Kids Corner


Mubarak! Mubarak! Victory of The Young & The Wired




Mubarak: congratulations, felicitations, blessings, good wishes

[Punjabi Dictionary]



After 18 days of obduracy a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for a good 30 years fled with his tail between his legs.

It was a remarkable battle; from the victors - the Egyptian people - there were no calls for violence, no shots were fired. Their organization - the battle plan - was superb but there was no general, no charismatic leader, and no dictator exhorting people to fight until the last breath.

It was a movement not dictated by an elite group of thinkers, soldiers and planners. A movement of hope; it seems to have been modestly led by ordinary citizens. It was one that excited the ordinary Egyptian.

This is what a grass roots movement is about. And there have been more than a few in this world but history tells us that they often get corrupted and captured by a small group of elitists.

Most religions are at their core grass-root movements. But years later they become closed systems where authority flows from the top downwards. A new hierarchy consolidates all power. The poor peasant, in whose name the movement started, remains what he always was, not much better than a serf. This is the way of most societies whether religious or secular.

Only time can tell how the Egyptian movement for independence that truly started at the grassroots by young people - wired and connected and perhaps idealistic - will evolve. Will it go the way of most societies, including Communist or Socialist, with large dreams of human welfare that quickly became the tools of an oligarchy instead?

My thoughts go to the Founder-Gurus of Sikhism. For over two centuries, they nurtured a society from the grass roots. They didn't go cultivating the elite of the day - the many rulers, noblemen, satraps and super rich. Nation building requires a citizenry fired by a common code of values, goals, expectation and behavior. And that is where the energies of the Gurus went.

The Gurus created a society defined by shared values and ethics, with transparency, accountability and self-governance. These are attributes that should remain supreme.

But as I said earlier, grass roots get displaced by a top heavy society in which for the ordinary citizen (or the believer in religion) inevitably loses all sense of any of the things that are the core of a just and progressive society or religion.

History is instructive. The Indian independence movement was never at its core a grass roots phenomenon. It was created by elitists. The Nehrus and Patels, even Mahatma Gandhi, did not effectively relate to the ordinary Indian. These leaders were at best Brown Englishmen Sahibs.

But among them Gandhi was a genius; he understood that the movement must be cast in the rubric of something from the bottom up to capture the mind of the ordinary Indian. And he did it so well with his home-spun cloth, minimal and simple attire and an apparently ordinary living. Even the way he traveled by rail was meant to reinforce the idea of a man of the people. The ordinary Indian loved it and almost worshipped the man.

Yet he and his elitist associates never relinquished power; for the ordinary Indian there never was self-governance, transparency or accountability in the system that ruled him.

Perhaps this dichotomy is natural to all movements, but I think it is the hallmark of all movements that arise in the Indian cultural framework. Why? Because we are a feudal society, a pyramidal structure where authority trickles down and citizen rights are a distraction. On the other hand, in a responsive government of the people, all power resides in the citizens, the government acquires only the power that is willingly ceded by the people.

The Gurus, as I said, created and practiced a grass roots administrative structure. In time their followers seem to have reverted to the Indian cultural mode or, if you prefer, call it the human default position.

The Singh Sabha Movement of the 1920's that deserves our eternal and grateful appreciation for all that it did for Sikhi was, at its beginning, a movement of elitists. It did not emerge from the grass roots. But when it came to liberation of gurdwaras from the control of mahants and the British government, it quickly became a different matter. The ordinary Sikh, however uneducated or unsophisticated, could easily identify with the cause. It became a movement much bigger than the elitist leaders, and victory quickly became inevitable.

And someone like Gandhi learned a few lessons on organization of mass movements that he adapted with dramatic success.

When Sikhs in India demanded that a Punjabi speaking state be created during the linguistic reorganization of the country in the 1960's, again the Punjabi farmer could understand at a gut level that without such a state his language and culture would rapidly die. That made it into a grass roots struggle and it succeeded.

I wonder if the struggle of the 1980's ever became a popular uprising. I wonder why we could not merge the Sikhs of rural Punjab with the urbanized Sikhs of the cities in a common cause until after too much damage had been done and too many lives lost.

Iran offers a predictable lesson as does Egypt.

Egypt threw out King Farouk 50 years ago and the people celebrated. But then those who acquired power forgot that a leader of the people is the chief Public Servant. That is the mandate of a leader. When that idea is no longer front and center, sooner rather than later, another revolution would occur and the leader will go - as they say, the bums will be thrown out. Egypt is now in the midst of this process.

