This Is Who We Are
by Rubin Paul Singh
Years ago, I was giving a local church group a tour of our gurdwara. While I was showing them around the langar hall and explaining the history and significance of langar, I noticed that I was losing my audience. It took me a second to figure it out, but it appeared they were fixated on one of the images on the wall. It was the painting we’ve all seen of Bhai Taru Singh being scalped and blood running down his body. I’m not sure what shocked them more – the graphic painting itself, or the five-year-old boy sitting beneath it, quietly eating his meal.
For just a second, I put myself in their shoes. I looked around the room and saw pictures of Sikh martyrs from the 18th century – a man being boiled alive, a person being sawed in half, two little boys being bricked alive, and an old man with his fingers getting chopped off.
And I thought to myself … is this really necessary, the depiction of these scenes in these surroundings?
I started to wonder: are these images really what we want to convey to our visitors? Shouldn’t we find something that depicts universality and love for humanity? Especially after 9/11, shouldn’t we be displaying a softer image of Sikhs? After all, this dining area is a place for us to share a common meal, and little children play down here, for God’s sake! Is this really appropriate?
But then it dawned on me …
This is who we are.
Sikhi is a loving religion, with a universal message that advocates equality and human rights for all. These were revolutionary ideas during the Guru’s time and preserving and strengthening these ideals under oppressive rulers came at a tremendous price. Gurus were martyred, their sons bricked alive, and countless other brave Singhs and Kaurs gave their lives for the Chardi Kalaa of the Khalsa Panth. Sometimes I look at the numbers and I am overwhelmed. Roughly 25,000 Sikhs gave their lives along with Banda Singh Bahadur, 20,000 under Zakhriya Khan’s rule, 10,000 in the Vada Ghalugara (The Big Holocaust), and 60,000 at the hands of Ahmed Shah Abdali. Within half-a-century, roughly 200,000 Sikh lives were lost. Waheguru.
Such figures can be depressing, but somehow, as a child listening to the stories of our collective struggle, I felt inspired. Not by how much we’ve suffered, but by how much we’ve overcome. No matter how hard we, the Sikhs, are suppressed, we always seem to rise again … stronger!
When I reflect on all the sacrifices, I can’t help but think that every one of those lives lost, every drop of a blood was for me, so that hundreds of years later, I could confidently walk the streets – anywhere in the world – with my head held high, proudly bearing the gifts of my father.
I am not saddened, but I am in awe of how a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old held the fate of Sikhi on their shoulders and proudly gave their lives before their faith. They did it for me … they did it for us! It is these acts of sheer bravery and courage that gives me a sense of pride and a sense of purpose.
As Bhai Sukha and Bhai Jinda so eloquently wrote in their letter shortly before their execution, “Our entire nation has taken birth from the art of keeping its head on its palm.” This idea is so deeply ingrained in our way of life, that every day we stand before the Guru – on happy and sad occasions – every birth, marriage, or funeral, we recount the sacrifices of our ancestors in our ardaas, “Band-band katae, khopriaan luhaaian, charkhriaan te chharhe …” Our sacrifice and struggle is something we cherish.
But I wonder, are we losing touch?
I’ve noticed a growing reluctance from our organizations and institutions to fully recognize our recent history, in particular, with 1984. Over the years at Gurmat camps, retreats and the gurdwaras where I’ve taught Sikh history, I’ve encountered a lot of resistance to discussing 1984. Organizers tell me the material is “too heavy,” the images “too graphic,”, and the content “too controversial.”
What have we become?
Why is it that we can look back through our history and take pride in events that outsiders would call horrific, but recent events are too controversial? What makes it too heavy? Is it because it is so recent? [Is the Nazi Holocaust then, too recent?] Or is it because the enemies are not “Mughals”? Or maybe because we don’t understand the history ourselves? Whatever the reason may be, the result is an overwhelming number of youth who haven’t a clue what happened in 1984 – it is as though it never happened. And even those who have some vague idea of what happened have no understanding of what led to the events in 1984 and the grave human rights violations that have happened since.
I understand how painful the events are, and some of the wounds haven’t fully healed, but since when have we have turned into a nation that sweeps its history under the rug? We all know what happens to “those who forget their history…”, and considering we are a community that has suffered several large-scale massacres throughout our short existence, one would think we would be more vigilant.
My Jewish friends tell me they were taught the graphic realities of the Holocaust at an early age. It was ingrained into their psyche. This idea of “Never Again” became part of their character. Every Jew – young or old – anywhere in the world could identify with the Holocaust. Their struggle seemed to strengthen them, individually and as a community.
While much of our community would prefer to forget 1984, I cannot – I am a product of it. At a young age, I did not have much of an interest in Sikhi, but that period of time where Sikhi was being attacked inspired me to learn more – about my faith, history and people. I wanted to know exactly what it was that all these brave men and women were willing to give their lives for. The events and personalities of 1984 and the struggle for sovereignty motivated me to learn more about Gurmat and become more conscious of human rights violations and social injustice all over the world. Instead of forgetting our history, I chose to embrace it!
And I am not alone.
There are many other “thirty-something’s” in the Khalsa Panth today, who have channeled their energy and emotion inspired by 1984 into productive work for the Panth, some of whom hold leadership roles in our civil and human rights organizations – safeguarding our rights every day.
Some criticize me for “living in the past,” but I refuse to let this chapter in our history pass quietly. Especially as a parent, I do not want to shield my kids from our history – even if it is sometimes “too heavy.” I want my children to be just as equally inspired by the Battle of Amritsar as they are by the Battle of Chamkaur. I want them to know about the great sacrifices of the brave Singhs and Kaurs before them, so they can not only bask in the Guru’s love, but understand the responsibility that comes along with it.
January 30, 2009