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What Really Happened At The Glasgow Gurdwara Protest
"At their planning meetings, the Gurdwara committee had been made to take an oath of secrecy, but despite this, rumours began to emerge in the Sangat that an Indian diplomat was going to be visiting"
October 3, 2023 | 7 min. read | Opinion
The Glasgow Gurdwara found itself at the epicentre of an international news story this past weekend, where a spirited protest took place featuring an Indian Ambassador, a Conservative parliamentarian, three Sikh protesters, and a Gurdwara committee.
Protest is nothing new to Pollokshields, a leafy suburban neighbourhood home to two Sikh Gurdwaras. Readers of Baaz may recall the Kenmure Street protest in 2021, where members of this community protested against the arrest of two Sikh men held by immigration officers. Following an eight-hour standoff with protesters, the UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, caved in and authorised the release of both men back into the sanctuary of the community.
On Friday, September 29, 2023, at the Guru Granth Sahib Gurdwara in Scotland, a gathering was booked to welcome India’s High Commissioner, Vivek Doraiswami, on a pre-arranged visit to supposedly pay respects and discuss matters of consular assistance and Indian visa services with the Gurdwara committee. The visit was part of an official Scotland tour, where he had been meeting Scottish politicians, prominent business people and Indian diaspora students.
The main interlocutor of his trip was the Scottish-Sikh politician Pam (Permjit Kaur) Gosal - a Conservative – from the same party as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Unknown to the wider Sangat, the Gurdwara committee had been planning this visit for some weeks, in conjunction with Gosal, and had permitted the Ambassador to attend the Gurdwara.
At their planning meetings, the Gurdwara committee had been made to take an oath of secrecy, but despite this, rumours began to emerge in the Sangat that an Indian diplomat was going to be visiting the Gurdwara.
Once verbal confirmation from multiple committee members was received, Sangat began pleading with the management to revoke the trip, considering the grave allegations emanating from Canada in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar and a ban on Indian diplomats visiting Gurdwaras in an official capacity.
These protestations fell on deaf ears, and correspondences went unanswered; no response was given to the Sangat from the committee or its spokeswoman, General Secretary Prabhjot Kaur Virhia.
Having failed to keep this visit concealed and ignoring the views of their own Sangat members, a select group from the Gurdwara committee, some of whom had taken leave from work to attend, formed a welcoming party for the Ambassador.
Chiefly present, among others, were Vice-President Surinder Singh and the General Secretary, Prabhjot Kaur Virhia. Acquaintances of Pam Gosal MSP and her own mother had prepared a custom lunch of tea and samosas for the Ambassador with a banquet table erected in the Gurdwara to seat the diplomat. Ironically, this table, where the Indian government official was to be seated, was placed immediately beside a large picture of the post-1984 desecrated and demolished Akal Takht.
Caught up in these formalities, the committee belatedly became aware of the presence of three local Sikhs who had caught wind of this errant event. Shamsher Singh, a prominent human rights advocate and activist from the National Sikh Youth Federation (NSYF), was present at the Gurdwara, accompanied by two others who were documenting the event.
At around noon, riding in a black Mercedes limousine, Vivek Doraiswami pulled up to the large front porch of the Gurdwara. Having spotted the car, the gathered committee and Sangat protesters made their way outside.
In video footage captured on scene, three individuals are pictured near the embassy car.
One, a woman, was the Scottish Conservative MSP Pam Gosal; the second, a man in an orange rumaal was an official with the MSP entourage; and following behind was the well-known Sikh activist Shamsher Singh.
As Shamsher Singh walked forward, the Ambassador quickly ducked back into his car, and his car door was flanked by the parliamentarian's official. In a brief verbal exchange, the protester remarked, “I think it’s best if you go,” and in a matter of seconds, the car reversed and left, unobstructed, from the Gurdwara grounds
Panning round to the Gurdwara, the committee appeared to stare aimlessly as the Ambassador took flight from the Gurdwara, abandoning their set-piece event. Having seen off the diplomatic envoy, the NSYF activists challenged the Gurdwara committee In a succinct speech, linking their action to the contemporary and historical anti-Sikh violence perpetrated by the Indian Government.
Back inside, faced with an abrupt end to their reception, some committee members entered into a heated verbal debate with the protesters. Audio recordings captured senior committee members shouting that protesters had “betrayed the Gurdwara” and attempting to justify the event in the name of “dialogue.”
At some point, local police were called; however, to date, no arrests have been made.
