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Where Are We Heading

by CHARANPAL SINGH

 

 

A few weeks ago, the National Assembly of the Province of Quebec in Canada passed a unanimous resolution banning the entry of kirpan-wearing Sikhs to its premises. The Sikh Canadian community has widely condemned this move on the part of the Quebec Legislature.

Folklore in our community persists that we are being targeted and discriminated against by the majority population of this country. This is true to a large extent mainly because the majority community does not understand Sikh religious and cultural practices. Their reactions towards us are based on a lack of knowledge and, at times, ignorance of facts.

We, as a community, have failed to convey any meaningful information to the mainstream population concerning our beliefs, practices and way of living. This is our fault but no one among us is willing to concede it.

It is the classic behaviour: "I am not guilty; it is the other guy who is the cause of the problem!"

We think that by shifting the blame on the mainstream population for not understanding us, we become free of any responsibility in solving/ addressing our common problems as a minority in this land.

All members of the Sikh-Canadian community are individually responsible for communicating with the majority population so that local people can learn and appreciate our religious and cultural values. Gurdwaras and community institutions also have a role in this matter but the primary burden is on individuals.

We have come to this country as outsiders. As new arrivals, the burden of adapting and adjusting to the local culture, customs and life style is on us. By blending in with the local population, we begin to feel less strange in as much as the locals start accepting us as a part of the local scene.

Unfortunately a large segment of our male community decided to give up the physically distinct Sikh identity to gain local acceptance. Right or wrong, let us leave this to a matter of individual choice. Practice of any religion is based on individual commitment and individuals decide which path to take.

In the above discussion, a few markers for creating a harmonious life style for 'newcomers' or minorities to this country have been identified. To recap, these are:

a) individual responsibility
b) effort to communicate
c) ability to adapt

It should be apparent to all from reading this piece that we have not done our best in terms of individual responsibility to help locals understand our values as well as our efforts to communicate with the locals.

The ability to adapt has been partially fulfilled.

The gap pertains to the lack of learning local customs and manners, making a conscious effort to blend in with the host population without sacrificing essential elements of our religion, values and culture. We often insist on maintaining the customs of the old country regardless of their suitability to local conditions.

This brings me back to the Quebec incident described in the beginning of this write-up.

The representatives of the World Sikh Organization (WSO) who went to Quebec City to make an intervention against the proposed ban on the wearing of a veil by Muslim women was an altruistic act which shows the open mindedness of the Sikh approach to life.

What was shocking to see, however, was the image of the Legal Counsel of the WSO who presented himself at the National Assembly, as it was depicted in some of the media.

To recall, Sardar Balpreet Singh's photo in the garb of the 17th century Nihangs appeared in the Montreal Gazette, a leading Quebec and Canadian newspaper.

Though he wore a suit and tie to the National Assembly, he nevertheless exuded the image of a Nihang in the media images covering his visit. 

The Montreal Gazette was able to easily find a photo of him in historical garb and wearing a 16-inch long kirpan on the outside of his clothes.

Balpreet Singh is a young, Canadian born. He did his law studies at a Canadian school.

For a Canadian-born Sikh who has taken on a public role of a spokesman of a community or one of its institutions, to dress like a Nihang, even part-time and thus expose himself to such depiction in the media, is not reflecting a norm in the Sikh-Canadian community. His role as counsel for the World Sikh Organization is not a personal matter; it is in a representative capacity, espousing positions on behalf of an entire community.

Ninety-nine percent of Sikhs living in Canada, Canadian born or landed immigrants, do not dress like a Nihang in their daily lives.

Many non-Sikhs - and Sikhs - wondered what the WSO was thinking by sending someone who is vulnerable to such depiction in the media - which conveys a disconnect in appearance with ordinary Sikh-Canadians. And, as a result, by association, implies a total disconnect of all Sikh-Canadians with modernity.

This concern goes to the very heart of both the kirpan discussion, and the Muslim veil issue - thus, proving  obviously counter-productive.

It is my opinion that it is unbecoming of a professional who takes on the public role of a community advocate to be dressed in such a manner in public at any time. I believe he has brought ridicule to all Sikh-Canadians. 

Does Balpreet Singh believe that wearing such garb makes him a better Sikh? If so, he needs to learn more about Sikh teachings, especially what Guru Nanak said about rituals and outward show of piety.

Of course, he has the right to wear any garb he chooses. But does he then have the right to put himself forward as representing the community in that medieval garb, which does nothing but distract everyone from the issues at hand. Or even undermine the very mission he has set out to accomplish.

