Postcolonial Theory

Sikhs As Subalterns – Voice, Inequality, And Power, Part 3 (Nirvikar Singh)

The following is the third installment of a three part series. The first can be found here, the second here. It is published as a catalogued .PDF in article in the latest issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (22.2).

That knowledge of source languages is not the only problem is illustrated by citation practices. Axel, Fox, Leonard and Oberoi are all frequently cited in analyses that emphasize a foreshortened view of Sikh history and tradition. On the other hand, critiques or South Asian sources (Grewal, M. Singh, N.-G. K. Singh) tend to be ignored. While some of the literature that builds on these works considers topics that had been neglected or treated unsatisfactorily, such as gender, the foreshortening and selection in other dimensions introduces new limitations. For example, typical histories of colonial period Sikh reform efforts include struggles with questions of caste and social equality.[1]

The reformers discussed this issue in the context of verses of the GGS, and reached conclusions that favored inclusiveness in religious activities, and a normative position against caste distinctions, something that Oberoi ignores.[2] This was, indeed, an attempt to change common practices, but it had its antecedents in the institution of the Khalsa. On the other hand, the “pluralist” Sanatan Sikhs explicitly advocated for caste hierarchies.[3]

Caste hierarchies have persisted, even in religious contexts,[4] and are documented in diaspora contexts,[5] although some practices did change.[6]  Nicola Mooney provides some innovation in this direction, considering gender and caste together, but the unbundling of Sikh precepts from Punjabi, especially Jat, patterns of patriarchy is lacking. Indeed, issues of patriarchal structures are a South Asian phenomenon, as is the phenomenon of caste.[7]

When one recognizes these complexities, the simple binary of an “older pluralist paradigm of Sikh faith,” and a “monolithic, codified and closed culture” created by those who “aggressively usurped the fight to represent others,”[8] turns out to be both theoretically and empirically problematic.

Perhaps the most significant example of what is missing from the popular scholarly consensus of colonial-era transformation is the role of the Sikh masses, consisting mainly of peasants, that category also including a large number of ex-soldiers of the British Indian army.[9]  While the most cited accounts of Sikhs in the colonial period focus on aggressive or traumatized so-called cultural elites, the inflection point in this era was the agitation for control of historically significant Sikh sites of worship (gurdwaras) all over Punjab. This became a non-violent mass movement in which thousands of Sikhs went to jail.

Again, Fox credits the British with creating the requisite consciousness,[10] but an alternative explanation is in the ethos of the Khalsa, which sustained Sikh political control of Punjab for almost a century, before the British conquered the region. The motivations for this movement came from moral and emotional factors:[11] the managers of gurdwaras were viewed, with considerable justification, as increasingly corrupt and immoral in their conduct, while at the same time, many of these sites were associated with the lives of the Sikh Gurus – where they (and sometimes their families and followers) had been born, lived, and died.

The Sikh community gained control of Punjab’s historic gurdwaras in 1925, over half a century after the creation of the first colonial-era reform organizations. Arguably, this control has shaped the community’s subsequent history as much as, if not more than, intellectual debates, because these are the sites where members of the community publicly practice their faith together, and connect with their history.[12] 

Recognizing the role of the Sikh masses in defining the community’s position in the 20th century offers a perspective that is consistent with prior Sikh history, namely, an emphasis on some degree of solidarity and inclusiveness in the religious sphere, engendered by a sense of righteousness and connection to the message of the Gurus, as embodied in their words and their lives. This is a perspective that recognizes the subaltern and their agency, as opposed to scholarly treatments that assign historical significance to elites, whether heroic or misguided.

