Monthly Archives: April 2009

A Moment Of Pause

In my desire to churn out thoughts as quickly as possible, I came across this audio essay that gave me a moment of pause. I think this is a good reminder for all of us – bloggers, writers, poets, MCs, and other story-tellers, why we do it…and how we can be better.

It’s a 5 minute piece from my favorite series, “This I Believe” in their final episode on NPR titled, “Life Is An Act Of Literary Creation.” It’s definitely worth a listen. After all, how can you turn down a piece that starts off with “I believe God is a poet.” I mean, really?


Is Amritsar Burning?

Rajdeep Singh Jolly’s Letter To The Editor struck a cord with me. In particular, his statement:

Throughout history, oppressors have persecuted Sikhs by targeting their identity; during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in India, when thousands of Sikhs were massacred, their turbans were stripped from their heads and their unshorn hair was forcibly cut before they were murdered. If the Sikh articles of faith truly had no value, our oppressors would not have subjected them to systematic destruction.

…As a Sikh, I reject the notion that wearing a turban or maintaining uncut hair is prohibitively wearisome or any more tedious than, say, shaving a beard or waxing one’s legs. The case for what the article called “daily tedium” is often a smoke screen for loss of faith, lack of pride, susceptibility to peer pressure or all of the above. Young Sikhs are merely accelerating the work that their oppressors could not finish.

As a teen in the early 1990’s, I rememeber receiving a California-based newspaper called the World Sikh News every month at home. Each month it would provide the latest news in Punjab politics and an update on the on-going violence. What always struck me was the front page, which month after month would show an image of a Singh on the front, who had been killed in the violence, and in every case his hair forcibly cut. I just couldn’t understand why. Even if he was a militant and was killed in a fire-fight, why cutting of the hair?

Many Sikhs buy the Indian Government’s story of attacking the Darbar Sahib for the purpose of “flushing out terrorists.” If that was in fact the case, why was the Sikh Reference Library ransacked and set afire? Why were precious artifacts from our history stolen and destroyed?

It is reminiscent of Hitler’s famous question to his chief of staff , “Is Paris Burning?” as he ordered Dietrich von Choltitz to level Paris in the last days of the war – destroying not only bridges and key military positions, but anything of value, including the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre – historical and cultural landmarks. To erase a people, you must first destroy their history and culture. von Cholititz would ultimately disobey him.

Truth is, the 1984 attacks were not designed to just kill Sikhs. They were designed to kill Sikhi. To attack our history, our culture…to break our spirit.

Over the last few days, Sikhs have spoken…

They have protested outside of the courthouses of New Delhi, they have stopped rail traffic in Punjab, and the whole world watched Jarnail Singh chuck a shoe at the Home Minister, while the Sikh Nation roared a jakaara!

But as we reflect on different ways to remember and protest 1984, let us not forget…if it was our Sikhi they tried to destroy…if it was our spirit they tried to break…than it is our spirit we must preserve, it is our Sikhi that we must strengthen. Now is the time to re-inforce our relationship with the Guru.

There is nothing a tyrant fears more than a Guru-inspired Sikh.

A State of Denial

I recently stumbled on a report from the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHC), titled Torture in India 2008: A State of Denial. This document claims to be “the first nationwide assessment of the use of torture in India.”
ACHC is a Delhi-based organization focused on protecting human rights throughout Asia, with what appears to be a specific focus on South Asia. I’m not familiar with this organization, so I’d be curious to hear if others can support or disprove their work.
The report focuses on the use of torture by police and security forces from routine arrests to counter-insurgency operations. Although it is clearly a preliminary analysis, it’s findings are quite alarming. The report notes:

The statistics of NHRC imply that in the last five years 7,468 persons at an average of 1,494 persons per year or four persons in a day died in police and prison custody in India. However, these figures represent only a fraction of the actual cases of torture. Cases of torture not resulting in death are not recorded.

Particularly troublesome was the section on custodial torture of women and children.
Some of you may be rolling your eyes thinking this is “just another Punjab Human Rights post.” However, the interesting thing in this 109 page report, is there is very little mention of Sikhs or Punjab. But the challenges facing the ACHC are very similar to what I’ve read in Ensaaf’s material about disappearances in Punjab – namely the dismissive nature by the Central Government, denying the there is a problem altogether:

The Home Minister attributes custodial deaths to “illness/natural death, escaping from custody, suicides, attacks by other criminals, riots, due to accidents and during treatment or hospitalisation”

Other similarities include the shortcomings of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and it’s inability to deploy it’s powers toward investigating torture. The report also states:

NHRC’s preference for interim monetary compensation over recommending prosecution is a cause for further concern.

