Kultar’s Silent Scream

KM

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the popular 1984 themed play, Kultar’s Mime.

Having taught classes and led presentations on 1984 for years, I understand how polarizing the subject can be, so I was curious about this play that has earned the praise and accolades of so many, regardless of where they sit on the spectrum of views on 1984.

As the performance began, I’ll admit…it was difficult for me to connect. Not sure if it was my ignorance on the pogrom of Kishinev, the story the play drew parallels with, or if it was the non-South Asian actors portraying life in Delhi that was hard for me to process. But it only took a few more minutes as the familiar events of November 1984 began to unfold that I was immediately drawn in.

I was moved by the play.

Perhaps it was because certain scenes hit home, as family members of mine fell victim to the mobs in the terrorizing ways depicted or maybe it was the portrayal of fear and pain suffered by the children that would tug at the heartstrings of any parent. At one point, I looked around the room and I could see community members who experienced the pogroms in Delhi firsthand with their eyes glued to the stage as though they were watching their past unfold before them. And even some of the stoic leaders in our communities had to turn away at times when the scenes became too much.

Towards the end of the play I no longer saw the actors as Americans…they were the children of Tilak Vihar. And for that moment, 1984 was race-less, religion-less and even place-less.

It is what happens when corrupt governments feel threatened
When a small minority resists
When laws are suspended
When evil lurks in men
And when the people look away

The fact is that ‘1984’ did not end in those early days of November. It happened many times over in India and all around the world. In fact, it is happening today…in Africa, the Middle East and all around us.

Sometimes I wonder if I am part of that small resistance…or if I am the one looking away.

I have debated with many over the years on whether we should focus our efforts on educating the world about 1984 or whether we need to educate the Sikh community first. And outside of a handful of solid efforts, I’d say we’ve fared poorly with both. So I am intrigued by how much this play resonated with non-Sikhs and the interfaith community. With the aspirations of the directors, Kultar’s Mime will be published so dozens of theater groups could perform this play across hundreds of theaters (big and small) all throughout the world in different languages, educating those about the events of 1984 without a Sikh on stage or in the audience. Pretty amazing.

In the talk-back session after the performance, there was discussion about how the new regime in India may deliver justice to the victims of 1984 and bring change, so such events never happen again.

I’m not so optimistic.

Personally I don’t expect justice to start from the halls of India’s Parliament. For there to be justice, it must start with truth. The truth must be exposed to the world. And my hope lies in the pen, the mic, the stage, and the paintbrush to be the instruments of truth.

I believe in the arts breathing life into the movement. And I hope Kultar’s Mime reminds us of how powerful the medium is and inspires a new breed of artists that expose truth to the world, wherever injustice lies.

So if you’re wondering what role you can play, just flip through the pages of your own personal journal. Let’s not forget this weekend’s performance was inspired by a poem the poet tucked away for 25 years only to be turned into a play written by his 18-year-old daughter. Two years later, it would sell out 25 shows across 3 continents. This weekend, Kultar’s silent scream was heard loud and clear…but there are many more stories to tell. Now it’s our turn.


Know No Bounds

Mata GujriOver the next few nights, Sikhs all over the world will be heading to their Gurdwaras or joining in sangat to remember the lives, bravery, and martyrdom of the chotay sahibzadey.  In our household, this has taken on extra meaning this year, as the recent blockbuster film Chaar Sahibzaadey has brought the personality of Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s sons to life and inspired us all.  I have closely followed the discussion of the film and even some of the debate…in particular, the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji. Now this is not a critique of the film, but an attempt to engage in a broader dialogue.

Over the years teaching Sikh history to children, I’ve struggled with the story of Mata Guri Ji.  When I read history, I see Mata Gujri Ji along with Guru Tegh Bahadur Sahib as the ones who shaped young Gobind Rai, the warrior-poet, who would ultimately become the father of the Khalsa.  And even with the difficult circumstances after Guru Tegh Bahadur’s shaheedi, Mata Gujri Ji played a critical role in managing affairs of the panth and inspired the soldiers at the Battle of Bhangani.  She also played an instrumental role in the training and upbringing of her grandsons.  And when Mata Gujri Ji and the chotay sahibzadey were held captive in the thanda burj for days, it was she who recited baani for them and inspired them through stories of their grandfather, father, and gurus before them.  It was she who motivated them to remain firm in their faith, so much so that when the entire fate of the khalsa panth rested on their shoulders – a 7 and 9 year old – they responded fearlessly, with such courage and bravery that they continue to inspire the Sikh nation 300 years later.  So when the worried Mata Gujri Ji, upon learning of the execution of her grandsons, is so overcome with emotion that she faints and dies…it gives me pause.

