Shamsher Singh: Can Diljit Dosanjh Portray Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra?
"Indian 'showbiz' does not have the space, capacity, or interest to accurately depict the fight that Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh took on..."
March 7, 2022 | 10 min. read | Opinion
“The call of Sant Jarnail Singh Ji Bhindranwale for Khalistan was cultivated within them through their pursuit of learning Gurbani. For this reason their activities for Khalistan had the seal of Gurbani, they would ask every Sikh to attach themselves to Gurbani to become a Khalistani.”
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji, ‘Liberation Khalistan’, Year 1, Issue 1, Jan 1992
Film as the dominant medium for cultural production upholds nationalist narratives and imaginations. In this regard, Indian cinema upholds the ideological moorings of Hindutva with coherence and complexity, and these logics are also present in Punjabi cinema.
The announcement of a new film on Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji Khalra should be a cause for concern as its narrative will compete with the memory and politics of their Shaheedi and erase their commitment to the Khalistan movement and its fundamental relevance.
Some will no doubt argue that such a “prominent” telling of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s story, despite any “limitations”, will create some level of “awareness” that may spark people to look further into his history. What is this awareness actually of, and what is the history of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh that will be seen?
On March 2nd, PTC Punjabi news reported on rumours that Diljit Dosanjh will star in this new film that is being filmed in Amritsar Sahib. According to PTC Punjabi, the plot is described to “revolve around an activist who battles for the victims of the  riots and uncovers a shocking truth.” However, Indian “showbiz” does not have the space, capacity, or interest to accurately depict the fight that Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh took on; that fight was against the structure of India and named Khalistan.
The initial details about the film confirm the underlying problematic nature of this project and its framing. The PTC news report refers to the state sponsored genocide following the invasion of Sri Darbar Sahib as the “1984 anti-Sikh riots,” which erases the reality of the conflict Sikhs have been enaged in. In describing state sponsored genocide as “anti-Sikh riots,” the structres of the Indian state: its media, film industry at large, judiciary, and security forces reframe our struggle, Sikh suffering and Sikh mobilization in a way that undercuts how the violence was perpetuated by India itself.
“More than 50,000 freedom fighters have made the ultimate sacrifice for Khalistan. About 50,000 Khalistani heeray (diamonds) have been languishing in jails for years. Many are waiting to kiss the rope at the gallows. Bhai Satwant Singh and Bhai Kehar Singh have surpassed even Sarabha and Bhagat Singh. More than 500,000 Indian Army and countless more paramilitary forces are hunting Sikh naujawan day and night. We are bearing the brunt of more draconian laws than anywhere else in the world”
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji, Liberation Khalistan Feb 1992
PTC, a news channel that is owned by the Badal family, go on to describe Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh as “ Jaswant Singh Khalra an Indian Human Rights activist who was kidnapped and murdered”. This statement and declaration is problematic for many reasons, namely how Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh is named as an “Indian” human rights activist and the use of passive language that erases who kidnapped and murdered him — India.
It must be noted that PTC has previously claimed world wide “intellectual property rights” over the daily broadcast of Hukamnama from Sri Darbar Sahib. These dynamics of erasing and claiming ownership over Sikh subjectivity is endemic to the dynamics of Sikh existence and “representation” within the confines of the Indian state.
To refer to Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh as an “Indian”, to speak about his death without explicit reference to the violence of the Indian state, and to erase the Panth’s bestowed title of Shaheed is an injustice to his life and legacy. These dynamics will undoubtedly be recreated in any mainstream film about Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh, the story will become one of loyalty to human rights, reforming the state, and any violence will be about individual ‘corrupt’ officers, the role of the state erased. Till this day KPS Gill, the most senior police officer in Punjab who demanded Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s killing is celebrated as a “super cop”.
To honour Bhai Jaswant Singh’s legacy is to honour their Shaheedi, which means that the structures that kidnapped, tortured and murdered him must be named. All aspects of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s life and praxis must be honoured, including his open demand and mobilisation for Khalistan.
“Our greatest weakness lies in the fact that we are trying to domesticate the centre of Truth that is Sikhi within the dominant politics of falsehoods. Come let us attach ourselves to politics bound by Dharam. Abandoning the politics of subjugation and domination, come let us attach ourselves to Truth, and commit to the fight for true freedom - Khalistan.”