Recent scholarship that ignores the agency of the Sikh masses and simultaneously downgrades Sikh intellectual debates imposes a dual subalternity, both in the sense of class structures, as in Gramsci and the Subaltern Studies group, but also in the sense of religious identity and the muting of voices, as in Spivak’s extension of the concept.[13]

The final piece of the analysis involves the invisible (and not-so-invisible) hand of the Indic, to adapt the framing of Judge.[14] One can see this in an example that he does not consider, one which was discussed in the previous section. The claim of a Sant tradition and Nanak’s membership in it (as a relative latecomer and a follower of that path) has become embedded in much recent scholarship that ignores the roots of the idea in one aspect of the project of Hindu nationalism – this hand of the Indic is not acknowledged, even though it is in plain sight.[15]

It must be noted that the analysis is easily muddied by the multiple uses of the term “sant,” since it appears frequently in the GGS, where the contexts suggest a general term for people with some characteristics of spirituality, a usage that persists today.[16] Matters are complicated further because the term is also a title used for a wide range of factional religious leaders, including the leader of the Radhasoamis (where the idea of a “Sant” tradition was used by their founder to increase legitimacy),[17] and Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Khalsa Sikh who became prominent in the Punjab conflict of the 1980s.

More centrally, the idea that Sikh, like Hindu, was an amorphous category until the colonial period is explicit in recent scholarly framings.[18] This narrative also fits with some aspects of the claim of a Sant tradition. It is beyond the scope of the current analysis to examine the empirical foundations of this narrative of colonial-era religion-making for the Sikhs, one which allows for diversity but also attempts at establishing boundaries. What is of interest here is the subtext of the Indic. The normative position associated with this narrative is quite explicitly aligned with what one might consider a modern, liberal sensibility.

For example, the post-colonial situation is at odds with “the Sikh tradition’s rich, plural, and inclusive past.”[19] Colonial-era reformers were “ideologues [who] employed Protestant categories of Christian missionaries to redefine Sikh concepts. As such, modern Sikhism became a well-defined ‘system’ based on a unified tradition.”[20]  This framing is what appeals to scholars who want to posit a cozy cosmopolitanism that should be the norm for migrant outsiders (Leonard, 2007).[21]  This narrative, aimed at one audience, fits readily into another, “This concept of unity, like Abrahamic religions, is alien to Indic faiths.”[22]

In a nutshell, the framings of a colonial-era rupture in Sikh tradition, all involving a foreshortened (and arguably selective) view of its history, present a choice between two forms of intellectual subalternity for contemporary Sikhs. Post-colonial Sikhs have lost their liberal pluralism, whether that was rooted in the Indic or some other, unspecified, sensibility of cosmopolitanism.[23]  Either way, they are framed as intellectually subaltern. Their lack of voice to contest this position is itself a product of inequalities of power, so one kind of subalternity engenders another.


The argument presented here has been about an intellectual subalternization of Sikh tradition(s) in a particular academic sphere. The claim is that an exaggerated and over-simplified narrative of Sikhs’ interactions with colonialism and modernity has dominated recent scholarship. In particular, this narrative neglects the agency of Sikh masses (subalterns), instead focusing on elite actions. Alternative interpretations of Sikh history and tradition that do not accept this dominant framework have received much less scholarly attention (as measured, say, by citation counts), which can be attributed to an inequality of power in the particular academic arena in question.

The hidden sources of power come from the appealing frame of liberalism and pluralism, shared across a range of intellectual currents, both modern and post-modern. Orientalist tropes also continue to be present. Less obviously, some of the framings used by Hindu nationalists fit well with the claim of colonial-era rupture in the Sikh tradition. Murphy brings this out in a broader frame:[24]

As cultural critics in the U.S. have made clear, the ‘melting pot’ of U.S. multi-cultural society has also been assimilationist, involving the encouraged and sometimes forced shedding of identity, community affiliation, and the like. As van der Veer…notes, this same dynamic is a feature of valorization of the syncretic in India, as ‘this tolerant and pluralistic spirit of India is essentially Hindu. This, unfortunately, is the other side of a happy tale of syncretism and ‘hybridity’: the denial of articulated Khalsa (and other) identities (with an emphasis on the plural), and an erasure of the cultural dynamics of difference (with all of their problems). This is indeed a dangerous route to take.

