Ever since I can remember, I have attended Nagar Kirtans (Sikh processions) in the Midlands. In fact, the Midlands has the highest number of Sikh processions per capita in the Western world. There are countless small ones: Dudley, Walsall, Willenhall, Wednesfield, Tividale etc but growing up there were three large ones: Wolverhampton, Smethwick and Handsworth (Birmingham).
Politics split the Wolverhampton one into two and it was also a factor in the Smethwick one closing down after a decade. However, the Handsworth Nagar Kirtan has continued to grow in size and is one of the largest annual gatherings of Sikhs outside of India.
There are other large processions in England; Southall, Slough and Glasgow are particularly famous. Recently Canada has taken a leading role in Western Sikh culture, with Brampton and Surrey hosting two of the largest processions in the North American continent and by some measures as large as the ones in England.
However, the Sikh community in the United States has until very recently been very quiet and relatively small, at least on the East Coast (the West Coast has an established community based around Yuba City). Organisations such as the American based United Sikhs and the Sikh Coalition have begun giving American Sikhs a more global voice but when I heard about a 'Sikh Day Parade' in New York City, I didn't expect much, however, what I saw surprised me.
Freedom in the Land of the Free
Perhaps it was the language of "Sikh Day Parade' instead of the term Nagar Kirtan that is used in the UK or it was my ignorance of the size of the Sikh community in New York, but I headed to Madison Avenue with tempered expectations about the Vaisakhi procession. In fact the term Vaisakhi was conspicuously absent from all promotional materials.
The weather on the day was particularly bad, grey skies opened up to fairly heavy rain and by the time I had got to the start point, the parade had already left. I ended up following the parade route until I began to see orange dastaars (turbans) and the faint sound of loudspeakers in the distance.
By the time I caught up to it near Midtown East, the rain was falling quite heavily. There were a lot of floats led by the Shabad Guru and there were a fair number of people, although less than the processions in London and the Midlands. As the procession began moving again, representatives from a number of Gurdwara's from across the New York boroughs spoke, it was a good show of unity from an area that is infamous for the fighting that takes place in some of the Gurdwara's in Queens.
Eventually a local leader began talking. Most Nagar Kirtans in the West are based around getting justice for the Sikh Genocide in 1984 and it was fascinating when the local leader announced it was important to get our voices heard in the home of the United Nations. It hadn't occurred to me that at least politically, this procession was on a whole different level to the ones back home.
The Sea of Saffron
I found a good vantage point to get a good view of the procession and there was a sea of saffron flowing through Madison Avenue. The blue of the Nihang's was visible as was the white of the Taksali's, but on the whole, everyone had at least one item of saffron or orange on their person.
Although smaller in number, the organisations based in the United States are more politically astute than the more numerous and older ones in the UK. This was evident in the number of 'Referendum 2020' signs in the procession which referred to a movement for Panjab to have an independence referendum at the end of the decade.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the procession was when it went past the block next to the Empire State Building. It made me stop and think that I had really underestimated American Sikhs and their capacity for having a strong, loud and most importantly, united voice. It was amusing seeing the looks on locals and tourists faces when the Panj Pyare walked past with swords unsheathed but it got people stopping to take photo's and perhaps it will stoke their curiosity to do some research into a way of life that is misunderstood in the United States. This is a country that has a seen a large backlash against the Sikh community since 9/11 in cases of mistaken identity, starting with the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi in September 2001 and culminating in the massacre of six Sikhs in Wisconsin in August 2012.
The procession ended in Madison Square Park where langar (free kitchen) was being served and this is where the spiritual and cultural elements began to intertwine with local Panjabi radio and tv stations celebrating the Panjabi aspects of the celebration. I didn't stay too long in the park, I guess I've heard the usual speeches that are usually given and then forgotten the next day. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio was attending but as the rain continued I headed to the nearest subway station and the short ride back to my home in Lower Manhattan.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.