Sikhism and war

Exploring the link between religion and war from the point of view of the Sikh faith

As a producer, I like to spend a great deal of time researching current programming on television stations across the Global TV networks. The most publicised trend of recent years has been that of reality television. The power of this genre and its content has been proven this past week from my otherwise timid home county of Hertfordshire.

If you are unaware of the incidents that I am writing about perhaps you have been hiding away in some cave, in which case I would like you to invite me over so that I too can escape from the mind-numbing “entertainment” that passes for terrestrial television these days. But the entire debacle got me thinking about the stories that weren’t making the news headlines as a result, stories which all too often get relegated to inch-long columns beside advertisements for injury-claims legal firms.

One such story was the recent invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. This was undertaken I must hasten to add, with the compliance of the Somali Govt who felt the need to stem back the surge of Islamists in the south and west of the country.

There was plenty of news coverage initially, but there has been little reporting of the clashes and conflict that followed. From my position of basic ignorance of African politics, I understood that this was a conflict that once again involved religion. Talking to friends I was met with the relatively popular idea that religion was the chief cause of war. If this was the case, I was asked, how did it affect my life as a Sikh?

The Sikh Way of Life has long been identified with that of martial warfare. The reality is something quite different. For a Sikh, the ideal is to be a Saint-Soldier: a being that is of the utmost respectability and compassion, but whose strength of character and bravery is unquestionable.

However, this is not as simple a concept to realise as one might first think. For example, the latter description evokes an ideal of standing up for what is right. But who are we to decide what is right? As a Sikh, am I to take a viewpoint of matters with rose-tinted Sikh glasses? It seems there are more questions than answers, but as all good Sikhs know, our basis of Sikh understanding is the Guru Granth Sahib, the revered Guru and scripture since 1708, to which we pose all of our questions.

From the very beginning, Sikhs were taught that on occasion, use of force was a necessary part of life. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh Way of life, in praise of the Almighty stated that, “As you (the Lord) choose and as it pleases you, we wield the sword and take life.”

In this particular stanza, Guru Nanak had described differing elements of life in relation to God. To battle and to destroy was an occurrence that for better or worse was an element of life that could not be shied away from. It happened as God willed it. We as people go to war when we see fit and are able to take or not take life on the battlefield. But the cause of the war itself seems almost immaterial. Today it is a dispute over land, tomorrow an act of vengeance.

I have interpreted the Guru’s words here as such, that the end result is the same: death. It should be noted that war and soldierly deeds like other issues which involve death are heavily intertwined with fate and destiny in Sikh philosophy. This does not absolve the soldier of his commitment and acts, but is part of the bigger picture where the endless cycle of life and death continues unabated.

Guru Nanak’s successors to the Gurgaddi (throne of Guruship) were the Light and soul of Guru Nanak himself, merely in a different form. Focusing on the martyrdom of the ninth Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur is where we can find further depictions of the Saint-Soldier relationship.

Guru Tegh Bahadur had been a vociferous soldier in his youth and was skilled in the use of weaponry. In the late 17th century, by which time he had been installed as the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was approached by pandits of Kashmir. They requested the Guru to speak on their behalf to the Mughal emperor Aurungzeb under whose rule countless forced conversions to Islam had been taking place. The Guru agreed to do so, well aware of the repercussions.

In court the Guru’s position of spiritual authority over so many people of the land was brought into question and he was asked to convert to Islam, prove his spiritual supremacy or face capital punishment.

The Guru chose both of the latter options, declaring that although he did not believe in that which the pandits did, he would defend there right to believe it. This epitomises the Saint-Soldier relationship: righteousness is not defending Sikhs or their interests, but to uphold fundamental freedoms and rights of all people. As the Guru showed, use of force was not merely the ability to wield a sword. In the Guru Granth Sahib we read Guru Tegh bahadur’s words where he describes the spiritually awakened, the Saint as “That being who does not frighten anyone, and who is not afraid of anyone else…”

Sikhs do not battle to defend Sikhs or Sikh concerns. They resort to force, whether through battle or personal sacrifice, to defend the fundamental freedoms that all humans look to have. War is a part of life from which we have not and probably will not escape. Even if for a few days we become preoccupied with the comparatively irrelevant events of a television programme in leafy Hertfordshire.

Harwinder Singh is a 26-year-old Law graduate turned film and TV producer. He is also a record label boss. Born in the UK to Punjabi parents, he been practising and studying the Sikh Way of Life for about 20 years.
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.