Challenging a particular account of the heterogeneous Sikh interaction with colonialism does not imply accepting traditional narratives that take a particular normative stance, nor claiming that any historical account represents stable truth. Methodologically, “all versions of the past deserve an equal measure of critique in order to understand the intellectual as well as material interests that drive them.”[25]

In this essay an attempt was made to provide an account of Sikh history that was stripped of as many normative claims and interpretations as possible, to make the point that, rather than a neglect of consciousness of boundaries or a fuzzy fluidity, self-identification involved drawing boundaries for the community, however contested.[26] This contestation is an ongoing process, with many debates that began in the 17th century continuing to the present day.

As indicated earlier in this paper, a key aspect of all these debates is the nature and degree differentiation from Hindu metaphysical thought and social practices associated with that conglomeration, with both being intertwined, of course. The legal and political innovations of colonial rule certainly required greater attention to clarity of boundaries in dimensions that might have been less important earlier, although pre-colonial reform movements (the Nirankaris and Namdharis) had sought sharper delineation based on what they saw as consistency with the Sikh Gurus’ teachings.

An interesting example of the complexities of boundary definition was the intense debate over Ambedkar’s plan to convert his followers to another religion. One possible reason for preferring Sikhism over Christianity or Islam was apparently, that “According to Ambedkar, if the untouchables converted to Sikhism, they would leave the Hindu religion but not Hindu culture.”[27]

Many of the complexities of beliefs and practices and their role in constructing boundaries for the Sikh tradition are beyond the scope of this paper. However, ideas of social justice and inclusiveness are present in the writings of Guru Nanak, his successors, and the bhagats included in the GGS. These ideas presumably contributed to lower status Hindus becoming followers of the Gurus, at least as early as the beginning of the 17th century. Conflict with the Mughal empire added a posture of militant resistance to oppression, and this is combined with social equality in the framing of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh. While many Sikhs balked at losing social status and the connection to their larger clan groupings,[28]  there is no question that the Khalsa initiation was a radical move in favor of social equality, which has continued to influence the Sikh imagination.[29]  

In terms of the original idea of the subaltern, in the context of those in positions of subordination, this aspect of the history of the Sikh tradition, in its attempts to overcome the inequalities of caste and to oppose the unjust exercise of political power, is consistent with a subaltern sensibility, and consistent with Gramsci’s original framing, as well as the Subaltern Studies group’s development of his ideas.

It certainly antedates colonialism.[30] At the same time, as in the case of any other religious tradition, there are numerous examples of deviations from this ideal, both in detailed formulations and in practice, with respect to caste and gender, in particular, but also when members of the Khalsa achieve political power.[31] Continued heterogeneity in beliefs and practices, and vigorous debates among Sikhs, are enough evidence to question the claim of a “monolithic closed culture,” but the main point to be made here goes beyond assessing a particular narrative of the past.

What is common among many of the different narratives of the colonial period, as well as its antecedents, is a pattern of viewing the evolution of the Sikh tradition as largely a function of elite manipulation. This is a conventional approach to history, in which leaders dominate the determinants of how events unfold. Of course, traditional religious accounts represent this model even more strongly. What has gone unremarked in assessing recent scholarship on the Sikhs is that elites are given a similar dominant role in these narratives.

There is little acknowledgement of the agency of members of the community, or else they are viewed as pliant or susceptible or even dupes. At this very basic level, Sikh studies has not incorporated the lessons of Subaltern Studies, despite the Sikh tradition having, as we have argued, significant subaltern sensibilities. Arguably, this assessment is an illustration of one of Spivak’s original perspectives on unequal power in various academic institutional structures.[32]

Recent events arguably bear out the agency of the Sikh masses. In 2020-21, massive farmer protests rocked India, in response to what was perceived as threatening legislative changes in the regulation of agricultural markets. These protests featured a large proportion of Sikhs. The farmers were articulating their fear of monopoly capital, domestic as well as global, and their anger at a government that is aligned with those sources of power.[33]  What was striking was how songs of protest that emerged used historical analogies from the 18th century Khalsa period, in which the oppressed stands up to the oppressor.[34]

The teachings of the Sikh Gurus were evoked as justification. The language used was Punjabi and there was no intellectual framing of orthodoxy or Protestant ethics. At the same time, the protests were heavily sustained by Sikh community kitchens, free health care, and other ways of self-consciously performing Sikh ideals of service. All of this was in contrast to the views of the Sikh masses in the studies considered earlier in the paper.

