The events of the last seven days in Punjab have re-awoken Diaspora Sikhs to the daily struggle of their brethren on the other side of the World. Punjab and specifically the Southern Malwa belt is experiencing mass protest following the desecration of a Guru Granth Sahib bir and a pathetic Police investigation in response. That the protests which were entirely peaceful were met with heavy-handed tactics by the authorities has only exacerbated tensions and at least two Sikh protestors were killed in indiscriminate Police firing.
What is most important for any of us to understand right now is the context of the present situation; this is not an isolated crime with the result that Sikh sentiments are hurt. This is yet another moment where Sikhs are being shown their “place” in modern India. For almost seventy years, minorities have been forcefully homogenised into the new identity that the Indian State wants to instil, gradually demeaning the existing cultures that pervade across the land and eroding any means of self-preservation. The Sikhs of Punjab have unsurprisingly refused to allow their way of life to be amalgamated so easily and it is this recent history of the last half century or more that needs to be appreciated to better understand just what is taking place in Punjab (something that we have published work on many times before). In light of this, the reaction amongst Sikhs in the Diaspora has been as always, varied.
Those who are frustrated by their own inactivity or lack of knowledge of Sikhdom blame themselves (or us collectively); some of these individuals have pointed to how the Guru Granth Sahib could be stolen in this day and age at all. Whilst this is a valid point highlighting the lack of security and perhaps even respect accorded to the Guru’s Darbar by leaving it empty throughout the day, I would argue that this is not the time to make it so noisily. There has been a clear crime committed and attention should be directed towards the investigation into that crime, and its shortcomings. Of course wherever possible Gurdware should be secure spaces (and always should have been) but by highlighting and in some extreme cases leading with this point now, takes away from the fact that there is a very real law enforcement problem particularly where minorities are concerned, in Punjab and India as a whole.
There are some who blame previous generations for things getting to this point, perhaps feeling the need to balance their ire for an oppressor who can’t solely take the blame, opining that surely it takes two to tango? Understanding our recent past and beyond through questioning the decisions that were made, from migrating to the West to engaging in armed struggle, is vital (and something that we do every day in articles on this site) but at a time of such heightened tension and rapid developments I would argue that this is the voice of fear surfacing. Many Sikhs in the west so far removed from the day-to-day existence of Punjabis have lingering doubts that both the State and central Governments could be quite so annihilistic. Without having read Mahmood, Shani, Pettigrew, or engaged in dialogue with those still with us who contributed to those decisions of the past, Sikhs are open to influence by the propaganda of the State and their Sikh mentality suffers as a result. It is sadly the easier option to face backwards than it is to see behind the looking glass.
There is then, as always, the lack of media coverage that draws the attention of many and to some extent rightly so. This issue was highlighted early on Sunday when a Sikh contributor on a BBC television show made an on-air protest about the broadcaster’s inability to report on what is happening in Punjab. Those of you reading this in the UK who have televisions and pay the licence fee are well within your rights to sign the petition that has been shared demanding coverage. It is important to ask the question of why both press and broadcast journalists don’t find the ongoing struggle in Punjab worthy of mention, but it is in my opinion an academic question. I can see why it pains people to learn that our fellow citizens in the new World are not empathetic of what is going on to our kith and kin “back home”, but forcing them to take a moment out of their day to talk about it won’t help alleviate the situation; it will just serve our need for approval and validation. And it is this reality that has led me to write this piece today.
Three decades ago, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale awoke Sikhs to the root of their malaise in the Punjab and wider India: their enslavement. A small proportion of Sikhs were able to comprehend the message, whilst it took the invasion of Darbar Sahib Amritsar for many others to do so. Even today, his acute analysis and perception of what Sikhs and other minorities are facing in India is not only relevant, but astoundingly accurate. But despite the fervent support Sant Jarnail Singh’s name enjoys in the West, his insight is yet to be widely adopted. Sikhs are enslaved even in the West when they choose to mimic that which they perceive as globally popular (and therefore the right thing to do); we look to awareness and hashtags to reach out to masses, ignoring every moment of importance from Sikh history where it was just a small number standing firm against oppression that made the difference, from Banda Singh’s march that led to the creation of the first Khalsa Republic, to the rebellion of Bhai Maharaj Singh that struck fear into the British Empire; we choose to “pray for Punjab” when the Guru dispelled the myth that seeking redress from the heavens is any match for the deeds of the committed and humble saint-soldier; and most importantly, we continue to mire ourselves in self-reflection, instead of understanding the annihilistic force that we are facing. There is no easy fix to this and there never was. The Sikh psyche has been infected since Maharaja Ranjit Singh first took control of Lahore and went on to consume the territories of the Sikh Confederacy; slowly the Sikh has gone from an autonomous individual experiencing life in a search for contentment, to a “model citizen” uninspired by progress settling instead for comfort. Sikhs residing in the West have the best opportunity to challenge this affliction, afforded exposure to differing cultures and unlimited knowledge. But until we recognise our enslavement, we will not choose the solutions that can bring a change to our lot and that of our fellow man in Punjab and further across the World.
We stand on the precipice of our future. Etched into the cracks beneath our feet are the movements of our time that promised so much – #IPledgeOrange, freedom for Professor Davinderpal Singh Bhullar, extra-judicial sentencing of Sikh prisoners – all of which came and passed like the cause-du-jours that satiates modern man. Time will tell whether we creep further toward oblivion or step back towards the Sikhs that Guru Nanak gave birth to.