There is a part of me that appreciates the movie’s portrayal of Mata Gurji Ji.  After all, she was a human being who suffered incredible losses.  Humans are complex and it’s perfectly reasonable that she can be the stoic matriarch, yet still feel pain and sadness.  But there’s also a part of me that thinks something else…maybe we have it wrong.

In one of the debates over Facebook on the portrayal of Mata Gujri Ji in the film, a friend said “You have to know true Gursikhs in order to portray them.” This thought resonated with me and made me reflect.  As human beings, our perceptions of things are bounded by our knowledge. And more so than our knowledge…our experiences.  Sikh history is no different; we can connect with it only as far as our boundaries will take us.  So perhaps as educators, storytellers, and filmmakers…our experiences have limited us.

In my pre-teen years, when I was exposed to the rehat maryada for the first time, I couldn’t imagine Sikhs actually living this discipline “to the letter.”  I could only picture images in my head of the “puratan singhs” who lived like this. And so I would dismiss the rehat, calling it “outdated” and more of a “guideline” than a code.  But then I ventured out of my circle, and I met Gursikhs who lived this discipline – to the letter – from waking up at amritvela, engrossed in simran, reciting baani, and interacting with others with such love that you knew you were in the company of guru-centered Sikhs. After this experience, this “ideal” image of the Sikh all of a sudden didn’t feel so distant.  Sometimes I reflect on the torture of Bhai Sati Daas, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Dayala Ji at the hands of Aurangzeb and it’s incomprehensible.  But after speaking to Singhs who withstood horrific torture by the hands of the Indian State in the 80’s and 90’s, my perspective sharpens and I look at stories of shaheedi throughout our history with a different lens.  It all feels much closer. And when I listen to the accounts of mothers throughout the 80’s and 90’s whose fathers, husbands, and sons were taken or murdered before their eyes and they live on to speak with courage and remain in the chardi kalaa, I think to myself…that is Mata Gujri Ji.

So the lesson I’ve taken from this is simple, in fact it’s one my Guru tells me multiple times a day…be in the company of Gursikhs.  It will expand my boundaries.  It will not only help me connect with my Guru, but also connect me with my history in a way I never have before.


Educate. Engage. Inspire

Lantos

Board meetings at the Sikh Coalition are intense.

The needs are many, the resources are few, and there’s plenty of debate (often heated) on how best to serve the community, to move the panth forward, and to realize the civil and human rights of all people.

Earlier this year around Vasakhi, when we met in New York City for our annual planning, we landed on our agenda topic titled “1984 – 30 Years.”  But this topic was unlike any others we discussed that day.  There was no debate, no arguments…but instead a collective commitment to make this the most impactful program of the year.  Over the next few weeks, the entire Sikh Coalition team put together a plan to remember the 30th anniversary of 1984 around the themes of Educate, Engage, & Inspire.

Educate…

“First Ever Congressional Briefing”
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hosted the first-ever Congressional briefing on the November 1984 anti-Sikh massacres, which claimed the lives of several thousand Sikh civilians throughout India. Led by the Sikh Coalition, panelists at the briefing included Manoj Mitta, Sukhman Singh Dhami of Ensaaf; and filmmakers Harpreet Kaur and Manmeet Singh from Sach Productions. Check out the Hearing Notice and clips of the testimony: http://tlhrc.house.gov/hearing_notice.asp?id=1268 Clip of Manoj Mitta’s Testimony >>  Clip of Harpreet Kaur’s Testimony >>  Clip of Sukhman Singh’s Testimony >>

As part of our media engagement efforts, the Sikh Coalition staff and advisory board authored the following articles.

