Letter from London: Sat Sri Akaal

A painting of a Sikh family, circa late 19th century

There is a Sikh saying I came across last week in addition to the above ‘Sat Sri Akaal’ Punjabi Sikh greeting which means ‘Truth is the Timeless One’. The saying is, ‘If he who plays the tyrant is honored, then deem it to be the surest sign of the Dark Age.’ Well, there were a few Londoners last week feeling signs of a Dark Age. I don’t mean the rightwing buffoon and actor Laurence Fox, arrested on suspicion of conspiring to commit criminal damage to ULEZ cameras, and for encouraging or assisting offences to be committed. Or the increased police patrols in the face of differing responses around the capital to the attack on Israel by Hamas. I was thinking more of the Sikh separatist Khalistan movement that had been massing outside the Indian high commission. (Last March, one separatist climbed the high commission’s balcony and ripped down the beautiful saffron, white, green and navy-blue Indian flag.) The chants last week were loud and clear and would have been heard from nearby Soho House on the Strand. Basically, Sikh separatist Khalistan supporters were calling for the UK government to stand alongside Canada over the killing in British Colombia of prominent Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, whom many saw as the victim of an emboldened India crushing dissent abroad.

Though unrelated, news of these protests came after UK home secretary Suella Braverman had just delivered a contentious speech to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, covered here already by Binoy Kampmark, who wrote, ‘she persists in her rather grisly attempts to kill the central assumptions of international refugee protection’. Last week, Braverman took her exhortations one step further at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, warning of ‘a hurricane of migrants’. This was moments after singing the praises of her ethnic Indian immigrant parents who came to the UK from Kenya and Mauritius. (Rishi Sunak’s parents also arrived from East Africa.) Some observers were quick to point out that both speeches must have been signed off by Downing Street, as Sunak looks increasingly like a man taken prisoner of by the right wing of his own party. Even Nimco Ali, the godmother to Boris and Carrie Johnson’s son Wilfred, resigned as a government adviser ten months ago after criticizing Braverman for ‘locking people up in places with no beds, in order to look tough on immigration’. Baroness Warsi, the esteemed former co-chair of the Conservative party, from a family of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, had before accused Braverman of ‘racist rhetoric’. In fact, one or two Conservative supporters see Braverman as the final nail in the Tory party coffin, with a new and nastier right-wing party about to be rolled out.

Protests outside the India high commission ended peacefully. This was no doubt a relief for the capital’s 656,272 British Indians, its largest ethno-national group, in fact, and a thriving and popular community here. Their religions alone include not just Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam, but Christianity (mostly from Kerala and Goa), Parsi, and Jainism. Amazingly, Jainism is one of the oldest religions still practiced in the world today. (Its ancient swastika was famously hijacked by Hitler.) ‘The function of souls is to help one another,’ is its appealing motto, or: ‘Parasparopagraho Jīvānām’.

Back to the conference, one Londoner there made their own protests against Braverman. This was London Assembly member Andrew Boff. Though a Conservative, he had to be led from the building as soon as Braverman’s speech began to encourage people to challenge what she called gender ideology and white privilege, something she had also touched upon in the States. Boff had been adamant, saying out loud there was no such thing as gender ideology. He also described the speech as a ‘homophobic rant’ after Braverman claimed people were being ‘chased out of their jobs for saying that a man can’t be a woman’. Elsewhere, former Conservative politician Rory Stewart — whose new book ‘Politics On the Edge’ includes some interesting observations about the United States — would describe her performance as coming from Britain’s new right. This he explained as ‘climate skeptical, immigration obsessed, anti-human rights, attacking elites. In US + Europe this has already become anti-LGBTQ and sympathetic to authoritarian states. When will conservatives finally say “not in my name”?!’

