Baaz’s Newsmakers of the Year
The top 10 newsmakers from the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora in 2021
From The Editors
December 29, 2021 | 10 min. Read | Editorial Team
2021 was a monumental year for Punjabis and Sikhs around the world. From the Farmers’ Protest to international students fighting exploitation, it was a year of incredible newsmakers from our communities. We saw many different people and organizations dominate headlines, conversations, and debates - for all sorts of reasons.
2021 was also the year of Baaz’s founding, a home for opinions, ideas, and original reporting for the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora. We published a wide array of stories, written by an eclectic group of contributors from all around the world.
It is with all of this in mind that we prepared a list of 10 newsmakers hailing from the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora (individuals and organizations from outside Punjab and India) that stood out over the last 12 months. We tried when preparing this list to reflect a range of themes and backgrounds - from activists to artists - that have left a mark on the Punjabi or Sikh universe this year.
To be clear, this is list is not a “power ranking” or a “who’s who”. It is a snapshot in time, of interesting people that made this year what it was as decided upon by the Baaz editorial team. The list is sorted alphabetically by the first name.
Australian Sikh Association
The Voice of a Growing Community - Australia
Amongst the Sikh diaspora, things often seem quiet in Australia. However the growing and maturing community there has been encountering new challenges over the years. The 2021 news cycle zeroed in on Australia multiple times, and one organization often found itself at the centre of those stories - the Australian Sikh Association (ASA).
The ASA is associated with Gurdwara Sahib Glenwood in Sydney. If the name sounds familiar it is because the Gurdwara was the target of a Pro-BJP Tiranga Rally in February of this year. Sikhs gathered to protect the location, at the height of the Farmers’ Protest, and police had to intercept the Rally before it reached the Gurdwara. It put the global Hindutva extremist movement to light, particularly in Australia, which would hit its climax later with the arrest and deportation of Vishal Jood after he committed criminal acts against pro-farmer Sikhs.
Later in June 2021, we saw the Australia Kirpan accommodation battle and the potential ban in NSW’s schools after a schoolyard fight in which a kirpan was allegedly used. ASA again led the Sikh community response in pushing back, mobilizing, and working with multiple groups and Gurdwaras. In the end, the compromise reached with the NSW government received widespread criticism, however. Regardless, it is likely we hear more from ASA in the future, as it builds upon its role in the growing diaspora there.
“Burn it All Down” - Canada
It was a big year for Harsha Walia, a well-known and respected Canadian Sikh activist and writer. She had settled into her role as Executive Director of the influential British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and wrote another book, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, which was published early in 2021.
Then the tweet happened.
Beginning in May of 2021, unmarked graves of Indigenous children were being discovered across Canada’s former residential schools. The discoveries shook the country as a reckoning unfolded and the scale of the genocide was beginning to be understood. Residential schools were run by the government and the Catholic Church to forcibly assimilate Indigenous communities. As a result, churches began to be targeted by vandals and arsonists. Walia quote tweeted a VICE story on the burnings and added “Burn it all down”.
What resulted was a fierce backlash and calls for her firing from BCCLA. She had defenders too though, including the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), who agreed with Walia that the phrase was not literally advocating for arson, but rather to burn down the structures of colonialism and genocide. In the end, BCCLA succumb to the pressure, and Walia was let go. That did not end the conversation though, including within the BCCLA, in parts thanks to Walia igniting a larger conversation on truth and reconciliation in Canada.
The Political Activist - USA
Sikhs running for political office is not exactly groundbreaking, considering the success the community has had in countries like Canada, the UK, and America. However, Jaslin Kaur’s Democratic Primary campaign for New York City Council District 23 was noteworthy on multiple fronts. She ran a scrappy, grassroots-orientated campaign that attracted attention from politicos around the world, and received endorsements from major political heavyweights Bernie Sanders and AOC. She had the potential to make history as the first Sikh on the city council. While she came a close second in the end, it was obvious to anyone watching she has a bright political future.
Many candidates walk away after an election loss or take a lengthy break from the public eye. Jaslin Kaur, on the other hand, leaned into fighting for what got her to run for public office in the first place - doing something about the taxi medallion debt crisis in the city. NYC’s taxi drivers, many of them hailing from the Sikh and Punjabi community, have been crippled by debt as the value of medallions collapsed in part with the arrival and growth of ride-sharing apps. Jaslin Kaur was one of the handful of protestors that embarked on a hunger strike which would eventually tip the scale and force City Hall’s hands into entering a favourable agreement with the taxi union that finally solved the crisis after years of demonstrations and organizing.
Exposing Sexual and Domestic Abuse Within the Sikh Community - UK
An unprecedented amount of conversations regarding sexual and domestic abuse within the Sikh community occurred this year, thanks in large parts to the activism of the Kaur Movement. Their social media accounts and posts have gone viral multiple times, and have dominated the discourse from Twitter Spaces to Gurdwara committee rooms.
The Derby Gurdwara case was the most high-profile one they were involved with, but their work expands wide, forcing introspection which many believe was missing for far too long. Safeguarding Gurdwaras and Sikh spaces became an important topic, and the work of the Kaur Movement to expose wrongs was a catalyst for it. If 2021 was the year the Sikh community began to take the issue seriously, the hope is 2022 is the year the conversations lead to real-world change.
