Harpreet Singh: Sikh Humanitarian Seva Is Neither Partial Nor Transactional

The Sikh humanitarian is not a novel idea brought to you by left-leaning Sikhs. It was given to us by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who refused to put a religious prerequisite on ‘vand ke chhako’.

Harpreet Singh
July 28, 2021 | 5 min. read | Opinion

When a seven-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, it killed 300,000 and displaced a million people in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Shortly after, I was given an opportunity to do Seva there, and I traveled to the epicentre in Leogane, Haiti, where 90 percent of the buildings were now uninhabitable. 

On the first night, the ride to our camp was full of detours to avoid fallen debris. Massive tent cities engulfed the major urban centres, and the ruins of the presidential palace showed that not even the political elite could escape Mother Nature. 

It was not until the following morning that I got a complete view of our camp. It was directly across from the massive, fortified UN compound, which looked similar to the green zone in Iraq. 

The Nishaan Sahib flew from our compound area, where it was visible to the UN and other NGOs in the area. I was possibly the only Sikh in the country at that time, and our flag blowing in the wind of this completely foreign place filled me with pride and a sense of comfort. 

As our Seva progressed over several days, I realized that the Nishaan Sahib carried a heavy burden - it was a beacon of hope and refuge. My fondest memories were of the Haitian elders looking after me like a grandson and the children playing with me like I was one of them. The connections I made with the people of Haiti gave me a true understanding of my Guru's message of the oneness of mankind. 

Years later, because of the ongoing Seva in the area, UN officials praise our work and there are parts of Haiti where Sikhs are welcomed with hugs and smiles the moment we step into a room. 

When I see criticism of Sikh humanitarian organizations not focusing all of their efforts on Sikhs, and Punjab, I say it is important to reflect on the origins and legacy of the Sikh humanitarian.

First, it is critical to recognize that if a Sikh group or individual is doing Seva of another community, it is highly likely they work within the Sikh Panth as well. While the latter might not make headlines, those who give their time to do Seva have a selfless outlook on life and regularly give back to their own community. 

Khalsa Aid International, the organization most often applauded and criticized for its global work, spends a substantial amount of its funds and time almost entirely on Sikh causes. This includes restricted funds which are solely for projects within Punjab.

Despite facing political harassment and barriers unlike in any other country they operate in, Khalsa Aid continues to provide direct aid to families of shaheeds, disaster flood relief, and long-term education and health services through its Khalsa Aid India chapter.  

Add to this the current year's work in support of the ongoing Farmers’ Protest and COVID-19 relief, and it is evident how much commitment Khalsa Aid has to Punjab.

Khalsa Aid has built a reputation as a trustworthy international charity, which has helped in scaling the donations they receive as a result of their aid efforts around the world. Without a global track record, they would not be receiving these donations to begin with. 

The next time you see a news headline of a Sikh helping build a Mosque, remember that the cameras did not catch those same Sevadaars spending countless hours doing Seva at their local Gurdwara.

Using Seva as an opportunity to do Sikhi parchaar needs to continue to play an integral role in our political goals as a community as well.

Internationally, this Seva serves as a way for the Panth to have a voice at the global level and introduce Sikhi across the world. It helps demystify who we are as a people, often as a double minority – both religiously and ethnically. 

Locally, Seva with other communities can be a way to spread goodwill, dispel ignorance, and spread the message of Sikhi to our neighbours of different racial and religious backgrounds. 

In the United States, Sikhs are the third most targeted religious group and the Sikh Coalition reports a staggering 67 percent of turbaned Sikh children face bullying. There is no denying that doing Seva in our local communities translates to a deeper understanding of who we are. For example, while still unacceptably high, the World Sikh Organization of Canada has found a real reduction in bullying of Sikh children at Ontario’s Peel District School Board (PDSB) over the years. Fighting ignorance through action and education matters. Seva is a powerful tool to accomplish that. 

As Sikhs, we should always be prepared to physically defend ourselves and others, but only as a last resort. Creating a positive image of our community should be one of the steps we take before that last resort. 

In all honesty, though, the concept of Seva is not transactional. 

The Sikh humanitarian is not a novel idea brought to you by left-leaning Sikhs. The Sikh humanitarian was given to us by Guru Nanak Dev Ji, who refused to put a religious prerequisite on ‘vand ke chhako’. His langar was open to all and served as a refuge to the destitute and hungry, regardless of religion or caste.  

In 1595, when Lahore was hit by widespread famine, Guru Arjan Dev Ji reached there to establish langar, and dig wells to provide relief. Sikhs were even requested to send their daswandh (a tenth of their earnings) to Lahore to help in these efforts. The political benefits followed, as upon visiting the famine-struck city, Emperor Akbar was so impressed by the service of Guru Sahib that he relieved tax revenue from the farmers. 

From Bhai Khaneya Ji providing water to enemy forces to Jassa Singh Ahluwalia rescuing Hindu women from the clutches of Ahmed Shah Abdali, there is ample evidence to show the Sikh humanitarian has origins in Sikh history and Gurbani. 

With the Panth facing so many problems of its own, it is almost natural to shout “what about us?” when witnessing a Sikh organization helping Yazidi refugees in Iraq, or feeding people experiencing homelessness in an American city. 

Rather than succumbing to this parochial outlook, let us critically assess the origins of this legacy, the other work those same Sikh organizations are engaged in at home, and all of the benefits of this Seva before criticizing the efforts of our Sevadaars. 

Continuing to introduce Sikhi through our sacred institutions of langar and ideals of compassion will be critical to keeping our Panth flourishing. 

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Harpreet Singh grew up in Brampton and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he volunteers with the local Khalsa Aid chapter. He is a Software Engineer by day and a disappointed Toronto Maple Leafs fan by night. He finds solace in Gurbani, the Toronto Raptors, and Bay Area weather. You can follow him on Twitter at @harp_mann.

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