This coming Sunday, Sikhs across the World will gather to celebrate Bandi Shorr Divas with fireworks, sparklers and candles. It is a day that marks a great victory for human rights, celebrating the release of the 6th Guru Nanak from prison along with 52 other political prisoners. Guru Hargobind’s return to Amritsar from incarceration was met with great joy and fervour, but more importantly symbolised the values of tolerance, freedom of thought and mutual respect between people of differing ways of life. It is thus with great sadness that the Sikh hierarchy which will celebrate this occasion in Amritsar with great aplomb, has lost all sight of the reasons why this is a date on the Sikh calendar at all and instead of upholding those values is today equally responsible for their disregard in modern India.
The Bandi Chhor Divas falls on 3 November in 2013 coinciding as it often does with the Hindu festival of Divali. For the past few decades, this date has been commemorated along with those immediately before and after it, as some of the darkest seen in the 20th century when following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Genocide was committed on Sikhs in Delhi and beyond. Orchestrated violence engulfed the sub-continent as organised mobs rampaged with the complicity of politicians, Police departments and the Armed Forces. The Bandi Chhor Divas has been celebrated around this time period before, but on the 29th anniversary of the Delhi Genocide, many Sikhs expected its leadership to focus on the human rights that were extinguished at that time and that continue to go unacknowledged today. Moreover, this was an opportune time for the Panth to lay out the expectations of what we might hope to achieve over the coming year as 30th anniversary commemorations have the potential to receive global attention.
When this question was put to those who control the Sikh World, namely Singh Sahib Gurbachan Singh, Jathedar of the Akal Takht Sahib, he indicated that the Bandi Chhor Divas would be celebrated as always in Amritsar; a grandiose fireworks display and an avalanche of electric light bulbs will swarm over the Darbar Sahib complex, supposedly to reflect the values of the House of Guru Nanak. Should we be surprised at this decision? This is after all a Singh Sahib under whose tenure opposing political activism has been clamped down upon in a manner that resembles the incarceration of the Sixth Guru Nanak himself. Last year I wrote an article at this time highlighting the then-recent arrests of the outgoing and incumbent Presidents of the Akali Dal Panch Pardhani, both of whom have remained under arrest throughout the last year. When he has done nothing to seek clarity on the highly questionable cases that are being thrust upon those two persons, why should we expect him to consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands who seek reparation and justice almost thirty years after their loved ones were taken from them?
People can do as they wish; it is not for me to discourage any Sikh from practising this way of life as they see fit. This Sunday, celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas in your local Gurdware or homes as you see fit and you have nothing to be ashamed of, for you are just a Sikh – a learner who makes no claims about what responsibilities are yours or who you represent. The Singh Sahib however, like any other Khalsa, has an obligation to think otherwise. I have no influence that can be exerted over him or any such of his ilk, but as a Khalsa myself, I can control the way in which I live my life and what I might choose to do this Sunday. I won’t be celebrating the Bandi Chhor Divas with fireworks or candles, but will instead be engaged in reading and deliberating over the issues that plague this Panth, for I would like to hope that there might come a day in my lifetime when the anniversary of the 1984 Genocide is just that – a day of commemoration and not a reminder of the unresolved issues of our times.