The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition

Kunal Jha

In The Sikh Next Door: An Identity in Transition, author Manpreet J. Singh invites readers on a captivating journey that explores the multifaceted nature of Sikh identity in contemporary society. The book attempts to understand the identity of the Sikh community, which has been shaped by different pasts, and its impact on their modern social life. The author's personal experience has shaped the narrative of self-image along with their constructed identity outside the community. The experiences, challenges and aspirations of the Sikh community, which struggles with diversity and understanding, are highlighted through Singh's incisive work.

The book is divided into six chapters excluding the introduction and conclusion. Each chapter takes up a particular theme, forming an arc from the historical context to the modern-day perspectives. The first chapter, entitled “Nudged Out of the Narrative: The Trader/Professional Sikh” traces the emergence of Sikh identity. It contextualises the diversity in the community and how they followed different trajectories of development. The chapter discusses the evolution of the Khatri and Jat community within Sikhism and how there has been a continuous rift between these two in terms of occupation, customs, traditions, and sphere of influence. It also discusses the rise of Sikh misls (community of Sikh warriors) and further the establishment of the Sikh kingdom under the leadership of Ranjit Singh after the period of Guru Gobind Singh. The author has comprehensively discussed the Sikh, particularly the Jat Sikh, from the British colonial period to their condition after the partition. The chapter illuminate that gradually, due to various factors, the Jat identity turned into the Sikh identity, and many stereotypes got associated with the group.

The second chapter is entitled as “Evolving Urban Profiles: From Village to City.” It discusses how the life of Sikhs associated with occupations and social hierarchy has undergone many changes due to the breakdown of occupational boundaries. It discusses the movement of Sikhs into urban areas and the complex process of resistance and assertion shaping the new Sikh identity. The chapter discusses the Jat and non-Jat migration to urban areas separately along with the impact of Dalit Sikh in urbanisation. The movement of Jat and the Ramgarhia community have been associated with the colonial era. Meanwhile, the Dalit Sikhs moved due to several factors, but the establishment of the industrial corridor along the major cities of Punjab played a crucial role. The third chapter, “They Are Not Like Us: Sikhs in Other Cultural Setting,” explains the movement and enculturation of the Sikh community in different parts of India. It explores how the identity of Sikhs has taken specific form and how Sikhs have become increasingly othered and alienated. The Sikh community has tried to maintain their ethnic and religious identity despite several challenges and deprivations in different states. The chapter specifically discusses the Sikhs in Bihar, Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and southern states of India. The chapter concludes that despite these Sikhs being an integral part of the community, they have been pushed away and their evolution has been completely different from the community. The fourth chapter exploring the transfer and evolution of Sikhs in various other countries is titled “Finding New Anchors: Sikh Identity in Foreign Lands.” The chapter gives historical context for how and in which conditions Sikhs are enabled to move to foreign lands. It traces the various branches of Sikh outmigration to Southeast Asia, Australia, Canada, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. The initial trend started with the movement of Sikhs as a part of the British Army and further for labour requirements. They faced several challenges but gradually strengthened their footing in all of these countries. In contemporary times, too, Sikhs are moving out for social and financial empowerment. It has also given rise to temporary marriage culture, where a couple marries to acquire foreign citizenship and after that separates. The author points out that the contemporary shift in the pattern of Sikh migration is also visible in several social spheres including religious, caste, and political polarisation. 

In the next two chapters, the author shifts into discussing the Sikh women and the images and stereotypes associated with the Sikh identity. The fifth chapter, entitled as “Process of Becoming: The Sikh Woman,” presents a conflicting account of how women have been treated within the Sikh social order. Though the religious teachings of Guru Nanak Dev directed the Sikhs to give equal rights to women and preached against the social deprivation of women, the social construct led to the denial of social justice to them. The women become symbols of family honour. Even women were believed to be a diversion in some belief systems. The dowry and other things associated with a girl led to the unacceptance of a girl’s birth in society. Further, the wives were treated as subordinates and inferiors to their husbands and usually shown their place, denoting them as ‘paer di jutti’ (a shoe worn on feet). Even the religious places of Sikhs have been devoid of females in higher positions. This is reflected even in the sex ratio, as the sex ratio of the Sikh community remained lower than the national average. This situation is improving in contemporary times. Females are now more active in academia and other fields in comparison with male members, particularly in rural Punjab. The sixth chapter revolves around the representation of Sikhs and stereotypes surrounding Sikh identity. It is entitled “Images and Stereotypes: Exploring the Impetus.” It explores the portrayal of Sikhs in media and cinema. It discusses how the Sikh has been usually caricatured as a humorous entity with a lack of intellectual acumen. Though there are some positive identities (e.g., brave soldiers, successful farmers, etc.), the Indian cinema has generally portrayed them as loud and boisterous, in states of drunkenness and dance. There have been gradual changes, but the old narrative and stereotypes around Sikhs are still prevalent in Indian society. The concluding chapter raises the issues and concerns associated with Sikhs in contemporary times.

The author of the book successfully traces the development of Sikh identity. With a careful blend of historical context and in-depth research, Singh presents a comprehensive exploration of Sikhism's rich heritage and the evolving identity of its followers. She delves into the challenges faced by Sikhs as they navigate the shifting landscapes of modern society. The book is capable of providing an in-depth understanding of the several issues revolving around the Sikhs and how they are associated with past events. The past identity also impacts the youth Sikhs, who remain entrenched in stereotypes and wrong portrayals. The book also takes context from movies, songs, and several books, which help to connect the past with the present understanding and representation of the community. The book successfully reframes the Sikh narrative and presents a better understanding of the Sikh community.