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Seeking Justice:
Rountable Open Forum # 157





Here’s how the recent Sarbat Khalsa was reported and interpreted by one of the world’s most prestigious journals.


The Sikh religion provides for a gathering of believers, the Sarbat Khalsa, in times of great crisis.

It was convened regularly in the 18th century, when the Mughal empire was trying to exterminate the Sikhs. But it was called just twice in the 20th century. The last time was in 1986, as a response to bloodshed that began with the Indian army’s assault on the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out Sikh militants, some calling for their own Khalistan (“land of the pure”). It culminated in the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and -- in mob revenge -- of thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi.

And so a tremor was felt in the state of Punjab when a Sarbat Khalsa was called for November 10, 2015, to be held on an unassuming patch of ground outside Amritsar. Its topic was blasphemy and the desecration of the Sikhs’ holy book: torn pages had been showing up around the state for weeks.

On the day itself the ground shook, when as many as 100,000 people gathered. [This figure represents the Indian government's 'count', which is always known to be highly downplayed. More accurate estimates refer to a half-a-mlliion figure, and more].

The meeting concluded by calling for the ousting of the three high jathedars of Punjab’s most important gurdwaras. One of the chosen replacements happens to be a pro-Khalistan separatist, in jail for assassinating a chief minister of Punjab in 1995.

The present state government is led by a father-son duo of Parkash and Sukhbir Singh Badal and their Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party. They took the whole thing as an affront. It was instigated, they huffed, by criminals, by the allegedly anti-Sikh Congress party and by “foreign elements” -- meaning either Pakistan over the border or Sikhs with separatist leanings in the West.

The Badals understand that they and not the religious leaders were the real target -- for their family is widely thought to control the gurdwara committee that appoints the jathedars.

On November 23 Sukhbir Singh Badal led a huge counter-rally of supporters through the impoverished southern part of the state. The SAD’s procession was met by cheering crowds and none of the black flags of protest that had been promised. It was as if the religious fire of the Sarbat Khalsa had blown out.

Certainly, few in Punjab want another fight for an independent Khalistan for Sikhs. The state has desperate problems, but they are not religious in nature.

Farming is in steep decline as short-sighted policies have depleted the water table and encouraged the cultivation of unsuitable crops. This year fake pesticide brought infestations of whitefly to the cotton crop. Not long ago Punjab was relatively rich, its farming prosperous; but today it ranks 12th among India’s states in GDP per person.

There is little industry. The police spend their days shaking down motorists; educated Punjabis look abroad for work. Social ills have sprouted, drugs worst of all.

Few seem happy with the Badals. Their many businesses have thrived, though little else does. Their electoral hold on the state is helped by the fact that not only are they Sikhs, like most of Punjab’s population, but they are from the Jat (peasant) ‘caste‘, the majority within the community. Their political opponents are in chaos.

Congress, the party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is especially weak in Punjab, tarnished by the massacres of the 1980s, while myriad small parties have failed to coalesce.

Yet the Badals feel sufficiently threatened by the prospect of assembly elections in 2017 that they are reaching for new sources of strength. So SAD seems to have manipulated Sikhism’s jathedars into a series of reversals over a charge of blasphemy lodged against a populist preacher. Party leaders might have hoped to attract the flock of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, whose self-promotional videos are wacky beyond belief; but that proved too much for their orthodox base.

In early Sikhism, church and state were figured like a pair of joined swords. In the 17th century it seemed natural that the best men should rule both worlds. But with a political leadership that looks wobbly, and an anarchic opposition, the ruling party’s control of religious authority raises stakes to an uncomfortable degree. Radicals may dream of putting a terrorist at the summit of Sikhism. Nearly everyone else just wants a better life, free of fake pesticides.

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What are your thoughts on the recently held Sarbat Khalsa 2015?

Did you attend? Do you know anyone personally who attended? Did you attend any of the earlier ones? 

Please share your thoughts by posting them below.


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[Courtesy: The Economist. Edited for]
December 3, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Jagtaran Singh (Amritsar, Punjab), December 03, 2015, 10:11 AM.

Sorry, but I was not too impressed by the gathering. Large and very impressive numbers, yes. A lot of fervour, yes. But no substance. It's too late for resolutions. What we need is action. Are we ready to challenge the status quo by putting our life and liberty on the line? That's the question.

2: Preetma Kaur (Patiala, Punjab), December 03, 2015, 11:37 AM.

I agree ... it's time for action, not words. But before that, we need leadership. Just action, without coordination and planning, will be counter-productive. We need to inject intelligent thought, not bravado and bluster.

3: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), December 03, 2015, 5:45 PM.

Masses of people came with hope and enthusiasm and soon they had a rude awakening; the fervor cowered, and disillusionment reigned. Unfortunately, there was a disconnect between the throngs that gathered, angered and disheartened by the sacrileges of Guru Granth Sahib, the hijacking of Sikh institutions and disregard of Sikh maryada. The stage actors that had a political axe to grind with an eye on the 2017 elections, and other aspirations. Lack of a broad-based consensus and a due process of consultation resulted in many factions not being part of the gathering. The absence and input of Sikh intellectuals was clearly lacking. This was not only a missed opportunity for a united front under the banner of Sarbat Khalsa, for a resolve to addressing Sikh issues, but it turned out soon like a failed coup. Those in power have come out full swing to whip and silence any opposition. With most of the energy of the important players going into defending themselves, it will be some time that we will hear the roar of the lion.

