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Beyond Identity - Book By Preminder S. Sandhawalia

Foreword Of Book For 'Beyond Identity' By Preminder Singh Sandhawalia

Books are written with a twofold object - to entertain and to inform. Books of fiction with Sikhs as central characters are uncommon with the result that a majority of the huge book-reading public is denied the chance of learning who the Sikhs are, how they live and what issues concern them and their existence. We now have a book that fills this gap. This novel starts with a young college student in Punjab and then traces the trajectory of his life over the next 33 years, through travels in foreign lands with a false identity, to spectacular rise and prosperity, then to tragedy and denouement and a return in disgrace to poverty in Punjab. That is the story. But this is a serious book about Sikh identity and the Sikh homeland quest and it is on these matters that I will focus in this Foreword.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell's prolific writings on religion, politics and morals always stimulated interest, often to his own detirement. He often expressed what he regarded as the absurdities of religion. He was once asked what he would say to God when he came face to face with him. "I would say," he replied, "Why did you give so little evidence of your existence?" But he said this about the Sikh religion: "If some lucky men survive the onslaught of the third world war of atomic and hydrogen bombs, then the Sikh religion will be the only means of guiding them." Russell was asked if the implication of his statement was that the Sikh religion was not capable of guiding mankind until and unless there was a third world war, he replied, "No. It has the capability, but the Sikhs have not brought out, in the broad daylight, the splendid doctrines of their religion which has come into existence for the benefit of the entire mankind. That is their greatest sin and the Sikhs cannot be freed of it."

The Sikh religion, the fifth largest world religion, is a revealed religion and not an offshoot of one faith or a syncretic blend of different and often conflicting faiths. Along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is a monotheistic religion. All monotheistic religions believe that man is made in the image of God. They speak of the oneness of God and plurality of men. The challenge before us is to see God's image in one who is not in our image. Attacking another's identity, for whatever reason is not a new phenomenon; it has been known throughout history. The most telling example of this was in India during the period of the Mogul Empire, when the adherents of the ruling minority religion considered it their divine obligation to convert to their religion non-Muslims, who constituted the majority of the population, whose religion was different . Recent examples of attempts to destroy the identity of others-ethnic cleansing, as it has been referred to-are to be found in countries in Eastern Europe such as Bosnia and the Middle East. Even more recent example can be said to be found in India where, according to Amartya Sen, "political activists prefer to dwell on interreligious confrontations, rather than on the traditions of peaceful presence of different faiths, side by side. The Hindutava movement has had a strong effect on recent political of sectarianism."

Sikhism began life, and continues to this day, as a protest against empires and imperialism. Imperialism is an attempt to impose one's truth, one's culture, one's way of doing things on others. Sikhism came into the world to protest against that. Sikhism is God's protest against empires. God says, no people are entitled to force their beliefs on any other people. "Down here, in the world that I made, there are many cultures, many faiths, many civilizations - each of which was made by Me. each of which therefore has its own integrity, its own gifts to humanity, its own contribution to make, its own voice, its own language, and its own character. I want to communicate that truth to the world." Sikhism is the truth of the unity of God, but the diversity of mankind.

Religious leaders make wonderful speeches; they say the same thing - "Peace is great, our religion believes in peace. Therefore, all you have to do is become like us." But they do not seem to understand that is not the solution. That is a problem. "Talk about the dignity of difference." says Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, "'because peace is what we make with people who aren't like us. Too much of human history has been written in the blood of human victims who, because they were not like 'them', who didn''t live like 'them', who didn't share 'their' faith, were regarded by 'them' as the infidels, the unredeemed. Never before have we needed to realize that we will only preserve our human environment if we respect religious and cultural diversity. I know only of one idea adequate to such a world: the idea that emphasizes both our shared humanity as one family under the parenthood of God, and the dignity of difference because every one of us and every cultural and every faith is different and equally a way of God."

This book is about identity. Now, there have been many assaults on Sikh identity - some with the avowed intention of wiping it out altogether. The vital issue of Sikh identity and its preservation has exercised the minds of many Sikhs, scholars and others, for a long time. Some important questions spring to mind. What do we mean by Sikh identity? What is Sikh identity" How do we define it? Does the definition accord with the common perception?

