“Sikh values are American values,” they keep saying into the camera, seemingly oblivious to the obvious discomfort in the pairing, the way the pieces do not fit together, no matter how much red, white, and blue they are painted with. The National Sikh Campaign released their ad as a response to the current US political and social climates and the negative impact post-Trump America is having on the Sikh community.
The families are uncomfortable caricatures of the classic heteronormative middle-class suburban American family, serving the purpose of making the Sikh community relatable enough for people who either know who we are and hate us or don’t care to know who we are at all. But is this kind of blatant humanizing on the sole basis of assimilation and American nationalism one that makes sense for the Sikh community?
Although PR campaigns like that of the National Sikh Campaign can be beneficial and have value as responses to crises, in the current US political and social climate, these responses are neither necessary nor the most effective. In fact, they directly undermine the values and history the Sikh community is called to draw upon (gurbani - wisdom, tavarikh - history, rahit - lifestyle) in both everyday life and in situations that require a unified and effective panthic response. The forced parallels drawn between Sikh values and American values are used as a tool to argue for the inseparability of the Sikh and American identities. Sikh and American values do intersect in some ways: America is not founded on bloodlines, but on a shared vision of certain ideals, and the fundamental rights of all Americans are guaranteed by God, not by man (or at least, that is what American values are on paper). But this simple pairing without nuance or separation is dangerous and destructive to the Panth at large, stripping us of our sovereignty, and distancing our community from those other marginalized communities also affected by the systems of oppression that exist and function in their lived realities.
This is not to say the situation is so black-and-white that PR campaigns do not ever have their value. The nuance lies in the events that spark the campaign, and the effectiveness of the campaign in achieving its intended goal. Following the September 11th attacks, many members of the Sikh Panth all around the US got together to start awareness campaigns. The goal was to educate Americans about the visible Sikh identity and combat the bigoted and violent acts directed against the Sikh population at the time. But these acts were often rooted in ignorance, not hatred.
The current political and social climate post-Trump is one in which ignorance is not necessarily the issue anymore. White supremacists and racist attackers acting upon their bigotry do not do so due to a lack of knowledge about who Sikhs are or an ignorance of other cultures – instead, they are attacking on the very basis of the person’s “otherness.” It is because of this shift in the root cause of violence towards Sikhs and other brown and black bodies that a PR campaign loses its effectiveness.
These campaigns also function as effective distancing strategies, aligning Sikhs to the national identity and the values of the nation while ignoring all other affected minority communities suffering because of “American Values.” Guru Nanak’s first revelatory statement was “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim,” recognizing that apart from our various external labels and categories, all of creation is rooted in the same Divine creative force. The Guru Granth Sahib itself begins with Ik Oankar – the One All-Pervading Force flowing through all of creation, and the recognition of the Divine in all beings.
Gurbani tells us that the aim of life is to act in the world with that recognition as the foundation of all of our actions. Ang 467 reveals:
ਨਾਨਕ ਜੰਤ ਉਪਾਇ ਕੈ ਸੰਮਾਲੇ ਸਭਨਾਹ ॥
O Nanak, having created the living beings, the Divine cherishes them all.
ਜਿਨਿ ਕਰਤੈ ਕਰਣਾ ਕੀਆ ਚਿੰਤਾ ਭਿ ਕਰਣੀ ਤਾਹ ॥
The Creator who created the creation, takes care of it as well.
ਸੋ ਕਰਤਾ ਚਿੰਤਾ ਕਰੇ ਜਿਨਿ ਉਪਾਇਆ ਜਗੁ ॥
The Creator who formed the world, cares for it.
All of creation is equally divine, equally cherished by and cared for by the Creator, and so we too, as part of creation, must do our best to see Ik Oankar in all, and to take care of others. This foundational principle translates into acting as allies for other marginalized communities and fighting for those who are not being treated equally or with compassion either by individuals or by entire systems of oppression.
