Shamsher Singh: Honouring Deep Sidhu
To truly honour Deep Sidhu, we must reflect on the depth that he was speaking from and how he ignited the words and truths of our Shaheeds.
February 17, 2022 | 10 min. read | Opinion
“Wherever our fight has been fought against tyranny and oppression it has been fought under the Nishaan Sahib”
Deep Sidhu’s sudden death continues to reverberate across the Panth as Sikhs collectively mourn and try to make sense of his passing.
Deep captured Panthic imaginations in powerful ways by evoking the spirit and words of the Shaheeds. During the morcha, he provided a more radical position through his readiness to foster an environment of clash with the Indian state to fight the larger struggle toward azaadi.
Deep Sidhu’s sudden death and deep mourning must be contextualised in the larger political moment and fracture, which was rendered visible in Sikh consciousness during the Kisaan Morcha where Deep was an instrumental voice that gave hope to the underlying possibilities of Sikh liberation and sovereignty.
The latent unspoken possibilities of Punjab’s liberation, of Khalistan, found not only a voice through him but were placed where they belong - in clear opposition to the dominant rhetoric of reforming the Indian state and sharing in its power through electoralism and meaningless calls for “justice”.
To Sikhs and naujawan across the globe, Deep Sidhu mirrors reflections of our people trying to navigate how to exist and resist against the confining structure of the Indian state and colonised world order whilst striving to be grounded in Sikhi.
As a public figure, a lawyer and actor who returned back home, he reflects someone who was on an honest journey to make sense of the underlying structures that have created generations of suffering, violence and genocide in Punjab and someone on a path to connect with Sikhi and the Panth. This momentum was captured as the shouts of Khalistan Zindabad were raised as his funeral pyre burnt which will no doubt be etched in the souls of Sikhs in Punjab and beyond for decades to come.
The eruption of shouts for Khalistan that Panth Dardi Sikhs have held in their chest around his funeral pyre speaks to what Deep Sidhu evoked in them, the space that he helped cultivate, and the underlying tensions of Sikh existence that he helped bring to the surface.
Echoes and slogans of "ਇਹ ਸਾਡੀ ਮਜਬੂਰੀ ਏ, ਖਾਲਿਸਤਾਨ ਜ਼ਰੂਰੀ ਏ" (this is our necessity, Khalistan is essential!) around the funeral fire ignite the spirit of the Shaheeds and their ongoing struggle for Khalistan that sits within us.
From a Sikh perspective, Deep has a great and good fortune, as the fire from his burning body gave warmth to our Quami bhavnaava - the feelings held in Sikh hearts in their love for the Panth.
This raises a fundamental question: how do we sit with Deep Sidhu’s words and actions, and the Shaheeds that he was influenced by, to organise with the ਮਜਬੂਰੀ (necessity) to fight for Khalistan? Deep’s passing is a call to action to all Sikhs and Naujawan to continue the fight for liberation and Sikh sovereignty.
Deep Sidhu was vocal about how the Shaheeds deeply influenced him, including Bhai Gurjant Singh Ji Bhudsinghwale and Sant Jarnail Singh Ji Bhindranwale. He called us to action, to show up, to move, to confront and name the structures that continue to confine us.
He evoked and brought this framing to the Kisaan Mazdoor Morcha which was galvanised at the Shambhu border. Shambu became the staging ground for the type of politics that Panthic Sikhs advocate for. Deep played a key role in cultivating a distinct space around the central issue of Punjab’s autonomy and helped put different voices in conversation with each other on the ground.
The discourse from that stage was rooted deeply in Sikhi, Sikh sovereignty, and the necessity for Punjab’s Sikhs to move in order to take the fight to Delhi.
This was in stark contrast to the static and non-confrontational nature of big union leaders. From the Shambhu border, the mobilised masses organised to lead the charge.
That energy, turned into collective Sikh power, was joyously carried under the Nishaan Sahib all the way to Delhi when barricades were smashed and overturned, ditches were filled, Langar was served, layers of Sikh institutions of support and collective care were fostered. This culminated in the historic moment on January 26, 2021, when the Khalsa’s Nishaan Sahib was raised over the Red Fort.
This way of moving is both symbolic and representative of the Khalsa Panth; Sikh ways of organising are instrumental to powering and sustaining the struggle.
The grounded spirit of Sikh defiance, of confidence and love in our Sikhi, in the face of all oppressions and odds, fueled the celebrated unrelenting permanence of the morcha that the world saw at the protest site.
