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Our Identity

T. SHER SINGH

 

 


 

 

One of the most significant things that European immigration brought to North America was confusion.

It began with Columbus.

Driven by greed - not an interest in the scenery, anthropology or spirituality - he feverishly searched for India.

But, he was also not the brightest of lights.

With a twist of irony that only history is capable of, he landed in the Americas. Believing he had arrived in India, he promptly named the natives ‘Indians'.

Ever since, confusion has reigned and continues to this very day. We Sikhs have inherited this legacy and are left to grapple with their stupidities.

Contemporaneous to Columbus' drooling for the riches of India, the Sikh Faith was born in Punjab, an area lying in the northern vicinity of the sub-continent.

In the centuries that followed, Europeans went about busily 'discovering' various lands - yes, 'discover!' even though full-fledged civilizations had been inhabiting these places from time immemorial.

And named them all "India" or the "Indies".

They also 'discovered' the Americas.

Typically, they thought they'd arrived in India! So they re-named everyone they came across this land they claimed they had 'discovered'. They were all now 'Indians'.

That created a problem.

How do you distinguish the Indians of the Americas from the Indians of India, for example?

Hence, Red Indians, East Indians, West Indians ...

In 1897, my ancestors - Sikhs from Punjab - reciprocated by 'discovering' the Americas.

Now, we need to remember that by this time the British Empire had had a substantial presence - not unlike that of 'Jabba the Hutt' of Star Wars fame, I might add -  on the sub-continent for almost 300 years. And knew the Sikhs well, especially since they had been major players in the Raj during much of the 19th century.

Oddly though, despite the close relationship, the British and other Europeans had a lot of difficulty remembering how to spell 'S-I-K-H'. I jest not ... after all, it was before they discovered ginseng and ginko biloba!

A simple four letter-word, believe it or not, ‘Sikh' has been mis-spelled by our friends in no less than 21 - yes, TWENTY-ONE - different ways. You don't have to take my word; Dr. Ganda Singh, the great Sikh scholar, has culled them from his research and lists them as follows:

Seck
Seeck
Seek
Seick
Seik
Seikh
Seyque
Shik
Shikh
Sic
Sic'hs
Sick
Sicke
Sicque
Siek
Siekh
Sik
Sike
Sique
Syc
Syck

If this doesn't prove that the Europeans are indeed a superior civilization and were gifted to us from outer space, nothing else will! Who else could do so much with just four letters ... and without even trying?

As Sikh immigration trickled in, people here in Canada - (which was an intimate part of the British Empire and freely shared its booty) - struggled with how to refer to the immigrants. Of course, calling them by their actual name simply would not do. [That would be too mischievous!]

Mackenzie King, an influential bureaucrat and budding politician during this period ... and a committed racist ... promptly insulted them by labelling them "Hindoos"!

[You need to know one other thing about our Mackenzie King. Riding on the racism tiger, he later became Prime Minister of Canada. He was the author of the term "White Man's Country", and he wasn‘t talking about snow, believe me. Not long after he died, his diaries were discovered and they revealed that he conducted all his affairs, including of the Canadian Government and Parliament, under the close guidance of his dead mother ... who communicated to him through the ether via his dog, who was alive and reportedly ‘conversed' with him everyday! I swear none of this is made up ... this is pure, unadulterated history and this is the stuff with which these lands were 'civilized', to borrow a term from George W."]
        
Then, in the decades that followed, Canada discovered, first, that women were actually "persons" and should be given the right to vote. Second: that Sikhs, Chinese, Japanese and others, too, were ‘persons' and should be given equal rights.

At that point, my people - Sikh-Canadians - were once again thrown within the general rubric of, first, "Asians", and then, back to "East Indians".

The post-World-War II period saw the world become smaller. We learned more about each other. The veils of ignorance were torn down.

Thus, by the end of the dastardly twentieth century, we had entered a new age of enlightenment. Bureaucrats finally acknowledged that it would indeed help us all if we knew more about the true demographics of this country. Statistics Canada decided to ask a few more questions in the census. It released its report - and dropped a bombshell!

My daughter and I - and all Sikh-Canadians, almost half-a-million of them - are now referred to as "South Asians".

The English are English - not West Europeans. The French are French, not Mid-West-Coastal Europeans.

But Sikhs ... and other Indians, as well as Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Sikkimis, and Lord knows who else, are henceforth South Asians!

South Asians?  

I own a colossal dictionary. It has 460,000 entries, 2764 pages. It is so heavy, it has to sit on a solid oak pedestal. And, you know, there is no entry for "South Asian".

