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.”

Comments (8) Add New Comment
P. Sandhu
The first question arises, what this dummy Sikh prime minister doing for Sikhs. Nothing. And the other bigger shame is that party which came to rise using the agenda of doing justice to the effected families is now turned its back to save chair and votes. Shame on both leaderships. Sikhs can do nothing, just pray to Akal Purkh for justice. No other solution, bitter truth.
Rating: +17
One person is sitting on a hunger strike for about "40 Days" but it is not covered in the Indian media at all.Anna Hazare sits for a few days or Ramdev sits on a fake hunger strike drinking juice,their hunger strike is covered in the Indian media with running commentary.This shows they dont consider Sikhs as their citizens or even human beings. Thanks to CNN but is Amnesty International also following the foot steps of the Indian govt and media .Blind and Biased Amnesty International India look at this and take notice of the violation of Rights of Sikhs in India :
Rating: +6
Bhajan Singh
Manmohan is selected appointed by congress not elected.In 1993 he spoke on UNO that no HR violations are taking place on Punjab,upon swearing in as a PM he appointed Tytler as a minister for overseas Indians . Brahmins are not stupid to bring one up high,anyone willing to do the biddings of the Brahmis in any capacity KP Gill ,Badal will be given the opportunity to operate and be rich while doing it
Rating: -1
The Truth
To compare Nelson Mandela to the Sikh cause for Independence and Separation from India is simply not right.

I believe the average Sikh like the average Indian wants to live in peace it is the Political and Militant propaganda and protagonists that want to push the issue with a symbolic peaceful protest or two than call a rally to arms (yet again).

As a Canadian observer of both communities I see the following,

1. Mandela never brought down a Air India 747 (with a Sikh Pilot) with innocent people including Women and Children on board killing all of them,

2. Mandela never executed the White President despite far more injustice for a far longer time than the Indian PM Indira Gandhi ever did to Sikhs real or imagined,

3. No doubt there is a systemic injustice to Sikhs who are targeted for protesting or doing anything perceived or imagined to be Anti-India including lack of due process and the routine brutality by authorities,

4. Sikhs bid to separate from India can not go well especially after the in effect declaration of War by Sikh Militants whom the Sikh Political Leadership have simply lost control of, Air India and the on-going Militant resistant in India case in point,

Picking one case with the implied threat of Violence (what can we do...) is simply not the answer nor a winnable proposition.

Please provide a more truthful account of the history with context that led up to this man protesting via hunger strike including the history of violence on BOTH sides not just ONE!

Rating: -11
Truth @
@truth- I didn't read anywhere in your post about the truth of over 3000 Sikhs killed (burned alive), Sikh women gang raped by mobs in 1984 Delhi led by congress politicians including Tytler, Sajan kumar and many more. Rajiv Gandhi justified the horrific killings and rapes by saying this would happen when a big tree falls.
Please do bring out the real truth for world to see and not just actions of few "extremists". I wonder why groups fighting against dictators today in Middle East are called "rebels" not "extremists". I believe these "rebels" on the middle east are doing far worst things than the "extremists" did in 1980s in Punjab. The truth your talking about is far from complete. I make the same request to you that you are making to the columnist.
Rating: +5
Kabir Singh
Sikhs can only get justice by becoming part of the political machinery in the West. Let us encourage the next generation to become journalists, lawyers and senators. Only then can we begin to gain the momentum that we need to make a difference. We owe this to the future generation of Sikhs. Let us learn from the Jews who faced persecution on a grand scale. After hundreds of years of persecution, the Jews finally got their act together, attained their country and now defend it ferociously. Do we have that kind of drive?
Rating: 0
Actually the great Nelson Mandela did start a militant/terrorist organization called the MK which committed hundreds of bombings....possibly justifiable against the government. i consider him a hero. As for Your second point Indira Gandhi and the Indian govt, they murdered hundreds of thousands of Sikhs. To this day they are finding mass graves of Sikhs killed by Indian authorities. There are approx. 70,000 sikhs in jail in India without charge, their sole crime being baptized Sikhs. They have spent up to 20 years in prison without charge, due to India's draconian TADA laws. I dont know but killing 250,000 people seems like quite an injustice when u state that Indira Gandhi did not do more of an injustice to Sikhs than what Mandela endured. both are wrong' but killing of human life does seem like a greater injustice. As four your fourth point, Sikhs are not trying to create a separate state from India, rather they are trying to get their land and state back which india took away from them.
A little context is needed here. The land in today's northern India actually belonged to the Sikh community. They had their own country. It was mischeviously taken away from them in 1947 when this new country called india was created. India is not an old country, rather canada is twice as old. Sikhs have not signed the Indian constitution and have just wanted to have their land back. Thus they have not been trying to create a new country rather get their country back from a country which is occupying their land and violating their basic human rights. Most people who do not have a lot of knowledge about India think it has existed forever, and that is not true. India was only created in 1947 by taking Sikh land away. Prior to 1947 Sikhs had their own country. They have only been trying to what anybody else would do when their land is taken away and their human rights violated but the Indian government does not want anybody to know or talk about this. The truth about India is finally starting to come out.
Rating: +2
The Truth
@ Truth @... I find it interesting that your Sikh Feminist Author NEVER brought up that Truth about the Massacre of Sikhs in 1984.

I think she realized it would open the Truth to Canadians about what led up to that, the Assassination by Sikh Terrorists of Indira Gandhi PM of India.

Did the Sikhs think that India's Military, Government, Extremists Hindu Nationalist would sit & watch this atrocity by Sikh Terrorists?

No Violence begets Violence or as Gandhi said an Eye for an Eye and the whole world goes blind.

I simply asked for the Truth on BOTH Sides neither of which (India or the Sikhs) are without Blood on their Hands.

I am not an author writing about an isolated issue with no historical reference. I don't have to document the History which is well known to both Indians & Sikhs.

Why did you not bring up the Assassination of Indira Gandhi by Sikhs that led to the Riots? Why what are you trying to ignore?

I did not see you mention the Sikhs killing Indians in Punjab prior to the Indian Army being ordered to take control of the Sikh Terrorists there?

You should respond with the Historical context which this author has deliberately chosen to ignore and/or not include in this story to which it is highly relevant in Western Media - where most Canadians don't know the difference between Indians & Sikhs or India & Punjab...:)

@ Kabir Singh...You are delusional if you think the West (the Political Institutions / Governments) cares about Sikhs or Indians.

Western Govts., including Canada are making it harder & harder for Sikhs & Asians to immigrate to Canada & the West while loosing immigration Laws for Ireland, the UK & Western EU Countries so that more people that look like them can come here to Canada, yes it's a racist policy.

@bal..Please cite your sources of '250,000' sounds bogus. 1984 Anti Sikh riots about 3,000 add a few thousand more nowhere near your figures, sources?

MK never Assassinated S.A De Klerk nor brought down a 747 like Sikh Terrorists.

The Land was taken then given to many peoples, it is Indian Land now.

How long do you think an independent Punjab Country would survive an invasion by Pakistan or China (which has taken over Tibet not far to the north) without India?

It's like 2 Monkeys fighting over a peanut while hunters gather round to kill them. If you like Punjab go live there but I don't believe you have the courage to.
Rating: +4
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