There are two additional, deeper, layers of critique that emerge from the analysis. First, Subaltern Studies typically focuses on material conditions and instrumental motives, but religious movements have also been treated in this context.[35] One does not have to go as far as, for example, Dipesh Chakravarty, and choose between two different kinds of approaches to history, analytical vs. affective, in considering religious or religion-based social movements.[36] Religion is not a sui generis category, and can be certainly treated as one kind of cultural formation.[37]

However, one can also recognize that it has some distinctive features in terms of affect and consciousness. Many of the studies considered here fail to engage with this aspect of religion, implicitly treating it as inferior to more generic ideals of universalism and pluralism.[38]  Indeed in the studies critiqued here, there is little or no engagement with Sikh religious teachings, what they reveal about the Sikh past, or how they shaped that past.[39]

The third and final layer of subalternization can be considered as an example of a more general problem, as described by Russell McCutcheon, that of a “cleverly disguised paternal strategy that enables scholars to portray themselves as being in solidarity with the Other while retaining the right not only to distinguish Others from other Others but also to inform both groups where their stories ought to start and end.”[40] Judge uses this quote to contextualize the “invisible hand of the Indic.”[41]

What is argued in the current paper also goes beyond a general lack of humility of scholars to postulate a specific combination of power and inequalities at work in the intellectual arena where the Sikh narrative is now being contested and seemingly shaped.[42] Within the academy, Sikh traditions are implicitly subalternized to multiple sources of power, in ways that are yet to be fully excavated. This paper offers a beginning to a project of excavation, but without retreating to unquestioned acceptance of tradition, and without claiming to offer any incontestable truth.

Nirvikar Singh is Co-Director of the Center for Analytical Finance at UCSC, of which he was the founding Director. From 2010 to 2020, he held the Sarbjit Singh Aurora Chair of Sikh and Punjabi Studies at UCSC. He has previously directed the UCSC South Asian Studies Initiative. He has served as a member of the Advisory Group to the Finance Minister of India on G-20 matters, and Consultant to the Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, Government of India. He is currently serving on the Expert Group on post-Covid-19 economic recovery formed by the Chief Minister of Punjab state in India. At UCSC, he has previously served as Director of the Santa Cruz Center for International Economics, Co-Director of the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies, and Special Advisor to the Chancellor.

[1] Grewal, The Sikhs.

[2] Murphy, “Allegories.”

[3] Avtar Singh Vahiria, Khalsa Dharam Shastar (Amritsar: Sodhi Ram Narain Singh, 1914).

[4] Surinder S. Jodhka, “Changing Manifestations of Caste in the Sikh Panth,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech, eds. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014): 583–93.

[5] Opinderjit Kaur Takhar, Sikh Identity: An Exploration of Groups among Sikhs (London: Routledge, 2005).

[6] Sikhs who are converts from outcaste groups are accorded full equality in major Sikh houses of worship, though not necessarily in rural areas. By contrast, in the early 20th century, these former outcastes could not then enter the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar by the same door as other Sikhs: Edmund Candler, The Mantle of the East (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1910): 127.

[7] See Nicola Mooney, “‘In Our Whole Society, There Is No Equality’: Sikh Householding and the Intersection of Gender and Caste,” Religions, 11(2) (2020): 95; Even many Muslims and Christians in India acknowledge caste identities: Pew Research Center, Religion. Jodhka and Mooney appear to be exceptions in fully engaging with caste in the context of the Sikh tradition and contemporary practices, but do not allow for such attitudes and comparisons in their analysis.

[8] Oberoi, The Construction, 25.