The high commission in London is located in India House on Aldwych along with twelve beautifully colored emblems still representing provinces from the days of the British Raj. Last week saw it honor on its website children from various Sikh temples paying tribute to the 550th Guru Nanak Dev Jayanti celebrations. London itself is home to the second-largest Sikh community in the UK. (The largest is in the West Midlands.) 144,543 Sikhs live here, according to the 2021 census. The five London boroughs with the most Sikhs are Ealing (39% of people within the Ealing Southall community are of British Asian origin), Hillingdon, Hounslow, Redbridge, and Newham. Every year at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day, 83,005 killed and 109,045 wounded Sikh soldiers from both world wars are honored. I have been lucky enough to know a number of Sikhs, both while traveling and in London. Sikhism, the fifth-largest religion in the world, means ‘seeker of truth’ or ‘learner’. It strongly advocates tolerance for other religions. It cannot be entirely coincidental that the Sikhs I have known have each shown humility and kindness. I have also known Sikhs marrying outside of their faith.

Just as there has long been volatility over Khalistan, just as the reputation of Sikhs as warriors has long been known the world over, life is not all peace and love. The idea of an autonomous Sikh homeland is nothing new, either. When I traveled close to Amritsar in the early 80s, the secessionist movement was so violent it was paralyzing the Punjab. Much farther back, led by General Baghel Singh, the Sikh Confederacy in 1783 once conquered the famous Red Fort of Delhi. This led to the formation of the Sikh Empire in the Punjab under Maharajah Ranjit Singh in 1801. In 1984, one year after I was in the region, the Indian army, led by General Kuldeep Singh Brar, attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, occupied at the time by leading separatists.

Though most such protests are peaceful in London, they are not always so. General Brar, by now retired, visited here in 2014. During his visit, he had his face and throat slashed with a knife. Another Khalistan-related disturbance took place this summer. This saw at least one man charged with a double stabbing at an Indian Independence Day event in London. Also, a Sikh restaurant owner’s car here was shot at and vandalized six months ago by alleged Khalistan supporters — described as K-Extremists in one Indian news report I saw, which included an interview with the man and his wife. The attack came after the man had been vocal against Khalistan supporters. Furthermore, the attackers were demanding the restauranteur remove a video he had posted. They also wanted him to raise pro-Khalistan slogans and burn the Indian flag, or, they said, chillingly, face death. It is not all fun and games.

Sikhism also has the potential to become a major electoral campaign issue in India, with all the global consequences that will inevitably come with that. Some of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s critics already see him as having jumped on violent Islamic militancy from Pakistan in the 2019 general elections to create what is now fast becoming a dangerous political rollercoaster. Khalistan, in short, is a highly potent issue in the world’s most heavily populated democracy.

After the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjain in Canada, there were rumors circulating of other deaths of Sikh activists — even here in the UK. The BBC for example is presently highlighting online the case of Avtar Singh Khanda, 35, a well-known Khalistan supporter who died from sudden illness in Birmingham last June. They say ‘some of those close to him insinuate there was foul play involved’, though West Midlands Police have said there is no need to re-investigate. The Sikh community was also unhappy with findings in this year’s review into Britain’s so-called faith landscape written by the UK government’s very own Faith Engagement Advisor, Colin Bloom. Bloom spent more of his report on Sikh ‘extremist and subversive activities’ than on Muslim, far-right and Hindu extremism combined.

For London to remain a great international city, international things must take place within it. We cannot — and should not — control each and every aspect of this. My point is that a lack of awareness of others always guarantees an incomplete view of the world. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the capital arguably losing its financial crown. Well, I believe its cultural crown remains strong and in place: it is multi-crowned, in fact. The idea of one or two Little Englanders shrinking from the reality of our own now inherent worldlinesses, and allowing these to get tangled up with entirely different issues such as uncontrolled immigration, fills one’s boots with shame. Many Londoners are all for smashing criminal gangs behind people smuggling, they just don’t believe in smashing everybody else up in the process. This was even former prime minister Theresa May’s recent point when she appeared to be saying — without actually saying it — that the sweeps of anti-immigrant rhetoric being used presently are playing with fire and bad for everyone. Nor does immigration have anything to do with those many UK Sikhs today calling for their own UK government to stand alongside Canada over Hardeep Singh Nijjain’s killing.

There is one final Sikh saying I came across last week. It is by the aforementioned Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who was born in 1469 and was the first of the ten Sikh Gurus. ‘Burn worldly love,’ he said, ‘rub the ashes and make ink of it, make the heart the pen, the intellect the writer, write that which has no end or limit.’

Peter Bach lives in London.