Relational Embodiments of a Sikh Diaspora


Anjali Gera Roy

Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India

Copyright © 2002 by Anjali Gera Roy, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Axel, Brian Keith. The Nation's Tortured Body: Violence, Representation and the Formation of a Sikh "Diaspora." Durham NC & London: Duke UP, 2001.

  1. Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, names identity -- of individuals and nations -- as the central problematic of the twenty-first century. But the crisscrossing boundaries of the global place have rendered traditional identity forming machineries obsolete. Brian Keith Axel's brilliant study of the Sikh diaspora, The Nation's Tortured Body, explores new identity spaces of the post-national world. Combining ethnographic study with archival research conducted in major Sikh sites in India, the UK and the US, Axel proves that a white American male can do a truly non-ethnocentric historical anthropology. He also charts a new theoretical direction in diaspora studies by contesting the place-of-origin thesis ruling diaspora studies in the past. His contention that diasporas and homelands are mutually constitutive completely reconfigures diaspora homeland relations. The particular diaspora that Axel chooses in order to theorize about how diasporas are formed and how they relate to nation states is the marginalized Sikh diaspora of South Asian area studies.

  2. The Sikh diaspora comes in particularly handy in Axel's observations on the formation of the modern subject. As the nation-state model has proved to be extremely limited in comprehending contemporary global configurations, Axel turns to globalization and post-colonial theory to analyze the transnational nature of Sikh subject formation in the present. He examines the Sikh diaspora in relation to two nation-states -- India and Britain -- and finds that the Sikh diaspora is viewed as a particular kind of threat by both. While 'the demand' for a separate Sikh state, Khalistan, has been an instance of disjuncture in the Indian nation-state's rashtriya ekta (national integration) slogan, the Sikh immigrant threatens the British nation by demanding admission into patterns of consumption. On the other hand, in the discourse of globalization, Khalistan has become central to contemporary debates not only of terror and identity but also to "the creation of specialized commodities, diasporic economies, media technologies and narratives of place and displacement" (6). Contemporary narratives of the self, communities and knowledge prove more conducive to the description of the process through which the Sikh diaspora comes into being. Axel's study, therefore, draws heavily on the staples of postmodern theory such as the image and the imagination, the body and displacement, in explaining the mysterious process of community formation.

  3. Through an examination of the visual representation of the Sikhs in colonial, and post-colonial portraiture, Axel traces a connection between corporeality, violence, displacement and image to unveil the process whereby the body becomes a major site of signification of Sikh identity. Sikh difference is essentially grounded in bodily inscriptions -- the 5 Ks [kes (hair), kada (bangle), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kachcha (shorts)] -- that the tenth Guru Gobind Sigh enjoined upon the followers of the Sikh panth. Axel's argument is that the body of the amritdhari Sikh male that he names 'the total body,' along with widely circulated images of the militant's tortured bodies, have together been integral to the negotiation of who is a Sikh from pre-colonial to post-colonial times. Though a series of practices might have existed for the representation of the amritdhari body as in Sikh painting, Axel locates the production of knowledge about the Sikh nation and the body in a colonial archive, Winterhalter's portrait of the last Sikh Maharaja, Duleep Singh, commissioned by Queen Victoria. Axel maintains that portraits of Maharaja Duleep Singh reconstituted the masculinized Sikh body and transformed it into an icon of the Sikh nation, itself subject to the Crown. He juxtaposes the amritdhari Sikh male body -- that came to be created gradually in the image of the Maharaja's 'glorious body' -- with computer-generated images of tortured Sikh bodies in order to establish the body, whole and violated, as inseparable from the Sikh self-fashionings. In the struggle for Khalistan, the tortured body created a desire for the total body that becomes identified with the homeland.

