5th Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini Endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies Conference
(May 12-13, 2017)

Theme of the Conference

Sikhs and South Asians in the Public Sphere: Precarious Minorities and the New Global Politics of Religion

Description and Rationale

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of California Riverside and the Dr. Jasbir Singh Saini endowed Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies are pleased to announce the call for papers for UC Riverside’s fifth international Sikh Studies conference on the theme of Sikhs and South Asians in the Public Sphere.

In the last two decades there has been a major shift in the scholarly discourse of religion, a shift that has begun to impact the conventional self-understanding of the state as a secular entity. In scholarly circles it is now recognized that the dominant stories about religion, secularism and public life that we’ve become accustomed to hearing may be no more than myths that bear little or no relation to our everyday experiences and to political realities faced especially by minority communities. Spurred on by the perception that religion is neither merely private nor purely irrational, or that the public sphere is neither a realm of rational deliberation nor a smooth space of unforced assent, scholarship in this area has provided an increasingly sophisticated series of intellectual interventions that have challenged many of us to rethink our most basic categories of research, analysis and critique. Just as, in the past two decades, scholars in feminist, race and postcolonial studies raised fundamental questions about the construction of dominant social categories, so today, the very categories of religion and the secular are being revisited, reworked and reinterpreted.

The rethinking of such categories provides an important opportunity (and in some senses a sense of urgency) for rethinking the precarious existence of minority cultures. This is perhaps best illustrated by the blurring of lines between religious and secular nationalisms in majoritarian democracies as culturally different as India, the US and Europe. And more recently by the confusing rhetoric of “religious freedoms” which has led analysts to conclude that policy making by governments as it impacts minorities is now increasingly influenced by a new “global politics of religion.”

The purpose of this workshop will be to analyze the impact of the new “global politics of religion” on minorities’ cultures, using Sikhs and South Asians as the primary point of reference.

While Sikh and South Asian studies has been relatively slow to register the rapidly shifting discourses of religion and the secular, events affecting South Asian minorities in North America, Europe and India have had tangible ramifications in the areas such as law, society, media, scholarship/education and politics, amongst others, thereby necessitating new and innovative approaches for analyzing the current precariousness of minorities (for instance Sikhs and South Asians in North America and Europe or Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and Dalits in India).

Topics for consideration may include (but are not limited to) the following: What kinds of questions does the Sikh and South Asian case raise about our assumed liberal-democratic principles and practices of national integration, citizenship or multiculturalism? In what ways do secular principles and structures of government reinforce majority religious norms at the expense of religious minorities' alternative claims to norms that govern participation in the body politic, as religious minorities? How do Sikhs and South Asian minorities respond to this environment, without being caught in the 'trap' of being marked as “especially” religious? How have Sikhs and South Asians deployed or reacted to various forms of media in order to participate in the public sphere? In what ways can the relationship between South Asian cultures and modernity be recast in view of the “crisis of secularism”? More specifically in the case of Sikhs and Sikhism: Is it possible to rethink Sikh engagement in politics not only in the last 25 years but in the last 100 years? Is it possible to think Sikhism (its value system and teachings) from a post-nationalist or post-secular perspective? How might this perspective engage or help to revision the current frameworks through which Sikhs and Sikhism are understood: multiculturalism, laïcité, “world-religions” etc? Are there any implications to questioning the very usefulness of the category of ‘religion’, such as identification and growth and rise in numbers of Sikhs who identify themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not necessarily religious? How does the transformation of ‘secularist self-understanding’ affect those on the left, Punjabi culturalists, Marxist Sikhs etc?

Timelines / Participation

The conference will be mainly a two day event of panel discussions, and will be held on Friday and Saturday, May 12-13, 2017, at the newly-built Interdisciplinary Building (Symposium INTS 1113) of the Riverside Campus of the University of California. The abstracts of the papers are due by November 30, 2016 and complete papers by April 15, 2017. Attendance at the seminar will be open to graduate students, faculty and the public.


The details of the budget will be worked out once we have a clear idea of who will be coming to participate in the conference. The Saini Chair of Sikh Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) will provide funding to cover local expenses, board and lodging, and travel funding to those participants whose proposals have been accepted.


There are two main outcomes of this project, one immediate and quantitative, and the other long term and qualitative.
The immediate outcome of this conference will be the publication of selected papers emerging from the conference on a coherent theme. The task of soliciting contributions from among the participants, and organizing and editing the volume will fall to the chair of the organizing committee of this conference. It is anticipated that an academic publishing house will be receptive to publish such a volume.
In the long term, this conference will contribute to the on-going process of community building between individual scholars as well as across institutions. The conference provides an opportunity for scholars with otherwise disparate fields of inquiry in the area of Sikh Studies / South Asian Studies to enter into conversation with one another. This conference represents a first step in developing further collaborative projects among scholars of UCR and other universities around the world. At its most ambitious, this conference will raise further the profile of UCR, its faculty, and its students and lays the foundation for future scholarly collaborations among UCR and other institutions.


Chair of the Organizing Committee: Professor Pashaura Singh


Professor Arvind-pal Singh Mandair

Dr. Charles M. Townsend
Corinne Elizabeth Knight

Event Coordinator

Ryan A. Mariano