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Sikhs: A Stateless Nation, a Powerful Cohesive Diaspora and a Mistaken Identity

Andrew Milne
p. 135-153

Résumé

Sikhs can be considered as a ‘stateless nation’ (Guibernau, 1999), but they constitute a cohesive diaspora with considerable weight, despite being greatly dispersed across the world, and increasingly so due to the possibilities afforded to them by globalisation. On the other hand, the Nation-State has been brought into question by that very same globalisation, regardless of the long process of consolidation in which symbols, rituals, and culture as well as language have placed emphasis upon the uniqueness of a Nation’s character (Scholte, 2005). Globalisation has provided empowerments, but also the strong case for the need to stand out, and individuation of groups, whether they be national or sub-national.

The organisation of that stateless nation as a cohesive diaspora can be explained by the historical context of how Sikhs have been perceived in India, but also how Sikh communities have constructed themselves through migration. In the new ‘home’, wherever that might have been, they have built their communities around calendrical rights, festivals and gurdwaras, firstly converting residential homes into make-shift places of worship, and then extending them into fully-established temples. Similar or even identical patterns are followed, regardless of the host country.

With this in mind, it is proposed here to compare the case of Sikhs in France and the United Kingdom. Sikhs in France are less numerous than Sikhs in the UK. The ties that link Sikhs to the latter are stronger through imperial history, and the reasons why Sikhs came to both countries are very different. However, despite these differences, there has been a desire for Sikhs in both Nations to obtain recognition, deemed to be a vital human need, rather than just a curtesy (Taylor, 1994). One common element that stands out in Sikhs’ demands for recognition in both the UK and in France is their role in furthering imperial military success in both the British Raj and also in World Wars I and II. However, this remains largely unknown, or unrecognised in both France and the UK.

While Sikhs are relatively well placed1 and less stigmatised that some other minority groups in both British and French societies, there is a common perception among them that they are a ‘mistaken identity’, at a time that demands individuation of groups, and the ability to stand out, and be recognised.

It is proposed here to use material drawn from a number of interviews carried out with both Sikhs in the UK and those in France, to attempt to establish to what extent they are a visible, and yet invisible, community. The complexity of ‘visible invisibility’ means that they are recognised immediately as being different, but at the same time, they are unknown. In the UK, even if they benefit from a better perception by the rest of society because of their particular place in colonial history, they are still frequently confused with other groups, do experience crises of identity, and receive their share of violence and hate crime. In France, they are less known, due to lesser colonial ties, and to their more-recent presence on the territory.

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Introduction

  • 2 ‘Panjab’ will be retained as the spelling of the region from which Sikhs originate, in part. Furthe (...)

1Sikhism is the 5th religion in the world in terms of the number of followers. Although estimates related to Sikhs stand at approximately 25-30 million in the world, with 90% of them in India, it remains a religion that is relatively little known, and more often confused, in particular with religions that tend to be more exposed to the attention of the media. Sikhism is taken to have originated in its founding by Guru Nanak, a religious sage born in Panjab2 in 1469. ‘Panth’ is the religious ‘path’, or the religious movement that was founded by the first Sikh Guru who was followed by nine others, with the sacred book of Sikhs known as the Guru Granth Sahib, a living entity revered as a Guru itself.

  • 3 Kalsi, S.S., Bahr, A.M.B., Marty, M.E., Religions of the World: Sikhism, Bromall, PA, USA: Chealsea (...)

2At a rudimentary level, one might believe that a Sikh could be recognised because of their turban, or because males have the surname ‘Singh’ (Lion) and females are called ‘Kaur’ (Princess). But even if this may be true to a certain extent, it is not entirely so, since many Muslims also wear turbans in the subcontinent of India, being the daily dress of many followers of Islam. Those that are Hindus and belong to the Kashatriya (warrior and princely) caste may also have the surname ‘Singh’3. Therefore, when some might believe that they have basic understanding of who Sikhs are, this may not be as simple as expected, heightening confusion further still.

  • 4 Milne, A., Exploring aspects of national identity on both sides of the Channel: a comparative case (...)
  • 5 Guiberneau, M., Nations without States: Political Communities in a Global Age, Cambridge: Polity Pr (...)
  • 6 Milne, A., Exploring aspects of national identity on both sides of the Channel: a comparative case (...)

3Little is known of Sikhs in terms of who they are and what they believe, and even less is known regarding the precepts and the origins of their religion4. This is in contradiction with the high number of Sikhs that live outside of India, and the great diaspora that has resulted in the fact that they are a ‘stateless nation’5, one without a geographical territory to call their own and one which, in fact, may be classified as being pan-Indian6, with religious holy sites in many places across the nations that are now called India and Pakistan. But, this misunderstanding is increased by the contradiction of their visibility and, therefore, the general belief that people might have as to who or what the Sikhs really are. That is to say that some may believe that because Sikhs are easily ‘recognisable’ due to their turbans, then they must also be known about, and understood. The consequences, that have resulted in the 20th and 21st centuries are the cohesiveness of that diaspora, and greater reactive religiosity in response to the common lack of recognition or confusion with other religious movements, such as Islam, for example, in particular in Western states, to which they have migrated. Even in nations where one might think there tends to be greater understanding of who they are, there still exists relative confusion.

