From February 16-17, 2013, researchers from throughout the world, focusing on Sikh-related topics, came together at Stanford University for the 4th annual Sikholars Conference, hosted by the Jakara Movement. From Europe to Pakistan, from India to Canada, and throughout the United States, young scholars came together for a weekend of discussion and engagement in a unique forum that connects the academy to the community. Here, I provide here a bit of a recap and encouragement for those that missed this year to make sure you don’t miss Sikholars 2014.
The conference commenced with an opening address by Professor Thomas Blom Hansen. The director of Stanford University’s Center for South Asia welcomed the audience and shared his excitement for a new partnership between the Jakara Movement and the Center for South Asia in years to come in hosting the Sikholars Conference. Next followed a lecture by Professor Linda Hess, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Bhagat Kabir Ji.
The morning panel on Saturday was hosted by 2012 recipient of the Ajeet Matharu Memorial Prize, Jasmine Singh. Jasmine facilitated a discussion between Gina Singh (UCLA), Balbir Singh (UW), and Prabhneet Singh (UCLA). Gina’s paper explored new voices in Sikh femininity through the mode of blog sites. Challenging single notions of the ‘feminine,’ often situated in a European experience and predicated on individuality expressed through the disregard of any ‘gender roles’, Gina Singh shared her research on exciting Sikh voices of the feminine that seeks not to emulate a supposed single European experience, but rather one that seeks to find its own voice within a tradition, yet challenging it at the same time. Prabhneet Singh shared her work on a Chandigarh-based group called Sarab Rog Ka Aukhad Naam. She sought to immerse herself within their experience and understand how they understand healings. Although Professor Hess encouraged her to maintain a critical approach and ask difficult questions, still Prabhneet’s work is significant as an initial vista into forms and conceptions of healing within medical anthropology. Balbir Singh’s paper forms part of a growing literature asking critical questions about Sikh-American politics. She raised key questions with regards to understanding violence against Sikhs as a form of racist violence, tied to notions of Islamophobia, and how Sikhs understand their connections and possible coalitions with other ‘communities of color’ through the logic of ‘racial’ constructions.
The second panel of the morning brought together Simran Jeet Singh of Columbia University, Peder Gedda of UBC, and Navyug Gill of Emory. Simran Jeet Singh posed key questions about the usage of the word ‘hagiography’ in describing the janamsakhi literatures of Guru Nanak. By taking the audience through a history of the words usage, he asked whether a word that used to describe Christian saints may not be apt to describe the life of a founder of the Sikhs. Peder Gedda’s work revolves around the rahit literatures of the eighteenth century. Discovering a little-used 1979 publication by Shamsher Singh Ashok, the work provides insights into many of the rahitnamas that were lost after the army burning of the Sikh Reference Library in 1984, during Operation Bluestar. His work seeks to connect these works to the broader milieu in which they were composed. Navyug Singh Gill’s paper explored the creation and question of the ‘peasant’ in the colonial archive. He examined the silences of the colonial record of other groupings, especially those of oppressed non-landed communities, and asked difficult questions about the ramifications of silencing the most dispossessed sections from history and how, if it is possible, can their voices and place be rediscovered.
Jasdeep Singh from UCLA hosted the final panel of Day 1. The panel was specially formed around the question of caste within the Sikh community. Opening the panel was Harmeet Kaur of Columbia University. Sharing her interviews with the Ravidasia community of Richmond Hill in New York, she explored questions of employment and health discrimination, as well as questions on social injustice practiced by members of the Sikh community in the United States. Harpreet Gill of JNU in Delhi shared her work, exploring voices of Dalit women in Punjab that have been recently published. Finally, Harpeet Kaur of SGGS College of Commerce detailed the hypocrisy of Sikhs in having a tradition that rejects caste, yet its continued practice. The session ended with an appeal by the facilitator to call on Sikhs to visit and participate and an audience member calling for the usage of American-based terminology of “oppression”, “apartheid,” and “caste supremacy” to understand the implications of this injustice and to seek the ‘courage to face the mirror.’
Day 1 ended with festivities at a banquet. Professor Cynthia Mahmood shared her thoughts on human rights in South Asia, with a focus on Sikhs. Combining critique and compassion, she provided a compelling framework, as she gave the first annual Amitesh Kaur Memorial Lecture. Evening entertainment was provided by Raginder “Violinder Momi, Neelamjit Singh Dhillon, Gunjiv “Baghi” Singh, Jagmeet “Hoodini” Singh, Mandeep Sethi, and Nisha Sehmbi.
Sunday of Sikholars opened with a panel on the politics of violence. Loveleen Kaur of Wilfrid Laurier University shared reflections on the meanings of traumas and healing in the context of activism by the 2nd generation Sikh youth of Canada, especially those youth connected to the Sikh Activist Network. Ruma Sinha of Syracuse University shared her analysis of Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers. While highlighting questions of femininity, subalternity, and alternative narratives raised in the book, Ruma also posed questions about silences in the work as well. Sami Brar of the University of Alberta concluded the panel with a discussion of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and its inhumanity, flouting of international law, and implications both on the imprisoned, but also on the Indian body politic today. Far from a memory, the colonial legacy continues to haunt South Asia today in its new incarnations.
The second panel was a new addition this year. Titled the "Entrepreneurs Panel", it was facilitated by Sandeep Singh Nijjar and composed of three young Sikh tech entrepreneurs: Harjeet Taggar of Y-Combinator, Savraj Singh of Wattvision, and Navroop Mitter of Gryphn. The panel was extremely popular with each sharing their personal stories. Harjeet told with humility how he went from a college music pirate to becoming a partner at Y-Combinator, the most prestigious startup tech incubator. Savraj Singh discussed how his "green technology" seeks nothing less but to improve the world. Navroop Singh provided insight on to the need to invest in high growth industries by Sikhs for the opportunities for substantial outputs in order to invest into the Sikh community. The panel was extremely popular and we will seek to add new voices in the future.
The final panel was chaired by Professor Puroshottama Bilimoria of UC Berkeley. The panel centered around questions of medium and memory. Arvinder Kang from University of Mississippi shared his projects on bringing the Punjabi to the web and its future implications. Tavleen Kaur of the University of Michigan shared her thoughts and raised provocative questions on the museological impulse seen within Sikhs, both in the diaspora and in the homeland, today, and its ramifications from lived material culture to that which is only displayed. Professor Professor Nadhra Khan of Lahore University of Management Sciences shared her work on the Lahore Fort. Looking at continuities and innovations, she explored the architectural legacy of Ranjit Singh. She ended her talk with an interesting question with regards to some Krishna imagery employed by Ranjit Singh. The final paper of the conference was presented by Cristin McKnight-Sethi of UC Berkeley, who explored the phulkari tradition and how it became appropriated as a “Sikh art.”
The conference also included the “penning ceremony,” where Sikholars past induct the new class of Sikholars into their community. This year’s Ajeet Singh Matharu Memorial Prize for best papers were presented by the Matharu Family to Navyug Singh Gill and Nadhra Khan.
Overall Sikholars was an amazing weekend. A one-day Sikholars event in London will be announced in coming weeks. For the rest, we hope you book your flights and mark your calendars now for Sikholars 2014, coming February 14-16, 2014. Keep up with the latest Jakara information by signing up for our newsletter - hope we see you there!