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The Lives We Tell: Sikh Identity and Collective Memories of the Great War in Britain


This dissertation analyzes the connection between Great Britain’s and diasporic Sikhs’ support for “new histories” of the First World War during the centenary (2014–2018) and the contexts that have created such spaces of ethnoreligious formation, challenge, and inquiry. Central to these articulations is historical consciousness—an individual’s relationship with and use of the past—in the construction and maintenance of diasporic identities. The research is primarily concerned with the relationships between individual and collective memory systems, the valuation of heritage, and the situational nature of subject formation. As such, I primarily engage with and contribute to scholarship in four fields: diaspora studies, Sikh studies, public history and memory studies.

My analysis follows the historical narrative of Sikh participation in the First World War as it became contemporary heritage. These histories, bodies, and artifacts entered not just public consciousness but also many participants’ individual historical consciousness simultaneously and were unexpectedly given new weight as the concept of empire pointedly entered the civic and political debates that culminated during and after the Brexit referendum. This history is one aspect of ongoing grassroots conversations that firmly root diasporic Sikh identities and Punjabiness within European space and that mediate and make visible the colonial processes which undergird the formation of ethnoreligious British subjects and the diaspora’s materiality.

Data, which includes public historical phenomena such as museum exhibitions, online engagement, history day-tours, domestic curation, and daily discourse, was collected primarily in London, England. I served as an intern for the United Kingdom Punjab Heritage Association’s (UKPHA) grassroots project, Empire, Faith & War (EF&W), in 2013 and during my fieldwork from March 2016 to March 2017. Working within the organization as participant-observer, I interviewed and regularly visited “citizen historian” volunteers who provided interpretation and family-based historical materials for EF&W. I met other groups who provided interviews and access to ethnographic field sites through centenary events that spanned Gurdwaras (spaces of worship), governmental and corporate organizations, museums throughout the UK, conferences, and schools. These groups broadened the scope of histories and South Asian communities I worked with throughout my ethnographic fieldwork.

In the dissertation, I illustrate that public historical engagement produces new spaces to enact desirable identities while it further fuels heritage formation through new vocabularies for and reasons to construct the past. Data further indicates a shift in cultural memory production to better socially reproduce and relocate Sikh selves and an overarching focus on futurity via nostalgic processes. Participants’ daily experiences are integrated into narratives of the First World War and mediated by materials—family relationships, labor, and space. Further, heritage production and maintenance is marked by the movement of a Sikh-specific sovereignty into the self—affects, efforts, and ethnoreligious markers. Finally, these ethnoreligious encounters with history are civic in nature and recount (or re-create) the publicness of the diaspora’s racialized selves; participants reinvent, root, and (un)perform racial identities by framing them in more desirable ethnoreligious terms. Thus, participants navigate the contradictions of Western national belonging—in economy, citizenship, and daily life—through the pursuit of hidden and shared histories that might find overlap in those tensions and which promise to represent the subtle discomforts and empowerments of their ethnoreligious subjecthood.

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