Multi-OSCAR nominated film ’12 Years a Slave’ has been praised with critical acclaim and worldwide appreciation for its portrayal of one man’s journey from being a free man to becoming a slave in 19th Century America. Many factors contribute to the power with which the film re-tells this true story and a myriad of questions, thoughts and scenarios are aroused. As I sat and watched the film, sifting through the ‘what-ifs’ that raced through my mind, repeatedly I heard seven words echo:
“ਆਪਾਂ ਗੁਲਾਮ ਹੈ। ਗੁਲਾਮੀ ਗੱਲੋਂ ਲਾਉਨੀ ਹੈ।” / “Aapan gulaam hai. Gulaami gallon launi hai.”
“We are enslaved. We are going to set ourselves free.”
12 February marks the birth anniversary of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who will go down in history as one of the most misunderstood Sikhs of our time. He is maligned and misrepresented not only by those who label him as a seccessionist, upstart and even a terrorist, but equally by too many of those who wear t-shirts adorning his image, who use his name to make claims to righteousness and most disgracefully by those who have followed in his place. The words that came to my attention during ’12 Years a Slave’ were two phrases that he uttered countless times to the hundreds of thousands that heard him speak in the short time that he had in the Punjab; but they encapsulate everything about him and what his true mission in life was.
Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was by all accounts a master orator whose understanding of language, politics and religion propelled him to lead when supposed-leaders were found wanting. He grew up in post-partition Punjab witnessing first-hand the unseeming destruction of the land of the five rivers that was being orchestrated by yet another tyrannical power. He saw the Machiavellian scheming that had usurped the once feisty Shiromani Akali Dal Sikh political party rendering them collaborators in the carnage to come. And most importantly, he could see that we – the Sikh people – were so far removed from the noble ideals that had built our reputation that we needed to re-learn the most simplest of teachings, or face our demise.
Guru Nanak’s message of emancipation is both spiritual and temporal. It is on this basis that when the time was right, the Sixth Guru Nanak adorned two swords to represent mastery over both the seen World (miri) and the unseen World (piri). Thus emancipation is not restricted to the soul; in fact, in the Sikh way of life it must be sought through emancipation OF this World. The bonds of slavery have existed for centuries, but very few speak out in the face of it; as can be seen poignantly laid bare in Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’, few know how to react to it at all, and as if frozen in time they accept and endure that which they do not need to. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was not of that ilk. He was as A.R.Darshi termed ‘The Gallant Defender’ who refused to go quietly into the night as so many of our kith and kin did. We should not shy away from this – I don’t. My grandfather had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Law in the Punjab, but following partition and seeing the path that the sub-continent was to take, he left for pastures new and settled here in the UK. Very quickly his family followed as it became clear that the place they called home would not remain so any longer. My grandfather was a strong-willed man, intelligent and admirable as I am told by all who met him – he died years before my birth – but for all of these traits he was not a free man. Like the protagonist from the film Soloman Northup, he chose to survive, rather than live. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale refused to accept the slavery that was being placed around his neck because he was a truly free man; the price of his freedom ultimately was death, but in his own words, “physical death [he] did not fear” and it was as time has shown a price worth paying.
The debate that revolves around Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale as a person and of the actions he took is of some importance; it is indeed something I have written about before and am working on in other projects in this 30th anniversary of his martyrdom. But as a Sikh, that discussion and all those like it are academic. His words boom today as they did thirty years ago, reverberating in audio and video that we must recognise our enslavement and that only we have the ability to set ourselves free. That is the message that has been lost in thirty years of raising slogans in his name and watching Punjab decimate in equal measure. Slavery is not extinguished by a show of brute passion or mere words, but through our deeds and an almost-regal absence of fear. Of the umpteen times when you will Soloman Northup to refuse an order or raise an arm in defence during ’12 Years a Slave’, the question every Sikh should be answering is not how you would do things differently, but how it is that you tackle inequality in our own community, how you tackle the injustice of people-trafficking that is a plague even on our own doorstep in the West, or how it is that you are making a difference for the better to the entire World around us. Sad as it is to say, the slavery which Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale warned us of in Punjab thirty years ago has travelled overseas and shackled us here in the West too; sadder still is that we have yet to recognise it. On the day of his birth anniversary, or indeed any other day, if you hold him in high regard, refrain from all other shows of reveration and instead heed those words carefully: “We are enslaved. We are going to set ourselves free.”