4One such case in point might be the comparison of the United Kingdom and France. Both have different pasts and different attachments to or relations with Sikhs. At the outset, in fact, there may be little that seems to be similar in the reason why Sikhs came to either the UK or to France.

5Sikhs went to the UK, afforded the possibility under the British Nationality Act 1948 of technically-speaking obtaining exactly the same rights as any other British citizen. In reality, discrimination was not outlawed until the Race Relations Acts of 1965 (confined to places of ‘entertainment’) and then 1968 (illegal with regard to employment, accommodation, and civil rights). Sikhs arrived in France when the UK had closed its borders to further immigration, and in the face of pressure from the Indian authorities that were attempting to crush separatist movements in the 1980s under the Blue Star Operation (1984), as asylum seekers and forced migrants. Those who migrated to Britain spoke or had some knowledge of the English language and British culture. The ones that went to France had no knowledge of French and little understanding beyond that they were arriving in what was the democracy of the French Republic.

6But what is similar between the two destinations here in terms of migration is the attempt of that ‘stateless nation’ to exercise similar and indeed identical pressures on both host states, in the quest for recognition.

7However, in one of those states (UK), they have acquired to some extent, exceptional and unique treatment, being recognised as an ethno-religious group, with exemptions from certain laws for religious reasons.

  • 7 Latour, V., ‘Visibilités sikhe et musulmane au Royaume-Uni : tentative de comparaison’, Revue Franç (...)

8Notably, Sikhs are the only people of the UK exempted under Section 23 of the Motor-Cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976. Also, the Employment Act 1989, Sections 11 and 12 provided for exemptions on building sites, an industry that had large numbers of Sikhs at the time that it was passed. The carrying of a kirpan (a religious dagger) for Sikhs is also enshrined in law. Even in a post-9/11 world of restrictions, Sikh passengers were and still are allowed to carry kirpans and travel with them, although they are recommended to hand them over upon boarding the aircraft. Even school children have the right to carry a kirpan on them in the UK if they are Sikhs (and it does not exceed 8 inches (20.32cm)7. Nobody else in the UK benefits from such exemptions.

  • 8 Gohin, O., ‘La citoyenneté dans l’outre-mer français’, in Revue Française d’Administration Publique(...)

9In the other state (France), they have not acquired anything, due to the universalism that predominates there. However, it should also be understood that the universalism that predominates in France and on which the French Republic has so staunchly prided itself since the French Revolution of 1789, was replaced by a form of differentialism during that post-WWII period, while the British were universalists giving everyone in the British Empire British nationality. The Constitution of 1946 (IVth French Republic) included section 8 (‘Titre 8’) and pertained specifically to the Union française. It noted the complete equality between French citizens of Metropolitan France and overseas territories and departments. But the complexity of the situation provided the French colonies transformed into departments and overseas territories and granted them the same rights as French citizens, but upon the basis of establishing special laws to inform them as to how they would exercise those rights as citizens. The special laws under which they were to exercise those rights established a difference between nationality and citizenship. Those in the former colonies obtained nationality, but they did not necessarily obtain citizenship, meaning that they were not equal, and thus, barred, from the right to vote as French Citizens8. Consequently, this serves as an example to show that while universalism predominates in France today, it has not always been the case.

10A similar remark can be made about the UK, which through the Race Relations Acts and exemptions for Sikhs has not traditionally practiced universalism, but once did.

11 Universalism has not always been a bar to the recognition of certain groups. The UK’s granting of exceptional circumstances must also be taken in the context of British reactions during post-World-War-II to the disintegration of the British Empire. In marked contrast, therefore, to the French Republic, and as Vincent Latour and Catherine Puzzo underline about the British case:

  • 9 Latour, V., and Puzzo, C., ‘Framing and legitimizing discriminatory immigration policies – A cross- (...)

[Britain]opted for a universalist approach to immigration (British Nationality Act 1948), as the country sought to keep good relations with her colonies, past and present.9

12This brought about the ultimate granting of the exceptional recognition and exemptions of Sikhs within the UK; since, if the immigrants coming from former and existing British colonies at the time had British nationality, then it could be presumed that they should have been treated in exactly the same was as British-born citizens, including obtaining the right to vote.

13Therefore, let us examine the reasons behind that stateless nation’s cohesive diaspora in their quest for recognition as an entity and a group, due to their belief that, despite their apparent visibility, they are, indeed, invisible and misunderstood. It would seem that Sikhs have traditionally struggled for a unique form of recognition due to the fact that they have a sense of unity, a belief in their people as a nation, without a state. We shall also see that, despite certain advances in the UK, Sikhs there believe, just as much as those who are living in France, that their situation is not recognised enough by each state, leading to a sense of frustration.

The Nation State and a Stateless Nation

14States are concerned by questions related to the nation, nationalism and national identity, and they are grounded in the construction of the Nation-State, since it was in the foundation of this political organisation that requirements were placed on people, borders established and movement restricted, at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th centuries.

  • 10 Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections and the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: V (...)
  • 11 Deutsch, K.W., Nationalism and its Alternatives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
  • 12 Brubaker, R., Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University P (...)

