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Victims, Heroes, or Martyrs? Partition and the Problem of Memorialization in Contemporary Sikh History

Heroism and martyrdom are central values in contemporary Sikh historiography and primary symbols in their collective memory. Both are replete with the stories of numerous heroes and martyrs who faced death, unflinchingly fighting in defence of the Sikh faith and its believers (constituting the Panth or community) against overwhelming odds. Conversely, it is considered shameful for Sikhs to become mere victims, succumbing to attacks against faith and community without fighting to the death. It is also insisted that true Sikhs do not themselves attack those who are weak or harmless; on the contrary true Sikhs come to the defense of such persons even if they are not of the same faith. However, during the last half century, Sikhs have many times become victims, as well as perpetrators of violence, being unable to act in a way consistent with their central values. The consequence has been an inability to integrate their modern history successfully into a narrative consistent with those values and to find appropriate ways of memorializing what has been done to many Sikhs and what many Sikhs have done to others.