Teer Kaur: A Kirpan Is A Weapon Against Oppression And Tyrannical Empires
"Sikhs must center the evocation of being Tyar Bar Tyar and work past left and right political binaries that trap us within language and imaginaries that do not belong to us."
September 26, 2022 | 6.5 min. read | Opinion
Recently, a young Singh was arrested for wearing a kirpan.
As the police officer grabbed the Singh’s kirpan, his clear refusal and chardi kala stood out. The Singh embodied Sikh refusal in a confining structure that coerces us to oblige. While this incident was recorded, these moments exist in the everyday lives of Amritdhari Sikhs who are forced to compartmentalize and rearticulate our existence to the Western gaze.
Current articulations, including the “Sikhism and the Sikh Kirpan Fact Sheet,” describe the kirpan as resembling a knife or sword. This is prefaced by a description that attempts to trim Sikhi to align it with neoliberal values: “Sikhs maintain five articles of faith to bind them to the beliefs of the religion, which include advocating for equality and justice, engaging in selfless seva (community service), and remembering God at all times.”
There is no context about what justice means to Sikhi, nor a substantial articulation of why kakar are an embodiment of Sikh being, not anything “external”.
To state clearly, a kirpan is a weapon against tyrannical empires that continuously subjugate disenfranchised people, as bestowed to us by Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji.
ਚੁ ਕਾਰ ਅਜ਼ ਹਮਹ ਹੀਲਤੇ ਦਰ ਗੁਜ਼ਸ਼ਤ ॥ ਹਲਾਲ ਅਸਤ ਬੁਰਦਨ ਬ ਸ਼ਮਸ਼ੀਰ ਦਸਤ ॥੨੨॥
"When all other methods fail, it is proper to hold the sword in hand. (22)"
-Guru Gobind Singh Ji, Dasam Granth, Ang 1471
These interventions are understandably a means for survival, yet no number of education sheets, bias training, and awareness campaigns will undo structures rooted in colonialism and white supremacy. UNC-Charlotte, the university where the Sikh was detained, hired the former commander of Guantanamo Bay Detention Center as their Vice Chancellor of Safety and Security. Thus, the provocation of ignorance projects a sense of innocence onto structures that are designed to maintain methods of social control, dominance, and subjugation against racialized people.
The description of our kakars as “articles of faith” is completely detached and foreign to our practice of being shastartari. Sikhs are confined between dichotomies of language that do not belong to us, from those who attempt to neutralize any perceived threat of our kakars to others who frame our embodiment of being shastartari through the language of the 2nd Amendment.
North Carolina, where the Singh was forced to confront police, is an open carry state. Ultimately, our “right” to the panj kakar comes from Suche Patsha which no imperialist empire cannot bestow. It is hukam.
Sikh precarity is intensifying as more are displaced from Panjab and the living conditions of poor and working-class Sikhs worsen. The disparities in the diaspora are stark, from those who live in cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs to others who finance those livelihoods through their exploited labor by working jobs that pay below minimum wage.
Attempts to neutralize Sikhi only serve to appease empire and continue the comfort of those Sikhs with social, economic, and political capital. What is huk di kamai in this age of hyper-individualism and capitalism that leave some people scrapping for food and others hoarding immense wealth?
In August, The Intercepted reported on the violence inflicted on Sikhs by the US Border Patrol, particularly when Singhs’ dastaars were thrown away. Another Singh’s keshara nala was cut and he was unable to wear that kakar. According to the Singh, the dastar and keshara’s nala were confiscated as a “suicide prevention tactic”.
The antagonistic relationship between nation-states and the treatment of our kakars, bestowed to us by Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, privilege us to ask: What kind of structures institute policies to cut the nala of a keshara and throw away a dastaar to avoid suicide? What does this expose about the violence that these institutions produce?
Here, I must mention the killing of Gurupreet Kaur, a child who died of thirst at the US-Mexico border, a death orchestrated by imperialist nations and their borders. Ultimately, this raises the question: What does it mean to be shastartari at this moment where nation-states continuously inflict violence, especially on Sikhs on the margins?
