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A virtual conference sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory (CSLR) featuring scholars, experts and practitioners who will examine the many religious traditions of South Asia and their diverse publics. Participation by invitation only. View selected videos and browse all essays here.

“Sikh Studies and Its Publics:
Positionality, Autonomy, and Responsibility”

Harjeet Grewal

“Publics” as a term refers to large groups that transcend singular or microscopic interests in order to pursue larger goals related to governing a particular geopolitical space. At the same time, the social formation of the “public” must be delimited by and against the antagonism of other groups often occupying alternate or overlapping geopolitical terrains. The definition itself has to do with a way to come together to facilitate collective political action. Public spheres and opposing subaltern spaces act as a commons – what Negri and Hardt see as the heart of Empire (2001) – wherein discussion pertaining to political decision-making occurs or is contested. In this brief provocation, I ask whether it is possible, under the current conditions of discourse, to reclaim from the Gursikh tradition’s literature a way to think about the possibility of a surreligious public formation to challenge imperialist formations. 

This is not a historical quest to locate such a public in the past, or its community of praxis. Rather, I want to imagine a pluralistic future within the subcontinent where dialogue functions through paradigms found within the rich and diverse epistemic terrain of the region itself. For instance, from a Gursikh perspective, what is a public that answers neither to the governmental call of Hindu nor of Muslim and is simultaneously aloof to notions of ethinicity or regionalism? In asking this question, I am evoking verses given to Guru Arjan that are enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS, Salok 5.3:4, p. 1136) where it states, “we are neither Hindu nor are we Musalmān, body and breath are the Creator’s.” I argue that reading this line, in postcolonial contexts, one needs to simultaneously avoid the governmental triumvirate produced during colonialism of Hindu-Sikh Muslim (Oberoi, 1994). In doing so, I suggest the possibility of a radical political and ethical project resistant to hegemonic practices of biopower routinely mobilized within South Asia. Such politics would perpetually disrupt the possibility for recreating, refiguring, or realigning centuries old friend-enemy dynamics that presided over the subcontinent and create a poorly examined concept of the political in South Asia.

I understand the Gursikh tradition to be the epistemological and textual potential of a pluralism that rejected the religio-political identity operationalized during the early modern period under the categories “Hindu” and “Musalmān,” as well as rejected the spheres within which they operated; the political courts of kings, the sociocultural court of the tabernacle, and the elite religious space of the Mandir-Masjid were all understood as divisive and producing conflict in the public sphere. Examples of this tradition and its rejection of religio-political identity are many and are not exclusive to the Sikh tradition. Nonetheless, the Guru Granth Sahib, for example, rejects the political and religious aspects of identity and space when it states: “Allah [the One Creator of All] is my shepherd and judges both Hindus and Turks…Go neither on Hajj to the Ka’bah nor to pray at the tīrathas” (SGGS, Salok 5.3:2, p. 1136). 

The rejection of distinctions between ruler and ruled can also be seen in the poetry of Bhai Gurdas (1551-1637), a major exegete and contemporary of several Sikh Gurus, when he writes, “The world exists as it should when ruler and ruled recognize connectedness” (vār1, paurhī 24). In several places, Bhai Gurdas rejects these categories and their subspecies because they increase the dissemination of hatred and violence. For instance in his “Pehli Vaar” we read the following: “The world became hateful when the four varnāshramas were formulated…Replacing oneness with multiple difference distortions started to take shape” (vār 1, paurhi 20). Bhai Gurdas discusses how Muslims entered South Asia, but reneged on their faith to assert their superiority using new ways to spread hate and antagonism. Gurdas continues to note that Muslims and Hindus resorted to different associations of religious space (Makka and Banaras) and different symbols (circumcision and the tilak mark) to dominate politics and create antagonistic publics – the truth was left aside, he says, while Brahmans and Maulās fought and killed. Nanak sought to subdue or break these antagonistic divisions, according to Bhai Gurdas. These quotes, rather than expressing any sort of devotionalism, have to do with resurgences of a concept of the political within the Northwestern and central South Asian region.

