Sikhs in North America: Remembering Key Historical Events, Challenges and Responses – (8th Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Chair in Sikh Studies Conference)

Sikhs in North America: Remembering Key Historical Events, Challenges and Responses

By: Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal and Adam Tyson

On May 5-6, 2023, the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of California Riverside (UCR) hosted the 8th International Sikh Studies Conference. Sikhs have been a part of the social fabric of North America for more than 150 years. When discussing the history of Sikhs in North America, there are a series of key events which drastically impacted the Sikh narrative in North America. These events include, but are not limited to, the Anti-Asian riots across the Pacific Northwest, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind of 1923, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Oak Creek Gurdwara massacre in August of 2012. Major anniversaries for some of these catalyst moments occurred between 2021 and 2023. These include the 100th anniversary of the U.S. v. Thind (2023), the 20th anniversary of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s murder following the 9/11 attacks (2021), and the 10th anniversary of the Oak Creek Gurdwara massacre (2022). In addition, 2023 will also be the 50th anniversary of the registration of Sikh Dharma International as a recognized non-profit 501c (3) religious organization in the United States. And with all the fallout from the recent news of Yogi Bhajan’s misconduct during his reign, it might be an appropriate time for updated reflections on Punjabi Sikh and Gora Sikh relations in North America. Scholarship and community activism surrounding Anti-Sikh hate incidents and the archiving of Sikh history on the continent within the past twenty years were developed because of the rise of antagonism, abuse, and discrimination following the two latter incidents. Given the recent anniversaries, the 8th Sikh Studies Conference at UC Riverside, Sikhs in North America: Remembering Key Historical Events, Challenges and Responses, served as an opportunity to reflect upon the scholarship of Sikhs in North America, and the interconnectedness of many historical threads across boundaries and borders from numerous perspectives and approaches to touch on intersectional issues such as: racialization, ethnicity, class, gender, criminalization, anti-Sikh hate, Sikh activism (past and present), assimilation, inclusivity, intergenerational trauma, education, and other relevant topics.

Events began Friday with Dr. Daryle Williams –Dean for the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UCR – inaugurating the conference and welcoming the global audience. Dean Williams shared that the conference was an excellent opportunity for educational and academic exchange and debate within the field of Sikh Studies. Following an introduction by Dr. Pashaura Singh, Dr. Parminder Kaur Bhachu delivered the keynote speech on “Migration, Creativity, Innovation: Sikh Migrants and Values Define the 21st Century.” In her keynote address, Dr. Bhachu shares her latest work Movers and Makers in which she forcefully argues that immigrants are the most innovative people in the world. Furthermore, the intrinsic Sikh sensibilities of collaboration, of sharing, and of radical generosity as reflected in egalitarian Sikh institutions, have much in common with the contemporary “equalizing” movements of open-source and licensing technologies, free-souls sharism, crowdsourcing, participative pedagogy, and the creative commons. Historic Sikhs traditions are thus absolutely in sync with the currents of our times and catalyze diasporic creativity.

Dr. Louis Fenech offered a response to the keynote speech beginning with a self-reflexive note that this conference itself is a result of “movers and makers” like those discussed by Dr. Bhachu in her book. Dr. Fenech brought an historian’s perspective as he noted the Punjab’s history as a frontier in which “Islamicate and Indic ideas, values, peoples, movers, and makers interacted and exchanged.” Dr. Fenech used 17th-18th century Sikh poet Bhai Nand Lal as an illustrative example of one such historical “mover and maker” as he immigrated to the Punjab from Ghazni and “conveyed Sikh teachings” in “the language of Islam modified to Indian tastes,” all while simultaneously drawing from and pushing back against the Persian literary tradition in his poetic creations. Dr. Fenech considered several Sikh values in turn, each “gloriously delineated” in Movers and Makers. Dr. Fenech’s last point was about “eternal optimism” (chardi kala) and the final term in the Ardas, “welfare of all” (sarbat da bhala), as co–dependant and binding values expressed by the figures in Dr. Bhachu’s book. Dr. Fenech ended on the point that, not only the interviewees in Dr. Bhachu’s book, but also the members of the present conference “collectively reveal the creativity and the resilience and sharing in a fragile and uncertain world.”