The leadership of WSO needs to study the basic elements of public advocacy and public/media relations, if it is to achieve much in its interventions.

They need to look at all three markers identified above for promoting harmonious living by minority religious and cultural communities in this country, and see if they are indeed on the right path.

To conclude, Balpreet Singh and WSO officials should go back to the pictures of Sikh immigrants walking the streets of Vancouver in the early 1900's. The majority were dressed in western style suits in order to blend into the local scene. And they did so without compromisng either their Sikh identity or Sikh beliefs, values and traditions.

A great number of them lacked formal education and had little or no understanding of the English language. Yet they understood the value of blending in locally to the extent they could, without abandoning their religious articles of faith. 

There is a lesson to be learned here.

Instead of presenting Sikh-Canadians as a progressive community, which it is, such slip-ups push us back in time - in the public mind - to the medieval age. It demeans all Sikhs.

It is not surprising that the opposition to the kirpan by the locals in Quebec was so swift and pervasive.

Where are we heading?

 

For a sequel to this piece (dated April 10, 2011), please CLICK here.

April 7, 2011

 

[Sardar Balpreet Singh has advised us that he was wearing a suit and tie during his attendance at the Quebec National Assembly, and that he does not wear the historical garb at all times. He also advises us that the second image on this page was taken in 2005, even though it was published by some media in covering his Quebec attendance. The picture on the top, however, correctly captures the said visit. Accordingly, the article has been revised. We at sikhchic.com apologize for the error. April 8, 2011, 9:00 am]

Conversation about this article

1: Harjeet Kaur (Rochester, New York, U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 7:23 AM.

Good Lord! With friends like these, who needs enemies!

2: Jaspreet Singh (U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 7:23 AM.

Dear Charanpal Singh ji: Thank you. As a Sikh who grew up in Canada, the most difficult part of keeping the faith was having to explain the actions of people of my own faith. I was in British Columbia when the chairs vs. floor "debate" turned violent. The recent misuse of the kirpan in Toronto has put many Sikhs on the spot about the kirpan and the Quebec legislature events have only made things worse. Thank you for speaking up for the countless Sikhs who wish to adapt to our new home without sacrificing our faith and culture.

3: Pritam Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 07, 2011, 7:27 AM.

The WSO is currently headed by a good man - Sardar Prem Singh Vinning. He has a good head on his shoulders. I wish he'd look into this immediately and correct the situation.

4: N. Singh (Canada), April 07, 2011, 7:31 AM.

Charanpal, this is a great article! Long overdue. Thank you for having the courage to speak up. Having grown up and educated in England, I have often wondered this myself. The WSO has let us down on more than one occasion. They were created by, and then infiltrated by Indian government agent in 1984 immediately after the attack on Harmindar Sahib and unable to help us then, and now this fiasco. It is behaviour such as Balpreet's that gives people like Ujjal Dosanjh the ammunition he needs to attack the Sikh community and particularly second and third generation Sikhs. From my understanding, dress in Sikhi should be modest and there is no other requirement. As a Sikh woman whose father was turban-wearing, I find the "open, unkept" beard unattractive and not necessary to the practice of Sikhi. Only unshorn hair and the turban (for males) is a requirement. But I disgress. Interestingly enough, even Shaheed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was pro-modernization and advocated that all Sikhs update their weapons to modern arms instead of trying to defend themselves using kirpans. I am confident that if he had been alive today he would have advocated that we dress appropriately and not as Nihangs. He was fully aware of his limitations, that he was not educated or well to do like other folks, and he never advocated regression of any sort. Just compliance to Sikhi principles is what he preached.

5: Harinder (Uttar Pradesh, India), April 07, 2011, 7:54 AM.

Today's Sikhs should graduate from the past, and look to the future - as they have always done. Imagine a British lawyer entering a Parliment building in 2011 in his knight's armour and lance. It is simply unacceptable that anyone represent our community dressed up in 17th century garb.

6: Jaspal (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), April 07, 2011, 12:51 PM.

His picture at the top of this article is the one from the Quebec assembly and I see no problem with it or the other picture.

7: Gurteg Singh (New York, USA), April 07, 2011, 1:30 PM.

The article is based on the author's vision of so-called "blending in" to an "appropriate degree".

8: H.Singh (United States), April 07, 2011, 1:37 PM.

What Balpreet Singh did was a mistake. We all make mistakes, and should learn from them and move on. Does the author have more info with respect to the involvement of the Indian government re the creation and infiltration of the WSO?

9: Parmjit Singh (Canada), April 07, 2011, 1:44 PM.

