Sikh Studies

Violent Nations: 1984's Othering of Sikhs
October 31st – November 2nd, 2014

Hofstra University
Organized under the auspices of the
Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies, Dr. Balbinder Singh Bhogal,
and The Department of Religion & the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (HCLAS)
Co-coordinator: Prabhsharandeep Singh (Oxford University)

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    One could argue history has three narrative voices – those of the oppressors, those of the oppressed, and those voices not yet colonized either by victory or loss. The latter are the existential voices of silence attuned to what remains unsaid in the sayings from above and from below that reveal the (strategic and unconscious) elisions of dominant narratives (gender, caste, class, language, violence etc.,). Given these three voices, two clear narratives and the undertone of contrapuntal and hetero-lingual silence, it is myopic to read the present by merely engaging with contemporary dominant narratives of oppressor and oppressed (as heard in the current media discourse today that broadcasts "religious violence/terrorism” to be the root cause of today’s troubled times). Rather, we need to embark on an “ancestry of the present” (Thapar), to uncover non-ideological readings that are neither dominated by the ruling elite, nor scripted by reactionary forces, but are open to the unsaid in both. Through such an approach, attuned to the varied constructions of hegemonic discourse, alternative readings come into view – which can be organized into various themes.


    1984: Spectacular and Slow Violence and their Traumatic Effects
    1984: Majority-Minority Identity Politics
    1984: Indian Nation and Violence: Hindu Nationalism and Ethnic Democracy
    1984: India's relation to Global/Colonial Modernity
    1984: Engaging the Continuities of the Colonial/Historical Difference


    Keynote: Dr. Ashis Nandy

    Panel 1: Political/Historical Frames
    Panel 2: Critical Theoretical Frames
    Panel 3: Disinheriting Trauma and Violence
    Panel 4: Decolonial and Neoliberal Frames

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    Joanne Herlihy
    Senior Executive Secretary
    104 Heger Hall
    (516) 463-6023
    Fax: (516) 463-2201
    Email: Joanne.S.Herlihy[at]

    Michael Reff
    Research Assistant
    Email: reff1986[at]

    Dr. Balbinder Singh Bhogal
    Associate Professor in Religion
    S.K.K. Bindra Chair in Sikh Studies
    104D Heger Hall
    115 Hofstra University 
    Hempstead, NY 11549 
    Tel: (516) 463-7136 
    Fax: (516) 463-2201 
    Email: Balbinder.Bhogal[at]

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  • Sikh Art & 1984

    The Singh Twins

    London born twin sisters Amrit and Rabindra are contemporary British artists of International standing whose award winning paintings have been acknowledged as constituting a unique genre in British Art and for initiating a new movement in the revival of the Indian miniature tradition within modern art practice. Describing their work as Past - Modern (as opposed to Post Modern), their work engages with important areas of critical debate - challenging existing stereotypes and redefining generally accepted, narrow perceptions of heritage and identity in art and society. Combining elements from Western and Eastern aesthetics they assert the value of traditional and non European art forms to the continuing development of Contemporary Art practice - exploring cultural, social and political issues of global significance within a highly decorative, often witty and symbolic style which has universal appeal and transcends cultural barriers.  (taken from their website:

    • The Beast of Revelation (after William Blake's painting by the same name)

      The Beast of Revelation (after William Blake's painting by the same name)

      Image copyright The Singh

      The Beast of Revelation (after William Blake's painting by the same name)
      Poster colour, gouache and gold dust on mount board
      21c x 19cm (8.5 x 7.5in)

      Introduction 'The Beast of Revelation' is a direct reinterpretation of a work created by the great Victorian Symbolist, William Blake. It is one of two paintings commissioned by an established London curator for inclusion in his Cork Street show 'Blake's Heaven' which coincided with a major exhibition of Blakes' work at the Tate London in 2000 - 2001. Having been asked to give a personal response to any aspect of Blake's work, The Singh Twins draw upon his well known Biblical representation relating to the Apocalypse - or the account of the end of time from the Book of Revelations. Like much of their work, it offers a contemporary relevance to an ancient theme. Whilst incorporating some element of the Indian miniature aesthetic, the artists deliberately remain largely faithful to the style of Blake's original and copy his composition almost exactly. However, the symbolism and content has been modified - presenting a very direct and vivid comment on what the artists project as their own issues of concern within current scientific debate, politics and society.

      The Biblical account of St John's vision of the seven headed Red Dragon and the seven-headed Blue Beast rising from the sea has been interpreted variously. However, within early Christian tradition it was popularly seen as symbolising the partnership between evil earthly rulers and Satan's servant (or the Antichrist) which would lead to the temporary stronghold of Satan over the world, before his final defeat in the ultimate battle of 'good over evil,' at the second coming of Christ.

