biggest drawback. 2) It is subject to the authority of the Government of India, the District Collector of Amritsar has to be present at all meetings and approves any motions. Sikhs have fallen prey to such failures on numerous occasions. I mean, the Sikh Movement was tremendous as far as frontal attack was concerned, but failed in backroom negotiations which resulted in a flawed Constitution and amendments are perhaps impossible. In the 80's, Akalis were made to look like fools by Indira when she called them six times to Delhi and agreed to their demands behind doors but always rejected them out in the media. Sikhs have nothing to show for the huge non-violent morchas of the early 80's. SYL is incomplete not because of an agreement but because of armed disruption rendering it too costly. 3) No transparency of its decision making and working. No accountability. No clear process of election. Tohra was the President for 25 years and during most of his tenure there were no elections. 4) Ambitious outreach programs, such as colleges, schools, but no vision and accountability or credible management of such institutions. 5) No credible investment in historical research, Gurmukhi, Sikh culture, artifacts. 6) A very flawed and corrupt process (loosely using this term) of appointing and removing Takth Jathedars and high priests. Successes: a) Most historical gurdwaras are under Sikh Management, at least. b) Built institutions, however, flawed. c) Have great community outreach and addressing Punjabi issues. d) It is a start, a great stepping stone, a proud achievement. It will take a lot of sacrifice to extract S.G.P.C. from the clutches of the Government of India, I do not see that level of commitment, foresight from the Sikhs of Punjab. Even if they do, D.G.P.C., Huzoor Sahib, Patna Sahib will never be allowed to come under S.G.P.C. Maybe I am cynical, but the S.G.P.C. will never be a success story, the Government of India will not let that happen. These are not the British, these are Indians and Jinnah was right in saying: "You have seen them as slaves, you have not seen them as masters!" There is no doubt that for Sikhi to flourish, Punjab has to play a big role and not only East but West Punjab. We cannot exclude the birthplace of Sikhi in our dreams of a brighter future. Having said that, I think the model of Misls will suit us very well. But, it must start here, in the U.S., Canada, U.K. There has to be an Amriki Misl and an Angrezi Misl before we can have a Nankana Sahib Misl or a Patiala Misl. They will have to cater to the needs of the Sikhs living under these Misls. Some of them are: i) Education, to include Gurmukhi, history, research, endowments, inter and intra community interaction. ii) Political, perhaps. iii) Culture - Punjabi, Sikhi. I don't like to use Indian culture, it is not old enough (1947) to say the least. I am sure there are several more. On the crucial part of election, I prefer, selection or vetting but the primary requirement has to be Amritdhari and a substantial body of work in the field of Sikhi, whether that is education, preaching, language, but has to have knowledge of Bani. I am not in favor of membership, hence no elections, so the vetting process does become a challenge but then this is not going to be an easy task. I know I am short on the future but I believe that we have to reflect and understand our past to move forward. I can go on, but I think it is a good point to stop and perhaps get some feedback if possible.

6: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (U.S.A.), January 15, 2011, 7:38 AM.

The solution is simple. We "overseas" Sikhs must stand on our own two legs and not rely on the S.G.P.C., etc. - these institutions are controlled by the Indian government and other corrupt parties. We must build our own institutions in our respective countries. Trying to reach out to so-called Punjabi Sikh leadership is useless and detrimental to the movement outside of Punjab. Coming back to what we're discussing, a Sikh is anyone that says they're a Sikh; who am I to judge if they are or aren't? However I agree that leaders should have taken Amrit. However, they must understand that they represent everybody equally (those that have taken Amrit, those that wear Dastaars, and those that don't - both male and females of all ages). I feel this should be done by secret vote and it should be compulsory for all Sikhs to vote - this is what Australia does very successfully. The Misls should subsequently meet once or twice a year to deliberate, provide support to each other and to come out with a single statement representing all Misls - this is what the Akal Takht used to be (except it's now a controlling mechanism for those in power). The time is here that we act and setup our global structure. So what's the next step?

7: M.K.S. (New York, U.S.A.), January 15, 2011, 10:10 AM.

We need to study other non-state nations and how they operate, and then adapt their model to our needs. Some that come to mind are the Jews (prior to the creation of Israel), the Palestinians, the native Americans/Canadians, the Hmong ... I think an especially good case study would be the 'Jewish Agency' which acted as a defacto Jewish government before there was the state of Israel. They operated in many countries in Europe and Americas. The Palestinian Authority and the current day Southern Sudan movement are also good examples.

8: Maney G. (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), January 16, 2011, 4:10 AM.

After reading all the comments, I have one more response. I agree with most of the comments. It's refreshing to see Sikhs around the world so passionate about wanting to correct things. My point regarding allowing Sikhs that do not wear turbans or whatnot to be able to rise to levels of leadership is that if one does not, then we are not even practicing the so-called values that we preach of equality. I am hesitant to say that only Amritdhari Sikhs should be allowed as some of us that are not Amritdhari could be more suited to the leadership roles and those that are, may not be. I would say we as a Sangat should look upon the person only. For example, for me, I see many Sikhs act in ways that are not necessarily of the best moral code (but we learn from our mistakes), so why is one type of Sikh better suited to lead? As I said I wear no turban, but that is not to say I don't see value in wearing a turban. It provides a unique identity, forcing oneself to be different, and become a stronger person because of it (due to self-reflection). I admire my fellow Sikhs that do wear turbans, but I see no reason to be excluded from leadership roles because of this. Simply stating this shows close-mindedness and discrimination of sorts. I mean no disrespect to those above as I do understand your reasonings but we simply cannot pose such restrictions. It is the lack of restrictions that sets our faith apart from others and I for one do not wish to lose this. I would teach my child the values of a turban but it is who he or she is that matters most to me.

