For the past four weeks, a Sikh man from Haryana has been on a hunger strike at Gurdwara Amb Sahib in Ajitgarh, Punjab. Gurbaksh Singh announced on 14 November that he would go without food until six political prisoners incarcerated under different cases were freed from prison as they had served the terms imposed in their sentences – and if they were not freed he would succumb to his death. His stance has won the admiration of countless Sikhs the World-over and has reignited a teetering movement of activism within the global Diaspora. But his voice has gone relatively unheard in India and outside of the Sikh community, and with each passing day an amicable resolution looks less and less likely. Deeper analysis of his campaign and the reaction to it will only come in time. For now though, there is much to contemplate about our own role as Sikh activists in the Diaspora and to consider how we are being dealt with so easily.
Throughout the hunger strike there has been a distinctive lack of media coverage in India where at a national level both the press and broadcast journalists have ignored the story, largely opting out of even providing footnote reporting. In a country where acts of civil disobedience are commonplace to highlight topical issues, and where just a few years ago activist Anna Hazare made global headlines for a hunger strike against political corruption, it is remarkable to see the unity with which the story has been resisted, except within Sikh-based media outlets. Further still, international media has also not picked up on the story and one can only presume that at this time of year news editors’ search for feel-good stories negates their interest in the plight of political prisoners in the murky South Asian region.
None of this has prevented a wealth of updates from flooding social media of course. Sikhs from South Asia, the Far East, North America and Europe have taken to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in a show of solidarity through status updates, the sharing of images and promotion of video clips. The activity harks back to earlier this year when the case of Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar who has been sentenced to death came to the fore and there are shades of last year when Balwant Singh Rajoana, another Sikh sentenced to death, inspired the ‘#iPledgeOrange’ movement which took hold worldwide in a way not seen for almost two decades.
As a Sikh, it is greatly satisfying to see so much interest in such issues particularly when those utilising social media are of a generation who neither lived through the events of recent decades nor have been thoroughly exposed to them by mainstream media and the Arts. However, it concerns me that this once again could be the latest in what can only be termed ‘fashionable-activism’ whereby there is a temporary uproar (or perhaps even just a snarl) which then later diminishes with a return to the status quo. It is entirely understandable and in fact desirable that en masse, the people rise to stand up against injustice focusing on just one issue for a fixed period of time; identifying an aim and working towards achieving that should not be derailed by veering off into other avenues. But it is just as important to ensure that we work towards a realistic aim in the first place and continue to speak out until it is realised. I make that statement not in light of the present situation, but recalling that both Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana are still facing the death sentence… and that the activism which was deafening for a few weeks on both occasions went silent of its own volition.
The question I am now asking myself is if there is a bigger game that is being played out here in which we are being snared. Each of the three issues that I have mentioned are genuine campaigns and the will of those raising their voices about them are not at all in question. It is in fact the response from the powers that be which I am attempting to analyse for it remains relatively quiet in the face of such public arousal. What can we learn from the ‘#iPledgeOrange’ movement and the fight to free Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar? Is it that the political hierarchy of Punjab, India and even here in the West know that they need merely bide their time before the Sikh activists grow weary? Is it that they have seen over the last twenty years that not only will the ‘Sikh Spring’ dissipate, but that we will collectively return to the ways we know best and which are partly responsible for our demise? Every Sikh needs to look at the way they live their life – are we engaged in learning about ourselves and the Universe on a daily basis and dedicated to making the World a better place for all? Or do we just pretend that’s what we’re doing when an issue arises?
There have been countless high profile visitors who have reached out in support of Gurbaksh Singh from politicians to singers, religious leaders to actors. The cynic in me says that for a few it might be a good photo opportunity or chance to build a greater public profile, but my heart tells me that this is not the case; these are people with genuine concerns for the future of a State where irreversible annihilation – environmental, civic and social – is upon us, if it has not already passed that is. I’m looking at Sikh activists in the same light. What vexes me so is that our voices which harness the moral high ground of Guru Nanak’s ideology disappear into the night when the tide has passed. Rajoana, Bhullar and those campaigned for by Gurbaksh Singh are not afforded that luxury. As individuals, we can enjoy the holidays, get excited about an upcoming gathering, or just lie-in for days at a time; but that doesn’t mean that you can then stop caring about these issues or simply forget about being an activist. We need to stop switching our moral compass on and off. We need to stop making it easy to be ignored.