image caption: Gurmukh Singh OBE

Who Has the Right to Sikh Representation?

    The above was one of the main questions at a presentation and discussion organised by the Sikh Missionary Society UK on 14 July, 2018, under the general heading State of the Panth: Learning from experience. This time the spotlight was on the personal experience and vision of Sardar Gurmel Singh Kandola MBE, ex-Secretary General of the Sikh Council UK.

The neutral environment of the Sikh Missionary Society UK, which has served our missionary/educational needs since 1969, and the presence of dedicated Society sevadars, was the right setting for such a presentation and discussion. []]Most deservingly, S Gurmel Singh was honoured by the Society with a siropa and a plaque.]

Who has the right to represents the Sikhs? is a question which has caused much controversy and division in the community for decades. This unresolved issue has been exploited by politicians and governments. Recent communications relating to Sikh representations show how even middle ranking civil servants can decide who the Sikh representatives are! There are new boys on the block, more articulate, less conversant with Sikhi, minus full Sikh identity sometimes, and closer to the office-bound civil servants to give ready advice about Sikh/Sikhi issues. This advice, selectively or conveniently sought, can then become the basis for briefs to ministers and government policy. (The so called, Sikh surveys is a related topic for another time).

Column space does not allow a fuller discussion but I am content to summarise some points made at the Sikh Missionary Society event. Identifying as a Sikh means representing oneself and the whole Sikh community at the same time, the opinion of any Sikh individual becomes as valid as any other (Dr Jasjit Singh of Leeds University). According to Harmander Singh of Sikhs in England, the pertinent point is the question, who is a Sikh? He believes that the Sikh Reht Maryada is the Sikh Guide and clearly defines a Sikh. That is the first and the most important pre-condition for any claims to Sikh representation.

The other important pre-conditions relate to openness and accountability. There should be continual feedback to those represented and timely advice should be sought before returning to the talks or the negotiating table. S. Gurmel Singh quoted the historical example of S. Baldev Singh during the tripartite independence talks in 1947. The future of the Sikhs was decided by Baldev Singh acting almost on his own.

There are other issues about the nature of Sikh organisations claiming Sikh representation. Subject to their aims and objectives, are they inclusive or more like exclusive clubs? Do they promote teamworking which brings in diverse skills? Is there succession planning and effective delegation to ensure experience building and training of younger members. The mix of age groups, men-women balance, ease with which changes can be made at the top etc all these factors are relevant to any claims to community representation.

Today, when the Sikh community faces so many challenges to Sikh ideology, institutions and identity, above are the sort of questions we need to ask of those representing us. Otherwise, Sikh future will not be decided by Sikhs (as defined by the Sikh Reht Maryada).


Gurmukh Singh OBE