Sacrificing sovereignty: Sikhs and Covid-19

Against a backdrop of militaristic rhetoric, Shuranjeet Singh interrogates why some Sikhs are being forced to choose between their faith and their patients

May 12, 2020 · 11 min read
Kes - unshorn hair - is an article of faith for Sikhs (Credit: Shreyans Bhansali) Kes – unshorn hair – is an article of faith for Sikhs (Credit: Shreyans Bhansali)

Discussions around Covid-19, saturated with metaphors of war, pit a seemingly collective humanity against a personified foe. ‘The battle,’ ‘our soldiers,’ ‘their sacrifices’: we are apparently fighting the virus both internally and on frontlines where winding wards have replaced trenches.

Some have defended such metaphors, evaluated their ‘positive’ impact and even invoked the memory of figures associated with ‘victory’ like Winston Churchill. But wartime rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum – it is centred on the nation state, where structures of inclusion and exclusion champion certain bodies and behaviours whilst violently suppressing others.

The histories of black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities with the British state chronicle an increased expectation to ‘contribute’ in times of crisis, even as we feel the effects of such crises disproportionately. ‘Sacrifice’ is routinely weaponised to explain the deaths of workers and citizens whose lives are ultimately seen as expendable – whilst numbing structural critique surrounding the government and market failures, working and social conditions leading to these deaths. In some cases, it is also a vehicle for assimilationist narratives around migration, faith, and belonging.

The ‘model minority’

Sikh communities occupy a unique position in relation to the British state that has shaped distinctive experiences during Covid-19, rooted in colonial and postcolonial histories. An emphasis on martial consciousness has existed within the Sikh Dharam (faith) for almost five-hundred years. During British rule across South Asia, following the Anglo-Sikh wars, Sikhs were designated a ‘martial race’. The colonial authorities enlisted vast swathes of Sikhs who ‘contributed’ by fighting and dying in British and British-affiliated armies throughout the twentieth century.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, Sikh migration to Britain increased to fill post-war labour shortages, against the backdrop of colonial imperialism and neoliberalism becoming further intertwined. Subsequently, visible Sikh ‘contributions’ extended beyond the military into business and charity, working to build the image of a ‘modern Sikh’ building a ‘modern Britain’. These legacies have afforded some Sikhs significant social, and by extension economic, capital relative to other racialised communities.

Crafted as a ‘model migrant’ community with a proximity to ‘Britishness’, Sikhs whose behaviours and beliefs validate these histories are seen as modern, loyal, and culturally adaptable whilst those who offer critique are chastised as ‘regressive’, ‘ungrateful’ and ‘radical’. The framing of this latest Covid-19 crisis as a war has allowed the history of contribution and sacrifice within Sikh communities to be revitalised and exploited.

The expectation to contribute to the national effort is not distributed uniformly across workforces. BAME nurses have spoken out about being assigned to Covid-19 wards more than their white colleagues and a greater proportion of BAME social care workers are dying compared to their white counterparts. Meanwhile, we are encouraged to remember the ‘sacrifices’ of key workers as noble contributions to the national effort, whilst few are advocating for accountability and structural change to avoid such deaths in the future.

Those who do speak openly about state failures to protect key workers are facing condemnation for their lack of ‘collective spirit’ under the misguided assumption that the state is doing all it can to ensure the safety of patients and workers alike. This has crafted the attractive illusion that black and brown lives are being lost for the ‘greater good’ – even as all are contributing ‘equally’ towards combating this deadly enemy.

Assimilation/discrimination

The Sikh Dharam (faith) outlines the importance of keeping one’s Kes (unshorn hair). Seen as a limb of a Sikh’s body representing sovereignty, strength, and devotion to the Guru, many Sikhs are raised with their hair unshorn from birth while others choose to make the commitment later in life. These Sikhs who keep their Kes are often known as Kesdhari Sikhs.

In Panjab and the diaspora, there is a long history of attempts to co-opt and control a Sikh’s Kes, which is often read as a visual signifier of difference supporting the autonomy of Sikh identities (implicitly in opposition to its surroundings). In the West, some manifestations of Kes – or the Dastaar (Sikh turban) that covers it – have been celebrated as examples of responsible citizenship and acculturation. These instrumentalising framings mask a more sinister process of detaching Kes from Sikh Dharam and universalising its significance. Doing so might fit into a liberal worldview with greater ease, but it also erases Kes’ role in challenging the status quo, standing alongside oppressed groups, and refusing to assimilate into hegemony.

