Sikh Nation clings to Identity Consciousness
25 years in the history of a nation have been observed in the homeland Punjab and worldwide in the Sikh Diaspora. The pain, anguish and bewilderment of the Sikh people has been relived by them, still benumbed as to how this unimaginable catastrophe struck them in June 1984 and throughout that year and the decades that followed them.
At the invitation of the World Sikh Organisation, which has been ensuring that memories do not fade and remain alive in the hearts and minds of the Sikhs, I joined anthropologist Dr. Cynthia K. Mahmood and activist-writer Ajmer Singh at the West Block of the Canadian Parliament for the Annual Parliamentary Dinner to participate in deliberations on “Past in Perspective –Future in Focus” on Saka Akal Takht.
With Sikh activists pouring in from all parts of Canada and with Canadian Parliamentarians extolling the dexterity and entrepreneurship qualities of Sikhs and their contribution to Canadian society, the Sikhs reiterated their belonging –their roots. Each speaker underlined how the events of 1984 deeply etched the spirit of Sikhness of Sikhs into their consciousness.
Interestingly, the programme started with the Canadian and Sikh national anthem, sung by a group of young Sikh-Canadians.
Members of Parliament Bill Siksay, Ed Fast, Mauril Belanger and Peter Braid spoke on the role of Sikh Canadians and their contribution to Canadian society at large admiring their hard work and dedication.
Initiating the presentation, Jasbeer Singh outlined the formation of World Sikh Organisation after the events of June 1984 –the circumstances which forced the Sikhs to organize themselves into a world body. He elaborated as to how the organization, through ups and downs, has been able to uphold the banner of Sikh identity afloat through public, legal and political activism.
Delivering the keynote address, Cynthia Keppley Mahmood, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Senior Fellow, Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame questioned the silencing of the Sikh community by the Canadian society in recent times.
In her characteristic forthrightness, she asked, “The world has still not really “heard” about the travails of the Sikhs, and I want to explore why. After all, India is a democracy, “the world’s largest democracy,” and it has laws to protect against abuses of rights and to protect minorities. It has an independent judiciary and a relatively free press, and relatively calm and fair transitions of power. The fact is, however – and I have learned this in the post-9/11 United States as well as in my research in India – that being a “democracy” by law alone is not enough to ensure the vibrancy and flourishing of human voices that alone guarantees human rights.”
She asked the Sikhs to aware that “an active and vigilant citizenry, making use of those laws, who are actually the bulwark against abuses like torture, concentration camps, illegal wiretapping. Picture the detainee in the jail cell, weak, probably naked, on a cold floor, living on scraps of food, emaciated, awaiting he knows not what future. It is not he who can draw on the laws that protect our rights and freedoms. He relies on others, his fellow citizens, to use those laws to get him out of that detention, to make public the abuses, to end the state’s use of exceptions to get round its commitments to basic human rights.”
Sadly she said, “In the case of the Sikhs in Punjab, the problem was that there was nobody to come to their aid. With a few rare exceptions, most of India’s civil rights and humanitarian organizations turned their backs on the Sikhs. People with turbans quickly became a pariah population: “socially dead,” to use Orlando Patterson’s fortuitous phrase. To put it bluntly, no one in India really cared if they lived or died. Why? Because the image was cleverly and quickly created of the-Sikh-as-terrorist, and therefore the Sikh as unworthy victim. The same Indians who otherwise gathered for protests or organized aid when Christians were attacked, somehow stood aside when the victims were Sikhs.”
As a true friend of the community, Cynthia Mahmood offered suggestions to the Sikhs, particularly urging them to grow outwards, conduct workshops on the question of how the Sikh religion intersects with Punjabi culture, develop simultaneous translations systems from the Punjabi language in Gurdwaras, hire reputed international law firms and lobbyists and involve the youth through a set of internships in advanced technologies, set up international level holocaust museum and engage in serious academic work.
In an emotionally surcharged note, she asked the gathering of Sikh Canadians to stand up for their rights and also asked Canadian members of Parliament to ensure that “the faint whispers of every frightened minority still gets heard in the halls of Parliament.”
Activist-writer Ajmer Singh embarked on a journey into the past, extensively dwelling on the religious, social and historical references necessary to understand “why the Indian government did this unto us?” At the outset he told the august assembly that unless we clearly understand the past; our venture into the future will be a walk in the wild. In recalling memories of such events, he pointed out that noted psychologist Sudhir Kakar had remarked, 1984 was the Chosen Trauma of the Sikhs having made indelible impact on their collective cohesiveness and consciousness.
“1984 transformed the individual lives of the Sikhs in a major and revolutionary way, changing the build-up and dynamics of the collective consciousness of the Sikh people. An American journalist while describing 9/11, characterized it as “the event that defined this century; it was as though the plate-tectonics of history were shifting”. Without drawing any parallel or analogy with the event of 9/11, I would like to say that June 1984 marked a tectonic change in Sikh thinking, Sikh understanding and all aspects of Indo-Sikh dialogue,” he said.
Ajmer Singh stressed the nuances of Sikh-Hindu relationship and Indo-Sikh dialogue and emphasized that 1984 brought about a major change in Sikh consciousness. He said, “1984 arrested the progress of assimilation, forced the Sikhs to unlearn their old methods and perspectives of thinking and rekindled the spirit of distinctiveness. Sikhs revived the Sikh vision of God and the Sikh understanding of human existential situation, social justice with full focus on social transformation.”
Not known to mince words or befuddle facts, the author of two books in Punjabi on the politics of the Sikhs in the twentieth century, Ajmer Singh remarked that the Sikh response even after 25 years is not considered and strategic. He deplored that “to continue with the same kind of nomenclature, vocabulary, thought processes and street-campaign approach renders our debate incomplete, wayward and non-credible.”
With my earlier interaction with Canadian members of parliament and my work in the area of human rights activism, I chose to discuss the role of Canada in the field of human rights and what needs to be done by Sikh-Canadians in this regard as a follow up to the happenings of 1984. I suggested “mechanisms and methodologies that the Sikh people and the international community needed to take up so that the history of injustice gives way to respect for human dignity, restoration of the status of the Sikhs in the annals of history with their full historical potential intact and a respectable place in the comity of nations.”
With a little bit of history from 1849 onwards, I wanted to see ahead. I told the audience that I somehow see a pattern in the violent attacks on the Sikhs in the last century. After every round of violence there is systematic non-violent attack to tease and overawe the Sikhs. The move by the government of India to snatch the minority status of Sikhs when we have a Sikh prime minister is the latest move, coming in a year when the Sikhs are again going through the pain of 1984.
I said that, “The judgement on unshorn hair would mean little relief if the Government of India succeeds in passing a law whose draft has already been cleared by the Council of Ministers. The 103rd Constitution Amendment Bill that seeks to define a "Minority" on the basis of state-level demographic data will effectively snatch away the status of a minority from the Sikhs.” I exhorted the Sikhs living overseas to use their full lobbying and diplomatic pressure to put a stop to “this insidious logic of the Indian state,” particularly the Sikh-Canadians who have enriched themselves through the multiculturalism culture of Canada.
So what should the individual Sikh do? What should Sikhs as a nation do? Obviously there are no easy answers, however, let us all engage in a determined struggle for peace, justice and Sarbat da Bhala.
Jagmohan Singh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org