*A Liminal Presence: Sikhs in America

“It’s not your country” spray-painted on the grounds of a Sikh Gurdwara in Fresno, CA (2004).

The history of Sikhs in America, it may appear to some, is bookended by violence directed at them.  News of the shooting on August 5th at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white gunman with pronounced neo-Nazi views shot dead six Sikhs as morning services were about to commence, reverberated throughout the United States and beyond.  It is reported that the gunman, Wade Michael Page, was an army veteran, had a tattoo commemorating 9/11, and played with the white supremacist heavy metal bands End Apathy and Definite Hate.  His motives remain unclear:  some argue that ‘hate crimes’ need no motive as such, as they feed upon a visceral fear of the Other, though many have speculated that Page mistook Sikhs for Muslims.  Mainstream American media organizations, such as CNN and Fox News, wasted little time in characterizing Page as an anomaly to ‘peaceful, mainstream America’, and deplored the shooting as a ‘tragic mistake’ perpetrated ‘against the peaceful Sikh community’.

‘What we call the beginning, T S Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘is often the end / And to make and end is to make a beginning.’  The end, not unexpectedly, ‘is where we start from’, but the end so often seems prefigured in the beginning.  Indians first started appearing in some numbers on the west coast of the United States and Canada around 1900:  though the majority of them were Sikhs, all Indians were commonly described as ‘Hindoos’.  I suppose we should call this a ‘tragic mistake’ as well.  Indeed, the US Immigration Commission of 1911 stated that, for purposes of immigration, Indians were to be labeled as ‘Hindus’.  If, in the old American adage about American Indians, the only good Indian is a dead one, the few hundred (Asian) Indians who had made their way to the US by around 1905 were seen as a menace to American society.  ‘Hindu Invasion’ was the phrase used by one Fred Lockley in the Pacific Monthly in May 1907 to describe the presence of turbaned Indians; a year later, the Overland Monthly would similarly speak about ‘The West and the Hindu Invasion’.  Eerily, the 9/11 –– in 1907, not 2001 –– edition of the Bellingham Herald carried a headline more than an inch thick, ‘British Columbia Threatens to Secede; Horde of Hindus Landing at Vancouver.’

This photo appeared on the first page of Fred Lockley's article "The Hindu Invasion" with the following caption: "A Group of Sikhs Who Have Just Arrived From the Far East."

This photo appeared on the first page of Fred Lockley’s article “The Hindu Invasion” with the following caption: “A Group of Sikhs Who Have Just Arrived From the Far East.”

Though the Sikhs who marked their presence in America dressed mainly in Western clothes, they were distinguished by their flowing beards and turbans:  the local press took to calling them ‘rag-heads’.  In the town of Bellingham in Washington, many were employed as lumbermen, much to the chagrin of white labor leaders who alleged that Indians had stolen their jobs and driven down wages.  On September 4, 1907, a large crowd of white men instigated large-scale violence against the Indians.  The Indians were driven out of the city; many were herded into the city jail, ostensibly for their own protection.  Three days later, the Bellingham Herald, in an article entitled ‘Bellingham Sees Last of the Hindus’, announced with evident pride:  ‘Entire Colony is Wiped Off City Map’.  The Asiatic Exclusion League would continue to agitate vigorously for keeping America empty of ‘undesirable Asiatics’, achieving this outcome with the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred nearly all Asians from the US.

It is of course Muslims, not Sikhs, who are today viewed as the undesirable hordes who have invaded America.  There is something grotesque in the argument that the shooting of the Sikhs at the Oak Creek Gurdwara was a ‘tragic mistake’:  if it was a ‘mistake’, a deviation from the right path, how could it have been any better to have killed Muslims?  Would Page have stood exonerated if his victims had been adherents of Islam?  The Oak Creek shooting raises so many profound questions, beyond those that have been raised about America’s endless fascination with guns, the nearly unfathomable influence that the National Rifle Association exercises in American society and politics, and the country’s subcultures of white supremacy.  Since Page turned the gun on himself in bringing the killing rampage to an end, should we not characterize him as akin to a suicide bomber?  Might that not be one way to ensure that we do not think of countries where suicide bombings have been taking place as strangely barbaric?  Had Page been a Muslim, is it not certain that he would have been immediately branded as a ‘terrorist’ and the country would have been deluged with calls to eradicate Muslim fanatics?

