The news has subsided. The riots have ceased and the bodies are cremated. There are no follow up stories in the newspapers covering the aftermath, survivors. India has simply endured another tragedy.
It was a week I was to spend in rage. Like other Sikh expatriates, I had my parents and other family members in India. There were the daily anxious calls to ascertain their welfare. The time between calls spent fearing the worst, and feeling helpless.
It was a week that was to force me to examine my relationship with the country of my birth redefine what separates me from it and what beckons me to return for short visits.
India belongs to my childhood and youth. But my identity is tied to it in all important ways. The face staring back at me in the mirror is an Indian face. It evokes a special response among Americans which says that they recognize me as such. I scan the newspapers to read any news about India. I feel ennobled and proud if an Indian American is cited for any achievement. And I feel duty bound to return to visit my parents. It is a psychological contract that binds all first generation immigrants to their homelands.
But for me as with many other SikhIndians, India is difficult to completely come to terms with. For other Indians, the relationship with the native land is essentially the love of family, of landscape, of cuisine. There may also be an ideological tie and a sense of pride in its remote past conquests and glories.
For Sikhs, India was at once an ancestral homeland and the country to which we had immigrated 37 years ago. For India, in 1947, was carved out in a tribal and religious conflict. It was to be the home for Hindus and displaced people from the newly created state of Pakistan. It was to be secular and more tolerant than the land of the pure, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It was the land where Sikhs, suddenly made homeless and destitute, sought refuge. For several years Sikhs would move from city to city in Northern India, unable to successfully settle down, always retaining the atmosphere of the refugee camps. It wasn’t until 1950’s_ that the Sikhs began settling in the big cities of India — a process that still goes on today.
It was then that Sikhs and Hindus of urban India came face to face. The Sikhs were merely two percent of the population and in these cities, far from their traditional province, considerably less. But to be a Sikh was to be visibly different. Turban and beard claimed their separateness. So did their size and name. (Every Sikh assumes as one of his names ‘Singh’). Other differences ran deeper. Sikhs are casteless. Caste obligations and sensibilities were largely alien to them. Most of them poor, but driven by the religious creed that decrees ‘with your own hands carve out your own destiny’ took jobs held in low esteem by caste Hindus. This creed released energy in people who otherwise might have remained inactive and enabled them to rise. Individual enterprise made it possible for people without distinguished birth, without land and sometimes even without an education, to change their place in life. Some immigrated to more demanding countries.
Rapidly gaining affluence and education, Sikhs acquired the Western sense of self and society. “Fate was to be rejected. While Hindus endured it nobly, or patiently outlasted it, Sikhs defied it. This rejection of fate, this insistence that everything is possible, is what separates Sikhs and is at the heart of their success. There is a strong strain of resistance to the suggestion that destiny is formed by the outside powers, by immutable forces. It allowed Sikh farmers, given unproductive lands in an attempt to absorb the refugees in India, to raise the highest yields of wheat. Their success story in the green revolution is a rare one. A fraction of the population, they now grow 40% of the food giving India a virtual self-sufficiency for the first time in centuries. Similar examples abound in education, sports, armed forces, women’s equality, literacy rates etc. where their contributions have far exceeded their size.
Sikh experience was different on another level, in their collective psyche. Their history had been a struggle. It was a bloody struggle with a high price. Born in the 16th century during the violent clash of Mughal conquerors and the conquered Hindu nations, Sikhism forged a new path rejecting the excesses of both. It began as a brotherhood rather than a religion. One’s duties were directly to the society. Through good deeds and defending the weak, rather than caste or years of prayers in solace, was one to achieve merit. Stressing equality, any. Male or female could perform priestly duties such as reciting the teachings of the founders and the holy men of other religions. Indeed the new converts were to be called Sikhs disciples for their lifelong commitment to learning these principles. Fearing the all-pervasive caste system, the founders decreed that on religious days, the congregation must ritually reaffirm its commitment to equality by sitting on the floor with others in humility, rich and poor, professional and illiterate, and sharing humble food cooked in a common kitchen by volunteers.
In the 17th century, when the conquerors began converting Hindus to Islam by force, Hindus approached the energetic Sikhs to intervene. This petition was to engage Sikhs in bloody battles with the Mughals and other invading armies from Afghanistan and the Middle East for a century, transforming them into fierce militants known as the ‘Warriors of God.’ Repeatedly outlawed by the Mughals, they survived attempts to eradicate them. It was a violent struggle to which scores of Sikhs gave their lives. Rather than hiding, Sikhs began supporting turbans as a defiant and visible symbol of their faith. These Sikh holocausts and the stories of Sikh valor have been told and retold to all followers to forge unity and to maintain the external symbols of appearance, in honor of these martyrs. Indeed many Sikhs settled outside India, who like me has shed their turban and beard to facilitate assimilation, harbor a feeling that such steps nullify the sacrifices of the past.
But the brunt of the Mughal Empire had been deflected and Hindus survived the forced conversion in Northwestern India. The grateful Hindus looked upon the Sikhs as their saviors until recently and in some families raised their first born to be a Sikh to add to the defenders of the faith.
Understanding this historical bond, it was ironic to watch frenzied mobs attack Sikhs in New Delhi last month.
While the Sikhs scattered themselves all over India, the Hindu religion was undergoing a transformation itself. India had been conquered and ruled by alien faiths for centuries. The periods of respite were brief and without many achievements. Hindu contributions to the civilization lay in the distant past. Now free, Hinduism at its extremes moved in two divergent directions. On one side was what it proudly labeled Modern India. Its citizens were educated, formed a nucleus of middle class professionals in the emerging industries and were secular. They were represented in the US as successful immigrants.