Violence pervades the public space not through the lens of religion but through the political – making it possible to define the otherwise seemingly benign form of Indian secularism anything but peaceable or pluralistic.

Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, there has been an orchestrated attempt to delineate friend from foe using the master term “religion” and its subcategories to produce publics to foment hatred. This often leads to the creation of various forms of violence. Narratives and texts from the Gursikh tradition are most often ignored in discourse on South Asia because they complicate attempts to construct a cosmopolitan and pluralistic court culture and public where religious difference was negotiated using the concept of the political problematized in the above quotes. The Gursikh texts discuss a friend-foe dynamic in the public that produced privilege through clashes, tensions, and violence. These dynamics are marked in two ways in the verse above using the opposed identities “Hindu” and “Musalmān” as well as “Hindu” and “Turk.” While the formations of identity using such terminology have undoubtedly evolved since the early 1600s, they remain prevalent in the nation-state context and today are linked to communalism and religious nationalism. Thus, the echoes of this Guru Arjan’s refusal of the presiding identitarianism of his day remain relevant to our contemporary moment.

To study religion and its publics, we must examine communalism and religious nationalism through social hierarchies, formations of governmentality, the systemic mechanisms through which diverse and complicated forms of differentiation operate to reproduce hatred and foment the multiple expressions of violence seen on the subcontinent – from microagressions to otherwise unthinkable acts as trauma, torture, and genocidal tendencies. The multitudinal forms of differentiation, competing ideologies, and class can be harnessed by political classes to mobilize the masses. Violence pervades the public space not through the lens of religion but through the political – making it possible to define the otherwise seemingly benign form of Indian secularism anything but peaceable or pluralistic.

The political is operative within the contemporary academic field of Sikh Studies since its arrival in North America around 1978. From that moment onward, there have been several antagonistic responses to scholarship by some actors within the Sikh community. As a scholar of religion trained in secular humanism, I empathize with the scholars that are impacted. However, following Connolly’s idea of multicameral pluralism, I ask: How can opposing perspectives be brought face-to-face with one another? During the foundational years of Sikh Studies in North America, the Sikh community was severely impacted by built-up political tensions erupting in sanguine violence in an event known today as the Nirankārī Kānd. This event led to further violent clashes and greater devastation of the region throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as is well known but poorly understood. My positionality in the field of Sikh Studies is marked by attempts to nationalize Sikh subjectivity through rewriting Sikh history, the selective use of multicultural state policies across different state theaters globally, and the experience of physical, psychological, and economic violence by the Sikh community within those theaters. In the university, I am continually made aware of being marked as an erstwhile jatt male – stereotyped as toxic, violent, ignorant, and chauvinistic – while I struggle against complicity in systems of oppression, such as caste, race, and gender that rely on stereotyping the oppressed to acculturate, appropriate, and enslave their consciousness. Such uses of the political in academia leave me to question oversimplifications of ethical responsibility in the debate about religious publics.

Discursive and physical violence are written into the lived experience of Sikhs globally across race, caste, class, and gender. However, internally, they operate to further drive and delineate friend and enemy through autoimmune response to the political. There are at least two ways this happens. Firstly, through what William Cavanaugh terms the “myth of religious violence.” This concept turns the martial race theory of colonial invention on its head to suggest that Sikhs are a dangerous threat to the state and its citizens because they are inherently violent. The second mechanism is through what Harjot Oberoi (1986) refers to as the psychohistorical or psychoanalytical historical method. This approach searches for recognizable archetypes in the archival or archaeological record. It functions within Sikh Studies as a method to mystify and obscure the Gursikh with recourse to the traumatic and devastating violence of partition as well as the 1980s to “gently” suggest that Sikhism is foundationally a quietist form of nirguna bhakti. Such narratives gained prevalence during the decades after communalism ripped through Punjab. For instance, they were reproduced in national government publications to commemorate Guru Nanak’s 500th birth anniversary. The “gentle” prodding and suggestion that Sikhism originated as a quietist religion starts being emphasized in the writings of early Sikh Studies scholars to help envision the Sikh tradition within a new post-colonial and nation-state framework. Nonetheless, this hermeneutic does not square well with central texts from the tradition and often require a significant degree of deductive reasoning based on a tautology that assumes quietism as Sikhi’s origin. 