15A nation may be considered to be a group, or the “imagined community”10 as Benedict Anderson states, that has a united belief in the myth that they have a common ancestry together, as well as a common dislike for the out-group or those that are outside of the circle, or the confines of the bordered delimitation of the Nation-State11. However, not all nations believe that they have a common ancestry12. But in this case, they believe that they have a common culture or embrace a common set of values. Sikhs believe that they have both a common ancestry, and a common set of values. The belief that a group of combined people have a common ancestry or that they have a common, unified, and unique culture means that there is a psychological link that becomes cohesively bonding for them. Sikhs believe this and it, we shall see, leads to a cohesive diaspora.

Bringing the Nation into Question

16Bringing that nation into question, attempting to modify that national identity, the definition of the ‘imagined’ group, and by extension the common culture, or set of values, brings into question the very existence of the nation.

17The Nation-State has been brought into question through globalisation, firstly:

  • 13 Guibernau, M., Nations without States: Political Communities in a Global Age, Polity Press, Cambrid (...)

after a long process of consolidation which has involved the construction of a symbolic image of the community endowed with a particular language and culture, and the creation of symbols and rituals destined to emphasize its unique character and the fixing of territorial borders, is being forced to respond to challenges from within.13

18It would seem obvious that a rigidification of the constructs that have come to stand for and determine the Nation-State, will inevitably have, at some point, to face challenges, not only from outside, since that was the primary intention of the defining of a nation’s identity (to keep the others out), but also, from within. Those new challenges from within have been immigration bringing about cultural issues. It is not surprising, therefore, that nations have been, and are still being brought into question. Globalisation has caused challenges to the cohesiveness of the existence of nations, simply through heightened and continuous contact and inter-action with others. But it should also be remembered that a nation must also deal with the challenges that it faces as a naturally developing phenomenon, since its rigidification will be challenged over time and through generations, as the set of core values becomes challenged and there are shifts that take place in the way of living of any group of people. A society is a living entity and as such modifies over time.

19The state has also seen its power diminished on the international scene and national identities have been confronted with a struggle to maintain existence. Thus, there has been a hardened line towards what seems to be essential for some in the political field to restore the identities of nation-sates to what is perceived as their former glory, or to maintain and protect them. It is not surprising that the UK 2007 Command Paper (7170) for the Governance of Britain, presented by Parliament envied the French system of the codified and easily-recognisable, documented, and preserved set of values and symbols in the French Republic, something that the British State still does not have. The Command Paper stated:

French citizens have a clear understanding of their values of liberty, equality and fraternity. America has a strong national perception of itself as the “land of the free”. But there is a less clear sense among British citizens of the values that bind the groups and communities who make up the body of the British people.14

Individuation

  • 15 LOI n° 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes (...)

20Globalisation has provided both empowerments, but also the strong case for the need to stand out and for the individuation of groups, again whether they be national, or sub-national. Sikhs in both France and the United Kingdom have attempted to differentiate themselves and make their stand for individuation. They have been confronted with stronger barriers in the UK and refusals to comply with their demands for recognition there. In France, they have been systematically refused, seeing no change in stricter laws that have been implemented since 200415, in particular with regard to the wearing of religious clothing in public education, or on official identity documents. The stricter implementation and the tightening of the law could be explained by the question of the identity of the nation. As Vincent Latour and Romain Garbaye point out “concerns [have] intensified and turned into fears”. The concerns of the 20th century have now become major issues of fear in the 21st century:

  • 16 Latour, V and Garbaye, R., ‘Community and Citizenship in the Age of Security: British Policy Discou (...)

While issues related to immigration already prompted concerns in the last decades of the 20th century, after 9/11 these concerns intensified and turned into fears. This development is the prolongation of a long-term shift from comparatively liberal immigration regimes in the post-war decades to the construction of immigration as a problem and a risk.16

  • 17 Scholte, J.A., Globalization: A Critical Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 225.

21At the same time, globalisation has provided the opportunity to local identities, whether that be on a national or sub-national level, to gain in cohesiveness and unity17. Globalisation afforded Sikhs with the ability to remain in contact, communicate and strengthen their unity. Digital means have enabled Sikhs to be both present and absent from their ‘homeland’, and also together, rather than alone in their quests for recognition in their new host countries.

22The high number of Sikhs who have migrated outside of India took place for multiple reasons. They included the fact that upon partition in 1947, Sikhs obtained no state, with India being mainly Hindu (despite it being secular: 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India (1976), and Pakistan being founded as a Muslim state. Sikhs believe that they are a nation, one that does not have a state. This is all the more important since in interviews carried out by the present author with Sikhs in both France and the UK, they systematically put forward the case for the Sikh Empire. They too, faced with a globalised world, one in which it is essential to prove individuation, are doing no less than the Nation-States that are putting forward their own case in their defence. To cite just one example from those interviews, Harpaal Singh, the young Sikh who was excluded from the Lycée Romain Rolland, Goussainville, 2011, for wearing a Rumal (a top-knot, or turban worn by younger males) spoke with reminiscences of the past feats of the Emperor Ranjit Singh:

  • 18 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 631. Interview with Harpaal Singh, 10th January 2019, ll. 517-526. Translat (...)

