Teer Kaur: No Police Or FBI Recruitment At Gurudware
Questions about police and FBI recruitment at our Gurudware arise from this dardh (pain) and deep desire to exist in the space that our Gurus envisioned – an autonomous, sovereign Sikh space
May 17, 2022 | 7 min. read | Opinion
The Stockton Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan was my first time gathering amongst thousands since the pandemic began. I longed for nothing more than to be immersed in Guru’s Sangat, to experience the stillness that emerges when I hear my voice melt into the collective sound of Kirtan and echoes from the Sangat, and to feel like a droplet amongst an ocean, an experience felt at the Diwaan that took place the previous evening. Yet, instead of hearing kirtan on the speakers and hums from the pyaari auntyji to my right, I hear the campaign slogans of the next District Attorney running for office and FBI officers who are recruiting their latest cohort of agents. Questions about police and FBI recruitment at our Gurudware arise from this dardh (pain) and deep desire to exist in the space that our Gurus envisioned – an autonomous, sovereign Sikh space.
Gurudware are increasingly becoming contested sites, sandwiched between appeals to western empires on one side and the site of the sovereign by sheer presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and Nishaan Sahib on the other. A Gurudwara both embodies and symbolizes a sovereign, autonomous space rooted in the revolutionary spirit of the Khalsa, in physical form, which ignites in the presence of Guru’s sangat and Maharaj’s Saroop. That is why police, military and FBI recruitment, let alone their presence, at our Gurudware and Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan programs raises fundamental questions about the purpose of our Gurudware in a moment of mass displacement and migration from Punjab, assimilation into the West and the state of our Sikh Quam.
Simply put, our Gurudware and Nagar Kirtan programs are not state agent job recruitment fairs nor are they spaces for political theatrics and puppeteering for oppressive regimes. Instead, our Gurus call on us to create liberating spaces in a confining world, a place to gather in Guru’s name and fight against tyranny, otherwise understood as Miri Piri (ਮੀਰੀਪੀਰੀ). Our Gurus do not call on us to create sites of gulaami abroad for those who are complicit and participate in oppressive structures that reproduce state and structural violence. This is especially important to reckon with as Sikhs experience ongoing state violence at the hands of India which, in large part, has led to our displacement.
Ideally, Gurudware are one of the few places where Sikhs can exist without having to explain, negotiate or compromise our identities. Gurudware are sites of fugitive planning where collective care is central and our modes of being work against prevailing neoliberal manifestations. While no space can be truly exempt from the world’s structures, a Gurudwara offers a physical space where Sikh values are embodied, Sikh modes of existence, resistance and liberation can be reimagined while surviving amidst the shackles of empires. In other words, in a world where our existence is already confined and negotiated, our Gurudware offer us a space to just exist in ‘sach’. Thus, Gurudware must be protected from cooptation and infiltration from state agencies, as I will detail below.
The FBI and police recruitment at Gurudware call on us to reflect on Sikh Itīhās and ask questions about Sikh approaches to safety and security, especially if one considers our relationship to shastar, sovereignty and autonomy. The police do not protect us, as exemplified by a wave of recent of hate crimes against Sikhs. This begs the question, what protection and safety do the police offer that have not been offered to us by Sikhi and the Khalsa?
These questions require us to move beyond an aesthetic to truly embody Sikhi in our everyday lives and practice. As Sikhs, we do not have to look far to understand how the Sikh position in the world is one that actively defends and empowers those in the margins and the most disenfranchised. Sri Guru HarGobind Sahib Ji was imprisoned for refusing to bow to the Mughal Empire and liberated cities from the Mughal emperor, fed and armed the poor and oppressed.
Yet, some Sikhs now believe that we must appeal and join Western military and police forces that surveil, subjugate and terrorize not only marginalized people in the West but also those in Punjab, Syria, Lybia and other countries. One cannot obtain their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of those who oppress them. While naare of “Khalistan Zindabad” echo in our Darbar Halls, FBI agents are actively recruiting in these very spaces who have previously mobilized their resources to capture Khalistani activists. This includes Bhai Lal Singh who was wanted by the FBI and CSIS and imprisoned by India for 28 years for his revolutionary organizing. Sikhs must contend with this contradiction to understand how foreign intelligence, the carceral and surveillance state operate at a global scale to destabilize and criminalize activism.
Sant Jarnail Singh Ji Bhindrawale referred to Indian officers as “jamdoot” and called for them to take off their uniform if they are to bow down to the Guru as one cannot bow to the Guru while wearing the uniform of an oppressor. When Sant Ji was offered so-called protection by these Indian officers, he responded to them:
“My only protector is Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh Sahib, beyond that is Guru’s Sangat. I have no need for your protection.”
Bombay Speech, April 20, 1982
Sant Ji’s important perspective on safety and protection raises a fundamental questions for Sikhs who are trying to navigate these coercive systems: who does a Sikh police officer pledge their allegiance to or give their head for – an empire or the panth? With which uniform and commitment do they bow their head to the divine? Sant Ji contended with these tensions and contradictions as he centered Sikhi sidhant (Sikh praxis) in his perspectives.
