View Point: A Sikh leaders life must live up to Sikhi
As the historic lockdown gradually eases across the UK, the recent announcement that places of worship will soon reopen from 15th June 2020 this has been met with great relief. Covid-19 has taken lives, wrecked the economy, and left us all shattered at the fragile state of our ‘modern’ society, so the tranquility that we’ll find from sitting side by side in ‘silent prayer’ with our brothers and sisters in our holy spaces can’t come soon enough.
For Sikhs like me though, what ‘silent prayer’ actually means when we go back into the Gurdwara is debatable. This is what the Govt has said is allowed for a limited time and with social distancing in mind. Seeing as Kirtan (singing hymns), Katha (explanations of scripture), and Gurbani (scripture being recited aloud) are at the heart of visiting the ‘home’ of the Guru, not to mention performing seva and sitting down with each other to eat Langar, how this was agreed is beyond me. Right now we’ll take what we can get – i’m dying for some garam Parshad! – but the fact that we’ve been pigeonholed with all of the country’s major religions into what worship will look like when Gurdwaras reopen needs to be addressed.
Places of Worship Task Force
The cause of this problem was how Sikhs and our way of life were represented in the Government Places of Worship Task Force. And at the root of that is who we appoint as our leaders – or as I think happened here, who are appointed to be our leaders for us. A lot was said last month about the sole Sikh representative, Jasvir Singh, who is from an organisation called City Sikhs, and not a lot of it was very kind. However, sadly I also think a lot of it was not only true, but brought on by his own actions and words. I don’t want to go over a lot of that ground because common sense prevailed and he stepped down from the position, suffice to say that it was quite clear he was in over his head. For someone who has not held any sort of position in a Gurdwara, or been formally trained in how to perform the seva of the Guru Granth Sahib, or who can’t speak and understand the language of the Gurdwara stage, to take on that responsibility was an ill-judged mistake at best and opportunistic at worst. Its interesting to note that University of Southern California has Tips Sheets on Engaging Faith Communities in Disasters see https://crcc.usc.edu/report/disaster-tips-sheets-on-engaging-faith-communities/engaging-sikh-leaders/ which should be equally applicable in the UK and around the world.
What I think we should take time to understand from this whole mess is what a Sikh leader looks like – what qualifies someone to represent us to Governments or other institutions, and essentially help make decisions on our behalf? This isn’t an easy answer, nor one I think we can talk about without identifying what parameters they are expected to work within and who they’re going to be dealing with. There doesn’t have to be one leader or even one type of leader for example, who is expected to discuss philosophy with religious scholars from other faiths, and who is then also invited to debate policy with ministers. Sikh leadership can coexist in more than one person, as was the case during what is called the Misl period – the second era of Sikh rule in Punjab throughout the mid-late eighteenth century. But they should all have some common traits.
Guru Gobind Singh Ji – 10th Sikh Guru
Sikh warrior Maharaja Ranjit Singh beat Winston Churchill as the greatest leader of all time – Maharajah Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, defeated rival nominees including Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, by gaining 38 per cent of the poll of more than 5,000 readers of BBC World Histories magazine. see artilce here https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sikh-warrior-maharaja-ranjit-singh-voted-the-greatest-leader-of-all-time-2v8b9f86c
I would like to think that the ability to read the Guru Granth Sahib and having the capacity to understand what it says is high on that list. What’s the point in trying to speak for Sikhs if you don’t have a grasp of what it is that binds us together? Someone could do an adequate job relaying our views and opinions to outsiders without knowledge of Gurbani, but that’s all they would be doing – and as we learnt last month, relaying is not leading. Another primary trait for a Sikh leader has to practice the way of life: living in rehat, if not a Khalsa yet; working hard to earn a living; taking out dasvand; serving the Guru and the Sangat. Throughout the lockdown, Sikhs and Gurdwara were treated like every other place of worship, but how is it that the Gurdwara is the only one that has been serving food every single day to those in need? Our differences make us who we are and leaders need to champion that, not ignore it.
700 families queued outside New Zealand Sikh Gurdwara Drive through
Naturally someone who fulfills these wants as a leader will be able to speak and understand Punjabi and that is a real must for a Sikh leader. It seems these days we make fun of our older leaders for not being able to speak English properly, but likewise shouldn’t we also consider that a good Sikh leader needs to be fluent in Punjabi seeing as all of our ceremonies at the Gurdwara take place in the language? Our desire to be seen as ‘professional’ in environments where English is spoken, should not take away from the need to be ‘professional’ in a Sikh environment which means knowing more than just ‘oora-aara’!
Photo: Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal – Canadian MP (for illustration purposes)
There are a number of other traits to look for in a Sikh leader, but these I would highlight as the main ones. How we select this person, or persons, is what also needs to be laid out – but this is where it is important to clarify what purpose or function their role is. Are they talking to politicians or are they dealing with the media? Or both? Are they solely outward looking, or will they be directing us (Sikhs) as a leader? There hasn’t been a singular way to select a leader in Sikh history, but there are some forms that are more popular or have proven to be more successful than others. Whichever way Sikhs have opted to go, it has always been with the Guru in mind and the notion of ‘Sarbat da bhalla’ driving us forward because Guru Nanak came to dispel ignorance and bring enlightenment to all – a Sikh leader and the community needs to reflect that through what we say about Sikhi to others, and not present us as just another one of the ‘major religions’.
When we return to Gurdwaras this month there will undoubtedly be difficult moments and problems arising, as there will be throughout society everywhere from shopping centres to sports clubs. As Sikhs we should learn from our history – even after Covid-19 has changed the World forever, there will be tough times to come again in the future. As Sikhs we need to use what happened on this occasion as a catalyst to come together and discuss what it is that we want from our leaders so that the next time we are not found so wanting. Throughout lockdown everywhere in the World, Sikhs have been celebrated for our commitment to seva and looking after those in need around us; that is the beauty of the Guru and how Sikhs benefit everybody. We need those who represent and lead us to live up to that.
Footnote by Tejinder Singh: As Bhups Deol finishes our article I will leave you with a new video just released by Ravi Singh of Khalsa Aid in which he addresses the Class of 2020 from his experience as a global humanitarian and also as a Sikh. The need to be visionaries with humility and humanity in their hearts. He says Sikhs are born leaders.
By: Bhups Deol / Tejinder Singh / Punjab2000
Article commissioned by Punjab2000.com in response to identification of Sikh leadership for communicating / representing Sikhs for Government organisations .