7th Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Chair in Sikh Studies Conference
Sikh Studies in the Western Academy: Prospects and Challenges
By: Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal, Adam Tyson, and Gurbeer Singh
On May 7-8, the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of California Riverside (UCR) hosted the 7th International Sikh Studies Conference. For the first time in its history, the International Sikh Studies Conference was held virtually with panelists and participants attending from across the world. In honor of Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, founder of The Sikh Foundation and a strong advocate for Sikh Studies, this particular conference focused on the prospects and challenges of Sikh Studies in the Western Academy. The early twenty-first century continues to be a very exciting time for the field of Sikh Studies. Within the last two decades scholars have begun to question prevailing approaches to the study of Sikhism in both the west and India itself to the point that this least examined and perhaps most misunderstood of South Asia’s religious and cultural traditions is now an established part of curricula and scholarly programs across North America and England. Indeed, the establishment of the Sikh Studies Group within the structure of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is an important indicator of this change. Currently, there are nine academic endowed chairs duly established within the United States, Canada, and England, with more proposed at Berkeley, Calgary, and Birmingham. In addition, there are a growing number of scholars in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and mainland Europe in other positions whose teaching and research interests are either centrally or partially related to Sikh studies. It should therefore elicit little surprise that undergraduate and graduate courses in Sikh studies, particularly Sikh history and religion, have increased dramatically in this period, a rise which corresponds in part to Sikh immigration into Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. A new generation of scholars and students has begun to engage with the Sikh tradition, and there has been a steady growth of scholarly literature and teaching resources on Sikhism in the last two decades. Professors, researchers, and community members from around the world shared their expertise and experience within the field of Sikh Studies – all extremely diverse in their approaches.
Events began Friday with Dr. Juliet McMullin – Interim Dean for the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCR – inaugurating the conference and welcoming the global audience. Dean McMullin shared that the theme is an acknowledgement to scholars’ work to engage with Sikh Studies across the globe during a time when the world needs a greater understanding about Religious Studies’ role in suffering, well-being, creating and innovating. Following an introduction by Dr. Pashaura Singh, Dr. Michael Scott Alexander delivered the keynote speech on “No Gold Standard: Jewish Studies on the American Campus.” Dr. Alexander, who has been attending the Sikh Studies Conference for over a decade, shared that as an observer he views the field of Sikh Studies as “one of the most vital and lively things happening” in the humanities and social sciences. Dr. Alexander explained the history of the creation of Jewish Studies across the American academy including the struggles, triumphs, and stimulating conversations. He continues to warn that even though the scholarly field is meant to examine the problems of the people, it tends to inhabit and repeat problems of the people. Dr. Alexander urges the audience to be open to different perspectives as it allows for people to join in conversations intelligently and with “ruthless honesty.”
Panel discussions then began with an analysis and reflection on “The Discipline of Sikh Studies.” The first panelist of the conference, Dr. Shinder Thandi, offered his personal reflections on the historical and current state of Sikh Studies in the Sikh diaspora as an active participant in Sikh Studies over the past 45 years. Beginning with the late 1960s – noted for increased academic interest in Guru Nanak given the founder’s 500th birth anniversary and the first major diaspora Conference on Sikh Studies at Berkeley in 1969, Dr. Thandi weaved through the successes and challenges. He questioned whether the Panth was in danger highlighting three main problems: (1) the shifting demographics of the community; (2) the growing influence of Hindutva ideology – from Chair rejected at UC Irvine and the textbook controversy in California; and (3) the gaps in understanding the Sikh tradition. Thandi suggested a potential solution is to focus more on Classical Sikh Studies to gain a better understanding of the tradition. The second panelist, Dr. Opinderjit Takhar, continued the theme of the discipline of Sikh Studies with a reflection of her journey within Sikh Studies in the United Kingdom. Dr. Takhar shared diverse experiences from the struggles of being labeled as anti-Panthic/agents of the Indian Government to the advantages of a center for Sikh and Panjabi Studies as she is the Director of the only Centre for Sikh and Panjabi Studies. Beginning the conference with Drs. Thandi and Takhar set the foundational basis – setting the scene about the history, challenges, and prospects of Sikh Studies in Western Academia.