“It’s Time India Accept Responsibility for Its 1984 Sikh Genocide” – Simran Jeet Singh, Time Magazine
“How Washington can support justice for the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms” – Rajdeep Singh, The Hill
“India’s new prime minister promised to investigate a genocide against Sikhs. Why hasn’t he?” – Jasmeet K. Ahuja, Washington Post
“As 30-Year Anniversary of Mass Killings in India Arrives, Sikhs Find Safety in USA” – Simran Jeet Singh, The Daily Beast
“India’s problems will not be solved with money and weapons” – Rajdeep Singh, The Hill
 
Engagement…

As part of our community engagement, we led the following initiatives;

“Witnessing 1984″ Panel Discussion – a panel discussion on the Sikh experiences and events of 1984. Three community members shared their experiences in in our New York City office about living through the attack on Darbar Sahib in June and the pogroms of November 1984.

“From 1984 to Gujarat” Book Discussions with Author Manoj Mitta - Book discussions were held with author, journalist, and human rights activist Manoj Mitta at George Washington University, Columbia University, and the Sikh Coalition’s NYC office. Mr. Mitta spoke about his two groundbreaking books on human rights abuses in India: When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and Its Aftermath and The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra.

Kultar’s Mime – On Saturday, January 24th, The Sikh Coalition will host a showing of Kultar’s Mime in Washington DC followed by a panel discussion for Capitol Hill staffers, human rights organizations, and partners.  Kultar’s Mime is a play based on a poem describing the sufferings of the Sikhs of Delhi after the pogroms, through the eyes of a group of young survivors.

Inspire…

But of all the initiatives, the one that inspired me most was the Connecting with 1984’ Small Grants Pool, where a group of committed donors offered $100,000 in small grants to individuals and/or groups to create and deliver educational and innovative programs to raise awareness within the Sikh community about the events of 1984.  Over the last 6 months, the Sikh Coalition has awarded grants for projects such as children’s books, plays, open mic events, workshops, conferences, and archive projects.

As I’ve written about before on this blog, 30 years marks a new generation of Sikhs who will grow up learning about 1984 with little direct connection. And we must decide how that story will be told…a tale of “loss and destruction” or of “courage and inspiration.” The small grants pool has enabled and empowered so many to find their voice and create innovative ways to craft the narrative of 1984 for generations to come.

Even with all these initiatives, many will criticize that we haven’t done enough.

And they will be right.

No one at the Sikh Coalition would disagree.

But I take comfort in knowing that I work with a team where each and every individual has been moved and inspired by the events and personalities of 1984…and knowing the work does not stop here – collectively, we will not let this moment in history pass quietly.

If this work means something to you…please consider making a donation to the Sikh Coalition. I’ve made a personal commitment to raise $10,000 so that that this type of programming and similar work can continue in n 2015. I hope I can count on your support.

http://sikhcoalition.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.personalCampaign&participantID=2904


The Guru Nanak I Know

As a child growing up, I heard sakhi after sakhi of Guru Nanak Sahib’s life – from his childhood, to his travels, to the odd conversations with various holy men – but for whatever reason, I connected with none of it.  However, at the same time I was developing an interest in social justice and became fascinated with the life and works of activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.  I wasn’t interested in Sikh history…I was interested in revolutionaries.  But when I was finally able to connect the two and learned about “Guru Nanak The Revolutionary”, it all made sense…and I was hooked!  To this day, there is not a shabad I hear from Guru Sahib’s baani that doesn’t challenge me to rebel.

Rebel against caste discrimination
Rebel against gender inequality
Rebel against the oppressors of minorities
Rebel against empty ritual
Rebel against the inner enemies that keep us disconnected from Him (kaam, krodh, lobh, mob, ahankar)

Every way in which society was designed to suppress an individual, to limit their potential, to leave them powerless, Guru Sahib found a way to take the common man or woman –  uplift them, empower them, and enable them with  a connection to the Supreme, so they could ultimately challenge that very establishment that suppressed them.

This is Guru Nanak the revolutionary…and it’s the Guru Nanak I know.

But this time of year, the anniversary of his birth, is always unsettling for me.

When I look around, I see a celebration – not of Guru Nanak the revolutionary, but a caricature of him…a portly pacifist who’s become the symbol of “inclusivity.”  An old wise man who’s teachings have been replaced with our own anecdotes and opinions.  The image below making its way around the internet is symbolic of this.

