Last Wednesday, ‘The Hindu’ newspaper published a feature titled ‘Looking back in anger’. The article can be read online and focused on “Young educated Sikhs living abroad, [who] are beginning to question, in democratic ways, if what happened in Punjab in the 1980s was justified”. I was personally identified in the opening paragraphs and have since made no public comment about this article. Instead, I chose to digest the responses I received personally, re-read the article each day, and then analysed what ‘The Hindu’ had set out to achieve. My conclusions at this point are in no way final, but deserve a public airing so that they can be refined, reassessed and helpful to others.
My first reaction was one of surprise. Most Sikhs in the West do not know my name; even fewer will be able to point to any work that I have produced, whether it is written, oratory or visual. And yet there was my name, heading the article in a newspaper that has a daily print-run of 1.4 million copies. I have considered screen-grabbing the paragraph that mentions my name and making it my Facebook picture so that others might come to realise the significance of the Naujawani Sardar whom they have done their best to ignore in recent years! But that would be out of character.
I can’t pretend that I don’t deem my efforts worthy of the attention of the World’s biggest democracy, but just the same, I can’t help but feel that they have earmarked my name before my time. The prominent error in that opening paragraph said it all: not the erroneous depiction of my “bright-eyes”, neither the mistaken belief that I am in my “twenties”, nor the preposterous notion that I ever “studied”. Rather it was the words that suggested Naujawani.com is “popular”. Facebook page: 678 fans; Twitter account: 727 followers; Blog comments: minimal. Steadily rising, sure, but popular? Somebody needs to show ‘The Hindu’ hits on an AKakaAmazing video.
The article went on to suggest that I, along with others, am engaged in a propaganda war aimed at the “young and impressionable”. I found this an interesting phrase because most people tend to be impressionable when you provide them with referenced information about a subject matter that they are connected to, but oblivious of at the same time. Without insulting anyone, whether it is Punjabiyat or Sikhi, very few Sikhs and Punjabis in the West, of any age, have any real knowledge or expertise of their culture or way of life. This can be traced back to the fact that we are no longer a people who value learning, whether that is through tutored instruction, reading or even learning on the job. It is precisely why the jaago singing at a wedding has been replaced by an unlikeable DJ spitting into a microphone and the carrying of a Kirpan by a groom into the Darbar is now treated as customary. The people reading my work are impressionable because their natural inquisitiveness has been unfulfilled for decades, and is now being quenched by logical and referenced work.
However, it is use of the word “young” which has given me the most to ponder. On the face of it, a site named Naujawani.com is all about the youth; except it’s not. We have always depicted ourselves for the young and young at heart. Our key target audience are those who are interested in Sikh and Punjabi affairs and whose first language is English. Most of those people are in their twenties, thirties and forties, so why did ‘The Hindu’ suggest I was aiming at the young?
Over the last four years, Naujawani.com has worked hard to support university students of all backgrounds in two separate areas: Sikh societies and bhangra teams. We launched online space, provided guidance and gave these young people an opportunity asking for nothing in return, where other companies and individuals had previously exploited them. Naturally this has brought us into opposition with those who have sought to contain the innate enthusiasm which young people are encouraged to develop in university life. I wondered for some time whether these aspects of my work at Naujawani.com had brought me to Indian attention, particularly when you consider that intelligence agencies of all States have traditionally recruited and interfered with campus life – in these respects I have made myself an easy target for their folly.
I did not first hear of the article on the day that it was published. The journalist behind it had emailed me to ask some quite laborious questions to which I had replied in some detail, only to find that a solitary quote was included and even that out of context. She had not let on that I would be so personally identified in the article, hence my surprise, but what seemed to be a shockingly poor grasp of the present day situation (based on her questions) should have prepared me for more of the same once the article came to print.
In my email reply to her, I explained that, “The mobilisation/awareness of Sikh youth that we are involved in has not emerged recently but has been building up for over 30 years. However, it certainly gains more notice today because of the Rajoana case which has highlighted the issues more intensely than ever before here in the west.” This was in response to her assertion that I and others like me were allowing a deep hurt to linger in our mind, a response which she clearly ignored titling the article ‘Looking back in anger’.
She struggled to understand that there was more to the Sikh cause than human rights issues to which I had replied, “…it is why in the Global internet age we are creating our own forms of media, to share the struggle with those who know of all this but never speak out because they feel as if they are alone. The issues? Lack of investment in industry, centralised pricing of agricultural produce, ecologically disastrous policies, rampant corruption, denunciation of Punjabi language… I could list a dozen more.” And yet the article only speaks of human rights abuses and the ‘K’ word – a word which I very rarely use, but ironically was the only quote from my email reply that was used in the article! I have gone to great lengths throughout my life to make recent issues in the Punjab about just that – the issues. Our struggle has always been one against economic inequality, ecological short-sightedness and cultural annihilation, and that will continue to be at the heart of my activism.
Generally speaking, I am grateful to Chander Suta Dogra for writing this feature. Unwittingly, she has revealed much about the manner in which Indian (and probably South Asian) policy towards criticism of Government will be tackled now and in the future. For decades, South Asian politicians have dealt with public dissension by intimidating, disabling and finally removing those who speak against them. As a result, activists of any cause have had little time, opportunity or resources to counter the propaganda that Governments can muster. But in a 21st century digital World, India must now learn to play fair. It must respond to movements and campaigns in the knowledge that the revolution has been digitized. ‘The Hindu’ newspaper article sought to do this by painting a flattering portrait of Sikhs like me on the one hand, but dismissing my very written words as “one-sided” on the other. We are witnessing the ushering-in of an era of desi doublespeak which I welcome, largely as I find it much more preferable than the traditional method of desi-political combat… a knife in the head.
I am a student of the House of Guru Nanak; I never take pleasure in seeing a foe vanquished, just as I hold no fear in taking on those who wish to usurp others. I don’t look back in anger (you heard me say…)