This ensured that the demands of the people were a collective force that could not be compromised by any one leader. Deep Sidhu used his public position as celebrity to centre Sikhs as a people and the mystic sovereign collective of the Panth Khalsa, which is not bindable to cheap politics, empty rhetoric, or momentary wins and losses.
Deep’s love for Sikhi and Punjab was reciprocated and multiplied by the people; this is not something that can be orchestrated, but it is bestowed in the blessings of Sikh mothers, children, and elders.
“Let’s look at the way the Creator moves, the tractor that we crossed Shambhu border on, breaking the barricades, we didn’t call that tractor, nor was it ours, it belonged to some Jathebandie, a John Deer tractor. On the front it had a Keshri flag with a Khanda. I sat on that tractor and travelled some distance. There was a photo spinning at the front, after about 20 km I looked at the photo and saw it was Sant Ji’s photo. This was the first tractor, with this spinning photo, look at the symbolism! Those figures that [the unions] are turning their backs on, thinking we gained no benefits from our Shaheeds, this is the benefit, movements rise on the foundation of Shaheeds.”
Deep Sidhu, December 2020
For many Sikhs displaced in the diaspora and in Punjab, the morcha was a turning point that revealed the ongoing fractures and intersecting crises in Punjab. It also wrestled with a reimagination of the possibilities for organising beyond the permitted scopes of the Indian state.
Throughout the morcha, Deep Sidhu was one of the few voices on the ground that recentered Punjab’s azaadi and pushed the discourse from repealing the three laws to deeply reckoning with the Indian state’s continual structural and state violence and the demand for Khalistan.
For these reasons, panthic factions became early, staunch supporters, as they realised the significance of his thinking and activities beyond the morcha and his desire to centre Sikhi in a meaningful way. This brought him into conflict with some established union leaders. However, this conflict of values endeared him in the hearts of Sikhs that shared the desire to take the struggle further.
Throughout and beyond the Morcha, Deep Sidhu sustained the discourse at key moments by holding the conversation on azaadi and directly naming the Indian state as an oppressive structure, that by its nature, is against our freedom and existence. His most popular phrase ‘eh sadhi honda di larai hai’ - this fight is about our existence crystallised this realisation.
To truly honour Deep Sidhu, we must reflect on the depth that he was speaking from and how he ignited the words and truths of our Shaheeds.
By looking at how an individual pushes the boundaries of a dominant discourse into more serious areas, we can get a measure of the truths that sit in their heart. In this, we can see one of the key aspects that made Deep Sidhu stand out.
State violence continuously pushes discourse about Khalistan into the margins, and a deep commitment to the work is required to bring it to the centre. Deep’s powerful and moving speeches represent the work and commitments that he made to reflect and evolve his own politics which he strived to root in Sikhi.
The engagement with many possibilities for Sikh liberation are a threat to the Indian state, including the possibility of the morcha demanding more and the possibilities of Sikh consciousness rising on the ground and abroad.
Deep Sidhu advocated for a different way of moving and organising against the Indian state following the drama of elections. For many, the evocation of these possibilities raises serious questions surrounding the details of his sudden death.
“How can we turn away from our Nishaan Sahib, laws have been made by people, our Nishaan Sahib is the insignia of the politics and Dharam of Akaal Purakh, our Gurus gave it to us, our faith is in it, others may not see it as theirs, but we do, and we can't turn away from that.”
Deep Sidhu following “controversy” created by some union leaders to remove the Nishaan Sahib from the morcha
Deep Sidhu was arrested on February 9, 2021, four months into the morcha. His words and evocation of Sikh sovereignty were deemed as a threat to Indian nationalism, which continuously paralyses Punjab into the void created and maintained by Indian security forces since the Shaheedia of the great generals of the Khalistan armed movement.
Many Sikhs have raised questions about whether his death was an accident or an assassination. This inherent tension speaks volumes about, and is reflective of Sikh consciousness that recognizes how the dominant Indian structure suppresses and kills those who speak out on the larger issues that maintain Sikh suffering.
This is just one of the many aspects that Sikhs continue to mourn in this moment as the theatrics of elections loom and the question of “the future of Punjab” is once again being confined into the Indian state structure that is oppressing us.