Applying the same logic in the article, the majority of Canadians would say ALL Sikhs with turbans and beards are 'disconnected in appearance', etc.

10: Balpreet Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 07, 2011, 3:07 PM.

The whole premise of this article is incorrect. For what it's worth, I attended at the Quebec National Assembly wearing a suit and tie. The picture of me wearing the [Nihang bana] is from 2005. I don't apologize for wearing it when I do. I can choose to dress as I please. As for comments about my "unkempt beard", I don't think they deserve a response. I feel that this article, based entirely on an incorrect understanding and premise, does illustrate what I see as confidence issues some have in our community. As for the wisdom of having raised the kirpan issue in Quebec, I make no apologies for it.

11: Devinder Singh Chahal (Canada), April 07, 2011, 4:24 PM.

The picture of Balpreet Singh appeared in the Gazette of Montreal was different than that appeared on Ottawa Citizen. However, the kirpan shown in the picture was the same. Apart from how Balpreet Singh was dressed, I wonder why a Sikh representative of WSO would defend the rights of a woman to wear a veil when in Sikhism veiling by women is against the basic principles of Sikhi?

12: Jessi Kaur (Vancover, British Columbia, Canada), April 07, 2011, 6:17 PM.

I have two things to say. First: I have seen the photos of the WSO "legal counsel" at the Quebec National Assembly - and the one on the top of the page is one of them - and I'm not impressed. Ours is already an uphill battle; people who represent us MUST be impeccably dressed. And you can do so wearing anything you like, while in a turban and an open, flowing beard. [One example: Bhai Baldeep Singh, the classical musician from Delhi, who has often been shown on these pages. He doesn't wear a suit; all he wears is traditional garb - but not seventeenth century, meaningless costumes. His beard is open, and he wears the smartest turban anywhere.] Second point: it is absolutely no excuse to say that you wear the Nihang costume only part of the time and that the photo appearing in the Ottawa Citizen was from another time. If you are in public life and you choose to represent an entire community or institution, you have to be at your very BEST at all times - as far as humanly possible. You can't be traipsing around in primitive costumes part of the time! Balpreet Singh ji: you are a good spokesperson, but you need to understand something basic about Guru Gobind Singh ji's teachings and about how media works today: a Sikh is to be nyaara, inside and out ... not by looking scraggly, but by looking better than the best. Sadly, most who choose to go the way of the bana today start letting things slide from day one, until they start looking like undesirable characters. There are, no doubt, many a fine exception, but unfortunately, this has become the rule. Please stop being defensive and start thinking this one out, please ... and seek the Guru's guidance on this.

13: Sukhminder Singh Virk (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), April 07, 2011, 6:28 PM.

I agree completely with this article!

14: Bishen Singh (Patiala, Punjab), April 07, 2011, 6:33 PM.

There seems to be an implication - often even expressly made - that a choice has to be made between the uncouth appearance (mis-described as the amritdhari look) and a clean-shaven appearance. For heaven's sake, guys, I don't know which brand of tea you drink, but maybe its time to switch. It is possible to look the smartest man or woman on the block, and be a full-fledged amritdhari. And those of you who live in other societies ... England, Canada, U.S., etc. - must conform to the highest local standards, WHILE fully maintaining your identity. I just can't understand, for example, where in Sikhi it says you are to wear a kacchhera, but not pants over it. Yet, you'll find some educated and professional amritdharis - not to mention a whole crew of uneducated Nihangs - walking around in the WEST in THIS day and age, wearing long cholas, but totally bare below the knees. What the hell is happening here! That makes you a good amritdhari? I say it makes you a candidate to be locked up in an institution, if you can't make out the difference between what is right and what is downright goofy! Sorry, but it is time we started calling a spade a spade!

15: Govind Singh (Sydney, Australia), April 07, 2011, 6:39 PM.

I completely agree with Balpreet Singh.

16: N. Singh (Canada), April 07, 2011, 6:53 PM.

Let me make it clear that I am not against the Sikh appearance, turban, beard, et al. Some of the most good-looking, well-dressed men around are Sikh men with full articles of faith. The men of the Sikh Regiment are a case in point. However Sikh men and women, as rightly pointed out by other commentators, need to be well-dressed and appropriate in their appearance. Beards should be neatly dressed and turbans beautifully wrapped in honour of the ten Gurus. I am sorry if I have offended you, Balpreet, but we really need to address this issue head-on.

17: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 8:45 PM.

Balpreet Singh ji is fighting for our right to wear the kirpan in Quebec. To nitpick at the way he dresses is trivial.