Historically speaking, I think there are very strong ties already and because you had General Allard and Maharajah Ranjit Singh… Who was in Ranjit Singh's army and today in foreign countries there is a real recognition I think of the Sikhs, like in the United States compared to the General who won…? I don't know if you know a little bit, it is the only one in 46 years of existence who managed to win the battle against Afghans and reach Kabul.18

23The father of Duleep Singh (the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, the Maharaja Ranjit Singh had founded the Sikh Empire in 1799 upon the capture of Lahore. The destruction of the Mughal Empire unified the chieftains of Panjab under the auspices and control of Ranjit Singh into a new Empire, until the British annexed it and confiscated the lands from the Sikhs (1849). Duleep Singh was the first recorded Sikh to arrive in Great Britain, where he was exiled in 1854. In 1886, he was definitively refused the possibility of returning to India, heightening, the nostalgic view of the Sikh Empire, deprived of his past, and yet imbued with the power of grouping all Sikhs together in a bid to regain that territory.

  • 19 Political Advisor to the former Mayor of London (Ken Livingstone), 2001-2007.

24That nostalgia held on to by Sikhs is one of the three images of Sikhs by others in society, as cited during an interview with Atma Singh19:

  • 20 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 559, Interview with Atma Singh, ll. 321-341.

The Sikh Kingdom and the Sikh Ranjit Singh. These are small things. I think how I saw it before. Historically, there was a romantic view of the Sikhs not connected with the settled population…So, it was not connected to the settled population, the immigrant population. One was through the notion of the Maharajas, who did come as tourists to France. Then, there was sort of the military side and the Sikh soldier, who played a significant role and therefore, they were in the consciousness of the post-World-War I generation and now there is a different…I’m not sure about the TV coverage, but I suspect that there’s zero coverage of Sikhs in France…so that makes visibility very low and therefore the understanding is very low and I think in Paris there is probably some understanding. But, even in Paris it’s very peripheral.20

25Atma Singh seems aware that there are three levels of how Sikhs are seen. The first is linked to the romantic vision of Sikhs through the Maharajahs and the luxury or opulence of the Sikh Empire. The second is the Sikhs and the assistance provided during world wars. The last is the real people and immigrants that are Sikhs, who seem to gain little coverage or who remain largely unknown to the general public, according to Atma Singh. We shall comment upon the consequences of this invisibility in a later section.

Sikhs: A Cohesive Diaspora

26It may be said that the reasons behind why the Sikhs, wherever they are, return to the question of the Empire of Ranjit Singh, is because it represents a homeland, or a foundation for their own national-identity myth of creation. This is a direct response to the fact that there is a such a large diaspora of Sikhs outside of India.

27The Sikhs began creating their own national identity with attachment to the homeland, which was given as Panjab to counter arguments for the two-nation theory of India and Pakistan. The two-nation theory was that India was a country in pre-partition that had two distinct peoples living together, the Muslims and the Hindus. When the British were to withdraw, then two separate States should be created in order allow the preservation of their separate identities, ways of life, languages, and religions. The Sikhs were not included in this.

  • 21 Christine Fair, C., ‘Diaspora Involvement in Insurgencies: Insights from the Khalistan and Tamil (...)

28Nevertheless, the Sikh religion may be considered to be pan-Indian since not all sacred sites are located in Panjab. This also contributes to the diaspora and to the cohesive nature of their interactions. It should be understood that there is no real attachment simply to Panjab, but to the entire sub-continent. For example, Nankana Sahib (located in Pakistan, named after the first Guru and the city where the first Guru began teaching) is not in Panjab. The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh was born outside of Panjab, and there stands a temple today built on that site by the Maharajah Ranjit Singh, called Takht Sri Patna Sahib (Bihar). A takht is a sacred site for Sikhs. There are five of them in Sikhism, and two are outside of Panjab. The second one outside is the Gurdwara, Takht Hazur Sahib, in Maharashtra. The Akali Dal political party stated publicly in 1946 that there was territorial association with Panjab and Sikhs were the natural inhabitants of that area21.

  • 22 Safran, W. ‘Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return’, Diaspora, v. 1, n. 1, 1 (...)

29Christine Fair posits that the Sikh diaspora was empowered by globalisation and the possibilities of both travel and communication to territorialise their claim to a separatistmovement. A ‘diaspora’, as defined by William Safran, is ‘that segment of people living outside the home land’22. It is from globalisation, travel and communication that Sikhs were able to defend their desire for a nation-state of their own. Darshan Singh Tatla states:

  • 23 Singh Tatla, D., The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood, London: University College London, (...)

Overseas Sikh communities have a complex web of exchanges with the Punjab in an ongoing process of mutual dependence. Sikhs have sought to reproduce many of their social norms, culture and religious values in their new homes and social networks in various cities of Britain and North America. This process has been facilitated by a strong attachment to the Punjab, cheaper travel, and the increasing availability of media and communication channels, resulting in many kinds of contacts and flows of information to and from the Punjab. The net result is a collective identity that, despite the local and national influences of each country, has strong Sikh and Punjabi elements embedded in it.23

30It is through this that the notion of a territorial attachment and even a homeland have been constructed. The complex networks run along the same patterns, notably the pioneering few (mostly males), who settle, then who are followed by their families, and in turn provide mutual assistance to future migrants/immigrants arriving in the same geographic territory. According to the ‘imagined community’, groups are more likely to provide assistance to those that they consider to belong to the same group, than those outside of it.

  • 24 Singh, G., and Singh Tatla, D., Sihks in Britain – The Making of a Community, London: Zed Books, 20 (...)

