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Who Speaketh For The Panth?





I was a bit late stepping onto the treadmill in the basement of my home for my cardiovascular workout on the morning of August 5, 2012.

As I do my workout I watch the TV mounted on the wall. I was watching replay of tapes of Olympics 2012 events of the previous day.

Half an hour into my workout I switched to the CNN station for headline news. Don Lemon, CNN weekend anchor, had interrupted scheduled programming announcing ‘Breaking News Now’ of a shooting rampage in a suburb of Milwaukee,
Wisconsin. The network was receiving news feed from local CNN affiliate who had hastened to the gurdwara grounds for fast breaking news.

Sunday, a day of prayer, had turned into a day of terror for the congregation at the Oak Creek Gurdwara in Wisconsin. Hundreds of worshippers had arrived for early morning prayers and preparation for serving of langar. Little did they suspect the tragedy that was about to befall on them.

The police had cordoned off the gurdwara environs. At this point the police had the scantiest of information and uncertain who the gunman was and if he acted alone.

From among the congregants who were safely gathered in the parking, a local reporter was questioning someone whose name was not mentioned. CNN then turned to their reporter Ted Rowlands who had by then arrived on the scene for live reporting.

Rowlands interviewed Amandeep Singh Kaleka, the son of the president (Satwant Singh, the man, we found out later, who bravely challenged the gunman but was killed) and the following telling exchange between them on the Sikh religion later became a constant refrain of all reporters:

ROWLANDS: Talk about the Sikh religion, quickly. Talking about a religion based on peace and unity and family and close-knit environments.

KALEKA: Yes, absolutely. That is what it's founded on, the conflict between Muslims and Hindus. It was an open-minded thing. You know, every one of all faiths are allowed in the temple because God is not to judge anyone based on their religion, caste, creed, gender. And that's sort of why we keep the doors open for, you know, any one of any type. It's really unfortunate someone took advantage of this, you know, and the love we try to give out. We feed people for free out of the loving you know, the love that God has blessed us with. And it's disgusting, to say the least, that people would do this.

- Rush transcript aired August 5.

CNN investigative staff raced helter-skelter not just for the story line but also to discover who the Sikhs are. It was bizarre to see Eric Marrapodi, co-editor of a CNN Faith Blog, a non-Sikh, explain “who belongs to the Sikh Community”. Surinder Singh of Atlanta had already tried to do so. So had Rajwant Singh.

Later in the day, Ali Velshi, CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent, interviewed Narinder Singh, Sikh Coalition chairman, on understanding the Sikh community. Velshi makes mention of an individual he had just interviewed who “typically does not wear turban but did on this day either in solidarity or show who he was”. Referring to the turban, Velshi adds: “This of course has been some of the discourse that in the post 9/11 world lots of Sikhs were discriminated against or people were associating them with Taliban but Sikhs proudly wear the turban,” to which Narinder Singh provided a cogent explanation of core
beliefs of the Sikh faith.

More information began to filter through about the gunman.

To get a Sikh perspective on him on August 7, Amy Goodman of the TV program, “Democracy Now,” invited Simran Jeet Singh, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, who had written a piece titled  “As a Sikh American I refuse to Live in Fear and Negativity” for the Huffington Post.

As part of his thoughts on the shooter, Simran referred to the Aurora shootings and Senator Gabby Gifford and added: “These acts of hatred and violence really call attention to a long-standing culture of fear”. He was asked to explain the religious and cultural significance of the turban and why men don’t cut their hair.

The incident at Oak Creek Gurdawra had caused bedlam. TV stations throughout USA were scrambling to interview local Sikh leaders in an effort to get a better understanding of the Sikhs living amongst them. In the many voices that were heard the likelihood of a disorganized argument was perhaps unavoidable, underscoring the religious imperative of a united front with a single voice which is media savvy.

On the recent ongoing turmoil in Syria, CNN, as is their wont, often calls upon Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at the Hoover institution, to provide a cogent analysis of the civil war. On the Israel-Palestinian conflict, CNN often turns to Edward Said, the scholarly Palestinian-American. On Middle East issues, the CNN seeks the expertise of Fawaz Gerges, Director of Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

The shooting spree at Oak Creek gurdwara had the media thrust to the fore whomever they could get hold off, desperately trying to examine the thoughts and feelings of the community and how Sikh-Americans in general were coping with the trauma and what may have triggered the slaughter.

Likely, the spokespersons were chosen in random. The presence and quality of responses by some were laudable; some among the others were less articulate.

The communal imperative dictates that the Sikh community designate media savvy individuals for comment and explanations. Surely, there is no dearth of individuals of the intellectual caliber of Fouad Ajami, Edward Said or Fawaz Gerges among the Sikhs of North America who can be called upon by media to provide an articulate voice on Sikhs and Sikhism; a person trusted by the community as their spokesperson.

The crucial question is how the community goes about selecting such a person.

Some well intentioned people would have the community tap into the rich vein of Sikh Chair holders at leading universities. The Sikh Chair holder is pre-eminently chosen for his/her expertise in religious philosophy and expression, ability to promote Punjabi language programs, organizing Sikh conferences and publication of books on Sikhs and Sikhism.

The Sikh Chairs are largely religion centered and less eco-politics focused.

The individual in the mould of Ajami-Said-Gerges will be one who transcends religious expertise, not just book and street savvy but also able to articulate communal and cultural ethos to the American people.

