The Wedding Smashers: SUNNY SINGH HUNDAL
The Roundtable Open Forum #156
It was meant to be the happiest day of their lives -- a celebration of modern multicultural Britain at the biggest gurdwara in the western world.
On August 7, 2015, in west London, a British Sikh bride and her Polish Christian groom sat together and absorbed the religious blessings at their wedding ceremony. She wore a cream and red dress, while he wore a red turban, in keeping with Sikh traditions.
But that morning, 20 uninvited men were determined to put a stop to the wedding. They demanded that the granthis end the ceremony, hurling insults at people who objected. The police were called and eventually the couple were forced to proceed into a hurried ceremony, while the protesters took pictures to publish online.
This was not an isolated incident.
The next weekend, an interfaith wedding in Lozells, Birmingham, nearly turned into a mass brawl after protesters tried to stop it and, again, the police had to be called. The following weekend, another wedding in Coventry only managed to go ahead after negotiations with the disrupters. In each case, the bride was a Sikh woman and the groom a non-Sikh man.
Under the media radar, such disruptions of interfaith weddings at gurdwaras have become worryingly commonplace across Britain. In July, 2013, a Sikh woman and her Christian husband in Swindon were locked out of their own wedding by 40 protesters, who afterwards posted a video online of the bride’s mother pleading with them to stop. A reporter met a family who’d had windows smashed as a warning about an upcoming marriage. Most were too afraid to say anything in public.
But not Sim Kaur.
One of the very few Sikh women willing to speak about her experience, she says: “Our gurdwaras are run by men and the protesters are all men. All the cancellations I’ve heard about have been of Sikh women marrying non-Sikh men or men not born into the Sikh religion and I doubt that’s a coincidence. I do believe it’s a faith issue, but it’s also about gender and race.”
Her wedding to her partner, Sam, was disrupted earlier this year, even though he had made an effort to learn about Sikhism and adopted Singh in his name, under guidelines laid out by the Sikh Council UK, an organisation set up in 2010 to deal with issues affecting the Sikh community in Britain and Europe.
“Isn’t it better,” she asks, “that we teach our partners and their friends and family about this ceremony and invite them in, rather than creating a divide?”
Sikh radicalism is rarely debated in the media. Sikh-Britons -- now numbering a million and more — are largely seen as a model minority who aren’t embroiled in controversies or plagued by extremists as Muslims are. But scratch the surface and there are signs of a growing divide, and the controversy around interfaith marriages goes to the heart of the problem.
Until I posted several videos of wedding disruptions on my Facebook page last month, there seemed to be barely any debate about why these were happening. Immediately, I was subjected to a torrent of abuse and threats, but also heard from dozens of Sikhs (mostly women) who had faced a similar kind of intimidation.
One might conclude that this issue was about race and the diaspora, but the experience of North America, where nearly a million Sikhs live, says differently. Amardeep Singh, associate professor at Lehigh University in Philadelphia, attributes the more relaxed approach largely because there aren’t such concentrations of Sikhs as in London and Birmingham.
“Sikh communities in the US are suburban and spatially dispersed. Most of us commute some distance just to reach the nearest gurdwara.”
In the UK, then, we seem to be dealing with people who believe they have a sufficient density of numbers to preserve some kind of cultural purity.
However, those who support the disruptions say they are not opposed to interfaith marriages per se, but are only trying to enforce religious guidelines. Shamsher Singh, of the National Sikh Youth Federation, says it objects to this ceremony being appropriated by non-Sikhs.
“They can have prayers, they can have part of the function inside a gurdwara, just not the religious ceremony. That’s reserved for those of the Sikh faith.”
Others say this attitude ignores Sikh history. Amandeep Singh Madra, co-founder of the UK Punjab Heritage Association, says that until recently “Sikh traditions were highly pluralistic, with a willingness to learn and coexist with concordant traditions. This is one of the most culturally appealing aspects of Sikhism in a modern, multicultural world. However, there has always been a more fearful voice that is threatened by the danger of being assimilated and indistinguishable from others.”
So the rise of Sikh fundamentalism in the UK isn’t just an attempt to enforce rules; it is also the expression of a worry among young males that Sikhs are becoming too integrated. To them, it is profoundly disturbing that a recent poll by City Sikhs, representing professional Sikhs, should show an overwhelming majority in favour of gurdwaras allowing interfaith marriages. The events of 1984 around the anti-Sikh Genocide in India have also led to a defensive mentality, exacerbated by worries that the religion is being diluted as new converts join the fold.
So, while many Sikhs are integrating into British culture, others gravitate towards religion as their main primary identity. Shamsher Singh is one.
“We’re dealing with complex issues of identity,” he says. “The intersection of our sense of self with coloniality has created this hybrid, stateless individual who struggles at every juncture with validation and having to constantly justify beliefs and the practice of religion to a westernised audience. I’m living in an age where individuals on the periphery, with tenuous links to the community, are telling those of us who have committed to the Sikh way how we must interpret and practice Sikhi.”
Many worry that such attitudes will eventually shrink the community, not strengthen it.
