Shamsher Singh: Moving Beyond The #10DaysofTerror Awareness Campaign We Launched A Decade Ago

Today in a post instagram world such graphics are very common, but when #10DaysofTerror was created it was new and innovative

Shamsher Singh
June 10, 2021 | 10 min. read | Opinion

Growing up in Southall in the mid-80s to late 90s the environment in our home, Sangat, and Southall Gurdwara on havelock road was incredible. Shaheedi Darbar were held regularly, anchoring the Sangat in Gursikhi and expressing with power and clarity, that which many of us struggle to express today; the words, actions, and character of our Shaheeds. These Shaheeds took their rightful place amongst their siblings, and this place was illuminated through Kirtan, Dhadi Vaaran, Kavishri, and Vichaar.

“When the Guru gave the gurugaddi to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Guru kept one special gift, which any Sikh could take. After their Guru, Sikhs paid so much respect to that special gift. This special gift, that resides with the Guru, is the gift of Shaheedi.”

Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra 

At that time the Sikh liberation struggle, emanating from the Patshahi of Nanak-Guru-Gobind Singh, manifesting through Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji’s two swords of Miri-Piri, was in full force, an armed liberation struggle was being waged in Punjab for Khalsa Raj, Khalistan. 

This Sikh liberation struggle was a direct outcome of decades of Sikhi Parchaar that Punjab’s Sikhs had carried out through various Sikh structures, creating mass social movements to confront the violent sovereignty of the indian state. Sant Jarnail Singh Ji’s words echoed through the gunfire of a generation, that, “when the indian army enters the four walls of Darbar Sahib the foundation of Khalistan would be laid.” The lessons of the Shaheeds of June 1984 set the Panth on an irrevocable trajectory to reassert their Guru gifted Patshahi. Today the call for Khalistan is so powerful it literally marks the boundary of permissible Sikh discourse.

“This collective once again asserts that for Sikhs who venerate ੴ — dharam, sovereignty, and our gurdwaras are inseparable. We will always continue to mobilize all three for the rejuvenation of the Panth and will never accept any restrictions on our Guru-given right to be armed...” 

Guru-Panth’s Resolutions at Sarbat Khalsa (1986)  

In Guru’s Darbar, the sovereign Sikh space that the Guru Granth-Panth holds for each other and the universe, there was no question for us as a young Sikhs who our heroes are, and what the Khalsa Panth is fighting for. Outside the Darbar of Sache Patshah these same heroes were called terrorists, and the Khalsa Panth’s Jujaroo Jathebandia were proscribed as terrorist organisations. This discursive violence did not destroy Sikh reality, rather it continued the Othering of Sikh being and criminalised any Sikh expression and resistance that dared to challenge this current colonised world order.

This understanding and reflection have taken a long time to develop and express succinctly, and this expression, to push back against the erasure and demonisation of our Shaheeds is why the NSYF was founded. Like Sikhs all over the world the naujawan from Southall that co-founded NSYF were moved deeply by June 1984 and the love we all share for the Shaheeds has given us everything that we value in this world and beyond.

In 2012, following the movement around Bhai Rajoana, the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF) emerged with a goal to provide a narrative that reflected and expressed our lived realities as Sikh naujawan moved by “1984"; and to provide space and resources to share this feeling with the Sangat.

Our first major campaign was ‘#10DaysofTerror’

This campaign had a clear aim, to shatter the idea that “June 1984” was a ‘singular event’, an isolated “eruption”, something that ‘happened’ on June 6th. 

We wanted to provoke a deeper and longer conversation, expand the focus from 6th June to look at when the Battle of Amritsar began on June 1st with the Shaheedi of Bhai Mengha Singh Babbar, to where it ended, June 10th, with the Shaheedi of the last Sikh fighter, Shaheed Bhai Major Singh Nagoke. Through this we wished to locate June 1984 within the larger context of Sikh existence in a post 1947 “decolonised india”.

The campaign included the graphics that are seen widely each June and larger write-ups on each day, as well as a video, an info pack, and a presentation, all available here.

#10DaysofTerror was very different from how June 1984 was portrayed previously. 

There was hardly any discourse in english that made room for the fact that Sikhs were defending an important kendar, centre, of the Guru Granth-Panth, and there were certainly no widely shared images on social media of Shaheeds that we are so used to seeing today. It has to be said that most images we see online and in our Gurdware are largely due to the efforts of naujawan like Jaggi who popularised “Never Forget 1984” with his now banned website.

It used to be that some pictures of the Akaal Takaht were shared on June 6th and the discourse massively centred on the human rights violations committed by indian soldiers after the battle, there was no distinction between the two. This broad description of June 1984 as a massacre or genocide is unfortunately still upheld today, and it is something we have contributed to.

Today in a post instagram world such graphics are very common, but when #10DaysofTerror was created it was new and innovative, it was rare for such graphics to be created and none existed specifically on June 1984.

The campaign has had lasting power, making millions of impressions online, shared consistently over the years. It has been turned into displays that have been presented in Gurdware from so-called australia, across europe, to Turtle Island, and even in indian occupied Kashmir. It has set a trend that is still visible today, many Sikh organizations from Jakara, SikhRI, Basics of Sikhi, have made their own versions, adding to Sikh expression around June, and expanding the conversation, holding our focus on this pivotal movement.