Imagine.

After a modern and fully-recorded history of five-and-a-half centuries on this planet, and 121 years in Canada, my people have now been given a designation that has no meaning, no history, no pride, no commonality, no language, no flag, no literature, no tradition, no heritage ... nothing!

Just think about it - when you hear the term 'South Asian', does it bring tears of pride to your eyes, does it warm the cockles of your heart when you hear the words uttered? Just like an Englishman conjures up Henry V's oration when he hears the word "England", or the way our heart swells when we Sikhs think of Ranjit Singh or sing "Deh shiva bar mohe ihai ..."

Will somebody in some bureaucracy explain to me, please, who are the "South Asians" and why are they being bunched together?

Or under any alien rubric!

Why are we labelled Asians in some countries, Blacks in others, Coloreds in some. And South Asians ... ?

What do the Chinese and the Japanese have in common with my people, in a census? In the same context, what do blacks from around the world have in common with my people?

And, for that matter, what do the Sri Lankans and the Bangladeshi, or the Sikh and the Tamil, have in common that demands they be thrown into a common, faceless category, while statistics pertaining to the Irish, Scots, Germans, Italians, Jews, etc., are collected without any difficulty - and regardless of the expense?

Is there mischief involved in this, or is it merely negligence and/or ignorance? Or simple, unadulterated stupidity?

Here's some more food for thought ...

In and across the diaspora, Sikhs are a majority in the context of people from the sub-continent. Furthermore, once outside the artificiality of India, the component communities fragment as soon as their members get off the boat ... into Bengalis, Gujratis, Tamils, Marathis, Malyalees, Kashmiris, Keralites.

On the other hand, Sikhs, despite all the challenges in the world, have remained relatively united - or as united as it is humanly possible, under the circumstances.

Therefore, living in this truly democratic countries where resources are doled out in accordance to numbers and votes, it doesn't help if you're a desi. And it doesn't help if you belong to this caste or that, or that you have an uncle from your village in some ‘high' place. All that count are numbers and votes.

Hence, maybe, the invention of this hitherto unknown creature called 'South Asian'. The desis ride on the coat-tails of all the communities - especially the Sikhs - and garner the resources then proportioned to the whole lot. Sadly, the resources then get applied to the vested interests of a few greedy ones.

For example, go to any Department of Indian Studies in any university and see if there is even a trace of anything Sikh in its environs. Go to any function held with the involvement of India's diplomats - the fellas who are meant to represent ALL Indians - and all you'll see will be idols and official poojas of strange devis and devtas, as if the Constitution of India was secretly changed one night under cover of darkness and India has now officially become a land of idol-worshippers. No respect or consideration for, no sensitivity to Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jews .... whatsoever!

Thus, they've learnt to stand on our shoulders but remain pigmies - at our expense! And we are nowhere to be seen or heard in their corridors.

It is time we stood tall and proud as Sikhs ... undiluted, unadulterated Sikhs! If we are to be counted like the others, we are SIKHS, not Indians, not Punjabis, not East Indians, not Asians, not Blacks, not Coloreds ... just Sikhs!

This is not being parochial or provincial. Either we go all the way with Guru Nanak's message, all of us  - that the 'Whole Human Race is One' - and label ourselves as nothing but Humans. Or, if we indeed need a breakdown for administrative purposes, let's be thorough and accurate.

So, if you really want to know:

I am a Canadian, like other Canadians are. Those like me who follow the high ideals of Sikhi are Sikhs, exactly the way you are Christian or Jewish or whatever. We are of Punjabi origin - and proud of it - the way you are of Welsh or Italian origin, or whatever. We speak English the way you do. (Sometimes, better!) But my mother tongue is Punjabi, just as yours is English, or French, or whatever.

If you are Italian-American, Afro-American, English-Canadian, French-Canadian, etc., remember ... we are Sikh-American, Sikh-Canadian, Sikh-Briton, Sikh-Kiwi, Sikh-Indian, Sikh-Aussie, etc.

And, for heaven's sake - categories such as Chinese, Korean, English, Japanese, etc., I can comprehend.

How on earth did you get to "South Asian"?

And why?

No wonder they confuse us still. This time with 'Muslims'! Sometimes, Lord forbid, even with 'Hindus'.

Pray, who's to blame?

 

*   *   *   *   *

 

Re-published on June 20, 2018




  

Conversation about this article

1: Saneha Kaur (Canada), January 19, 2010, 11:51 AM.