Panel discussions then began with an analysis on “Public Perception, Multiculturalism, Race and Gender” amongst Sikhs in North America. The first panelist of the conference, Dr. Prema Ann Kurien, shared her current work, which draws on a larger project (conducted between 2013 and 2020), comparing the patterns of political involvement and activism of Sikhs, and Hindus, (from India, Sri Lanka, and Guyana) in Canada and the U.S. She examined the reasons for the different profiles of Sikhs in the public spheres in Canada and the U.S. despite fairly similar patterns of migration to the two countries. Dr. Kurien detailed how Canadian Sikhs have made great strides in participating in the political system and in obtaining public recognition for Sikhs. In contrast to Canada, in the U.S. Sikhs remain largely socially and politically invisible. She discussed how U.S. Sikh mobilization for civil rights has consequently been a post-9/11 phenomenon, led by several newly formed second-generation organizations. The second panelist, Dr. Sasha Sabherwal, focuses on the Sikh diaspora of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) to trace how multicultural discourse has “obfuscated state sanctioned racial violence” of Sikhs beginning in the 1980s and 1990s continuing into the present. She draws from analysis of Deepa Mehta’s film Beeba Boys as well as ethnographic fieldwork that analyzes the images of the ‘Surrey Jack’ and the ‘Kent Boy,’ stereotypes attached to Punjabi men in the PNW. Using this, Dr. Sabherwal argued that contemporary masculinities draw on stereotypes, which characterized Punjabi Sikh men as ‘dangerous,’ to reveal the limits of racial inclusion. To close out the opening panel, Dr. Amritjit Singh linked the racialization of Sikhs to previous groups who were targeted in the U.S. including Black Americans and East Asian Americans. He argues that race and class have always been part of the Sikh American experience, but must always be discussed in conversation with the experiences of other communities.

The second panel of the conference featured a roundtable discussion on “American Fascism and Sikh Precarity” which reflected on the rise of fascism and nationalist politics in America and the experience of Sikhs navigating an increasingly hostile attitude towards religious minorities. Dr. Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair began the discussion by sharing his own life experience growing up in Coventry, U.K., which had a tangible presence of white-supremacist fascists known as “skinheads” who frequently assaulted minorities. Dr. Mandair also shared his experience teaching this topic in classes, introducing his syllabus for “Race, Caste and Religion in India and the USA” to the audience. This course compared race and caste in the U.S. and India contrasting, for example, the plight of Dalits (Untouchables) in India with the African American experience, and explores “the language and construction of race, nation, religion, color , and ethnicity, as well as the linkages between these categories.” The course also explored racial and religious profiling in the wake of the “War on Terror” in the U.S. and India. Dr. G.S. Sahota shared parts of his latest book chapter titled “Elementary Aspects of Fascist Insurgency: Connected Histories of Europe, India, and the U.S.” Dr. Sahota drew lessons from Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s reflections on fascism, and noted a shared semiotics of fascist politics around the world, labeling this as an “international language of fascism” in contexts like Italy, Germany, India, and the U.S. Respondent, Dr. Anneeth Kaur Hundle, discussed the rise of Trumpism and the use of “fascism” as a “floating signifier” employed by the left and right in the U.S., and highlighted the ways in which racism is “entangled with religion” in a “Christian ethno-racial project” within American right-wing politics. Additionally, Dr. Hundle drew connections to her work in East Africa and Uganda which explored the relationship between colonialism and fascism. Finally, Dr. Hundle also shared her own experience teaching a course on race, religion, and caste, and remarked that studying fascism can be therapeutic for students struggling to make sense of the rise of nationalist politics and anti-minority violence around them.