18: V.S. Mann (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), April 07, 2011, 9:06 PM.

I think this entire conversation dances around the issues of cultural assimilation, confidence, and the sense of identity.

19: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 9:33 PM.

From the un-knotting of the janeou to getting tangled up in costumes - some of us have come full circle, back to square one.

20: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 9:37 PM.

The article is a personal opinion of the writer. It advocates conformism.

21: N. Singh (Canada), April 07, 2011, 11:37 PM.

I think Devinder Singh (#11) has raised a pertinent point which needs further discussion. Although I understand the intent of WSO's actions in defending the rights of Muslim women to wear the veil, I would question the decision. The Koran also speaks about how the women of the enemy can be treated by Muslims (captured and made into sex slaves), would we defend that also? What about such religions as the Satanists or certain arms of Hinduism that might still believe in human sacrifice, which is against Sikhi beliefs, do we defend their rights to practice? I understand the argument that there are many paths to God, and everyone has the right to their own belief but how far do we go when what we are defending something which is against the core beliefs of Sikhi? In this particular case, are we saying that even though Sikhi speaks against the suppression of women, it is alright for others to do so because their belief is different from ours?

22: Daljit Singh (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), April 08, 2011, 12:00 AM.

This article totally misses the point. And some of the comments do show a complete lack of self-confidence. As for defending the rights of Muslim women - well, that is what Sikhism is all about - defending someone's rights even when you do not agree with it. Devinder Singh Chahal ji - why did Guru Tegh Bahadar sacrifice his life in defence of another faith and their tilak and janeu when Sikhism does not endorse them? You also miss the point that orthodox and unorthodox Jews supported the rights of Muslim women. Why? Because when rights of one minority group are trampled and you stay silent - the time is not afar when it will be your turn and no one will be there for you either.

23: Karamjeet Singh (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada ), April 08, 2011, 3:41 AM.

Despite the suit and tie you wore to the Quebec legislature, Balpreet ji, it is clear from your appearance - as shown in the media covering your disastrous visit - that you have carefully cultivated the Nihang look. Of course you have the right to do whatever you want with your appearance or garb, but no one - not the WSO, not anyone - has the right to foist a person with such an appearance on the community as its representative or spokesman. It appears that both you and your orchestrated apologists have, unwittingly or otherwise, completely missed the point of the article.

24: Param Kaur (New Delhi, India), April 08, 2011, 3:48 AM.

In answer to the query by H. Singh (# 8 above) re Indian government involvement in the creation of the WSO, it is an established fact that the first assembly held at the Madison Square Gardens, New York, in June 1984 - where the WSO was created - was hijacked by Gen. Jaswant Singh Bhullar and his cronies. It has been publicly acknowledged that Gen. Bhullar was sent by Indian "intelligence" for this purpose, and he served as WSO's first President in his secret role as an Indian intelligence agent. He helped the Indians to control the WSO, shape it and prevent it under his tenure from doing anything meaningful. Once his mission was completed, he returned to India and was re-assigned by his masters to the South to play similar havoc amongst the Tamils. It is as a direct result of his and similar activities of Gen. Bhullar's "intelligence" colleagues that the Tamil Hindus retaliated against the Indian Government by assassinating Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi not long thereafter.

25: G.C. Singh (USA), April 08, 2011, 5:09 AM.

While I agree that Sikhs should look and dress their best, the views expressed in this article are the author's own vision of what constitutes acceptable assimilation and blending in.

26: Jaspreet Singh (USA), April 08, 2011, 5:31 AM.

We need to exercise some control over how we are portrayed when approached by someone from the media. Because there are some who wish to create fear and conflict to merely sell their product.

27: Balwinder Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), April 08, 2011, 6:38 AM.

As a young professional in the medical field, and as a Sikh, I wear a turban and keep an open beard. I do not find anything wrong with keeping an open beard, however it should be groomed. Despite my long beard, I have had no complaints from patients or staff alike, and more often than not they are amazed at how well kept it is. Whether you tie your beard, or keep it open, when you are representing a minority which is so openly different in appearance than the mainstream culture of North America, it is of utmost importance to portray yourself in the best possible light. Make sure your turban is clean and well formed (in whichever shape you choose) and keep your beard in the same manner (whether open or tied). To all the people who made comments on what is attractive or not, how we keep our turbans and beards is not a function of what your opinion of attractiveness is. It is a religious and personal decision to wear it in the style we choose. Although I wear a traditional nokh style turban, I love the domalla look, or the round style as well. To all my brothers and sisters out there, wear your style as you wish, just keep it clean and well kept when representing Sikhs in the public view. That doesn't mean you have to tie your beard, or wear a nokh style turban, just take the time to be well groomed.

