What We Can Learn From Australia’s Sikh Community

Australia’s Sikh community has been providing thousands of free meals a day to those whose incomes have been restricted ...

One of the many structural shifts that the COVID-19 pandemic has created is the return of the state as a more interventionist actor. After several decades where it has been less inclined to use its weight, the pandemic has forced its hand. There simply could not be an effective response without states using their powers in ways that have not been consistent with liberal societies — and dominant ideologies — but have proved necessary nonetheless...

...One such group is international students, who are usually only entitled to work a limited number of hours a week, and therefore are naturally led toward casual employment in the public-facing industries most affected by lockdowns. Without the ability to draw upon Australia’s welfare services, they are left entirely without incomes, and often have had to make the awful choice between rent and food.

Into this space has stepped Australia’s Sikh community, who have been providing thousands of free meals a day to those whose incomes have been restricted by the lockdown measures. This has alleviated some of the hardships that vulnerable groups have had to face due to both the effects of the pandemic and the government’s response to it. 

A central tenet of Sikhism is the concept of seva or selfless service. One of the prime expressions of this is the langar, the free kitchen that exists in every gurdwara (a Sikh temple). The langar housed within the Golden Temple complex in the city of Amritsar, in Indian Punjab, is the largest free kitchen in the world, serving up to 100,000 meals a day. These meals are available to anyone regardless of religion or background. 

In recent decades the number of Sikhs living in Australia has seen a substantial increase. The 2006 Australian census recorded around 26,000 Sikhs residing in the country; a decade later the 2016 census saw this number expand significantly to 125,000. The census scheduled for later this year is bound to see these numbers increase again. This is proving to be an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon...

...The pandemic has upended many of our prior expectations of governments, as well as the conduct of our everyday human interactions. There is no doubt that this period will create a significant reassessment of the role of the state within the regular contest of political ideas, which should be positive. But this should also — taking our cues from Australian Sikhs — hopefully reinvigorate Australia’s civil society groups with a stronger sense of the informal individual and collective efforts that are necessary to improve the lives of others. 

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