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  • The Nation’s Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh Diaspora
  • Kuldeep Singh
The Nation’s Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh Diaspora.. By Brian Keith Axel. Durham: Duke University, 2000. 1

Most of the well-known stories of Indian diasporas begin with the colonial system of indenture, which is the primary factor in the mobilization and dispersal of particular groups of people away from India. In this book, however, the author focuses on three aspects of the histories of displacement that constitute the Sikh diaspora: the position of Sikhs just prior to colonial rule with a unique territory, the specific manner of mobility within and after the colonial period, and the emergence of transnational struggle to create a separate, sovereign Sikh State called Khalistan.

Axel beautifully summarizes these points of emergence in the introduction and develops them at length in the subsequent chapters of his book. In the first chapter, Axel gives a glimpse of the history of Sikh Empire and their surrender to the British. He outlines, for example, how Maharaja Runjeet Singh fought off the Afghans on one side of his territory and signed treaties of friendship with the British on the other side. The British, in turn, took advantage of the internal weakness of the Sikh Raj, violated the friendship treaty of 1809 and invaded Punjab right after the five-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh ascended the throne. The author quotes the letter written by the Governor General Dalhousie to Queen Victoria about the surrender of March 24, 1849 in Ferozepur without mentioning the circumstances that lead to this historic event. The words were “As they threw their arms down upon the heap, the brave Sikh soldiers said: ‘This day Runjeet Singh has died.’” What the author fails to mention here is a matter of great significance, for in fact, the British were almost ready to make an unconditional surrender before the Sikhs during the battle at the city of Pheru on December 21, 1845.1

Axel utilizes a number of strong academic resources to dig out the facts and follows a chronology of events leading to the partition of India into two dominions, India and Pakistan. In 1947 India got freedom after the Sikhs were forced to sacrifice more than half of the Punjab, resulting in tremendous loss of life and material wealth. The author calls it a new Sikh surrender. In his analysis of the post-independence history, he gives innumerable examples of antagonism, hostility, and oppression not only against the Sikhs but also against other minorities of India. He argues how Sikhs failed to get their most legitimate right from the British, who considered them as the protectors of their empire, as well as from the Hindu rulers of the postcolonial India, who promised “an area and a set up in the North wherein the Sikhs can also experience the glow of freedom.” The author elaborates the circumstances that forced the Sikhs to continue their struggle for an independent, sovereign Sikh homeland, which they thought to be essential for the preservation of Sikh traditions and identity, during and after the British colonial rule.

In the third chapter, Axel provides evidence, including his personal experiences, of the existence of state violence in today’s India. He clearly elucidates how the Sikhs have been intimidated by the use of cruel and inhumane methods of torture by the police and the state authorities, and shows how the official magazine of the Indian Army—Baatcheet—portrays Sikhs as “dangerous people pledged to commit murder, arson and acts of terrorism.”2 Testimonies of survivors included here demonstrate various categories of torture to which victims have been subjected. This is what he calls the “tortured body,” i.e. how the glorious amritdhari body of the Khalsa got tortured.

He profiles a typical victim: a visibly identifiable Sikh male, complete with beard, turban, Kirpan and Kara. Pictures of the mutilated Sikh men have become a well-known, and singularly important, sight for Sikhs living in the Diaspora. Although it is common knowledge that Sikh males are routinely detained and help in police custody (with no charges or formal arrest), there is...

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