As recently reported by The Daily Californian, the UC Berkeley Sikh Student Association (UCB SSA) and over thirty gurdwaras and organizations, have released a letter opposing a proposed nine-million-dollar endowment by the Institute of South Asia Studies funded by the Government of India. A copy of the letter released by the UCB SSA is available at the end of this article.
UCB SSA’s letter notes that the Indian Government’s stance on the 1984 Sikh Genocide raises concerns about the impartiality of an endowed professorship in Punjab and Sikh studies. Given an empirical record of donor influence from foreign governments, this alarmed members of the community who organized to ensure a future of Sikh studies that would explore Sikh thought, uninhabited by political ties.
This Berkeley controversy comes from a larger string of Sikh Studies chairs that the Government of India has attempted to create in the past years. According to the Ministry of Culture “Chairs in the name of Sh. Guru Nanak Dev Ji will be set up in UK and Canada.”. This comes after the Supreme Court of India has ruled that Sikhs and Jains as a branch of Hinduism. Which begs the obvious question, why does a country that doesn’t recognize Sikhs as an independent religion, want to set up Sikh Studies chairs abroad?
It is this strong desire for the future of Sikh thought, unabated by external influence, that drives the sentiment of the letter. The letter raises questions about the future of Sikh academia coming out of UC Berkeley if a chair is funded by an institution with active investments in denying aspects of history that structure material violence that persists today. It cites the example recently of the Indian Consul General opposing the Fresno City Council’s attempt to recognize the 1984 Sikh Genocide and meeting with members to attempt to stymie passage. Ashok said, “Why is it now necessary again to rake it up and relive the whole thing?”
This reveals the stance the Indian government takes towards Sikh history: it assumes the violence of 1984 is relegated to the past, that people aren’t living the material reality born out of genocide and trauma but are rather “reliving” it because they try to “rake up” the past. Such a stance has dangerous implications for a study of Sikh history that doesn’t assume a benevolence from the Indian government. It forecloses nuanced archival work if moves to study the violence that gets invisibilized are deemed an inappropriate way to study history. To think that theorizing out of that violence is unproductive is a stance that is not impartial towards Sikh history.
Fears were expressed at a UCB SSA board meeting that the future of scholarship would be directed away from analyzing the past and directed towards forging a collective Indian future that washes away the past, even as its material implications persist. If the scholars produced by UC Berkeley assume such a stance, then critical thought loses its focus. One would mistake farmer suicides to be a structural depression rather than a continued symptom of genocide. One would confuse the drug epidemic in Punjab to be a result of situational poverty, not a symptom of the ongoing disposability of Sikh youth while the Indian state diverts away resources. 1984 exceeds temporal conscription – it’s not located in a particular time and place, it’s not June of thirty-five years ago, but is rather yesterday, today, and tomorrow all around the diaspora.
This is especially alarming coming off the heels of a similar situation at UC Irvine where the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF) funded four chairs which prompted the Ad Hoc Committee on Endowed Chairs to advise that UCI reject the funding because DCF’s public statements were severely biased and that “DCF is unusually explicit and prescriptive on appropriate disciplinary formations.”
Copy of the letter by the Sikh Student Associate of UC Berkeley is published below –