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Khalsa Panth At the Cross-Roads

Excerpts of an Interview with HH Justice Mota Singh, QC

HH Mota Singh, Queen’s Counsel (Q.C), UK, Retired Circuit Judge, Patron of various British and Interfaith Associations, UK, and head of the International Legal Committee of International Sikh Confederation, beside being a Trustee of a large number of British interfaith and Sikh Trusts in the United Kingdom, has had the distinction of addressing several community and Interfaith organisations on race relations, religious, ethnic and Sikh religious issues at the various national and international fora. He visited the Institute of Sikh Studies on December 8, 2006. During his visit, he had a discussion with the Associate Editor of Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Prof Kulwant Singh and answered questions on wide ranging issues concerning Sikh religion, Sikh society and current issues. We reproduce below excerpts from this interview which express his enlightened views:

K.S. I, Prof Kulwant Singh, Associate Editor of the Abstracts of Sikh Studies, welcome you to India, Punjab and Chandigarh, on behalf of the Institute of Sikh Studies and the International Sikh Confederation. I would like to elicit your views on Sikh religion and its strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis the other world religions and its evolution, the causes that obstruct its growth and expansion despite its ‘Splendid doctrines and ideology’; the threat of increasing incidence of apostasy among the Sikh youth among the diaspora Sikhs as well as those living in Khalsa’s birth place, Punjab and the engines of reform whch can preserve their unique identity and Sikh heritage, and finally tools of empowerment, which can equip the Sikh youth to become distinguished individuals as well as enable the Sikh community to play a constructive role in the comity of nations and world communities.

To begin with I refer to Bertrand Russell’s quotation about Sikh religion and the Sikhs quoted in your article Problems of Sikh diaspora I quote : “ If some lucky men survive the onslaught of the First World War of atomic and hydrogen bombs, the Sikh religion will be the only means of guiding them…… it has the capability, but the Sikhs have not brought out, in the broad day light, the splendid doctrines of their religion which has come into existence for the benefit of the entire mankind. This is their greatest sin and the Sikhs cannot be freed of it.”

Sir, as an enlightened social analyst and a conscientious Sikh whom would you blame for this ‘greatest sin’ and how this sin of the past can be condoned, and Sikh religion and its ideology propagated for bringing about a ‘spiritual emancipation’ of mankind facing the worst crisis of faith and moral degeneration at the present moment?

J.M.S. I think “sin” was perhaps not a very apt word to use; “lapse” would have been more appropriate, but I am not going to quarrel with that. But you do not condone a sin, you make amends. So far as the fixing of responsibility for this lapse or apathy towards religion is concerned, the blame lies as much with the ordinary Sikhs as with the leadership, both political and religious. We look upon our leaders as role models. The general perception is that we have been let down. I believe that if the fundamental composite miri-piri ideal of Sikhism and Sikh religion had been observed by our peers, the present day degeneration in our value system might not have crept in. As for the civilizational aspect and ‘spiritual emancipation’ of mankind, the preaching and teachings of the Sikh Gurus embody the truth that is relevant for mankind to attain its highest spiritual and cultural development. It follows that Sikhism and the Granth Sahib, with their message of hope and optimism, possess the key to the well-being, happiness and peaceful co-existence of mankind. Adherence to the principles and teachings laid down would not only assist in the realization of the value of co-existence, it might also help to prevent the much talked-about clash of societies. Along with the three pillars of Sikhism – prayer (naam japna), work (kirat karni) and charity (wand chhakna); the balance of the spiritual with the temporal (miri-piri); the aspiration to wisdom, grounded in humility and equipoise in every aspect of life – are the elements that constitute a religion of the people, for the people. The only condition of our survival is that we implicitly and unreservedly accept the principles of Sikhism and live up to them. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to humanity at large – it is for their good too, as Bertrand Russell said. I believe the Sikhs can be harbingers of a new and more wholesome culture since Sikhism possesses the key to happiness and peaceful co-existence of the human race. It seeks to knit and not coerce mankind into a universal brotherhood though it is not a religion of passive observers either. It advocates active participation in the process of human evolution. Its brief history is a story of an inexorable battle in the cause of righteousness.