The campaign also shattered the perception that Sikhs should present a ‘palatable’ narrative, people were incredibly receptive to seeing images of Shaheeds and jujaroos (warriors), the driving force behind what we wanted to highlight. Since the launch of the campaign we have centred our expression even more clearly on the Shaheeds. This year in particular Sikh grassroots expression has centred prominently on Sikh jujaroos.

As successful as the campaign has been the NSYF has departed from it, recognising its limitations. For many years we have felt the narrative was flawed as it failed to express the distinction between the battle and the human rights violation carried out by indian forces after the 7th of June when they finally managed to hold ground inside the Parikarma of Darbar Sahib. Over the years we have learned that this distinction is essential to how the conversation is framed and understood. This aspect of the campaign has proven to be limiting and problematic. 

This distinction between the battle and human rights violations is also a fissure in time and space, a void. Nowhere is this void more clearly evident than in separation between Sikh grassroots expression and the wider public discourse that is imposed by those in proximity to the state/whiteness; Sikh politicians, Sikh organisations engaged in “representation”, and most Sikh influencers. 

Grassroots Sikh expression centres powerfully on Sant Ji and the Shaheeds, panthic naujawan jathebandia celebrate the battle more vocally each year. Those in proximity to the state centre the discussion exclusively on “human rights”, and their conversation is outdated, paralysed, their messaging ambiguous, open to interpretation, taking advantage of Sikh emotion, knowing Sikhs will read terms like “violation of sanctity” as an expression of solidarity. But they do not comment on who “violated the sanctity”, or define what that “violation” is to them, and they certainly do not comment on the Sikhs defending against what they saw as the actual “violation”, the indian states' attempts to consume the Khalsa Panth.

I used to think this discursive violence was due to a lack of sympathy, knowledge, or political education, but now I am more convinced, Sikh politicians in particular, recognise the limits of what is imposed as permissible discourse for Sikhs by the state, and consciously choose to remain within those limitations, reenacting the violence of the “operation” on Sikh being. The creation and maintenance of this void, between sovereign Sikh expression and that of the domesticated Sikh citizen, was the “operation” that “blue star” and subsequent “operations” were designed to carry out. 

The infamous line popularised, perhaps even coined, by Mark Tully, “terrorists occupying the temple” that needed to be “flushed out” to “restore the sanctity of the temple”, a pervasive remnant of indian state propaganda, that still finds purchase in english media, also performs the violence of the “operation”. The distortion of the terms “separatist/anti-national” established to justify the genocidal collective punishment of Punjab’s Sikhs are still used as a thinly veiled justification for arrests and extradition of Sikh activists today.

It is important to stress that confining Sikh discourse to “justice for human rights violations” and using the blanket term of Sikh genocide to describe June, November, in fact, the entire decade from 1984-1995 is not only an oversimplification, it erases Sikh agency, Sikh resistance, and our Patshahi.

Sikhs were not a passive entity that were subjected to genocide, genocide was a counter-insurgency policy to deal with the Sikh liberation struggle. That is why genocide took place, and this ‘why’, is erased from the narrative of “justice for human rights violations”.

This fixation erases not only the legendary Sikh resistance during the battle and beyond, but also the larger socio-political and economic context that informs Sikh responses. More than this it is a disservice to the Shaheeds, because they were not fighting for an undefined notion of “justice” from the oppressor, rather they exposed the limitations of the so-called democratic state structure with their Shaheedi, their great lesson to us.

In fact so great was their resistance that they also gave the Quam justice for June, from the indian prime minister, general vadiya, other senior military officers, the chief minister of Punjab, and a multitude of police officials, all faced the wrath of the sovereign Khalsa.

To us, the greatest success of the campaign was the day it was launched, Friday 1st June 2012 at 7:30 pm in the Gurdwara where local Sangat organised a collective Shaheedi Darbar. We presented on the context, read the names of all the shaheeds of June, did kirtan together, and meditated on Waheguru. That space, the space that we are all children of, is everything, and within it the Shaheeds call out to us ‘listen to the war cries of the Khalsa that echo throughout the ages, we will never live a subservient existence.’

“The Khalsa is never a satellite to another power. They are either fully sovereign or in a state of war and rebellion. A subservient coexistence they never accept. To be fully sovereign and autonomous is their first and last demand.” 

Sri Gur Panth Parkash 

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Shamsher Singh writes from Southall, UK, and is the co-founder of the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF). He is an influential Sikh activist and his work centres on Sikh being and Khalistan. As a naujawan Panthic jathebandie NSYFs work has featured in national and international media, documentary films, books, and academic papers. Shamsher Singh works to build solidarity with racialised communities, and to create space for Sikh expression centring on Sikh sovereignty, and Sikh resistance, pushing back against the erasure of Khalistan and it’s martyrs. He currently works as program director for the newly established Khalistan Centre, which is dedicated to supporting and cultivating Gurmat-driven leadership to further the struggle for Khalistan. You can find him on Twitter at @anandpur_exile


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