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Sikhs and mistaken identity

American basketball star, Darsh Singh, a turbaned, bearded Sikh, featured this April in a Guardian Weekend piece on cyberbullying. He recalled how his online picture had been circulated with Islamophobic captions. Long before that, he’d had to get used to people yelling ‘things like “‘towelhead’, ‘terrorist’, and lots of references to Osama Bin Laden”.

Since 9/11 Sikhs haven’t just been verbally insulted but have suffered ‘reprisal attacks’. Over three hundred attacks were estimated in the USA in the first month alone. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas-station owner in Arizona, was killed only four days later. Attackers connect beards and turbans with Islam and terrorism. In 2012 in Wisconsin, a white supremacist killed six people in Oak Creek gurdwara (place of worship) and wounded three others. As I write, a deliberate explosion at a gurdwara in Essen, Germany, during the Vaisakhi festival, is being investigated. This time, however, it is ‘Islamist’ teenagers who have been arrested.

Sikhs commemorate the Vaisakhi festival of 1699 which is regarded as the birthday of the Khalsa. The Khalsa means Sikhs – men and women – who commit themselves to a daily discipline, as their tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, exhorted them to do on that day. Sikh families worldwide celebrate Vaisakhi in April, with larger than usual congregations and impressive street processions. These are headed by the enthroned volume of scripture, attended by five men, usually dressed identically in orange and white. They are the “five beloved ones”, a reminder of the first five men who volunteered their lives for their Guru on Vaisakhi day 1699.

In April each year, very early on Vaisakhi day, candidates continue to be initiated into the Khalsa, into a way of life that involves following rules of conduct and a pattern of daily devotion, and also having on their person five indicators of their commitment (these are known as the ‘Five Ks). One of the Ks, the kesh (hair), involves keeping one’s God-given form intact by not shortening or removing hair from any part of the body. Indeed, not only initiated Khalsa Sikhs, but also many Sikhs who have not made this formal commitment, keep their hair and beard uncut.

For male Sikhs their turban is the crown which – together with their kesh – symbolises their faith, inseparable from their identity. (In Asia the turban had for centuries been a respected head-dress for men.) Many initiated women too, nowadays express the Sikh emphasis on equality by wearing a turban.

Sikhs celebrate their history of distinctiveness from Hindus and Muslims, coupled with their self-sacrificial solidarity with humanity as a whole. They know they have been called to stand out from the crowd and to be “saint-soldiers”, always ready to protect people who are suffering injustice. It is an ironic twist that their intentionally distinctive appearance attracts not only racism, but more specifically, Islamphobia, in an escalation of cases of mistaken identity.

In basketball star Darsh Singh’s case, the #belikeDarsh hashtag reminds us that social media can be a force for good.

Sikh history is full of ironies: the British recruited Sikhs enthusiastically into the British Indian Army, regarding them as a “martial race”. Not only that, they required their Sikh regiment to be initiated, to maintain the five Ks and to wear the turban. In the two world wars, over 80,000 turban-wearing Sikh soldiers were killed in combat and over 109,000 were injured. Then in 1947, when India was partitioned, Sikhs’ homeland, Punjab, was bisected and hundreds of thousands of Sikhs had to leave their homes to flee east of the new border.

By the 1950s many Sikhs (as well as Hindus) were migrating from the Indian state of Punjab to Britain to fill vacancies in factories, foundries and transport services. Far from their turbans being generally welcomed, Sikhs faced prejudice and discrimination and felt obliged to cut their hair, remove their turbans, and shave. When bus companies in Manchester and, later, Wolverhampton refused employment to turban-wearing Sikhs, the first of a succession of high-profile protest campaigns got underway. UK Sikhs won the right, in turn, to wear turbans as bus conductors, as motorcyclists, as pupils in school, on construction sites, and in all places of work. In other countries too Sikhs have struggled, sometimes successfully, for their turbans to be allowed. Canada’s Mounties now include turban-wearing Sikhs.

Sikhs have responded in a characteristically positive way to the post-9/11 “mistaken identity” assaults. In the USA they formed the Sikh Coalition, a voluntary educational organisation which works for human rights and in particular, “a world where Sikhs may freely practice and enjoy their faith while fostering strong relations with their local community wherever they may be”.

In basketball star Darsh Singh’s case, the #belikeDarsh hashtag reminds us that social media can be a force for good. Darsh asks us to “continue to educate yourself on traditions and practices different from your own” and “serve those in need”. “Sikhs believe everyone and everything has the potential to embody Divine love.”

Feature Image: Front view of Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi, by Ken Wieland. CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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