THE EMERGING DIVIDE AMONG SIKHS

EMERGING PRIMARY DIVIDE

There is a widely shared feeling among Sikhs that several Amritdharis behave as if they have a special position in relation to their non-Amritdharis and non-keshadhari brethren. Over time Sikhs sense that a sort of hierarchy has developed among them where the laity is viewed in the descending order – amritdharis, sabat saboot keshadharis, keshadharis, monas and their progeny, traditional sehjdharis and those who may be as close to Sikhi as to some form of other practices and beliefs, mostly Hindu.

Thus kes observance is the primary cause of stratification. It is rooted in the thought that the order of Khalsa, following Guru Gobind Singh’s edict on Baisakhi of 1699, is at the Apex and thus represents the supreme form of a Sikh; with Khalsa form being interpreted as the image of a Sikh with unshorn hair and other associated observances, commonly referred to as five K’s.

SECONDARY LAYER[s] OF DIVIDE

Overlapping this primary stratification, other layers of secondary divide have developed that are rooted in the feeling of relative cultural superiority. For example Punjabi Sikhs do exhibit relative superiority to their Bihari, Ouriya, Dakhani brethren and all the Indian Sikhs feel to be better than foreigner and Gora Sikhs. Within Punjabis runs also the caste hierarchy in another parallel set of layers where Khatris and Jats have been jostling for the top level unmindful of their attitude towards Mazhbi Sikhs, Sikligars and others who belong to the traditionally lower placed castes or fall in avarna groups.

Significantly all these layers come together in the Gurdwara setting and even though in their relation to the Guru their devotion and intensity of belief may be equally strong, one would discern divide along all interfaces for various reasons including an undercurrent of herding together, resentment and hostility of others, that sometimes may manifest in unpleasant incidents.

DIVIDE AT PLAY

The growing and divisive fault line presently is between keshadhari and mona Sikhs with the numbers of mona Sikhs increasing at the expense of kesdhari Sikhs rapidly in Punjab, the rest of India and the Diaspora. I do not think there is any reliable count but both sides seem to point to big numbers like 80 % monaskeshadharis to highlight the drift and the monas to highlight the voluntary draft to their ranks. Interestingly in this changing mix, the proportion of amritdharis seems to be holding up – cited at around 15%.

I have hesitation in accepting the above trend in the mix of Sikhs for several reasons. I do not see the 80:20 evident among the attendees at Gurdwaras including on major festival occasions when most Sikhs go to the Gurdwara. It is possible that the visual impression is skewed by the more frequent presence of amritdharis, many of whom may be providing liturgical services and others who may be Gurdwara functionaries. It is also possible that amritdharis are more regular in attending the gurdwara service. In spite of these possible factors I find it difficult to apprehend that majority of keshadharis are amritdharis. This definitely cannot be true. So if amritdharis are 15 %, keshadharis could not be less than 30%. Thus divide in the middle along amritdhari/keshadhari and mona/sehjdhari/others lines seems more likely to be credible.

MONAS THEN —

Be that as it may. Numbers may be important but for my purpose in this article are not critical. What is important is the recognition of a growing shift toward monas from the ranks of keshadharis. Another change that is making a difference is that the internal mix of the monas is not the same as it used to be. Earlier, say a few decades back, the monas were mainly rural folks – farmers, artisans, scavengers and the like – who were going in and out of the kesh observance rekha somewhat randomly. When they moved in and out of kesha observance their behavior or level of comfort as members of the  sangat did not undergo any perceptible change.

In addition to these there was a sprinkling of monas who had been brought up to believe that keshas are the symbol of Khalsa. They came from families that had accepted and transmitted the Sikh identity rooted in Singh Sabha thought. A significant percentage of these monas had the benefit of education and their choice to cross line possibly was more traumatic for them. In several cases they had faced strong opposition from within their families. They kept a low profile to the extent of being withdrawn and accepting of some visibly discriminatory experiences. Being a small number and surrounded by a vast mass of keshadhari proponents, they stuck it out and there are hardly any anecdotes to vouch any assertive posturing by them in those days. The mona segment therefore though quite divided into two such diverse sub sets was only seen and not heard.

AND NOW!

The picture now is changing and there is evidence that the profile of monas cannot now be ignored – to some extent in India but more so in the Diaspora. The two segments that we earlier looked at continue to be relevant with the attitudes of the first staying nearly the same – low profile in behavior and no different from their social group as members of the sangat. Their numbers, however, are increasing but possibly in the sense that their out periods are getting longer than before.

The other segment of educated urban Sikhs who are consciously deciding to shed keshas is increasing. They feel that after shedding hair observance, they and their kids have to endure certain visible acts of discrimination. This segment tends to be engaged in all the Gurdwara activities but is denied certain roles – President, Secretary, Cashier, Speakers – which are kept as the preserve of kesdhari/amritdhari Sikhs, ostensibly to showcase Sikh identity to the visitors but may also be to obviate Gurdwara affairs from falling into the hands of Monas. This is seen to be discriminatory by those who no more keep the hair but do not like being denied ability to provide leadership on this account.

Fortunately this divide has not resulted in violent incidents that otherwise have not been too uncommon in Gurdwara matters. A couple of legal cases, however, should caution us about the potential of this divide to get raised again. The first case was filed by Gurleen Kaur when she was denied admission as minority because she had shaped eye brows. The other case was by the Sehjdharis who had sought restitution of their voting rights in the SGPC elections, which are denied also to the kesdharis who shed their hair. At this time, the denial in both cases is legally valid.

CONCLUDING

The divide therefore has reasons to continue because of the discriminatory practices that the observance of SRM, Acts governing SGPC/DSGMC, and Constitutions or Maryada at community Gurdwaras has given rise to. So far the divide is getting managed due to an overawing respect for the Guru and Gurdwara among Sikhs. But how it plays out going forward into future is hazy because it is difficult to envision that Sikhs will themselves be inclined to continue to keep those who fail to follow hair observances from participation in sewa at the Gurdwaras.

Guru only will bless us with his guidance!

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Nirmal Singh

Updated 29 September, 2020 Camp New Delhi

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