The other Hindu India, the more familiar image, however, sought renewal from the past by recovering the old ways. What was suppressed and dishonored through the centuries was to be restored. All deviations from the righteous path were to be rejected. Since some Hindus believed that Sikhism was a form of Hinduism, this aberration too had to be rejected. Caste and religion, the great hate makers through history, again shaped its attitudes. It found Sikhs an indeterminate caste; and therefore unclean. The image of beard and turban in the urban areas presented a peasant form and slow wit. It made Sikhs the subject of popular jokes.
But beyond visible differences, Sikhs remained little known to India. India never performed a cost accounting of their contributions. Historic or social inquiry is not a part of the Indian custom. So when the Sikhs in the Punjab attempted to duplicate their success in agriculture to industry, demanding water and electric resources, India saw it as a militant struggle of a self-conscious minority. The Hindus, who would have equally benefitted from industrialization, abandoned Sikhs. The demands became a Sikh issue. Sikh religious leaders trumped up additional grievances to further their own advancement. The problem festered for years not because irreconcilable differences were involved but because the separate development of Sikhs and an assertive ancient India precluded any reconciliation. In November, the struggle reached a climax, claiming the lives of Indira Gandhi and 7000 Sikhs.
These historical developments, to some of which I was a witness during my early years, were not material to my personal identification with India. These separate developments appeared inevitable and certainly not unique to India. But in November, with my family terrorized, their future uncertain, a friend killed and the pictures of massacres, often with the complicity of the law, urged reassessment of my feelings towards India. And it had to be more at a personal level than an abstract analysis of the historical events.
From the distance of 1984, these personal images of India were full of ironies. The most vivid of which was a sense of growing separateness from my past revealed during my recent trip. I had left it unresolved. After all, I had found equivalent ties with my past and myself in the US. It seemed natural to be in the US. The knowledge that India existed was a sufficient anchor.
But the fact was that the last trip had disturbed the relationships I had presumed for so long. I had appraised India with new eyes. This appraisal had begun as early as my arrival at JFK airport where India had already begun at the Air India terminal. Most of the travelers waiting to board were Indians. Against the background of New York City, their number, appearance and manners invited notice. The mood of expatriate existence was already upon them. They shed their individuality, assuming a subdued identity of people set apart. In the US they made significant contributions to science and technology. Some held important positions in US corporations. Now the other civilization claimed them.
I eyed the Americans in the lobby. More than 20 hours of journey lay ahead of us. I dreaded spending them with an Indian. I now remember that there was a touch of uneasiness in that feeling. There could be no pride in being different. To give way to contempt was to later know self-disgust. And the self-appraisal in the choked suburban railway. As a youngster I used to take it daily to the only Sikh school in Bombay. Now suffocating lodged in the car, I experienced a sense of loss. In what way could I be called an Indian? I had lost the key to this world of beliefs and feelings. This way of looking at things. I was only a nominal adherent of the religion I was born in, married outside it, pursued assimilation in the US as an end in itself, and found it difficult to have an easy community with this India now pressing against me. Only at irregular intervals, like this, did I catch fleeting glimpses of it. It retreated as rapidly as I withdrew from it.
And the rage I felt at learning that a fellow traveler I had met was killed during the riots. I had met him in the evening after my flight to New Delhi. A vague sense of loss was still with me. I felt obligated to summon up a positive response to the country where I was born. And I needed an experience which would restore such a response. I heard his voice first clear, precise, confident travel down the long waiting line. Turning I saw its source. A Sikh in his thirties with a rugged face was leaning against one of the pillars. His clothes suggested success. A few ‘baggage’s lay around him and whenever he moved he took them with him. The precaution would have been excessive at JFK but it was something that everyone here did without thinking.
The Sikh refusing all overtures from the porters hung his various bags about himself. We watched the baggage belt rotate, our eyes met and we began to talk.
I was to meet him several times during that week. He was a contractor. Business took him to the Middle East and he had just returned. He traversed with ease across the boundaries of modern India, ancient India and the West. I was glad for his presence, his wholeness. He was what I wanted India to be like.
My acquaintance with him had steadied me. I no longer reacted to the chaos of India. On my return flight to Bombay I was seated next to a European. He was in India for an international symposium on genetic engineering. He seemed bitter. The tourist brochures had not prepared him for the India he had seen. A week earlier he would have answered my mood. Now I did not like him. My disagreements with India were a personal matter. To hear them dispassionately echoed through him was an affront. He expressed amazement at my English he was not very proficient in it himself as well as my layman’s knowledge of recombinant DNA. He asked me if I was educated abroad. Indignantly said no.
And there were other memories. Now distorted by time and the gravity of last month’s events. My family was unharmed. But news continues to trickle in about the friends and relatives who have lost their businesses, livelihood, homes and dignity. Sikhs are now uncertain as to their place in India. Upon forced emigration from Pakistan they had believed that they were in moral contract with the majority in which both sides were to make concessions. The main concession expected of the majority was to never use its power at the expense of individual citizens. That contract was viciously violated by the mobs and the law. The news from India indicates that the officials of the ruling party had helped instigate the killings. Responding to my concerns, my brother wrote that it was a family feud, like two siblings who may occasionally fight but always learn to accommodate and live together. I couldn’t be that charitable. The events had broken my psychological contract with India. I can hardly deny India if only because I always carry something of it with me, my own burden of early experience and racial identity. But I no longer need the security of a homeland. I am content to remain an immigrant, to carve out a future for myself in the West. India simply remains ‘the country of my birth.