Fake_nanank

Where did this quotation come from?

Is this the same Guru that said Hukam Rajaee Chalna, Nanak Likhia Naal (O Nanak, it is written that you shall obey the Hukam of His command, and walk the way of His will)

Is this the same Guru that said Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeeo Bin Satgur Kinai Na Paeea (Without the true guru, no one has obtained Him; without the true Guru, no one has obtained him)

Is this the same Guru that said Jo Tau Prem Khelan Ka Chao, Sir Dhar Thali Gali Meri Aou (If you desire to play this game of love with Me, then step on to my path with your head in hand)

Humble The Poet said it best this week,

This #gurpurb let’s practice some independent thought, and not digest a quote simply because it’s cute & someone put it beside an artist rendition of what Baba Nanak might have looked like. I don’t know who put those words together, but they weren’t Baba Nanak.

Refuting this quotation doesn’t take away from Sikhi’s universal message or seeing the “one-ness” in all of humanity.  But if there is one clear message I get from Guru Sahib’s baani, it is to follow your Guru and live his teachings…and we don’t need to hide from that.

So for this year’s gurpurab, let us not water down Guru Sahib’s message to the lowest common denominator, just so we can be festive and feel good about ourselves, let’s instead take an opportunity to awaken the Guru Nanak inside ourselves….to learn and reflect, to question and challenge, and to fearlessly stand with those who are marginalized, the same way Guru Sahib did and with the same humility and divinity in which he did it.  Perhaps this is the best birthday gift we can offer…

This post was inspired by Jaswant Zafar’s beautiful poem titled “Nanak.”  Never has something that sounded so beautiful felt like such a hard slap to the face.  Take a listen and spend the 4 minutes…you’ll be glad you did.


Walking The Walk

walking the walk

A little over a year ago, I received a call from my colleagues at the Sikh Coalition requesting to do a Sikh Awareness presentation at a local high school.  My knee-jerk reaction was “What happened?”, “Was a Sikh boy bullied because of his dastaar?”, “Was a Sikh girl suspended because of her kirpan?”, “Are the parents involved yet?”  Surprisingly though, there was no incident.  In fact, there wasn’t even a Sikh attending the school.

Two week later, I stood before a class of 30 excited Catholic school students and delved in to my PowerPoint slides explaining who Sikhs are and what we’re all about.  When I got to the slide titled “Guru”, I asked the class, “Does anybody know what the word ‘guru’ means?”, a girl eagerly raised her hand and said, “One who takes someone from darkness to light.”  I had to pause for a second and collect myself.  Clearly, this wasn’t going to be like other presentations.  I would later find that the teacher spent the last few weeks researching Sikhi on the internet and had already taught three days of material on the basics.  I zipped through the rest of my slides as all my questions were answered with relative ease.  And rather than spending the rest of my time answering questions on “Why do you…” and “Are you allowed to…?”  We instead focused on much deeper questions:

Under what circumstances would you use your kirpan as a weapon?

How does the khalsa panth discuss and resolve issues affecting Sikhs globally today?

Is there a process for repentance in the Sikh faith?

Can someone from the LGBT community take amrit?

If a Singh is a lion and a Kaur is a princess, how is that a reflection of gender equality?

Do you think Sikhs should have a separate homeland?

It was a fantastic discussion, and it forced me to reflect as opposed to giving the “canned” answers I typically give in such presentations.  And in the final minutes, I was asked about my favorite local sports teams and hip hop artists.  Although the teacher was slightly embarrassed, I welcomed it, as clearly the students no longer saw me as “the other” walking in to their class room with a turban and long beard, but someone who was like them and someone they wanted to further connect with.  I have visited the school every semester since, and our presentation is now part of their standard world religions curriculum.

I try to minimize the time in these presentations on “de-mystifying the kakaars” and instead focus on the dangers of “othering”, the practice of looking at people who are different (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), as “them” and not one of “us.”  In its most basic forms, it prevents us for learning about one another and finding those mutual values that foster relationships and creates partnerships.  In it worst form, it causes violence where innocent people are hurt or killed.