It is because of this foundational principle that Sikhi was able to come up in the context of the caste system and actively build up a society outside of that system, “founded upon egalitarianism and the necessity for social and political change” (The Sikh Revolution, Jagjit Singh 53). The aim of life is to act in service of humanity with a sovereign ethical conduct that is “not merely conducive to such good results as happiness [or, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, the pursuit of happiness], but is primarily an act of establishment of concord between the human personality and the person of God” (Essentials of Sikhism, Sirdar Kapur Singh 45). Let us follow Guru Tegh Bahadur’s example, who literally gave his head in fighting for the fair treatment of the Kashmiri Pandits by then Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. He saw a community being subjected to conversion, and despite the fact that they benefited from their caste positions, he spoke up on behalf of them – simply because it was the right thing to do for fellow human beings in need.
So why should our actions today be any different? Campaigns which actively choose to ignore those suffering within existing systems of oppression (no matter what their constitutions and declarations may say) while also playing into a victim narrative directly undermine that foundational principle and do not align with the Sikh worldview. To recognize that the American values we see in the Declaration were ones which at their conception were only afforded to white males[i], to recognize that the Declaration of Independence is one which declares independence on land that was not free to claim[ii] – is to recognize where the differences lie.
If we ignore the differences between Sikh and American values and instead frame them as identical, we threaten the sovereignty of the Panth and feed into the dangerous rhetoric of the model minority myth, aligning Sikhs with whiteness and American-ness. We frame ourselves as “the Upstanding Minorities” and allow for the continuation of a narrative that frames other minorities – for example, Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans – as somehow lesser minorities.
To recognize the disparities between words and actions of the state – to be critical of those differences (whether addressing an individual or a system of government) – is a principle we find in Gurbani as well. Guru Nanak discusses the hypocrisy of the Babur Shah in Babur Bani, calling out and criticizing his actions. In Asa Ki Var he challenges the political issues of the time and discusses the disparity between words and actions of the elite, and in Ang 471 says:
ਕੂੜੀ ਰਾਸਿ ਕੂੜਾ ਵਾਪਾਰੁ ॥
False is their capital, and false is their trade.
ਕੂੜੁ ਬੋਲਿ ਕਰਹਿ ਆਹਾਰੁ ॥
Speaking falsehood, they take their food.
ਸਰਮ ਧਰਮ ਕਾ ਡੇਰਾ ਦੂਰਿ ॥
The home of modesty and Dharma is far from them.
ਨਾਨਕ ਕੂੜੁ ਰਹਿਆ ਭਰਪੂਰਿ ॥
O Nanak, they are totally permeated with falsehood.
ਮਥੈ ਟਿਕਾ ਤੇੜਿ ਧੋਤੀ ਕਖਾਈ ॥
The sacred marks are on their foreheads, and the saffron loincloths are around their waists;
ਹਥਿ ਛੁਰੀ ਜਗਤ ਕਾਸਾਈ ॥
in their hands they hold the knives – they are the butchers of the world!
It is the disparity between the words and appearances put on by the elite and their actions which makes them the butchers of the world. This is a call to hold those in positions of power within systems of power accountable for their actions.
We too must be critical of what exactly American Values are, to be critical of the myth that exists in the space between words and actions. Because it is in this myth that we forget the underlying genocide of native peoples, enslavement of Africans, prison industrial complex, and indentured labor that founds and supports the United States and its “American Dream.” It is in this myth that a worldview with foundation in Ik Oankar (which is meant to translate into the active challenging of oppression and injustice) is subverted or at the very least disregarded in exchange for acceptance and awareness.
