This week marks one year since the “I Pledge Orange” movement took hold of the minds and hearts of Sikhs around the world inspired by one Balwant Singh Rajoana, a man on India’s death row who was scheduled to be executed on March 31, 2012, in Punjab, India. Balwant Singh was charged for participating in the 1995 assassination of Punjab’s then-Chief Minister, the tyrannical Beant Singh. After the protests in Punjab and around the world, Balwant Singh’s execution was stayed. One year later, he remains in prison as the Indian judiciary determines what to do with him.
Earlier this week, the blog Naujawani.com (based in the United Kingdom) released a short fictional film entitled “Who killed Bobby Rai?” Inspired by true events, the film is a portrayal of a media investigation about the mysterious death of one Bobby Rai, the in absentia protagonist, and the suggestion of its cover-up. The film describes Bobby Rai’s uncharacteristic turn to activism during the lead up to the I Pledge Orange movement in the UK, his ascent as a leading voice of the movement, and then his mysterious murder shortly thereafter.
According to producer Harwinder Singh Mander, the film was created to generate discussion about the I Pledge Orange movement, and while it was set in the UK, it symbolizes the history of disappearances in Punjab.
“There are numerous suggestive moments that when identified make for healthy discussion; there are hints of sub-plots that when recognised should provoke a number of questions for further research; and of course there is the underlying theme of the overall work which is to draw a parallel to unsolved murders within the Sikh community in the Punjab.”
Certainly, for a viewer who is more versed in the recent history of Punjab, it is easier to pick up on the “suggestive moments” of the film that harken back to the history of Punjab through the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the film acts as a reminder of that history, and of the I Pledge Orange Movement.
One aspect I felt could have been addressed by the film was the provision of further context: the history of disappearances and extrajudicial executions in Punjab (which is implicitly addressed) and last year’s movement in protest of the Rajoana execution. For the unaware viewer, these details are not explored fully by the film and as such, an opportunity for education is missed.
However, the film does provide a tool for initiating conversation, and as such, it can be an effective starting point for education and discussion, particularly in the group setting. For a smaller production, I thought the film is otherwise well done.
As I watched the film, I found an additional element of symbolism in that the story of Bobby Rai was a parallel of the I Pledge Orange movement itself. Much like the story of Bobby Rai, the I Pledge Orange movement arose almost out of nowhere. Sikhs around the world revisited, re-educated, and educated themselves about the issues in Punjab. The protests and discussions were dominant across the global Sikh community for weeks. After reaching its peak at the end of March, 2012, and Rajoana’s execution was stayed, the very active showing of global solidarity then came to a mysteriously abrupt decline, and in effect, disappeared. Today, one year later, there is barely a mention of the movement.
Last year, despite the popular effort to secure clemency for Balwant Singh Rajoana, this was not his goal when he called on the global Sikh community to rise in protest. He instead sought a renewed spirit and awareness among Sikhs around the world about the state-sponsored injustices perpetrated against innocent Sikhs in Punjab during the 1980s and 1990s. As Sikhs around the world rallied in the form of “pledging orange” (a color associated with the Sikh standard), the intent behind the movement shifted — and some may say, was appropriated — from raising awareness about the denial of justice to saving Balwant Singh from execution. For several habitual media critics of the Sikh community (particularly in Canada), the protests arising from Balwant Singh’s impending execution provided fodder for their superficial prejudices about the Sikh people.
On the pressure from local and international protest about the execution, Balwant Singh’s execution was stayed. However, during last year’s protests in Punjab about the planned execution, one Sikh youth named Jaspal Singh was shot and killed by police.
Shortly after the staying of Balwant Singh’s execution, the “I Pledge Orange” movement moved into a phase of lapse, and today, it is mostly referred to in retrospect. On this point, Harwinder Singh Mander also reflected on the decline of the movement.
“…we are no longer pledging orange, or if we are it is purely in name. So what changed for us? Was the movement merely a fad, a ‘Get Kony’ for this community of brown people?”
It is interesting that such movements exhibit parallel arcs and perhaps there are some learnings to be had about social media campaigns. However, Harwinder Singh also highlights a significant factor about the fading of this movement: many of us missed the point.
“…most Sikhs who took time out of their lives to show their support in both the real World and the online one, sadly did not take any time to discover for themselves what lay at the heart of this issue. And they are still none the wiser.”
Much that lay at the heart of the Rajoana-inspired movement, and indeed, the uprising in Punjab in the 1980s, had in its origin unresolved issues from the decade (and more) prior, and those issues still remain unresolved today. Instead, the issues facing the people of Punjab have been compounded by new plagues — suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, population health crises, and rampant official corruption.
It is difficult to say whether the I Pledge Orange movement has brought increased awareness to Punjab’s issues. It appears that the movement did generate discussion among new generations of Sikhs across the world, but one year later it remains to be seen whether the movement has inspired any new action to address the unaddressed crises and injustices experienced by the Sikhs in their homeland.
Read the full retrospective piece by Harwinder Singh Mander on the blog Naujawani.com. For more historical context about the issues in Punjab that led to the movement, see the summations — Part I and Part II — released by the Sikh Coalition.