13 years ago, when I started doing Sikh awareness presentations, it came from a place of fear…fear for the safety of my community.  My presentation sounded like “Hey, we are American just like you.”  Not anymore.  Now my presentation sounds like, “Hey, we are American, and we are different…and that’s okay.”  In fact, every immigrant who steps foot in this country brings a set of values and traditions to their community – and we can either be afraid of it, isolating them, or we can engage with one another, learn about what makes each of our traditions great. When we do this, we then find ways to partner with one another to build better neighborhoods and healthier communities.

In the case of Sikhs, I make it crystal clear to the students, when you see a Sikh…know that they live a disciplined lifestyle, they spend a good part of their day reflecting on God, and they have a passion for service and social justice.  That should be the first thing that comes to your mind.  If you’re going to stereotype us for anything, stereotype us for that.

This experience of presenting at schools has taught me a few things:

  1. We need better materials for non-Sikh educators on Sikhi available for free on the internet.  And we should work with Sikh and non-Sikh educators in doing so.  More to come on that from the Sikh Coalition…stay tuned!
  1. We can’t do it alone.  I have always said (especially on this blog), that the role of educating people on Sikhi is not solely the responsibility of civil rights organizations or public relations firms.  It will take all of us, but what I’ve since learned, is that it will take more than all of us. There are resources outside of our community, all around us, who have the capacity and desire to help…all we need to do is ask.  And where better to start than educators?  I have always had tremendous respect for the teaching profession, but I’m especially amazed at teachers like the one at the school I visited who decided to teach “outside the book”, to do his own research, and bring in speakers face to face, so we can truly break down barriers.  This particular teacher also arranges a trip to the local mosque every semester, where 30 Catholic school students witness Friday prayer.  Over lunch, I had to ask him, “Even after bringing in a Muslim speaker, did you still feel it was necessary to take the students to a mosque?”  He said, “You know, last time we went to the mosque, in the middle of the prayer, a man was so overwhelmed, he broke down in tears…you can’t teach that in a classroom.”  And he’s not alone, months later another inquiry came in from a Social Studies teacher to our Gurdwara’s website with an identical curriculum that we also now contribute to every semester.  These teachers are not simply educating, they are building bridges and creating change.
  1. PowerPoints aren’t enough.  For years I’ve stood in front of students pointing at slides talking about how our faith revolves around service and social justice.  But at some point, I’ll need to ditch the slides and get to work.  It makes me feel so proud when I see gurdwaras and Sikh organizations coming together for a charity event or seva project, but for me personally, I feel I need to take that next step outside of the Gurdwara too, and work shoulder to shoulder with other activists in solving our community’s most pressing needs.  Whatever the cause is – climate change, domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, hunger, I need to join the movement around me and wear my kakaars fearlessly.  Not only does it deliver more impact to the cause, but it educates others about the “students of Guru Nanak” without even uttering a word.  When it comes to educating others about Sikhi, we do not have an “image problem” and we don’t need to re-brand ourselves. Guru Sahib gave me the perfect brand – the god-connected-humanity-loving-injustice-fighting-student…I simply need to live it

Never Broken

akaal_nishan

A generation has traditionally been defined as the average interval of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring, which makes a generation around 30 years in length.  This has caused me to reflect on the events of 1984, now that a full generation has passed.  Of those 30 years, it occurred to me that I’ve spent the last 20 making speeches, presentations, and facilitating workshops on 1984.  Early on, we would present to a standing-room-only crowd…folks would drive from neighboring states to see the images or engage in discourse on 1984.  And at camps, it was the night everyone looked forward to.  Since then, crowds have slowly thinned out.  While speaking at a few local universities a decade ago, I would find only the same handful of Singhs attending the event at each location.  And only a few years back, an organizer and I waited around an empty room for 30 minutes, then decided to cancel. I guess you would call that “rock bottom.”  I remember that night on my drive home being so frustrated at the apathy of our community, but it wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me…maybe it was me.  In all those years I presented 1984, I never changed my approach.  It was the same technical description of the attack and stories of bloodshed and loss.  Of course, it was the personalities that inspired everyone (including myself), but even that was overshadowed by a general tone of helplessness and victimhood.  Perhaps that was okay early on, psychologists would say we as a community have experienced trauma and need to emote and express our sadness and grief.  Maybe this is why a quick google of “Sikh 1984” will bring you mostly images of death, blood, destruction, and fire.  But I am convinced that if we want this next generation to connect with 1984…we cannot do it through sadness and loss.  It will need to be a narrative of inspiration.

