Sunday, November 08, 2009

Nose-Piercing, Utah, and a Big Oops (Not Mine) [Updated]

On Thursday, I spoke to an AP reporter about a story in Utah last week, expressing some views about a girl in middle school in Utah who got suspended from her school for violating dress code, after getting her nose pierced. She and her family said she did it to get in touch with her Indian cultural identity -- she had the piercing done on Diwali just a couple of weeks ago. The school, however, had a strict "ear pierces only" policy, and was only willing to allow her to have a "transparent" stud in her nose, not the more obviously Indian nose ring she wore to school initially.

Here is the AP story that resulted. It's been printed in a fair number of newspapers around the country. The reporter quotes Abhi (from Sepia Mutiny), Sandhya (also from Sepia Mutiny), and myself. But something goes wrong here:

"I wanted to feel more closer to my family in India because I really love my family," said Suzannah, who was born in Bountiful. Her father was born in India as a member of the Sikh religion.

"I just thought it would be OK to let her embrace her heritage and her culture," said Suzannah's mother, Shirley Pabla, a Mormon born in nearby Salt Lake City. "I didn't know it would be such a big deal."

It shouldn't have been, said Suzannah's father, Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who was raised in the United States and works as an English professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's true that the nose ring is mainly a cultural thing for most Indians," Singh said. "Even if it is just culture, culture matters. And her right to express or explore it seems to me at least as important as her right to express her religious identity." (link)

Um, wait a minute. Did I read that right? Take a look at it again: "...said Suzannah's father, Amardeep Singh, a Sikh who was raised in the United States..."

[UPDATED: The error has been corrected in the online version of this article.]

This is a really bizarre and unfortunate error. Just to be clear, I have one kid, and he's three years old. I am annoyed on my own behalf, but I also feel bad for the Pablas. (Suzannah has a dad, who is a practicing Sikh. It just so happens that most of the coverage of this story in the local Utah newspapers doesn't mention his name: see the Salt Lake Tribune, for example)

When I spoke to the reporter who authored this story, he was 100% clear that I was in no way related to the Pablas. Somewhere between that conversation and the story that has now run in 200+ newspapers around the country, that important fact fell out. I don't know who's responsible for the error -- it appears it's an editor who might have come up with this.

In the end, it's not really that big a deal; the only people who will really think anything is amiss are people who know the Pablas and people who know me. Still, maybe the moral here is to JUST SAY NO when reporters call you for a quote for a story that doesn't really involve you directly.

If there is a bright side of this, it's that I got to be photographed by a professional photographer: here.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good": Ram Narayan Kumar

I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India's northeast -- places like Nagaland and Assam -- where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.

I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.

Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar's greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.

The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar's quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar's more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006.

For reference, here is the National Human Rights Commission's order related to its Punjab human rights investigation, dated October, 2006. The report is on an Indian government website (

And below is an abbreviated version of Ram Narayan Kumar's account of his investigation, quoted from Kumar's 2008 book Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knowledge, and Truth. I'll pick up the account after the disappearance of Jaswant Singh Khalra, the human rights activist who first discovered the record of the mass cremations, who was himself disappeared by the Punjab police in 1995:

On 6 September 1995, Khalra himself disappeared. That morning, Punjab police officers kidnapped him from his Amritsar home. In November 1995, the Supreme Court instituted two inquiries to be conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The first inquiry aimed to determine what happened to Khalra. The second inquiry intended to establish the substance of the allegations that Khalra had made. In July 1996, the report of the first inquiry [I think he means, the second inquiry] categorized 2097 cremations into three lists of 585 identified, 274 partially identified and 1,238 unidentified corpses.

After receiving the CBI's report, the Supreme court, in its order dated 12 December 1996, noted that it 'disclosed flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale.' Instructing the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly progress report, the Court appointed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to determine and adjudicate all other issues and to award compensation. The court's order clearly said that 'since the matter is going to be examined by the NHRC at the rquest of this court, any compensation awarded shall be binding and payable.'


