If you want to see Sikh fundamentalism in action, look not towards the villages of Punjab but the streets of Britain. On September 11, dozens of men occupied a gurdwara in the British town of Leamington Spa, leading to people being intimidated and locked out. Armed police soon surrounded the temple and later arrested 55 people.
The gurdwara was occupied because the men objected to inter-religious marriages, and inside a Sikh was due to marry a Hindu. But that is not the full picture. Behind the scenes a bigger struggle was taking place: While some Sikhs were taking a stand against fundamentalism, others wanted to punish them for it.
In August last year, gangs of Sikhs in different British cities suddenly disrupted several gurdwara weddings where the groom was not a Sikh. But hardly anyone knew about it. I got a hold of videos from these incidents and posted them on Facebook to show how these gangs were intimidating and threatening Sikhs. The videos went viral and caused an outcry.
These incidents started about five years ago. Youth groups started mobilising Sikhs through Whatsapp and Facebook to stop weddings either in advance or on the day. They wanted an end to all inter-faith marriages at gurdwaras. Most gurdwaras initially resisted the calls by youth groups but soon pressure became too much. Videos of committee members were posted online with abuse, and people started getting threats. A BBC investigation found lots of Sikhs who wanted to speak out but were too scared of the backlash. One family had their windows smashed for not cancelling the wedding ceremony. Yet the line was that this was an issue for Sikhs to resolve themselves and they did very little. They were too scared of being called racist.
The protesters say inter-religious marriages go against the Sikh Rehat Maryada (code of conduct), and the Anand Karaj (marriage ceremony) should only be between two Sikhs. They also say they are not against inter-religious marriages, but do not want them taking place at a gurdwara.
The Rehat Maryada was approved in 1945 after a long process and several attempts by Sikhs to agree on a code of conduct and conventions. Technically the protesters are right: It stipulates that Sikhs should only marry Sikhs. But that’s only half the story. The Rehat Maryada is not divine scripture and can be amended to reflect the fact that millions of Sikhs now live in areas where they are a small minority.
The protesters have their own double-standards too. If the Rehat Maryada was followed to the letter then only Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs would be allowed to marry at a gurdwara. Furthermore, many of the men in these gangs themselves don’t wear turbans, shave their beards and go out drinking and dancing — going by their Facebook pictures.
Ironically, most Sikhs protesting mixed-marriages can’t be bothered to follow the same rules they want others to.
But the incident last week was significant for another reason. Last year, after my videos exposed the issue, British Sikh groups agreed on a temporary ban on mixed weddings and protests to find a compromise. But they still haven’t managed to agree on anything.
One large group of Sikh institutions and key figures, led by Leamington Spa Gurdwara, wanted a more tolerant approach. They wanted to allow the Anand Karaj between mixed couples as long as the non-Sikh partner learned about the faith. But for the fundamentalists this wasn’t enough. They wanted gurdwaras to only allow such weddings if the non-Sikh partner converted to Sikhism, even if only for marriage. They were angry at Leamington Spa Gurdwara and others for trying to find a compromise and open-minded approach, and were looking for an opportunity to attack its management. Last week they got their chance.
The increasing number of wedding disruptions is part of a trend towards intolerance among some British Sikhs. There have been no such protests in America or Canada, where millions of Sikhs live, where they are more integrated. Neither have I heard of such disruptions in India.
For many Sikhs opposed to mixed marriages, this isn’t just about the rules, this is about maintaining Sikh purity. They have developed a dislike of other religions and don’t want to mix. Like fundamentalists of other religions they want to purify their community by driving out those who don’t follow it to their standards. If you want to marry a non-Sikh then you’re better off out.
The tragedy is that instead of seeing mixed marriages as a way to welcome newcomers into the Sikh community, the fundamentalists are driving people away. The tolerant and welcoming principles of the Sikh gurus have been cast off by their most zealous devotees.
(Sunny Hundal is a writer and lecturer on digital journalism based in London. The views expressed are personal.)