In the third panel, Dr. Tavleen Kaur and Dr. Amrit Deol are in conversation with one another discussing “Race, Citizenship, and the Sikhs” in the early 1900s. Dr. Tavleen Kaur argues that much like Sikhs in the United States today, Bhagat Singh Thind was a diasporic subject seeking social, cultural, and political recognition in a settler-colonial state. By providing critical perspectives on Thind’s legal battles with the United States and contextualizing them in relation to contemporary Sikh advocacy, she illustrates how Thind being co-opted as an exemplary “Sikh American” model is somewhat incongruent with his own evolving beliefs and choices. In her paper, “‘Gilded Cages’: Race, Labor, Citizenship, and the Fabrication of the ‘Hindu’ in the American West,” Dr. Amrit Deol, explores the debates surrounding the question “who is the ‘Hindu?’” in the United States in the early 1900s to depict how the racialized category of “Hindu” was fabricated and constantly curated throughout the early 20th century to protect the Anglo-American claim to whiteness.

The fourth and final panel of the first day was a roundtable on “Sikh Dharma International and Gora Sikh-Punjabi Sikh Relations.” Dr. Verne (Van) A. Dusenbery presented his “Reflections on Sikh Dharma at Fifty,” offering a useful introductory evaluation of 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization), also known as Sikh Dharma, from the 70’s to today. Dr. Dusenbery reflected on the difficulties this group has had in seeking legitimacy as part of the Sikh panth, as well as the role Sikh Dharma has had in spreading Sikhism in North America. Dr. Dusenbery then read highlights from Dr. Sangeeta Luthra’s paper, “From Charismatic Hierarchy to Autonomous Sangats: A Personal Reflection on the Evolution of 3HO Sikh Dharma Community.” Dr. Luthra describes the shift from an organization centered on its charismatic founder toward “autonomous sangats,” and she also echoed a couple of Dr. Dusenbery’s points, namely that Sikh Dharma has been instrumental in raising awareness of Sikhism in North America as well as advocating for anti-casteism and equal participation for women in Sikh worship. Philip Deslippe presented “Remembering 3HO as a New Religious Movement” wherein he evaluated 3HO as a New Religious Movements with a charismatic leader. Deslippe covered a number of financial and sexual abuses surrounding the founder of 3HO, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa (also known as Yogi Bhajan) during the 70’s and 80’s, and also considered the use of the term “cult,” and why it was rarely applied to Sikh Dharma. Dr. Nirinjan Kaur Khalsa-Baker presented a talk “Exploring 3HO-Sikh identities: Communal Relations and Abuses of Power” and, like Philip, remarked on the struggle to establish a 3HO-Sikh identity in the wake of Yogi Bhajan, although Dr. Khalsa-Baker was also able to share valuable personal insights in her experience as a 3HO-SIkh. Dr. Khalsa-Baker described a “hermeneutic chaos” emerging from the question of whether Sikh Dharma teachings can be separated from its founding teacher, but also described how 3HO-Sikhs have charted a course of “spiritual sovereignty” and self-understanding as Sikhs. Finally, Dr. Simran it Khalsa also brought a valuable 3HO-Sikh perspective with a sociological approach, presenting “Legitimacy in 3HO/Sikh Dharma.” Her talk discussed the challenges of predominantly white Sikhs from 3HO in a predominantly Punjabi religion by analyzing community emails circulated by community leaders as examples of social “processes of legitimacy.”