After 10 years of litigation, exhausted mainly in futile legal wrangling and denials by the State agencies, the National Human Rights Commission disposed of the matter with its 10 October 2006 order, awarding arbitrary sums of monetary compensation to 1245 victims. The order divides 1245 victims of illegal cremations into two categories of 'deemed custody,' meaning those who were admitted to be in police custody prior to their death and cremation, and others whose police custody prior to their death and cremation was not admitted. The categorization is based on admissions and denials by the State of Punjab without further inquiry or verification and without the victim families receiving a chance to be heard. Under the first category, 194 families receive 'the grant of monetary reief at the rate of Rs. 2.50 lakhs' . . . Under the second category, the Commission's order awards a grant of Rs. 1.75 lakhs . . . to 1051 victim families on the ground that the police cremated their relatives without following the procedure prescribed by the Punjab Police Rules.

[... ]

When the Supreme Court designated the NHRC to examine and determine 'all the issues' connected with the matter, it also entrusted the CBI to investigate criminal culpability and to submit a quarterly status report on its progress. Ten years later, nothing is known about the progress the CBI has made in its investigations. The quarterly reports, if they have been submitted, remain sealed and unseen. Yet, the NHRC's final October 2006 order affirms faith that the State of Punjab and the Union of India will take appropriate steps to ensure taht violations do not recur. The faith is misplaced, to say the least, when the NHRC, through the procedure of investigation it followed, barred all 'what', 'why' and 'how' questions. How can there be a guarantee of non-recurrence when there is no knowledge of what occurred? These failures constitute a major blow to more than 10 years of work, and a hopeful engagement with the legal process for justice, reparation and accountability, which a small voluntary group of individuals attempted to develop.

The outcome is very disappointing. Yet, I am not taken aback. The atrocities and their denial, which I observed all these years, occurred in a climate of impunity and its surreal celebration, which is very aptly echoed in India's ancient war epic, Mahabharata: 'Yudisththira sat on the high summit of a mound of human skeletons. There, in a state of visible contentment, he ate his rice pudding out of a golden bowl.' (Source: Terror in Punjab: Narratives, Knoweldge, and Truth)

In light of the life of Ram Narayan Kumar, a second quote from the Mahabharata seems appropriate:

To those who fall in war, victory or defeat makes no difference. All the good people -- the courageous, the upright, the humble, and the compassionate -- die first. The unscrupulous survive. Victory becomes the defeat of the good. (Mahabharata, Udhyoga Parva, Chapter 72, 15-72; link)

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Yankee Hindutva": What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I'd like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically issues like: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I'm going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What's at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad's book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called "Of Yankee Hindutva." They also feature in Prashad's essay in Sulekha, "Letter to a Young American Hindu."

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the "Yankee Hindutva" he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they've published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) are concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below, I'll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk. For now, let's start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people's various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya's post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn't be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the "pro Sonal Shah" side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this:

Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni? (link)

These seem like great questions, and unfortunately I don't think there are any solid answers. Things like "Diwali Against Communalism" come off as a little weak. Inter-faith conferences and events are also great, but groups that are targeted by people like Prashad (like HSS-US) regularly particpate in them, so how much work does the "Inter-Faith" movement really do?

2. Looking at Prashad's "Yankee Hindutva"

The only person I know of who has spent any energy investigating the American branches of South Asian religious organizations and youth camps is Vijay Prashad, and I don't find his account to be sufficient. I don't say that he's wrong, per se, but rather that I wish there were other people investigating these groups and filling out the gaps in our knowledge of them.

My first problem is with the narrow way Prashad defines his subject. Prashad explicitly states that he's not going to look at Sikh or Muslim camps or organizations, because in his view the "VHPA is far more powerful (demographically and financially) and is far more able to create divisions within the desi community than to draw us toward an engagement with our location as desis in the United States" (KoBF 134).

In fact, I don't think that's true even on the face of it. Khalistani groups (now mostly defunct) and conservative Muslim groups historically have done as much to encourage self-segregation within second generation desi communities as the VHP-A. It may be true that the VHPA is more "powerful," but without seeing membership numbers or financial statements, I don't see why we should assume that. With his exclusive focus on Hindu organizations, Prashad seems to be employing a double standard.

I'm also disappointed in Prashad's narrow focus on the VHP-A because, as a moderate Sikh, I'm curious to know more about how he sees Sikh youth camps and Sikh American organizations. (I attended Sikh youth camps as a child, and was even a counselor/teacher at a now-defunct Sikh youth camp in central Pennsylvania, in 1998.)