K.S. The first settlers in UK had to compromise with their Sikh identity perforce for earning their livelihood in an alien land but the modern Sikh youth, both abroad as well as in India, are doing away with their Sikh identity out of shere convenience without bothering about their moral duty of preserving their religious and cultural heritage. Several factors such as the dominance of the elderly counterfeit Sikhs with morally bankrupt social conduct both among the political class and clergy; an urge to come out of the minority syndrome into the national mainstream, mesmerizing influence of the modern electronic media, psychological and mental liberation from the age-old principles of self-restraint in matters of consumption, dress and certain religions taboos and willful negligence of communal pride in one’s own rich heritage are responsible for increasing incidence of apostasy among the Sikh youth.

Sir, having diagnosed this malady from all these angles in your article referred to above and despite your modesty to provide the fool proof answers to this malady, from which point or which stage can a beginning be made in your opinion? Should the Sikhs emulate the Islamic Madarsa type of education for the Sikh children, or should they adopt a more imaginative methodology for influencing their children within the family environs and the school curriculum? Some Sikhs are suggesting the launching of a second Singh Sabha Movement. Sir, what kind of remedial measures would you suggest for halting this alarming trend of doing away with the Sikh symbols and the Sikh code of conduct on the part of the Sikh youth.

J.M.S You have used language in that long preamble which some may consider emotive, but it is a phenomenon that gives cause for concern. It is the lack of knowledge of Sikh heritage among the youth and the lack of dissemination of this heritage by the Sikh parents, Sikh leaders, Sikh institutions, both religious and academic, which have brought about this alarming situation. The modern electronic media and exposure to the present-day consumerist culture, too, has contributed to this damage. But all this could be preempted and counteracted by the Sikh leadership and its religious institutions like the SGPC through their own TV Channel devoted exclusively to the dissemination of true Sikh history, Sikh heritage and Sikh culture. Now I hope this task is going to be accomplished by the International Sikh Confederation which passed a resolution on December 4, 2006 to start an independent TV channel for this purpose. The other factors that you have enumerated in your preamble have also contributed to this malaise. The Sikh youth need to be told that there is more to life than what the present modern culture promotes. They must be made to see and realize the enormity of the misery through which the present-day youth, born and bred on the purely consumerist, non-religious culture, are passing through. Sikh religion, with its distinct code of conduct, provides a perfect roadmap to lead a meaningful life. This needs to be inculcated in the Sikh children by Sikh parents in the family environ and incorporated in the ordinary School curriculum rather than resorting to the medieval Madarsa Model.

K.S. Sir, you have defined Sikh religion as a ‘religion of continuity’. By continuity do you mean simply extension of Sikh identity and Sikh code of conduct or would you accept a diluted version of it in the modern context such as Sikhs with trimmed beards and turbans, though some of them may be having their hair shorn?

J.M.S. I would not countenance any dilution in the observance of our religious tenets and the preseribed code, but I am quite prepared to accept that those amongst Sikhs, who are inclined towards religion but have not yet been convinced of the need to identify completely with their faith, be given time to do it and return to the Sikh fold. Efforts must be made to convince them intellectually about the need to preserve their identity. They need to be told that to be a Sikh is to inherit a faith from those who came before us, to live it and to hand it over to those who will come after us. It is not an identity we assume, but one into which we are born. We are not wrong to see identity as a matter of birth however deeply this may cut across against modern culture. The fact that any of us is born a Sikh is immutable. It happened because generations of our ancestors decided to be Sikhs and to hand on that identity to their children. It flowed from their most basic conviction “Khalsa mero roop hai khas”. The Khalsa Panth came into being by Divine command “aagia bhai Akaal ki.”. Its foundations were laid by Guru Nanak and its fulfillment came with Guru Gobind Singh. This is a challenge facing Sikhs who are dispersed throughout the world and have integrated into local communities whilst retaining their Sikh identity. I should emphasise that for Sikhs the rules of conduct laid down are sacrosanct and immutable. It is not for us to seek to change or re-write them according to intellectual or political fashion or social needs, or dispense with them because we feel that their observance is inconvenient. We cannot modify the rules of conduct laid down in the Granth Sahib and remain good Sikhs, true to our religion and ourselves. Moreover, We have a special responsibility towards our youth to ensure that we nurture them and protect them from such temptations. There is enough anecdotal evidence that this is happening on an alarming scale. The trend is not confined to the prosperous Sikh community overseas; it is happening in the heartland of Punjab and even in Amritsar. We should regard it as our foremost duty to inculcate in our youth a sense of pride, pride in their community, in its origins and its history, its religion and its language. And we do so by educating them, by trying to understand them and the pressures on them of living in a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. And of equal importance is the need for parents and elders of the community to be aware of these pressures on young Sikhs. The onus is on us and I make no apology for repeating what I have said on an other occasion. The need of the hour is for enlightened men with a clear vision, steeped in the Sikh Maryada, who with spiritual depth and moral courage, will stand firm against the onslaughts of a modern age. They will speak to our deep instinct that there is more to life than self-indulgence, personal power or position. They will understand the community’s problems, anxieties, needs, predicaments and predilections. We have to be alive to the challenges facing our community and to have the ability and courage to articulate its fears and aspirations. We must identify the goals for the community by encouraging able bodied, imaginative, decisive leadership and not succumb to the undignified temptation to indulge in internecine quarrels