Sound familiar?

This report proves (yet again) that abuse of power by police and security forces are not an “aberration” or a result of isolated incidents – it is a systemic problem throughout India. And unfortunately, India’s failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and overall poor human rights record does not seem to impact it’s relations with its allies.
To me, this report serves as a reminder that Sikhs are not alone in suffering human rights violations at the hands of the Indian State. Perhaps if we spoke with a collective voice, there could be a greater impact. After the Godhra pogrom in 2002, where nearly 1000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat, a handful of Sikh Youth worked with the Gurdwara in Chicago to organize a “Rally Against Injustice In India” at Grant Park. Bus loads of people arrived from the local Gurdwaras and mosques all throughout Illinois and speakers from several religious communities addressed the crowd. The press coverage it received was far greater than previous protests done independently. Maybe something to consider as planning is in the works for the “25th anniversary” events…

Marketing History

Recently pulished on under the title 1984 & I: Ever Strong & Ready

Marketing History
by Rubin Paul Singh

I remember a time when having a T-shirt with a Khanda on it was a novelty. I used to wait all year until the Sikh Day Parade or camp to get the latest design. Now the options are plenty.

Recently, I was T-shirt shopping on-line for my toddler, and I was impressed with the creative designs in bright colors with words like “Kaur” and “Punjaban” beautifully scripted. But that day I was looking for something different…something “Panthic.” I wanted a T-shirt that would connect my daughter with recent Sikh history and the struggles we as a community have overcome. But as I entered the “Panthic” section, narrowly labeled “1984”, it was as though a grey cloud had cast over my monitor. There was a complete change in style and design. Instead of the colorful images with decorative script, I instead saw images of our beloved Shaheeds in a backdrop of fire, or the number “1984” dripping in blood, or the word “Khalistan” in between two AK-47s with bullet-holes all around it. I thought to myself, “What happened?”

Truth is – I understand the sentiment behind the designs. I take great inspiration from the events and personalities of the Sikh struggle, regardless of how it is expressed. I probably have several “blood and fire” T-shirts in my closet right now. So maybe I’m just getting older, or maybe I was just having a reflective moment while finding an appropriate T-shirt for a 2-year old…or perhaps this is telling of a much larger issue…bigger than just T-shirts. In 25 years, our portrayal of 1984 has not evolved.

Of course, the events of 1984 were both horrific and tragic. Over the last 25 years, we’ve expressed anger, frustration, and sadness – and all of this is necessary. It essential we share our pain and commiserate as a community in order for us to heal. Human rights organizations must also document the graphic realities in order to expose the truth and pursue justice.

But, for us as a community to move forward, we must shift our paradigm and find more positive and inspiring way to present our recent history. If not, we will simply continue “preaching to the choir” while the rest roll their eyes. And in the end, the majority of our youth will remain unaware and apathetic about our struggle. This may seem contradictory to the message in a previous post This Is Who We Are, but there is a subtle difference. There is one segment of our community who refuse to acknowledge the “blood and fire” of 1984, while the other segment of our community cannot seem to look beyond it. Either extreme is unlikely to change their mind. But if we intend to unite our community on this issue, especially amongst the youth, we must market to those who sit in the middle – the indifferent. They are the ones who make up the majority and can make a difference in what direction this movement moves. I am convinced that this must be done through positive and inspirational messaging.

Creating an inspiring message around 1984 is not hard to do. When I tell my children saakhis of recent history, we talk about the bravery of the Sikh soldiers who held the might of the Indian army for four days in the Battle of Amritsar. We discuss the spiritual revolution that took place shortly thereafter as masses of Sikhs took Amrit, and joined the path of the Guru. And most of all, we reflect on all the current day activists who have been inspired by the “Heroes of 1984” and have channeled their energy in to great contributions to the Panth, and to the world.

One of my favorite quotations is from 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 and informs one of the women that her husband was killed in battle. He then says to the grieving widow holding her infant 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. “

This concept is not new to us, we call it Chardi Kalaa. Perhaps we can use this idea to shape our perspectives and portrayal of 1984 – whether it is through art, poetry, music…or T-shirts.