Dr. Jaspreet Bal: Counter India's Attempt to Control Knowledge Production On Sikhi

From state-funded news sites and think tanks to lobbyist groups and academic Sikh Studies Chairs, we are seeing the Government of India invest in controlling forms of knowledge production on Sikhi

Dr. Jaspreet Kaur Bal
June 3, 2021 | 4 min. read | Opinion

An obvious marker of the importance of something is when your oppressor tries to take it away. Their recognition of its worth is a clear indicator that it fosters the very light they are invested in extinguishing.

For Sikhs, many in positions of power have tried to remove our lives, our language, our history, and our access to knowledge. 

In the mid 18th century Mughal officials destroyed Guru Granth Sahib Sarups, and historical texts under the direction of Lakhpat Rai and Zakariya khan. In the mid 19th century the British destroyed the system of education set up under Ranjit Singh’s rule in which every boy and girl was given basic literacy skills. In 1984 the Indian Government burned down the Sikh Reference Library. 

While the way that power moves has shifted from overt violence to covert and systemic forms, the crux of it has not changed. In 2021 we are seeing the Government of India invest in controlling forms of knowledge production on Sikhi through state-funded news sites, think tanks, lobbyist groups, and the latest, academic Sikh Studies Chairs. 

In the academic realm, the British and Indian narratives have had a stronghold on knowledge production. The voices of those with a lived experience of Sikhi have just now started trickling into the academy. One of the first near-complete English translations of Guru Granth Sahib Ji was done by Ernest Trumpp. The man considered the formative scholar of Sikhi was W. H. McLeod. In their wake, they left a legacy of Sikhi in academia that has served the colonizer and the Hindutva state more than any practicing Sikh. 

This past year, it was declared that the Indian Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) would sponsor the creation of two Sikh Studies Chairs, one at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and one at the University of Birmingham in Britain. This is not to be confused with the local community-driven campaign to establish a Sikh Studies Chair at the University of Calgary which is being driven by Dr. Harjeet Singh Grewal with the help of the Sikh grassroots.

What does it matter who funds a chair position? Don’t academics have tenure and academic freedom? Do research ethics not require a level of separation between the funder of the research and the work being produced? 

In an ideal world, these rigorous systems and boundaries would ensure that a Sikh who wholeheartedly rejected the genocidal attitudes of the Indian State would have an equal shot at being the chair. The truth is, like every other realm, decisions are made through networking, whispers at tables, informal conversations, internal promotions; essentially, funders have vetoes that never leave paper trails. 

Controlling the means of knowledge production helps control the narrative. In a strong multi-pronged attack on Sikhs in the diaspora, laying seeds of doubt and misinformation at the ground level is vital. 

Take for example Doris Jakobsh, a non-Sikh professor at the University of Waterloo teaches a Religious Studies 100, Religions of Asia class where she assigns her own textbook as reading. In chapter 6 of this book, she states that women were not initiated into the Khalsa and, save a few exceptions, did not hold military roles; she cites her own work from 2003. She then assigns quizzes to her students testing them on the incorrect information from her own textbook where she further cites herself. This ensures that in order to achieve success in the class, students are to affirm her incorrect narrative. She becomes a one-woman, autopoietic, knowledge-producing system, unchecked by external sources and disconnected from Sikhs on the ground.

In another example, a Canadian think tank produced a report by discredited journalist Terry Milweski. In this report, Milewski claims that the Khalistan movement in Canada is a product of Pakastani funding. One of his ways of proving this is because he watched a YouTube show in 2020 where the host Tarek Fatah (who has connections to Indian fake news sites), talks about a memory from 1973 where Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto said she would avenge the war of 1971 by taking Khalistan out of India. This 1973 memory, of a 1971 event, re-lived on a youtube show in 2020, cited in a report of a Canadian think tank with overt connections to the Indian government, is absurd. The report, while easy to discredit, has since been repeated in almost every news story against Sikhs in Canada. No one goes back to check their source. Controlling the narrative becomes far too easy in a post-truth world. 

As an aside, this report was rejected by over 50 Sikh scholars who, independent of each other, work with the Sikh community. An Indian state-sponsored new agency then claimed all 50 scholars, from various institutions including Harvard, Oxford, Yale, UBC, U of T, York, Carelton, Berkeley, were all Pakastani agents themselves.  

So what does all of this mean? What is to be done? 

There is no neutral researcher, academic, or producer of knowledge.

All researchers, whether qualitative or quantitative have a process where they selectively lose data until it tells a story. The author shapes the story the data tells. While those working to discredit Sikhs have long since invested in the production of knowledge, everyday Sikhs have just now had the time, energy, and means to join their ranks. 

It is imperative that we are at the heart of telling our own stories. Knowledge production needs process and validation outside, not just inside, of the academy. Sikhs on the ground are divested from the temptations of distorting truth that come with absolute power. Our proximity to the earth creates an epistemology that warrants respect. Which is why I am excited to see how this platform, Baaz, continues this journey. 

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Dr. Jaspreet Kaur Bal is a Child and Youth Care Professor and Practitioner. Her practice involved radical youth work with underserved IBPOC populations across North America. A community organizer and activist, Bal serves on the board of the World Sikh Organization and is the cohost of the podcast #AskCanadianSikhs.


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