K.S. It is increasingly felt by the educated among the Sikhs that the Sikhs must spend a major part of their gurdwara income on education of Sikh children and youth rather than on the somewhat irrelevant rituals like taking out processions on gurpurbs and organizing massive langars. But the kind of people who control gurdwara managements, from a small rural gurdwara to those situated in mega cities such as New York, do not accept this argument and refuse to realize this need. Sir, how can this paradigm shift in gurdwara management be brought about? Should not the Sikh intelligensia start taking a more proactive role in the gurdwara management even at the cost of being resisted by the entrenched cliques?

J.M.S. Yes, in my opinion. First of all, those who do that are guilty of a gross dereliction of their duty. They must realize that gurdwara funds are to be utilized for the welfare of the community bearing in mind the society’s needs in the modern times. The proposal that one tenth of every gurdwara income be contributed to the Sikh Education Fund (SEF) setup by the International Sikh Confederation is worth consideration by every Gurdwara management. Indeed, I cannot imagine a better use of such funds. Secondly, it was time for the Sikh intelligentsia to take active part in the gurdwara managements. They have sat on the sidelines for too long to the detriment of the community.

K.S. Can Akal Takht and its Jathedar play some role in bringing about this change in the changed times?

J.M.S. Yes. I have the greatest respect for Sri Akal Takht Sahib, the supreme Authority of the Sikhs and its Jathedar; they should certainly consider it as their bounden duty to bring about this urgently needed transformation in gurdwara management.

K.S. Sir, ISC has today passed a resolution to create a Sikh Education Fund (SEF) for empowering the Sikh youth with the most powerful tool of education.

Sir, what in your opinion is likely to be the success rate in this venture especially in the light of common practice among majority of the Sikhs to donate either to gurdwaras or to the Sant Babas rather than to the cause of Education.

J.M.S. It is indeed a regrettable phenomenon. Devotion with discretion rather than blind faith should guide our instincts in matters of charity and philanthropy. Support of the Gurdwaras, both financial and moral, for the Sikh Education Fund, established by the ISC, is indispensable, but of equal, if not greater, importance is the shouldering of responsibility by the ISC organizers. If they are committed to the cause and transparent in their dealings, as I believe they are, the community response is likely to be overwhelming.

K.S. Sir, in your opinion how much respect and credibility does the ISC leadership command among the Sikh society for undertaking such a colossal task? Are you optimistic about it?

J.M.S Someone has to shoulder this responsibility; that is the pressing need of the hour. I am also aware of the general perception that institutions come into being with laudable aims and then they follow the same route of decline and degeneration. But about ISC – its reasons and objectives being paramount for furtherance of the interests of the community, I have no reason to think that it will go the way some other organizations have gone. With the kind of people who have taken up this challenge, I am convinced of their impeccable credentials. I hope and pray they prove equal to the task.

K.S. Since you are head of the legal Advisory Council of ISC, is their any hope of the Turban issue being solved in favour of the Sikhs in France? With your excellent inter-personal Skills and knowledge of judicial systems of many European countries, should we hope to get this issue tackled amicably in the near future?

J.M.S. I think the chances of success in the French Courts are limited. But we should not give up the struggle even if it means having to knock on the doors of international institutions such as the The International Court of Human Rights. Having said that, it is always preferable if an emotive and contentious matter such as this can be resolved amicably at the political and diplomatic level. Efforts to do that can go in tandem with the legal struggle.

K.S. Sir, you being a prolific writer and a man with a vision and an excellent command over the English language, world you accept our request to write more frequently for Abstracts of Sikh Studies.

J.M.S. Yes, I would be glad to contribute to this prestigious journal of Sikh Studies.



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