You may ask, how can we take inspiration from such a terrible event in our history?  For me, there are many.  First and foremost are the personalities and their stories of courage and bravery.  In the 80’s while kids my age were putting up pictures of Superman and Spiderman on their walls, I was putting up pictures of Baba Jarnail Singh, Bhai Amrik Singh, and General Shubeg Singh.  Even today, these images stay in our children’s rooms besides the likes of Baba Deep Singh, Banda Singh Bahadur, and Mai Bhago.   I also remember the spike in amrit sanchars at the time and the hundreds of thousands of people who showed their defiance to the oppressor and their solidarity with the Guru Granth and Guru Panth by making a formal commitment to the Guru.  Each of us can probably trace a family member or friend who took amrit during that time.  And If I think about the conversations with the founders and leaders of the Sikh institutions here in the US today, nearly all of them were deeply impacted by the events of 1984.  This is not by accident.  It’s as though these events were a catalyst for the amazing organizations that serve the panth today.  But my fondest memory of that period of 1984 was going to protests and demonstration and finding myself in a sea of kesri as far as the eye could see.  For that short window of time, it didn’t matter what gurdwara you went to or what jatha you were a part of…we were together.  It was the closest thing I had ever seen to panthic unity.  And although it was short-lived and I have barely seen it since, I take comfort in knowing that it is possible…I’ve seen it.  These are the memories I have of 1984 and not only have they inspired me, they have helped connect me with my community and helped shape the relationship I have with my Guru today.

This idea of taking tragic events and presenting them in an inspiring way is not my own.  In fact…think for a second.  When I say “Baba Deep Singh”, what is the first image that comes to mind?  Is it the destruction of the darbar sahib shortly before his shaheedi?  Or is it how the Mughal army outnumbered the Sikh soldiers?  Or the thousands of Sikh lives that were lost in battle?  No…it isn’t.  It’s the awesome image of Baba Deep Singh wielding a sword with his head on his hand, isn’t it?  And when you think of one of the most tragic stories of our history, the shaheedi of the Chotay Sahibzadae…the gruesome tale of 7 and 9 year old who were bricked alive, what image comes to your mind?  The image of two little boys smiling in the face of their oppressors with their fists raised in the air, isn’t it?  At a recent camp, I asked a group of children between ages 6-10 which personalities from Sikh history do they want to be like, and interestingly enough, it wasn’t Guru Nanak Sahib and it wasn’t Guru Gobind Singh…it was the Chotay Sahizbade.  How could a group of children hear this painful story, yet unequivocally  want to be like them?  It’s because of the way we told the story.  We have taken tragedy and turned them in to narratives that have inspired Sikh children and adults for hundreds of years…and we need to do the same for 1984.

The movement has already begun.  Organically, retreats and workshops throughout North America are drafting children’s books, creating art, drafting poems, writing songs and lullabies, all which present a positive and inspiring reflection of 1984.  And initiatives like the “Connecting with 1984” small grants pool have provided a means to turn creative ideas in to tangible products.  Terms such as the “Battle of Amritsar”, replacing the Government’s code name “Operation BlueStar” and phrases like “Let Them Come” are making their way in to Sikh parlance and give us a new lens in which to view 1984.

As a student of marketing, I’ve learned how logos and slogans are created to give consumers a way to understand and process a brand.  When we see the logo of a brand we love or a brand we hate, it fills us with powerful thoughts, memories, and emotions.  Reconciling this with 1984, I wonder…in its simplest form, what is it that we want to convey?  I’m reminded of a classic movie Lion of the Desert – Omar Mukhtar about the Libyan resistance movement against the Italians in the early 1900’s. After a war scene, Mukhtar returns to the village of families eagerly awaiting their loved ones.  Walking alongside a rider-less horse, he informs one of the women that her husband was killed in battle. He then says to the grieving widow holding her young son, “Do not let him see you crying too much, one day they will carry on the fight. Children should remember us as strong and confident…never broken.”