[9] Singh, The Akali; Tai Yong Tan, “Assuaging the Sikhs: Government Responses to the Akali Movement 1920-1925,” Modern Asian Studies, 29 (3) (1995): 655-703. The movement itself began with protests by outcast converts to Sikhism over unequal and exclusionary treatment by the functionaries of the Darbar Sahib, such as what was noted by Candler, The Mantle: see Singh, The Akali.

[10] Interestingly, Tan (1995), who uses colonial sources almost exclusively, liberally uses the term “extremist” to describe the agitating Sikhs, illustrating the limits of claims of identity consciousness being a product of British manipulation and control.

[11] Tan, “Assuaging.”

[12] Anne Murphy, The Materiality of the Past: History and Representation in Sikh Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Inderjit N. Kaur, “Sikhism,” in Rituals and Practices in World Religions (Religion, Spirituality and Health: A Social Scientific Approach, Vol. 5), David Bryce Yaden, Yukun Zhao, Kaiping Peng, and Andrew B. Newberg, eds. (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2020): 151-165.

[13] Note that debates about universality vs. specificity or West vs. East, some of which dominated the discourse around Chibber, Postcolonial, are moot when both universal desires for material well-being and specific religious expressions as instruments of communal solidarity are involved, as is the case of the Sikhs.

[14] Judge, “The Invisible Hand.”

[15] This is particularly obvious in Barthwal, The Nirguna School.

[16] Singh, “Guru Nanak.”

[17] Juergensmeyer, “The Radhasoami.”

[18] Oberoi, The Construction.

[19] Singh, “Re-imagining,” 27.

[20] Pashaura Singh, How Avoiding the Religion–Politics Divide Plays out in Sikh Politics, Religions, 10 (5) (2019): 13;

[21] Leonard, “Transnationalism.” This is not to revert to the position that tradition must be uncontested and homogeneous. As Murphy, “Allegories,” 63, puts it in critiquing Oberoi, there is danger in “nostalgia for a lost and idyllic past – whether it be ‘syncretic’ or ‘pure’.”

[22] Sanjeev Nayyar, “Is Modern day Sikhism a Colonial Construct?” eSamskriti, December 13, 2019.–1.aspx.

[23] The argument being made here is not controverted by the fact that conflict with neo-Hindu movements in 19th and 20th century Punjab was a strong motivator for Sikh reformers in this period (Jones, Arya Dharm.). In fact, it reinforces the visibility of the hand of the Indic. In this context, the claim that attempts to strengthen the formation “Hindu” (or, alternatively, Brahman, using Romila Thapar’s distinction between Brahman and Śraman traditions: see Romila Thapar, “Imagined religious communities? Ancient history and the modern search for a Hindu identity,” Modern Asian Studies, 23 (2) (1989): 209-231) were a novel phenomenon and a unique product of colonialism seems to be at odds with history: see Frank Usarski, “Facets of the relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism: Interview with Perry Schmidt-Leukel,” Revista de Estudos da Religião, September (2007): 157-164.

[24] Murphy, “Allegories,” 64.

[25] Ethan Kleinberg (individual communication, 2022): I am grateful to him for this observation on an earlier version of the paper, although he is absolved of all responsibility for remaining shortcomings in this iteration. Ethan Kleinberg, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017) lays out this theoretical position in depth.

[26] Chann, “Rahit Literature;” Gill, “The Works.”

[27] Rohit Wanchoo, “The Question of Dalit Conversion in the 1930s,” Studies in History, 36 (2) (2020): 206–229.

[28] See Hardip Singh Syan, “Debating Revolution: Early eighteenth century Sikh public philosophy on the formation of the Khalsa,” Modern Asian Studies, 48 (4) (2014): 1096-1133. The accurate term here would be biradari, theoretically the exogamous subdivisions of the endogamous got, itself a subdivision of the broader concept of jati, and from there leading to the classical varnas, which are referenced in the GGS. For an analysis of how biradaris worked in practice among Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs under the rule of Ranjit Singh, see Charles Joseph Hall, Jr., The Maharaja’s Account Books. State and Society Under the Sikhs: 1799-1849. PhD Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1981.