Excellent article! Gets the point across! I always self identify as SIKH and Canadian because I was born here ... I am not and never will be Indian (although Hindus insist I am because my parents are from there, and take offense at my comments ... but that's their problem!). I also say I speak Punjabi, not Hindi, because it is true! I speak English with my friends and in western society; and then Punjabi with my parents and within the Sikh community. I have never had the need to speak any other language since the rest of the world also speaks English!

2: Pardeep Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 20, 2010, 11:18 AM.

Just as worse are the Westcoasters in Canada referring to us as Indo-Canadians!

3: Harcharan Singh (London, United Kindom), January 20, 2010, 12:08 PM.

My extended family and I left India in disgust and have no emotional attachment to it, other than to Punjab and Sikhs. To borrow words from Shakespeare, "I'd rather be a dog, and bay at the moon ..." than be called a Hindoo or an Indo-anything. It would be like getting demoted. Our ancestors parted company with Hinduism five centuries ago; we have parted company from that miserable land 25 years ago! I'm a Sikh-Briton to the core ... and proud of it!

4: Davinder Kaur (United Kingdom), January 20, 2010, 1:08 PM.

Harcharan Singh ji: It is refreshing to hear your views.... it becomes very depressing to hear the 'but we are descendents of Hindus' line over and over again, especially from older Sikhs who have lived most of their lives in India and are unable to let go of their 'attachments'! I have found that most of the resistance I have met has not come from Westerners who are purely 'uneducated' in our ways and beliefs but from other Sikhs! It is most discouraging and I am at the point of throwing in the towel and leaving them to their 'well-deserved' fate but unfortunately it will not be they who suffer but the poor and innocent in the Punjab. The Sikhs from so-called 'well-to-do' families truly disgust me, and are the most opposed to Sikh freedom and rights because they have already sold themselves to the rulers!

5: Natalie Singh (Canada), January 20, 2010, 3:51 PM.

Hear, hear, Sardar Harcharan Singh ... Rule Britannia!

6: Jaggi Singh (Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.), January 20, 2010, 5:45 PM.

Sher Veer ji, very well said. Having bounced around the world, I too have picked up a few names along the way. In Uganda I was Asian, in England I was Indian, in Canada, I was an East Indian first and now I am South Asian. But generally between UK and North America, I am a "paki". Unfortunately, Sikh is not an easy word to pronounce for westerners. One can often hear a Sikh telling others that he is a Seek. Which is really not too far from the truth. A Sikh is a student, a seeker.

7: Randhir Singh Birdi (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), January 21, 2010, 8:42 AM.

An excellent article, summarizing a lot of history in only a few words.

8: Parm Chahal (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 21, 2010, 8:42 PM.

If you had mentioned in your concluding paragraph examples such as: Christian-Canadian, Jewish-American - only then the comparable would be Sikh-Canadian, Sikh-American, etc.

9: Tejwant Singh (Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.), January 25, 2010, 12:03 PM.

I landed at a party of the rich and famous wearing a black turban in Santos - the sea port, via Sao Paulo, Brasil - in October 1975 at the age of 21, after having lived in the UK since the age of 15. The next day my picture was in the social column of the Santos newspaper with the caption - 'The Sikh Prince from India arrived in Santos'. My pictures were also often in the social columns of the Sao Paulo newspapers when I moved there in January 1976. The point I am trying to make is that only Europeans living in North America are parochial minded and flaunt their ignorance, which is not the case with Europeans living in South America in countries like Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. I lived in Brasil for 9 years and traveled around different neighbouring countries and was always treated with awe and respect. Perhaps their ancestors left their stiff upper lips back home.

10: Baljit Singh Pelia (Los Angeles, California, USA), September 27, 2013, 9:54 AM.

Guru Nanak brought all diverse people of the subcontinent together as Sikhs. We and our ancestors, from various parts of the land, joined this brotherhood of our own free will. So shouldn't all people of the subcontinent be collectively classified as Sikhs since all Indians believe in Guru Nanak and his teachings of One God and One Race?

11: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), September 27, 2013, 11:31 AM.

I am currently studying in Oregon, USA and for the first time I am in an area where Punjabis are not the overwhelming majority in relation to the other Indian communities. When someone asks what my ethnicity is, I always reply "Punjabi-Indian". I state Punjabi before Indian, and only say Indian because Americans are not very geographically inclined. I also point out to people that as a Punjabi I don't have much in common with people from other parts of India. This is even truer when looking at the structure of the diaspora of the different Indian communities. Regardless of what country we settle in, the children of Punjabi Sikhs are aware of the fact that they are Punjabi. The children of Indian Hindus are either completely assimilated, embarrassed of their religion or India, or have a weak casual link to India as it is the birthplace of their parents. We should not diminish our identity by labeling ourselves anything other than Punjabi, even in India it is synonymous with Sikh.

