Opinion

From Punjab to Palestine: Why Young Sikhs Like Me Are Becoming pro-Palestinian Activists

We Sikhs recognize the pictures from Gaza and the West Bank. We know what years of state-sponsored harassment and violence looks like

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Living in Canada for the past eight years has made me extremely sensitive to news involving loss of life. It does not need to be a massacre, a triple-murder, or even a human death. I almost always feel the instinctive sorrow a death brings; it seems Canadian sensitivity and values lie behind that conditioning.

So on May 14, when 59 Palestinian protestors were killed by Israeli security forces in Gaza, I could not feel any different. The anguish, pain, remorse and disgust were palpable in my demeanor. 

But after pacifying myself, when I peeked around, there was a stoic silence. At least nobody in Canada was celebrating or justifying the massacre, unlike many right-wingers across the globe, but there wasn't a strong rebuke either. 

Relatives mourn Palestinian Moein Al-Saai who died of wounds he sustained protesting at the Israeli-Gaza border, during his funeral in Gaza city on May 19, 2018
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

There was a minimal sea change when, a couple of days later, it was established that one of the dead was a Canadian doctor - but the Canadian outrage was nowhere near what it should have been, and, shamefully, nothing like it was for other recent news ‘events’ - a dead cougar or cows being treated badly

I was left wondering as to why was I being affected disproportionately. Maybe the answer lay in my Sikh roots.

The religion of Sikhism is north of 500 years old and out of its total 25 million followers, more than 20 million Sikhs reside in India and almost 77% of them live in the state of Punjab. They form a meager 1.7% of India's total population and in the 70 years since independence, have been persecuted on multiple occasions because of their religion. 

In spite of their relatively trifling numbers, Sikhs played a major part in the Indian freedom struggle against the British. Come independence, Muslims decided to part ways and formed a separate republic, Pakistan, but Sikh leaders stuck with Nehru's idea of a secular India and were, in return, promised adequate representation in the legislature. 

Read more: India's 'Internet Hindus' Are in Love With Israel | Can India Really Play 'Best Friends' to Israel, Palestine and Iran at the Same Time? | Opinion | India's Modi Hails Arafat as 'One of World's Greatest Leaders' | Does Saudi-funded Muslim Radicalization Threaten India? | Opinion | Hitler’s Hindus: The Rise and Rise of India’s Nazi-loving Nationalists | Opinion

As time passed by, the biggest political party, the ruling Indian National Congress, started to lose its grip on the state of Punjab, the sole Indian state where  Sikhs made up the majority. To counter the Sikh political forces of those times, Congress co-opted a Sikh radical named Jarnail Singh Bhinderanwale, who became so famous and powerful that he soon felt impregnable and turned against Congress, his maker. 
 
Doesn't this narrative of inadvertently creating a Frankenstein's monster sound familiar? 

In 1984, Bhinderanwale's demand for an independent Sikh state did not go well with the Indian government and he was hunted down while hiding in the most revered of Sikh shrines, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Visitors sit in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. May 18, 2009
BLOOMBERG NEWS

Beside targeting him and his associates, the Indian army used sniper fire, mortars, machine guns and tank fire to attack thousands of innocent pilgrims - men, women, children and old included - who were visiting the shrine for a Sikh festival. It wasn't just an attack on a building, or on those thousands of innocents. It was a murderous onslaught on the psyche of millions of devout Sikhs.

Indian armed forces would never have carried out or would ever carry out a similar attack on a Hindu shrine, but what followed the Golden Temple incident is even more horrific. 

Damage to Akal Takht, part of the Sikh Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, after Operation Blue Star, its storming by Indian security forces in 1984
Wikimedia

The Sikh bodyguards of then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi assassinated her at point blank range and, in retaliation, a pan-India genocide of Sikhs was unleashed. Thousands of Sikh men were burnt alive, women were raped and killed, children and old were murdered. The political leaders who fuelled these riots have never been convicted; they still roam free, and of course the world is silent. 

Doesn't this narrative sound familiar?

The state of Punjab was overtaken by militancy and the military after 1984 and, for the next decade, mayhem was the order of the day. The state police and the Indian armed forces had a free hand in the state; that lead to unprecedented atrocities and extra-judicial killings. The number of Sikh men who went missing in those 10-12 years is enormous. 

A Sikh man being lynched to death by a crowd during the anti-Sikh riots following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, 1984
Wikimedia

Doesn't this narrative sound familiar?

Those who were lucky to escape the death circus sought political asylum in countries like the UK, Canada, Germany and the U.S. Today, the Sikh diaspora in these countries is resourceful, well-connected and politically affluent. 

Even so, when they raise their voice today, against the 1984 genocide and those black days in the Punjab, the reaction from the Indian government is similar to the lack of response by the U.S. to the cries of the Palestinians.

The Indian government not only explicitly ignores our pleas for justice, it has been actively trying to subvert the rise of Sikhs in political circles abroad. One prime example is the sustained attempt by right-wing Hindu groups to  sabotage the rise of the Canadian National Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh. 

Sikhs know what it feels to be effectively shooed out of your homeland and be forced to live in exile; what it's like to be shot at "just for fun," as target practice; what it's like to be harassed daily by state security forces; what it's like to have a seven year-old arrested on charges of "terrorism"; and what it's like when the world simply ignores your plight.

Maybe, just maybe, that is why I am speaking up here, and now, and why other Sikhs are speaking up now

I could feel the misery, whereas others didn't or wouldn't; but before being a Sikh, a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian, we are all, equally, bones and flesh, a heart and a brain. Or at least, I hope we are. 

Jaspreet Oberoi is an opinion blogger and columnist with Newslaundry.com and writes on socio-political issues involving India, Canada and the world at large. He was born and brought up in Punjab, India and is currently based in Canada. Twitter: @ijasoberoi