Sikh Chairs

Firstly the proposal to seek a chair in the name of Master Tara Singh – I would support it with a couple of caveats built in. Let the Chair holder research and evaluate the role and contribution of the Master in the totality of historical context in which he operated.

Sardar Dhanoa is right that Sikh leadership had not been prepared to guide the community’s demands in the context of numerical constraints. But all the situations that leaderships have to respond are part of the continuum that comes down to them.

In our history, till 1849 [and possibly beyond in stray cases], the case for suzerainty of a group was decided by the sword – their numbers did not matter. This is how the Muslims continued to rule, so did the Sikhs and British create and extended their empires and several Hindu princes ruled their states [Kashmir]. This model started changing in the later part of the 19th century and slowly the practices of decision making by majorities came to be adopted including by Singh Sabhas. So while the change was recognized by the Sikhs its total play in the emerging political process did not seem to dawn on them.

Hindus and Muslims did not have to worry too much about this emerging dominant factor likely to impact the future polity but all communities in their own way took notice of the possibility of change and started to consolidate their identities and numbers.

While this was playing out, the other factor that was not fully understood at all was relating to the status of treaties, rulerships by hereditary rajas and the like. Even up to the run up to 1946 and 47 when most of the conclusive discussions took place that resulted in partition, the broad negotiating principle followed by the British was an amalgam of recognition of numerically dominant groups and those who had some kind of a historical claim to suzerainty. Princely states fell in this group but Sikhs as a community seemed to have been placed by the British somewhere between the two as a sort of special interest group and continued to be invited to tripartite conferences.

Apart from the Akali leaders of the type of Master Tara Singh, Giani Kartar Singh, Udham Singh Nagoke and others there were others like Ujjal Singh, Harnam Singh, who were advising and often joining or leading in negotiations. The problem was that by 1947, the numbers had become the lead politically accepted criterion and we really did not succeed in developing a paradigm of political set up or positioning of the community that could have answered our aspirations.

There are suggestions made that Sikhs as a community would have favored or not favored creation of a Sikh state. The whole approach of trying to fathom the importance of decision making through a collective mode in those turbulent times is farfetched and a reflection of our limitation at not being able to comprehend the dynamics of those times.

The chair professor if really earnest researcher, might find that a minority placed precariously at the intersection of aspirations of two strong communities did not have much of a chance with the British engaged in bandar baant with an eye on their future relationships with the two emerging states.

Such a comprehensive study may bring out some lessons for several minority groups similarly placed elsewhere, tell us what we could have and did not and why? Was the failure that of lack of vision in leadership or a deeply divided conglomeration of vested interests, collectively called Sikh interests.

The failure of vision may not be that of the leaders since gone only but of all of us for, to come to think of it, who among us has till today presented a paradigm that if followed would have had Sikhs succeed in securing some kind of dignified future? Put it another way, do we have a vision going forward?

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The next Presidential Debate tomorrow is set for Hofstra University that happens to also host two endowed Sikh chairs. The area also has quite an activist Sikh community. One can only hope that some Sikhs will find their way into the audience. It is important that we are seen as a part of the process. Besides a few Turbans or Chunnis seen in the crowd might help the viewers relate to Sikhs as different to the stereotype frozen in public mind.

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