12: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), September 30, 2013, 1:33 PM.

Interesting article. And in USA we are known as Osamas! I am not surprised that we have been collectively grouped under "South Asians" because we are willing to be bunched with the low achievers of India, compared to Europeans. Imagine: only one gold medal in Olympics, a few Nobel prizes for a population of 1.2 billion!

13: Kulvinder Jit Kaur (Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada), September 14, 2015, 6:06 PM.

A fresh and original perspective and right on the dot. How we accept labels without questioning! Thanks for opening our eyes. We are Sikh Canadians or Canadian Sikhs, whichever way it sounds good. Some object to hyphenated Canadians but then why are we referred to as South Asians? Why not just Canadians. If we have to be defined then let them define us accurately as Sikh-Canadians.

14: G Singh (USA), September 14, 2015, 8:39 PM.

We need to break out! Kudos to Sher Singh to underlining that we are not Muslims or Hindus, etc., that we are Sikhs. Having paid the price for being mistaken as a Muslim or Hindu numerous times, I now have hesitancy in telling people I meet that I am not one and send them Wikipedia links to "Battle of Saragarhi" and "Sikhs". Get rid of the quagmire. Stand up and say you are a Sikh. There is nothing wrong with it. We, as a community should not pay a price for the dastardly deeds of others.

15: Arjan Singh (USA), September 15, 2015, 5:19 PM.

Excellent read. The author has shed light on the identification dilemma every Sikh family faces when they emigrate from India. I would say to them: you have a unique opportunity to claim your identity, preserve your Sikh culture and be loyal to your host country. As mostly Sikh men wear turbans, the solution is easier for them - just keep tying your turbans as you will be identified from a mile away.

16: Arjan Singh (USA), June 21, 2018, 4:07 PM.

This is one of the most insightful and well-researched articles I have read on this subject. Yes, my ancestors at one point may have been Hindus/Muslim or of other faiths; but at one point in time they adopted the Sikh way of life. There is no doubt in my mind that our ancestors would not want to be identified with Hinduism or the Islamic faith; after all they did make conscious decisions. I agree with #1, #3 and #4 comments; the Hindu community in India is not willing to accept that the Sikhs identify themselves separate from Hinduism. However, I must admit that part of the blame must be placed on the Sikh community in India itself, as pointed out by Davinder ji. The so-called ‘well-to-do’ ones are getting distant from Sikh values, traditions and rights. In a civic society religion is a personal matter; but for the Sikh community the physical appearance makes them stand out, so we must strive to go to extra lengths to ensure that we explain our cultural identity and heritage, and not let the Hindu or Muslim community dilute our identity.

17: Mohan Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 22, 2018, 8:19 AM.

"I do not keep fasts, nor do I observe the month of Ramadaan. I serve only the One, who will protect me in the end. || 1 || The One Lord, the Lord of the World, is my God Allah. He administers justice to both Hindus and Muslims. || 1 || Pause || I do not make pilgrimages to Mecca, nor do I worship at Hindu sacred shrines. I serve the One Lord, and not any other. || 2 || I do not perform Hindu worship services, nor do I offer the Muslim prayers. I have taken the One Formless Lord into my heart; I humbly worship Him there. || 3 || I am not a Hindu, nor am I a Muslim. My body and breath of life belong to Allah - to Raam - the God of both. || 4 || Says Kabir, this is what I say: meeting with the Guru, my Spiritual Teacher, I realize God, my Lord and Master. || 5 || 3 || [GGS:1136]

18: Bhupinder Singh Mahal (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), June 23, 2018, 10:50 AM.

The term “South Asian” was coined sometimes during the 1980’s. The genesis of the term was conceived in the social sciences department of universities by no other than Indian academicians. The establishment of Sikh Chairs post-1984 so enraged the Indian consular community that they egged on the Indo-Canadian academicians for the institution of Hindu Chair. The first of its kind, the chair in Hindu Studies was established in 1989 at Concordia University. However, efforts to establish endowed chairs in Hindu Studies at other Canadian universities met resistance as the rising clamor for endowed chairs by Bangladeshi, Tamil, Sri Lankan - to name a few – mounted. In this state of confusion and uncertainty the Indo-Canadian academicians saw opportunities. They felt creating programs of South Asia Studies was more appealing, hence South Asian formed the basis of the new lexicon.

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