Iran's history is similar. People rejoiced when the Shah was exiled in 1979 in a people's revolution. But now the revolutionaries have forgotten why they succeeded then and why people no longer like them. I suppose time cures all heels.

In my over 50 years in the United States I have experienced three genuine grass roots movements: the struggles for racial and gender equality and the one against the Vietnam War. They galvanized the nation. I am not so sure that the Tea Party movement is in the same category, even though its protagonists want to wrap it in the aura of the founding fathers.

India, too, has a checkered history in such matters. I will not attempt today a detailed dissection of Indian geopolitics and cultural realities. Good and responsible citizenship does not grow well in the shadow of kings, autocrats and despots.

That is why I celebrate the young and wired of the Sikh world - young people who have created from the ground up new institutions to serve our growing needs: SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, and The Sikh Research Institute - all outside the ambit of our dysfunctional gurdwaras.

I leave to readers how to explore in this context the place and position of the leaders of the Sikh community, be they local gurdwara honchos, or those that run our national or international institutions.

All I can say is that once these leaders are in, they no longer let any grass grow under their feet: their grass-roots are quickly replaced by the astro-turf of pomp and arbitrary power.

February 12, 2011 

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), February 12, 2011, 8:11 AM.

I feel lucky to have witnessed a truly seminal and defining moment in world history. If I have read my history correctly, there has never been anything like this in Egypt's long, long history. For all its civilization and culture, Egypt has always been ruled by the equivalent of a police state - despotic pharoahs and kings and, in the past fifty years, military men. This is truly revolutionary. There are lessons to be drawn for us (Sikhs), especially in terms of using the power of technology to organize ourselves.

2: Ajay Singh (Rockville, Maryland, U.S.A.), February 12, 2011, 2:07 PM.

Sardar I.J Singh ji, The movement of 1980's had a huge grass roots approach. There is no question that it was successful in galvanizing people, if you remember the Rail Roko, Rasta Roko morchas, they brought the state to a standstill and were purely non-violent. Forced the center to the negotiating table. The failure of those meeting(s) is the main challege, I think. The major drawback of the 80's was that it became a Sikh movement, not a Punjabi movement, it failed to bring Hindus into its fold even though they were to benefit from its success. Sikhs have the leverage to force Punjabi Hindus to be on their side. How much business is between Sikhs and Hindus? Nearly 100%. Secondly, as you say, it failed to join the elites, learned and the peasantry, for lack of a better word, within the agitating Sikh populace. There is a certain lack of trust between these two groups, the rural Sikhs seem to think they don't need the elites or bhraku and the elites are of the opinion that the peasants can't do anything right. Our morchas, movements get baited too easily. In the 80's it was the "alleged" communalism of Sikhs that drove the Punjabi Hindus away, and the fake demand of Khalistan that pitted the rest of India against us. Both were patently false allegations prior to '84. We had no way to challenge these two allegations, primarily because of the point you raise. I think our movements are mainly grass roots, we are great at making sacrifices and love our martyrs. If we look at the posters and pictures that adorn the walls of Sikh public places they are of martyrs, be it Banda Bahadar or Sant Jarnail Singh and never of someone like, for example, Master Tara Singh. We have no way of appreciating someone like the latter. We are still engaged in guerilla warfare, hit and run. I remember hearing Sardar Darshan Singh speak of his time when he was the Jathedar of Akal Takth. He wanted to negotiate with the central government, take what we could and then go on fighting for more. Victory in small steps, but he could not convince other Sikhs in the forefront on this strategy and hence he was made to resign.

3: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, U.S.A.), February 12, 2011, 3:43 PM.

Our Gurus' aim was to create universal brotherhood, but the recent Sikh leadership has failed to nurture that vision, because after so many sacrifices by Sikhs for the independence of India, Sikhs are not even recognized in the Indian Constitution. That is the main reason Sikhs are having problems every day even outside India. Until and unless Sikh leaderships follows the path of unselfishness and globalization for Sikh masses, Sikhs may not be able to freely enjoy the freedom as shown by our Gurus.

4: Bibek Singh (Jersey City, U.S.A.), February 12, 2011, 4:16 PM.

Very nice article. I read that a few weeks ago, a woman commented on facebook/ internet about the pathetic state of affairs, her frustrations and how she was planning to deal with it by going to Tahrir Square and raising her voice. This event acted as a catalyst for the current movement in Egypt as she was later joined by hundreds of thousands of common citizens. Thanks to the technology for facilitating social movements with the help of just one click. I wonder how much painful effort our Gurus (and people in olden times) must have invested in bringing the same effect!

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