  4. A historical anthropology of the Sikhs, after the transformation of the fight for Khalistan turns into a transnational struggle, becomes a historical anthropology of violence. Axel admits that violence is the thread that constitutes the Sikh diaspora as a community today, converging on the notion of Khalistan. The tortured body acquires a centrality as the new construction of a diasporic imaginary "designating a fundamental and historically specific aspect of not just Sikh subjectification but the formation of diaspora itself" (122). Axel dwells on state torture to show how manifold forms of violence, wounding, and cultural representation have come together in the transnational production of Sikhs as a persecuted people. The masculinized amritdhari Sikh embodies a threat to the unity of the nation state. Axel's investigation into the machinery of state torture establishes torture as a category through which the Sikh subject is pathologized and criminalized. It is a "private scene of perverse intimacy, seduction and eroticism" that betrays not the state's power relation but "anxiety and desire" (136). The amritdhari body -- rather a part of the body -- becomes a 'sexualized sign' of the limit of territoriality and sovereignity of the Indian state. The transformation of violence into promise occurs in a translocal virtual space of the internet, as computer-generated images of the tortured body are circulated through Khalistani sites across the world. Although several other translocal spaces of Sikh diasporic imaginary exist today, it is on the internet that the tortured body is transformed into that of the shahid or the martyr around which the Khalistani cause is made to converge. The production and circulation of the image of the tortured body constitutes the Khalistani subject within a relation to a monstrous, inhuman Other.

  5. Axel deftly integrates the call for Khalistan, inseparable from any discussion of the Sikh diaspora today, into his dialectic of nation-state and diaspora constituting one another. Khalistan is a particular effect of the relation between the nation-state and the diaspora. While Khalistan is portrayed in nationalistic discourse as a threat, the diasporic imagination converts it into a promise. Axel avers that the production of knowledge about the Sikh subject has centred on the category demand articulated through an antagonistic relation to the Indian nation-state's celebrated national integration slogan. Locating the genealogy of the demand in the prenational archive of the division of the South Asian subcontinent after the British departure, Axel points out that the demand was not perceived as a threat because it was couched as a linguistic demand, for a Punjabi-speaking suba or state. However, his investigation of Akali archives shows that the linguistic demand was really a camouflage for a different goal: restoration of a Sikh desh kaal, literally, the "nation/country time." Axel believes that this vision of a Sikh panth (community) has brought the Sikh ethnic group into repeated conflicts with the national integration ethic of the Indian nation. The Sikh desh kaal, according to Axel, institutes a different temporality that clashes with the time of the nation. It recalls the Khalsa initiation ceremony (historically attributed to the 6th Guru Hargobind Singh, signified by the symbols of the two swords miri and piri) whose hoariness accentuates the nation's modernity.

  6. But the globalization of the demand begins with Jagjit Singh Chauhan's advertisement in The New York Times, which lifts it out of India's domestic politics to a global battleground. This is first time the Sikhs come to be represented as a world community, a dispossessed nation. From temporality, Axel moves to the production of spatiality through Khalistani practices of signification and knowledge production that threaten the Indian national boundaries. Cartography, the symbol of colonial domination, comes to be reconstituted as a tool of the 'nation'-state's power that overwrites places of the Indian past with a singular national space. In a Zizekian evocation of the Indian nation as a 'fantasy' that envisages the oneness of the people of India created through cartography, Axel attempts to place Sikh difference. The Unity-in-Diversity model of rashtriya ekta (national integration) through which the Sikh people have been constituted in the nation-state model is disrupted by the Sikh diaspora's indeterminacy. Axel contends that sovereignty and integrity of the Indian nation is signified by the denial of difference through surrender, assimilation and integration. Bhaba's notion of cultural difference offers a better explanation of the return of difference as incommensurable that the nation-state must perpetually negotiate. Axel views the enunciation of the demand with reference to a desh kaal as opening the way to the conversion of the Sikh panth (community) into a kaum (nation).

  7. Axel weaves together a fascinating narrative around the tropes of surrender, displacement and loss that finds an iconic representation in the last Maharaja's portrait, which creates a longing a 'a new space of habitation.' This space, real or imaginary, crystallizes into the idea of Khalistan, the land of the pure, that all Sikhs might return to at some future date. Colonialism enters the Sikh diasporic narrative not only through Victorian portraiture but also through the displacement of Sikhs, which begins with Sikh soldiers leaving home to serve the empire and settling down wherever they moved to fight imperialist wars. Axel's focus on the Sikh surrender to the British army as the inaugural moment in the formation of the Sikh subject ejects Sikh history from the master narrative of the Indian nation. The anteriority of the Sikh subject comes into conflict with the time of the nation-state. The imagining of the Sikh Diaspora cannot be contained within the imagined community of the nation, as it is both prior and anterior to the nation.

