Revisiting Colonial Memory
ਦੇਗ ਤੇਗ ਫਤਹ ਬਿਰਦ ਕੀ ਪੈਜ ਪੰਥ ਕੀ ਜੀਤ
Degh Tegh Fateh Bridh Ki Paij Panth Ki Jeet
[With] the Cauldron (commensality), the Sword, [and the praxis] of Sikh Victory, [with] Respect/Support for the elderly and infirm, The Panth (way/community/nation) will forever prosper.
It is important to the government of the UK to be seen honouring what they consider Sikh history. The British government tries their best to maintain the model minority narrative as the status quo always benefits those that hold power.
It is also clearly important to the Sikh community to honour the Sikhs that fought against European fascism. However it is up to us as a community to not only give Sikh sacrifices value but to also talk about and challenge the circumstances that led to the exploitation of Sikhs by British imperialism, that treated all brown and black bodies as a resource to take ownership of and cannon fodder.
It is important to note that the “first world war” was a conflict between colonial empires fought over control of Europe’s “colonies”; land and people stolen, murdered, and enslaved in the name of the church and European monarchs.
The recent monument unveiled on High Street, Smethwick, and other monuments to Sikhs that enlisted in the colonial British-Indian army are important only as focal points for our community to have difficult conversations about the circumstances of our arrival into Britishness.
The underlying fractures of our Britishness are laid bare when we look at how as a community we publicly honour Sikhs that died in European wars; whilst simultaneously, privately, in Sikh spaces, we honour Sikh Martyrs that fought for our freedom against British imperialism and Indian fascism.
The impact of colonialism is an incredibly complex subject and we owe it to ourselves and the sacrifices of our ancestors to unpack this diligently, and look honestly at the continued impact colonialism has on us as a racialised and otherised people, only considered civilised by degree of our conformity.
When looking at the role Sikhs played in European wars it is vital to look at the larger context of Sikh subjugation and resistance to British colonialism. Where once Sikhs fought only as sovereigns under the Nishaan of their Guru, in an occupied and annexed Punjab, Sikh Naujawan fought as paid mercenaries under the flag of the British empire.
The Guru rewarded Sikh loyalty with sovereignty of mind and body. The Crown rewarded Sikh loyalty after it’s first “world war” with the Jalianwala Bagh massacre on Vaisakhi 1919, Guru Ka Bagh Morcha and Saka Nankana Sahib in 1921. After the second “world war” Britain partitioned the Punjab in 1947. Those that fought against British imperialism during these times, Sikh Martyrs and heroes like Bhai Maharaj Singh, Baba Sohan Singh Bhakna, Sardar Kartar Singh Sarabah, Sardar Udam Singh, Bhai Sahib Randhir Singh, and countless others, were hung, imprisoned, or exiled by colonisers.
It is deeply disappointing when those that claim to represent the Sikh community use their platforms to undemocratically marginalise and silence any dissenting voice, and refuse to make space for the critical conversations essential to societal progress and healing.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect to this conversation is how Sikhs still feel that maintaining the status-quo and loyalty to Britain will somehow help Sikhs re-establish their sovereignty in Punjab, when the opposite is demonstrably true. Britain continues to support its colonial project of “india”, which exposes another fracture; 80,000 Sikhs rejected the 2011 British census category of “indian”, the tragic irony of celebrating 83,000 Sikhs who died labeled “British-Indian” seems lost to many.