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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.