Prashad's chapter has many long paragraphs of political commentary, as well as several pages on a figure from the 1920s, named Taraknath Das. He gets to the topic at hand about 10 pages into the chapter, when he connects the VHPA to the Hindu Students Council:

The VHPA acts multiculturally through its student wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), which champions a syndicated Brahmanical Hinduism (of Hindutva) as the neglected culture of the Hindu Americans. The HSC subtly moves away from the violence and sectarianism of related organizations in India and vanishes into the multicultural space opened up in the liberal academy. The HSCs and Hindutva flourish in the most liberal universities in the United States, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what some consider to be the neglected verities of an ancient civilization.

Notice something familiar here? It's the exact same rhetorical move that's been made with Sonal Shah: though HSC appears to be more tolerant, accepting, and reasonable than the VHPA, that is only a front -- in fact, they are really just the smiley, tolerant-looking face of a Global Hindutva Conspiracy. Actually, I am far from convinced, by either Prashad or the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, that the HSC is a problematic organization at all. They insist that they have been an independent organization since 1993, and I have seen no real evidence to doubt that.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Several people have suggested to me that the links between VHPA and HSC probably were more sustained than this. I have also been told that some HSC groups — Cornell especially, before 2002 — and some of the leadership have said things with a communal bent. Those are important qualifications, but it doesn’t really alter my basic point, that HSC for its members is primarily a social organization for second generation college students, while VHPA has a firmer communalist focus, and remains more oriented to, and driven by, politics in India.]

Another problematic assertion arises a few pages later in Prashad's chapter, when he finally starts to talk about money:

Between 1990 and 1992, the average annual income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993 its income had gone up to $1,057,147. An allied group of the VHPA, the India Development and Relief Fund, raised almost $2 million in the 1990s (some of it via the United Way). This money is discreetly transferred into India. It is common knowledge that during the way of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe toward the erection of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry huge sums of money in cash or kind from the United States to India.

First, it's nice to see some dollar amounts here, though it would be even nicer if a source for those dollar amounts was given. Second, it may well be true that the VHPA has sent money to the Indian VHP, which was used for nefarious purposes. As I hope is clear, I have no interest in defending the VHPA or (and this should go without saying) the VHP/RSS in India. But it is simply not enough to say "it is common knowledge that X is occurring." Some direct evidence is important. Again, if we don't have it, it doesn't mean a progressive ought to write these organizations off as harmless.

But what that lack of direct evidence does require is a different tone -- we don't know how much money is involved, so it's misleading to write as if we do. It could be a lot, or it could be very little. It is a real possibility that the supposed financial might of "Yankee Hindutva" might be, in the end, somewhat overblown. The Indian branches of these organizations are huge structures, with plenty of independent ability to raise money.

Towards the end of the "Yankee Hindutva" chapter in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad makes a point that I think is very valid -- the way in which second generation South Asian youth are taught their religious traditions via religious organizations and youth camps is often rather distorted. He quotes the great C.M. Naim quite appositely along these lines:

[C.M. Naim:] "The religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation . . . is closer to an ideology than a faith or culture. IT has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation; and it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include." [Prashad:] In the United States there are mosques and temples but no dargahs (shrines), "not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would go together to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with god." [C.M Naim, quoted in Prashad, 149]

I completely agree with this, though it seems necessary to also point out that this process of religious consolidation that occurs in the diaspora has also been occurring in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The utopian vision of religious syncretism and blending is largely, now, a vision of the past. It is important to remember it and understand its legacy (Amitav Ghosh has often done that beautifully in his writings), but "strong" religion has largely displaced it in the Indian subcontinent in the present day.

As a Sikh growing up in the U.S., I have first-hand experience of the religious consolidation Naim is talking about. What we were taught about the Sikh tradition at Gurdwara and Sikh youth camps was often very different from what my cousins were learning back in Delhi and Chandigarh. Even the way it's practiced -- the actual ritual of visiting the Gurdwara -- is a little different. (In the diaspora, most people go once a week, and spend several hours. It's "like going to Church." In India, the devout tend to visit the Gurdwara every day, but they only stay a few minutes. Religious practices are more concentrated here in the U.S., and also more isolated from everyday life. Ironically, through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, this process of Westernizing means that the relationship to religion can become more intense, and perhaps more extreme, than it is for most people in the Indian subcontinent.)

