Kirpa Kaur: Sikhs fight for rights in the largest democracy in the world
Nineteen days ago, India joined the world in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary whose armed resistance and leadership rendered him a “terrorist” and imprisoned for 27 years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated: “A giant among men has passed away. This is as much India’s loss as South Africa’s. He was a true Gandhian. His life and work will remain a source of eternal inspiration for generations to come.”
It’s been 41 days since a Sikh farmer and activist from Haryana decided to launch a hunger strike unto death at Gurudwara Amb Sahib (Mohali, next door to Chandigarh) to protest the long sentences being served by political prisoners who have been denied any legally mandated review of their cases; and India remains largely silent. BBC Radio yesterday recognized that while the protest has caught momentum around the world, and from various quarters in Punjab, including the oft-vilified Punjabi singers, mainstream India is largely aloof on this issue.
Given India’s recent reflections on Nelson Mandela’s life and now its loss, it is quite ironic that the Indian media so quickly defaults to referring to Sikh activists like Gurbaksh Singh as “radicals” at best. Especially given his repeated statements that as a Sikh he asks for “sarbat da bhalla”, the well-being of all (really, all), and that is the steadfast spirit of his path.
In anti-Sikh and anti-minority dialogue, there is a deep sense of apathy and often a sense of grandiose and privilege; almost as if fighting for justice is a nuisance plight left for a lesser class destined to be marginalized for irritatingly taking up political space. In Gurbaksh Singh’s case, intermittent commentary continues to paint his history of political imprisonment as justification to both muzzle and render him guilty whilst reinforcing marginalization of the issue.
For Gurbaksh Singh, his imprisonment acts as quite the contrary. Having been charged in cases related to his political activism post-1984, for example serving years for wearing the banned color of kesri, he was moved to speak out seeing that political prisoners were languishing without due review of their cases, many of whom have already served their long sentences.
Gurbaksh Singh is demanding the overdue review and release of Sikh prisoners caught up in the post-1984 cycles of political oppression and violence. The core issue, as human rights activists who know Punjab best have pointed out, is that the law is applied one way for political prisoners, minority prisoners, and another way for everyone else. It is simply disappointing, to say the least, for a country that continues to market itself as the “largest democracy in the world” and align itself with great freedom fighters of the 20th century, like Nelson Mandela, to choose to persecute those who stand for the very values it proclaims globally.
To be frank, as a Sikh, my first reaction to the hunger strike was one of dissonance. I questioned, was Gurbaksh Singh self-mutilating his body in the hopes to gain the pity of Indian officials? If so, this did not quite feel like the Sikh way. With fearless love (nirbhao), our tradition is to stand up for what is right and reason our way through to the end. I reflected that a response to a hunger strike out of pity risked sparking short-lived changes in circumstances without systemic change based on principles or values. And in a sense, this would reinforce corrupt power dynamics. The state always has the power to administer pity—or not—and impunity and injustice still remains the norm.
Yet, one cannot ignore that Sikhs and other minorities have learnt repeatedly that standing up for justice is a deathly dangerous endeavour in India. Even the grueling proper channels of the law are dehumanizing and often fraught with grave ramifications for oneself and one’s community.
With these thoughts in mind, I reflect on the fact that for the Sikh community knocking on the door of (in)justice has resulted in long-unanswered/suspended-in-time/painfully-anguishing/despair-building years. For the families with missing members, lost stories, or stunted heritages from village to village, the knocks have not only gone unanswered—rather justice has turned them away. It’s no secret; it’s almost become a seasonal fad for India to guess, which perpetrator of violence will be promoted next? Current discourse on potential prime ministers is case and point.
And then there is the fact that Gurbaksh Singh has experienced firsthand the arm of law betraying him when he sought its legal support in this non-violent movement; in fact, it literally beat, confined, and tried to silence him as he protested through entirely legal means. After being physically assaulted by local authorities he asked, in a very poignant interview, “Assi Jabar Daa Jawab Sabar Nall Deh Rahe Haan, Sabar Naal vi Naahin Tikkan Dinde, Hor Kithe Jaayiye?” (We are responding to Force with Patience. If they don’t even let us do that, where should we go?)
Taking this all in, I read Gurbaksh Singh’s action as a last resort. He has put a gun to his own head and, while he slowly pulls the trigger, hopes to bring attention to the injustices and to recall those that have been forgotten; to name those that have remained nameless for so long and to voice the anguish of their families.
And this, I can understand, admire, and respect. With Gurbaksh Singh’s courage and resolve, we are being reminded of our duty to not forget the unseen and to recognize each of ourselves as conduits of potential change and a community that is to continually seek “sarbat da bhalla”. I only hope that we don’t stop at the release of six, but rather use this as a catalyst to continue powerful, disruptive, and impactful dialogue on the treatment of all minorities in India from Chhattisgarh to Gujrat, from Orissa to Punjab.
As the late Nelson Mandela once said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”