31Sikhs in the United Kingdom mostly arrived as British Citizens under the British Nationality Act 1948. Their migration was not intended as in France to be purely economic and temporary. Singh and Singh Tatla note that there were four periods of worldwide migration for Sikhs. They were, firstly the 1860s-1890s, as a result of the annexation of Panjab by the British and the destruction of the Sikh Empire. The second period was from the 1880s until 1945, mainly due to military reasons and the enrolment of the Sikhs by the British into the Indian Army. The third period was in the years immediately after World War II. Finally, there came the period of the 1970s and the 1980s24. Despite the fact that these periods are very broad, they correspond to the general movements of Sikh migration outside of India, to which could be added the Sikhs that were also brought to Great Britain for parades and to be displayed to the British at the end of the 19th century and the turn of the century, when the sons of wealthy Sikhs that arrived to attend British universities in the 1920s, for example.

32In France, the matter is slightly similar since four stages of migration can be noted for Sikhs to France, but at very different periods. Firstly, they arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mostly undocumented, seeking a place to live, due to the fact that Britain had armed itself against further immigration. It was concentrating on the integration of those that had already migrated to Great Britain, through the Race Relations Acts. Sikhs coming to France sought asylum from the anti-Sikh riots that were taking place in India post-1984. Sikhs that had been previously undocumented prior to this also benefited from the regularisation programmes of 1981-1982 (under François Mitterrand’s first government in 1981, 130,000 people were “regularised”). Then followed family reunification and the settling in particular in the Seine-Saint-Denis, Île-de-France, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was followed by the most-recent wave which took place post-2000.

  • 25 Parasecoli, F., ‘Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities’, in Social Res (...)

33However, regardless of how those people arrived in either the UK or in France, they undertook exactly the same trajectory. This can be defined as a period of mutual inter-assistance, and their localisation in exactly the same area, venturing out towards other places very little, due to the fact that they remained close to their gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). The langar (both the food and the refectory where it is provided) is located in the gurdwara. The guru ka langar is the food that is literally ‘provided by the Guru’, a leveller, one in which all sit together and pass food from one to another, coming from the Persian, meaning ‘support’. Food becomes an exemplary means of community support to all Sikhs. Food preparation provides for a sense of belonging, in an echo of the past in particular for migrant communities25. Children are encouraged to volunteer at langars and this strengthens the sense of belonging, creating a feeling of reciprocity, community and equality, handing down these notions from one generation to another.

34The Sikh diaspora has also used calendrical rites with the reproduction of religious festivals outside of India, in their new host countries in order to perpetuate their feeling of belonging, and also manifest publicly a display of identification and the establishing of a new sense of belonging elsewhere. Atma Singh noted that during his time as Political Advisor (2001-2007) to Ken Livingstone as the Mayor of London, there was an intention to increase awareness of Sikhism and Sikhs in London through religious festivals and also Sikh / Asian culture:

  • 26 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 652, ll. 92-99.

35So, we, for instance, we started to have a Baisakhi…in Trafalgar Square, which was a cultural as well as a religious event. This was to enable the Sikh community to have a high profile in London with an annual event and it brought together quite a lot of the cultural side. There was Sunrise Radio at the time who provided the cultural programme, Bhangra music, which was…cultural music…Punjabi music that had become established as well as profiling different achievements of the Sikhs.26

  • 27 Baisakhi, also pronounced Vaisakhi is the first day of the month of Vaisakh, traditionally celebrat (...)

36It can be said that the first generation immigrants have the role of transmitting their culture to their children. The second generation takes on the role of making it more obvious and expressing it publicly so that it is seen, becomes visible and is understood by the national community of the new host country. This is true of both the UK and France with regard to Sikhs. Today the Festival of Baisakhi27 is celebrated in Bobigny, but in the UK it is celebrated throughout the country, simply because there is a wider geographic spread of Sikhs there. It could be presumed that the French Sikhs too will venture to other places in the country in the coming decades.

  • 28 Singh, G., and Singh Tatla, D., Sikhs in Britain – The Making of a Community, London: Zed Books, 20 (...)

37However, in the early stages of migration, Sikhs remained together in small, close-knit communities located in the same place, mainly due to reasons of religious worship. But, the same method of community spirit was carried out with the founding of the first gurdwaras in both the UK and in France. First, they went through a process of renting temporary premises in the 1950s and the 1960s in the UK, shortly after arrival of the main waves of Sikh immigrants. The same occurred in France in the 1980s., when they first arrived Then, in the UK, this was followed by the purchasing of property, usually in a residential area (1960s and 1970s). The first house to have been bought in France and to have been transformed into a gurdwara was in rue de la ferme, Bobigny (1990s). The premises in the UK were expanded and made larger as the community grew (1980s), and the same occurred in rue de la ferme, when two adjoining houses were purchased (1990s). In the UK, in the 1990s, those residential houses that had been converted were transformed on a grander scale to resemble gurdwaras in India. In France, the houses were knocked down and a new gurdwara was built (2000s). Great international financial assistance has also been provided by the diaspora, even more so since transfers of money have been facilitated in recent decades. This can explain why the trajectory of French Sikhs has been quicker with regard to the construction of their temples. However, the process has been reproduced28.

