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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
British Sikhs salute Indian success
By Neil Arun
BBC News Online

"The turban stands out," says 70-year-old Malkit Singh Sall, wondering how India's new prime minister, a fellow Sikh, will fare when he meets other heads of state.

Election poster in Southall
Southall election poster: A new British Sikh identity is taking shape

"I'm glad they made him leader," he says, stepping onto the wet streets of Southall, where the smell of spicy food mingles with the beat of bhangra music.

Events in India have always resonated in this corner of west London, home to Britain's Sikh community for over 50 years.

Twenty years ago, there was outrage when India's then-leader, Indira Gandhi, sent army commandos to battle separatist militants in the Golden Temple, sparking a bloodbath in Sikhism's holiest shrine.

Today, there is joy at the news that Mrs Gandhi's daughter-in-law, Sonia, has nominated the respected economist, Manmohan Singh, to lead the country.

But alongside the elation of seeing a fellow Sikh elevated to high office, there is a lingering mistrust of Indian politics.

Our Guru has said: When a Khalsa (Sikh) is the ruler, no one shall suffer poverty or persecution
Jasvir Singh

"We shouldn't get too excited just because a man with a turban is in charge," says Ajit Singh, who works at local broadcaster, Desi Radio.

"We would like to see Manmohan Singh re-open an investigation into the human rights abuses that took place against Sikhs during the 1980s.

"And while he's at it, he can rewrite the constitution to guarantee more protection for India's minorities," Mr Singh told BBC News Online.

Violated sanctity

Ajit Singh believes the enormous number of Sikhs living in the West have always had an influence on politics back home, in the fertile north Indian state of Punjab.

Indian soldiers in Amritsar
Indian soldiers guard the Golden Temple during the Sikh insurgency

Many of them were once united under the banner of Khalistan, the proposed Sikh homeland.

They were driven by outrage at the 1984 Golden Temple assault and at the killing of thousands of Sikhs after Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

"Back in the 1980s, every Punjabi was a Khalistani," says Mr Singh.

Since then, however, the struggle for Khalistan has receded, driven away by a mixture of ruthless police-work and political compromise.

1984 is a year many people have tried to forget, says one Southall resident who wished not to be named.

He believes Indira Gandhi made many mistakes as a leader - but, he says, the sanctity of the Golden Temple was first violated by the militants who sought refuge inside it.

"What were they doing taking guns and missiles in there," he asks, "when we believe it is wrong to even take our shoes into the temple?"

'A martial race'

For many others though, the wounds of 1984 remain raw - and the blame lies with the Indian government of the time.

"In the minds of Sikhs, Indira Gandhi will never be pardoned," says Mehar Singh Sehmbi, the 72-year-old co-founder of Southall's Ramgarhia Sabha Sikh temple.

Jasvir Singh
'Manmohan Singh is going to fight poverty' - Jasvir Singh

Jasvir Singh, a missionary and presenter for Southall's Panjab Radio station, echoes this.

"Sikhs can accept personal attacks - but we cannot accept an attack on our holy places," he says.

Yet, he says, reconciliation lies at the heart of the Sikh faith.

He argues that by accepting the offer to govern, Manmohan Singh is following the example of the historic Sikh leader, Guru Gobind Singh, who made peace with India's Mogul dynasty despite years of animosity.

"We are a martial race, no doubt," he says, gesturing at the ceremonial dagger that, like the turban and the beard, remain central to the Sikh male identity.

"But that does not mean we are violent," says Mr Singh. "You can fight in many ways. Manmohan Singh is going to fight against poverty."

"Our Guru has said: When a Khalsa (Sikh) is the ruler, no one shall suffer poverty or persecution," he says.

Fiscal acumen

Jasvir Singh believes Manmohan Singh is the ideal man to lead India after a surprise election result that revealed the polling power of the country's poor.

Southall marketplace
A Sikh clothes shop in Southall

He says the new leader can answer the poor's prayers by melding fiscal acumen with the humanitarian values that lie at the heart of the Sikh faith.

The Congress party defied analysts to win the election with a campaign that focused on the former government's failure to bring the benefits of a booming economy to the poverty-stricken masses.

Manmohan Singh is a man many remember as the architect of India's economic reforms, pushed through when he was finance minister a decade ago.

Diaspora power

While the memory of 1984 remains vivid, most Sikhs are keen to look ahead.

For Ajit Singh, the Sikh diaspora in Southall today plays a key role in soothing tensions.

"Britain has changed," he says. "It's a multi-cultural place. Hopefully, that positive message will reach India now - through a kind of reverse colonisation."

Mr Sehmbi agrees, expressing hope at the emergence of a new Sikh identity that seems neither entirely British, nor Indian.

In Britain, he says, "we see ourselves as Indians first and foremost. Then we are Sikhs, then Punjabis."

In India, on the other hand, "we are seen as Sikhs first and foremost, then as Punjabis and lastly, we are Indians."

Look at the Punjab, he says, where "the dialect in which Punjabi is spoken changes every 12 miles, from town to town, from Ludhiana to Jullundhar."

Now imagine what happens to that dialect when you travel thousands of miles to Southall, he laughs.


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