      'The Beast of Revelation' presents a universal context for interpreting this specifically Christian theme - transforming these Biblical monsters into what, for the artist, constitute the very real 'demons' of our own time. Here, the Red Dragon is depicted as the personification of a destructive, selfish and corrupt politics, perpetrated on the one hand by a secular world leadership obsessed by personal status and power, and sustained on the other hand, by the failings of an institutionalised religious leadership (the traditional guardians of moral conscience) which itself is too concerned with self preservation to intervene. Similarly, the Blue Beast personifies what the artist suggests are the 'partners in crime' of political corruption - excessive economic greed, unfettered technology, environmental exploitation and the manipulative power of the mass media. In this contemporary reinterpretation of Blake's work, 'Satan's reign on earth' is translated in terms of the tangible evils of this world which are ultimately rooted in this symbiotic relationship between political power and economic greed - evils which have manifest themselves throughout history in the horrors of war and the atrocity of slavery, in the gluttony that has made species extinct and laid waste to natural environments and in the moral and spiritual decline of an increasingly individualistic, consumer society controlled by market forces and political agendas.

    • Partners In Crime: Deception and Lies, 2004

      Partners In Crime:Deception and Lies, 2004

      Image copyright The Singh

      Partners In Crime: Deception and Lies, 2004
      Poster, gouache, gold dust on mountboard
      57 x 78cm (22.5 x 30.7in)

      For the composition of this painting the artist returns to the famous 17th century Mughal miniature which inspired her 1987 satirical portrait Reagan and Thatcher. This new reinterpretation focuses on the relationship between the USA and Great Britain and condemns the middle Eastern policies of their respective leaders, George W Bush and Tony Blair following the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers. Particularly representing the artist's personal anti-Iraq war protest, the painting questions the justifications given by the 'partners' in their attempt to justify their instigation of what thousands across the globe believe to be an unjust and illegal war. Hence, symbols of deceit and crime and the poison of words are signified here by the aconite (monkshood) and convolvulus flower respectively. In addition, Bush stands on a hyena, symbol of the two-faced person and inconsistency, thus pointing to the hypocrisy of the USA's stance in condemning the Iraqi Dictator whom they once openly supported. Outwardly presenting themselves (through their use of religious rhetoric) as forces of good out to free the world from "evil doers", both politicians wear the trappings of the preacher. However, their outward appearance is contrasted by other details which suggest the real motifs behind their occupation of Iraq – namely, the desire to spread Imperialistic western ideals and to control Iraqi oil. Hence, an imprint of the Stars and Stripes can be seen across the geographic region on which they stand whilst oil flows from an Iraqi oil rig into a pipeline to the west – an operation which is overseen by a monkey and squirrel, both symbolising greed. At the same time the "thieving magpie" flies away with a string of pearls which denotes wealth.

      The theme of deception and lies - not only regarding the USA and Britain's misrepresentation of the facts leading up to the war in Iraq, but particularly, the subsequent suppression of the truth about the extent of the suffering of innocent Iraqi civilians who are ultimately paying the price for political greed and ambition – is further expressed symbolically by the border surrounding the main image. From a distance this appears to be an attractive, arabesque-like pattern, typical of the traditional Indian or Persian miniature. However, a closer inspection of the details that make up the border reveal the gruesome realities and shameful consequences of the USA and Britain's actions in Iraq. The illusion of beauty being created from something which is visually offensive and disturbing thus provides a metaphor for the passing of as noble and just something which is immoral and unjust.

      Reinforcing the main themes of the work, the quotes left and right of Bush and Blair read:

      "I will not allow this little dictator to control 85 percent of the civilised worlds oil"
      (George Bush about Sadam Hussain, New York Times March 29th 2003)


      "The children seem to be the most openly enthused. They are getting a chance at a future the likes of which would never have been possible under the oppressive regime…" (US Marine 2003)"

    • 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (The Storming Of 'The Golden Temple')

      'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (The Storming Of 'The Golden Temple')

      Image copyright The Singh

      'Nineteen Eighty-Four' (The Storming Of 'The Golden Temple')
      75.5 x 101cm (29.75 x 39.75in)
      Poster colour, gouache and gold dust on mountboard

      'Nineteen Eighty-Four' depicts the storming of the Golden Temple, the Sikh community's most holiest and historic shrine, by Indian troops in 1984. It reflects the personal sense of suffering and injustice felt by Sikhs world-wide, during the attack and in the aftermath of violence which resulted in the injury and death of thousands of innocent men, women, and children in Punjab.