Visible Invisibility

  • 29 Gurinder Singh Mandla, a Sikh student, attempted to enrol at the private Park Grove School in Edgba (...)

38 While it might be presumed that the relations with Sikhs in the UK have now been established for decades, and that they might be well-known, or recognised, since, in particular the 1983 ruling by the Law Lords after the triumph of the Mandla v Dowell Lee29 case, it is not entirely true. Sikhs can be considered to enjoy a relatively comfortable position in the UK. Since 1983, they are recognised as an ethno-religious group (practising, at least at that time, endogamy, with their own language and particular cultural commonalities). Still, even in the UK, there is some confusion as to who they are. The result of this is for Sikhs to attempt to distance themselves from Muslims, with whom they are often confused. In an interview carried out with Peter Bance (Bhupinder Singh Bance), a UK historian on Sikhs and Sikhism, he noted the following:

  • 30 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 464.

You get a lot of naiveness and then you’ve got those that seem to mix you up with the Muslims. Obviously, there is a lot of anti-Islamic feeling amongst Brits today.30

39 There is, it would seem, a desire for Sikhs to make their status known, and not be relegated simply to the romantic version of what Sikhs are, nor simply the historical aspect of warriors, enrolled in the armies of the British Empire. However, this is of great importance also to them, since their demands for a national war memorial in the UK have always been met with a refusal. The Sikhs of Britain also believe that the British government should recognise the Blue Star Operation (1984) as a Sikh genocide31. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian troops to enter the temple complex of Harmandir Sahib at the Golden Temple of Amritsar (the seat of Sikh religion), between 1st and 10th June 1984, under the code name Operation Blue Star, stating that she believed Sikh separatists to be there in hiding. Tanks entered the temple complex. This caused widespread massacres across India of Sikhs (estimates stand in the region of 5-7,000 deaths. Later Indira Gandhi’s was a revenge attack perpetrated by her bodyguards who were Sikh.

40 Successive governments of the United Kingdom have refused to recognise the massacre as genocide, to date. Sikhs have also failed to gain support from the British government in their desire for self-autonomy in India, with the belief that this is a moral and historical duty that the UK has regarding Sikhs and a homeland being provided for them. Despite the fact that Sikhs in the UK are unique in that they have been recognised as an ethno-religious group (a demand that is not recognised for other religious groups in the UK, since Muslims have been refused)), and they have special exemptions afforded to no other group, they believe that they should distance themselves from Islam so as not to be confused with Muslims.

  • 32 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 663.

41 Despite what would appear to a very good level of recognition, what Hardeep Singh (a journalist did note during an interview with the author32 was the growing quantity of crime and attacks perpetrated against Sikhs and the incorrect recording of that by the police. He noted, in particular, that the police had a habit of recording crimes simply as anti-Muslim hate crime. It should be noted that in the UK it is the police officer who records the reason why hate crime has been carried, according to what they themselves believe. Since there is religious misunderstanding and Sikhs are less stigmatised, those hate crimes committed against Sikhs are often recorded as anti-Muslim because the police believe that the general public will have mistaken them for Muslims. Hardeep Singh noted the following:

  • 33 The results of the research are published in Jhutti-Johal, J., and Singh, H., Racialization, Islamo (...)

[S]o the issue is around the way Police Force record hate crime and that dates back to the Macpherson Report so it’s the perception-based recording is the issue, so for example, islamophobia hate crime for example is the perception that somebody was attacked they feel the person attacked or the organization that was attacked, it’s when essentially the victim perceives they’re being attacked because they are a Muslim or perceived to be a Muslim, and that’s how other groups including Sikhs, Hindu, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, Agnostic and Jews are all being recorded under the Islamophobic hate crime flag by forces like the Police. I did a series of FOIs (Freedom of Information requests) for about a year, so I was considered a nuisance for a while and got there in the end… and I discovered in 2016, 28% of victims of Islamophobic hate crime were not Muslim or of no recorded faith and for the previous year 25%.33

  • 34 Ranjit Singh was recognised in 1992 as having refugee status. In 2002, upon attempting to renew his (...)

42 Sikhs in France also feel that they are confused with Islamic fundamentalists and that they are at the brunt of ignorance and religious illiteracy in the French State, although they remain a rather insular community that is situated in the same geographic space in France, unlike in the United Kingdom, where they are more widespread. However, in an interview with Ranjit Singh (the first person to prosecute the French state in the French turban campaign34), he noted the following:

  • 35 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 307.

Exactly, exactly only in France. And, errrhm…It's when you go abroad, this discrimination, in America, especially in France about the turban. You know, about the Muslim girls. All that you can't imagine that…Sikh is different…Muslims, they are different, you know… Sikhs they are doing their own business, working hard, beside you know what is going on over there in France.35

43Ranjit Singh attempted, like British Sikhs, to distance himself from French Muslims, and also provided backing that the Sikhs were model immigrants. His attempt to prosecute the French state can be considered as the beginning of the turban campaigns in France, along similar lines as to those that took place in the UK (which is beyond the scope of the present article) . However, the differences that exist are that the turban campaigns in the UK were not against the British government directly, but against companies or schools. British Sikhs were also assisted by the fact that during the 1960s and 1970s, the UK was attempting to deal with an economic downturn, and great numbers of cohesive demonstrations by a community like the Sikhs would add more difficulties to a dire situation. It was also at a time when the UK was recognising for the first time human rights issues for those immigrants that had arrived on its shores. The French turban campaigns took place in a different circumstances, against the French state, in relation to the French particularity of laïcité and in the post 9/11 environment. Both, however, were attempts at recognition of individuation. Despite the gains made in the UK, British Sikhs still feel as if they are invisible. French Sikhs have exactly the same feeling.

