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Jungfateh Singh: Punjabi Artists Fail To Live Up To The Shaheeds & History They Portray
"We hope that Dosanjh and others may still exploit the ostensible privilege to which they have been accorded to shed light on the atrocities committed by the Indian state."
March 28, 2023 | 5 min. read | Opinion
There seems to be a cyclical pattern of upheaval and rebellion in Panjab, and each time this happens, the qaum responds by making a deliberate effort to analyze the problems, spread awareness, and develop ways to help the Sikh people.
The diaspora also takes to the streets and fights back with the boldness and experience they have gained from the previous mobilizations, bringing international scrutiny to what is happening in India.
Nevertheless, each time we are left wondering why the general Sikh populace speaks up while influential Sikhs, with large platforms, are often quiet.
The latest siege in Panjab has reverberated throughout the Sikh community, bringing back painful memories from decades before. There have been media blackouts, journalists and advocates have been illegally detained, and numerous Sikh youth have vanished without a trace.
Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra, a former bank worker, spent most of the 1980s and 1990s looking into the disappearances of his friends and coworkers. In the years that followed, he would make a startling discovery: the Panjab Police had secretly cremated these victims.
If his estimation is correct, at least 25,000 Sikhs would have been cremated. It is important to note that these results came from a small sample size of only two tehsils (administrative divisions) in Punjab. A total of 82 tehsils can be found in Punjab.
In order to share his results with the Canadian government and the diaspora Sangat, Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra travelled to Ontario, Canada, at the invitation of the World Sikh Organization of Canada. The Ontario Khalsa Darbar, also known as Dixie Gurdwara, was the location of his final public speech regarding his report, a journey in Canada which started at Parliament Hill.
He delivered a profound and beautiful speech that day which would inspire and haunt Sikhs for generations.
He was cautioned not to return to Panjab from Canada since his life was in danger there. Khalra knew better than anyone else how to follow in his Guru's footsteps, as he shared in his final speech:
We ask the Guru for everything, but afraid, we don't ask the Guru for that one gift. The Guru has many gifts, but what is the greatest gift the Guru has? That special gift -- which the Guru possesses -- is the gift of martyrdom. Those who receive this gift -- they don't get to be Guru. But after the Guru, they are the most respected people of our Sikh nation.
When washing his car in front of his house that year, he would be kidnapped by the Punjab police (also implicated later on was DGP of Panjab Police, K.P GILL), tortured, shot twice in the chest, and disappeared like thousands of others by state authorities. Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra would sip the sacred nectar of Shaheedi that year, amongst countless others.
His impact was not only illuminating the genocidal methods of the Indian state; it was also urging the Sikh quam to reconsider the necessity of Khalistan, interrogate our relationship within the Indian state through our need to play “the game of elections,” and to remind us that there was no justice within the Brahmanical Indian state. To this purpose, Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra established and oversaw publication of the monthly magazine “Liberation Khalistan” in the early 1990s.
In favour of a more sanitized re-imagining of his legacy as simply a human rights advocate, Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra's discourses around Khalistan have mostly been removed from public discourse. Those guilty parties involved in this re-imagining also happen to be some of our community's biggest celebrities. Shamser Singh of the National Sikh Youth Federation wrote an incisive piece last year calling on us to reflect on what this means.
Given the current siege of Panjab, Sikhs around the world are understandably outraged to find many Punjabi artists, like Diljit Dosanjh, who is about to release a film portraying Jaswant Singh Khalra, mostly silent. Instead of posting regular and clear messages of concern or solidarity with Sikhs in Panjab, Dosanjh, for example, has been posting images of Hindu deities and announcing a new song with Gurdas Maan, a man that happens to have been a close and personal friend of the long-dead K.P. Gill.
Still, there are advocates for his silence and others like him, who may grant him extra privileges and immunity because of his position. Some may be sincerely protecting him because they think Dosanjh (and, by extension, the rest of the Panjab music/film business fraternity) are playing 4D chess, have a lot more to lose than the rest of us, and/or should not be expected to speak on every issue impacting our people, regardless of how much they may profit off portraying our Shaheeds and Sikh history.
Personally, I find it both remarkable and infuriating that Dosanjh spent years working on a film about Shaheed Jaswant Khalra and then remains largely silent, aside from one ambiguous Instagram story, while the same tactics that Khalra studied and revealed are being used against Sikhs.
The legacy of our Shaheeds and our Sikh history is opportunities for these singers and actors to claim panthic plaudits without actually having to tread the route those Shaheeds took. The worst tragedy we could suffer would be to have the flame that Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra kindled extinguished.
We hope that Dosanjh and others may still exploit the ostensible privilege to which they have been accorded to shed light on the atrocities committed by the Indian state.
The current struggle in Panjab must be seen in the context of a century of struggle characterized by the resolve of Sikhs.
Writing Des Pardesh, in 1992, Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra states:
“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.”
Jungfateh Singh is an organizer, writer and producer, and has worked on Sikh issues across the globe for over 15 years.
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