  8. Diasporas challenge national boundaries to constitute a transnational space across various national localities. The uneasy relations between the Sikh ethnic group and the Indian nation, culminating in the Sikh separatist movement post 1984, enables Axel to point out the cracks in the Indian nation-state. But he also places the Sikh diaspora against another national narrative in which the Sikh subject represents a threat generated not through national integration but with immigration and multiculturalism. "In the fantasy of the British nation state, Khalistan builds on national fears and anxiety over the transformation of former colonial subjects into citizens and former English landscapes into Little Indias." He believes that this threat itself paves the way for the emergence of the homeland as a new promise. He tells the story of the induction of the Sikh subject into the British national narrative first as a producer of capital and commodities and, later, as a consumer. He begins by considering the common patterns of consumption as productive of British nationality in post-war Britain. In this he locates the pint, the local object of consumption par excellence, in a history of practices "whereby specific kinds of consumption formed the basis for the constitution of certain forms of English equality and difference in the most minute fashion." The Sikh subject's challenging the patterns of leisure and consumption that were seen as constituting Englishness turned him into a new kind of threat. Colored workers who attempted to enter the locality of national leisure were transformed into colored delinquents. The violent confrontation between 'Asian youths' and 'skinheads' in Southall, according to Axel, was about consumption. While earlier generations of immigrants had sought invisibility by assimilating into British ways, the struggles of Asian youth were now about the visibility of consumption, about being visibly British. Consumption of leisure time in Southall became a threatening practice pitted against the nation-state's project to "incubate and reproduce compliant citizens."

  9. Axel examines the first Sikh pub in Southall, The Glassy Junction, as a new iconic site to explore the changing Sikh identity spaces. He marks that The Glassy Junction "appropriates and transforms familiar and powerful signs of Englishness; the pub and the pint" (104) to construct 'a new sense of place' orienting the locals "toward the production of different localities, different histories (occurring elsewhere) and different forms of belonging" (181). The visual iconography of The Glassy Junction inducts the Punjabi village into the English club; it might be seen as celebration of multiculturalism or as setting up a more agonistic relation that speaks to the complexity of the constitution of the British Sikh citizen in the 1990s (184). Thus, in the virtual Punjabi space and time of The Glassy Junction, generalized forms of identity are constructed and positioned within a national frame that projects into a transnational domain. The Glassy Junction is the point of convergence of the particular forms of difference 'productive of the nation' but also 'desires and pleasure constitutive of a transnational Sikh kaum' (186). Axel is right in observing that the threat of the British Sikh subject emerges not only when the Sikhs enter the domain of consumption but also when they wrest the right for self-representation. He uses Big City coverage of the pub to illustrate how the British alacrity to admit Southall into a domain of national consumption of multiculturalism elides The Glassy Junction's troubling difference. The Glassy Junction scenario of representation provides a public space 'here; and elsewhere' that complicates the character of the diasporic imaginary. It is a point standing for the multiple histories of placement and displacement.

  10. Axel's inversion of the place-of-origin thesis makes diasporas constitute the homeland. He adds the homeland not only means different things to different people but also creates a specificity that gives a locus to its generality. The centrality of the homeland to the formation of the Sikh subject is neither a single place nor real. The Sikh homeland as an effect of displacement interrogates old places and recalls de Certeau's notion of place as "a calculation of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power can be isolated" (209). The place-of-origin thesis established the Sikh subject's anteriority that comes into tension with the fictive foundation of the nation-state. Axel proposes a different interpretation of imaginary homelands than Rushdie and others. The social constructivist argument, Axel argues, does not account for the homeland "as a relational phenomenon inflected by historical, social and material conditions." He disagrees with the 'imaginary homeland' theory by contending that the homeland does exist in the present, not in the past. His conclusion is that the problem is not so much the real or imagined nature of the homeland but the anteriority of the subject.

  11. The Sikh homeland, both real and imaginary, epitomizes diasporic place today. Guiding the reader into these borderlands in which the Sikh diaspora constitutes itself as a community, Axel explores the plural imaginings of the homeland in the post-national universe. For once, the blurb on the book's jacket does not exaggerate when it quotes Appadurai to claim that Axel's book will "surely change the ways in which we see how colonialism, diaspora, and the politics of separatism inform the formation of modern subjects with mobile loyalties."

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