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Musical Chairs

by I.J. SINGH

 

Pouring oil over troubled waters can calm them, but doing the same where there is even a hint of a fire can give rise to an all-consuming conflagration.  I aim to do a bit of both.

Over the past decade, the increasingly affluent Sikh community outside Punjab has created several university-based Sikh Chairs in North America.  Where are they now, and where are they headed, is something we need to explore.

Let's see now: I think the trend started in Canada, with a program at the University of Toronto.  The visiting professor was Hew McLeod, who has an enormous amount of research and writing on Sikhism under his belt, some of which remains controversial.  After he left Toronto over a decade ago, community support dried out, the program shrank, and no one replaced him.

Next was the University of British Columbia, also in Canada.  The holder of the Sikh Chair fell out of favor with the local Sikh community that financially underwrote the program.  The program died; its chair, Harjot Oberoi, moved over to a different department.

As for the U.S., Columbia University in New York City made an earnest effort to raise funds for a Sikh Chair and a program.  But Gurinder Singh Mann, the one person who was responsible for it, moved to the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the Columbia program became defunct.

The University of Michigan recruited Pashaura Singh for a community-funded program of Sikh Studies.  He fell afoul of the community because of controversy over his writings, and after a rocky stay of some years, Pashaura Singh moved to the University of California at Riverside.  But, at his new location, his academic appointment is in the Department of Religion; there is no Chair or Department of Sikh Studies there.

In the meantime, Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, established a Sikh Chair in its Department of Religion. A success story, by any standards. But, a year ago, the appointee, Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, moved to Michigan to fill the slot vacated by Pashaura Singh.  And just this year, Balbinder Singh Bhogal moved to Hofstra from York University in Toronto.

Then, there is Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh.  Most of her work is on Sikhism, but she heads a Department of Religion at the small, but prestigious Colby College in Maine.

It seems that there are two major schools of thought  -  two poles  -  represented in Sikh scholarship in the diaspora:  Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair and Balbinder Singh Bhogal come from the School of Oriental and African Studies, reflecting Christopher Shackle's tutelage and perspective, while the rest, to a lesser or greater degree, are connected, at least in the popular mind, to Hew McLeod. Variety in scholarly perspectives is good, but I am not sure how good the working relationship between these two schools of thought is.

And now, let's explore the roots of our troubles with such academic programs.

One problem seems to be that while we are in a hurry to establish Chairs, there is, at this time, a dearth of qualified scholars.

Then there is an ever-widening gulf between the expectations of the community on the one hand, and the role of the universities and the donors on the other.  I leave for another time the question of whether a university can require that a scholar of Sikhism at a university must be a practicing Sikh.

A university's mandate is not and will never be to preach Sikhi, unless it is a Sikh university that states such policy clearly.  A university will also not make judgments on whether the Sikh image is being tarnished or enhanced by a faculty member's research. 

A researcher may be disciplined or ousted only after due process, led by faculty peers, has determined that his or her work falls short of accepted academic standards.

Similarly, whom to hire, and whom to promote, is a university's prerogative, upon which no community or donor can easily encroach.

I think that, after thirty-five years in the rarefied air of academia, I can make such statements with reasonable assurance.

Notwithstanding all this, it is not unreasonable for those who fund a project to expect and insist they be heard on what goes on in their name and with their money.  So, how can they achieve an ongoing dialogue?

It is not acceptable for a scholar to convey a message to the people that says, "Give me your money and support me in what I do, but ask not how I spend your funds".

These contradictions are not insurmountable.  Let me come at this by a different route  -  my own background.

Much of academic research in biomedical and health sciences in this country is supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or smaller foundations like the March of Dimes.  All such funding agencies have some things in common.

Several times a year, they invite research proposals  -  either on specific topics or general areas of interest.  Investigators submit grant applications, and specify the topic, a review of what is known about the topic, procedures by which research will be conducted, a statement on the significance of the research, their own qualification to conduct the research, and their funding request. 

The budget includes request for travel to meetings and publication costs, and also, part or whole of a salary. If research assistants are needed, their cost would also be justified here.  Then, there is a calendar that states how and when progress would be measured.