The inclusion of religion in the discourse of how publics are formed is a use of the political to extend ideas of citizenship within multicultural societies – this is then used anachronistically by scholars in the geopolitical spaces of “origin” to naturalize the idea of religious publics.

The resultant controversies only increase religious differentiation and further pursuits of the political, reproducing the religious tensions that drive communalism and religious nationalism. I am not suggesting that this narrative was “invented” in a communalist context in the early 20th century. However, I argue that its trajectory shifts in a postcolonial nationalist context. The militant-pacifist binary was quickly taken up and woven into the historiography of the Sikh community – functioning to define a statist perspective defining the legitimate bounds of the Sikh public or citizenry in India (and other nations). Sikhs who dissent are criminalized, regularly enduring both state and mob violence. Thus, attempts at epistemicide, to borrow de Sousa Santos’s term, and genocide, help form the modern Sikh public and its antagonism to Sikh Studies based on communal paradigms of friend and enemy.

Scholars of Sikh Studies in the West – while rejecting the Sikh community’s concerns from a moral standpoint as infringement on their academic freedom – have largely been uninterested in exploring the connections between the advent of the field and lived Sikh experience of discursive and physical violence. The Sikh community often seeks redress or acknowledgement of the violence the Sikh community experience of gender-, race-, and caste-based oppression. In the aftermath of the Sikh armed altercation with the Indian state in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sikh scholars were targeted by staunch anti-intellectualism and violent threats. Since 9/11, there has been an increased prominence given to questions about religion in the public sphere. Sikhs in North America have responded to human rights violations, (mass) killings, and questions about accommodating religious communities through an upsurge of social activist networks but, with the exception of scholars like Cynthia Keppley Mahmood (1996), there have been few studies or publications that highlight the complications of Sikh modernity. The realities of a living, highly reactive, and potentially volatile community that engages with academic discourse places scholars of Sikh Studies in a precarious position vis-à-vis scholarly autonomy and public responsibility or accountability. While turning a blind eye to genocide, mass extrajudicial killings, and torture (much of which continues today), many scholars choose topics that may be controversial in a way that is perceived as gaslighting by many in the global Sikh community where there is often an undercurrent that some Sikhs perceive as scholarly bias based on criminalization of dissent. Furthermore, the power imbalance and institutional inequity in terms of access to resources limits the reach of Punjab’s scholars, who arguably have a more intimate grasp of sociocultural uses of the political, to fuel communalism. This stokes the community’s frustrations that are voiced as anti-intellectualism and the creation of Hindu and/or Muslim identities through the concept of the political. The potential for bloody violent clashes pervades the political atmosphere to produce a horde mentality – which Sikhs living in India are often reminded of by not-so-subtle taunts about reenacting the 1984 genocide in the present.

It is necessary to address the deep social inequities and hierarchical frameworks of prejudice that are layered into South Asian discourse on religion while examining the concomitant formation of religious publics through the political.