And that’s exactly it, ”1984…Never Broken

You can attack us, you can destroy our buildings, but our Guru-inspired spirit is so strong, you will never break us…never. ~

 

In this spirit of this post, take a listen to this spoken word piece titled “The 1984 I Remember”, originally performed at Lahir 2009 and re-recorded for the 30th anniversary of the “Battle of Amritsar” https://soundcloud.com/spiritofthesikh/the-1984-i-remember


Just Do It

nike

Last week, I had the opportunity to teach at a local gurmat retreat on the topic of the Singh Sabha Lahir.  I was excited, as this era in Sikh history is rarely discussed at youth camps, but it captures a unique time in the evolution of the panth.  While driving up to the camp site, reviewing names and dates in my head, I glanced at my Twitter feed (at a traffic light…I promise) and learned that Gurbaksh Singh had just ended his hunger strike upon agreement of further prisoners being released.  Although I’ve been studying the Singh Sabha Lahir for a while, these recent events in Punjab made me re-look at this critical time in history from a different lens and how it affects us today.

The fall of the Sikh Raj in 1849 left Sikhs with uncertainty and fear.  Sikhs were demoralized, leaderless, and our dwindling population became easily influenced by the Christian missionaries and Arya Samajists spreading throughout Punjab.  Then in 1873, a handful of Sikhs decided to do something about it.  An army did not back them, they were not political leaders, nor were they part of the elite, but most importantly…they were not waiting around for a leader.  This was the beauty of the movement; it was a “Just Do It” movement. This small group of Singhs took inventory of their own skills – their education, writing abilities, community organizing, and gurmat knowledge – and marched their way through the towns and villages of Punjab.  The next few decades would see a “back to the roots” movement that would inspire the masses and change the course of Sikh history for the next 100 years.

Although the beginning of the movement is clearly documented, the end is harder to tell.  As I see it, the Singh Sabha movement never dissolved, instead it evolved in to institutions, which all good movements do…many of which still exist today.  In addition to the gurdwaras, schools, hospitals, and orphanages built, the Singh Sabha Lahir led to the foundation of Khalsa College and planted the seeds for the Gurdwara Reform Movement, SGPC, Akali Dal, and even the Rehat Maryada.  Sure, some of these institutions have veered off track of their objectives, but I have faith they will eventually return to their original purpose and glory

SabSind

What’s remarkable about the Singh Sabha Lahir is although much is said about some of the early founders – Giani Ditt Singh, Bhai Gurmukh Singh, Bhai Kanh Singh, Bhai Vir Singh, etc.  The further you read about the goals and accomplishments of the movement, the number of names grow.  The number of people and organizations who carried the movement become so many, to the point where you stop reading about individuals at all.  Perhaps this is why the movement lasted over a quarter century…it became bigger than the individuals.

When I look at recent movements, they are largely based on individuals.  And I get it, we are drawn to heroes…I know I am.  Most of my connection with Sikhi began with learning about the lives and sacrifices of amazing personalities.  But heroes can only inspire a movement; they can’t sustain it, that’s on us…that’s our responsibility.  Too many times we have ridden movements on the backs of heroes.  And if the circumstances of the individual change, the movement fizzles out.  We need to be smarter than that.

This is not my idea…why else did Guru Sahib pour his heart and trust in the Guru Granth and Guru Panth? Being the visionary he was, he knew that continuing Guru Nanak’s movement will take more than individuals, it would take the toil, spirit, and ardaas of the entire Khalsa Panth.

As I reflect on the state of Sikh affairs in Punjab and the diaspora, I wonder if the same dark cloud that casted over the Sikhs in 1849 has returned, in fact, many of the same obstacles the Singh Sabhiye worked to eradicate have found their way back in to our institutions – caste discrimination, idols, empty ritualism, factions etc, among a host of many other political and socio-economic issues in both Punjab and abroad.  The challenges are many…we all know it.  We talk about it amongst our circles; blame the lack of leadership in far off lands and retreat to our feelings of fake helplessness, finding fake comfort in the hope that somebody else will take care of it.

Good thing the Singh Sabhiye didn’t think this way.  And if we intend to keep our Nishan Sahib flying high…neither should we.

kabeer1

Kabeer, that which you have to do tomorrow – do it today instead; and that which you have to do now – do it immediately!

Later on, you will not be able to do anything, when death hangs over your head. ||138||


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