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Will Not Get Fooled Again:
The Roundtable Open Forum # 139





I have closely followed the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo on January 7 this year.

As the days have passed, I have vacillated between feelings of pain, grief, anger, resentment and resignation. All of these feelings were directed inwards at myself as the senseless act left me in a state of despair and helplessness … for the future of humanity.

Sitting on my couch watching the 24/7 news cycle, this was easy to do.

The days since the tragedy have brought forth a diverse set of opinions from very well informed writers, journalists and political commentators.

However, I have failed to find any moment of clarity and the questions have all but converged into one single thought in my head: Is it prudent to impose limits on free speech?

That is, in the absence of a clear and present danger that will surely bring about an evil outcome, are restrictions on free speech justified? Charlie Hebdo posed no clear and present danger, so why the call for restriction on free speech?

If you are looking for an answer, you should stop reading, because I don’t have one. However, I have developed a couple of thought experiments that are shaping my views on this issue. I do want to share this in the hope that it will perhaps force us to think and ask ourselves some really hard questions.

In developing this thought experiment, I turn to the lives of the Sikh Gurus and to the events of Sikh history that appear to me as uncannily similar.

In running these thought experiments, I am not even in the slightest putting Charlie Hebdo on the same pedestal as the Sikh Gurus. Neither am I saying that one has to agree with all or some of the content published by Charlie Hebdo. Rather, I am just interested in triggering a thought process that is consistent with Sikh values.

The answer to “Am I Charlie Hebdo?” may lie in how we understand our own thoughts rather than in deferring them to opinions created and published in mainstream or social media.

To borrow from The Who: "We Won't Get Fooled Again".

Drawing upon the life of Guru Nanak, it would not be unreasonable to say that He was perhaps the biggest advocate of unfettered freedom of speech. He categorically challenged every known religious practice of his times and his writings were revolutionary.

Surely, he had exercised full freedom of speech when he interacted with the yogis and the qazis of the time, wrote and preserved gurbani and set out on long voyages to spread the “Naam”.

To these yogis and qazis, their own ideas of God and worship were sacrosanct and any challenge to these ideas was blasphemy. Juxtaposed with those who took to following the Gurus, there were countless others who were routinely offended and bore nothing but contempt for the Sikh Gurus.

Thought experiment #1: If we could go back to the 16th - 17th century, as a common man, would we have imposed curbs on the writings of the Sikh Gurus?

If so, on what basis?

Would being offensive to the brahmins and the qazis be one of such basis?

Guru Nanak, his successors and the Bhagats, in their own way used both persuasion and satire in healthy doses to hold a mirror to the society. One would surely be mistaken to think that their writings did not rub the ruling classes the wrong way.

Ram Rai’s subservience to the Mughal court immediately comes to mind.

He was the eldest son of the Seventh Master, Guru Har Rai. When reading from the Adi Granth, Ram Rai changed a single word in one verse so as not to offend Aurangzeb. While the emperor rewarded Ram Rai for having tampered with Sikh scripture, Guru Har Rai denounced him for his cowardice. Ram Rai was thenceforth ostracized by the community.

The ruthless execution of Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadar by Jehangir and Aurangzeb respectively bear testimony to over 150 years of resentment by the powers that were, against Sikhi. However, none of the Gurus cowered down before the tyranny of the Mughal emperors. Indeed, even after the cold blooded murders of his youngest sons, Guru Gobind Singh exercised his full freedom of speech and challenged Aurangzeb’s bigotry in his epistle, the Zafarnama.

Thought Experiment #2: Should the Gurus have dialed back their commitment after the executions? Would we have counselled Guru Har Rai to accept Ram Rai’s subservience to Aurangzeb? Would we have counseled the Gurus to be selective in their campaigns and avoid clashing with the ruling classes?

The only understanding that I have derived from this thought process so far is that limits imposed by one society or at any given point in time are meaningless in another society or at another point in time. Civilization evolves and the societal forces that be, either accept or discard ideas over time.

Thus, what is homophobic or xenophobic today may be fully acceptable and integrated into our lifestyle in a 100 years.

Rather than clinging on to the imagery, I find solace in Guru Nanak’s ideas, so that I can live a life deeply imbued in the spirit of the Sikh teachings, a spirit that fosters the feeling of “nirbhao” (without fear) and “nirvair” (without enmity) in an increasingly complex and unequal world.


These are tough questions with no easy answers and, as always, I am open to hear and learn about diverse perspectives on these questions, and would welcome you to post yours hereinunder.

January 13, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Punjab), January 13, 2015, 12:11 PM.

Religions are, and should be, easy to challenge. Guru Nanak: "koi naam nahi jaane tera" -- God is a mystery for all and shall always remain so.

2: Shani (Virginia, USA), January 13, 2015, 12:32 PM.

Guru Nanak or any of the Guru Sahibs that followed or Sikhi never, ever insults Jesus or Moses or Muhammed or Buddha or Krishna ... Guru Nanak taught us to be brave and daring in rejecting ritual and superstition and tyranny, but at the same time insisted that we never become hurtful or insulting. 'Sweet speech' was what he recommended over and over again. I believe Freedom of Speech should indeed be inviolate but that doesn't mean that it gives a free license to ignorant people to turn into boors: neither to the foolish insulters nor to the madmen who would kill them!

3: Pritam Singh (London, England), January 13, 2015, 12:44 PM.

I have serious concerns over Islamic radicalism and the terror it has wrought around the world. But it drives a stake through my heart when I see people insult 'Allah' or 'Mohammed', thinking that they are doing something brave or pious in the name of Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or, for that matter, journalistic freedom. There are NO circumstances imaginable in which Sikhi would condone such bad behaviour. For the record: Sikhi does not condone murder either, under ANY pretext; and, to be perfectly clear, I'm not suggesting even for a moment that we are to turn a blind eye to religious chicanery. All I'm saying is that insulting the memory of saints serves no purpose, and can cause nothing but grief. For all.