Conclusion

44Kristina Whitney, Lynda M. Sagrestano and Christina Maslach have noted on individuation the following:

  • 36 Whitney, K., Sagrestano, L.M., and Maslach, C., ‘Establishing the Social Impact of Individuation’, (...)

In many group situations, some individuals are able to command the attention of others and thus have a better opportunity to shape and direct subsequent social outcomes. To achieve such high social impact, these people have had to distinguish themselves in various ways from the rest of the group. They have had to make up themselves noticed by others.36

45Sikhs in the UK managed to achieve that individuation in the 1960s up to the 1980s, by shaping the outcome of the turban campaigns. In France this has not been the case.

46Sikhs have responded to the globalised world in the post-WWII period, and to the fact that they represent a considerable diaspora, by maintaining links with each other. The first turban campaigns of the United Kingdom primarily showed cohesiveness (related to their religion and the notion of community and brotherhood). The same occurred after the 9/11 attacks and the question of Islamic fundamentalism, in which they became a group distancing themselves from the Muslims of the United Kingdom. Even if the turban campaigns occurred at a much later date in France, they bear remarkable similarities. The same cohesiveness, and community defence is present. The same distancing from Muslims in France is also adhered to. Turban campaigns involved males in both countries. However, although Sikhs of the United Kingdom from the 1950s onwards did not have such organisations of a national or international level (United Sikhs, for example), with a set of legal experts and a system of organisation that financially supported those lawsuits, this enhanced the solidarity and the cohesiveness of Sikhs of the United Kingdom, with a successful outcome. They managed to see the passing of laws to protect their individuality and their exceptionalism. The lack of organised structure at that time, perhaps led to the fact that there had to be greater cohesiveness, in order to demonstrate and to have a profound effect, especially at a time, when in the United Kingdom race was being questioned and examined both publicly and politically.

  • 37 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 536.

47The Sikhs of France, however, arrived from the 1980s onwards, mostly, in the beginning as asylum seekers, also with a different level of association with the French Republic. France was not always the choice of Sikhs and was the result of hardened immigration policies in the United Kingdom. They are far less numerous in France and estimates point to their number being at least ten times less than in the United Kingdom (perhaps 30-50,000 in France, and over 420,000 in the UK). Therefore, the power and weight of Sikhs in France are vastly diminished37.

48In France, owing to the emphasis on universalism, individuality, although not forbidden, becomes more difficult. This is particularly the case with the notion of the French version of secularism, laïcité, and Sikhs are first and foremost, despite their recognition as an ethnic group in the United Kingdom, a religious group.

  • 38 Taylor, C., ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Gutman, A. (ed.), Multiculturalism and the Politics o (...)

49Questions must be raised as to whether or not it is important to recognise Sikhs in their quest for individuation in the UK and in France. In recent years, British Sikhs were still demanding a separate tick-box for ‘Sikh’ ethnicity, which was refused for the 2021 Census. French Sikhs in their turban campaign against the French Republic have lost all of the cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights, but in marked contrast won their cases at the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Neither has the power to impose, but only make recommendations to states. But the contradiction of the two entities leads to even greater confusion over the question of recognising groups in their attempts of achieving individuation. Charles Taylor noted in ‘The Politics of Recognition’ that there was a need for differences to be taken into account, and that this need was a “vital human need”38 and not just a “curtesy” that someone is provided with or that the state distributes. Taylor believes that there is a “modern notion of dignity” that exists, and this is “universalist and egalitarian”. In other words, it is at the reach of all and must be a component provided in all modern societies and democracies. He goes on to state that if there is a refusal to recognise in society, then it goes against the principles of a democracy and it “harms identity”.

50Stateless nations have grown as nations within nations, or even nations across nations, such as the Sikhs, partly because globalisation has empowered them to do so. It has provided them with a cohesive means to remain together, contact each other and to relive their origins together, globally, even if those moments of re-enactment are adapted to the place where they are now located.

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Bibliographie

Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections and the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991.

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Notes

1 Latour, V., and Afiouni, N., The British Sikh Report 2020, p. 22, <https://britishsikhreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/British-Sikh-Report-2020.pdf>. Accessed on 1st September 2022.

2 ‘Panjab’ will be retained as the spelling of the region from which Sikhs originate, in part. Furthermore, since the definite article does not exist in Panjabi, ‘the Punjab’ is the anglicized and colonial version of the region that originally meant ‘the land of the five rivers’.

3 Kalsi, S.S., Bahr, A.M.B., Marty, M.E., Religions of the World: Sikhism, Bromall, PA, USA: Chealsea House Publishers, 2005, p. 3.

4 Milne, A., Exploring aspects of national identity on both sides of the Channel: a comparative case study of the Sikhs in the UK and France, PhD Thesis, University of Toulouse II Jean Jaurès, 2021, p. 135.

