Jaskaran Sandhu: Reflecting On A Week Of The Kashmir & Manmeet Kaur Story
Grooming is a real issue faced by Sikh women, Sikhs need to centre their own perspectives on issues impacting the community, & Indian liberals do not really care about the lived experiences of Sikhs
July 5, 2021 | 6.5 min. read | Opinion
It has now been a week since news broke in Kashmir about Manmeet Kaur, 18, and her alleged abduction and forced conversion and marriage to Shahid Nazir Bhat, 29, a Kashmiri Muslim man.
A lot has happened since that is worth dissecting.
With the recent disclosure of an undated video of Kaur explaining she converted for marriage a year ago out of her own will, the story shifted from one of abduction to one of predatory and exploitative grooming.
A year ago means that Kaur would have been at least 17 and therefore a minor at the time, and it is very likely on a balance of probabilities that her relationship with Bhat started when she was at least 15 or 16 [Editor’s note: The Print reported on July 9, 2021, that Bhat’s relationship with Kaur started six years ago, when Kaur would have been 12. Caravan then subsequently reported Kaur was 13 when the relationship started]. She a child and he a grown man 11 years her senior.
While this shifted the discourse online, in the media, and on the ground in many important ways, it also exposed a lot of critical lessons for Sikhs. Grooming is a real issue faced by Sikh women, Sikhs need to centre their own perspectives on issues impacting the community, and Indian liberals do not really care about the lived experiences of Sikhs as an often overtly and covertly oppressed micro-minority.
Before I explore those lessons in detail, I would like to touch upon the nature in which media, including Baaz, covered the issue.
Our first article on the matter, by Amaan Bali, came out on June 27.
Large protests from Kashmiri Sikhs were already well underway and the Akal Takht, which is the temporal seat of authority for all Sikhs, had sent a letter to the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir clearly stating that they were sending a “delegation of prominent Sikh leaders from Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir under the leadership of S. Manjinder Singh Sirsa...” to appraise him on the family’s allegations of kidnapping and forced conversion.
Sources on the ground had shared that it was Kashmir’s Sikh community that had asked for the intervention from the Akal Takht, which was later again confirmed by a spokesperson for the SGPC during one of many spontaneous Twitter Spaces events over the last few days.
As a media outlet that centres the Sikh voice and perspective, we have a mandate to share the Sikh lived experience - including examples of experiencing oppression, violence, or pressure as a minority community across the world. If Sikhs are protesting and the temporal seat of Sikh authority is issuing statements, you better believe we will write that story and share it from the eyes of Sikhs.
There were definitely problems in confirming the ages of both Kaur and Bhat throughout this process, and we worked closely with Bali as well as others throughout to verify information as we got it from sources. Whether it was large national outlets like the Times of India or independent portals like Quint, everyone got the ages wrong at some juncture.
However, unlike those other outlets, Baaz made sure that transparency remained of the utmost importance and issued correction notices along the way, both in the articles but also via public statements on Twitter. A level of transparency completely unseen in Indian media.
Jehangir Ali’s article on Quint, for example, listed Kaur’s age as 26. A major change in material fact that shifted the story towards one of a consensual relationship between two mature adults of similar age with agency. However, Ali got the age wrong, and Quint quietly reverted the age back to 18 with no editor’s correction notice until hours later after many of us raised serious concerns of journalistic integrity and ethics. Mistakes happen, but be clear about them when they do.
What was shocking though was Ali taking to Twitter afterward and attempting to claim Kaur was actually 19 and not 18. This happened after the disclosure of the video mentioned earlier, even though his very own article on Quint still rightfully listed her age as 18. That is an important distinction in age because it is the difference between Kaur being a minor when everything happened, and therefore lacking the ability to consent as a child, or not. It is hard to call Ali’s actions anything but an intentional attempt to spread disinformation.
Sikhs cannot prima facie trust Indian media to tell stories that impact the community honestly.
Back to the other lessons.
