Today is my birthday. It is not the day on which my mother physically gave birth to me, but it is a day on which I as an individual was reborn. Effectively it is just a date on a calendar, but there is a significance to why I term this date my birthday – a date that marks an infamous chapter in the recent past of the Sikh World.
It is now 32 years since the events of 1984. Next year it will be 33, the following year 34, and so on. They are just numbers, but each increment represents the ever-increasing departure from the context of that time. On the day that the Darbar Sahib was invaded, a mass movement to save the economic, social and environmental worth of the Punjab was destroyed. In the fall-out that followed, a new movement arose picking up the shattered pieces of that same campaign, but like so much else it did not survive the constant battery of the war. I have had to reluctantly admit that none of this matters any more: Punjab has denigrated beyond recognition and what little remains to be saved will take generations to recover. Institutionally bereft, politically corrupt and financially bankrupt, is it any wonder that the events of 1984 now struggle to hold relevance for most?
I sit at the other end of that spectrum and it certainly remains relevant to me. I grew up in the struggle that followed the events of 1984; my father having relinquished his alcohol-fueled lifestyle, embarked on a journey towards the Guru through rebellion. The older I got, the more opportunities I had to turn away from the struggle – a fact not lost on me because so many of my peers of similar backgrounds from those days decided to take other routes in life (mostly financially-focused ones). But I did not because I could not. Everything I read, saw and heard about the invasion of the Darbar Sahib tore away at my soul and replaced it with who I have grown to become. It was my rebirth. It is difficult for some people to understand how something like this can envelop your life and yet at the same time not prevent you from having a life. I am married, have become a father, enjoy living… and yet at every turn I think only of the struggle. Some of my closest friends and confidants – Sikh activists in their own right – still don’t really understand what goes on in my head. Whilst this can make it difficult to maintain strong relationships, it has at least taught me to recognise why there are people who look like me, talk like me, but don’t think like me.
I sense that many of the offspring of Punjabi migrants no longer see the events of 1984 as a current problem. For some it is because they reside in a new place called home that brings its own challenges and concerns; for others such talk of Punjab is a step backwards from their adopted identity as ‘Westerners’. Controversially though, I think there are some in this number who would consider themselves ‘1984 activists’ – but there’s is a campaign for justice through acknowledgment be it prison sentences, apologies and/or financial recompense. There is little thought given to the lot of Punjab in socio-economic and environmental terms. They live in a World removed from the events of 1984 in context. There is now also the offspring of the offspring of Punjabi migrants who show more promise but lack the channels through which they can find meaning to why the events of 1984 are relevant to them. They then fall into the same trap.
Across all generations, there is anticipation of the old guard’s demise, blind to the fact that the incumbent ‘youth’ perpetuate the same faction-based mentality and ignorance of what to do. What direction are we headed in, both as individuals and collectively as the Panth? We faced a challenge over the past decade to bring the events of 1984 out of the doldrums and into a 21st century World – one where we no longer need the BBC or CNN to tell our story. Our humble achievements through social media have ensured that the World will ‘Never Forget 1984’ (for the time being at least), whilst the growing sphere of Sikh arts has documented our rebuttal of State propaganda. But this was just the beginning. We may have reclaimed the platform from which to speak and be heard, but what is it that we will now say? The question I pose of myself and invite you to do the same is ‘what are we doing about 1984?’
I am now in my mid-thirties; I had always envisaged that I would be in my beloved Punjab by this age, working to rebuild the nation that once was. In some way I feel a sense of guilt every single day that I was not there to help pick up the pieces and that still I am not. Ironically, my siblings, cousins and I carried out seva ferrying rubble with our bare hands from the Darbar Sahib complex as it was being rebuilt in 1992 – literally picking up the pieces. But beyond that I have been limited to what can be done from afar. I have always told myself that we have opportunities to help the cause whilst living outside of Punjab that those residing there do not; that has never been truer. But as time passes and life goes on, we must question just what that is and how generations of us living our lives freely in the West can do our part. A contributor in Narvir Singh’s documentary ‘The Renaissance’ remarked, “we are the children of 1984”. I don’t know if that individual truly believes those words, but there is nothing more apt that could be uttered in any eulogy given for me when I die; aged four on 6 June, 1984, I was reborn.