5 Guiberneau, M., Nations without States: Political Communities in a Global Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999, pp. 17-18.

6 Milne, A., Exploring aspects of national identity on both sides of the Channel: a comparative case study of the Sikhs in the UK and France, PhD Thesis, University of Toulouse II Jean Jaurès, 2021, p. 265.

7 Latour, V., ‘Visibilités sikhe et musulmane au Royaume-Uni : tentative de comparaison’, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique, XVII-2, 2012, pp. 145-162, §40.

8 Gohin, O., ‘La citoyenneté dans l’outre-mer français’, in Revue Française d’Administration Publique 2002/1, N°. 101, pp. 69-82, §8. https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-d-administration-publique-2002-1-page-69.htm. Accessed on 1st September 2022.

9 Latour, V., and Puzzo, C., ‘Framing and legitimizing discriminatory immigration policies – A cross-Channel survey (1948-1970), in Harris, T., Windrush (1948) and Rivers of Blood (1968): Legacy and Assessment, London: Routledge, 2019, (Kindle), p. 195.

10 Anderson, B., Imagined Communities: Reflections and the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1991, p. 6.

11 Deutsch, K.W., Nationalism and its Alternatives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

12 Brubaker, R., Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

13 Guibernau, M., Nations without States: Political Communities in a Global Age, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 17-18.

14 The Governance of Britain, 2007, p. 57, §194 <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/228834/7170.pdf>. Accessed on 1st September 2022.

15 LOI n° 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics.

16 Latour, V and Garbaye, R., ‘Community and Citizenship in the Age of Security: British Policy Discourse on Diversity and Counter-Terrorism since 9/11’, Revue française de civilisation britannique, XXI-1, 2016, p. 2.

17 Scholte, J.A., Globalization: A Critical Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 225.

18 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 631. Interview with Harpaal Singh, 10th January 2019, ll. 517-526. Translation by the author of the extract in French: “Historiquement parlant, je pense qu’il y’a des liens très forts déjà et parce que vous aviez le général Allard et le Maharajah Ranjit Singh…Qui était dans l’armée de Ranjit Singh et aujourd’hui dans les pays étrangers il y’a une vraie reconnaissance je pense des sikhs, comme des États-Unis par rapport au Général qui a gagné…je sais pas si vous connaissez un petit peu c’est le seul en 46 ans d’existence qui a réussi à gagner la bataille contre les Afghans et aller jusqu’à Kabul”.

19 Political Advisor to the former Mayor of London (Ken Livingstone), 2001-2007.

20 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 559, Interview with Atma Singh, ll. 321-341.

21 Christine Fair, C., ‘Diaspora Involvement in Insurgencies: Insights from the Khalistan and Tamil Eelam Movements’, in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 11 (1), pp. 125-156, 2005, London: Routledge, p. 130.

22 Safran, W. ‘Diasporas in modern societies: Myths of homeland and return’, Diaspora, v. 1, n. 1, 1989. in Zunzer, W., Diaspora Communities and Civil Conflict Transition, Berghof Occasional Paper no. 26, September 2004, p.5. www.berghofcenter.org/. Accessed on 1st September 2022.

23 Singh Tatla, D., The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood, London: University College London, 1999, p. 63.

24 Singh, G., and Singh Tatla, D., Sihks in Britain – The Making of a Community, London: Zed Books, 2006, p. 33.

25 Parasecoli, F., ‘Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities’, in Social Research Vol. 81, N°.2, Summer 2014, p. 415.

26 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 652, ll. 92-99.

27 Baisakhi, also pronounced Vaisakhi is the first day of the month of Vaisakh, traditionally celebrated either on 13th April, or sometimes the 14th April, annually for the Spring harvest.

28 Singh, G., and Singh Tatla, D., Sikhs in Britain – The Making of a Community, London: Zed Books, 2006, p. 72.

29 Gurinder Singh Mandla, a Sikh student, attempted to enrol at the private Park Grove School in Edgbaston in Birmingham, in 1978. He was refused by the headmaster on the grounds of his wearing a turban, which did not comply with the school dress code. The newly-established (1976) Commission for Racial Equality, which came into force under the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976, was seized and the case taken to court.

30 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 464.

31 The Sikh Survey 2016, p. 14. https://www.natre.org.uk/uploads/Free%20Resources/UK-Sikh-Survey-2016-Findings-FINAL.pdf Accessed on 1st September 2022.

32 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 663.

33 The results of the research are published in Jhutti-Johal, J., and Singh, H., Racialization, Islamophobia and Mistaken Identity – The Sikh Experience, London: Routledge, 2019.

34 Ranjit Singh was recognised in 1992 as having refugee status. In 2002, upon attempting to renew his residency permit, he was refused because he would not remove his turban.

35 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 307.

36 Whitney, K., Sagrestano, L.M., and Maslach, C., ‘Establishing the Social Impact of Individuation’, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(6), July 1994, pp. 1140-53, p. 1140.

37 Milne, A., op. cit., p. 536.

38 Taylor, C., ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Gutman, A. (ed.), Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 26.

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Andrew Milne, « Sikhs: A Stateless Nation, a Powerful Cohesive Diaspora and a Mistaken Identity  »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 29 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2023, consulté le 16 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5894 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5894

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Andrew Milne

Docteur en civilisation britannique de l’Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès

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