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, Des Pardesh, 29 Sep 1992
The position of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh towards the struggle for Khalistan can be seen woven into his most famous speech. He talks about Shaheedi as the greatest gift that the Guru bestows upon a Sikh and names the structures of the Indian state as being mobilised against our existence.
When talking about the discovery of 6,017 records of corpses of primarily young Sikhs found the municipal logs of the Amritsar district, the only names he mentions are ‘Mata Gurmej Kaur, mother of Shaheed Baba Gurbachan Singh Manochahal, Bibi Mohinder Kaur, mother of Bhai Parmjit Singh Panjwar, and Baba Piyara Singh, chacha of Shaheed Bhai Harminder Singh Sultanwind’. The act of lovingly naming the murdered elders of prominent Khalistan generals, attributing those Sikhs the title of Shaheed, and crystalising them as the spirit of ‘ankhila Punjab’ are all statements aligned with Sikh political mobiliations for liberation.
“Oh people of the world, you have labelled [Sikhs] as ‘communalist’ and terrorist, and those you called the prophets of democracy, learn their reality, and now tell us who is the terrorist and who is the righteous.”
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji speech in April 1992
If the woven layers of this position and alignment to Khalistan are still too vague for our people to weave out, it should be noted that Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji founded and edited a monthly magazine called ‘Liberation Khalistan’ to advocate for the body he set up in the UK; the Khalistan Liberation Organisation.
The predominant narrative around Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh that exists within mainstream Sikh memorialisation is that of an apolitical human rights activist. This narrative falls apart when one asks why human rights were being violated and by whom? The Sikh struggle isn’t about justice for human rights violations but to destroy the structures that perpetuate such violence and liberate Punjab. This provocative statement is explored in an article by Baljit Singh of NSYF where he states; “[Bhai Jaswant Singh’s] indictment of the Indian system and its inability to dispense justice was unambiguous; he referred to the security forces as butchers, the Director General of Police KPS Gill as the Chief of Oppression, the Indian courts as oppressors”.
We cannot escape the reality that India abducted, tortured and assassinated Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji in 1995. These conditions should not be understood in the past tense, but ongoing, as Jagtar Singh ‘Jaggi’ and other political prisoners are confined in prison, Deep Sidhu’s death evoked naare of "ਇਹ ਸਾਡੀ ਮਜਬੂਰੀ ਏ, ਖਾਲਿਸਤਾਨ ਜ਼ਰੂਰੀ ਏ" and a yet another video of a young Sikh man being brutalised as a mob stood by goes viral. The newly rumoured movie will undoubtedly water down and distract from the ongoing realities and struggle. The ignited momentum amongst Sikhs in Punjab and the diaspora raises questions about the film’s intentions and inherent limitations in providing substance yet taking up space as it distorts and manufactures narratives.
The Indian movie industry, from Bollywood to Punjabi films, have largely perpetuated stereotypes about the Punjabi Sikh identity, from ‘sardar jokes’ to casting Sikhs as loyal Indian patriots, diluting our mass consciousness about our true identity, praxis and struggle. As such, the Indian film industry partakes in the project of nation building, which is inherently incapable of challenging India itself - when Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Ji stood in opposition to Indian and was ultimately killed for his support of the demonised Khalistani. Will this film name the actual struggle against an India that continues to subjugate Sikhs, no chance.
To honour Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh, the conditions that produced his shaheedi must be central. These conditions are nowhere more visible than in the histories surrounding the police abduction, torture, rape and murder of Shaheed Bibi Amandeep Kaur Ji. Bibi Ji was not a prominent movement figure or an activist, but her story is no less significant. From her story we learn what Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh saw, felt, and wanted us to see and feel.
When we think about what is made visible, the following questions arise: What is lost as Bhai Jaswant Singh is labelled as an “Indian” human rights activist? How does this co-opt their legacy, the ongoing movement for Khalistan and invisibilize the structures that imprison Sikhs for merely liking social media posts or handing out literature about Khalistan?
Are we this desperate to be seen on a television screen when we have our own ways of collectively honouring and mobilising around Bhai Jaswant Singh’s words and actions? Is our generational struggle for Sikh liberation and Khalistan a mere spectacle and source of gross entertainment for mass Indian audiences to indulge in on a Saturday evening at the movies, only to forget about the movie or suddenly become experts on Bhai Jaswant Singh’s life and politics after watching one obscure film created by the Indian industry and fronted by a Sikh face?
