Sonny Sekhon: Speaking Up For The Farmers Protest As A Person Of Mixed Punjabi-German Heritage
In doing what I saw as the right thing, something that we all should do, I found myself constantly having to justify where my passion and where my voice was coming from
February 24, 2021 | 4 min. read
The largest peaceful protest in human history is happening as you read this sentence. Like many, I have chosen to use what limited voice and platforms I have to shine a light on the current events in India. To my surprise, I have at times found myself being challenged for the legitimacy of my voice given my unique mixed heritage.
To be clear, I was never asked to speak up to raise awareness for our Kisaan brothers and sisters. To be honest, I never really spoke out on behalf of anyone before. I chose to break my silence because, to me, it is the right thing to do. In doing what I saw as the right thing, something that we all should do, I found myself constantly having to justify where my passion and where my voice was coming from.
Let’s begin briefly with the obvious: regardless of your faith, politics, or beliefs in the potential of the farm laws passed in India, human rights are universal, and watching violations, particularly against the aged, made my blood boil.
Protestors marched to Delhi to exercise their right to peacefully object to laws passed that stand to ruin their livelihood. They have faced roadblocks, water cannons, tear gas, smear campaigns, abductions, propaganda, internet cut-offs, forceful blockage from clean drinking water, and more. Protestors continue their mission. They do so while in many instances offering langar, protection, education, and compassion to those that actively seek to repress them as well as the community on which they have settled. We are reminded daily of the unbreakable spirits not only of the Sikh protestors but all at the Delhi camps.
Further fueling my anger was the fact that we have seen this story before with the Indian state. Their list of blatant abuses of human rights is long and documented, it is a story many in the diaspora have seen often but most in the West remain naïve to.
As the farmers’ protest grew the coverage in the west lagged. A protest driven largely by Sikhs, who will always show up to support the oppressed and stop injustices, was now desperate for global support.
I grew louder.
To many in the community, I am the “half-white” friend. My history is undeniable, I am the son of a Punjabi ex-pat father and a first-generation Canadian German mother whose family experienced Nazi Germany. My background in no way makes my voice less or more important to me, but to many it does.
Coming from a blended family, I was taught to be Canadian first but to always appreciate where I came from. I was taught early on, both directly and indirectly, of the many values that tie Sikhs globally together. Most importantly I always understood the importance of Seva, community, and that we are a universal family of brothers and sisters.
Most are familiar with my father’s story whether they know him or not. A young Punjabi man and his brothers leave their family farm to pursue a better life in Canada. In no way do I mean to cheapen the struggles our families faced but his story is one shared by most across the diaspora. It is a story we all know and understand, I was born of it.
However, few know my maternal family history. Few realize that I am lucky to be sharing this story. My existence demonstrates the impossible odds that my maternal family beat to escape the fascist government that today’s Indian government draws inspiration from.
During World War Two my maternal family saw first hand the horrors of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.
My great grandparents, Franz and Helene Achaz, were both as far from military bodies and Nazi supporters as can be. The two were professional ballet dancers. This mattered little to the fascist regime and Franz was conscripted into the military.
His personal beliefs were far from the Nazi party and this had him labeled as an anti-nationalist - language that will sound familiar as it is commonly used against all forms of dissent in today’s India as well. However, he reported to duty for fear of death.
While enlisted he held the post of a motorcycle courier and was ultimately captured by the American military. He spent time as a POW in an American camp where they soon learned he was not a threat. Franz, a proud entertainer, took to entertaining his captors through evening performances while they ate. Upon his release, his would-be captors would go on to help him and his family escape to Canada.
Much like Franz, Helene too was forced to take part in work against her beliefs. She was brought in to help with the choreography of the 1936 Olympics opening ceremonies. I can recall my mother telling me the stories about how the amazing honor of that moment was ruined by the fear of saying no and suffering the wrath of the Nazi party.
We know that the West allowed Hitler to spread through Europe unchecked and for too long. We know what happened during WW2. We know what Hitler would go on to do and The Holocaust. We know that millions died horrible deaths. Sadly, the Mein Kampf and Nazism would be influencing and leading to the development of the Hindu Rashtra ideology in India, the land of my paternal family, which has now led to Modi’s BJP.
The only thing worse than sitting on the sidelines and not trying to make a difference in preventing atrocities is knowing what horrors can happen if the worst-case outcome is realized. The people that sit back and fail to use their platforms regardless of the size fail to understand the immense privilege we all have.
That is why I now speak about the farmers’ protest.
Despite the crossroads of my parent’s histories and why that fueled me further to take a stand, it really should not matter to you, the reader. What should matter is that you have the ability to bring light to darkness, to tell someone a story that needs to be heard.
Sonny Sekhon was born and raised in Edmonton Alberta. He is an alumni of the University of Alberta where he obtained his BA in Political Science and History. In his leadership positions in both his professional and volunteer worlds, he focuses on community connection, relationships, and advancing the city. You can find Sonny on Twitter and Instagram at @sonziemaaaan.
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