Who is a “Sikh”? How people use caste & cisheteronormativity to gate-keep Sikhi

by manmit and Manu

Content notes: includes examples of transphobia, homophobia, queerphobia, and casteism.

Trigger warning: Rape and violence.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part article. Be sure to read part 1 first.

In this series, we ask a few questions.

Is the Sikh panth working to create Sikh spaces (whether that be in our homes, organizations, institutions, initiatives, movements, communities, gurdwaras, or an imagined Khalistan) that are based on the vision set forth by the Gurus? Are we creating Sikh spaces which are truly equal and facilitate the spiritual growth of every person? Ultimately, are we developing Sikh spaces where Dalits, queer, and trans folks can find liberation and equality?

Or, are we continuing the legacy of casteism, queerphobia, and transphobia in our spaces that continues to plague society at-large? 

We are going to explore this very complex and heavy topic in three parts:

  • Part 1: The Problem. In Part 1 we will discuss discrimination, caste oppression, how the Sikh Gurus worked against casteism, and how casteism manifests today.
  • Part 2: Who is a “Sikh”? Below, we will discuss how people use caste and cisheteronormativity to gate-keep Sikhi.
  • Part 3: Moving Forward. Here we will discuss how we can move towards a gurmat-oriented society and practical ways to become more welcoming and loving as individuals and as a panth. 


Sikh Gatekeepers

Another trend noted amongst the cisheterosexual jatts making casteist, queerphobic, and transphobic tweets was their obsession with trying to silence any discussion of caste, queerness, and transness within Sikhi through gatekeeping Sikhi. A lot of these tweets were focused on attacking our claims to Sikhi in order to silence us on issues of caste, gender, and sexuality within Sikhi.  

Gatekeeping of Sikhi by cisheterosexual jat caste men has been a violent recurrence that has continuously stifled the growth of our panth. Here, we are thinking about Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891 – 1956), a Dalit scholar, theorists, and social reformer. Dr. Ambedkar was considering converting to Sikhi given its anti-brahminical roots. Dr. Ambedkar understood the liberatory promise of Sikhi as he weighed his religious options and envisioned the future for millions of other Dalit folks (Hans, 2016). He even encouraged his nephew to accept Amrit and join the Khalsa. 

However, it was the gatekeeping of the cisheterosexual oppressor caste men that ensured the panth did not grow to include more Dalit folks, with one of the panthic leaders making the comment “By making six crore untouchables Sikhs, should we hand over the Darbar Sahib to Chuhras?” (Gill, 2019). 

Through intimate interactions with the Sikh community in India, Dr. Ambedkar came to the realization that while the Sikh Gurus preached equality, in practice, Dalit Sikhs retained a separate identity – as Mazbhi Sikhs, or in some cases as “Ravidasis” – and were treated poorly. “There was thus a kind of segregation within Sikhism.  At the social level, Dalit Sikhs in the Punjab remained landless, subordinate as agricultural laborers to the landed Jat Sikhs, the dominant community.” Subsequently, in 1956, Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, initiating mass conversions of Dalits.

Who is a Sikh?

Fast forward to 2020, and the bigotry levied at Dr. Ambedkar preventing him from joining Sikhi is the same faced by Dalits today. The backlash we received on social media was centered on saying there was no place for us in Sikhi because we are queer and trans. People were saying because I (manu) am a Dalit queer non-binary femme, my existence as a Sikh is less valid than the cisheterosexual caste privileged people who try to police my Sikhi. Other folks said that because we do not keep our kesh, we are not a Sikh and therefore can’t speak on Sikhi. 

Which brings us to the question, “Who is a Sikh?” 

Instead of Twitter, we turn to Guru Sahib to learn who they say is their Sikh. As revealed to Guru Ram Das Sahib Ji: 

ਗੁਰ ਸਤਿਗੁਰ ਕਾ ਜੋ ਸਿਖੁ ਅਖਾਏ ਸੁ ਭਲਕੇ ਉਠਿ ਹਰਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਧਿਆਵੈ ॥

One who calls themself a Sikh of the True Guru shall rise in the early morning hours and meditate on the Waheguru’s Name.