A lot has been said over the last seven months of the Farmers’ Protest about how Sikhs are a transnational people. We see our struggles collectively, irrespective of where we live, which explains to a large degree the solidarity demonstrations and lobbying around the world for our people blockaded thousands of kilometers away outside Delhi.
This is the same energy that has dictated our pursuit of justice over the 1984 Sikh Genocide, our challenging of the RSS, the kirpan ban issue in Australia, and now our concerns for the micro-minority Sikhs in a majority Muslim state of Kashmir.
Sikhs also have an incredible grasp of their own place in history and anchoring our experiences elsewhere in an understanding of the bigger picture.
Sikhs do not look at what is happening in Kashmir in a vacuum. It is held against a larger context and our modern experience in other Muslim majority states like Pakistan and Afghanistan, the latter of which just saw another bombing attack targeting a Sikh area of Jalalabad that injured two of our brothers. It is also held up against our experience with grooming by Muslims in the United Kingdom - something that is well documented by both Sikh sources and the British mainstream press.
Yes, there are many Muslim allies that have strongly stood with Sikhs in solidarity, including in Kashmir, but that does not mean Sikhs should silence themselves in a form of solidarity when faced with real oppression and angst.
When Sikhs anchor their perspectives with these memories and lived experiences, Indian liberals are quick to dismiss them as either unimportant or Islamophobic, and malign Sikhs that do speak out from a community-informed lens as sanghis, rather than trying to understand and listen to a consistently oppressed micro-minority.
The reactions to the recent story in Kashmir have exposed this again in an incredibly disappointing way.
Indian liberals have never been true allies of Sikhs. There are moments where there is alignment, such as the Farmers’ Protest, which is useful and should be leveraged for mutual benefit, but those are often fleeting moments not without tension as the Sikh presence is often erased or appropriated.
The honest truth is Indian liberals cannot be true allies because they continue to whitewash the crimes of the Congress party and the role of much of its leadership in the 1984 Sikh Genocide. They ignore how it was Congress that normalized Hindutva tactics of demonizing minorities in the way in which they maligned, attacked, and killed Sikhs. They ignore that genocide gave the Congress party a historic majority, proving anti-minority violence and rhetoric is an election winner in India. They ignore how they still oppress and fail us, including the continued platforming of monsters like Kamal Nath and the targeting of Sikh activists in Punjab.
Liberals proved again that they cannot and will not centre or appropriately acknowledge the Sikh perspective in their analysis and coverage. They cannot even bring themselves to call out the predatory nature of this ordeal involving a minor. Instead, they denounce Sikhs for sharing their own perspective and for our institutions standing for our people as they were designed to do from the very beginning.
So, when Indian liberals chastise Sikhs for playing into the BJP’s hands over the Kashmir issue, the same BJP Sikhs have challenged in an unprecedented way via the Farmers’ Protest, we cannot help but roll our eyes. There are legitimate concerns to be made, including being careful in dealing with someone like Amit Shah on this matter, but Indian liberals have no social license to make them.
Modi is a terrible leader, representing a deprived movement, that needs to be stopped. But Sikhs will not silence themselves so that Indian liberals can better position themselves to regain access to power for the sake of power.
There are still gaps in this story that need addressing.
It would be insightful to hear Kaur’s own reflections on this matter, but she is not speaking to the media. I can only imagine the kind of upheaval she has gone through, whether that is going through the trauma of grooming (women often share that it is not until later that they realize they were being groomed as a child by a predator) to quickly settling in a new life in Delhi.
While our institutions and platforms are often dominated by men which deserve more scrutiny, we have heard from many Kashmiri Sikh women over the last few days, directly and including in what is probably over 24 hours worth of Twitter Spaces events, that the concerns being expressed by the community are legitimate. We need to move out of the way and give them more space to speak.
In the end here is what we do know. There are real problems and grievances on the ground, and there are real issues of grooming, predatory behavior, and exploitation. Kashmiri Sikhs as a whole have felt neglected and forgotten for so long, but as many have been saying lately, they really do appreciate the Sikh world speaking up with them in solidarity in a way unlike ever before.
Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Senior Consultant at the public affairs agency Crestview Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_
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