Resurgent Sikh fundamentalism in the UK: time to act?
| By Sukhwant Dhaliwal
Growing confidence among resurgent Sikh fundamentalist networks in the UK was evident in recent protests against inter-faith marriage. A desire to control Sikh women’s relationship choices is a key focal point for their mobilisation.
On Sunday 11th September 2016, as world attention focused on the 15th anniversary of Islamist attacks on the Twin Towers, local press attention momentarily shifted to the arrest of 55 members of Sikh Youth UK at the Leamington and Warwick gurdwara (place of worship for Sikhs). The group claimed that this was a ‘peaceful protest’ against the scheduled Anand Karaj (Sikh wedding ceremony) between a Sikh bride and non-Sikh groom. They also claimed that they are not opposed to interfaith marriage per se – stating that Sikh and non-Sikh couples can have a civil marriage and also receive a gurdwara blessing – but that the Rehat Maryada, a code of conduct developed in the 1930s, reserves the Anand Karaj for Sikhs exclusively. This prohibition was re-iterated in an August 2015 agreement reached by 300 Sikh organisations.
There are problems with these claims. The protest was clearly intended to intimidate. Protestors turned up with heads and faces covered and some were carrying kirpans. Although they claimed that kirpans are ceremonial daggers and that these had been misrepresented by the media as ‘blades’ and ‘weapons’, religious references were used to obfuscate the blindingly obvious. It’s true that kirpans are usually only carried by a small minority of baptised Sikhs but there is also a history in the UK of kirpans, and Sikh martial arts weapons, being used during violent in-fighting within gurdwaras and especially by Sikh fundamentalist factions. Moreover, this particular incident followed other aggressive interventions at gurdwaras in Southall, Birmingham, Coventry and Swindon.
As with these other episodes, the protestors filmed the incident and circulated the film footage in a move to publicly shame families already pushing against deeply conservative proscriptions. The film footage shows protestors referring to interfaith marriage (not just the Anand Karaj) as ‘messed up’, stating that ‘Leamington is finished when we’ve got elders saying it’s alright to marry white people, black people’. Jagraj Singh has been one of the main spokespeople defending the protests. One need look no further than the youtube videos of Basics of Sikhi to see him opposing interfaith relationships. In one such clip, he states ‘relationships or dating are not part of Sikhi, marriage is part of Sikhi’. Relationships outside the conjugal union are presented as uncontrolled lust and marriage is clearly seen as something that only takes place between two Sikhs.
The Rehat is highly gendered and presents a problem for minority Sikhs who do not subscribe to the Khalsa version of the religion. The section on marriage states ‘a Sikh’s daughter must be married to a Sikh’ and tells Sikh women to treat their (Sikh) husbands with ‘deferential solicitude’. Fortunately, more liberal Sikhs have spoken out about the hypocrisy of protestors who selectively focus on one section of a man made code of conduct that has itself been amended three times while turning a blind eye to serious issues like familial sexual abuse. Herpreet Kaur Grewal noted that the focus is always on Sikh girls marrying out while there is relative silence and inaction on caste discrimination and female foeticide. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the prohibition on mixed relationships manifested itself in regular reprisals between Sikh and Muslim gangs for targeting ‘their’ women. The question is, why has this resurfaced now? Why has a rule invented in the 1930s gained renewed significance in the last few years? The Leamington incident has given rise to some intense theological debates but one needs to focus, instead, on the political context of these events to comprehend their dynamics.