In addition to sabad (infinite wisdom), we can look to history for guidance – as early as Guru Gobind Singh’s Zafarnama and his ability to act in the world as a sovereign even while Emperor Aurangzeb ruled, his fulfillment of the duty to call the emperor out, to be critical of the empire, and to fight injustices wherever he found them. We can also look at the founding principles of Sikh sovereignty, and the strengthening of that sovereignty through the function of the Sarbat Khalsa and the Singh Sabha movement. We can look at the Ghadar Party, formed in California in 1913 to fight on behalf of the Indians against their British colonizers without engaging in pandering or victimizing. The evidence of from our past teaches us that strong sovereignty means strength in fighting for egalitarianism no matter the country, no matter the system of government, and that strengthening sovereignty is rooted in the establishment of Sikh institutions and a connection to the gurmat perspective. Sikhi is about integrative living – about religious, social, and political life being inseparable, and about showing love for Vahiguru through one’s actions.
This means that any sovereign state in which Sikhs reside as citizens must be challenged in its oppressive policies and held accountable to the standard of true egalitarianism for all. Sikhs must imbibe the founding principle of double sovereignty – owing our primary allegiance to truth and mortality, and never submitting “to the exclusive claim of the secular state to govern the bodies and minds of men” (The Golden Temple: Its Theo-Political Status, Sirdar Kapur Singh 184). This means instead of spending $1.3 million on PR campaigns where they are least effective, we put that same money into reviving our institutions and addressing urgent issues within the community like addiction, mental health, domestic violence, and poverty. Instead of equating Sikh and American values, we shift our mindsets to ones in which Sikh and American values can align.
The reality of the situation is that people are scared, and a shift in mindset can only function as the catalyst. Our actions in society can serve as our PR – volunteer, show up to protests and mobilize with other minorities, operate with the knowledge that if our community acts as allies we will gain allies in return. If we begin this process, and use our Sikh values to fight to make changes in America’s political systems through activism and engagement, we can fulfill the goal of making the American values we see on paper a reality for all Americans.
[i] The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott decision to deny citizenship and constitutional rights to all black people, legally establishing the race as "subordinate, inferior beings – whether slave or freedmen." Slaves were not freed until 1863. The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was not added until 1865. The 14th Amendment granted due process and equal protection under the law to African American in 1868. The 15th Amendment granted blacks the right to vote, including former slaves in 1870. The 24th Amendment was added in 1960, abolishing the poll tax, which had originally been instituted in 11 southern states in order to make it difficult for black people to vote. White women did not get the right to vote until 1920 with the addition of the 19th amendment. Women of color were actively jailed for trying to vote and prevented from voting until the 1960s, and still in this country, people of color are dealing with systemic voter suppression in many states.
[ii] European expansion into North America – whether to find gold, escape religious persecution or start a new life – led to the destruction of Native American livelihoods. Disease was a major cause of death, followed by malnutrition. Colonists in search of gold staged violent ambushes on various villages, fueling animosity with Natives. Several wars broke out between tribes and American settlers, leading to large death tolls, land dispossession, oppression and blatant racism and forced assimilation measures. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, giving Native Americans a ‘dual citizenship’ – they were citizens of their sovereign native land as well as the United States. But Native Americans did not gain uniform voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It wasn’t until 1968, when the Indian Civil Rights Act was passed, that Natives gained the right to free speech, the right to a jury and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. After the American Revolution, many Native American lives were already lost to disease and displacement. In 1830, the federal Indian Removal Act called for the removal of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. Between 1830 and 1838, federal officials working on behalf of white cotton growers forced nearly 100,000 Native peoples out of their homeland and onto reservations. The dangerous journey from the southern states to designated “Indian Territory” in what is now Oklahoma is referred to as the Trail of Tears in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease. The 1848 California gold rush caused 300,000 people to migrate to San Francisco from the East Coast and South America. Historians believe that California was once the most densely and diversely populated area for Native Americans in U.S. territory; however, the gold rush had massive implications for Native American livelihoods. Toxic chemicals and gravel ruined traditional Native hunting and agricultural practices, resulting in starvation for many Natives. In 1850, the California state government passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that addressed the punishment and protection of Native Americans, and helped to facilitate the removal of their culture and land. It also legalized slavery and was referenced for the buying and selling of Native children. Natives today still live in poor conditions on isolated reservations with little help from the US government. (http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/native-americans/)