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Ranveer Singh: The Problem With "South Asian Heritage Month"
"...the notion of one homogenous South Asian heritage is suffocating."
July 27, 2023 | 5 min. read | Opinion
Three years ago, some folk in the UK started an initiative called “South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM).” Their website states they aim to “foster a deeper and more inclusive understanding of British history and heritage, promote social harmony and cohesion, and contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society for all.”
The promotion of cultural heritage is essential for preserving a nation's history and fostering a sense of identity among its people. The region of the world known as South Asia, with its diverse history and rich cultural tapestry, possesses a unique set of heritages that deserve recognition and preservation. However, to group them together in the process of promoting what has become known as “South Asian Heritage Month” (SAHM) is problematic.
The region of South Asia encompasses countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and India, each with its own subset of distinct cultures, traditions, religions, languages, and histories. This vastness makes it impossible to encapsulate the entirety of South Asian heritages in one cohesive manner, as it requires addressing the nuances and uniqueness of each subregion.
In an increasingly globalised world, traditional practices and indigenous knowledge may become overshadowed by dominant global cultures and narratives. This is how projects that incorporate a homogenous narrative can result in the dilution of individually diverse peoples and the erasure of their struggles for sovereignty.
Let us consider the Sikhs of Panjab.
Historically speaking, they had established a significant political presence in Panjab under the leadership of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839). This political rule came on the back of various manifestations of Sikh power throughout the 18th century, which, as I outline in my book, Patshahi Mehima, find origins that can be traced back to the Darbars of the Gurus themselves, from Kartarpur to Anandpur. However, with the arrival of the British colonial encounter, the manifestation of Sikh sovereignty that had been established by Maharaja Ranjit Singh was dismantled, and Punjab was annexed in 1849. Almost a century later, the British hastily implemented an ill-planned partition of Panjab into two separate nation-states - predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, as well as what would become Bangladesh.
The lack of regard for the complex religious, cultural, and communal tapestry of the region led to one of the most violent episodes of the 20th century. Punjab was split in half, with the western part going to Pakistan and the eastern part to India. This division forced the Sikhs, whose historical sites, homes, and farmlands were scattered across Punjab, into a horrific exodus marked by violence, displacement, and loss of lives.
The creation of the state of India in 1947 is widely celebrated today as a moment of “independence”. Some even call it a moment of “decolonisation”. However, in reality, it marked the transfer of colonial power.
The newly formed state of India adopted centralised policies of unitary control, and the organisation of states further marginalized the Sikhs by diluting their political influence within Punjab. The Sikhs' demand for a Punjabi suba (province) where they could exercise autonomy took nearly two decades to be recognized, and even then, it came with several caveats, including the further partition of east Panjab, leading to the creation of the new states of Himachal and Haryana.
Any ties between the state of India and politically conscious Sikh leadership were severed when, in 1984, the Indian government launched a full-scale military attack upon the epicentre of Sikh polity and spirituality, Sri Darbar Sahib, otherwise known in the West as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. The subsequent mobilisation for Sikh sovereignty, under the pursuit of Khalistan, continues to this day.
Relying on the work of decolonial scholars such as Walter Mignolo and Anibal Quijano, who seek to challenge and resist the “colonial matrix of power” that perpetuates racial, political, economic, social, and cultural hierarchies, and applying this perspective to Punjab, reveals how British colonisers systematically reduced the Sikhs to a minority within their homeland, primarily through the introduction of administrative divisions and economic policies that subjugated the region. Post-1947, this was subsequently continued by consecutive governments in the new state of India.
This is why many Sikhs across the diaspora refuse to identify as “indian” and it is why the notion of one homogenous South Asian heritage is suffocating.
The partition of Panjab not only led to the separation of the Sikhs from many of their historical sites, now located in Pakistan, but neglect of significant buildings and architecture associated with Sikh tradition and heritage. This geographical separation from their ancestral lands has had enduring effects on Sikh identity, culture, and lifestyle. Furthermore, the events of 1984 only served to alienate the Sikhs. However, this is lost in the narratives that push for the promotion of a singular South Asian heritage, which is eerily like the nationalist rhetoric that emanates from the state of India.
To group the cultures together in this manner is no different from instances of cultural appropriation, in which clothing, symbols, and practices are commodified and stripped of their original meaning. This not only diminishes the authenticity of individual South Asian cultures but also perpetuates stereotypes and reinforces power imbalances. It is crucial to navigate the fine line between appreciating South Asian heritages and appropriating them into one overarching idea of a singular palatable identity.
Any initiative to promote South Asian heritages must strive for inclusive representation that recognizes the diversity within the region and acknowledges the socio-political distinctions which define the region.
As mentioned, South Asia is home to numerous identities, each with its own contribution to the overall political landscape. However, dominant narratives grounded in colonial, and Western Enlightenment principles, such as universal moral relativism, often overlook or marginalise certain groups, leading to a skewed representation of South Asian heritages. It is imperative to ensure that all voices and perspectives are included, promoting a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the region's rich tapestry.
This perspective encourages us to question and redefine the notions of nation-states, sovereignty, and identity that were shaped by colonial powers in a manner that honours and respects the diversity of experiences and aspirations of all communities, including the Sikhs.
This also underscores the need for ongoing dialogues, reconciliation, and healing, and instead of reinforcing models of universal moral relativism, in which we are all depicted as drinking “chai” and playing happy families, there is a need to champion models of cultural relativism that allow space for and celebrate, our unique identities.
By fostering awareness, education, and inclusive dialogue, we can promote South Asian heritages in a manner that respects their authenticity, embraces their diversity, ensures their preservation for future generations, and stands in solidarity with their ongoing struggles. Only through these efforts can we undo the work of coloniality and truly celebrate and honour the vibrant heritages of South Asia.
Ranveer Singh writes from Scotland, UK, and is the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF). He is an Author and Chief Editor at Khalis House Publishing. Ranveer has a BA in Law and is currently undertaking an MA in Philosophy. His latest book is entitled "Patshahi Mehima - Revisiting Sikh Sovereignty (2021)", which has received early praise from distinguished professors in the field of Sikh Studies and History. You can find him on Twitter at @ranveer5ingh
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