Sikh asool and our panj kakar juxtapose the current structure of imperialist nations that produce vast inequities, global instability, and displacement. Many of these Singhs escaped state violence in Indian-occupied Punjab and came to the United States in hopes of a “better life”, only to be met with violence here. One Singh replaced his dastaar with a baseball cap to cover his head, to avoid further persecution and practice Sikhi. He now fears that will also be confiscated by Border Patrol. These are the conditions produced by empire.
Today, many Sikhs’ psyches are (sub)consciously occupied with questions about cutting kesh, ‘fitting in’ and other issues, should enlighten us about our positionality as gulaam (subjugated/ subservient) in these nation-states. Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji gave us our kakars to stand out, yet the conditions of today demand a type of compromise, in which the (Sikh) non-profit industrial complex jumps in to remedy and band-aid.
By understanding this, we can work past a framework that addresses Panthic dardh and self-reflection as “self-hatred”. Instead, we can rally to dissect and confront the structures and policies that come to produce these gulaam living conditions. Only by doing so will we be able to shift away from individualizing and projecting our frustrations onto other Sikhs and work toward building collective power as a sangat.
Sikhs must center the evocation of being Tyar Bar Tyar and work past left and right political binaries that trap us within language and imaginaries that do not belong to us. Instead, this only further divides our potential for building power as sangat.
After each viral encounter, we find ourselves rightfully angry and stuttering to figure out our next steps as a survival mechanism. In other words, we are fighting for our survival in structures that are antithetical to Sikhi. By understanding these deeper layers, we can reimagine what Sikh refusal looks like amid this wave of mass displacement from Punjab, ongoing water crises, and as thousands of Sikh political prisoners are caged in India, the so-called largest democracy in the world.
Some Sikh military and police officers often wear the kalgi and cloth given by these institutions and place them on the very dastaar bestowed to us by Suche Patsha. This glaring contradiction becomes more evident when one examines how these very carceral institutions and their symbols are weaponized against Sikh bodies in the diaspora and Punjab.
What kind of “home” asks you to constantly negotiate and compromise your identity? Why are some Sikhs still pleading with imperialist nations to accept dastaars when their upfront exclusion reveals your gulaam position in the country you call home?
Today, the Marines might let you wear a Dastaar, but they will require you to trim your beard and kill to uphold imperialism across borders. While some Sikh carceral officers have legislatively won their right to wear camouflage dastaars, Sikhs at the borders are stripped of their kakars and therefore, their Sikh existence.
Perhaps, reckoning with the fact that we have no home can steer us toward organizing a space where Sikhs’ can move away from the barracks of survival and toward liberation. While some may refer to that space as Begumpura, our shaheeds sought to actualize Begumpura and Khalsa Raj through the Khalistan struggle – a space where Sikhs can unapologetically exist and be empowered to understand gulaami. Constantly compromising within structures of imperialist nation-states will not save us, and locating the radicalizing potential of panthic dardh, allows us to find alternative coordinates to center our demands for self-determination and liberation.
These institutions do not belong to us nor were they created for us. The basis of Sikh political education comes from the sangat, including young and old sevadaars at gurudware, in gurudwara kitchens, kathavachaks, dadhi vaaran, our sakhia, the jeevan of our shaheeds, and other everyday Sikhs who struggle against poverty and are not situated within these formal institutions that are accessed by limited people with social, economic and political capital.
The most recent video is a reminder of what happens when Sikhs engage in acts of refusal, which is to act in rebellion and protest. How do we move with the lumps in our throats to create fertile ground to organize and convene in a way that is embedded in our radical Sikh practices of liberation? How do we work past the path of survival and evoke and commit to the flourishing of the Sikh spirit of refusal and rebellion?
The kirpan is more than an article of faith that “resembles a knife or sword”. A kirpan will forever remain a weapon against empire and oppression.
Teer Kaur is a Ph.D. Candidate who studies the criminalization of space and state violence. You can find her on Twitter @bikethewind
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