Research proposals are then evaluated by panels of peers; not all proposals are funded.  At predetermined intervals, usually yearly, a progress report is submitted to the grant-giving agency. Continuation of funding is contingent on satisfactory progress.

This system thus has considerable accountability built into it.

In 1996, jointly with Dr. Hakam Singh, I had published such a model for supporting research by Sikh Chairs. We believe that such a system would keep the scholars at universities connected to the community that funds their activity.

I believe it is absolutely fantastic that the Sikh community and some individuals with deep pockets are on the path of endowing academic programs in Sikhism.  It is also self-evident that these programs exist to explore Sikhs and Sikhism in all of their varied aspects  -  from our antecedents, our rich traditions, and our early history, to our modern existence. 

We need to investigate not only our history and our theology of five hundred years, but also how Sikhi continues to shape our lives today, even in the far corners of the world.

The focus of these scholars is Sikh religion, culture and history - in other words, all aspects of Sikh existence.  They can't do it meaningfully and effectively without keeping their finger on the pulse of the community; hence, they must not sunder, but need to nurture, their ties to the community and the gurdwaras.

It is in this matter of connectivity with the community that, with minor exceptions, most of the current Sikh academicians in the diaspora are missing in action.  I point to issues that have seriously impacted our community, such as the sequelae of 1947 and 1984, Sikh profiling in the United States following 9/11, and the ban on the turban in France.

I readily concede that the academicians are expected and required to publish in professional refereed academic journals, but they also need to write for the larger Sikh community. 

This responsibility is somewhat akin to the activity of first-rate scientists, who not only publish in highly technical journals that are available only to a select few, but also periodically write in publications like Scientific American for the educated layperson.

In all this carping and parsing, I am also compelled to take note of the good they have accomplished.  In just over a decade, they have attracted many young Sikhs and several non-Sikhs to the study of Sikhism  -   their class offerings are popular and fill up early. 

Many students have demonstrably benefited from these courses; some have even gone on to earn graduate degrees.  I leave them nameless today, lest I overlook some in error.

The few scholars of Sikhi that we have deserve a sense of security and support from the diaspora Sikhs, so that they can give free rein to their creativity, and continue to build bridges with others in our multifaith existence in a global village. 

Not to support them is to undermine them.  That would do them harm and rob us all.

Conversation about this article

1: D.J.Singh (U.S.A.), September 01, 2007, 6:08 AM.

The true value of any project, academic or otherwise, depends on the intent of the sponsor and the credibility of the researcher. If the intent is to improve the national and international image of the Sikhs, then encourage authentic research aimed at augmenting the understanding of Sikh values and promoting their traditions. The result will benefit the Sikh community at large and bring laurels to the researcher and their sponsors. Let us first have enough Chairs before we give the players an opportunity to compete in musical chairs.

2: Jagdeep Singh (London , England), September 04, 2007, 8:35 AM.

Sure, Sikh academics have some responsibility to Sikhs in the diaspora in as much as they have to make their work available and understandable to the average, educated Sikh, and have a sensitive and nuanced appreciation of the issues and reality of Sikh life, the pressures faced by Sikhs, and the fissures within Sikh communities. But it works both ways. Members of the community have a responsibility to the academics not to act with a lynch mob mentality and attempt to bully, intimidate, threaten and subvert these individuals because, for ideological and political reasons, they disagree with the insights and interpretations of history that academics make, as happened in the case of Professor Oberoi. If that simple contract cannot be observed, Sikh chairs are meaningless, because they will be subject to the whim of the intolerant and the chauvinists, who know little, and care less, for the values of free thought and intellectual inquiry.

3: Perminder Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 09, 2013, 8:22 AM.

His-Story will remain two sides of the same coin - a million dollar business. Ditto the quote: "Pouring oil over troubled waters can calm them, but doing the same where there is even a hint of a fire can give rise to an all-consuming conflagration. I aim to do a bit of both." There will be always two or more major schools of thought. They continue to shape our lives today, even in the far corners of the world. While high-brow academicians publish in professional refereed academic journals, it is more often the layman who continues to write for the larger Sikh community. Sikhya and Sikhi will remain true as in the Guru Granth.

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