Pippa Virdee, a senior lecturer of South Asian History at De Montfort University, says: “There has generally been a greater assertion of what it is to be Sikh in the last 10 to 15 years. That identity has become exclusive and serves to exclude people who see themselves as Sikhs but may not be practising. Increasingly, I feel we are told -- often by men and so-called leaders of the faith -- who is a good Sikh. This will serve only to alienate people.”
As I can attest. After I posted videos of wedding disruptions, I was threatened. And my experience wasn’t rare.
Many Sikhs also see the bid to stop inter-religious marriages as an attempt by men to control Sikh women and stop them from marrying “out”.
“If they so love Sikhi, why not question the high rate of female foeticide in India, including in Punjab, as a hindrance?” asks writer and journalist Herpreet Kaur Grewal.
Meanwhile, this controversy isn’t going to go away soon. The 2011 British Census found that 1.8 per cent of Sikhs (7,600 people) identified as white, while 1.2 per cent (5,000) identified as mixed-race, and it’s likely a large proportion of them do so through marriage to Sikhs, rather than conversion. If those numbers grow, and as some grow more liberal, the differences with more radical Sikhs will grow starker.
Jonathan Evans, who calls himself Jonny Singh, emailed me about his experience of moving closer to Sikhism after his marriage to a British Sikh.
“If my wife and I were forced to abandon our Anand Karaj, would I have felt the same about the vision of Sikhism?” he asks. “As humans, we are shaped by our experiences. I would never have become a Sikh if I was not married in the gurdwara.”
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THE ROUNDTABLE OPEN FORUM # 156
Please share your thoughts on the issues raised above by posting your comments herein below.
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[Courtesy: The Independent. Edited for sikhchic.com]
October 13, 2015
Conversation about this article
1: Sarvjit Singh (Millis, Massachusetts, USA), October 13, 2015, 10:05 AM.
If they are true to their convictions, marriages between Sikh men and non-Sikh women should also cause similiar outrage from these crashers. An Anand Karaj wedding should be for observant Sikhs only. For me, it's a no brainer.
2: Gobinder Singh (USA), October 13, 2015, 10:41 AM.
I am not sure if this is what we are trying to tell the world what Sikhi is about. I personally know couples where a non-Sikh was married to a Sikh and later on became Sikh. Not just that, the non-Sikh families who attended Anand Karaj were always so inspired by the ceremony and culture. Maybe if these guys - the smashers, that is - would actually spend time reading Gurbani first, it would help understand what Sikhism is all about. How do these hooligans know that the people getting married are both Sikhs or not? Would they go to India and block all Hindus getting married to Sikhs? This method is just pushing everyone away. When did Sikhism become so weak that we feel threatened by mixed marriages?
3: Kaala Singh (Punjab), October 13, 2015, 1:45 PM.
@1: There is a difference, whether Eastern or Western culture, a woman after marriage has to follow the culture of the man and hence the children also follow the man's culture. This is what I have seen everywhere. So what is this fuss all about, these women can marry elsewhere -- is it their way to say good-bye to the culture of their birth? The rules of Anand Karaj have been written keeping in mind that two Sikhs are going to marry each other.
4: Kulwant Singh (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), October 13, 2015, 2:37 PM.
Maybe I have misunderstood the word 'Sikh' duringmy entire life. I always thought, as my parents taught me from a young age, that ANYONE who learned from Guru Nanak's teachings (took Sikhya) was, and is, a Sikh. When did the meaning of the word change to only apply to those who are born to parents who were called Sikh simply because they were born to parents who were born to parents ... (I could go on and on!). Are these protesters Sikh? Which part of Guru Nanak's teachings do they believe in?
5: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), October 13, 2015, 4:17 PM.
The Sikh Rehat Maryada, the Sikh Code of Conduct and Conventions, that governs all Sikh religious ceremonies states the following: (Section 4, Chapter XI, Article XVII, paragraph k): “Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by the Anand Karaj ceremony.” Most religions including denominations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism have similar restrictions governing one of the most important religious ceremonies that an individual can go through in a temple, mosque, synagogue, church or gurdwara. We should be respectful of the religious requirements for marriage in various religions and their places of worship.
6: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 13, 2015, 8:07 PM.
Highly disturbing and troubling that these protesters are tainting the beautiful and universal faith founded by Guru Nanak - Guru Gobind Singh.
7: Tony Singh (Canada), October 13, 2015, 10:39 PM.
This situation is not as simple as people make it out to be. Historically, Hindu women from northern India were captured and enslaved by the marauding Mughals and the Khalsa rescued many of them. Our young men see Sikh women who are marrying outside of the religion in way as being seduced and carried off by non-Sikhs.
8: Taran Singh (London, United Kingdom), October 13, 2015, 11:43 PM.
As far as I know, this issue should not have cropped up if Sikh institutions were governed properly. The Sikh Rehat Maryada says a Sikh can only marry a Sikh through Anand Karaj. And for a ceremony to take place in the gurdwara both parties have to be practicing Sikhs.