“The Khalsa Panth seeks to obtain political power in order to further Gurmat. The Khalsa is not fighting with the Indian government for the price of wheat and paddy, the Khalsa is fighting for the principles and value of Dharam. If the Khalsa renounces the principles and value of Dharam and goes to war adopting Brahminical principles and values, then on whose value will victory or defeat be decided?”
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, February 1992, ‘The Game of Elections Should it be Played or Not’, Khalistan Liberation magazine
The fact that Sikhs are viewing and questioning Deep Sidhu’s death in a political way speaks to the reality of life within a structure built and sustained through the death of our people, of those we look up to, of those that speak to deeply held Sikh desires for liberation, for Khalistan.
India has assassinated countless Sikhs viciously in the streets, fields and homes of Punjab and covertly through “black cats”, touts, and planned assassinations. India continues to maintain a climate of fear. The masses of Sikhs who dream of Khalistan censor themselves out of this fear, which reveals itself when questions and suspicions about Deep Sidhu’s death arise.
However, his passing also illuminates the deep frustration and desire for Khalistan, which can be seen in how Deep is remembered, the loud shouts and slogans for Khalistan in the city streets and pinds in Punjab to Akhand Paat programs and protests in the diaspora.
Saying Khalistan Zindabad is a revolutionary act when India has tried to tear that word away from our very souls in order to sever its connection with embodied Gursikhi.
This raises fundamental questions about how we choose to remember and honour Deep Sidhu, what meaning his life holds and will continue to hold for generations to come.
Different people, from journalists to the Indian Chief Minister in Punjab, have publicly commented about his death.
He has been referenced as an “activist”, someone who worked for “human rights”, and as an “advocate of Punjab”. However, we should be protective of his legacy and acknowledge how these categorizations water down, co-opt and contradict his most serious political positioning about the Indian state, Khalistan and Sikh sovereignty.
Instead, Deep Sidhu should be remembered as someone who strived to take the memory of Sikh Shaheeds and desire for liberation, that exists in our hearts and on the ground, to push it up and outward.
He should be remembered for facing the Indian media and refusing to fall into their trap of condemning our Shaheeds, notably when he faced the “liberal” journalist Bharka Dutt and refused to condemn Sant Ji. Instead, Deep honoured him as a Sikh hero. He should be remembered for speaking the word Khalistan, a word that has survived genocide. Deep said Khalistan when he was asked not to. When his fellow Sikhs were demonised and silenced, Deep shouted Khalistan louder.
To truly honour Deep Sidhu, we must look to the fertile soil that was cultivated to form his praxis. That fertile soil is watered from the ocean of Sikhi and the blood of Shaheeds, which must be centred, cultivated and nourished in our discourse, in how we organise and move. Otherwise, we run the risk of existing in a reactionary cycle that is fueled by fleeting social media “conversations”.
The shock and pain from this tremendous loss requires us to sit with the reality of the Panthic Dard that our Shaheeds spoke about, a deep ache that echoes in every Panthic space.
We must move in the spirit of the Shaheeds and organise for our liberation. This may seem like the harder and longer work, but it is necessary for us to truly actually work against oppressive structures, and this work has been modelled for us by so many of our ancestors.
The work toward liberation requires us to be grounded in Sikhi, from our everyday embodiment and practice of naam baani, to naming and organising against the oppressive structures of the Indian state.
In our discourse, we must not be distracted by the multifaceted layers of the Indian state, visible in the rhetorics of social media personalities, politicians, and even Sikh reformists, who all look to capitalise on Sikh suffering and pain.
They offer us nothing in terms of liberation, and never speak of Khalistan as the actual route to reckoning with the longstanding occupation and degradation of Punjab.
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra unmasks these dynamics in his February 1992 article quoted above where he advocates that the fight for Khalistan cannot be fought on the basis of elections. It is imperative that we look seriously at the work and thought of our shaheeds, they have left us many teachings that will sustain our fight. In doing so we can pierce the waves of energetic rhetoric by naming and understanding our actual foe, the Indian state, and mobilising the masses toward the many possibilities of liberation that lead to Khalistan.
“It is our right to raise the slogan for Khalistan, and we will not back down from Khalistan. Today a struggle is being fought for Punjab’s existence, the Kisaan Unions say this is just a fight for farm laws, but it is not, Kisaani alone is not being attacked, our existence, our language, our Sikhi is attacked continually…this is not just an economic issue, but an issue of world views…we want to remove this slavery from around our necks…we will fight in every way, and we will fight for our sovereignty”
Deep Sidhu at Shambhu Border, Nov 2021
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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