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Reflections on the Struggle of Bhai Gurbaksh Singh:
Letters from Espanola





Seeing that Bhai Gurbaksh Singh was one of the two people named Chic Sikh of 2013, I thought I would devote this column to him.

Not to him as a person. But to what his actions have begun to set in motion.

When the news stories first began about Bhai Gurbaksh Singh's hunger strike, I had a million questions that I could not find answers to anywhere. Part of the problem is that I am trained as a journalist. Which means you do not get emotionally involved in the story.

You look for the facts. You interview all sides. And you do your best to neutrally present the findings.

These days, journalism has become much more about PR than about reporting. The news in general either hides facts or takes a strong editorial position about a subject, intending to influence people's opinions.

But the best reporting lets people come to their own conclusions. Although that particular issue is an essay for another day.

Basically, as a journalist, I kept looking for the neutral story. But it did not exist anywhere. India’s media sources kept talking about "Sikh militants." Sikh news sources were expressing decades of outrage over the wide-spread human rights violations collectively labelled as "1984."

From a news perspective, the complete story was hard to find.

One thing I have learned over the years, however, is that nobody engages in a genuine hunger strike unless the issue is really, really important. It takes a certain outrage, a certain soul-level need to call attention to an unjust situation, for a person to be willing to put his body through that particular process.

So even though I could not find the neutral story to explain the full context of what was happening in Punjab, I did find a way to support Bhai Gurbaksh Singh in my own tiny way. Here in Espanola, we selected a shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib: “jan ki paij savaaree aap …” by Guru Arjan.

In this particular shabad, Guru Arjan gives thanks to the Divine for protecting his son, Hargobind. Since it is one of the few shabads that mentions Guru Hargobind directly, and since Guru Hargobind became Bandi Chhor, the 'Liberator of the Wrongly Imprisoned', it seemed an appropriate choice for the situation. We shared that shabad with our cyber sangat, and I chanted and meditated on it myself, sending a prayer to Bhai Gurbaksh Singh and all the people standing with him.

Attention to his hunger strike grew. More and more Sikhs and Sikh organizations stood with him.

And in that combination of visibility and panthic unity, something in Punjab has begun to move. Something stuck has budged a couple centimeters.

Like a flood of water trapped behind a dam, there is a pressure built up in the Sikh psyche surrounding the events of 20-30 years ago in Punjab. And Bhai Gurbaksh Singh's hunger strike has put the tiniest crack in that dam. A little bit of water is streaming through.

Politically speaking, that crack may prove a huge victory for some, and a threat for others.

So the question is, what next?

I was 16 years old, going to a well-heeled, private Catholic school in Corpus Christi, Texas, USA, when the Akal Takht was attacked by Indian troops. I never heard about it in the news. So I admit that I have a bit of an outsider's perspective when it comes to this entire issue.

Standing on the outskirts, what I see in the Sikh community is a lot of understandably intense emotions around 1984. But very little practical strategy.

What are the issues that need to be resolved? What are the realistic and attainable short term (3-5 year) goals? What are the more difficult, "stretch" goals that might take 10-20 years to accomplish? What does the Sikh community want, collectively? Where is the plan that has the support and buy-in from all the
different segments of the community to resolve these issues?

I do not think that plan exists anywhere.

Until a neutral, strategic plan is in place - how can there be victory? How can there be a moment when the community can say, "We have dealt with and solved this problem"?

The dam has cracked, and now a lot of people who want something - who want healing or resolution or justice - are going to push to see if that dam can crack even further. But I would like to offer a thought, if it is helpful to the conversation.

Bhai Gurbaksh Singh succeeded because he brought the Sikhs together. He brought organizations he probably never heard of to his side. He caused people like me who do not even fully understand the issues at play, to pray for him.

That unity has caused movement.

My sincere feeling is that if the Sikh panth can continue to move unified, more healing can happen. But it is the issue of that unity, of that agreed upon strategy, that may actually be the next step for all of us.

Truly, please forgive me if I have written anything to offend. I admit my ignorance on these matters, but my heart is with you.

P.S. On a lighter, personal note, I had no idea that I had been nominated as one of the Chic Sikhs of 2013. Thank you so much for the nomination. I was surprised and truly honored by it.


January 2, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: R Singh  (Canada), January 02, 2014, 8:25 AM.

"Standing on the outskirts, what I see in the Sikh community is a lot of understandably intense emotions around 1984. But very little practical strategy ..." You have hit the nail on the head with your pointed questions.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 02, 2014, 9:56 AM.

If we cannot function as a 'single' unit then we will not be able to function at all and all the sacrifices by individual, passionate Sikhs will have water thrown over them and forgotten! It is time, therefore, for us to ask, are we going to adhere to the Guru's teachings and respect them with our life and blood or are we going to dilute them to live in duality and hypocrisy?

3: Aryeh Leib (Israel), January 08, 2014, 2:59 AM.

This cri-de-coeur by Gurbaksh Singh has brought the Sikh Qaom together. As the author appears to point out, this be the single best result of the hunger strike - regardless of whether the short term goal of justice for the prisoners is achieved. We should not lose sight of the fact that this man's humble social status played no small part in the popular appeal of his cause; precisely because he isn't politically, financially, or socially "connected", his cause is viewed as truly "grass roots" (not unlike Bhindranwale?) and without ulterior motives. I think it also of value to point out that, as difficult as it is to achieve unity under adverse circumstances, it is that much harder to attain (and maintain) when there is no perceived external threat. But as Baldev Singh so rightly expresses, there's really no other sustainable choice.

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Letters from Espanola"

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