What is the common perception about it? Is it that the Sikh identity is inextricably bound up with and governed by Guru Gobind Singhji's prescription, identified by the 5 Ks a beard and unshorn hair, a comb, a kara shorts and a Kirpan? If so, there is another perception, among some Sikhs some very learned Sikhs: they question whether Guru Gobind Singh's prescription only applies to those Sikhs who choose to become Amritdhari. Because there is no such thing as excommunication from the community in the Sikh religion, hundreds and thousands of those born in Sikh families go about, proclaiming to be Sikhs, even those with shorn hair  and shorn or trimmed beards. This view would  seem to receive some support from the definition of a Sikh given in the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) Rehat Maryada which defines a Sikhs as "any woman or man who believes in one Almighty God, in the Ten Gurus from Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji to Sri Guru Gobind Singh, in the Guru Granth Sahib and the Guru Sahibans' Bani and teachings, has faith in Dasmeshji's Amrit and accepts no other religion." The expression "has faith in Amrit" is clearly ambiguous. The definition would seem to suggest that only one who has been initiated into the Khalsa Panth is a Sikh. If so, it clearly excludes others, some referred to as "Sehajdhari Sikhs," who believe in One God, the Guru Granth Sahib and in the Ten Gurus and have no other religion. Then, there are the Keshadhari Sikhs who, in addition to answering the description of a Sehajdhari Sikh, habitually adopt either all or some of the five symbols of an Amritdhari Sikh. An Amritdhari Sikh is one who, in addition to answering the description of a Keshadhari Sikh, has taken Amrit, is able to read and write Gurmukhi, and is able to recite from the daily prayers. It is a sad fact that Sehajdhari Sikhs or those who have, by choice, discarded their hair and their beards, account for a large number of the Sikhs both in and outside the Punjab. By the SGPC definition they would cease to be Sikhs even though they may hold the beliefs are visibly Sikhs.

Whatever view one may take, for the purpose  of this Foreword and so as not to disenfranchise millions of Sikhs, I am prepared to accept that any woman or man who believes in one Almighty God, in the Ten Gurus from Sri Guru Nanak Devji to Sri Guru Gobind Singh ji, in the Guru Granth Sahib and the Guru Sahiban's Bani and teachings and accepts no other religion, is a Sikh. I say this because during the last century Sikhs have taken their faith almost to the ends of the earth.

If you were to ask the man in the street to define a world religion he would probably think immediately of size and distribution. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism meet these criteria so they are world religions. But what about Judaism? Yes, the man in the street would say, Judaism is a world religion. Its range of distribution cannot be denied. There are Jews in every continent and in most countries - yet, Judaism is a small religion numerically. However, they would probably say, the influence of Judaism, its contribution to human development, gives it a place among the great religions. Sikhism belongs to the world. And it has the ability to transcend cultural constraints and to respond positively to the challenges and demons of the 21st Century. Yes, it has that ability; it is up to the Sikhs to determine whether it will. Guru Nanak was commissioned to rewaken humanity in the Kalyug to the truth which is God. His purpose was to replace the religiosity of his day-a ritualism which seemed to him to lead nowhere - with something which offered  eternal hope of giving access to God's grace.

It is often said that nations are usually but not always associated with politically determined geographic boundaries. That is not necessarily so when one realizes that the Jewish nation existed in the Diaspora for almost 2000 years. We see, do we not, that people who constitute a nation are bound together less by geography and arbitrarily-drawn lines in the sand and more by a shared history, a heritage and common ethos. They cannot be successfully bound together as a nation without a shared memory and values. Language, culture and religion often but not always provide the common bonds that construct nations. Europe, for instance, is many nations that share large chunks of history. There are different languages but culture, religions and values cut a wide swath across the continent. Religion alone cannot hold a nation together. We find most European nations moving towards a common fiscal unit, the Euro, while still maintaining their political independence and individual entities.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji described Sikhs as a QAUM. The word Qaum is sui generis; it has no apt equivalent in the English language. It was time the word found a place in the dictionary. Sikhs have created an identity for themselves through their shared dreams of justice, dignity and human rights. It is a powerful testimony to the amazing resilience of the Sikhs who have, through the ages, earned a unique place in history. Sikhism is a source of comfort and reassurance to me and gives me a sense of belonging to a proud and vibrant community. 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. To be a Sikh is to be a link in the chain of the generations of Sikhs. Sikhs do not become Sikhs; they are Sikhs by birth, Sikh identity then is not only a faith, but a fact. It is not an identity we assume, but one into which we are born. Sikh identity is self-evident, given at birth, fact, not a decision. We  have not chosen it, it has chosen us. Sikhism depends for its very existence on the willingness of successive generations to hand over their faith and way of life to their children, and on the loyalty of children to the heritage of their past.

This book, as I have said, is about identity, Sikh identity. The author refers to this identity, forged over centuries, as "an amalgam of religion, language, culture, customs, symbols, traditions and legends unique to Sikhs. An identity into which generations of Sikhs are born. This identity is there - palpable, real, visible. If we have respect for it and pride in it, we will retain it. Otherwise we will abandon it and assimilate." Although this book is a work of fiction, the author adroitly uses different characters to articulate different crucial issues and raises a serious concept - the concept of a Virtual State. Is it necessary for Sikhism to flourish for Sikhs to have an autonomous, geographical area? Is that what our Gurus envisaged? And in answering such questions, the author may be said to be challenging some cherished beliefs. For that reason, and that reason alone, the book may attract a certain amount of criticism. But the author is well able to handle the subject and he does so with tact as well as with discretion. He regards this as a "strategy for ensuring that the Sikh identity prevails the world over. So much has changed because of, among other things, the effects of globalization, that the earlier concept about a specific small geographical area somewhere on this globe to be called the Sikh State has been overtaken by events and needs a major re-think..." I have little doubt that the author does so with a view to starting a debate on the subject. The concept, exceptional but not unique, is based on the conviction that a catholic religion such as the Sikh religion, which came into being for the benefit of whole mankind, cannot be confined within artificially drawn boundaries. Though not a proselytizing religion, the teachings of Sikhism are of universal application - non-exclusive, nonspatial and non-territorial, in the author's words.