Of course, all this is a bit beside the point -- as it's a phenomenon that is interesting sociologically, but it isn't really evidence of a rising tide of "Yankee Hindutva." The first wave of second generation children who were raised with this uniquely diasporic version of South Asian religions are now in the their 30s and 40s, and for the most part they outgrew what they were taught in those religious camps as teenagers.

Some quick conclusions:

1) Not everyone who attends or speaks at an HSS youth camp is a fanatic, as evidenced by the example of the blog comment I quoted above.

2) It would still be nice if there were more options for exposure to moderate forms of South Asian religion in the diaspora.

3) Prashad's decision to focus only on Hindu organizations and youth camps is overly limiting. It's not just because it produces a political slant and a double-standard; it's also analytically limiting, because there might be parallels and patterns among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and Christians? Jains?) that this limited scope doesn't allow.

4) I am not convinced that the HSC should be lumped in with the VHPA. The former seem to very clearly by oriented to ABDs on college campuses -- and serve primarily a social function. The VHPA is, by contrast, clearly tied to a communalist concept of Hinduism.

5) I agree that second generation South Asian Americans often get a somewhat distorted (more monoculturalist) image of South Asian religions because of what is taught by religious organizations and summer camps. But I am not sure this is really our most pressing problem.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Working for the Pat Down: TSA Turban Policy

On their classic album London Calling, the old punk band The Clash had a song with some lyrics that always puzzled me:

What are we gonna do now?
Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?
'Cause they're working for the clampdown (link)

I get the gist of the song -- it's a critique of the trend of rising fascism amongst British youth in the 1970s -- but "turban"? Quoi?

Anyway, this past week I learned that Sikh travelers with turbans can expect not the clampdown, but the pat-down, as the TSA has changed its security policies yet again. The BBC has the details:

US Sikh organisations have expressed anger over changes allowing airport security staff to "pat down" turbans.

Until now turbans have been searched or removed only to resolve an unexplained alarm from an airport metal detector.

But now security will have greater discretion to inspect turbans so that they can be manually checked for objects such as non-metallic weapons.

However Sikh groups have responded to the new measures by describing them as outrageous and discriminatory. (link)

Personally, I'm not so much outraged as annoyed and worried. I'm annoyed because I'm not sure how this is a rational or necessary change: metal detectors work. You couldn't hide a gun, a knife, or explosives inside a turban without it being pretty obvious. (But the TSA has a long history of irrational policies -- like the restrictions on baby formula, which have caused problems for us several times.)

I'm also worried because I have a feeling the new policies may be deployed selectively and in a non-standardized way at different airports, and according to the whim of individual TSA agents, who may or may not understand what the Sikh turban represents. Some Sikhs will certainly be asked to remove turbans even if there's no positive indication of anything concealed. (I've found that agents at smaller airports, like Manchester NH or Durham NC, are much more strict about enforcing policy than are the agents at bigger airports. At Philly, where the security lines are quite long and the agents are harried, they don't bother to stop you even if you have fluids -- no baby formula or bottled water hassles...)

The Sikh Coalition has been on this, and I got an email from them earlier this week with more specifics:

* A guidance to all TSA screeners nationwide on how to implement the new headwear procedure specifically lists the turban (in addition to cowboy hats and straw hats) as an item that can be subjected to secondary screening. Sikh travelers should therefore expect that turbans will be the subject of secondary screening, regardless of whether a metal detector indicates a metallic object is in the turban.
* The purpose of the secondary screening is to detect non-metallic objects. Therefore from the TSA’s perspective, it is irrelevant whether a Sikh’s turban sets off the metal detector or not.
* If requested, a private area will be provided for a pat-down search of a turban.
* A private area must be offered if a secondary search / pat-down leads to a request that a turban be removed.
* Despite the fact that the TSA guidance lists turbans as an example of headwear that can be the subject of secondary screening, a TSA screener is not required to conduct secondary screening of a turban. The screener can use his or her discretion to determine whether he/she believes the turban could conceal a non-metallic threat item.

People who have friends or family who wear turbans may want to pass the word along, so everyone knows what to expect when they next head to the airport. It might help to know that you're due for secondary screening whether or not you set off the alarm. Finally, it might help to know that you have the right to request the additional screening be done in a private room.