After 9/11, Sikh organizations and stakeholders were adamant about marketing and demonstrating “Sikh values” as “American values,” diluting Sikh principles to appeal to Western democratic nations. This led to a myriad of assimilationist campaigns, in which Sikhs and Sikhi were made palatable to demonstrate our humanity to the oppressor. These appeals include the “We Are Sikh” Campaign and other forms of political engagement including public langar programs, such as those at the White House. Other public, outright examples of political theatrics and beadbi include the “Ardaas” that was conducted at the United States Republican Convention in 2016.
Perhaps, two decades later, some Sikhs have internalized what was ultimately a costly strategy mobilized by the Sikh elite in conversation with politicians and other state actors. Let’s be clear: Sikh values are not American values. The United States, along with other Western countries, are built on systems of exploitation, looting and genocide, including centuries of slavery, indigenous genocide, colonialism and apartheid. In the United States, policing has its origins in slave patrols and codes, namely the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, that allowed slaveholders to kidnap and capture Black people as they fled to free states. Although the origins and roots of policing and military may seem historic, these racial logics and white supremacy are deeply embedded into these institutions and the carceral state today.
In comparison, Guru Sahib envisions the ‘foundation of Sach’ as the basis for power relations:
ਨਾਨਕਿ ਰਾਜੁ ਚਲਾਇਆ ਸਚੁ ਕੋਟੁ ਸਤਾਣੀ ਨੀਵ ਦੈ ॥
naanak raaj chalaiaa sach kot sataanee neev dhai ||
Nanak established sovereign rule; built the True fortress on the strongest foundations.
From Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s founding of the Khalsa to our present day in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Sikhi makes political, economic and social interventions into the carceral and capitalist structures that produce hyperindividual understandings of life and being that affect our lobh (ਲੋਭ - greed), moh (ਮੋਹ - attachment) and hankaar (ਹੰਕਾਰ - ego).
In a world that breeds hyperindividualism, our gurudware are pillars in our communities that demonstrate a way to live otherwise, rooted in sangat, prem (love) for our Guru and commitment to stand against tyranny and oppression. During any moment of crisis, Sikhs have place-based institutions to intervene, organize the sangat to provide support for basic needs through shelter, safety (shastaar), langar and much more. Langar is not merely a passive distribution of food, but one rooted as a political intervention that exists in parallel with MiriPiri, not a ritual in isolation.
Similarly, Gurudware are inherently political, sovereign institutions where the praxis of the Guru-Granth-Guru-Panth take precedent which is why the presence and recruitment of police and FBI must not be taken lightly. While dozens of Khalistan flags fly in the air and the photos of our Shaheeds hang on the walls that watch over us, we must understand that the carceral state operates at multiple scales, from collaborations across these empires, between the UK, US, and Canada with India, to local deployment of agents to surveil our communities. Irrespective of one’s political alignment, the carceral state affects us all.
Regardless of the possible well-meaning intentions of Sikhs who join the carceral state, the police, military and FBI are inherently attached to machineries of empire and warfare that contradict the very pillars of Sikhi. These issues must be approached from a structural perspective to contend with how carceral regimes cannot be changed from within, as that assumes that individual people have the autonomy and agency to undo and reshape centuries of colonialism, capitalism and other oppressive structures that intersect to produce our lived reality today.
This moment calls on us to ask a series of critical, but essential questions about the Sikh Quam. What does it mean for Nishaan Sahib to fly over stolen lands, lands that are exploited for profit, looted lands from indigenous people, and lands that have built their foundations off of slavery, colonialism and genocide? As Sikhs, we have a different type of relationship with the soil and land that moves beyond ownership, profit and extraction. Who and what purpose do our Gurudware serve in this current geopolitical ordering? Do we stand with Jamdoot, the oppressors, or do we move beyond the aesthetic to truly embody warrorism and Sikh asool that we carry in our hearts, passed onto us by our Gurus and Shaheeds? What does it mean to serve in a police force or military that brutalizes vulnerable populations through hot spots policing and bombs innocent people who long for cloudy days all while wearing a camouflage dastaar and kara?
To address these questions, we must reckon with how our liberation is interlocked. While online algorithmic discourse produces spectacles of ego ridden “debates”, utilizing binaries of the “left” and “right” that limit our capacity for genuine dialogue, we have literal (non-Sikh) state agents cosplaying in dastaars, smiling and laughing at their tables and openly recruiting the next cohort of officers who may be dispatched to our protests and rallies.
Gurudware are not places for Jamdoot and are instead sites to challenge current oppressive structures and practice Sikhi asool as the Gurus imagined. This requires us to reflect on the lands our Nishaan Sahib fly high over, the communities that our Gurudware nestled in, and reexamine our commitments to those who are the most disenfranchised in these communities.
At Vaisakhi programs, many kathavachaks detailed how Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, before a congregation of 80,000 at Anandpur Sahib, asked who would be willing to give their head. Today, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s call is not an abstract or hypothetical question. Instead, Guru Ji seeks our head everyday. It must be embodied in our everyday practice and through active organizing against oppressive structures, not by joining those very forces. It is a daily practice that requires us to cultivate the world our Gurus envisioned with MiriPiri and sit in Guru’s name which begins with cultivating liberating spaces for our existence. In Ardaas, we say “Raj Karega Khalsa” (ਰਾਜ ਕਰੇਗਾ ਖਾਲਸਾ) and the Khalsa Raj does not bow to any oppressive authority and rule. Thus, the police and FBI recruiters should not be welcome in the home of the divine and Khalsa.
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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