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In one of his essays, Dr I J Singh of USA, wrote that as the focus of these scholars is Sikh religion, culture and history – in other words, all aspects of Sikh existence, therefore, they have to necessarily keep in touch with the community. They need to nurture their ties to the community and the gurdwaras. However, he felt that most Sikh academicians do not take the trouble to connect with the community. 

In isolation, academicians tend to develop a narrow outlook and can become insensitive to community feelings and interests. They can even frustrate community initiatives and add to the controversy surrounding certain issues. This happened during the consultancy phase in the UK of the need for a Sikh ethnicity tick box in Census 2021. 

It is not that specialist advice should not be sought but that the final advice given should be with full knowledge of different arguments. It is for that reason that in the public sector, academicians, scientists and specialists work closely with policy civil servants who consult widely before advising ministers. For the reasons given by Dr I J Singh, Sikh Chairs must have their finger on the pulse of the community. The worst case scenario is when these Chairs are influenced by “other” considerations. The damage done to community interests can be long term.  

Recently, a student from Birmingham University has expressed concern “about the amount of academic freedom allowed if the financiers [Indian Government] are given majority control, considering the many issues the Sikh community has faced within India since the partition of India and Pakistan.  How would the University develop a community involvement panel, and who would be part of such a panel? “  

That is a most valid  question from the British Sikh community’s viewpoint.

Following the Canadian and USA community experience of Sikh Chairs, amongst others, Dr Jaspreet Kaur Bal of USA has addressed the question, whether it matters who funds a chair position.  Regarding the selection process, she wrote that “rigorous systems and boundaries would ensure that a Sikh who wholeheartedly rejected the genocidal attitudes of the Indian State would have an equal shot at being the chair. The truth is, like every other realm, decisions are made through networking, whispers at tables, informal conversations, internal promotions; essentially, funders have vetoes that never leave paper trails.” 

In other words, directly or through other means, those who fund such university chairs are allegedly able to influence selection. Dr Bal is of the view that, “Controlling the means of knowledge production helps control the narrative….All researchers, whether qualitative or quantitative have a process where they selectively lose data until it tells a story. The author shapes the story the data tells……It is imperative that we are at the heart of telling our own stories.” She believes that University research also needs community validation.

According to the Birmingham University advertisement, “It is anticipated that the Chair holder will extend and develop the University’s work in Sikh Studies, Interfaith Relations, Religion and Politics, and Peace and Reconciliation.” 

In November 2019, Union minister for civil aviation, Hardeep Singh Puri made the announcement during a lecture on Guru Nanak’s teachings organised by the university’s India Institute, that,  “The very fact that Guru Nanak was able to anticipate the major challenges that we face as a country today — gender empowerment, environmental protection, checking radicalisation — means that there is substance to his message. We are utilising the anniversary to get it to resonate.”

It is not clear what is meant by the cryptic reference to “checking radicalisation” in the context of setting up a Sikh Chair at Birmingham University in the UK.  Otherwise, Guru Nanak Sahib Himself was a revolutionary - a progressive “radical” - who sought religious, social, economic and political reforms.

Let there be no misunderstanding. The establishment of the Sikh Chair at Birmingham University is a most welcome next step in the area of Sikh studies in the UK. However, British Sikhs would wish to satisfy themselves regarding community involvement and transparency in the light of community experience of such chairs in Canada and the USA.

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