      The different perspectives displayed by the composition seek to convey the "mixed feelings" experienced by the artist, along with many fellow British Sikhs, when news of the attack first appeared in the media. The distant, bird's eye view of the Golden Temple itself symbolises the geographic and physical separation of the Diaspora Sikh community from what was happening in India, and their consequent feeling of detachment which was heightened by "the notable lack of media coverage at the time". In contrast, the ground level close-up view of details in the foreground focuses on the atrocities carried out by the Indian army, emphasising the Diaspora's emotional attachment and closeness to what was happening, despite being physically removed from the situation.

      The painting was initially inspired by the artist's anger at the "inadequate and biased media coverage which contradicted the personal, eye witness accounts, that were filtering through from the Sikh community in India at the time and, later, the various Amnesty International and Human Rights Movement reports". In her "liberating" of the Golden Temple from alleged Sikh terrorists, who had based themselves in the grounds of the complex, the media generally portrayed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the moral victor. However, the painting shows that "the main casualties of the attack were in fact the thousands of pilgrims who had come to pay homage on one of the most important religious days in the Sikh calendar".

      The bias of the media and "the damaging effects it has had on the image of the Sikhs" is symbolised by the group of blindfolded reporters who stand as 'partners in crime', shoulder to shoulder, with Indian troops (top left). There is a sense of horror and panic as pilgrims scramble over one another to find refuge from the bullets and armoured tanks. The diagonals created within the composition by the steep line-up of soldiers (right) and the specific orientation of the square temple complex, lends to the visual disturbance and chaos of the scene. The surrounding borders of the painting hem in the fleeing crowds, enhancing the feeling of claustrophobia and revealing the futility of their attempts to escape.

      The symbolic representation of the 17th century Sikh warrior and martyr, Baba Dip Singh, (seen here supporting his severed head in his hand) whose defence of the Golden Temple against Muslim invaders became legendary, "reflects the common belief among Sikhs that the attack of 1984 paralleled the worst atrocities perpetrated against them in past history". Indira Gandhi's inclusion within the painting, even though she was not actually present during the attack, clearly puts the blame of bloodshed ultimately on her shoulders. Her political motives for the attack are called into question through those features which demonstrate the faultless past record of Sikh loyalty to India in her early battles against repeated foreign invasions and persecution, and throughout the fight for Indian Independence. These include the Jallianwalla Bagh Monument which honours those Sikhs who lost their lives in the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, (a decisive turning point in India's struggle for Independence), the severed head of Independence freedom fighter Bhagat Singh Saeed and that of Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Sikh leader whose martyrdom for the sake of the Hindu faith earned him the title of 'Hind Ki Chaddur' - or 'Protector of India'). Having been offered to India on a sacrificial plate, both heads are shown being frivolously tossed aside by Mrs Gandhi. These symbols provide a context to the "total incomprehension, deep sense of betrayal and hurt which Mrs Gandhi's actions evoked within the Sikh community". Essentially, the attack of 1984 was regarded by many as an ill judged move by Mrs Gandhi in her wrangle for popularity in the polls. In this respect, this painting takes on board a more universal message where Mrs Gandhi is depicted as a "muilti headed demon" composed of various 20th century politicians (including Clinton, Thatcher and Churchill) -who collectively "represent the kind of political abuse which manipulates the 'dispensable' masses in an obsessive thirst for personal power".

    • Reagan And Thatcher

      Reagan And Thatcher

      Image copyright The Singh

      Reagan And Thatcher
      12.5 x 17.5cm (5 x 7in)
      Poster colour, gouache and gold dust on paper

      This satirical portrait was inspired by a traditional miniature painting depicting the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and Shah Abbas of Persia (depicted opposite). Although the overall composition remains the same as the original, certain elements have been modified to create a modern reinterpretation of the theme.

      For instance, the lamb and the lion seen in the Mughal painting are replaced here with a mule and a vixen, chosen to represent the personality of Reagan and Thatcher respectively. Likewise, the golden halo seen surrounding the head of Jahangir as a symbol of his greatness has been replaced by a mushroom cloud 'halo' representing the threat of nuclear war that looms, as long as the world leaders continue to be in favour of nuclear arms. (The vixen which crosses the Atlantic to join the mule represents the pro - American policies of Britain). However, whilst Abul Hassan's work was painted to honour and glorify Jahangir and the 'peace' enjoyed during his rule, this portrait, by contrast, mocks the political rulers of today. For the artist, Reagan and Thatcher "typify those political individuals who seek power purely for their own financial gain and self glorification and whose personal ambitions in supporting such policies as nuclear armament present a threat to the world whose interests they 'claim' to have at heart".