For almost two months now, activist Gurbaksh Singh has been on a hunger strike at Gurdwara Lakhnaur Sahib in Ambala consuming only water in protest at the continued detention of Sikhs beyond the duration of their sentences in Indian prisons. On 7 January, Sikhs around the World will be protesting outside Indian Embassies and High Commissions in unison with their Punjabi counterparts who will be marching through the towns and cities of Punjab. But is any of this sustainable, will any of it lead to the change that we want to see, and do we even know what it is that we are trying to achieve?
If you’re having a case of deja-vu, it’s because we were also at this juncture a year ago. Gurbaksh Singh went on hunger strike at the tail end of 2013 refusing to eat until six Sikh prisoners were released. The prisoners had all been detained beyond the sentences imposed upon them, and Gurbaksh Singh’s fast only came to an end when the six prisoners were freed, albeit only on parole. He accepted the promise of Singh Sahib Gurbachan Singh, Jathedar of the Akal Takht Sahib, who vowed to ensure that the prisoners would be permanently freed in due course. The present hunger strike which has now lasted 53 days, is being undertaken to again highlight the continued detention of seven Sikhs (now) beyond the terms of their sentence.
In contrast to his efforts a year ago which garnered the support of many Sikhs online and in Gurdware across the World, this strike has been met with a tepid response. Unsurprising when you consider the fall-out following the last hunger strike – a fast unto death loses it’s allure when neither the protestor dies, nor are his demands met. There have been some strange sideshow antics this time around though. The same notable musicians, actors and politicians have flocked to be pictured meeting Gurbaksh Singh, but in recent days Jathedar Gurbachan Singh has also reached Gurbaksh Singh at the HQ of his protest in Haryana. Although he was greeted politely, there was no doubt what Gurbaksh Singh thought of him, interrupting him a number of times and asserting himself in a way that Jathedars have become unaccustomed to in recent decades. It was an embarrassing encounter for all involved including those who were bizarrely name-dropped into the conversation by the Jathedar – who sounded more like a school child than the figurehead of the Panth, reeling off a list of his back-up that could take on the protest. Elsewhere, in the UK one particular Gurdwara had proposed the hitherto unheard of notion that langar would not be served from 9am-5pm on Christmas Day in solidarity with Gurbaksh Singh. Quite how that was going to help achieve the release of these Sikh prisoners was not clear (nor was the reason for selecting Christmas day), but some suggested that it would at least enhance awareness of the hunger strike.
This is at the heart of the problem we are facing: the Sikh Diaspora resides in an almost complete state of chaos where that word ‘awareness’ is thrown around like a toy keeping us from moving forward. Quite what will be achieved by making others aware of our struggle when we are unable to deal with it ourselves is beyond me. Protests, rallies, Gurdwara functions all intend to harness the collective might of the Panth, but within days issues are forgotten, barring the Facebook photo albums of course. Our campaigning strategy barely dips the proverbial toe into the murky water of politics, consisting of sending round endless petitions, emails sent copied-and-pasted to representative Parliamentarians, and ‘meetings’ with Government officials who we’re told are going to help us. These endeavours of ours in the west are an identikit of the middle-class struggles to keep teabags round and conformity for housing renovations, which make us feel as though we’re doing something in our lives – which some people will tell you is better than nothing. Such high aspirations are forgiven for the uninitiated but a Sikh of Guru Nanak cannot be satisfied by such ineffective action.
So why do we continue on in this vain? We are kept confused not only by those who ‘lead us’, but mostly by a culture that we have rapidly evolved which prevents us from understanding the foundation of Guru Nanak’s revolution. Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale repeatedly stated that Sikhs would not halt their collective demise, let alone build and progress, until such a time that every man, woman and child in the Panth came to realise that we are enslaved. Three decades later and we as a collective have still not realised the gravity of this statement. A slave looks to their master for everything from sustenance to validation; but when people realise that they are enslaved, they can see the malaise for what it is and attempt to deal with it accordingly. The aforementioned attempts passed on as solutions fit that enslaved mindset. The culture of Sikhs in the Diaspora requires wholesale change so that we can see the shackles of our slavery. The way that we live our lives and see the World is clouding our vision, whether it is the things that we talk about at home around the dinner table or the sources of media and information that we consume. Until that culture changes, we are doomed to repeat the failures of recent years, mired in a repetitive cycle which projects us into the wilderness.
I am constantly asked what we should be doing instead, which misses the point (that simply moves you from one slave master to the next, and I have no intention of enslaving even a single soul!) I can tell you some of what I choose to do to tackle these problems, but take it with a pinch of salt for my actions are neither exhaustive, nor for everyone. Firstly, Sikh leadership positions are filled by poor representatives; as I am not in the Punjab and unable to stand against them directly, I oppose their inaction in whatever way I can (mainly through writing publicly, but also writing to them privately). In addition, I refuse to fund their agenda or support organisations who associate with them (particularly those based here in the West) and who provide resources and opportunities to speak when they visit. Conversely, it is important to find a credible opposition that acts in a way that I think is more appropriate and to then provide them with support. Secondly, identifying the issues at stake and analysing the solutions that have been proffered thus far. Once that has been done, it is easy to conclude what the Panth’s aims are (or should be) and to review intermediate occurrences in light of that. I have then been able to prioritise what I think is most important for us (me specifically) to engage in. Thirdly, to reflect on one’s own abilities and capacity to change society alone. Sikh history is replete with characters who stood alone, or numbered very few, but were still able to give credence to the ideology of Guru Nanak – purely because they understood it. I don’t own a television opting instead to watch catch-up TV, am a member of three libraries, belong to a Sikh study circle, and engage with people of all backgrounds who foster my revolutionary spirit; I read/listen, contemplate and discuss the Guru Granth Sahib at home with my wife, over skype with my parents, and at coffee shops with my peers. All of this is preparation so that when occasions arise to stand and be counted, I am not found wanting. Sikh policies must be devised by those who are familiar with Sikh ideology as enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, as well as familiar with current affairs, political theories and effective strategem. I had to change my cultural lifestyle, where I worshipped Manchester United football club, watched 6 hours of TV a day (7 if something good was on) and wasted time doing the things that I didn’t love, but society told me I should be doing. I learnt what to do, what I think we should do and if you take the first step you can too.