Personally, I'm digging out my old Clash t-shirt the next time I fly.


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda and the Sikhs of Punjab

A major conflict has broken out in Punjab, between the orthodox Sikh community and a sect (which may or may not be understood as a 'Sikh' sect) called Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS). It's a strange and complex issue, involving caste issues (DSS members are predominantly from what are called 'backward' castes), politics (DSS supporters are overwhelmingly Congress party supporters, while Punjab has for many years been dominated by the BJP-allied Akali Dal), as well fundamental questions of who gets to determine how a religion is defined.

The BBC has the basic details here:

Cities and towns across the northern Indian state of Punjab are shut in response to a general strike called by the Sikh community.

Security forces have been deployed and businesses and schools are closed for the day amid fears of violence.

Sikhs are demanding an apology from the leader of a religious sect who appeared in an advert dressed like one of the Sikh religion's most important figures.

Sikh community leaders say it is an insult to their religion. (link)

The DSS leader's name is Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, and there was controversy surrounding his leadership of the DSS before the current conflagration began. The DSS has grown quite rapidly in recent years, but its is also being investigated by the CBI on charges of sexual molestation, according to the Times of India:

The era also saw the sect embroiled in a number of contentious issues, especially those involving the dera chief. In 2003, an anonymous letter alleged sexual exploitation of young girls at the dera. Later, murder of a senior member of the dera and a Sirsa-based journalist set the rumour mills working overtime. Family members of the slain scribe moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court, demanding a CBI probe into the role of dera in the murder. The case was handed over to the CBI. However, the CBI probe moved at a slow pace despite the HC pulling up the investigating agency. Also, political pressure and protests by dera followers did not help.

More recently, the dera courted trouble just before the Punjab assembly elections this year. Though it enjoyed the patronage of both the Akali and Congress leaders, the president issued an edict asking his followers to support Congress candidates. According to sources, this favour was extended after the party (Punjab Congress) promised relief in the CBI case. Post elections, there have been complaints of Akalis harassing dera men. (link)

That last point in the TOI above suggests how much might be at stake in this conflict; it also shows how intimately religion and politics are intertwined in India. This is at once a religious and a political conflict, and suggestions that the state remain neutral on a matter of religious doctrine, while correct in principle, do not really seem to apply. (It's yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to comprehend India's "secularism")

As a final comment, I should note that while I myself don't have very much first-hand knowledge of the various Dera sects (there are dozens) that are currently active all over Punjab and its neighboring states, a blogger named SidhuSaaheb (via Neha Vishwanathan at Global Voices Online) does have a fair bit to say about the DSS:

As I keep track of the coverage, in newspapers and on television, of the Dera Sacha Sauda controversy, there are a few things that strike me as strange.

Firstly, the Dera has been described as a 'Sikh sect' in certain sections of the news media, whereas it has nothing to do with Sikhism (or any other religious faith, as for that matter).

Secondly, something that has been part of conversations in urban drawing-rooms and rural baithhaks in Punjab i.e. the Dera head issued an edict to his followers to vote for Congress (I) in the recent state assembly elections, only because that party offered to help 'dispose off' the criminal cases filed against the Baba and his followers (the charges include murder and sexual abuse), in case it was able to form the government, does not appear to have been mentioned in any newspaper or on any television channel.

Thirdly, most media reports seem to imply that the Sikhs have been outraged merely by the fact that the Baba appeared dressed like Guru Gobind Singh, whereas, the truth is that he not only dressed like the Guru, but also attempted to replicate, to a large extent, what the Guru did on the day of the foundation of the Khalsa (in spite of the counter-claims made in the latest press statement put out by the Dera). He tried to do a 'role play', in which he put himself in the place of the Tenth Master. (link)

He goes on to make some direct allegations about the murder of a family member by DSS members.

The note of outrage in SidhuSaaheb's account of Baba Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh's actions is one I've also heard from every other Sikh I've talked to in recent weeks, as this has been unfolding. The sense of outrage is also very much present in this Outlook article by Chander Suta Dogra.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 12, 2007

What did Guru Nanak look like? Textbooks in California

In California, the Times reports that the School Board unanimously voted last week to alter a seventh grade textbook image relating to Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion (or panth), after protests from the Sikh community.

