America or Khalistan?

At the gurdwaraThe gurdwara, “the gateway of the Guru,” is the place for community gathering and worship in the Sikh tradition. The Guru is the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of the Sikh tradition. Each center will include a chamber where the Adi Granth is kept, a... in Fairfax, Virginia, there is a plaque outside the sanctuary bearing the inscription, “Dedicated in memory of the martyrs who died in the siege of the Golden TempleFrom 1581 to 1603 Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru, oversaw construction of the Darbar Sahib, the great gurdwara at Amritsar. Darbar Sahib means “Divine Court.” After completion of the present structure in the early 19th century, the gurdwara became po..., AmritsarAmritsar is the city in the Punjab in northwest India that is the historical and spiritual center of the Sikh tradition. In 1574 the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das, established the town and had the “Lake of Nectar,” Amritsar, dug at its center. The ma....” In Fremont, California one wall of the large langarLangar is the communal meal shared by Sikhs and all visitors to the gurdwara. For Sikhs, eating together in this way is expressive of the rejection of the Hindu caste system to reaffirm the equality and oneness of all humankind. hall is set with photographs of the martyrs of the conflict in Amritsar. Among them is Sant Jarnail SinghUpon initiation into the Khalsa, Sikh men assume the name Singh, “Lion.” Bhindranwale, a radical leader who led a campaign for greater autonomy of SikhsSikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gob... in India as articulated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.

The events of June, 1984 had a powerful impact on the SikhSikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gob... community in America. In early June, the Indian Army attacked the most sacred center of the Sikh tradition, the Darbar Sahib, or Golden TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref..., in Amritsar, to attempt to dislodge the Sikh separatist forces which had made it their sanctuary. The sacred complex was filled with people, including many pilgrims who had come to observe the martyrdom of Guru Arjan DevDeva or dev is a common term for god or celestial being. It is used variously by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists to refer to the multitude of divine or celestial beings. Sometimes it is also used as an honorific, such as “Gurudev,” which would mean rever..., the fifth Sikh guru. The violence of the attack on the Golden Temple and the Akal TakhtIn 1606 the Sikhs established their own royal court, similar to the Mughal court of the time, with the Guru as the royal and spiritual head. The temporal role of the Sikh Guru was symbolized by the seat called Akal Takht, “The Throne of the Almighty.”..., in which thousands of Sikhs were killed, was felt throughout the Sikh world.

On July 28, 1984, the World Sikh Organization was established at a convention in Madison Square Garden in New York “to support the struggle of Sikhs in the Punjab for self-determination and the preservation of their distinct religious and ethnic identity.” The new organization soon began publishing a weekly newspaper, World Sikh News. Sikhs throughout America were alarmed at the media portrayal of the Punjabi Sikhs as violent terrorists. The events of 1984 made it clear how little the American public knew about their new Sikh neighbors.

The longing for Khalistan, a free nation ruled by Sikhs is not new. With the institution of the khalsaGuru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, created the Khalsa, the “alliance of the pure” in 1699. When a Sikh comes of age or is ready for a greater level of commitment, he or she joins the Khalsa through the special initiation known as “taking amrit.... at the turn of the eighteenth century and the weakening of the MughalFrom 1528 to 1858, the Mughals ruled northern India and parts of Afghanistan. Turko-Persian Muslims from Central Asia, they blended Persian culture with the local Indian environment and produced a sophisticated Islamic civilization in India characterized ... empire, Sikhs dreamed of establishing their own kingdom. In 1801, Ranjit Singh was crowned king of a Sikh kingdom in the Punjab, one of the most formidable independent kingdoms to be conquered by the British and incorporated into British India. Sikhs then became active participants in the campaign for Indian independence from British rule. With the partition of India into India and Pakistan, Sikhs yearned for a separate state along the lines of that achieved by Muslims in Pakistan. Instead, the very heartland of the Sikhs, the Punjab in northwest India, was the land through which the dividing line of independent India and Pakistan was drawn. Many Sikhs were displaced from what became Pakistan and came to the eastern part of the Punjab and to Delhi as virtual refugees. Over the years, the desire for “Khalistan,” a land ruled by the khalsa, has repeatedly emerged.

While Sikhs were not of one mind on the demand for Khalistan, the attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 touched off a renewed sense of Sikh grievance at the hands of the Indian government. Later that year, two of Prime MinisterMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). Indira Gandhi’sM.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) was one of the great religious leaders and social reformers of the twentieth century. He came to be called Mahatma, the “Great Soul.” Born in western India in Gujarat, he studied law in London and then spent twenty years with t... Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in the garden of her residence in New Delhi. This act of reprisal for the military operation in Amritsar sparked counter-reprisals in Delhi as anti-Sikh riots claimed the lives of several thousand Sikhs in the wake of the assassination.

The repercussions of this tragic struggle in India have resounded in America as well. Since 1984, there are new tensions in American gurdwarasThe gurdwara, “the gateway of the Guru,” is the place for community gathering and worship in the Sikh tradition. The Guru is the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of the Sikh tradition. Each center will include a chamber where the Adi Granth is kept, a.... By the 1980s, the first generation of new Sikh immigrants who had settled in the U.S. in the sixties and seventies had just begun to put down roots and build gurdwaras. Their children were in grade school and high school. The challenges of what it means to be Sikh in America were very much on the agenda of the new American Sikh community. Sikh gurdwaras were concerned with developing Sikh educational materials appropriate for the American context and responding to the concerns of teenagers experiencing the pains of being a visible minority in suburban high schools.

When a new and sometimes angry group of immigrants arrived from the turmoil of the Punjab after 1984, they found many American gurdwaras concerned with quite a different set issues than those that were center-stage in the Punjab. Some newcomers accused American Sikhs of not being sufficiently “Sikh,” not making Khalistan the top priority, while some American Sikhs saw some of the newcomers as extremists who wanted to take over the gurdwaras for political purposes. As one Virginia parent put it, “The latest wave of immigrants feels that the focus should be on support of Sikhs in India. It’s not fair or appropriate for our young people. The situation in India is complex and we, here in America, have a responsibility to our children to be clear and proud about what it means to be a Sikh here.”

Tensions within the Sikh community have inevitably arisen over this issue. Virtually all Sikhs were horrified by the military move on the Golden Temple, even though the majority of the American Sikhs at that point had not thought seriously about Khalistan. This event, however, changed the face of American gurdwaras. Gurdwara programs, discussions, and lectures rarely fail to face the issue of Khalistan today. And yet, sympathetic as many American Sikhs are, their immediate concern is how to be a Sikh community, now, in America—in Dallas, in Richmond, in Denver, and in Durham. India or America, Khalistan or California: Where is the focus to be, where the balance of attention? This is a very real issue and the opinions vary considerably.


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