While discussing, exploring, and developing pluralistic approaches to South Asia’s immense civilization and intellectual wealth is vital, I argue that continuing the anachronistic and allochronic use of religion and the public, as concepts borrowed from liberal secular humanism, are untenable if we do not rethink the conceptual groundings in European modernity as shown by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989). Habermas connects the idea of the public space to the ebb and flow of the bourgeois class, which developed a dialogic democratic space for rational debate to help direct governance by the 18th century in Europe. This emerging social class was distinguished by not just its relative affluence but as an urban group of citizen bankers, traders, and entrepreneurs that supported socially progressive policies like constitutional government and natural rights. People living in rural areas, urban laborers, or subalterns formed other groups of noncitizens who were governed differently than the bourgeois. Ideas of citizenship, law, capital, and exclusionary forms of governance are central to the idea of bourgeois publics while religion, as such, is not.

The inclusion of religion in the discourse of how publics are formed is a use of the political to extend ideas of citizenship within multicultural societies – this is then used anachronistically by scholars in the geopolitical spaces of “origin” to naturalize the idea of religious publics. I am skeptical of Freige’s (1991) suggestion that simply grafting or translating the concept of the public effectively can produce a sociocultural explanation of religion and South Asian publics risks. The application of a notion of the public without empirical evidence showing how group formation occurs remains a questionable endeavor in any historical epoch but especially in the early modern period in Northern South Asia, where the Gursikh tradition continues to be summarily ignored. Such studies refuse to consider the Western underpinning of the conceptualization of religion and the public – one which is intimately linked to liberal philosophy, capitalism, and imperialism and, at the same time, denies the ability of any South Asian epistemes to explain subcontinental phenomenon. A surgical operation to insert the idea of the public is equally problematic as it denies the gravitas of thousands of years of precolonial historicity. While well intentioned, such a discourse perpetuates the economic oppression and social injustice it opposes by making it seem like communalism is limited to the (post)colonial encounter. As I mentioned above, Gursikh textuality contests these attempts by placing religious identity politics and violence across the long duration of Indic civilization from the third century BCE up to its present communalist formation. A diverse plural politics cannot form through the willful ignorance of voices from the past.

During his opening remarks for the conference of which this paper was a part, Rohit Chopra mentioned that one of the principal reasons for bringing us together was a utopian hope to recuperate a pluralistic and polyphonic way of thinking about religion and its publics. Scholars cannot aspire to the desire utopic polyphony through a veil of a monotonous, insufficiently interrogated, liberal philosophical privilege. To find a polyphonic utopic space requires considering the thought and aspirations of those one opposes not just transparently but with agonistic respect. The present reality through which we imagine the public’s past and present are micro-oppositions whose scholarly amplification evades the imperialist economic imperatives dictated by governments in the Global North through their financial and military apparatuses.

Through this brief intervention I challenge the norms of university praxis, specifically how the notion of publics is at times imagined by South Asian scholars unproblematically as a cosmopolitan egalitarian space. It is necessary to address the deep social inequities and hierarchical frameworks of prejudice that are layered into South Asian discourse on religion while examining the concomitant formation of religious publics through the political. In the present-day context of resurgent religious violence in South Asia, witnessed by announcement of a genocide emergency in India by Genocide Watch, communalism has reemerged, and scholars should attempt to imagine a utopian pluralism by considering the long duration of hatred in South Asia. When discussing religion and its publics today, it is necessary to understand that the Western historiography of the subcontinent continues to fuel the antagonism and opposition many scholars, especially historians, face. The inability to think through multicameral perspectives and dialogue with people of opposed views, I argue, prevents pluralism from taking hold due to an investment in retaining imperialist thought formations.♦

Dr. Harjeet Singh Grewal teaches in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary. His research is driven by hermeneutical questions from Critical Religious Philosophy, Philosophy of Language and Religious Literature discourse and focuses on the Sikh tradition. Dr. Grewal is currently working on two book projects. The first examines Janamsākhī Literature and Sikh Epistemology, and the second studies Diasporic Sikh Hip Hop culture, social justice and activism.

Recommended Citation

Grewal, Harjeet Singh. “Sikh Studies and Its Publics: Positionality, Autonomy, and Responsibility.” Canopy Forum, November 23, 2022.