Extremist or Citizen?: Navigating the Challenges of Narrative in Exile/Diaspora
In recent weeks, mainstream media outlets, politicians, and self-styled “experts” have been engaged in debating Sikh politics, Khalistan, and the legitimacy of our sangarsh (struggle). At the centre of this conversation is the figure of Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Despite the consensus that Bhai Hardeep Singh was extrajudicially murdered due to his seva in the Sikh sangarsh for Khalistan however, there is little to no serious engagement with the political project of Khalistan itself. Rather than engaging with Bhai Hardeep Singh as a Sikh, “experts” on either side of the debate engage in mental gymnastics to force him into either one of two predetermined categories: Sikh extremist or Canadian citizen.
While racism and the influence of Indian interference are undeniably the driving forces of the narratives spewed against Sikh activism in the diaspora, there are a great number of questions that must be asked as to why such simplistic frames have been so readily received and reproduced without any critical analysis by seemingly disinterested parties. More importantly however, it is imperative that Sikh naujawan unpack these narratives when we step into alien discursive spaces to articulate the frames of our liberation on our own terms.
The problem with the circulation of India’s targeted messaging is that it traps many well-meaning Sikh organizations and individuals as well. Internalizing myths of the “model minority,”1 some Sikh organizations engage in self-censorship in response to the framing. These approaches often narrow the Sikh sangarsh into depoliticized monikers like “human rights advocacy,” and erase the ongoing context of political objectives and struggle altogether. Rather than active agents in a political movement, they circumscribe Sikhs to the sphere of a powerless victim.
Many voices accept the label of extremism applied to the armed struggle for Khalistan or seek to restrict the sangarsh to something in the past—erasing the reality of conflict and resistance today. Rather than defend the legacy of resistance to genocide and claiming the ongoing right to self-defence as granted by the Guru and international law, these responses leave the Panth wide open to the repressive measures taken against Sikh activists by the state. These measures have included surveillance, restricting bank accounts, adding activists to no-fly lists, police raids, laying the groundwork for extraditions, and increasing other policing measures.
When Indian propagandists and their racist counterparts define Khalistani activism as extremism, these organizations and individuals often succumb to accepting the classification and try to distance themselves from the political struggle as a result. Attempts at responding to such attacks often avoid the substantive issues and limit themselves solely to pointing out the impacts of racism or challenging the methodologies of the allegations.
Sikh advocacy must not limit its critique of Indian violence to violations of freedom of speech or purport to take a neutral stance with regards to a real and ongoing Sikh political struggle. Instead, such endeavours must confidently articulate Sikh policy objectives and boldly represent the interests of the panth.
While we celebrate Bhai Hardeep Singh’s shahadat in the ongoing struggle for Khalistan, it is imperative to remain above this trap—reject the definitions altogether and celebrate our resistance.
Understanding the context of gulaami
While the primary conflict of the Sikh panth has manifested in resistance to the Indian state specifically, it is also imperative to address our collective position as a panth situated within a global system that has been constructed on foundations of racism, capitalism, and colonialism. Articulating the relationship between the Sikh panth and today’s modern/colonial2 world order not only sheds light on the nature of our conflict with the Indian state, but also why the spectre of so-called “Sikh terrorism” and “extremism” is so easily accepted by Western states.
As a colonized people in today’s world—in Punjab as well as in exile/diaspora, Sikhs are socialized and policed to only engage in certain modes of politics which are deemed acceptable to Eurocentric norms and the institution of the state. Through this assimilatory logic, colonized peoples are rhetorically allowed to maintain their independent existence, but this is restricted to a limited space of private (apolitical) culture while the public (and political) space is dominated by the state and its Eurocentric ethos.
Racialized peoples are thus permitted to engage in “identity politics” which seek inclusion and integration of their private/cultural identity within the established and predetermined political order—based on their subordinated minority status.3 This means that while citizens with certain cultural identities in their private life can engage in politics to address public “discrimination,” they cannot transgress the predetermined parameters of state and society in order to transform the political order itself.4 Instead, racialized peoples are expected to obediently celebrate the politics of tolerance, rather than struggle for dignified coexistence and decolonization. This integration is therefore premised on assimilation into the figure of the secular/universal “citizen” to achieve equality while relegating the “cultural” self to the apolitical private sphere.