Less than two weeks after the Oak Creek massacre, SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) reported the murder of shopkeeper Dalbir Singh, a member of the Oak Creek Sangat who was not present at the Gurdwara on August 5th.  However well Sikhs have done for themselves, they occupy a liminal position in American society, indeed the world over.   At the turn of the century in America, around 1900, they were mistaken for Hindus, and in India itself Sikh secessionism has had much to do, from the 1920s until the movement for Khalistan that peaked in the late 1980s, with disputes over the precise nature of Sikh identity.  In the American imagination, one hundred years later, Sikhs have been conflated with Muslims.  Many Sikhs are bound to feel anxious, troubled, and perhaps even resentful, and will insist upon their distinct identity; some, doubtless, will hold on to the hope that an appreciation of their true identity will alleviate their distress.

The Sikhs have, throughout their history, been wonderfully energetic and marvelously receptive to new cultures.  They are, as well, an eminently diasporic people.  But what is most distinctive about them is precisely their liminality, even if they should wish to insist upon their distinctiveness.  The question, ‘Just who is a Sikh?’, is always lurking on the horizon; even their scriptures have an intricate relationship to both Islam and Hinduism.  Even as this liminality makes them vulnerable, it is the source of their greatest strength and wisdom.  As the world shows increasingly little ability to live with ambiguity and difference, the Sikhs must remain a beacon of hope to those who wish to resist the painful infliction of certitudes upon an ever greater number of people.

(First published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 25 August 2012).

*Anna Hazare’s Improbable Politics

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Anna Hazare during his 2011 fast at the Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi.

Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible.   If metaphysics addresses that which lies beyond the realm of ordinary experience, and by another reckoning is the underlying reality of social phenomena, politics has always appeared to concern itself with the here and the now.  It is partly for this reason that those, a distinct minority to begin with, who enter politics with the expectation of ‘doing good’ or acting with more than the customary rhetorical gestures in the direction of reform, are dubbed ‘idealistic’. The domain of politics is one where the operative ideas revolve around instrumentality, the advancement of self-interest, and negotiation.  However, with his declared intention of creating a new party to infuse Indian politics, and more generally the public sphere, with a moral sense of responsibility and some notion of accountability, Anna Hazare has opened a different if vaguely defined front in politics.  He may not quite have thrown a monkey wrench into normal politics, but he has given expression to an improbable politics.

Much less than two years ago, Anna Hazare burst onto the Indian political scene from a position of relative obscurity.  This will seem a considerable exaggeration to those who will point to Hazare’s many years of public service in Maharashtra, where he acquired something of a reputation for his efforts to expose corruption, prevent the government from enhancing the production of liquor from food grain, and facilitate the passage by the state of a Freedom of Information Act.  Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that Hazare only won a national following when, in early April 2011, he decided to initiate a satyagraha campaign in an effort to extract from the government a promise for the passage of what he and his followers deemed an iron-clad anti-corruption bill.  Hazare staged, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, an oracular demonstration of how the body might be inserted into the body politic, declaring that ‘I will fast until [the] Jan Lokpal Bill is passed.’

Following countrywide expressions of support for Hazare, the government was moved to issue a notification in the Gazette of India announcing the formation of a joint committee, consisting of ‘five nominee ministers of the Government of India and five nominees of the civil society’, and charged with drafting a bill that would create a climate of opinion indestructibly opposed to corruption and thus conducive to the prosecution of government officials found guilty of trespassing upon their oath of selfless public service.  Thus, on the fifth day of his fast, on April 9th, Hazare relented to demands that he give up his fast.  Four months later, however, as the government appeared to renege on its pledge to secure a strong Jan Lokpal Bill, Hazare again raised the spectre of an indefinite fast.  In scenes highly reminiscent of the cat and mouse game between English suffragettes and the government in the early 20th century, Hazare was taken into custody a mere four hours before he was to begin his fast.  Though he would be given unconditional release within hours, Hazare refused to leave Tihar Jail and commenced a fast that he then took to Ramlila Grounds.  People poured into the Ramlila Grounds, and the show of solidarity appeared to have entirely unnerved the government’s principal functionaries and spokespersons; as an anxious nation watched, the Lok Sabha passed the Jan Lokpal Bill in an emergency sitting of the Indian Parliament.  On August 28th, thirteen days into his fast, Hazare could, as he must then have thought, declare victory.


