My Gurdwara’s Human Rights Committee?

Play along with me here…imagine this Sunday you walk in to your local Gurdwara – remove your shoes, wash your hands, and as you make your way to the main darbar hall, you read the notices on the wall – “Education Committee holding Kirtan Classes Wednesday Night @ 6pm.” Next to that, another sign “Cultural Committee hosts Punjabi night next Saturday!” Further along, you see “Public Affairs Committee presents Interfaith Meeting on Friday.” Then right before you enter the darbar hall, you see…
Human Rights Committee holding urgent action letter-writing workshop for two Indonesian prisoners of conscience, Sunday after Langar – and don’t forget the “Justice for Darfur” rally this Saturday morning, bus leaves at 8am Sharp!

Whoa! What kind of radical Gurdwara is this? What are the youth up to now? Is this one of those extremist Gurdwaras? Or…is it the kind of Gurdwara Guru Sahib had intended?

Guru Nanak’s mission was based on the fundamental principle of human rights. We see this not only through his Baani, but throughout significant historical events – whether it was speaking out against the caste system and refusing to the wear the janeoo or his challenge of the tyrannical ruler Babar. Even in his ninth form, Guru Tegh Bahadur gave his life speaking out for a people whose practices he disagreed with, but supported their right to practice religion freely. He gave his life for the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion. There are several amazing stories of the Guru’s activism in the area of human rights and social justice…but strangely, this subject in the context of current events has now become taboo.

The discussion of human rights in many Gurdwaras faces a lot of resistance. How did this come to be? When did it become so controversial? Where did we lose that link to our history? Rather than work out such misunderstandings through dialogue, we’ve managed to just sweep the whole topic under the rug.

However – Last week I was inspired to attend a “1984 remembrance event” at the local Gurdwara, particularly because there were more youth and young professionals there than I had seen in years. It said to me that our generation has spoken!
The time has come to bring the dialogue of human rights back to the Gurdwara…where it belongs. Rather than periodic events to mark specific occasions, I propose that every Gurdwara start its own human rights committee. Why not? Many Gurdwaras have social committees, cultural committees, and committees that have nothing to do with Sikhi – why not have a committee that is built on the very foundation of Sikhi? And let’s be clear, this would not just be a stage to highlight the case of Panjab, this committee would bring to light the cause of any and every community suffering human rights violations throughout out the world.

How would such a committee work? Rather than re-inventing the wheel, there are models out there that function well. One example is for the Gurdwara’s human rights committee to establish an Amnesty International local group. Monthly meetings could consist of urgent action letter writing campaigns, presentations on high priority cases, and attending local events. By registering your group with Amnesty International, you will receive all the materials you need for your meeting each month. The leg-work is essentially done for you and the cost is next to nothing…all you have to do is participate. You can even start your group on-line and get your activist toolkit today! There are also monthly urgent action appeals and activities designed for school-aged children, in case you want to reach out to the younger kids.

There are many Gurdwara boards out there who are begging the “youth” to get involved in the administration of the Gurdwara; perhaps this is the avenue to establish ourselves. Forming a human rights committee has several advantages – First and foremost is the benefit it will provide for prisoners of conscience and those we speak on behalf of. Secondly, it will provide an incentive for activist youth who’ve been turned away from the factional fighting and poor leadership over the years, to re-engage with the Gurdwara. And equally important, is the clear message it will send to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike – being a Sikh is being an activist – and it is our responsibility as Sikhs to protect the human rights for any individual or community suffering. I believe that if even one Gurdwara is able to successfully launch such a committee, others will quickly follow suit. The only question is…who will be first?

About RP Singh

Writer. Reader. Runner. Thinker. Seeker View all posts by RP Singh

2 responses to “My Gurdwara’s Human Rights Committee?

  • Sevak

    I hadn't really delved into the thought about how to make this concept of "committees" useful in the Gurduara, because my experience with them always made me want to just get rid of these committees. Thank you for this insight.

  • Rubin Paul Singh

    I understand your sentiment, Sevak…but for better or for worse, it won't be long before these committees fall in our hands to manage. Although we may not be at fault for what they are…we can play a significant role in what they become…

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