The struggle for Khalistan5 on the other hand, centres around our drive to exercise our Guru-granted patshahi and establish a society-polity in today’s world that is built around the Guru’s vision of sanjhivalta6 and sarbat da bhala.7 This is the definition of Khalsa Raj and our vision for decolonization—a political structure which roots our being and existence in this world as Sikhs rather than projected as a minority, or an “Other” to the supposedly universal “citizen.”
Within the confines of the predominant racializing logic however, the Sikh sangarsh is misconstrued as inherently illegitimate “extremism” due to its connection to the imposed Eurocentric category of “religion” and a racialized identity constructed by Orientalist tropes.8 This is why Western media and foreign security establishments are quick to condemn the sangarsh as extremism and terrorism rather than a recognized movement for self-determination and liberation.
Looking specifically at the 1984 Indian army invasion of the Darbar Sahib complex and the violence associated with it, it was the entry of “religion” into the theatre of politics that was construed as ‘fanaticism’ in the mainstream to produce an impression that the secular state had no other option but to swiftly eliminate Sant Jarnail Singh jee. This episode is reflective of a coercive secular modernity obligated to repress and control different ethnic minorities to conform to the colonial split between religion and secularism.9
It is only within this conceptual framework that the imperialist violence committed by the likes of Harjit Sajjan on behalf of the Canadian state is valourized as heroism, while the revolutionary violence of Sikh jujharoos is derided as extremism and terrorism.
How do panthic naujawan confront this challenge today?
The precarious position of Sikhs around the world has been once again laid bare in the absence of political sovereignty, despite every attempt to ingratiate ourselves to our host societies. It is imperative at this time, that we take stock of the current geopolitical realities and chart our own autonomous policy initiatives in order to implement our own strategic objectives and achieve our collective political vision.
The backbone of any panthic response will be in centring responses around our sovereign being as the Guru Khalsa Panth, not a model minority. When we respond as a collective, it is paramount that we place the panth at the forefront, rather than our individual interests as a racialized people in different societies.
Keeping the panth’s sovereign hond-hasthi10 at the forefront of our response and actions, our political consciousness and praxis must be centred around Guru Granth-Panth by developing the panth’s political power through our own institutions. Our political solutions will come from self-empowerment and sovereign infrastructure; not submitting to the whims of electoral politics or representation through systems of borrowed power (subedari).
As servants of the Guru Khalsa Panth, tied to its pursuit of sovereignty and sarbat da bhala, our destiny is tied to Guru Granth-Panth and cannot be artificially divided between Punjab and exile/diaspora. While some individuals self-identifying as Sikh may act and respond on the basis of narrow social, political, or economic interests in their day-to-day lives, these actions and interests cannot be representative of the panth as a whole.
We must be unapologetic in celebrating and defending the Sikh sangarsh on our own terms, while considering the long-term implications of our responses. Ignoring or erasing the reality of sangarsh and all of its facets is not just shortsightedness, it will contribute or acquiesce to the physical harms faced by Sikh activists around the world today.
Rajbir Singh Judge & Jasdeep Singh Brar, “Guru Nanak is not at the White House: An essay on the idea of Sikh-American redemption” (2017) 13:3 Sikh Formations 147; Harleen Kaur, “Making Citizenship, Becoming Citizens: How Sikh Punjabi Shaped the Exclusionary Politics of Belonging” (2020) 46:1 Amerasia Journal 107.
Walter Mignolo, “Delinking: The rhetoric of modernity, the logical of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality” in Walter Mignolo and Arturo Escobar, eds, Globalization and the Decolonial Option (London: Routledge, 2010) 303.
Walter Mignolo, “The De-Colonial Option and the Meaning of Identity In Politics” (2007) 9:10 Anales; Rita Kaur Dhamoon, “Exclusion and Regulated Inclusion” (2013) 9:1 Sikh Formations 7.
Judge & Brar, supra note 1.
Bhai Daljit Singh, “Statement from Bhai Daljit Singh on the 34th Anniversary of the Declaration of Khalistan”, Sikh Siyasat News (1 May 2020).
Sanjhivalta is not a false unity forged by an assimilating universalism, but the dignified co-creation/co-existence of diverse entities.
The welfare of all elements of Akaal Purakh’s creation. This is not limited to humans alone, but includes everything within this biosphere and beyond.
William T Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, how European universalism was Preserved in the language of pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Balbinder Singh Bhogal, “Monopolizing Violence Before and After 1984” (2014) 7:1 Sikh Formations at 59.