Supporters of Anna Hazare celebrate the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill at India Gate in New Delhi. Photo: Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar/The Hindu

A year later, Anna Hazare has evidently arrived at a very different assessment of what, if anything, was achieved by his movement –– and what course of action might be followed if everything he stood for is not to come to naught.  In one widespread reading of Indian politics, governance has crumbled if not disappeared; scams follow one another in numbing succession; and the government totters from one fiasco to another.  Such doomsday scenarios –– a few readers might even recall Selig Harrison’s India:  The Most Dangerous Decades (1960), and in like fashion, many predictions about the break-up of India –– have never been far from the minds of commentators on Indian society and politics, but Hazare’s statement announcing the disbanding of Team Anna wisely eschews such pronouncements and dwells instead on the possibility of other alternatives that might rid Indian society of the malaise of corruption.  Writing on his blog in Hindi, Hazare admits:  ‘The government is not ready to enact Jan Lokpal bill.  How long can one keep on fasting time and again?  It’s time to stop fasting and give the nation an alternative.  This demand kept on mounting from the people.  I, too, have come to the awareness that this government is not committed to the eradication of corruption.’  As ‘Team Anna was formed to work for Jan Lokpal’, and relations with the government have been shown to be unproductive, Team Anna has, Hazare wrote, no cause to continue its existence.  Hazare presents the alternative that came to his mind almost as an epiphany:  if good people, possessed of ‘selflessness, moral fiber, [decent] profession, and patriotism’ could be found in numbers to contest elections, would it not be prudent to create a new political party?

Many who were severely critical of Hazare for undermining constitutional politics should, at least in principle, welcome his declared intention of entering into the mainstream of political life, albeit in the role of a senior statesman.  In the hurly-burly of politics, such magnanimity was not to be expected:  as some Congressmen remarked, Hazare’s interest in founding a party suggests that all along he, posing as a fakir (though not half-naked), was only interested in the exercise of power.  There are some who are asking if Hazare can lick the political system, and if there are precedents for such political interventions elsewhere in the world.   The principal political parties are so well entrenched, indeed even drenched in money, that a party comprised of a ragtag group of activists and their sentimental followers seems hardly poised to make even the slightest dent in the brutal landscape of Indian politics.  Party Anna, on this scenario, will merely have replaced Team Anna but will similarly sink into the gargantuan quicksand of Indian politics.  Some will point to the experience of the United States:  though Ralph Nader has contested several presidential elections, several of them as a Green Party candidate, on a platform resolutely critical of both the Republican and Democratic parties as agents of naked capitalism, wholly indebted to corporate honchos for their survival, he has been unable to disturb even remotely the general tenor of American political culture.  No one has been able to question Rader’s own political integrity, but, interestingly, in the only election where his presence might have made a difference to the outcome, an outcome where one would have chosen (as in every other American election) between Tweedledee and Tweedledum, it is the liberals who pounded him for having ‘stolen’ votes from Al Gore and handed the election over to Bush.  The Greens are commonly thought to have been more successful in several European countries, but it is clear that they still operate largely at the margins.  The closest parallel to Hazare is the former head of the Montreal police, Jacques Duchesneau, whose exposures of corruption in Quebec’s political culture catapulted him to public adulation and to a vaunted place in the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) as one of their star candidates.  This new party, however, has yet to contest an election.

The question, however, is not whether Hazare’s proposed political party is likely to succeed, even if success is to be measured not by the usual canons of politics but rather by the fulfillment of the objectives of the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement.  There is a more intriguing question:  how much of politics does Hazare understand at all?  Though many activists will never admit as much, they were angered and disturbed by the thought that a truck driver had been able to galvanize, with comparatively little effort and in lightening quick time, large crowds all prepared to launch India’s ‘Second War of Independence’.  That would seem to suggest that Hazare is not altogether a political novice.  Yet, in most respects, Hazare has shown himself unaware of what may justly be called politics.  In undertaking one fast after another, for example, Hazare betrayed his inability to take the measure of things. In the arts of negotiation, Hazare would certainly find much to learn from the book of Gandhi.  There is, behind all this, a deeper conundrum:  more so than in an autocratic state, genuine dissent is, in our times, impossibly difficult of attainment in a democracy.  Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar illustrated the difficulties of dissent in a democracy –– and such dissent is likely to become even more improbable, now that Hazare has signified his interest in moving closer to a conception of normal politics.  Little did Anna Hazare know that he would become the hunger artist.

(First published as “Improbable Politics”, Times of India, Crest Edition (11 August 2012).