Dr. Gurharpal Singh, in his presentation entitled, “The partition of India and the Sikhs: some unspoken assumptions,” gave a fantastic presentation on the Sikh experience in the partition of 1947. He offered perspective on how the atrocious events of partition of Punjab in 1947 shaped the Sikh psyche and experience in Punjab and beyond. He offered a well-founded analysis on the situation on the ground during the partition and meticulously explained common misconceptions and revealed commonly unknown information about Punjab and its partition. Dr. Singh engages with his research and knowledge that he has accumulated throughout his long, successful career to present us with his deep understanding of the topic at hand. Dr. Anshu Malhotra, in her presentation entitled, “History, memory, community, and the politics of conversion,” offered her research on the experience of religion and conversion in an early colonial Punjab. She especially cited Piro, from her book “Piro and the Gulabdasis: Gender, Sect and Society in Punjab.” Piro, born Muslim and a former prostitute joined the Gulabdasi sect. Dr. Malhotra explained the experiences of Piro in her experience converting and refusing to reaccept Islam when confronted by the mullahs of Lahore.
The third panel, “Group panel on reassessing the role of critical thought in Sikh studies,” brought forth a group of scholars to discuss their views on the future of Sikh Studies. In an introductory presentation, Dr. Arvind-Pal S. Mandair addressed “epistemic inequality (or epistemic injustice)” in the fields of Sikh Studies and Philosophy, where Western or Eurocentric forms of knowledge are privileged. To right this inequality, Dr. Mandair proposed that Sikh scholars strive to “take ownership of the epistemic machinery” and nodded to the successful achievements to do the same in Jewish Studies. Dr. Mandair brought lessons from the field of Critical Muslim Studies, specifically Wael Hallaq’s charge to reclaim “epistemic sovereignty,” in order that Sikh scholarship might “take sovereignty back from the knowledge system.” His forthcoming book, Geophilosophical Encounters: Decolonial Praxis, Diasporic Logics and Sikh Thought (Routledge: 2022) promises to put this project for Sikh Philosophy into practice. Dr. Aneeth Kaur Hundle acknowledged anthropology’s “Western colonial origins” and proposed possibilities for the future of Anthropology vivified by critical theories of culture, race, and religion from theorists like Michel-Rolph Truillot, Kamala Wisweswaran and Talal Asad. Dr. Hundle suggests, hopefully, that these critiques may make anthropology a site for “envisioning and practicing a post-liberal global human order.” Dr. Hundle contends that a crucial starting point for the future of Sikh Studies entails losing “essentialist baggage” regarding culture, race, and religion in order to arrive at an appropriately de-colonized study of Sikhism. Dr. Guriqbal Singh Sahota pointed to a “major lacuna” in Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism – focused as it was on French and English language scholarship – and that lacuna is German orientalist scholarship. Complicating Said’s critique, Dr. Sahota cites Goethe’s translation of Hafez, Schopenhaur’s translation of the Upanishads, and even sympathetic Jewish orientalist scholars writing in German. With this, Dr. Sahota recommends exploring Ernest Trumpp with extra “philological attention.” Finally, Dr. Sahota takes up Mandair’s call to carve out a proper “epistemic place” for Sikh Studies through “contrapuntal” or “critical philology” using Sikh texts beyond the Adi Granth to do so. Puninder Singh suggested the possibility of considering frameworks for critical thought – not as informed by Western, Modern (and post-Modern) definitions – but rather, through emic Sikh thought. Looking within the tradition, Puninder asserts “Sikhi has always been a tradition of robust engagement,” in dialogue with other forms of thought. Examples of this may be taken from the Janam Sakhis, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the Persian poetry of Bhai Nand Laal as it engaged in conversation with a broader Persianate cultural sphere. Finally – and in line with Mandair’s emphasis on epistemology – Puninder calls for recognition that “Sikhi is itself a methodology, a way of seeing, a way of analyzing, and a way of making sense of sensory data.” Dr. Harjeet Grewal, like Puninder, advocated critical thought informed by Sikh sources instead of relying on critical theory from outside Sikhism, especially as critical thinking has been a “tool to dominate non-Western societies.” Dr. Grewal takes a critical look at McLeod’s “Cries of Outrage” and the binary of “traditional” versus “skeptical” historians. Among the points of critique, Dr. Grewal notes McLeod’s privileged access to resources like Western universities and presses and observes that his “whiteness” lent to his “mobility” in South Asia. Further, “traditional” refers to Sikh – and Dr. Grewal suggests “perhaps exclusively Sikh” – scholars, which denies any “skeptical” thought internal to Sikhism. Dr. Grewal contends that sources may be called “traditional” but this doesn’t mean they offer no avenues for critical thought, and he explores the Sajjan Thug Sakhi as one such example of critical thought.
