American Turban

Today, within and without, I struggle for peace

Raag Bihaagraa, Chhant, Fourth Mehl, First House: One Universal Creator God. By The Grace Of The True Guru: Meditate on the Name of the Lord, Har, Har, O my soul; as Gurmukh, meditate on the invaluable Name of the Lord. My mind is pierced through by the sublime essence of the Lord’s Name. The Lord is dear to my mind. With the sublime essence of the Lord’s Name, my mind is washed clean. Under Guru’s Instructions, hold your mind steady; O my soul, do not let it wander anywhere. One who utters the Bani of the Praises of the Lord God, O Nanak, obtains the fruits of his heart’s desires. ||1||

The above is an excerpt from today’s Hukamnama (a daily reading from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib – read SikhNet’s “What is a Hukamnama?” for more information).  I am finding that I am becoming overwhelmed by the continually developing and deteriorating news of all events related to the execution of Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana in India, and I am reverting to the words of the Sikh Gurus as in the Guru Granth Sahib to find some center and solace.

Much like most Sikhs in the United States and around the world, my attention in recent days has been devoted to the case of Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana and to our Sikh community in Punjab. I have blogged about this topic here a couple of times, and it is difficult for me to devote my mind to anything else.  Developments in the situation take place hourly, and it is hard not to be overcome with all the angles, twists and turns that are occurring.  In the back of my mind, and in all our minds, we fear a return to the dark days of violence that occurred from the 1980s to 1990s.  It was from within those dark days that Balwant Singh’s story itself was started, and an entire generation of young Sikhs was lost to tyranny and oppression.

Over the last few days, videos and images from Sikhs who are protesting the death sentence to Balwant Singh (who himself has appealed for calm) in India are circulating virally across the web. Police are shooting at protestors, protestors are resisting police beatings, and Hindu extremists, in the name of Shiv Sena, are inciting violence, including openly burning and disrespecting the sacred Sikh turban in the homeland of Sikhism itself.

I was then faced with articles coming from western media – particularly from Canada – who are painting the Sikh protests in Canada as the acts of Sikh radicals, terrorists and extremists.  Johnathan Kay, writing in the Vancouver Province, is rather forgiving of the Indian state in their atrocities against the Sikh people:

It is true that the Indian government and military apparatus, of which Beant Singh was part, made some terrible mistakes in the battle against Sikh extremists in the 1980s – including mass killings that continue to scar the nation’s conscience. The world shouldn’t forget the innocent Sikh victims of government brutality who perished during that period. But such remembrances do not change the fact that terrorism is terrorism.

Kay refers to state-sponsored mass killings (resulting in tens of thousands of deaths) as “terrible mistakes”, and one wonders what his standard is for intentional criminal behavior. One does not have to wonder long, as his bias oozes from his article. Kay is not so forgiving against the peaceful supporters of Balwant Singh’s cause or clemency (and yes, these are two different causes), openly vilifying Sikhs who are protesting the double standards of justice by the Indian state.

Terry Milewski, of CBC News in Canada, writes a superficial analysis of the Sikh protest in Canada’s capital city that only demonstrates how paralyzed his journalism has become due to his prejudice:

In India, the term “human bomb” denotes a suicide bomber — although Rajoana only aspired to blow himself up and never pressed the button. But he proudly acknowledges that he was the backup bomber, ready to step in if the lead bomber failed in the 1995 assassination of his fellow Sikh, Beant Singh, chief minister of the state of Punjab.

There is no dispute that Balwant Singh was involved in an act of murder. There is also no dispute that innocents were killed. We cannot celebrate the fact that innocent people were killed in the name of Sikhism by misguided extremists in Punjab. It is one of the tragedies of our story during the turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s that will always haunt us as a community.

However, how Milewski discusses the assassination of “fellow Sikh” Beant Singh is a complete misrepresentation that cannot be accidental. Beant Singh was a tyrant who engaged a policy of intimidation of the Sikh population via state-sponsored murder, torture and human rights abuses in the name of keeping the peace. Balwant Singh’s act was one of desperation, such that a Sikh who was himself a police officer felt forced to take such an action to stop the murderer of thousands of innocent people. Yet, Milewski, convenient to his apparent bigotry, leaves this context out of his article, and is content to describe Beant Singh simply as “his fellow Sikh”, rather than provide a more accurate picture of the history, issues and circumstances that lead us to we are today. The words “journalistic integrity” are missing in this equation.

But, this is not new to those of us who observe how Canadian media often treats the Sikhs in that country. It is tragic that many Canadian reporters, in the span of decades, have not been able to advance their knowledge of Sikhs one iota beyond the “these ones are moderates, those ones are fundamentalists” framework. Journalism demands the search for truth and is betrayed by the perpetuation of simplistic stereotypes, which in this case are below the cognition required to understand a nursery rhyme.  Worse, the articles I’ve discussed seem hell-bent on branding Sikhs as extremists despite that, today, the only group of people who are intent on committing a murder is the Indian judiciary.

Ironically, Canada is a country reputed for the respect for multiculturalism, human rights, and the dignity of human life (by opposing capital punishment), and yet when Sikhs espouse these virtues, they are again splashed with the “radical”, “extremist” or “terrorist” labels without hesitation. When human rights groups around the world have lamented the state abuses against the Sikh people for decades, the denial of justice for these, and the planned execution of Balwant Singh, it is outrageous that these writers present a distorted view of who the Sikhs are and what they have gone through. These writers would perhaps just be happy to do with a few less Sikhs in this world, one way or the other.  It leaves one to wonder who the true radicals are.

And so, today I’ve struggled with these developments as they affect my peace of mind. Our pursuit of justice that has been denied for decades now includes a media battle with national news outlets whose clear aim is to continue to tarnish our image as a people.

Moreover, I woke up this morning to news that amidst the protests and counter-protests, a young Sikh man, one Jaspal Singh, aged 18, was shot and killed by police in Gurdaspur in Punjab, India.  A young life has now been taken, and the pictures of his lifeless body have left me stunned today with emotion.

I pray that God accepts this young soul, and for solace to his family.  Let us hope there is no more bloodshed.

And, for now, I turn to God and Guru to recompose myself knowing what our people may face in the days ahead.

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