Today’s debate in the British Houses of Parliament, inspired by the Kesri Lehar petition to abolish the death penalty in India, was both historic and poignant. The names of Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana will be recorded for the ages into Hansard – the recorded reports of proceedings in Parliament – most appropriate for two men who have awoken a sleeping nation outside of the Punjab. Listening in to the debate, I was pleased to hear the participating right honourable members of Parliament make an unequivocal statement as to the abhorrent nature with which civilised society must view capital punishment. And as each representative of the people spoke in turn, I found myself concluding that a debate which I had given little thought to previously, must now instead be watched and watched again in every English-speaking Sikh household. Moreover, a translation into every language that is spoken by the Sikh people must be undertaken and published, beginning with Punjabi. For you see, to me this debate should not be viewed as a political construct or a mere cog in the movement of our recent times; it is the catalyst from which Sikhs can once again return to their natural state as students of Guru Nanak and bearers of a new Golden Age.
The Kesri Lehar petition garnered over 100,000 signatures for which those involved must be congratulated. In the UK, any petition that reaches that level of support can be put forward for debate in the Houses of Parliament as occurred today. It was humbling to hear so many non-Sikhs espouse the values which we have lived by for centuries; facts and notions that I dare suggest many Sikhs themselves are unaware of. The reference made to the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the preceding Khalsa Raj of the Misls under which no man, woman or child met with capital punishment was the most prominent. It exemplified how Sikhs relate politics and religion. Contrary to what far too many Sikhs believe today, our way of life is not one in which a student of the Guru can hide away from the rest of society or shirk from their civic duty to our fellow man; we should wholeheartedly engage in the political landscape, holding firm to our guiding principles all the while.
There was a very real purpose to the debate relating to the IPledgeOrange movement of last year. Professor Bhullar and most notably Balwant Singh Rajoana face an uncertain future in a country where another prisoner was hung earlier this month without any notice. It is not against Sikh principles to kill. We are not pacifists. Death is accepted just as birth is welcomed. But just the same, Guru Nanak was clear that those in power have a responsibility to treat the people in whose name they rule in a way that uplifts their state of being. The State must work to protect all of its people, advance the human experience and set the standards by which a just society is expected to reside. In those terms, when can the State sanction death? The answer is never. This does not preclude a people from following the State onto a battlefield even where certain death might follow, as the Sikh principle has always been one of acting in defence and that as a last resort. What constitutes defence and determines a state of war is a separate matter, but under no circumstances does it include a democratically acknowledged State in power sanctioning the death of another human being.
How successful the debate from today will be in altering India’s policy on the death penalty is questionable. That is not to say that it was an insignificant endeavour, far from it; but the amount of pressure that will have been heaped on to the Indian State, particularly in light of last week’s visit by Prime Minister David Cameron, will be minimal. What excited me most about this debate was what it represented. A thousand thoughts were sparked as I listened-in sporadically and I couldn’t help but hope that other Sikhs watching the debate would feel the same way. Realistically, this will be one of the only occasions where many Sikhs will experience a Parliamentary debate and as sad as that is, it will be of great benefit if it reawakens our passion for discourse. Long before committee struggles and factional conflicts became our bywords, Sikhs of all manner would get together to debate, deliberate and decide over the issues of the day. Today’s debate was an example of how discourse and civilised exchanges are the recipe for a just society – practices at the very heart of the House of Guru Nanak. I sincerely hope that we can take those values forward and begin to meet to make our World a better place. Young or old, we must tolerate differences and replace conflict with verbal jousting. We will find that we learn so much more, advance as a people and better the World around us for all, as Guru Nanak taught hundreds of years ago.