The Man Behind the Tool Kit - Canada
When Mo Dhaliwal help develop and launch the #AskIndiaWhy social media campaign to bring greater awareness to India’s human rights violations he probably never thought he would be linked to Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. But when the music superstar and the world’s most known climate activist began tweeting about the Farmers’ Protest, with the latter linking to a rather predictable social media toolkit that had Dhaliwal’s fingerprints on it, Indian media needed someone to blame and they chose to pin it on the branding expert and grassroots organizer from Vancouver.
A video of Dhaliwal speaking about Khalistan made the rounds via the BJP IT Cell, and the rather ridiculous claim of Dhaliwal paying large sums of money to Rihanna for her tweet in support of farmers were some of the outlandish stories driven by India’s national media. It only got stranger when Disha Ravi was arrested, and then released, for her role in preparing the toolkit shared by Thunberg, creating international headlines. Who knew asking India why it harms minorities would cause such a reaction and embarrass it so thoroughly.
Naujawan Support Network (NSN)
Fighting International Student Labour Exploitation - Canada
Canada has become a major destination for international students around the world. Over the past few years, the largest source of those students has been Punjab. International students have become a big part of local Punjabi communities across the country, but have primarily settled in and around Brampton - a city in the Greater Toronto Area. However, while going to school abroad is the dream, exploitation has become the reality for many international students. In particular, exploitation in the workforce.
Students have to work to make ends meet, however, due to various factors and policies, they are often put into precarious and vulnerable situations where wage theft and abuse are rampant. After years of little action and improvement, the Naujawan Support Network stepped in and has seen a meteoric rise in popularity, media attention, and success in fighting for student rights. From organizing impressive rallies down the streets of Brampton to protesting outside the homes of alleged abusive employers, NSN has secured thousands in stolen wages for students, disrupted the power imbalance in the labour market, and has built what has at times felt like a revolution.
With success has also come some troubles, as NSN faces multiple defamation lawsuits forcing the organization to set up a legal defense fundraiser.
Providing Aid and Fighting Disinformation - UK
When internally discussing what this list would look like, we wanted to highlight newsmakers that still may not be necessarily household names in the Punjabi and Sikh universe. Ravi Singh, however, needs no introduction. Likely one of the most well-known humanitarians in the world, the work of Khalsa Aid has been making headlines for years now.
Even considering all the history associated with Ravi Singh and the organization, 2021 still stands out. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Khalsa Aid was a major fixture of protest sites outside Delhi (they even opened a “Kisan mall”), their COVID aid in India was much-lauded, and they ended the year responding faster than local governments during the BC floods in western Canada.
Ravi Singh was also a major target of pro-Modi Indian national media outlets, successfully fighting back multiple smear campaigns and helping popularize the term godi media in the process.
Dr. Swaiman Singh
The Farmer’s Doctor - USA
A lot of notable folks emerged as a result of the Farmers’ Protest, including some hailing from the diaspora. However, few stood out more than Dr. Swaiman Singh. The American Sikh doctor found himself in the right place at the right time while visiting India, and then never left the protest as he became the movement’s unofficial chief medical officer. From healing farmers facing state violence to ensuring demonstrators were kept safe during India’s COVID crisis, Dr. Singh’s clinic, videos, and messaging became a key insight into the health of farmers.
With all the attention healthcare professionals and frontline medical workers received over the course of the pandemic, new variants and all, Dr. Singh made headlines across the world for his commitment to the farmers that made up one of the largest protests in human history. Something he chose to do, and really lean into, during the highs and lows of the movement.
West Midlands Three
The Ones that Challenged Extradition - UK
Warm UK-India relations, especially so after Brexit, have played a considerable concerning role in applying undue pressure on local Sikh activists. While Jagtar Singh Johal and #FreeJaggiNow have dominated a lot of the chatter around what that relationship has meant to the community, the attempted extradition of the West Midlands Three was an extraordinary case in 2021.
The brazen police house raids, the political intrigue in regards to Priti Patel, and the large demonstrations outside the courthouse where the matter would eventually be heard, all drove much-needed scrutiny on the relationship between the two countries and the manner in which the UK government has looked the other way as India continues to silence dissent both at home and abroad.
In the end, the three British nationals beat the extradition attempt, embarrassing both the Indian and UK state. They successfully pushed back what has been a consistent attempt to chill Sikh activists, in particular those that bring greater awareness of human rights atrocities in India, as well as those that advocate for Khalistan and Sikh sovereignty.
Reviving the UK Punjabi Music Scene - UK
There was a time when the UK Bhangra scene dominated the Punjabi music industry. DJs reigned supreme. At some point, however, influence shifted to North America, with Canada largely becoming the source of current chart-topping Punjabi artists, including the likes of AP Dhillon and Sidhu Moosewala (who since finding his early success in Canada is now back in Punjab running for the Congress party).
This is where Yung Singh comes in, who with one live mix broadcasted via the world-renowned Boiler Room put UK Punjabi garage back on the map. DJ Mag has declared him as this year’s breakthrough DJ, but while his success seems overnight to casual observers he has been viewed as a one to watch for some time now. Yung Singh also put out a short documentary this year, The Birth of Punjabi Garage, which was released by the Ministry of Sound.
In a year where the Punjabi music industry continued to thrive, and flexed renewed political and social muscle during the course of the Farmers’ Protest, there is something about a UK DJ reviving a culture of sound that use to dominate our music that deserves recognition.
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