Such histories are exemplified through Bhai Taru Singh, a shaheed (martyr), who was imprisoned and tortured by the Mughal state during a sustained campaign of violence against Sikhs in the 18th century. Notably, Mughal official, Zakaria Khan, gave Bhai Taru Singh the choice of foregoing his faith or foregoing his unshorn hair. Refusing to leave the Sikh Dharam, Bhai Taru Singh was brutally scalped.

More recently within Western countries, Sikhs have often faced discrimination for their Kes through structural racism as well as more overt racialised violence. Post-9/11, the first US fatality from an Islamophobic hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, wrongly profiled as a Muslim because of his Kes and Dastaar, and murdered in retaliation for the attacks. In 2016 in California, a Sikh man was attacked and his Kes was hacked off with a knife.

The hyper-visibility of a Sikh’s Kes and their Dastaar have the potential to viscerally disrupt societies around the world unless their meanings are ‘controlled’. Currently, in attempting to situate Sikhs within the discourse of multi-culturalism, we can see Kes pushed through Western knowledge systems which actively fight to define it, attenuate its place in Sikh struggles, and curtail its significance in the Sikh Dharam through creating boundaries of acceptability and unacceptability.

Covid-19

Last month a Kesdhari Sikh doctor at a Wolverhampton hospital was told he must shave his beard so personal protective equipment (PPE) could fit flush against his face. When he refused, he was withdrawn from theatre duties and relegated to ‘background work’ in wards. Meanwhile in Canada, Montreal Impact FC celebrated their club doctor, Dr Sanjeet Singh Saluja, for taking the decision to shave his facial hair to more easily accommodate otherwise unusable PPE. The club labelled this choice to ‘contribute’ to the Covid-19 response a ‘true example of devotion and responsibility’ and Dr Saluja’s choice has also been commended in several Canadian media outlets.

The language used in the Montreal Impact video is particularly worrying due to the ease with which a Sikh man feeling compelled to shave his beard is celebrated. Compounded by Quebec’s strict secularism laws, including the recently passed Bill 21 that bans religious symbols within public sector jobs, the Sikh body is presented as an expendable resource that can be coerced and controlled into alignment with the State. Eerily, the video includes an image of Dr Saluja before shaving and after, with the latter image championed as the extent to which one would sacrifice their religious identity to ‘contribute’ to the Covid-19 crisis.

True respect would have involved standing alongside him to ensure he didn’t have to choose between his patients and his faith, but this narrative is erased entirely through the language of contribution and sacrifice, despite the fact that some Sikhs in the UK have successfully adapted PPE to fit over their beards.

Both cases fit a pattern in which the locus of responsibility falls on the racialised individual who exists in a system of racial prejudice already restricting access to capital and employment. BAME workers often feel the need to go above and beyond their duties to prove their worth, and within the framework of the Covid-19 ‘war’ an even more pressing choice emerges for Kesdhari Sikhs between contributing to the ‘fight’ by foregoing their religious duties or being seen as willingly taking a back seat in their professional responsibilities.

Sacrifice vs sovereignty

Within broader black and minority ethnic experiences of Covid-19, Kesdhari Sikhs in the West are being coerced into making highly politicised choices between personal and national identities – choices that can have a significant impact beyond situations of crisis.

Throughout, the state is absolved of all responsibility for this erasure whilst thousands of racialised workers are forced to adapt and risk their lives, laying the groundwork for psychological and spiritual questions requiring generations to process and from which to heal.

Whilst some may celebrate those who have made ‘sacrifices’ for the apparent ‘good of the nation’, those concerned for the well-being of racialised minorities should focus on the conditions which have led to these sacrifices: conditions where BAME nurses are disproportionately placed on Covid-19 wards and conditions where a Sikh is made to choose between their Kes and their patients.

We stand on the shoulders of thousands upon thousands of Sikhs who have fought to maintain the sovereignty of Kes. It is imperative that we demand the space to retain that sovereignty. The choice before us is clear: to live and thrive on our own terms or to allow our bodies and behaviours to be contorted beyond recognition.

Shuranjeet Singh is a writer and mental health advocate from Birmingham, interested in how historic memory and the state work to shape identities within diasporic communities. You can follow him on Twitter @Shuranjeet

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