If any researcher wants to study identity, I recommend s/he choose Sikhs as subject.
The name Sikh is derived from the Sanskrit word for disciple or learner. Guru Nanak revealed God as a formless, divine intelligence shared by all faiths and agnostics alike. In his world-view, hierarchies of caste, gender, class and religions were delusions.
Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the living gurus, also described God as identity-less.
“Chakkar chehun arr barrn jaat ar paat nehan jeh; roop rang arr rekh bhekh kou keh na skat keh,” he wrote, meaning God, or the supreme intelligence, bears no outward features – physical form, colour, dress, symbols or lineage.
Rationalists then wonder why followers of this philosophy are required to wear their faith on their sleeve if the spiritual force they believe in itself is symbol-less.
Let me attempt an answer to this question. The turbaned Sikh identity is no imitation of God in the first place. Guru Nanak’s God is inimitable.
Secondly, identity, in a wider perspective, is never a static representation of orthodoxy. On the contrary, it evokes a sense of connection with history and ideals.
The Khalsa identity, which Guru Gobind Singh in 1699 institutionalised and of which uncut hair wrapped in a turban is the most striking aspect, is a focal point for the Sikhs to navigate something that unites them in the public sphere.
It’s not a certificate of virtue. Definitely not.
In fact, in one of his writings incorporated in Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Kabir, the great mystical weaver-poet, declared: “Kabir preet ikk sio keeay aan dubidha jaye; bhavaiy laambey kes kar, bhavaiy gharar muddaye (duality and alienation depart when you love God. It’s then immaterial whether you have long hair or a shaven head: Kabir).”
The turbaned Sikh identity, therefore, is not a stamp of spirituality but a corollary of a revolutionary journey from Guru Nanak to the Khalsa of Guru Gobind Singh. It helps Sikhs connect with their history, more so when reading it is not so common.
But the same Sikh identity remains too glaring for the world outside to accept it readily. If you wear it, you cannot hide it. And when you can’t hide it, be prepared for some reaction, especially when intolerance mounts. It happened in 1984. It happened 250 years ago during Islamist invasions.
If you wear it, you cannot hide it. Photo: Reuters
And it still happens – from strange looks on the streets of New York or a full-blown assault by some supremacist in some part of the United States.
Let’s admit that this identity is not a fashion although some of us have been trying to promote it on the ramp for a couple of decades now.
But the Sikh identity is rapidly declining in the heartland of the faith, Punjab.
Young Sikhs in the region are finding the turban a bother. They feel smarter without it than with a six-metre of cloth wound around their heads.
I am not sure there’s any data, but it’s widely believed this rejection of the religious headgear gained momentum in the early 1990s. Many factors contributed to it: alleged police excesses during the Punjab unrest, India’s sudden economic boom and growing urge among the youth to merge with the rest of the world, mainly under diasporic influence.
Earlier, the phenomenon was pronounced largely among college-going Sikh students. They would forego of their “Sikh pride” in order to be more modern.
But now, the young breed doesn’t wait that long. Aided by their parents, many children from the community, especially in rural Punjab, appear to be getting haircuts before 10-12.
Around 2,40,000 results show up when you Google “cut Surd”. That’s how potential clean-shaven Sikh grooms are being advertised on matrimonial sites, with additional qualifiers like “handsome” and “smart”.
It seems an identifiable Sikh disappears in Punjab every day.
But far-off, in Europe and North America, the turban is undergoing a stunning revival.
Diasporic Sikhs, many of whom can be credited or blamed for setting the “cut-Surd” trend back home, are re-embracing their identity rapidly.
Perhaps, they have realised the futility of shedding it to play to the white man’s gallery. They appear to have understood cultural cross-dressing is no gateway to raising their racial profile.
People of colour, the Chinese, Mongols, Vietnamese and so forth, earned a place in the western world not by painting themselves white or by undergoing plastic surgery.
Sikhs also worked hard as much as others did, but many of them compromised their turbans to please their foreign hosts.
Not anymore. They now know they can stand out boldly, as a powerful lobby, in multinational, multicultural milieus with – and not without – their visible tradition.
But what about Punjab and India, the cradle of the religion? “cut-Surd” advertisements reflect high levels of acceptance at home of identity-less Sikhs.
It’s a deep cut on the faith’s umbilical cord. And that’s not cool, man.
Also read: Who are Sikhs: Why they wear turbans