Oxford University’s Sikh Society opens its doors

Guest Blogger: Network Member, Priya Atwal, DPhil student in History, Lady Margaret Hall

On 8th November this year, Oxford’s Sikh Society hosted its third annual Discovering Sikhism event at St Antony’s College. The programme was drawn up in the style of an academic conference: exploring the history of the Sikhs and the British Raj during the nineteenth and twentieth century, and featuring guest speakers presenting on their own research on topics related to the overall theme. However, the audience members showering questions on the speakers were very different to those usually attending your average conference. Instead of seasoned academics and keen research students, the room was filled with parents with their teenage children, young professionals recently graduated from university, local elderly residents from Oxford, and a mixture of undergraduate and graduate students from universities up and down the country. Perhaps unexpectedly, this combination sparked an incredibly lively, warm and insightful discussion!

I first set up the event series with a friend and fellow Oxford student, Dilraj Kalsi, back in July 2012. We felt that that the Sikh Society could become a great forum with which to start a more inclusive conversation with the wider public, about what can be learned from the intellectual debates of Sikh and Punjab Studies. Our hope was that we could thus promote a more nuanced understanding of Sikh history, religion and politics, but also go further and engage with wider, popular discussions that cut across lines of faith and reach outside of purely academic concerns. We really wanted young people of British Asian backgrounds to get involved too, as it has been our aim to encourage them to consider Oxford as a welcoming and captivating environment to study in, whether as undergraduate or graduate students.

With these ideas in mind, the new SikhSoc Open Day was brought to life. We decided to make it a free annual event held at Oxford and organized by students themselves. A friendly invitation has since then been permanently extended to academics, graduate students and independent researchers from all backgrounds to come and share their insights with us, in a style that should be accessible to non-specialist audiences. The organization of a typical open day programme is simple: it consists of three or four talks, where presenters speak for roughly 45 minutes each, followed by a 15-minute open Q&A period with the audience at the end of their individual session.

To attract potential guests, we have used a mixed bag of promotional techniques, ranging from distributing posters to schools and community centres, setting up a dedicated Facebook page, and using our existing SikhSoc Facebook and Twitter accounts more actively by adding new, relevant content; plus, working with community TV and radio broadcasters to spread the word widely. We have also held a lot of help from like-minded friends at university societies both in Oxford and across the country, which has opened up some amazing collaborative opportunities for the future.

All of this has enabled us to attract growing numbers of guests year on year. We started off with about 40 attendees in 2012, a figure which we doubled this year. Some people like to drop in for particular talks that pique their interest, whilst with others prefer to come for the whole day and use it as an opportunity to explore Oxford and its colleges – especially families bringing along children or teenagers.

As mentioned above, at this year’s event we looked at how research on Sikh experiences of British imperial rule can open up new perspectives on broader historical themes and contexts. The content of the talks showcased was extremely insightful and varied. On the one hand for example, we had an Oxford student, Amar Sohal, breaking down ideas from his Masters’ thesis to unravel the nature of Sikh identity politics during the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. On the other hand, we featured the journalist and author, Christy Campbell, who shared with us the incredible life story of one of Oxford’s first ever Sikh students, Hardit Singh Malik – a young man who took on a tremendous struggle against racial prejudice to become the first Indian fighter pilot in the RAF, during the First World War.

We have been particularly keen to engage graduate students, who can gain valuable experience by speaking at our events. I myself saw the benefits of presenting in such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere at the 2013 open day – for a start, the audience was less intimidating for a first-time presenter than at a formal academic conference. In putting forward my ideas to those who don’t have much prior knowledge of my subject, I was forced to be as clear and concise as possible about the points I wanted to get across. I also had a couple of “curve-ball” questions from attendees who came from different backgrounds and perspectives, which challenged me to think about my topic in new ways and gave me food for thought for a few days after the event itself.

This is definitely just the beginning for the Society’s open day series, and I for one have hugely enjoyed this experience, where I have got to learn so much about working in outreach. It would be great to hear from any other DPhil students or early career academics who would like to get involved and help to develop this project further – feel free get in touch via email at oxford.sikhsoc@gmail.com. We were always looking for new research perspectives to discuss and would be particularly keen to do some interfaith work, but we also are facing an increasing demand for our talks to be put online, so we would equally love to be contacted by anyone with the technical know-how to help us record and digitize our content.

About me

I’m a second-year History DPhil student at Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford and also studied for a History undergraduate and Masters degree at Oriel, Oxford between 2008 and 2012. My research project deals with the way in which new ideas of female sovereignty and a “royal family” were shaped in the nineteenth-century Indian Empire. I am focusing in particular on the links between Queen Victoria and the last Sikh rulers of the Punjab, Maharani Jind Kaur and her son, Maharajah Duleep Singh.