With documentary Sab Rab De Bande, Sukhdeep Singh surveys the discrimination faced by LGBTQ Sikhs in India
The filmmaker presents stories of people who are proud of their Sikh identity.
Sab Rab De Bande (2020) is a 28-minute documentary film about the life stories of five “LGBTQ Sikhs” living in India. Made on a production budget of 2,000 USD raised through a crowdfunding campaign, it offers glimpses of the discrimination they face from other LGBTQ people as well as fellow Sikhs. The film has been directed and produced by Sukhdeep Singh, a software engineer based in Kolkata, who is also the editor-in-chief of Gaylaxy magazine.
It opens with a voice-over to provide contextual background about Sikhism for audiences who are unfamiliar with the religion. The narrator spells out several details that include the founding of Sikhism, its core teachings and practices, the 10 Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the population of Sikhs in India, Canada and the United Kingdom. Though Sikhs in the United States are acknowledged in passing, Sikhs in Pakistan and Afghanistan are surprisingly not mentioned at all.
The narration serves a pedagogic function. It lays out the milieu within which the protagonists negotiate their gender identity and sexual orientation. The running time of the film does not allow for a deep dive into some of the ideas here. However, interested viewers must look up a chapter titled 'Sikhism: All Humans Are Created Equal' written by the filmmaker for Jerry Johnson’s edited volume I Am Divine So Are You (2017) published by Harper Collins India.
Sab Rab De Bande is able to communicate the unique circumstances of each person’s story. Their families do not appear on screen, and identifying information is kept to the bare minimum in order to respect their privacy. Their first names and locations are mentioned to give an understanding of the composition of this group — Ritika from Delhi, Amolak from Kanpur, Ekampreet from Haryana, Puneet from Punjab, and Sukhdeep himself from Kolkata.
As a college student, Sukhdeep wondered if there were any gay Sikhs other than him. Now he wears a rainbow-coloured turban to pride marches. He has observed that gay men on Grindr and other dating apps discriminate against Sikhs. In the film, he says, “Some random people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re a Sardar, how can you be on Grindr or other such dating apps?’ They have gone on to be the moral judge and have told me that I bring disrepute to the community.” They have even asked him to cut his hair and stop wearing the turban.
Ritika talks about being “a misfit in the male box” and the violence she experienced because her family was unwilling to accept her as a trans woman. She was sent to a drug de-addiction camp for three months. In the film, she says, “Among 74 men, I was all alone. I used to be given sleeping injections. People would have sex with me at night, and I wouldn’t even know. But when I would finally regain consciousness after 2-3 days, all my body parts would hurt.”
Her family believes that someone has performed black magic on her. She is not welcome in their house, and has been disinherited. They have thrown her out, but they expect her to give them a portion of their monthly salary. Their behaviour has affected how others treat Ritika. When she goes to the gurudwara, fellow Sikhs maintain a distance from her. Even when prasad is offered, they are extra cautious to ensure that there is no physical contact.
Amolak loves going to the gurudwara, and performing sewa in a number of ways such as cleaning the place, serving food at the langar, and washing the dishes. However, he often gets to hear humiliating remarks from fellow Sikhs because he is a gay man. In the film, he says, “My gender expression is androgynous…Whenever I go out, I always wear accessories that make me feel confident and… beautiful.” Others feel threatened when they witness this.
Ekampreet has been raised with the expectation that Sikh men ought to be macho, brave and rowdy. As a gay man, he finds this oppressive because it does not honour who he is. Recalling childhood experiences with his family, he talks about how every expression of “femininity” was policed. If they saw him playing at home with a kitchen set, “which is like completely normal for a five-year or six-year-old,” they used to scold him and ask him to play outdoors.
He, like Sukhdeep, has faced religious prejudice while looking for dates. In the film, he says, “If I show someone my pictures below my face, I am very well accepted. But, when I reveal my face and the fact that I wear a turban, they get turned off, or they are like now we are not interested in going out with you. I think gay men are particularly discriminatory towards Sikh people.” He feels affirmed when people appreciate him for who he is, and not his appearance.
