Challenging modern assumptions about nationalism and statehood, LSE Visiting Professor Giorgio Shani outlines his research on Sikh nationalism around the world, looking at cultural identities in the diaspora and the ‘nation’.
The Sikhs are a distinctive cultural and religious community in South Asia, with a vibrant diaspora and a territorial homeland. There are approximately 26 million Sikhs globally, of whom 23 million live in India where they are less than 2% of the 1.4 billion population. The vast majority, 18 million (78%) live in the state of Punjab where they constitute 58% of the state’s population. Generally considered an ethno-religious community, Sikhs are not categorised as a ‘nation’ since they do not have state of their own. However, from 1984 to 1992, militant Sikh organisations waged a ‘war of national self-determination’ against the ‘secular’ Indian state controlled by the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that, according to conservative estimates, cost over 30,000 lives. Despite the long standing electoral alliance between the dominant faction of the premier Sikh political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Punjab, the latter’s embrace of Hindutva and moves to consolidate political power following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide electoral victory in 2019 has led to fears of the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra (or Hindu state) in India which could lead to a resurgence of Sikh ‘nationalism’ as exemplified by the use of explicitly Sikh symbols (including the Nishan Sahib, the Sikh flag) during the recent farmers’ protests.
Statehood remains, despite the impact of globalisation on collective identities, the sine qua non of nationalism: most states claim to represent ‘nations’ but the two concepts are not coterminous. Statehood lies in the monopolisation of the legitimate use of force over a given territory; whereas nationhood refers instead to the ‘imagined community’ the state claims to represent. Consequently, the ethno-national dimensions of Sikh identity have been occluded from most academic analyses of the Sikhs whom, since the Partition of the subcontinent, have been studied almost exclusively as a ‘world religion’ such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. However, in Sikh Nationalism, Gurharpal Singh and I argue that many Sikhs in the Punjab and the diaspora consider themselves—and may be considered by others—as a ‘nation.’ By focusing on ‘inner dimension’ of Sikh subjectivity, we draw upon—and seek to make a contribution to—theories of nationalism. We argue that although Sikh nationalism can be understood as a ‘derivative discourse’ of colonial modernity—in that it uses categories derived from Western modernity to describe Sikh collective identity—it articulates a pre-existing sense of political community based on the ‘sacred’ myths and memories of the Sikh peoples of the Punjab region of northern India. The twin discourses of the Sikhs are followers of a ‘world religion’ and as a nation are, therefore, intertwined and cannot be separated.
The origins of the narrative of the Sikhs as a ‘religious’ community—Sikhism—are traced back to the tradition’s founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1539). Guru Nanak was followed by nine other gurus who contributed to the institutionalisation of the new faith through the introduction of Gurmukhi (a Punjabi script) in which sacred scriptures were written and compiled in a Holy Book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, new scared rituals, and the founding of Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple) as the spiritual and, the Akal Takht facing it as the temporal, home of the community. This drew it into conflict with the Mughal Empire which sought, in varying degrees, to impose Islam on the Punjab, and to the martyrdom of several Gurus culminating in the establishment of the Khalsa in 1699.
The order of the Khalsa, or ‘community of the pure,’ was initiated by the tenth and final human Guru, Gobind Singh (1658-1707). Guru Gobind first baptised his followers with five external symbols (5Ks) —kesh (unshorn hair), kacha (short drawers), kirpan (sword), and kanga (comb)—and renaming them as Singhs (for males) and Kaurs (for females) with the new initiates in turn baptising the guru. He then conferred spiritual authority on the Sikh Holy Book, the Granth Sahib, and temporal authority upon the community of baptised Sikhs through the doctrine of Guru Panth, the corporate body of the community (a collective gathering of the Khalsa) in whom his spirit is eternally present. This marked the birth of a new discourse in the Sikh tradition: the Sikhs as a nation. As I argue elsewhere, the embodiment of sovereignty in the collective body of the Khalsa, ‘the community of the pure’, by Guru Gobind Singh is of crucial importance to Sikh nationalism in that this act constituted the modern Sikh ‘nation’ before the advent of colonial rule.
This challenges modernist—and some postcolonial—accounts of nationalism which regard it as a distinctly modern phenomenon, an ideology accompanying state formation and the development of capitalism in Western Europe after the French Revolution that was introduced to South Asia during the colonial period. Nationalism in the post-colonial world may be seen as derivative of colonial discourses in the following senses: First, it seeks to articulate geo-cultural difference using a conceptual vocabulary derived from Western historical experience and political thought, that of the ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’. Second, it seeks to mobilise the ‘nation’ in order to capture state power. However, as Partha Chatterjee in a later work insightfully argues, the nation encompasses a spiritual, sacred dimension which was not accessible to the coloniser. Western modernist theories of nationalism conflate the spiritual domain of the ‘nation’ with the outer domain of the ‘state’. The nation may be an ‘imagined community’ to use Anderson’s famous formulation, but the way in which the nation was imagined differed outside of the West. In the case of the Sikhs, the ‘nation’ was coterminous with a ‘religious’ community: the Khalsa Panth. Therefore, modernist explanations which attribute the emergence of Sikh nationalism in the last decades of the twentieth century to the transformations of Punjabi society as a result of the Green Revolution or a reaction to the storming of the Golden Temple complex, the most sacred site in Sikhism, by Indian troops under the orders of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (later assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard) in 1984 are unable to account for the strength of national consciousness among the Sikhs which is rooted in their faith and particularly in the myths and memories of the Khalsa.
The late Anthony D. Smith once described the ‘nation’ as a ‘sacred communion of the people’ devoted to ‘the cult of authenticity and the ideals of national autonomy, unity and identity in a historic homeland’. Notwithstanding the explicitly Christian imagery associated with ‘communion’, his appreciation of the spiritual dimension of nationalism goes some way to accounting for the strength of nationalist sentiment among Sikhs and throughout much of the contemporary world in an age of globalisation.
On Tuesday 17th of February, Professor Shani will be speaking at an event on Sikh Nationalism with the LSE SU Sikh Society. Find out more and sign up here.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.