Vaheguru ji ka Khalsa
Vaheguru ji ki Fateh
Around 12 to 18 months ago, a movement began in Slough among the Sikh youth.
The Basics of Sikhi Why Guru Course, a 14-week course for English-speaking Sikhs, was held in Slough’s Singh Sabha Gurdwara. Many Sikhs from Slough and neighbouring communities congregated to learn about their faith from celebrated Sikh teacher Jagraj Singh.
They learned about the 10 living Gurus and the 11th Guru, our eternal spiritual master Guru Granth Sahib Ji. They learned about Khalsa traditions such as Langar (selfless service) and Kirtan (singing hymns from Guru Granth Sahib Ji), and about Sikh philosophy and values.
I feel honoured to have been part of this movement. It introduced me to amazing Sangat (congregation) who were doing Parchar (raising awareness) of Sikhi, feeding hungry and homeless members of our community, learning classical Raag Kirtan, holding Vichaar (discussion) and Katha (discourse) sessions on Gurbani (God’s Word; the Guru Granth Sahib).
I became part of Basics of Sikhi’s sevadar (volunteer) team and a member of voluntary Langar organisation MLSS’ Team London, helping arrange events in London and Slough for the homeless and sevadar community.
And then it was announced that Slough’s Singh Sabha Gurdwara would be holding elections for its management committee.
The youth became hopeful. For decades, they felt they had been overlooked. Parcharaks (preachers), knowing that the younger generation often struggled with speaking Punjabi, had persisted to continue speaking in complex Punjabi rather than ever testing out simple English.
The management supported this. They were threatened by the English language and effectively outlawed it in the Gurdwaras, in Slough as well as elsewhere in the country. Getting a slot for an English-speaking Sikh preacher required many many Ardaasan (prayers). Elderly Gurdwara management consistently opposed it. In Singh Sabha Gurdwara Slough, in the entire 24 hours, 7 days of the week, only for one half of those hours is English-spoken Parchar permitted.
I have even heard talk of corruption in two of Slough’s Gurdwaras; £50,000 carpet installments for relatively modest rooms and questionable personalities in committees or management positions.
The Sangat felt it was time for a change. We had momentum; Sikhs learning about Sikhi, seeing a positive change in our lives, meeting new people and holding interesting conversations.
It felt like a fresh start and I did feel that this was a change I could contribute to. Managing Gurdwara committees requires political skill; I studied Applied Business Management at Imperial College London, I am a ten-year business and political journalist, an Associate of the Royal College of Science (ARCS), and when I was at Imperial College, the business campus elected me as their student union president.
Such a son of the Singh Sabha community could offer a lot to Sangat. However, the Singh Sabha community does not consider me a son.
I had not raised my hopes to be invited to participate in any management committee party. Guru Granth Sahib Ji instructs one to accept Hukam (Higher Command), and on this matter I had accepted the inevitable at a much earlier point than this.
I had already realised that I am not a Son of Slough but a Prince of the Khalsa.
In the Whatsapp groups I was part of, one or two of the more senior members were talking about forming a party to represent the youth. They kept saying that some “like-minded people” would be meeting to discuss how we can put together a strategy. I did not know what they meant by that, but I was aware that I had three things going against me; I communicate primarily in English, I am of a younger generation and I am not of the Jatt (farmer) caste.
I therefore kept my distance and decided not to push to get involved. I offered to help, I made myself available, and I waited for invitations to “strategy meetings”.
I made my credentials known to seniors in charge, but I noticed people acting uncomfortably when I would enquire about progress, and when I would ask if I could offer any help.
In the end, a party was put together, calling itself the Benti group. This party, claiming to represent the youth, comprised almost exclusively of 40 to 80 year old Sikh men.
I had known of prejudice in the Sikh community my entire life and in fact, it all started in Slough before I was even born.
Raj Karega Khalsa – The Virtuous Shall Conquer
It ought to be stated that elections were never part of Sikh history before the SGPC began taking charge of Gurdwaras in the 20th Century. None of the Gurus were of the Jatt caste either, but of the Khatri caste. Yet the message remained consistently clear:
ਗੁਰਮੁਖਿ ਜਾਤਿ ਪਤਿ ਸਚੁ ਸੋਇ ॥
Truth is the caste and ancestary of the Gurmukh (SGGS Ang 560).
Speaking to the Ramgharians (carpenter and ironworker community), they said that they felt forced to build a separate Gurdwara back in the 1970s because the Jatts of the Singh Sabha community formed a large overall majority, and refused to elect any non-Jatt as president, or into any position of power.
Fed up with being overlooked, the rest pooled together, created a new Gurdwara and named it after Jassa Singh Ramgarhia (1723–1803), who was a prominent Sikh leader during the period of the Sikh Confederacy.
I grew up attending both Gurdwaras, both Punjabi schools, and various events and Gurpurabs at both Singh Sabha and Ramgarhia Gurdwaras. And this article is by no means an attack on Jatts. Some Sikhs from the Jatt community have been my closest allies, teachers and confidants in my journey on the Path of Sikhi.
There are Singhs who have assisted me, passed on to me their experience and looked out for me, but not once have they ever mentioned, without needing to, that they were born into a family that identifies as any caste.
When I’m sat in the Darbar Sahib; the hall in which Guru Granth Sahib Ji is recited, and I’m in Anand (bliss), I look up and see a sign that reads: “Khalistan”, the utopic independent state of the Sikhs, prophecised in Sikh scripture, and I can’t help but wonder who these people would elect as their leaders?
Do the people sitting around me see the Khalsa Raj in the same way I do? Do they see the world becoming one state – both physical and spiritual – of equality, justice, fairness and valour? Or do they view it as a piece of land between India and Pakistan, governed by Jatts?
Change is coming
My immediate family does not identify with any caste. We identify simply as Sikh. Our surname, Sahota, is found in every “caste of the Sikh community”. I have researched my heritage somewhat and am convinced that my ancestors never saw caste as an issue, exactly as Gurbani instructs:
ਜਾਣਹੁ ਜੋਤਿ ਨ ਪੂਛਹੁ ਜਾਤੀ ਆਗੈ ਜਾਤਿ ਨ ਹੇ ॥:
Recognize God’s Light within all, and don’t ask or consider caste, as there is no caste in the world hereafter (SGGS Ang 349).
It is my view that all who are interested in reform of Slough’s Gurdwaras need to unite. We must first cut our caste ties, and then demand to be taken seriously. We can no longer be silenced, our own faith and now even the next generation’s, is in our hands. We must all begin to behave as one community.
Vaheguru ji ka Khalsa
Vaheguru ji ki Fateh