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Santbir Singh: How The Oppressor Subverts Shahidi
"In order to subvert the inspirational potential of a Shahid, the British and Indian states have engaged in two accompanying strategies: exile and/or disappearance through murder."
March 23, 2023 | 6 min. read | Opinion
“The Blood of Shahids grows the Panth” - a common Punjabi saying.
As those of us in the Diaspora anxiously watch the crackdown on civil liberties and mass arrests of Sikh activists in Punjab, troubling patterns are (re)emerging.
For those old enough to remember the horrors of the late 80s and early 90s, the conflicting messages around Bhai Amritpal Singh’s arrest are the potentially inevitable precursor to yet another extrajudicial killing, also known as a false encounter.
Whether Amritpal Singh has actually escaped or whether the government has already arrested him and is simply engaging in psyops against the Sikh community, the probability of an extrajudicial killing brings the actions of the Indian government in line with not only the tactics used by the Indian state three decades ago but also harkens back to the British colonial government in the aftermath of the takeover of Punjab and the subjugation of the Sarkar-i-Khalsa (Sikh Empire) in the mid-19th century.
The Indian government, and the British before them, know well the power of martyrdom in the Sikh tradition - Shahidi has long been a galvanizing force for the community. Whether it was 1726 with the Shahidi of Bhai Tara Singh of Van or 1978 with the Shahidi of Bhai Fauja Singh, the death of a charismatic young leader has the potential to revive the Panth into action.
In order to subvert the inspirational potential of a Shahid, the British and Indian states have engaged in two accompanying strategies: exile and/or disappearance through murder.
The first anti-colonial struggle against the British was led by Baba Maharaj Singh in what the British call the Second Anglo-Sikh Wars. This was not actually a war between two states but rather a mass rebellion by the Sikh Panth against the British takeover of the Sarkar-i-Khalsa in the First Anglo-Sikh Wars.
Baba Maharaj Singh, a follower of the famed Sant Baba Bir Singh of Naurangabad, travelled around Punjab, rallying the people to fight back against the colonizers. Unfortunately, after being betrayed, Baba Maharaj Singh was captured by the British. Instead of being executed, the British sent him to prison in exile, in what was to become Singapore, in southern British Malaya. There he was kept in inhumane conditions, in solitary confinement in a small cell without access to even sunlight for the rest of his life. A man who was once revered by the Panth was lost, the community quickly forgetting his example and succumbing to the colonial onslaught.
In the early 1860s, Baba Ram Singh (whose memory was later co-opted by the modern Namdhari movement in which he was turned into a Guru, contrary to his own actions as a Panthic GurSikh) led the second Sikh rebellion against British rule.
In 1872 he, along with members of his movement, were arrested. Most were executed (in gruesome fashion by the ‘civilized’ British, by being tied to cannons and blown apart), but Baba Ram Singh, instead of being executed, was sent to prison in Rangoon (modern-day Burma/Myanmar).
By choosing to exile rather than kill Ram Singh and Maharaj Singh, the British were able to diffuse the momentum out of their movements. Such was the hope of Ram Singh’s followers that there remains a belief amongst modern Namdharis that he is still alive in the jungles of Burma and will one day come back to save the Panth. The British had managed to take an activist and militant organization and turn it into a messianic cult, waiting forever for a leader to return who was long lost. In the last 150 years, Namdharis have never again played an active socio-political role in the community.
Along with exile, the other strategy used to subvert Shahidi has been disappearance.
This was used against the Jathedar of Akal Takht, Jathedar Gurdev Singh Kaunke, who was arrested and then brutally tortured to death by having his legs ripped apart on January 1st of 1993.
Jathedar Kaunke’s arrest was denied by the Punjab Police at the time, though it was obvious they were responsible for his disappearance since he had been arrested and tortured multiple times since being made Jathedar at the Sarbat Khalsa of 1986. The arrest and heinous murder of a Jathedar of Akal Takht, even in the midst of the climate of overt human rights abuses of early 90’s Punjab, was a shocking act, and one that would have moved the Panth to action, however by disappearing him, his inspirational potential as a Shahid was erased. It was only later, from eyewitnesses of the torture by Punjab Police that we found out what had become of Jatheadar Kaunke.
Two years later, in September of 1995, the famed human rights activist, Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, was arrested from his home, tortured and murdered.
Just like Kaunke, Khalra’s arrest was at first denied by the police and only later did we find out what had actually occurred. By utilizing the usual recipe to silence an important voice in the Panth - no formal arrest, disappearing him, and no acknowledgment of their actions, the Punjab Police removed a thorn from their side by rendering Bhai Khalra into a state of non-being, where he was not officially dead, yet was not alive and able to continue his work against the government either. The power of his Shahidi had been subverted and subdued.
The most infamous contemporary example of this is, of course, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
Sant Jarnail Singh famously declared that he would not leave the Darbar Sahib Complex until the Anandpur Sahib Resolution was successfully implemented, and the only way he would be removed from the Complex otherwise would be as a corpse on the back of a truck.
Sant Jarnail Singh was killed in June 1984, fighting bravely until the end in the (seventh) Battle of Amritsar. However, within days of his death, the government started rumours that he was in fact alive and had escaped to Pakistan [Editor’s Note March 28 - as cited on page 86 of "Shahid Bilas Sant Jarnail Singh" edited by Gurtej Singh and Dr Swaranjeet Singh, published 2001]. While many in the Panth saw through this ruse, a significant portion of the community was put into a perpetual state of waiting; waiting for Jarnail Singh to come back and save the Panth, waiting for a miracle solution.
This eternal state of mourning without closure prevents a people from continuing the work of these Shahids and mobilizing solutions on their own. The government had not only killed him but also robbed him of the strength and glory that he had as a jewel of the Panth: a Shahid.
It is this worry we hold today. Will Bhai Amritpal Singh be sent into exile, into a modern-day jungle of black sites in faraway states? Will he be brutally killed (if he hasn’t been already) while the police continue the narrative that he is on the run? Will we keep waiting and hoping for him to one day return and save us, when in fact he is already long gone?
We must be vigilant to the tactics of the Indian state and not be manipulated by them. Many want to believe in the best-case scenario, but our history cautions us otherwise.
The government, the oppressor, will use tactics such as these to divert our attention, to shift our focus from our goals so that eventually, with time, they may become abandoned. We cannot allow their subversion of Shahidi to destroy the momentum and power of our Panth yet again, robbing us of our righteous response to their crimes.
My ardas is that I am wrong and that Bhai Amritpal Singh is actually safe and on the run. However, if we do not hear anything soon, we must face the very real possibility, as difficult as it is, that he has already been murdered. We cannot allow the government to steal the power of his Shahidi along with his life and the justice we have been seeking for generations.
Santbir Singh Sarkar-Daman is a PhD student at York University. His research interests are in Sikh social activism, history and decolonizing the Sikh tradition. He can be found on Instagram @santbir.singh
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