9: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), October 14, 2015, 12:55 AM.
If individuals are going to marry out of the faith, then why have your wedding in a gurdwara? On the other hand, for those individuals who are helping their spouses learn about and become Sikhs, they should be welcomed with open arms into our community and that includes our houses of worship.
10: Aryeh Leib Lerner (Israel), October 14, 2015, 4:10 AM.
Sunny ji, I think it telling that you chose this turn of phrase: "Many worry that such attitudes will eventually shrink the community, not strengthen it." "Shrink" and "strengthen" aren't opposites; rather, they form a non-sequitur. Who says a smaller, leaner, well-defined community can't be a stronger one? I honestly don't know whether those opposed are objecting to a mis-application of Anand Karaj rites, or if they fear dilution in numbers and the concomitant weakening of political strength afforded by a recognizable group identity. Regardless, surely there are better ways of expressing what may be justified grievances.
11: KSD (Bombay, India), October 14, 2015, 4:22 AM.
As far as I have understood, Sikhi teaches us that we are not born in a religion, we are born free and are free to choose and believe in whichever way that leads to the One God of all. But I have also understood that Sikhi is like a family and if someone is going away from a family, the members are saddened and in this sadness they do things that are not fully thought out. I believe what needs to be done is to trust God and help others to be part of our Sikhi family. i believe we should take this opportunity to spread the light of Sikhi to the ones who are willing to listen and spread more awareness of the words of our Gurus.
12: Jasbeer Singh (New Delhi, India), October 14, 2015, 6:30 AM.
Do we all Sikhs follow the Rehat Maryada for marriages?
13: Kulwant Singh (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), October 14, 2015, 8:46 AM.
@5: Sandeep Singh ji: as per Rehat Maryada, a majority of weddings happening in Gurdwaras need to be stopped. I thought the core tenet of Sikhi was oneness of mankind, not to follow a certain regimented organized set of "exclusive" rules synthesized by ordinary men and enforced by (as far as I am concerned) people of whom our Gurus would be ashamed!
14: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), October 14, 2015, 12:30 PM.
I understand why people are offended by the actions of these young men. These kinds of stories make our community look like fundamentalists, however holding hands and singing kumbaya isnt the answer either. Just take this into consideration: during Maharaja Ranjit Singh's time, the Sikhs had arrived, our institutions were protected and there was no external threat to our community. Guess what also happened during this time period? Sikhism began to degrade as Hindu influences began to make inroads into the faith. It wasn't until the Singh Sabha enacted reforms and started a renaissance in Sikhi that it was preserved against the threat of the majority. This is essentially what happens in western countries. If you do not teach your children their culture, heritage and religion, they will marry out and their own children will be assimilated into the mass of the majority. This doesn't mean that we should exclude ourselves from the majority community or define ourselves as the "other", but instead as "different". I won't even get into the social dynamics of the western world where the white man is presented as the alpha male by the media who has access to all women, including those of color, whereas men of color are completely invisible, ridiculed and excluded.
15: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), October 14, 2015, 12:30 PM.
All religions come from the One Divine Source. Religion has to deal with real people and the problems they are called upon to face in life. If the female Sikh has chosen to marry a non-Sikh with the approval of her kith and kin (like parents) and they want to celebrate the occasion through Anand Karaj in a gurdwara, there is nothing to protest about. The beauty of the Sikh religion is its universality. It cannot brook sectarianism in any shape or form.
16: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), October 20, 2015, 10:13 PM.
Imagine a witness at a court case saying - I am not a Christian but I shall swear, on the bible, to tell the truth, etc. Would you trust his/her testimony? Then how can marriage vows taken before the Guru Granth Sahib by a non-Sikh be taken seriously? "O, I do not have faith in your faith, but I shall take my solemn vows before 'your' Guru anyway". Majority of Sikhs do not have anything against such 'mixed' marriages, even those who disrupt such farces, but yes, we do resent a farcical Anand Karaj just for the sake of a colourful ceremony. An Anand Karaj has and should have a deep spiritual meaning to those conducting it and those who are going through it. Otherwise there are many other venues to get hitched.
17: K.N. Singh (Johor Baru, Malaysia), September 10, 2016, 5:48 AM.
The Gurdwara is the House of God. We do not stop anyone from langar as all have the right to be there. Why do we stop mixed marriages? How will we show the compassion Guru Sahib had for all fellow beings? Mardana followed Guru Sahib his whole life and there are times Guru Sahib had to remind him that it was time for nimaz and that he should say his prayers. Why is it then that mere mortals think they own the House of God and will not allow mixed marriages? What's even worse is that no women are allowed to sing in the inner sanctum of Harmander Sahib, a recent development under the influence of Hinduism. Who made these decrees? The only way we can preserve Sikhi is to be humble in the House of God and allow everyone to belong and feel like Mardana did as he was part of Guru Sahin's entourage. Until this idea that we need to communicate with God through priests is shelved we will be no different from other religions of the world and it will be a long time before "Raj karay ga Khalsa ..." will happen.