Delivering the second Keynote Speech during the evening session, Dr. Louis E. Fenech spent time reflecting on his work within the field of Sikh Studies. Dr. Fenech shares that despite the work he has done as a scholar of Sikh history, “we are limited by our interpretations,” which are “further hindered by us as interpreters.” He discusses that these approaches allow historians to engage with non-historians and make space for regular Sikhs to engage with scholars. Dr. Fenech continues to explain the importance of the remembered past within the Sikh community and how Sikhs engage with that history in the present – highlighting Operation Blue Star and the Farmers’ Protest as prime examples. After his Keynote Speech, Dr. Louis E. Fenech was honored for his distinguished contribution in the field of Sikh Studies. Following this, Mr. Harbans Bawa (on behalf of the Kapany family) shared memories of Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany stating that Dr. Kapany donated funds and helped establish Sikh Studies chairs because he noticed the lack of knowledge about Sikhs amongst lay people. It was his desire to fill the void which sparked the creation of The Sikh Foundation and Dr. Kapany’s numerous efforts to educate people about Sikhs and Sikh Art. The evening session concluded with the presentation of several research awards. Dr. Harkeerat Singh Dhillon awarded the inaugural Harkeerat & Deepta Dhillon Endowed Research Award to Gurbeer Singh. On behalf of Dr. Parvinder Singh Khanuja, Dr. Pashaura Singh presented the 5 Rivers Research Award to Gurbeer Singh and the 5 Rivers Doctoral Thesis Research Award to Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal.
The second day commenced by honoring the pioneers of Punjab Research Group in the United Kingdom. Following the tragic events of 1984, scholars were trying to develop an intellectual understanding of the Sikh tradition through the lens of the Punjab crisis. Sikh history, religion and culture attracted considerable attention from the world at large as journalists and commentators were looking for information about the Sikhs. Mostly, common people in North America and the UK were utterly uneducated about the nature of Sikh religion and culture. It is in this historical context that a group of scholars in the UK got together and formed the Punjab Research Group. They focused their attention on East Punjab in India, West Punjab in Pakistan, and the Punjabi Diaspora in different countries. Five of the original six pioneers of the Punjab Research Group – Dr. Eleanor Nesbitt (Warwick University), Dr. Gurharpal Singh (SOAS, University of London), Dr. Pritam Singh (Oxford Brookes Business School), Dr. Ian Talbot (University of Southampton), Dr. Shinder Singh Thandi (University of California, Santa Barbara) – were honored for their contribution and pioneer work in the field of Punjab and Sikh Studies. The final pioneer of the group, Dr. Darshan Singh Tatla, was honored in 2017 for his distinguished contribution to Sikh Diaspora Studies but was honorably mentioned for his role with the Punjab Research Group.
The first panel of the second day offered emerging voices in Sikh Studies to share their research. In her paper, “The evolution of the Panth: Sikh history from Sikh sources,” Jaskiran Kaur Bhogal, argues the importance of using Sikh sources (and authors) to tell Sikh history and take them seriously. Bhogal shares that there are clear advantages when using Sikh sources as it allows one to understand the community from within from an insider’s perspective who is aware of the vernacular terminology and vernacular concepts. Furthermore, she states that any who wish to understand Sikh history cannot do so without taking Gurbani seriously as the whole of Sikhi and Sikh history is constructed on the Guru and the Sikh. Avneet Singh Hunjan, a post-graduate researcher from University of Wolverhampton, UK, spoke on alcohol abuse and gender within the Punjabi Sikh community. Hunjan acknowledges that although he is still in the early stages in his research, alcohol abuse within the Punjabi Sikh community is an under-researched topic. This may be due to the fact that stigma is a huge issue within the community, yet, it is an “open-secret.” While alcohol abuse within Sikh men is very much outwardly, abuse within Sikh women is disguised. His research hopes to answer how Punjabi Sikh men and women negotiate cultural and religious pressures on drinking and if there are any barriers for those seeking help.
