As Sikhs gather across the Globe to celebrate the Bandi Chhor Divas with family and friends at the Gurdwara, I will be jostling amidst a stack of newspapers, journals and books at home this evening, wryly raising a smile on this festive occasion. Sikh congregations will light candles, launch fireworks and partake in sugary treats to commemorate the return of Guru Hargobind Sahib from prison, but they will give little consideration to the unsettling reality that history is on this very day repeating itself… except in this case neither the prisoner, nor his fellow guiltless activists will be seeing the flame–lit sky tonight.
The Sixth Guru Nanak had continued the work of his previous incarnations, to free society from the shackles of slavery of both the mind and body. Such had been the building of the House of Guru Nanak that some 150 years since the birth of the Guru, the Sikhs were now in a position to stand against oppression and tyranny as a military force for the first time. Thus the imprisonment of Guru Hargobind Sahib by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir was less of a surprise and more a consequence of the rising fear in the halls of the ruling class palaces, that the people were stirring and that Guru Nanak’s Sikhs were chief amongst the opposing factions.
The Guru was imprisoned on political grounds for daring to speak out against a system that relieved the people of access to opportunity, fair recompense for labour and their inalienable rights as human beings. Fast forward four hundred years and once again in the Punjab, political prisoners are suffering from an uncannily similar unjust detention, largely suspected to be for opposing the ruling classes. Since mid-September, Bhai Kulbir Singh Barapind and Bhai Daljit Singh Bittu, President and former President respectively of the Akali Dal Panch Pardhani political party have been imprisoned on charges that have yet to show any signs of legitimacy. On a number of occasions they have neither been produced before Court nor appeared for medical examinations. It is by any account a travesty of justice.
Knowing this, I do not expect any Sikhs to stay home and refrain from celebrating this festive occasion, nor do I ask them to tone down the celebrations; when faced by insurmountable odds and grave losses, it is inherent for a Khalsa to remain in chardhi-kalla. But likewise, that same Khalsa cannot turn a blind eye to the wrongs that are being meted out to people.
So for every candle that is lit tonight, I would like to hope that we might see a signature added to the e-petition at FreetheSingh.com; for every firework explosion that is enjoyed in the night sky, I would like to hope that we might see more Sikhs take that bold, first step in learning about this way of life we all profess to belong to; for every jalebi or piece of mathiyai that is tasted tonight, I would like to hope that we might make this night the first of the rest of our lives, and individually take stock of who we are, where we are going and just how we are going to live up to the beau ideal of a human being that we all want to be.
I do not claim to be a better person than anybody else and I genuinely neither expect, nor want all Sikhs to do as I do. Tonight I will be surrounded by the written word in search of greater knowledge and understanding of why things have come to be this way; why it is that millions will celebrate a most noble act in defence of human rights, but are unlikely to spare a thought for such acts occurring on our own watch. From Punjab to Palestine, China to Uganda, there are political prisoners a-plenty, thirsting for a glimpse of the night sky once again. We must live and not merely celebrate the legacy of Guru Hargobind Sahib by becoming ambassadors of the House of Guru Nanak in more than name alone. Make this night the first of the rest of your life.