Ajit Kalsi: The Perpetuation And Damage Of The “Loyal Soldier” Sikh Stereotype
If the Loyal Soldier is the only legitimate form of Sikh that India accepts, then any Sikh intellectual, politician, or activist who is not loudly pro-government is branded as a dangerous Sikh radical
Ajit Singh Kalsi
February 25, 2021 | 3.5 min. read
With the focus on the farmers’ protests right now and the continued ostracization of the Sikh community by Modi’s government, it may be a good time to talk about the most common trope the Indian state loves to impose upon Sikhs.
The “Loyal Soldier”.
Sikhs have for generations been viewed as soldiers and warriors first, and anything else second. Stories of warrior kings establishing the Sikh Empire, loyal subjects fighting British wars, and then noble soldiers fighting Pakistan and China have been etched into the cultural impression of who Sikhs are. Even within the community, one tends to hear more about Baba Banda Singh Bahadur or General Hari Singh Nalwa than of poets such as Bhai Nand Lal.
Whether one looks to pin the blame for this perception on British martial race theory or a more modern perpetuation of stereotypes, many think of Sikhs as solely a society of warriors meant to defend India.
India and Indians have been more than happy to profit from this perception.
Much as the British before them, India is happy to incorporate Sikhs into the armed forces and rely upon them in a military context. Though the Indian Armed Forces do not like to publish demographic statistics, a study in the early 2000s places the army officer corps at about 20% Sikh and the enlisted corps between 10% and 13% Sikh. This is a significant percentage of the military and one that is disproportionate to the population by quite a bit.
Phrased another way, the Sikh community contributes to the defense of India more than should be expected based on population.
In the cultural realm, Bollywood has been thrilled to use the soldier trope to place Sikh characters (who are often not played by Sikh actors) in supporting roles in all manner of military films. This furthers the Loyal Soldier trope and provides an easy caricature to use in movies when writers and directors do not want to actually create a developed character.
We have seen this manifest itself in the newer realm of mobile video games, which have become incredibly popular in India. In FAU-G, a new military shooter, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar promotes a Sikh character. Kumar regularly plays and perpetuates the stereotype of the loyal Sikh soldier while staying silent on actual issues impacting the community and ignoring its grievances - including the farmers’ protest.
TV Shows and films such as Main Hoon Na, Kesari, and the upcoming Antim all show this trope in one form or another as well.
These all perpetuate the stereotype and advocate for a very particular type of Sikh.
There is a larger discussion here on Sikh representation in spaces like Bollywood, but even in this small slice the entertainment industry profits on the exploitation of Sikh culture and Indian perception of Sikh culture.
So why does all this matter?
The Indian state makes, and has been making, the conscious choice to perpetuate and benefit from an image that has been crafted for Sikhs.
What the Loyal Soldier archetype means is that anyone who does not fit that mold is necessarily a traitor and a threat. If the Loyal Soldier is the only legitimate form of Sikh that India accepts, then any Sikh intellectual, politician, or activist who is not loudly pro-government is branded as a dangerous Sikh radical.
We have seen this at play with the Indian media machine not hesitating to brand any Sikh critical of the Indian government, whether an Indian citizen or not, as a Khalistani - a term that is falsely used by India as a synonym for extremism. Sikhs who persist in this defiance are imprisoned indefinitely, treated in many ways as one might see someone accused of high treason in other countries.
A country that truly wishes to be a modern democracy cannot both benefit from a perpetuated stereotype and use it to marginalize the same community. The Indian government’s engagement in these practices is, at best, deliberately discriminatory and a damning condemnation of Indian cultural policy. The continued exploitation of the Loyal Soldier trope only serves to damage the community and silence Sikh voices.
Though there are certainly many ways this stereotype can be pushed back, one way is to educate people in the non-military history of Sikhs. To advocate for Sikh artists, poets, scientists, and historians (past and present) lets us tell our own stories, and reminds the world at large that the Sikh community is more than simply soldiers.
Ajit Singh Kalsi is a graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Relations in Ottawa where his research specializes in security and defense policy. He also tends to moonlight as a Hollywood film critic and columnist.
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