[29] Historians have differed with respect to the degree to which the Khalsa represented (to use the currently fashionable term) a “rupture” in Sikh tradition, e.g., Gokul Chand Narang, Transformation of Sikhism, 5th edition (New Delhi: New Book Society of India, 1960); and Niharranjan Ray, The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Society: A Study in Social Analysis, 2nd edition (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1975). Another aspect of the Khalsa identity, one which extends to many Sikhs who are not formally initiated, is the idea of standing up for justice for all. This has traveled through time and continents, and is visible in how (at least some) contemporary Sikhs see themselves. For example, a recent news story about a young Sikh American with long hair and turban, and his challenges in participating fully in US society quotes him as saying, “To me, the whole reason we look different is so we stick out and can be a pillar of support for people in need.” See Simran Jeet Singh, “Samrath Singh, first turbaned Sikh to play NCAA baseball, is more than the challenges he has overcome,” Religion New Service: Articles of Faith, August 5, 2021, More strongly, for some Sikhs, the Khalsa is the mystical embodiment of the Guru: for example, see Fenech, “The Khalsa,” 241.

[30] Rahuldeep Singh Gill, “Ante-Colonial Anti-Imperial Sikh Tradition, Reflections on the 550th Anniversary of Guru Nanak’s Birth,” presentation at Institute for South Asian Studies, UC Berkeley, November 14, 2019 available at

[31] Dhavan, When Sparrows Became Hawks.

[32] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[33] This example connects closely to the underpinnings of the use of the term subaltern, in a context of material conditions and unequal social relations, as in Chibber’s critique of postcolonial theory’s treatment of subalternity in its narrative of South Asian history (Chibber, Postcolonial). As background, Sikh peasants enjoyed a few decades of relative material prosperity with the success of the so-called green revolution in the 1960s. When Punjab was the most well-off state in India, the idea of subaltern status might have seemed incongruous. However, inadequate water supplies were looming just a few years later. The system that has evolved in the past decades has left (mostly Sikh) peasants in the region in a state of precarity, without easy alternatives. Punjab’s material prosperity has lagged, even as it faces environmental disaster: Nirvikar Singh, “Breaking the Mould: Thoughts on Punjab’s Future Economic Development,” in Economic Transformation and Development Experience of Indian Punjab, Lakhwinder Singh and Nirvikar Singh, eds. (Singapore: Springer, 2016): 451-466. The peasants may still be better off than their compatriots elsewhere in India, but they face devastation once the groundwater table declines a little further. Note that the farmers who died during the protests, from a variety of causes, were not large landholders – their average holding was under 3 acres: Vivek Gupta, “Most Farmers Who Died at Delhi’s Borders Owned Less Than 3 Acres Land: Study,” The Wire, November 7, 2021,

[34] Sikh Research Journal, Songs and Poems of the Farmers’ Protests, 6 (1) (2021): 139-159.

[35] Partha Chatterjee, Caste and Subaltern Consciousness, in Subaltern Studies VI: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Ranajit Guha, ed. (Delhi; Oxford University Press, 1989): 169-209.

[36] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[37] Russell T McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[38] In a different context, Saba Mahmood reflects on critical theory’s reluctance to engage with “religion’s metaphysical and epistemological commitments.” See Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, Is critique secular?: blasphemy, injury, and free speech (New York: Fordham Univ Press, 2013): 91, and her piece is pointedly titled, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?”

[39] Again, Grewal, The Sikhs, is a major exception to this lacuna, though relatively unacknowledged in the studies critiqued in this paper.

[40] Russell T McCutcheon, ”‘It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin!’: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74 (3) (2006): 744.

[41] Judge, “The Invisible Hand.”

[42] Going back to the issue of the claim that there was a “Sant” tradition in which Guru Nanak must be placed, McLeod uses the devices of academic power by asserting that those who disagree with him do so because of religious devotion – this assertion attempts to preempt the very idea that his claim can be subject to legitimate scholarly questioning: Wystan Hewat McLeod, Sikhism (New York: Penguin Books, 1997): 101.

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