Puneet is a lesbian woman whose parents got her engaged to a man. She did not feel attracted to him, so she started questioning her own sexuality. Though she succeeded in breaking off that engagement, the pressure to get married started mounting four years later when her father was seriously ill, and the family wanted Puneet to get married while he was alive. This compelled her to come out to them. Later, she met another Sikh woman on a dating website. Knowing that there was someone else like her gave Puneet a lot of hope.
The filmmaker has carefully selected stories of people who are proud of their Sikh identity. They see no reason to abandon it. Through their interviews, it is clear that their faith is a tremendous source of strength in their lives. They have learnt to separate the teachings of the religion from the conduct of its followers. If the film had also included LGBTQ Sikhs who have given up their faith, the narrative would have been different from what it is at present.
In the book chapter titled 'Sikhism: All Humans Are Created Equal', Sukhdeep writes, “Unlike Hinduism, which is replete with stories of queer encounters and gender fluidity, the Sikh attitude towards queer individuals can only be surmised through interpretations of teachings and events in the lives of the Gurus. This paucity of references to queer lives is despite the existence of the vibrant hijra community in the medieval period under the state patronage of the Mughals.”
Since there is room for interpretation, diverse and conflicting viewpoints are inevitable. The five protagonists feel that Sikhism recognises the spark of divinity in all of God’s creations, and this undoubtedly includes LGBTQ Sikhs. However, Bhai Angrez Singh, a granthi (priest) from Gurudwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi — who is also part of the film — believes that Sikhism prohibits homosexuality as it wants to save Sikhs from lust, which is “considered the biggest vice” and to “maintain honour in society.”
Bhai Angrez Singh respects transgender people but homosexuality, according to him, is “out of question” since it comes from the “giri hui soch” (debased thinking) of people “trying to find enjoyment through different means and people.” He speaks of homosexuality, rape and child abuse in the same breath, creating a false equivalence between consensual sex and sexual assault, and also promoting the idea that gay people are hypersexual and non-monogamous and unsafe to have around children.
The narrator of the film says, “Akal Takht, the supreme body on religious matters in Sikh faith, has regularly given out edicts opposing homosexuality and calling it against the tenets of Sikhism. The first such edict was issued in 2005 as a response to the Canadian Parliament introducing a bill to legalize same-sex marriages.” However, Ekampreet asserts that, in Sikhism, marriage is between souls — not a man and a woman — and LGBTQ Sikhs are included because “souls are genderless.”
In the book chapter mentioned earlier, Sukhdeep makes a convincing argument for equal treatment of LGBTQ Sikhs by drawing on other precedents related to gender equality in Sikhism. This includes Guru Nanak’s condemnation of the idea that menstruating women are impure, and Guru Amar Das’ critique of purdah and sati along with his advocacy for widow remarriage and rehabilitation.
He admits, however, that “the Sikh leadership in India has unfortunately been uncomfortable with the queer.” When the Supreme Court of India upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing homosexuality, “leaders from various religions welcomed the judgement and issued a joint statement warning the Government of India against decriminalising homosexuality in India.” Sukhdeep reminds us that Gyani Ranjit Singh, the chief priest of Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, was also among the signatories.
To provide more evidence of discrimination, he points out that, in 2016, when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, “who is openly lesbian and a strong advocate of same-sex marriages” paid a visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar – an important place of pilgrimage for Sikhs all over the world – “the governing body of the temples decided not to honour her with a siropa (robe) because of her position on same-sex marriage.”
Given that Sikhs are a minority in India, and therefore in LGBTQ collectives, there is very little space for their concerns to be heard. There are several books, films, television shows and podcasts on LGBTQ lives in India, but they rarely feature LGBTQ Sikhs. Even Sab Rab De Bande does not have any bisexual Sikhs though it uses the term LGBTQ. That said, the film is a big step in the right direction, and deserves encouragement.
In the UK, a volunteer-led group called Sarbat focuses on addressing “LGBT issues from a Sikh perspective.” In Canada, Sher Vancouver is a “non-profit society for LGBTQ+ South Asians and their friends, families and allies.” India does not have any such organisations but, hopefully, Sab Rab De Bande will catalyse such efforts in the future. Whether bigotry and body shaming on dating apps will cease is the real question to ask.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect
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