Protests across Punjab have continued in the last week. Understandably they have lessened in frequency and intensity, but they have been supplemented by rallies and conferences, the like of which have not been seen in decades. But whilst Sikhs in the Punjab continue to work towards change, Sikhs in the Diaspora might just be reaching their pinnacle. There are a number of similarities to the reaction in the Diaspora as that shown during the #IPledgeOrange movement of the spring of 2012 which promised so much before fizzling out and leaving things more deflated than before. There has been an outpouring of social media updates from Sikhs of all backgrounds, youth meetings called to discuss potential actions, and of course candle-light vigils, all of which are now evolving into the generic Gurdwara-based programmes. Time will tell if the recent uprising in Punjab has forced Sikhs in the West to reflect on their relationship with the homeland to instigate more permanent activism, but in the meantime are we witnessing another anti-climax?
Last week a protest in London outside the Indian High Commission raised eyebrows as it transformed into a sit-down protest in the middle of the road, which was in-turn met with heavy-handedness by the Metropolitan Police in the British capital. That the Police over-reacted using horses and batons could be seen in their vastly different response to pro-migrant protestors 48 hours later who stormed one of London’s main railway stations, St Pancras which is the UK’s central Eurostar terminal. What message was the Metropolitan Police sending by reacting so forcefully? Could it be that with Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK now days away, they wanted to make it clear how those protesting the Indian regime would be met? South Asians of all backgrounds will be shadowing the Indian Prime Minister’s visit every single day, making their voice heard in opposition to his right-wing Government and shocking human rights record. Perhaps Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe wanted to ensure that those same South Asian protestors would re-think where the boundaries of protest lie, by coming down so strongly on one of its most reputably vociferous communities. Whatever the reason, Sikh voices in the West have not been silenced, even if some of the tension has been released through this protest.
I have heard it mooted since that we should consider boycotting companies who endorse human rights abuses in India by turning a blind-eye to them; I wonder why we wait to boycott them? If you dislike the policy agenda of BBC News and what they cover, why haven’t you stopped paying your licence fee? Why do you wait for others to do so too? Do you think that your one household’s action has no value unless it is matched by others? It is not inappropriate for non-Sikhs to think in that way, but for a Sikh it goes against the principles abided by every personality whom we revere from our rich but short history. Imagine if Bota Singh and Garja Singh had waited for others to join them before setting up a toll booth, or if Bhai Maharaj Singh had reneged his duty as a leader of the Panth awaiting other leaders to join him in rebelling against the British, or if Jaswant Singh Khalra had stayed at home and not visited household after household that had lost their sons, all because alone his work couldn’t make a difference? Whether it is changing your television-watching habits or matha-teking at Modi-supporting institutions with produce and not currency, expressing our opinion through activism is a duty that we should all take on before seeking others to follow, but this notion of each individual acting according to their own conscience is of the highest importance.
Throughout all of this, the key question that Sikhs need to ask themselves is to define exactly what it is that they are trying to create awareness of. Vague assertions of “human rights abuses” mingle with “corruption in the Punjab Government” – at least in the responses that I have heard. They are both, I would argue, products of that which Sikhs have been fighting against and have been in opposition to at all levels for over sixty years now; they are in fact caused by that which Sikhs oppose and should be wanting to “create awareness of” but do not bear that burden in their own right. It is the system of governance in India (and Pakistan too for that matter) which needs to become the focus of our protestations for it is that which fosters an environment that gives rise to the present predicament. The British Imperialists never left the sub-continent; instead they passed on the reigns of power to the new ‘farangi’ which can today be described as the ruling class elite of India. Political party affiliation means nothing as the deeds of alternate Governments over half a century have shown – it is indeed in governance that the true face of the Indian experiment is seen, forging a single identity and doing away with diverse cultural traditions in an ever-increasing race towards an Orwellian-utopia where everybody sings from the same hymn sheet (entirely in the same language, orchestrated by one dicatator whilst saluting one flag).
It is unsurprising that Sikhs in the Diaspora, particularly those of a younger generation are confused as to who or what Sikhs are fighting; our own communities are so vastly infiltrated that we are given confusing messages on a daily basis in our Gurdware, on our TV channels and now of course on social media. In a new World where everybody is an expert, no wonder there is an actual debate taking place online questioning the sovereignty of a unified Punjab because, of course, how could you draw boundaries anew, or exist as a land-locked state, or even co-exist there with people of other faiths(!) Even a cursory reading of modern text books like Gurharpal Singh’s ‘Ethnic conflict in India’ or J.S.Grewal’s ‘The Sikhs’ goes a long way to resolving the deep ignorance that enveils us when we ask these questions, but it is so much easier to be seen to have a viewpoint – even a wholly uninformed one – than it is to borrow a book from a library and read it from cover to cover to draw conclusions of your own.
To understand why the present situation in Punjab is about much more than a single or multiple incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib takes just one decision: to wake up. When you choose to do so, leaving the bonds of an enslaved mindset behind, books, study circles, lectures, seminars, conferences and contemplation become your World, making you the biggest threat to an oppressive nation state and their collaborators than any other weapon ever could. The greatest Sikh revolutionaries of our recent times knew this and were well versed in political agitations around the World, and the socio-economic ideologies that permeate the modern landscape. From Sant Jarnail Singh and Professor Kapur Singh to Sukha and Jinda, Sikhs who are idolised today were no strangers to the written word and nor should we be. I have long advocated that those who are serious about making a change for the better need to educate themselves and work out what to do. These words often go unheeded, classed as too broad and unspecific, but they are in fact quite the opposite. There is no one book to read, speech to hear, or person that you can meet to understand what has been taking place and continues to stand in the way of change in Punjab and beyond.
It is vital that Sikhs become activists all year round. The struggle is real; the oppressor does not take days off and is unrepentant and unfettered in reaching the goal of a homogeneous society, one without independent thought, practice and freedom. But unless Sikhs can reach this conclusion for themselves, as individuals, their activism and comprehension of the struggle will continue to be deflated.