Associate Dean Gloria Gonzalez-Rivera and Dr. Harkeerat Singh Dhillon delivered special remarks at the reception dinner. Dr. Gonzalez-Rivera thanked the donors of the Jasbir Singh Saini endowment for bringing such distinguished scholars to the UCR campus, and for solidifying the study of Sikhism at UCR. She noted that this conference not only draws attention to the contributions of Sikhs in North America, but as a fellow scholar of the humanities, also noted that such a conference may “provide us with a better understanding of the human condition.” Dr. Harkeerat Singh Dhillon’s sense of humor was a welcome addition to the tenor of the evening and provided a cushion for his sincere reflection as a physician on the challenges of the past few years during the Covid pandemic. Dr. Dhillon alluded to the efforts by the Sikhs of New Delhi as they provided “oxygen langars” to all suffering the effects of the Delta variant, regardless of religious background. Echoing Associate Dean Gonzalez-Rivera’s point that there is in North America and around the world a “strong need for spiritual guidance, for solid values that inform our decisions and actions as individuals and as members of our communities,” Dr. Dhillon offered the closing observation that “seva and sharing, crossing lines of race and religion, love and caring is the key.”

Delivering the second Keynote Speech during the evening reception, Dr. Karen Leonard shared her ethnographic work with Punjabi immigrants in Southern California and Mexico who belong to the early 20th century wave of immigration and contrasted this with the 1960’s wave of Punjabi immigration. The religious identities of her interlocutors were far more complicated than is usually assumed when labeling these immigrants strictly as “Sikhs,” and she noted that recasting the pre-1960’s “Punjabi diaspora” as a “Sikh diaspora” places emphasis on religion rather than “language, occupation, or place of origin.” Remarkably, she found that around 10-12% of these Punjabi immigrants were Muslim with a smaller percentage of Hindus as well, justifying the label “Punjabi” instead of assuming Sikh identity for all of these early immigrants. Among Dr. Leonard’s anecdotes, she provides a noteworthy example of a certain “Omar Din” declaring himself to be Hindu like his father “Muhammad Din” elicited knowing laughter from the audience at the juxtaposition of typically Muslim names with the self-identification as a Hindu. Intermarriage, often between Punjabi men and Mexican women, also contributed to complex religious identities where these predominantly Catholic women maintained their faith and raised their children in interfaith households. Throughout her talk, Dr. Leonard highlighted the sense of cosmopolitanism of the second generation of these early Punjabi immigrants where informants would identify themselves as “Catholic and Sikh” or “Catholic and Muslim” and often emphasized religions as multiple paths toward God.

Following the keynote address, six individuals were honored by Dr. Pashaura Singh for their contribution to the field of Sikh Studies. First, Dr. Parminder Bhachu was recognized for her contribution to the field of Sikh Diaspora Studies. Second, Dr. Doris Jakobsh was honored for her contribution to the field of Gender Studies in the Sikh Tradition. Third, Dr. Opinderjit Kaur Takhar was celebrated for her groundbreaking work as the Director of the Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies. Fourth, Dr. Robin Rinehart was recognized for her distinguished contribution to the study of Dasam Granth within the Sikh Tradition. The fifth honoree, Dr. Michael Hawley, was recognized for his work on the Alberta Sikh History Project and its impact on the field of Sikh Diaspora Studies. Finally, Dr. Parvinder Singh Khanuja was honored for his commitment to and continuous support of graduate students in Sikh Studies.

For the first panel of Day 2, titled “Preserving, Documenting, and Narrating Sikh North American History,” the panelists each shared the practical application of their scholarship through various projects. The first panelist, Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra looks at the art of storytelling based on the power of her lived experiences as a Sikh woman and sharing Sikh stories of migration and settlement from a place of erasure, and then power, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism. She used the Sikh Heritage Museum, a National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple, the oldest still standing gurdwara in the western hemisphere, in Abbotsford, BC, as a living site of Sikh story telling. Dr. Michael Hawley’s discussion introduced and problematized the Alberta Sikh History Project (ASHP). The project is a digital, publicly accessible, and bilingual ‘archive’ of the otherwise erased and undocumented narratives of Sikh experiences in Alberta. The archive contains a wide range of documents, recorded Sikh narratives, and interpretations of Sikh experience in the province. In addition, Dr. Hawley raised a series of concerns – methodological, theoretical, and teleological – about the limits and possibilities of such a project. Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal discussed the recent launch and subsequent work of the Sikh American History Project (SAHP). He used the idea of “siloed scholarship” to address not only the lack of focus and research about Sikh Americans, but also the limited knowledge about the community and the exclusion/under-representation of Sikh Americans in the broader Asian American and American history. Bainiwal shared multiple public projects in which SAHP brought Sikh American history to the forefront in spaces they are typically ignored or vastly under-represented such as K-12 education, museums, and historic preservation.