The controversial image isn't the big one pictured, but the small one (I've added a circle to make it clearer). The image is a 19th century painting of Guru Nanak wearing a crown and what looks like a somewhat cropped beard. Both the crown and the beard shape are troubling to Sikhs, who are accustomed to seeing images of Guru Nanak more along the lines of the bigger image to the right -- flowing white beard, and humble attire.

Though the New York Times has good interviews with community members on this, the Contra Costa Times actually spells out the issue more clearly:

The image is taken from a 19th-century painting made after Muslims ruled India. The publisher used it because it complies with the company's policy of using only historical images in historical texts, said Tom Adams, director of curriculum for the Department of Education.

After Sikhs complained that the picture more closely reflected a Muslim man than a Sikh, Oxford offered to substitute it with an 18th-century portrait showing Guru Nanak with a red hat and trimmed beard. But Sikhs said that picture made their founder look like a Hindu.

The publisher now wants to scrap the picture entirely from the textbook, which was approved for use in California classrooms in 2005. There are about 250,000 Sikhs in California.

Sikh leaders say they want a new, more representative image of Guru Nanak, similar to the ones they place in Sikh temples and in their homes. The publisher has rejected those images as historically inaccurate. No images exist from the founder's lifetime, 1469 to 1538. (link)

All of this raises the question -- what, in fact, did Guru Nanak look like? We don't have any images from his lifetime, and the later ones are clearly products of the values of their eras. What, historically, do we actually know? I went to Navtej Sarna's recent book, The Book of Nanak, to see what I could find out.

First off, I would recommend Navtej Sarna's book -- it's part of a series Penguin is doing, that also includes The Book of Mohammed. It's short, but it's well-written and accessible.

Secondly, Sarna states the obvious problem with any historical account of Guru Nanak: we don't have official (as in modernized, chronological) histories to work with, but rather a series of Janamsakhis, some of which were written down shortly after Guru Nanak's lifetime by personal associates, while others were written down a bit later -- at two or three degrees of separation. Some of the relevant manuscripts are mentioned, sketchily, at the Wikipedia site for Janamsakhis. (This Wikipedia entry could be improved!)

Some professional historians simply opt out of saying anything concrete about Guru Nanak's life. J.S. Grewal, for instance, in The Sikhs of the Punjab, goes right into textual analysis of passages from the Adi Granth, and doesn't mention any Janamsakhis. Sarna, for his part, acknowledges that his own work is based on the Janamsakhi materials, and proceeds on the basis that some of what is described is factual, while some must be under the category of folklore, and educated guesses have to be made. Along those lines, he comes up with a surprising description of Guru Nanak's attire:

Nanak was accompanied by Mardana on his travels, who carried his rabab. He dressed in strange clothes that could not be identified with any sect and symbolized the universality of his mesage. He wore the long, loose shirt of a Muslim dervish but in the brownish red colour of the Hindu sanyasi. Around his waist he wore a white kafni or cloth belt like a faqir. A flat, short truban partly covered a Qalandar's cap on his head in the manner of Sufi wanderers. On his feet, he wore wooden sandals, each of a different design and colour. Sometimes, it is said, he wore a necklace of bones around his neck. (53-54)

Unfortunately, Sarna does not tell us which Janamsakhi this derives from -- and I'm sure people would be interested to know, since this is a bit different from the common image of Guru Nanak. Sarna does later mention that at the end of his travels, Guru Nanak gave up these "travel clothes" and adopted the ordinary dress of a "householder."

At every point, however, what's emphasized is the strength of Guru Nanak's personal humility and his rejection of personal wealth or political power (which is not the same as a rejection of the material world). So the crown that's pictured in the first version of the California textbook is certainly incorrect. The rest, however, is probably open to conjecture and argument.


One other thought: this controversy is obviously part of a new pattern of textbook contestation in California. An earlier chapter occurred last year, when the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation wrote long reports offering their criticisms and suggestions of the representation of Hinduism in California school textbooks. In a post on the subject, I reviewed the details of those reports, and came to feel that some were good suggestions, while others seemed to be cases of whitewashing history. Though some of the dynamics are similar, this is a very different (and indeed, much simpler) case.

Labels: , , , , ,