Diljit Dosanjh is an actor, a mere puppeteer in the film industry, who is asked to memorise, act and repeat a series of lines. In many ways, he embodies a caricature of what it means to be a Sikh. Social and political uproar could pressure Diljit to refuse the role, only for someone else to be selected. The issue goes beyond representation as to who plays the role. The focus should extend beyond Diljit and the Indian film industry to focus on the realities and politics of the actual ongoing struggle.
The only actor who recently questioned what it means to embody the Sikh stuggle and focus on its poltics is Deep Sidhu, and consequently, his death is viewed as another state orcastrated poltical murder of a young Sikh who vocalised and raised Sikh consciousness for Khalistan.
Due to the nature of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s life and death, and the reality of India, the Indian film industry is only capable of recreating, mutilating, and co-opting a story about Khalistan and the Sikh struggle against India, in an attempt to infiltrate and divert ongoing discourse and rising Sikh consciousness.
All of this raises questions about the intentions of this film, the diluted messages that this film will spread to the masses, and the co-option of the Sikh struggle for Khalistan. Although the film’s optics may appeal to some, we have a separate set of coordinates to truly honour our shaheeds, which is the seemingly harder work. This work means deeply engaging with their actual politics, consistently organising and showing up in your locales, and nurturing the dreams for ‘Liberation Khalistan’.
The conditions of the Indian state are such that no film on Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh could ever capture the politics and struggle of such a Shaheed. Other films that attempted to speak about Punjab and Sikh liberation, either vaguely based on the movement or on key figures from the movement, erased central aspects of the struggle, particularly by invisibilizing Khalistan.
The first example of such a film was ‘Sada Hak’ which was based loosely on the current Akal Takaht Jathedar, Bhai Jagtar Singh Hawara. It erased Khalistan in narrative and visually with slogans of “jindabad” where “Khalistan Jindabad” would be expected. A more recent example is ‘Toofan’ which is based on Shaheed Bhai Jugraj Singh ‘Toofan’ but doesn’t mention the politics of the struggle or his role in the Khalistan Liberation Force. These films were made by Sikhs, but in order to receive approval for distribution, they had to “pass” Indian censor board approval, which as a state political entity, does not allow counter state narratives.
It must be understood that there can be no creative or intellectual freedom, which is essential to public discourse and our liberation, within the confines of the Indian state. India routinely engages in censorship, has imprisoned artists, journalists, climate rights activists, human rights defenders, and sought to viscously annihilate all militant resistance to its power. Even Indian liberals consistently demonise Khalistan and uphold its erasure.
The excitement and buzz about the film raises questions about what Sikhs long for, desire, and expect from a film on Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s life. Unfortunately, due to the state of our existence as domesticated citizens, no mainstream film can truly encapsulate and fulfil our desire to see the intimate, world shaping moments that came to shape Shaheed Jaswant Singh’s life and struggle.
Our shaheeds left us with so much, not only in their embodiment but materially with speeches, words, and direct action and fight for Khalistan. In many ways, we will never know some details about Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh’s life, including those private, intimate moments when he sat at his desk and translated dreams for the Panth from his consciousness onto paper with a pen or what he endured in the last moments of his life.
We have Bhai Jaswant Singh’s actual words and speeches collated in a vital new book, and their example of direct action to draw inspiration from and guide us. His work has inspired other work including the organisation Ensaaf, the Khalra Mission Organisation, a new animation project that seeks to honour Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh, and we ourselves can write and educate our Sangat freely, as the many examples shared in this article show.
When thinking about our Shaheeds and their vision, we have so much that we can draw from, the entirety of 1984 Tribute, Shaheed Khalsa, NSYF, and the Khalistan Centre. We cannot expect to see glimpses of liberation and Khalistan from mainstream films that attempt to neutralise Sikh imaginaries and limit our (sub)conscious Sikh discourse.
Those glimpses are not produced by the Indian film industry or the state, but in the words of our Shaheeds and Gurus. We should look to them as we honour Shaheed Jaswant Singh’s life, organise around ongoing fractures and crises in Punjab and displaced Sikhs around the world (recently in Afghanistan and Ukraine), and mobilise toward Khalistan.
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. Shamsher is currently undertaking an MA at Birkbeck in Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity. 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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