The sixth panel on “White Supremacy, Violence, Right-Wing Politics and the Sikhs” featured presentations from doctoral candidates from the University of Michigan, Randeep Singh Hothi and Puninder Singh. Randeep’s presentation, titled, “The Predication, Subjective Capture, Translation of White Supremacist Violence: Semiotics Problems of the Sikh.” His talk began with an analysis of the media coverage of the Oak Creek shooting as an “expert” spoke over images of Sikh worship, addressing the ironic questioning of whether Sikhs are “violent” when they had just been victims of white supremacist violence. Noting a “Global hierarchy of consciousness” in which “the Sikh subject” is placed, he touched on the history of British colonialism and the ideology of “martial races” that racialized the Sikh subject. Randeep also reflected on a history of white supremacy and 19th century Aryanist scholarship in religion that privileged the “Aryan,” Christian universalism over what was deemed Semitic and particular, linking this back to the media coverage that asked whether Sikhs would want “an eye for an eye” (a reference to the Lex Talionis of Jewish Law) or “turn the other cheek” like Christians. Puninder discussed the adoption of right-wing politics among American Sikhs, peppering his presentation with examples from media pundits and politicians. He noted that President Trump drew support from roughly 25% of Sikhs and that the “Howdy Modi” rally had a Sikh presence showing support for both Trump and the Indian Prime Minister. Respondent Dr. Opinderjit Takhar addressed both presentations and drew in examples from the U.K. where Sikhism has an increasing presence in public religious life. Dr. Takhar addressed the “faith advisor” to the U.K. government, Colin Bloom’s recent report which spends 11 pages on “Sikh extremism” or “Khalistani extremism” (as opposed to a single paragraph on Hindu nationalism) and announced a project to offer a counter report.

For the second half of the day, Sikh American activists addressed the issues, and every day battles they face on the ground level. Moderated Navdeep Singh (SALDEF and Sikh American History Project), the session brought together Kiran Kaur Gill (SALDEF), Jagpreet Singh (Desis Rising Up and Moving), Jaslin Kaur (Co-Chair of New York City Democratic Socialists of America), Komal Kaur Chohan (Umeed and Indianapolis sangat), Tarina Kaur Ahuja (Young Khalsa Girls), and Amaris Kaleka (Oak Creek sangat). The panel consisted of a wide range of experience from SALDEF, who has been organizing at the national level since 1996, to Amaris Kaleka, who recently began carrying on the work her father started amongst the Oak Creek community. Each individual offered their own personal reflections on the motivations and challenges they face as Sikh American activists. The Sikh American activists informed scholars about the harsh realities at the grassroot level regarding race, class, gender, and caste, among others. The young leaders addressed emerging community needs and new approaches to community building, advocacy, and organizing. Together, in conversation with Sikh scholars, Sikh American activists navigated through the issues to address how scholars and activists can work together to push for lasting change within the Sikh community.

The conference was one of its kind as it brought together scholars and activists to discuss the history and experiences of Sikhs in North America. The conference also marked an opportunity to revisit a series of key anniversaries that occurred between 2021 and 2023. Despite how drastically these events shaped the Sikh narrative in North America, the anniversaries passed without a critical analysis of the impact of each event. Young scholars are engaging more with these socio-political events leading to an evolution in the field of Sikh Studies. Finally, the conference would not have been possible without the tireless work of the organizing committee, including student volunteers and staff members who contributed to the success of the 8th International Sikh Studies Conference.