Now, anyone who read this blog in its past life knows that I love politics, especially Punjabi politics. It is with this in mind that we turn to the Yuba City Sikh Festival and a seminar that was held in the Dashmesh Hall (meaning Hall of the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh). First, we must talk about Punjab.
On October 12, 2015, 112 pages were found torn from the Guru Granth Sahib (the living Sikh scripture) in Bargari, Faridkot, Punjab. This was an early incident in a series of desecration events throughout the province, events that sent shockwaves throughout the Sikh world. See the map below:
Events 1 through 6 were detailed in an article on Firstpost, though the most significant desecration event (*) occurred in Baghapurana, Moga district, on October 14. Here, police fired on a peaceful protest to disperse it, injuring 80 and killing 2. Protests erupted throughout North India blaming Chief Minister of Punjab Parkash Singh Badal for turning his back on Sikhs, as well as the Dera Sacha Sauda (DSS), a political/religious/charitable group operating out of North India. By the time the story reached Yuba City, Badal was the main target of outrage:
(On a sidenote, the DSS is a fascinating entity; they consider themselves a spiritual successor of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, and they argue that there is no distinction between religions – Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and so on. Their current leader, Saint Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Ji Insan, is a cult of personality figure who stars and directs his own action/religious film series, MSG – The Messenger of God. Even his name is an overt effort to unite faiths: Saint being Christian/Sufi, Gurmeet meaning “of the Guru,” Ram being a Hindu name for God, Rahim “the merciful” being a name of God in Islam, Singh being the Sikh male last name, Ji for respect, and Insan from Arabic, meaning human.)
It is with this in mind that we turn to the seminar. This post will cover the first two speakers.
1. Manoj Mitta, Journalist & Author of When a Tree Shook Delhi: “1984 Carnage and its Aftermath”
1984 (referenced in an earlier post, “Symbols of Sikhi”) is a watershed year for Sikhs. It was in 1984 that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in an effort to eradicate a Sikh separatist movement in Punjab, ordered a coordinated attack on Sikh temples throughout Punjab and North India, including the wholesale destruction of Akal Takht Sahib, one of the five holiest gurdwaras in all of Sikhism. Operation Bluestar killed Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – an extremist to history, but a martyr to Sikhs. After the operation, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.
In November of 1984 (Mr. Mitta pointed out that this festival was the 31st anniversary of this event), Indian police launched a coordinated attack on Sikhs throughout Delhi and Punjab in retaliation. The Indian government maintains that these were riots were nothing more than public manifestations of anger directed at a specific religious group (of which India has a long history), but Mitta argued that the events that opened November 1984 were too big to be just anger. Official reports state that 2733 were killed in three days of violence, and that the police actively recruited people to riot, that they entered neighborhoods, spread word of the riots, and catalyzed the violence. The ensuing act-finding inquiry included no public hearings, no testimonials by prominent victims, no justice. Mitta’s book, When a Tree Shook Delhi, released in 2007, took 23 years to write – a testament to how difficult it was, and still is, to piece together 1984.
2. Navkiran Kaur Khalra, Daughter of Internationally Acclaimed Human Rights Activist Jaswant Singh Khalra: “How to Honor My Father’s Legacy”
Navkiran Kaur Khalra’s father spent his life fighting for the Indian government to acknowledge the atrocities of 1984 and after. For the decade-plus following ’84, Punjab was essentially a police state. Blockades dotted every major highway, and bodies turned up at crematoriums, stripped of any form of identification. According to Indian law, a body cannot be cremated without permission of the deceased’s family, but ledgers at Amritsar crematoriums in 1989 reported that 6,000 bodies were cremated due to lack of identification. 297 had been identified, but the government claimed that they were missing to cover up police involvement. Khalra’s father, who went missing in 1995, was one of an estimated 25,000 who were disappeared in the years following 1984. The CBI (India’s FBI) took 12 years to convict 6 people involved in the disappearance and presumed murder of Jaswant Singh Khalra.
These are familiar stories to the Sikh diaspora, stories that have driven – and are still driving – the faith out of Punjab. The popular memory of violence and repression solidifies global Sikhism’s resolve to form a nation of their own comprised of lands their kingdom once controlled before it fell to the British. These lands stretched as far north as Afghanistan, past Shimla in the east, the Thane River in the west, and on Delhi’s door in the southeast. Today, by contrast, Punjab is a province carved from a region that once included Pakistani Punjab, the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, and the Hindu mythological battlegrounds of Haryana. As it shrinks under pressure in India, its global voice becomes ever louder. The events of 1984, of Punjab the police state, of October 2015, hung heavy on the minds of Sikhs at the festival.