Kids Corner

1984

1984 & I:
Forget? Never!

by RUBIN PAUL SINGH

 

This year, 2009, marks the 25th Anniversary of 1984, when horrendous crimes were committed against the Sikhs in the very land of their origin. To commemorate this sad milestone, we at sikhchic.com have asked our regular columnists, as well as our contributors and readers, to share with us the impact 1984 has had on their lives. We have requested personal stories and anecdotes, as well as an attempt to capture their inner thoughts and deepest ruminations on what 1984 means to each one of them and their loved ones - without going into a litany of facts and figures or a listing of the injustices to date, all of which will invariably be covered with due diligence elsewhere. We intend to present these personal perspectives to you throughout the twelve months of 2009. The following is the fifth of the series entitled "1984 & I".

 

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 our spiritual and religious 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

Conversation about this article

1: A .S. Rai (New Delhi, India), February 01, 2009, 12:13 AM.

It was inspiring to read this, for it reminds us of the great sacrifices of our ancestors. Those sacrifices were performed in times when democracy and human rights were unknown entities. While maintaining our sacrificing spirit, we need to channelize our energy in undertaking tasks which will help us to live up to the expectations of our Gurus.

2: Harinder (Bangalore, India), February 01, 2009, 5:57 AM.

Sikhi is a loving religion, with a universal message that advocates equality and human rights for all. If we genuinely believe in this philosophy, then we must not forget the genocides when men killed their fellow men.

3: Harinder (Bangalore, India), February 01, 2009, 8:44 AM.

Let us work towards eradicating all injustices, against any and all people. Sarbat da bhalla!

4: Charles Meacham (Taipei, Taiwan), February 01, 2009, 10:01 AM.

I have always wondered why there is no memorial to those that died in 1984. My good friend, Shera Singh, pointed out some of the bullet holes that are left around the Golden Temple, but they would go easily unnoticed by other visitors. That feeling is with me often, as the TV coverage of 1984 is unfortunately my first memory of Amritsar.

5: Santokh Singh Saran (Birmingham, England), February 01, 2009, 1:11 PM.

The innocent victims of the 1984 genocide that actually continued for so many years will never forget what happened when Congress leaders, under pressure from Hindu fascists, used all resources at their disposal to tarnish the image of the victims while all forms of media imposed self-, as well state-sponsored censureship upon themselves. Yes, we must try our best to out the truth that was blurred by keeping the media out of Punjab when all sorts of atrocities were going on throughout 'blue-star, 'woodrose' and the combing operations. A Nuremburg style commission under an independent body alone can expose the depth of the crimes committed by the government.

6: Parveen Kaur Dhatt (Brampton, Canada), February 01, 2009, 2:27 PM.

History which is 100 years removed from our times is easier for the human psyche to accept. Lives that were torn apart and sacrifices that were made remain safely in the pages of history books. Yet the denial and emotional wounds from 1984 are relatively fresh and still too vivid to deal with. We are still living 1984, we all know someone who has lost a member of their family, we still read articles in the paper about trying to bring those responsible to justice. As universal justice prevails above any law, we know that those culpable will eventually pay the price.

7: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Española, New Mexico, U.S.A.), February 04, 2009, 3:55 PM.

We don't need to forget 1984, but at the same time, if the very words of the Guru are not enough for us to remember this path, we need to do introspection. I don't think violent images should be in the gurdwara or langar hall, or if they must be, there should be an associated plaque which describes its meaning. Re 1984 not being discussed in some camps, everybody has a different opinion on the matter, and they're all equally passionate about it. I know I'm passionately opposed to riling up Sikhs. I'm passionately opposed to Sikhs cultivating hate and anger within themselves. These are things I see people use the issue of 1984 to do. Look at any online Sikh discussion forum and see how many Sikh youth express their anger over 1984. The internet is filled with these people. Somebody started filling their heads with hatred early on and somebody else used 1984 to direct that hatred. We have to have a neutral way of discussing the events, but most people can't agree on what's neutral. Naming specific personalities like Bhindranwale, for instance, changes the whole discussion. I think the farthest we could go with neutrality is to teach that the Akal Takht was sacrificed, the institution itself was martyred and many innocent Sikhs lost their lives in the event. If we start listing who did what and blaming certain people or using certain reasons, then people will get upset. [Editor: Recording and studying history accurately is never harmful. Burying one's head in the sand is.]

8: Rubin Paul Singh (Washington, D.C., U.S.A.), February 06, 2009, 11:10 AM.

Prabhu Singh, you're right - many Sikhs do get "riled up" when discussing issues related to 1984, as there are a lot of emotions tied to it. Although I try to not approach the subject with hate and anger, I understand that others have experienced 1984 differently than I have. I cannot discount their experiences nor judge them based on their reaction. I do, however, agree that as we move into the next 25 years "post-1984", we need to find more productive ways to present the information and pose more intelligent arguments - without "watering-down" the truth, especially if we hope to bring the story of 1984 to the world stage. Sikhchic.com has taken a good first step at this by it's "1984 & I" series. I also think your idea of plaques describing the inspiring images is a great idea.

9: B.S.Khalsa (Hayward, U.S.A.), February 09, 2009, 5:32 PM.

Sardar Rubin Paul Singh's deep words have touched me. We must keep our roots alive and at the same time we must not forget our enemy and friend. The Battle of Amritsar is a very difficult chapter for the Sikh Nation to forget.

10: Satwinder Singh (Dublin, Ireland), February 12, 2009, 12:16 PM.

I must commend sikhchic.com for taking the initiative of inviting people to write about 1984. Secondly, we must now also think about new, more effective ways to present what has been documented so far. What I have noticed from my personal experience is that there is reluctance among people to talk about 1984 due to fear, or simply that they don't know what had happened. Even people who know about 1984, just know one part of the story as propagated by the Indian media and/or government. So even after 25 years, we as a community are still not able to document what has happened and make even Sikhs and non-sikhs aware about the horrendous crimes committed in 1984. But seeing this initiative makes me hopeful that if we continue, we will succeed. [Editor: We are cognizant of the fear factor, especially clouding over those who live in India - much of it at a subconscious level, no doubt. Therefore, we are open to publishing stories on an anonymous basis. We give an unequicoval undertaking to keep all information, including the name of the author and country of origin, confidential, if a submission so requests.]

11: Sumeeta (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), March 20, 2009, 10:25 AM.

How can I forget 1984 - The year I lost my father to a broken heart. The year my cousins were shot, burned alive and their warehouses looted. Our house turned into a mini hospital with rows of beds with half burnt bodies. The stench of burnt and rotting flesh that my mother single-handedly nursed as she could not pursuade any hospital to admit or any doctor to treat any Sikhs at that time. My 19-year old niece with a 1-yr old son and 6 months pregnant going with my mom to the mortuary to identify her dead husband whom she identified out of a pile of tangled bodies - from his white beautiful feet. My mom struggled to keep them all alive as my father had to be hidden at some neighbours with all windows and lights shut tight. His name plate that once proudly said his name "Dr Gurbakhsh Singh" had to be removed as it was no longer safe to be identified a Sikh. In my childhood, I grew up listening to the stories of suffering, sacrifice and struggles of 1947 and then for 1984 to happen! It is a pity that the real issues of Punjab's rights over its water, electricity, land, seeds, language, etc. were washed away with the blood of its people. It is very difficult to feel Indian any more.

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Forget? Never!"









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