The problematic sensationalisation of Sikh stories

Zorawar and Fateh Singh bring bricked alive.

Fairy tales have long been a way that societies the world over perpetuate specific tropes and cultural norms. In the UK, these tropes have included the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armour, disability as a marker of deviousness, and so on. Educated at a Church of England (C of E) primary school in rural Gloucestershire, I was taught (indoctrinated?) daily, about how Jesus died for my sins, how he was lord and saviour, and what miracles he performed to demonstrate his otherworldliness. My home education, about my Sikh heritage, involved praying to the Sobha Singh painting of Guru Nanak; bowing to it, garlanding it, and using it as a de facto representation of a Sikh ‘god’. As my Sikh elders saw it, a kind of Charles Xavier Guru Nanak meets Magneto Jesus, if you will. Supplementary Sikh schooling provided us with illustration books containing miraculous tales of the Gurus and saints — always presented with halos, of course, marking out their otherworldliness. Metaphysical feats such as stopping boulders with one hand, submerging underwater for days on end, fighting a battle after being beheaded were par for the course. To a child (as well as to adults), these images weren’t presented as symbolic, but rather as material fact, demonstrating the transcendent essence of Sikh forebearers, much after the manner of Jesus, or other religious holy men (for they were nearly always, men).

Now with a son of my own, who’s being raised in a mixed heritage home, but in rural Lincolnshire, in a 99.9% white, nominally Christian, town, I will be sure to share tales of the materiality of figures in Sikhism, as opposed to sensationalising them in an attempt to mimic Judeo-Christian miracle tales. One example I will be sure to raise with him is that of two of Guru Gobind Singh’s sons, or, the ‘sahibzade’.

In 1705, Zorawar and Fateh, aged 9 and 7 respectively, were bricked alive. Captured by the forces of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the boys were offered the chance to live as honorary royals, should they convert to Islam. They refused, and were bricked alive. No fairy tale. No happy ending. No miracles. Just incredible courage, dignity and integrity in the face of oppression.

Play your cards right

There are roughly half a million Sikhs residing in the UK today (2021). Most are families from waves of economic migrants who, as British citizens, answered the call of the UK ‘motherland’ and travelled over in the 1960s and 70s, mainly from Punjab and East Africa, to meet labour shortage needs. Subjected to widespread discrimination as was/is common for new migrants to these shores, through diligent endeavour and enterprise, the community flourished economically, and is now the third wealthiest per capita in the UK.

In spite of their economic affluence, according to November 2021 polls, the Sikh community in the UK still tend to favour the ostensibly more socially progressive Left when voting in elections. This is in contrast to the second wealthiest per capita group, who followed a similar migration trajectory, Hindus. There are about one million members of this religious community in the UK. A couple feature prominently in the current cabinet via Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak. According to the poll data, the majority of this community vote Right. That notwithstanding, a prominent minority of Sikhs also vote Right. Buying in to the neoliberal discourse that ‘there is no such thing as society’, and a desire for increased private wealth and status, the modus operandi of this group, and a vast majority of neoliberal Left voters, too, is sharply at odds with the legacy of Sikh martyrs, such as those of the sahibzade.

If, today, a young Sikh plays by the neoliberal playbook: studies hard, undertakes extra-curricular activities to build their CV (the entrepreneurial subject), goes to a ‘good’ university, and secures a — highly competitive — graduate position at say, BAE systems, they would be seen as a success story, and another shining exemplar of how Sikhs are economically prosperous, integrated, and contribute to the common good. Countless examples of this phenomena can be found in organisations across the UK. A turbaned Sikh is the most cherished type, for they make organisations appear extra inclusive on marketing and recruitment promotions.

Forget the fairytales

Let me tread carefully here. Neither do I identify in census statistics as Sikh — I opt for ‘none’, as I’m not practising (in my case practice made very imperfect). I would class my heritage and culture as Punjabi, and my quasi-religious beliefs a mixture of Sikh, Sufi Islamic and Theraveda Buddhist, with a smattering of Mesoamerican traditions (yes, I’m conceited craic at parties). Nor do I want to fall foul of the no true Scotsman fallacy in ascribing non-practising status to neoliberal Sikhs. Rather, I wish to highlight the glaring contradiction between playing this game of life as a self-described Sikh, and tales like the execution of the two sahibzade. Exaggerated? Probably. Let me expand.

The children in question, 9 and 7, were offered wealth beyond measure; a life of opulence and comfort beyond anything they had known. These prepubescents steadfastly refused this offer because of their unwavering integrity. These children were literally bricked alive for their beliefs. Please reflect on that a moment. Having visited the site as a 14 year old, what struck me was how if faced with the same predicament, would I have chosen their fate? Of course not. Likewise, as our fleet of aspirational upper middle class young Sikh professionals go onto their graduate schemes, when working for arms producers like BAE systems, or in the corrupt world of high finance, let us reflect on how we/they may be opting for the easier, opulent ‘conversion’ of the day, rather than holding steadfast to a path of greater integrity.

As I type this on a laptop made with a mineral that has fuelled a civil war in Congo for decades, wearing clothes made from the labour of exploited groups in the Global South, paying taxes to a government that sells arms to Saudi Arabia, and having worked for ethically problematic corporations in the past, before leaving to study at a university that was implicated in having shares in arms trading firms, you get the point: I am by no means claiming holier-than-thou status. Rather, implicated in the dirt of the matter like the rest of us, I aim to use my knowledge and experience to draw attention to the contradictions between the historical legacy of Sikh forebearers, and current practices lauded in an uncritical manner; for example, aspirations to work for ethically problematic organisations in the name of personal economic comfort and ‘progress’.

Let me close with another example of the problematic relationship between Sikh tenets demonstrated through historical example, and an uncritical meshing with establishment mores: the almost unanimous celebration amongst the Sikh, and wider, community, of a turbaned Sikh soldier trooping the colour. Did Gobind and his predecessors not give their lives in the service of the ‘least of those’ in their society in the face of iniquitous caste based hierarchy (i.e. hereditary privilege) and monarchical (in Gobind’s time, admittedly tyrannous) reign? Did the sahibzade not give their lives in solidarity with the least of those instead of converting to a comfortable life of their rulers?

I now know the real insidious problem of ‘miracalising’ and sensationalising stories about Sikh forebearers: it exempts us contemporaries from holding ourselves to anything near the same ethical and moral standards. Instead, we can satisfy ourselves by claiming that ‘they’ were angels / other worldly / gurus, or any other such epithet that will serve to exonerate us from having to live in even a remotely similar manner. Keep praying, bowing, garlanding, and carry on earning that paper and status. Yes, I’m being somewhat facetious. Many Sikhs in the City do charity work, make donations, and share wider social concerns. I know because I was once one of them, and still know many of them. Heck, I’ve even taught a number of them! I’d simply like to conclude by saying forget the fairytales; the Sikh forebearers lived not that long ago, and underwent incredible sacrifices in the service of basic human dignity (which Sikhs draw attention to in their daily prayers, and in the vivid artwork on the walls of most Gurdwaras). Let’s not sensationalise and reductively ‘miracalise’ their example, but rather take sustenance from them, and critically consider what we hold to be of value amidst our contemporary socio-political choices.

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