Dr. Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa, in her presentation entitled, “Sikhing sovereignties amidst ‘state’ violence,” gave a holistic exploration of the importance of the Sikh experience in a world of violence and divisiveness. She explains her experience growing up as a white Sikh in the 3HO sect, speaking about its work across the world in spreading Sikhism while also reflecting upon the organization now dealing with the instances of sexual abuse by Yogi Bhajan and the organization’s work with attempting to move beyond white superiority. She has an intriguing discussion on the use and practicality of Sikhi in the Western world. Dr. Francesca Cassio, in her presentation entitled “Sikh musicology in the western academy: the challenges of intersectional research and decolonized education,” explains the status and prevalence of Sikh music in academia. She addresses Sikh musicology as an interdisciplinary field and how Western academia must be decolonized to fully realize the extent of topics such as Sikh musicology. She explores the current field of Sikh musicology in her talk and spoke about the importance and vastness of this highly unexplored subfield of Sikh studies. Sonia Dhami, in her presentation entitled “Art of the Protest” explores the art that has sprung from the activism of the Kisaan Andolan (Farmer’s Protests). She runs through the various pictures, paintings, drawings, sculptures, abstract pieces, music, videos, and other forms of art that have come from or have been inspired by the protests. The spirit of the protesters and their supporters is broadcast through the expressions of art that have presented themselves on the ground and on the internet. She worked through different pieces of art inspired by the protests, while explaining the importance, origins, and meanings of the pieces she presented.
Conner VanderBeek’s presentation, titled “Expressing and justifying Sikh identity in Canadian arts, or the near-impossibility of critique?”, first examined a mural (titled Taike-sye’yə; “cousin-friend”), a joint project between Sikh and Musqueam community members. The mural depicts Musqueam paddlers canoeing to provide food and supplies to the passengers of the infamous Komagata Maru as passengers largely from Panjab remained trapped in Vancouver harbor. Musqueam elders were consulted for information about this event, although critics like Ali Kazimi contested that the historical archive holds no proof that such an event happened. Conner also examined Nep Sidhu’s 2019 exhibition – including the piece “Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) – which references the traumatic events of 1984 and was accused by critics of “false narratives of the Khalistani movement.” Adroitly navigating these case studies of cross-cultural solidarity in art with an unflinching attention to the criticisms raised, Conner finally poses a central question: “who has the right to tell the stories of cultural traumas?” Dr. Nirvikar Singh’s presentation bullet-points the content of his paper “Asymmetries of Power in ‘Knowledge’ Production: The Case of Sikh Studies.” His study interrogates a number of popularly held views of Western academics. First, Dr. Nirvikar Singh contests that what is referred to as the “Sant tradition” is a “conceptually” and “empirically fragile” construct of the 19th century. Most notably, he noted that “Sant” is not a “neutral” term, but bears the political interests of Western academic liberalism and Hindu nationalists alike. Most notably, he offered a critique of how the Singh Sabha movement is portrayed in Western scholarship, citing the stakes where a “gap” between the “academic field” and the Sikh “community” is created in the process. Instead of the typical valuation of Singh Sabha, Dr. Singh called for a “more nuanced and accurate narrative of reform” and attempts in his paper to begin this process. Dr. Dalvir S. Pannu presented “The Sikh Heritage in Pakistan: Scope of academic research” which covered the research conducted in his book “The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders,” published in 2019. This remarkable survey of Gurdwaras across India and Pakistan uses historical record and architectural evidence to detail both well-known and lesser-known sites of Sikh history complete with precise GPS coordinates. Instead of separate realms of “Sikh history, Muslim history and Hindu history,” Dr. Pannu reveals a shared history, especially through case studies where donations for Gurdwaras were made by Muslim and Hindu rulers. Not only mainstream Sikh sites were noted, but sites of multiple branches of Sikhism were documented as well. By navigating sources and inscriptions in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic and travelling widely, Dr. Pannu’s study mapped a sacred geography of Sikh history much needed after 1947’s partition.
In the final presentation of the conference, “Growing pains in the field of Sikh Studies in the western academy,” Dr. Pashaura Singh offered his own personal reflections on the field. Singh beautifully navigated through the decades long history detailing the external and internal interferences within the field (from the first Sikh Studies chair in Canada and how the Indian government intervened to the establishment of the UCR chair and how the community intervened) and the role of scholars and community representatives. Singh echoes Dr. Michael Alexander when sharing that the Sikh faith offers different perspectives about the understanding of Sikhs, traditions, and identities and that it is crucial for the Sikhs to incorporate it into the community’s dominant truth. Following Singh’s reflection, the organizers – Dr. Pashuara Singh, Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal, Adam Tyson, and Gurbeer Singh – offered their brief final thoughts before officially concluding the conference.