Comment: Witness: And a very happy Vaisakhi to you!

The Tricentennial of the Sikh Religion
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THERE HAVE been two television documentaries, a radio documentary and a gaggle of Thought for the Days to mark the event. There is an exhibition of Sikh art at the V&A. Next week will see a huge Sikh celebration at the Albert Hall, to be attended by the Prince of Wales, Jack Straw and William Hague. All of a sudden, Sikhs are four-square on the British map.

The occasion for this week's outpouring of Sikhness is the 300th anniversary of Khalsa - in effect, the founding of an organised Sikh religion. On Vaisakhi (New Year), 13 April 1699, the 10th and last of a series of gurus, Gobind Singh, baptised Sikhs into a new fraternity, the Khalsa - the Pure.

In Southall, west London, the Sikh capital of Britain, the celebratory bunting is out. Tens of thousands marched in a Vaisakhi procession last weekend, and there will be another march tomorrow. Even the graffitists are joining in. The walls in Southall declare: "Happy Vaisakhi!", and posters advertise a forthcoming Vaisakhi Nite. In the Glassy Junction pub, near the biggest gurdwara, or temple, in Southall, the barman is wearing a 300th Khalsa anniversary shirt.

It is logical that this anniversary - "a Sikh millennium", as one worshipper describes it - should be a major event for the Sikhs. But the British interest in such anniversaries is something new. As the 21st century approaches, different religious traditions are beginning to be seen as part of the patchwork of modern Britain itself.

Thirty years ago, when Enoch Powell was in his growling heyday, things looked very different. In 1969, Sikhs celebrated the 500th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak - the first of the 10 great gurus and the founder of the Sikh religion itself. For Sikhs, that anniversary was even bigger than this week's celebrations. It was, however, "almost invisible", according to Indarjit Singh, editor of the Sikh Messenger and director of the Network of Sikh Organisations.

"There has been tremendous adjustment," he observes. "Britain used to be very Christian-centric. Now, British society is more comfortable - more questioning, inquisitive about other things."

Sikhs like to quote two statistics, which contradict and complement one another. Sikhs were proportionately over-represented in Britain's Indian army: many Sikhs died fighting as part of the British forces in the First and Second World Wars. Equally, Sikhs were highly active in the independence struggle against Britain. Of 119 people who were hanged by the British for fighting for independence, 87 were Sikhs.

One obvious reason for increased Sikh resistance to colonial rule was the Amritsar massacre in 1919, by General Dyer and his troops. Following that bloodshed it was perhaps not surprising that Sikh loyalties were no longer what they had once been.

In more recent years, the 1984 storming by Indian troops of the Golden Temple in Amritsar - the Sikhs' holiest shrine - has left deep scars. The Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards just a few months later. That murder, in turn, was followed by anti-Sikh violence in which 2,000 died in Delhi alone.

In a familiar pattern, the oppression of ordinary Sikhs created radicalism even where there had been none before. The attack on the Golden Temple was intended to deal with the violent Sikh radical Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (who died in the assault). But the violent striving for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan - a movement that he had spearheaded - was partly strengthened by the perceived sacrilege of the Amritsar attack, and the officially encouraged violence against Sikhs after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi.

Sikhism is an odd mixture of warrior religion and peacefulness. Above all, Sikhs see themselves as warriors on behalf of the underdog - hence the name Singh, which every Sikh man bears, meaning "lion". Information displays for Vaisakhi at a temple in Wandsworth, south London, are typical in their gory tone. They include long series of tableaux describing Sikh history, where "the Muslim" is accused of all manner of foul deeds: "The toddler's heart and liver is forcibly put into his mouth" and "Father and son are ordered to be crushed on the wheel. Their crime: not embracing Islam!"

Despite this Balkan grisliness, tolerance is still the official doctrine. Sikhism emphasises its communality. Every temple has its own kitchen and canteen, where huge crowds gather. At Southall, marquees have been erected to allow thousands to gather for meals. Rich and poor alike can eat as much as they like, as often as they like. The shared eating, on equal terms, is a deliberate blurring of caste. "Here, everybody will eat from the same table. We don't have one table which is full, and one which is empty."

Guru Nanak Dev's original philosophy for the Sikhs ("disciples" or "seekers of truth") takes as its starting-point the idea that no one religion should be able to override another. Sikhism was created as a "third way", apart from the older religions of Hinduism and Islam - which has meant that it has sometimes seemed to be no way at all.

Guru Nanak famously declared: "There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim" - in other words, Sikhism draws on the traditions of both, so that it sometimes is subsumed. Some years ago, Indarjit Singh found that his newspaper crossword contained a clue: "Punjabi Hindu". The answer was: "Sikh". When he complained, the compilers retorted that the definition had come from the English dictionary.

Newer dictionary definitions give Sikhism as a "north Indian sect". Britain has in recent years gone one step further, including Sikhism as one of the six main religions to be taught in schools, alongside Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam. Now every British schoolchild learns about the five Ks of Sikhs - including kesa (hair), kangha (comb) and kirpan (sword). Of these, it is, of course, the hair that is the most important - the famous beard and turban which are compulsory for the devout.

Devoutness and violence still sometimes overlap. Sikh terrorism - bombing and murder, to advance the cause of an independent Khalistan - has spilled over into Britain in recent years. Both in India and abroad, however, the support for violence has declined. "I'd like an independent Khalistan - but at what cost?" is a typical comment from a worshipper in Southall.

Leaving peaceful and violent politics aside, the most obvious division is between the generations - especially visible in the Sikh community. Many young Sikhs feel torn by the different pressures to conform. A Manchester student, returning to his home gurdwara in Wandsworth, is clean-shaven and dressed in un-Sikh fashion-black from top to toe. He wanted to come for the Vaisakhi ceremony, and yet: "I feel that I've deviated. That I'm a social deviant."

Other young Sikhs get round the problem of dual identity in a different way. A group of young Sikhs in Southall make it clear that they feel little affinity with the religious aspects of Sikhism. None of them is hairy or turbaned. And yet, all of them are wearing the saffron colours of Sikhism - an orange Moschino shirt, an orange polo shirt, an orange T-shirt. It is an oblique statement of loyalty - but it's a clear statement, for all that.

Two of the group are wearing saffron arm bands, from a piece of material that would normally be a head-covering. The arm bands are half rebellion, half not. "It's not religious. The arm band is fashion. We don't practise. But we like to feel we are Sikhs. We have respect - it's inside yourself."

That self-respect goes together with respect from the outside, too. The days of invisibility are over.