The author expresses the belief that "for the Sikhs to prevail the world over, they need a set-up that can hold up through transition and changes. They should have their own Virtual State core that can function in any and all systems that may come up. I base this Virtual State on the belief that technological advances will continue. Advances in transportation, communications, information technology and currency movements will make it easier for a globally dispersed people like the Sikhs to be one. Lack of contiguous territory will no longer be a factor. It will be alleviated by instant communications, video conferencing and quick transportation. The Sikhs in Punjab, Canada, USA, UK, Australia and even Fiji will be one united people in the Sikh Virtual State in which the focus will be not on market or trade but on humankind."

How will the concept of Virtual State work? The Sikh State, he says, "will exist in a political system of Concentric Circles. The outer circle will be the United Nations Organisation. The next circle will be the Regional Union of States of which the nation-state is a member. The penultimate circle will be the sovereign nation-state itself in which the Sikhs reside all over the world. The fourth, innermost circle, is the SVS territory in every nation-state. You will note that my concentric circles do not intersect, thereby avoiding all conflicts, all friction points and all confusions. The outer circle represents an idea that we all have to behave as responsible world citizens with standards of acceptable behaviour that  are embedded in world culture. Issues that transcend state sovereignty like Human Rights, environment, population, women rights, global engineering standards, international aviation regulations and similar items need discussions at the United Nations. The next circle of Regional Union of states is a purely voluntary membership-based group of nations that seeks jointly to improve their economies or ensure their supplies or widen their export markets and can, therefore have no conflicting points. The Nation-State itself is sovereign in the model that it has adopted. This brings us to the smallest core concentric circle, the SVS circle. Since this circle is concentric it does not and cannot intersect the nation-state circle. In practical terms this means that it does not supplant any of the laws of the regimes ruling the different geographical areas in which Sikhs reside. The SVS functions within the boundaries of the concentric circle of the nation-state enclosing it."

The author concludes that "the SVS will protect the cultural identity of the Sikh Qaum, it will seek to look after the welfare of its people and it will attempt to maximize their developmental opportunities. It will also be charged with the responsibility of ensuring that all the Sikhs must be patriotic, law-abiding contributors to national prosperity and accepted as model citizens of the Nation-States in which they reside. To achieve thses objectives it will have to co-ordinate with all Sikhs centres of influence the world over, the societies, the think-tanks, the charities, the Gurdwaras and the various other groups that at times talk at cross purposes. SVS will have to concentrate on education, career development, entrepreneurship, role models, political lobby strength, demographic issues and various such measures to improve the well being of the community and its international image. Encouraging media ownership and media event participations will also be a function. It will be active in managing the effects of new technologies and use e-education, e-commerce and e-governance to look after the interests of the Sikhs. The SVS core circle in every nation-state will be the single window reference point for all the Sikh issues in that nationstate and the globally interlinked network of these SVS core circles will constitute the Sikh Virtual State."

This is not an easy subject to tackle. Only a person imbued with love for his community could undertake the task. That person is the author. His credentials and his background  are impeccable. He is well qualified by his background and experience to tackle the subject.  He traces his ancestry back to the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The Sandhawalias were prominent. He is within his rights to take the view that such a catholic religion does not need to be confined within artificially-drawn boundaries. Sikhs are to be found in all parts of the world; they have taken their religion with them. This book is the author's vision statement for the Sikh people, looking far into the future. The book may raise some eyebrows, but it calls for serious debate. It is an imaginative, futuristic and provocative book. It will set people thinking. We may agree with his vision and work on the details, or we may disagree with it and think of alternatives. But we should not ignore it.

Sikhism stands at cross-roads. It has to make up its mind which way it will go. It is the one world religion that, as Bertrand Russell said, has the ability to guide mankind. That is the call that beckons us.

Mota Singh


About The Author Of Book 'Beyond Identity'

Parminder Singh Sandhawalia has travelled extensively during assingnments with the Government of India, International Airports Authority of India and the International Civil Aviation Organization.

His first book, Nobelmen and Kinsmen was published in 1999.

Author Preminder Singh Sandhawalia
Pages 320
Cover Hardbound
Language English

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Beyond Identity - Book By Preminder S. Sandhawalia

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