4: Jeremy Olan (Indiana, USA), January 13, 2015, 12:55 PM.

As I watch the millions in Paris mourn the dead, and more grief and mourning in Israel and elsewhere, I can't help wondering: surely there's a better way of making a point or of combating religious extremism than ourselves turning to extremism! For, the insulting tone against Muhammad in European cartoons and Jewish humour is in itself a form of extremism. Is one better than the other? Just look at the results! May I suggest that it is time for us to go back to the drawing board instead of carrying on the way we have? Because, currently, we're simply going round and round in circles, from one mourning session to the next.

5: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), January 13, 2015, 12:56 PM.

Though I agree with the author's thoughts about freedom of speech, I believe one thing that has been lost is the "how". As we have often heard, it's not important what to say but rather how you say it. The author mentions "Guru Nanak, his successors and the Bhagats, in their own way used both persuasion and satire in healthy doses to hold a mirror to the society". The key part here is "in healthy doses". In recent times when expressing our freedom of speech, we have forgotten how to use this freedom in a healthy and non-insulting form. I, being of a sensitive nature, believe making fun of something dear and sacred to a religious believer or burning of some religion's scriptures is a very hurtful way of using our right to freely speak. None of our Gurus used this right in an insulting manner. In Hardwar when Guru Nanak was trying to tell the brahmins that their tossed water wouldn't make it to their ancestors in the heaven, did he start burning any effigy or abuse any religious leader? The way we have started to exercise our freedom of speech and expression in today's times causes anger and hurt. In these very pages of we have read through many pieces that when the Indian army attacked the Darbar Sahib in June 1984, they showed a complete disregard to the religious sentiments of Sikhs. Similarly, wouldn't burning of the sacred Quran hurt the sentiments of its followers? The other point I wish to make is about intent. Our Gurus spoke freely with the intent to educate the masses and help them come out of meaningless practices and rather live a purpose driven and truthful life. In today's world, the intent has changed to ridiculing another religion to prove a point. Since the intent is no longer a positive one, it comes as an accusation to the other party and causes outrage. So, in my humble opinion, when we express our right to speak 'freely', let's not forget humility and honest intention. A life lived in humility with a purpose, in my limited knowledge is the Sikh way of life.

6: Hardyal Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), January 13, 2015, 1:11 PM.

Our Gurus, from Nanak to Gobind Singh, focused on a simple message to the populace: if you're Hindu, learn to be a better Hindu, in accordance with the true message of Hinduism; if you're a Muslim, concentrate on becoming a better Muslim by living in accordance with true Islam. And so on ... But today, what is being proposed or practiced under the rubric of 'freedom' has crossed over into the realm of hypocrisy. I feel the simple answer to today's dilemmas lies in Nanak's poetry, but is anyone really looking for solutions any more? Instead, as the human race, we seem to be going to hell in a hand basket!

7: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 13, 2015, 8:43 PM.

Guru Amar Das became the Third Nanak at the age of 73. Soon thereafter, a large number of Sikhs started flocking to Goindwal to see the new Guru. Datu, one of Guru Angad's sons, had proclaimed himself as Guru at Khadur following his father's death. He was so jealous of Guru Amar Das that he proceeded to Goindwal to confront the Guru. Upon seeing Guru Amar Das seated on a throne and surrounded by his followers, he said: "You were a mere menial servant of the house until yesterday; how dare you style yourself as the Master?". He then proceeded to kick the revered old Guru, throwing him off his throne. Guru Amar Das, in utter humility, started caressing Datu's foot, saying; "I'm old. My bones are hard. You must be hurt ..." As demanded by Datu, Guru Amar Das left Goindwal the same evening and returned to his native village of Basarke. Here Guru Amar Das shut himself in a small house for solitary meditation. He attached a notice on the front door saying, "He who opens this door is no Sikh of mine, nor I his Guru." A delegation of faithful Sikhs led by Baba Buddha found the house and seeing the notice on the front door, cut through the walls to reach the Guru. Baba Buddha said, "The Guru being a supreme yogi, cares for nothing in the world - neither fame, nor riches nor a following. But we cannot live without his guidance. Guru Angad has tied us to your 'pallaa' (scarf), where should we go now if you are not to show us the way?" At the tearful entreatment of the Sikhs, Guru Amar Das was overwhelmed by their devotion and agreed to return to Goindwal. Datu, having been unable to gather any followers of his own, fled to Khadur.

8: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 13, 2015, 9:54 PM.

The problem is dogma, especially religious dogma. In Sikhi, our Gurus expressly forbid us to have any dealings with such ideologies. Why? Because the latter are in place for only one reason and that is to cheat the people of their money, and control them through superstition and mindless ritual.

9: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), January 14, 2015, 12:30 AM.

A question to ponder upon. What has the Paris march and other simultaneous marches, with the outpouring of grief, sympathy, solidarity and affirmation of the freedom of expression achieved? The farce and hypocrisy of some of the leaders in the Paris march was apparent, and yes, what a vigor and boost to the sales of Charlie Hebdo, now gone international. Adding more salt to the hurt and wounds, the stakes have gone up. More resolve for retribution by the contenders, I fear. Like our much touted Free Will, the freedom of expression must be tempered if there is to be for harmony in society. Total freedom is a myth.

10: Gurbakhash Singh (Seattle, Washington State, USA), January 14, 2015, 8:12 PM.

Freedom of speech without any qualifiers is bound to create problems.

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The Roundtable Open Forum # 139"

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