Fake News and the War of the Airwaves
In many ways, this story of a peaceful protest at a Gurdwara against an Ambassador of a foreign government accused of heinous crimes could have ended here. But this was not to be, for we know that the Anti-Sikh machinery of the Indian Government is not only physical but psychological. And so it was that the war of the airwaves began.
In a matter of hours, video footage of the protest was released on social media. With extreme rapidity, major news networks across India began to report on the events at the Glasgow Gurdwara and unleashed an onslaught of sensationalised and hyperbolic news clips.
An increasingly familiar and repetitive narrative dominated the headlines. The usual tropes “Khalistani,” “terrorist,” and “K-mob” were deployed without factual corroboration with breathless news anchors reading headlines such as “Khalistani attack on Indian diplomat.”
Rolling news coverage and high octane graphics were displayed to exaggerate what was a rather sedate protest into some type of national security threat to the increasingly fragile state of India.
The modern-day courtiers of the Indian State weighed in, condemning the diaspora Sikhs. Manjinder Singh Sirsa, now a head honcho with the BJP, railed against the local Sangat. On the contrary, the SGPC general secretary did not delegitimise the protesters and even raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scottish Sikh held in arbitrary detention in an Indian jail for almost six years.
These client journalists tripped over themselves and committed major blunders in their “news” coverage, exposing the deficiencies in India’s media landscape. Firstly, it was widely reported that the Gurdwara had given an invitation to the embassy, but this was repudiated by the committee themselves, who insisted that the Ambassador was on a “personal visit.” Recycling the video footage captured by the NSYF protesters, prominent networks such as CNN-News 18 completely misinterpreted the footage to the extent that they accused Pam Gosal, MSP and the embassy employee, of being involved in the protest.
A key line in the Indian media reports and the Gurdwara’s very own press release is that these protesters were not from Scotland. The three Sikhs are very well known in Glasgow, and it was definitely not their first time at this Gurdwara; Shamsher Singh himself has been an officially invited guest speaker at a Sikh Youth Camp, and he had also led multiple seminars in this city over the preceding 13 years.
Despite the cacophony of noise, the Gurdwara committee continued to stone-wall the membership, leaving a vacuum ripe for speculation and mistruths to spread. They belatedly released a statement heavily condemning the actions of the Sangat protesters. Members of the local Sangat watched in despair as the General Secretary repeated mistruths in a press statement to the dodgy ANI Indian news network whilst failing to respond to correspondence from her own Sangat members and disengaging from a local BBC reporter.
What the Indian media and wider populace fail to grasp is that in Britain, especially Scotland, there is no VIP or “laal-batti” culture. Our national politicians ride on the same trains as commuters, and celebrities are often seen in local restaurants buying their own take-out meals. In such a nation, it is routine for citizens to express protest or journalists to doorstep public figures and pester them for a response.
On the other hand, the Indian elite, well-ensconced in the trappings of power, shriek when confronted with citizens and journalists using their constitutionally protected freedom of expression. It is incredulous when Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar accuses Sikhs of a “climate of violence” and an “atmosphere of intimidation” as claims grow of Indian death squads killing Sikhs in Western countries.
Sikhs and Our Leadership
On Sunday, the Gurdwara Sangat challenged the management committee and accused them of concealing this visit and allying themselves with a foreign government involved in murdering a Canadian Sikh on Canadian soil. Many in the local community were surprised by the boisterous behaviour of the Vice-President, Surinder Singh, who was seen physically manoeuvring the protester’s video camera. After a series of remarks, expressions of regret were offered by the committee, and a verbal apology was made by the General Secretary to acknowledge the mistakes.
Rogue Gurdwara committees, detached from their Sangat, are nothing new.
From the times of the Guru, our institutions have fallen into the hands of those who owe allegiances to worldly authorities. Whether it be the Masands of the past or the committee members of the present, grassroots Sikhs often clash with those who seek to lead our community in the wrong direction. The Singh Sabha movement was recently celebrated 150 years on for successfully restoring the power of the Sangat into our Gurdwaras.
When we peruse the pages of Sikh history, we are met with the iconic stories of individuals, whether it be the courage of Bachittar Singh or the audacity and freedom of Bota Singh and Garja Singh.
It is a fact that just one single voice of protest can leave an indelible mark in history.
Sharandeep Singh is an Anaesthetist for the National Health Service Scotland and is passionate about improving health outcomes for all communities. He is the Trustee of Scotland’s only Sikh advocacy body, Sikhs in Scotland. He also co-founded the award-winning community-led project, The Sikh Food Bank, which served over 150,000 meals to vulnerable people through the pandemic. You can find him on Twitter at @DrSharandeep and on Instagram at @Sharandeep5ingh.
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