9: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), January 16, 2011, 9:10 AM.

My interest is to see that we start with something positive, preferably membership of women and saabat soorat Sikhs. Leadership should not be the issue, let intellectuals and scholars take care of it. In Toronto, almost all radio and TV hosts have already assumed the leadership of our community and even some of the gurdwara management too. They do nothing good but when opportunities arise, they just raise funds and enjoy it.

10: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), January 17, 2011, 3:52 PM.

A similar example would be Sikh Channel TV which is started by a few individuals with their own resources and money. When it became successful, it was handed over to the a group of trusties who cover the whole of Europe. A few organizations could start and hopefully , once successful and spread out in U.S.A., U.K., Canada, etc., it can then be applied in India.

11: Gobinder Singh (California, U.S.A.), January 17, 2011, 5:31 PM.

Why only discuss such great ideas and not take any action? Everyone seems to agree that initial steps need to be taken from outside Punjab then why not join resources and actually come up with some game plan? Use this portal as a starting point until we can come up with a better platform!

12: Gurmukh Singh (London, United Kingdom), January 18, 2011, 11:00 PM.

Dr. I J Singh's historical-based analysis of today's individual and corporate global Sikh needs, is thought provoking. His caveats are well placed. He has also given some useful pointers to the future so that Sikh institutions can be kept open and inclusive, but with due regard to corporate and decision-making needs of the Sikh nation. We can learn from Sikh history and tradition, but must evolve systems which make maximum use of modern media, IT networking, communication and consultation in a spirit of transparency and professional teamwork. Long gone are the days of hierarchical management structures and individual "leaders". While we can learn from the post Guru Gobind Singh period starting with Baba Banda Singh Bahadar through the Misls and on to the establishment of the "Khalsa Raj", we must avoid the success/ failure cycles - which worked well as field strategy but which failed almost as soon as there was no threat in the field. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had to destroy the power of the Misls to establish a kingdom which was "Khalsa Raj" in name only. Else, there would have been no power vacuum and bloodbath after his demise, subsequent take over by a rebel "Khalsa Army" and the systematic destruction of that army by its own non-Sikh generals. Amritdhari Sikh is an ideal we all strive towards. This ideal can be accommodated within an inclusive constitution which allows participation by all "Sikhs", but which safeguards Khalsa rehat and Panthic control of organization and decision making procedures. We are striving towards such a constitution for The Sikh Council UK - a nationwide initiative made possible by Sikh Channel TV.

13: Sukhvinder Singh (United Kingdom), January 20, 2011, 8:16 AM.

I would recommend colleagues to visit the sikhcounciluk.org website. When developing the constitution and structure for this, we did re-visit our historical institutions. One of the visions for the Sikh council UK is to help develop similar councils firstly in Europe and then network with others throughout the diaspora, a virtual global Sikh Parliament/ network. Within the constitution, we have not included the democratic process of elections but focused on selection and consensus for making decisions. This is based on the concept of 'hoa ekatar melo mer pai ...'. Leadership is based on a collective model under the 'punj pardhani' system, i.e., five equals who will act as a secretariat for the executive committee of the Sikh Council. Please visit the web-site for a report on the first general assembly meeting and progress.

14: Gurpreet Singh  (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada), February 19, 2011, 1:22 PM.

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. IJ Singh present these Roundtable thoughts via a Sikh Research Institute webinar today and had the following question which I was unable to get answered due to time constraints. Therefore, I'm posting it here: Would Dr. I.J. Singh (and others) endorse those claiming to be Sikhs be required to be "card-carrying" members, similiar to the members of the Baha'i faith who, at the age of 13-16 take an "age of independent" test, upon the successful completion of which they reaffirm their faith by literally "signing on the dotted line"? Such a membership "card" could designate Sikhs of various disciplines - e.g., amritdhari, sehajdhari, etc. On another note, I agree that the public leader of Sikhs should be an Amritdhari, well-educated, dual-language speaking Sikh regardless of gender, nationality, etc. As a follow up question: what about sexual orientation? Would Dr. Singh (and the sangat) accept a homosexual leader, I wonder? Any thoughts? On the whole, a great and much-needed discussion!

15: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), February 20, 2011, 1:11 PM.

Thank you, Gurpreet, for raising these issues. I, too, enjoyed the discussion yesterday despite the computer glitches and the truncated open discussion at the end - time constraints! I was not aware of the Baha'i position on initiation and identity. And I would endorse it as it is stated by you. Sometimes the devil is in the details and I am not quite conversant with the details of their tradition. Much more important than my opinion here would be if this can fire up the imagination of many more such that an on-going conversation emerges that results in initiative and action. Your follow up question on sexual orientation is obviously a loaded one. I will try and post an essay that I have on this topic from my latest book: "The World According to Sikhi." I'll do it within the next couple of weeks and that, I hope, will lead to a discussion. Your comments and questions are much appreciated. I don't necessarily have any answers that can be guaranteed to be correct - the idea is to foster discussion. You can also correspond with me directly at ijsingh99@gmail.com.

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