So I ask: Who speaketh for the panth?


August 16, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Amardeep (USA), August 17, 2012, 3:46 PM.

I wonder why there is not a single article/speech by our Sikh Chair holders? Are they not in those positions because of money collected by the Sikh community? Are they not suppose to be keeping a finger on the community's pulse all the time?

2: R. Singh (Sacramento, California, U.S.A.), August 17, 2012, 7:27 PM.

@Amardeep. While I agree that it might be prudent for the Sikh Chair holders to pen popular articles for the lay public, the primary duties of these professors are to teach, advise, and research. Not to be public relations representatives of the community. Someone who studies Sikh history from the 18th/19th century might not be the best person to speak about the Sikhs of the United States.

3: Jasbeer Singh (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), August 17, 2012, 7:40 PM.

With too many chiefs and too few Indians, we have found ourselves poorly represented and understood. Consequently, perhaps as a result of our being confused with Muslims on many an occasion, Muslims or other non-Sikhs are called upon to comment on events pertaining to the Sikhs. To make a beginning, it will be appropriate to identify a suitable spokesperson in each city / province and communicate this information to all relevant media outlets. Hopefully, as time progresses, Sikhs with clear ideas and strong communication abilities will emerge on the national scale. Please don't put any such burden on the so-called Sikh Chairs; they may be good researchers and authors, but, as has been pointd out, effectively representing a community like ours, requires a high degree of charm, charisma, presentability and very special skills, not often found among intellectuals and academia.

4: Pashaura Singh (Riverside, California, USA), August 18, 2012, 12:24 AM.

The question raised by Bhupinder ji is important. The straight answer is: Only the panth speaketh on behalf of the panth. No individual, howsoever holy or expert he/she might be, can take the place of the collectivity of the panth. This is the strength of the Sikh tradition, but it is also the main problem of the global Sikh community. After the Oak Creek Gurdwara tragedy, we can see how people from all walks of life participated in the media interviews. No single individual or an organization could claim to represent the panth, although they acted according to their best abilities. One elderly Sikh was an eyewitness to the shooting. His interview was important even though he was not able to speak fluent English. But the CNN respected his remarks and gave him full chance to express his emotions. What is wrong with that? Nothing. interviewed me about the significance of the turban, its colors and styles. It was focused only on the turban. I tried to explain Sikh principles but those things were not even reported in the article. We cannot dictate to the media, we can only answer their questions. I was expecting the criticism of Sikh Studies Chairs. This criticism is uncalled for. First of all, our community does not know that we do not draw our salary from Sikh Studies endowment funds. We are appointed by the universities. With the interest of these endowments we organize conferences and other research events. We spend our time and energy to work for these positions. Of course it is an honor to hold a Chair in a university. Most of the people who criticize the chairholders have not contributed even a single penny for the establishement of these chairs. I normally do not respond like this, but I have to be blunt here. There was an article "From Stockton to Oak Creek" written by another chairholder and his student which appeared last Sunday. Has anyone seen it? I do not want to give all the details here. People who want to criticize chairholders should search this article. There are eight Sikh Studies Chairs in North America. The advocacy groups would not even like these scholars to come forward. When hundreds of American students take our classes on Sikh tradition every quarter / semester, isn't that our contribution? Two doctoral students in Sikh Studies were at the forefront of media interviews. That is great. A new generation is stepping up in the leadership roles. This is a significant development. Rather than blaming the Sikh Studies scholars, the community should help them carry out their duties well.

5: Kiran Kaur (Maryland, USA), August 18, 2012, 7:13 AM.

A small point I want to pick up from Dr Pashaura Singh ji's post. Eye-witnesses do not need to be trained in media skills. The more raw their reactions and testimony, the more valuable they are to the viewer. I don't believe any of the criticism over the last few days against self-appointed media spokespersons is meant to apply to eye-witnesses who tell their stories as best as they can, even if it's in broken English or disjointed phrases. Their value in being fresh and genuine is not to be confused with those who, despite no skills, push themselves forward, not as relevant eye-witnesses, but as community spokespersons and interpreters of Sikh matters. I want to make sure that the distinction between these two groups does not get blurred.

6: Jaggi Singh (Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.), August 18, 2012, 8:55 PM.

The shootings in Oak Creek and our failure to provide persons who could clearly answer the very valid questions of the media in a timely fashion, has left the panth like deer caught in headlights. How many times have we been in a similar situation? And I am afraid this is not the last. The Chair-holders or granthis are not people who can stand in front of the mike and answer the questions. We need Sikhs who are fluent in Punjabi and more so in English, preferably who grew up in the West. Unfortunately, it is my experience that the well-educated from Punjab cannot help using Indianisms. The flowery Indian words leave the western listeners baffled. I would hope the many Sikh "foundations" and "associations" in North America would identify likely candidates and register them with all the major media networks. Narinder Singh from the Sikh Coalition is a perfect example of what the panth needs.

7: Jespal Brar (Lodi, California, U.S.A.), August 19, 2012, 12:16 PM.

The challenge is that we have The Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs & SALDEF. All of them are seeking the same interview and CNN is getting bombarded with requests for 'talk time' with the reps from these organizations. How does CNN go about choosing one from these Sikh organizations? As a community we need to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the division of roles and responsibilities. Please, no politics or 'My organization is better'. We all have roles to play.

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