28: Balkar Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), April 08, 2011, 6:50 AM.

Our Gurus specifically banned any garb that was meant to reflect piety. Why? Because it was a one-way street to a priesthood! [The only exception made, expressly, by Guru Gobind Singh, was to the Nirmalas because the only way they could get access to higher learning was by donning saffron, the very thing prohibited in Sikhism. The Guru gave them a temporary exception because he wanted the Nirmalas to come back and then educate the Sikhs in the classics, etc. It is another story that long after the Guru-period, the Nirmalas went rogue and retained the saffron attire ... and are therefore anathema within Sikhism today.] It is imperative that we reject this spurious claim to a prescribed bana, because it is an attempt by a misguided few to give some sort of an additional status to amritdharis - which is, simply put, a definite NO-NO in Sikhi. I am an amritdhari and I can tell you emphatically that this bana business is pure pakhand! Thank you, Charanpal Singh ji, for your courageous article.

29: Jaz Singh (London, United Kingdom), April 08, 2011, 8:08 AM.

Good grief! Reading the comments here, all I can say is there is a world of a difference between Sikh-Britons and Sikh-Canadians. In England ... everyone would have criticized him for wearing 'western' attire. In England, he would be roundly applauded for being true to himself regarding his dress.

30: Kiranjot Kaur (New York, U.S.A.), April 08, 2011, 8:39 AM.

So true, Jaz Singh ji. The British do love their colonials to keep their place ... as long as they dress traditionally or like wogs and don't get too uppity, they're fine. Here in North America, on the other hand, we have the gumption to insist on being treated like equals, not dress up like clowns and entertain the nobility. Each to his own ...

31: D.S. (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 08, 2011, 9:30 AM.

Balpreet: your arrogance is astonishing ... "As for the wisdom of having raised the kirpan issue in Quebec, I make no apologies for it." 1) You gratuitously open a can of worms and place a bulls-eye on the community. 2) You don't have a "plan B" in place and soon after we get thrashed in a 123 to 0 vote against the kirpan. 3) You take off on vacation to India in the midst of this issue, thus leaving others to sort out your sloppy mess. You might be book smart, mate, but you have a lot to learn about street smarts. See, I kept to the facts, didn't even comment on your appearance.

32: Bicky Singh (Ontario, Canada), April 08, 2011, 9:33 AM.

I've often wondered why Sikhs in this day and age still cling on to the past in wearing their Nihang type clothes. Speaking as a Sikh, when I see such a person, I don't feel that he is approachable. I think prior to 1984, this garb wasn't as prevalent. It was only when we started to see Bhindranwale on TV with the chola, round turban and guns that the fascination was aroused. As members trying to represent Sikhs in the mainstream, we need to adapt to our surroundings. For example, if someone was to wear shorts in the middle of winter or a parka in heat of summer, what would we think of him / her? Or if legal counsel wore shorts to the National Assembly? If I recall correctly, when Guru Nanak went to Mecca, didn't he dress in a garb that was of the time and in Middle-eastern fashion? Additionally, I believe that in order to represent Sikhs, we should make it a point to get out of the past and understand the current time. For the comment about "Oh well ... that picture was taken in 2005 ... so there!", I really don't buy that as look now what havoc this picture has played. Wake up, everyone! We are now in the iPhone age! Everyone and his dog has a camera!

33: Ravinder Singh (USA), April 08, 2011, 9:43 AM.

Man, there are some stupid people to claim to be following the path of Sikhism "better" than others.

34: Umrao Singh (Faridkot, Punjab), April 08, 2011, 9:58 AM.

I wish there was some way I could reach out and shake some sense into a few of you who are obviously having difficulty in comprehension. The issue is not whether one looks good or not wearing 17th century costumes, or whether or not everyone has the right to wear whatever they like ... the issue is about doing one's job properly! If you take on the role of an advocate or a PR man or a spokesperson, etc., then please behave like one. If there are things in your personal life or preferences which come in the way, don't take the job. Period. What's so difficult about this concept? I fear that some of you either have only basic knowledge of the English language, or are getting too emotional to be able to think straight, or are just plain stubborn and do not want to listen to anything but your own air-waves!

35: Gurinder singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), April 08, 2011, 10:27 AM.

I am with Balpreet Singh and appreciate his service to fight for our rights. I find nothing wrong with the Nihang dress. Nihangs are the pride of Sikhs.

36: Editor (sikhchic.com), April 08, 2011, 12:33 PM.

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