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Hostage to Hostiles

Hostage to Hostiles
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The 1960s was not the last time goods of political provenance became money-spinners in the USA. Some 10–15 years ago, the Bedouin keffiyeh was a wardrobe 'must-have' for the teens-andtwenties crowd. Macy's sold them … made in China. By now, of course, fashion has moved on.

Back in the 1960s, an age when radio was still the most important medium for pop songs, a tune called Guantanamera caught on among American youngsters. The lyrics were in Spanish so hardly anyone understood what the song was about, but it was cool and kids knew that it was somehow linked up with counter-culture politics. The better aware youngsters knew that it had a Cuba connection. Cuba was a no-no place as per the US government, so obviously Cuba was cool. This was also the time when the very first Che Guevarra t-shirts began to appear. Sales took off immediately. Few of the buyers could have named the face and even fewer could have said anything about the actual person whose image was depicted … but so what? Kids liked the song and the t-shirt for the same reason: They were just cool, that's all.

The 1960s was not the last time goods of political provenance became money-spinners in the USA. Some 10–15 years ago, the Bedouin keffiyeh was a wardrobe 'must-have' for the teens-andtwenties crowd. Macy's sold them … made in China. By now, of course, fashion has moved on.

What does this have to do with the post-militancy years in Punjab?

Radical Chic

For quite some time now, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale has been cool. The makers of t-shirts, coffee mugs, key-chains, car decals, framed photos and various other such items have struck gold in images of the Sant as well as Khalistan and Babbar Khalsa logos and just about anything written in Gurmukhi script.

When this development was first reported 4–5 years back, the sleuths of India's various state, central and military intelligence agencies were naturally thrilled as it gave them one more 'specter' to shout about. As of 2019, the shops are still doing brisk business, but the predicted disturbance has not materialized.

How logical is it to raise the alarm over militant memorabilia in first place? Ask yourself … If you were preparing to loot an armory or blow up a police station, would you roam around flaunting a Babbar bumper sticker or a kharkoo t-shirt? As with the Guevarra t-shirts and arabi rumals, it is unlikely that many purchasers are preparing to overthrow the state.

Getting back to the t-shirts themselves … the popularity of the Bhindranwale t-shirt comes with a heavy tadka (seasoning) of irony. (The irony being that strong evidence supports the contention that the Congress party bankrolled the Sant with the intention of cutting down the Akalis.) But irony is generally lost on shoppers. Cool quotient determines sales; cool is determined by image and image is determined by the angle of vision—in this case, the shaheed angle. It must be admitted that the Sant's image is perfect.

And the audio is perfect too. Aside from t-shirts, etc., recordings of the Sant's speeches do good business, which means that the emotional chord the Sant struck 40 years ago still resonates. Tape buyers want to be told that destiny calls them to freedom and honour if they will but purify themselves and return to the true faith.

Radical sentiments also find expression in music. For example, the Straight Outta Khalistan series of albums by Jagowala Jatha. Traditional kavishar vaaran has been updated to something that resembles Punjabi rap. Production values are highly sophisticated.

If It's Cool in California

The Indian buyer's perception of cool is often imported. While it used to take at least a year for foreign trends to filter into the country; now, thanks to cyber speed, we get same-day delivery. Possibly, the fascination with confrontational merchandise reflects the tastes of a section of the vast Sikh diaspora.

But why would the fashion of defiance catch the fancy of Sikhs living abroad? Let's think about the USA. What persons there would a Sikh have to defy or face courageously? Armed and unhinged white men? Actually, armed and unhinged white men are a danger to everybody in America, but Sikhs might feel particularly at risk because mass murderers are just the type to suppose that turban plus beard equals jihadi.

What Sikhs do not have to stand up to is the government; the American government does not attack anyone on the basis of any religion. If a person expresses his faith by beating tom-toms and sacrificing black chickens in the middle of the night, that's not only okay, it's his constitutional right. The same situation obtains in Canada, Britain and European countries that are home to a large number of Sikhs.

Actually, fashion of assertion is a better term than fashion of defiance. Assertion implicitly involves the Self and the Other. It can mean the Self vis-à-vis a specific Other. Think of the red and black scarf of Manchester United versus the blue and white of Chelsea. It can assert the Self vis-à-vis 'all Others'. Advertising copy often speaks of something as a 'fashion statement', in other words, wearable shorthand conveying a message. Spooky white robes with pointy hoods—instant message: violent intention toward all Others.

If Self is wearing a Khalistan/Babbar/Bhindranwala t-shirt then, logically, who would be the Other?

1. Government of India

2. Congress party

3. Moderate Akali party

4. Anyone not identifying as Sikh radical

5. All of the above

What we know of past events tells us that it has to be one or all of those answers, but the logic that nudges people to do a thing is not always on the surface. What's going on with Sikhs in multicultural USA, or Canada or Britain?

Hypothetically Speaking

But, forget Sikhs for the moment. Let's invent an ethnic group. Pecking out a random selection of alphabets on the keyboard produces a name with no semantic baggage: Ngapuhi. This imaginary group is distinct in language, culture, religion and appearance. If the number of Ngapuhi immigrants is very small and scattered geographically the choice before the individual would be (a) turn to the people he lives among for his social life or (b) remain isolated. But let's say that Ngapuhi numbers and concentration are sufficient to permit ghettos; sometimes ghettos within circumscribed location, but more often social ghettos. The workplace and public spaces are culturally mixed but social interactions are usually with other Ngapuhi.

In the Ngapuhi's native land, a person had only to say his name and he was immediately placed in some social slot: He got automatic definition for better or worse. The Ngapuhi's name means nothing in his new home, except to other Ngapuhis. They miss the satisfaction of being recognized in and by the wider society. So, what is the remedy?

The Ngapuhi observe other ethnic groups and see that some have projected themselves so successfully that, in certain fields, they are innovators that sway the rest of society. In the USA, Black people lead the way in projection of ethnicity, closely followed by Hispanics. Both are attractive markets because of their numbers, even though disposable income of individuals may be low. Incidentally, advertising aimed at ethnic groups serves to further project the group.

Meanwhile Ngapuhi families grow. The parents—first generation immigrants who showed utmost determination to get to Americain the first place and then slogged to achieve security—worry that their children, Americans by birth, may become Americanized. Fortunately, kids are highly adaptable and quick to internalize a successful model. A bit of Ngapuhi cultural tweaking here and there, and before you can say okifenoki! along comes the first of many music videos featuring teenage Ngapuhi rappers wearing chunky chains and baggy knickers. They confront and oppose. It is not only the dominant culture that they confront, they are confronting their parent's generation too. And yet the idiom is so highly stylized, down to the smallest gesture, that the confrontation is clearly rhetorical and not literal. The Ngapuhi rapper acts out his identity as derived from parents but the idiom itself is derived, imitating the original Black rappers. What could be more American than rap?

Ethnic projection can pay off politically, but even if Ngapuhi do not dominate the voters list in some particular ward or constituency, the very fact that a group consciousness exists raises visibility and potential for influence. It is very good for visibility if the group is a victim of a historic wrong as well as some contemporary injustice. This gains sympathy and permission to simultaneously lash out and swell with righteousness. It provides a license for displays of intense feeling in a culture where impassioned expression is not the day-today norm. Or at least it wasn't the day-to-day norm until the advent of social media. Ngapuhi residing abroad may come to believe that it is their duty to espouse the cause of Ngapuhi back in the old country and provide political guidance to their third world cousins.

(Excerpted with permission from The Legacy of Militancy in Punjab; written by Inderjit Singh Jaijee & Dona Suri; published by SAGE Publications.)

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