4: Brig Nawab Singh Heer (Ret.) (New York, USA), December 03, 2015, 7:18 PM.

Post incident of the be-adbis of Guru Granth Sahib, some sane religious leaders gave direction and a call for Sarbat Khalsa. The Sikh masses responded by defying all Government machinery to curb it. Half a million came with pure intentions, representing all other Sikhs living globally. The proceedings were relayed the world over and 95% Sikhs had their consent and hope in the outcome. Somehow, the command was hijacked from purely religious leaders by 25% politically motivated ones. The ideal outcome was not achieved, but the Khalsa's support for Truth emerged. The Government was in a state of shock for sometime, but then counter attacked vehemently through threats, arrests, hired goons, and misinformation through a pliant media. For sometime it looks like an imitation of the post-84 posture of the central and state governments, by the Punjab Chef Ministrer and the Deputy Chief Minister ... father and son! The Major achievements of the Sarbat Khalsa were that it was a peaceful uprising by the oppressed Sikhs of Punjab, and a call to free religious institutions from the clutches of corrupt politicians. The present regimes have lost their moral authority to rule. Time will dictate the final outcome. I for one am positive about it. Let us prepare and look forward to April 2016 - to free the Akal Takht and put proper procedures in place. Our move forward must be peaceful and as per the values passed on to us by Guru Granth Sahib.

5: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (Los Angeles, California, USA), December 04, 2015, 9:36 AM.

I was amazed to see a Sarbat Khalsa in my lifetime, I never thought it would happen. I can't wait for the next one, and ideally it would bring all parties together so that the Sikhs can be liberated from the masands (Badal and company). We need young, sophisticated, strategy-based leadership to lead us ... that's the need of the hour.

6: Taran Singh (London, United Kingdom), December 05, 2015, 3:42 AM.

Well, to people who say it didn't have any substance, I would like to ask them what exactly should have been included to have substance in it? For me, this Sarbat Khalsa was spot on. There were some really serious agendas which are the need of the hour. People (Sikh leaders and jathebandis) who stayed away, simply proved their worth, or the lack of it. One thing is for sure that there is a leadership vacuum to be filled which has not happened after the shaheedi of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale. When you talk of Sikh unity it is imperative that we have first of all a strong leader.

7: Tony Singh (Canada), December 05, 2015, 8:49 AM.

Indian and Punjabi politicians are as dirty as they come and pardesi Sikhs should be very vary of getting involved. I would not at all be surprised if it is in fact the operatives of the Congress Party who are stirring up religious trouble in Punjab and other places in India to make life difficult for the Akalis in Punjab and the BJP elsewhere. That is exactly what happened when Indira and Zail Singh stirred the pot by 'promoting' Sant Jarnail Singh and Sikh nationalism in the late 1970s and '80s.

8: Kaala Singh (Punjab), December 05, 2015, 11:24 AM.

The problems in Punjab that need immediate attention are ground water contamination that is causing cancer and impotence, drugs and crime, and economic decline. I have not seen anyone talking about these problems. Can the organizers of these events propose solutions for any of these problems which are killing Sikhs everyday before they talk about anything else?

9: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), December 13, 2015, 7:54 AM.

That the Economist took a huge time out and used space in their world famous magazine on the Sarbat Khalsa, Sikhs and the woes of today's Punjab, is giving a fresh message and meaning for the benefit of both Sikhs and non-Sikhs of India. The article is laced with words and warnings for both Punjab and India where corruption and other vices are getting unleashed daily. Their views are supported by the readers and commentators on, and confirmed by the Sikhs from across the diaspora. Visitors to Punjab are returning with more disgust than delight over the current state of affairs in India. It's great to be in Canada and other countries, many say, for the rule of law. As opposed to the Badal rule of lawlessness there. They are not going to give up despite the Sarbat Khalsa's show of strength. The meet was fizzled out by the State's machinery, as it practices and warms up for winning again in 2017. Punjab's woes are economic, not religious, which begs an immediate inquiry into the nature and causes of Punjab's wealth being looted by the Badal family, and into the orchestrated effort on the part of the Centre in New Delhi to destroy Punjab once and for all. Remember, the Sikhs in India, some 30 million of them, are clubbed with the Jains and Buddhists as mere sects of Hinduism, according to the Article 25 of their Constitution, which was drafted by a distinguished Dalit Hindu, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, after 1947. By 2015 nothing much has been changed therein. 2016 is here, let's see what happens next in India and Punjab.

10: Kaala Singh (Punjab), December 16, 2015, 1:54 PM.

@9: The economy of Punjab has stagnated for many years. Sikhs, despite being a majority in Punjab, now contribute little to the economy. Most Sikhs live in the rural areas and are involved in agriculture and get heavy subsidies. As there is no tax on agricultural income, the government gets nothing by way of taxes. Whatever little tax that is collected comes from industries owned mostly by Hindus. The second source of income is the funds provided by the Central government and then of course the money diverted from the big gurdwaras. All this pretty much sums up the economy of Punjab. How can the economic problems of Punjab be solved with the majority contributing nothing to it?

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Rountable Open Forum # 157"

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