And within the same salok, Guru Sahib continues (Raag Gauree, Ang 305): 

ਜੋ ਸਾਸਿ ਗਿਰਾਸਿ ਧਿਆਏ ਮੇਰਾ ਹਰਿ ਹਰਿ ਸੋ ਗੁਰਸਿਖੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਮਨਿ ਭਾਵੈ ॥

One who meditates on my Divine, Har, Har, with every breath and every morsel of food – that GurSikh becomes pleasing to the Guru’s Mind.

Guru Sahib’s Bani makes clear that it is one’s relationship and dedication to Waheguru that defines one as the Guru’s Sikh. And if one’s Sikhi is a matter between one and the Guru, then how can anyone police and gatekeep one’s claim to Sikhi? Nobody but Waheguru knows our relationship to Them, and hence, nobody other than the Guru has any rights to determine, police, or gatekeep who gets to identify as a Sikh. Hence, the gatekeeping of Sikhi is antithetical to the teachings of the Gurus themselves. 

Liberation for Whom?

If the same people who have these casteist, queerphobic, and transphobic beliefs are the ones lobbying for Sikh sovereignty (whether it be in Sikh organizations, Gurdwara leadership, Sikh autonomy, Sikh self-governance, or Khalistan) then what does that say about those spaces? Will those spaces protect and make space for caste oppressed Dalit folk and or queer and trans folk? Or are they only open to jatt cisheterosexual Sikhs? And if the revolution exists to only free the Sikhs who align within those privileged identities, is it even a revolution? 

The Gurus created an egalitarian society (Sikh panth) outside the caste society and made it a springboard for giving shape to a revolutionary movement, writes Jagjit Singh. The Sikh movement was not only a social revolution but also a political revolution for the commoner. The Sikh revolution was the product of an ideology which from its very inception had identified itself with the lowest of the low and which had forcefully and consistently been pursued for over 250 years. 

Yet, anytime we attempt to carry forth this mantle and educate people about casteism, queerphobia, and transphobia, we are silenced. When the silencers are at the forefront of Sikh or Khalistan initiatives, I (manu) as a queer Dalit, do not feel safe to support their specific causes. Why? Because some of these endeavors are being led by the same people who sent me death threats and bullying messages for being a queer Dalit. How can we progress as a panth and establish just and equal communities if we cannot annihilate casteism that is clearly rampant and practiced even in 2020? 

We believe that this gatekeeping on the part of cisheterosexual oppressor caste men continues to restrict Sikh liberation on the grounds of caste, gender, and sexuality in ways that maintain these power dynamics to benefit these men. And it is these same cisheterosexual oppressor caste men (with the support of cisheterosexual oppressor caste women) who are leading many Sikh initiatives and lobby efforts.  However, the fact still stands that casteism, queerphobia, and transphobia is a significant problem that plagues the Sikh community and needs to be prioritized and addressed. If gone unchecked, “Sikh” spaces will reproduce the very same genocide that its foundation is ideologically against.

Be sure to finish reading the series!

Part 3: Moving Forward. Here we will discuss how we can move towards a gurmat-oriented society and practical ways to become more welcoming and loving as individuals and as a panth. 

About the Authors

manmit singh chahal

manmit (they/them) is a student studying Comparative Ethnic Studies major with minors in Women’s and Gender Studies and Queer Studies. Currently working on graduating, they are applying for Ph.D. programs in Ethnic Studies, American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Feminist Studies.

manu kaur

Manu (they/them) works in neuroscience research and is a community organizer, educator, and advocate. They are a queer non-binary Dalit feminist committed to caste annihilation, queer liberation, and mental health activism. Their work is centered around advocating for caste oppressed communities, defending queer and trans lives, and dismantling the anti-Blackness that exists within the diasporic South Asian community. Manu dreams of a world that amplifies, uplifts, and protects Black, Dalit, queer, and trans lives. 

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