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Mixed Praise for World Sikh Convention


The Sikh Times, Boston, Oct. 27, 2003

I have mostly praise for the World Sikh Convention (W.S.C.) organized in Mohali (near Chandigarh, Punjab, India) on October 26.

First, the W.S.C. afforded Punjabis a welcome opportunity to hear a different point of view, as contrasted from the omnipresent one belonging to those holding the reigns of political power, in particular the political establishment that controls the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (S.G.P.C.).

In the West, we are accustomed to enjoying access to varied points of view. Some of the most cherished of them come to us through alternative flavors of the media (Alternative Radio), political parties (Green Parties), art/music (Dya Singh), etc.

The W.S.C. was, in that sense, an alternative event. Attendance estimates varied from 2,000 to 5,000.

Second, the W.S.C. represented a precious instance of the exercise of free speech in Punjab.

Sikh politics must embrace verbal and written expression as its primary avenues of political discourse if it is to progress beyond the use of obsolete tools such as 'physical prevention' (Buddha Dal, The Tribune, September 18; re: the film Hawayein) and 'forcible prevention' (A.I.S.S.F., The Times of India, October 23; re: the W.S.C.)

Convention organizers and the Congress-led state administration deserve kudos for delivering a peaceful and productive alternative event.

Perhaps on the downside, the W.S.C. adopted one of the establishment's most unattractive practices and barred Jagjit Singh Chauhan from expressing his views on 'the issue of Khalistan' (The Times of India, October 27.)

The W.S.C. explained its decision to censor Chauhan thus: 'the convention had been organized to discuss religious issues and political matters should not be raised.'

However, if one is to believe the October 27 press release issued jointly by I.H.R.O. chairperson D.S. Gill and secretary-general Mohinder Singh Grewal, political motives might well have been at stake here.

The press release claimed, 'Major General [Retd.] Narinder Singh [a leading organizer of the W.S.C. and vice-chairman of the Punjab Human Rights Organization (P.H.R.O.)] has been a very strong and aspirant candidate of some Sikh militant organizations for this office [of Akal Takht's jathedar (high priest)].

The press release added, 'Gurtej Singh [another key W.S.C. organizer, an S.G.P.C. National Professor of Sikhism, and a former I.A.S. officer], who is now challenging the office of [the] jathedar of [the] Akal Takht, was one among strong protagonists who then recommended the name of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale for this august office.'

The move to sideline Chauhan seems incongruent with views Gurtej Singh has expressed quite recently: 'I have known Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan and have nothing but respect for his ingenuity.' (Tandav of the Centaur: Sikhs and Indian Secularism, Chandigarh: Institute of Sikh Studies, June 1996, p. 160.)

I searched long and hard (though mostly in vain) for common ideological threads binding the organizers of the W.S.C. On the subject of Sikh self-determination, for example, three key players (see below) all agree on the need for Sikh autonomy but hold divergent views both on the nature of such autonomy and on the means they consider legitimate for pursuing Sikh self-determination.

First, Gurbakhsh Singh Kala Afghana, whose defense was a focal point of the Convention, completely disavows militant techniques as an option for solving the religio-political problems tormenting Punjab ever since its annexation by the British in 1849 (Kala Afghana's letter dated November 30, 1987 addressed to the then Akal Takht jathedar Prof. Darshan Singh reproduced in Biparan Kii Riit Ton Sach Daa Maarag, Volume One, Second Edition, Amritsar: Sri Akal Sahai Society, November 1997, pp. 212-225.)

Kala Afghana advocates non-violent non-cooperation and writes on p. 225, '. . . we [Sikhs] cannot live with you [India's Hindu-dominated leadership], either kill us all or grant us a separate homeland.'

Second, Gurtej Singh, on the other hand, favors political negotiation based on what he calls 'the original Anandpur Sahib Resolution' authored by his mentor, the late Kapur Singh. The Resolution 'demands . . . an autonomous region in the north of India . . . as an integral part of the Union of India . . . wherein the Sikh interests are constitutionally recognized.' (Tandav of the Centaur, p. 152.)

Third, Narinder Singh, whom Mark Juergensmeyer characterizes as a 'former leader of the [Sikh] militant movement [who] accepted violence for the purpose of defense and punishment.' (Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Berkeley: University of California Press, Third Edition, 2003, p. 102.)

Juergensmeyer adds, '[Narinder Singh] was [Major General (Retd.)] Shahbeg Singh's former superior officer [and an] advisor to five or six major paramilitary organizations.' (p. 193.)