By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
My good friend Bhai Satnam Singh from Southall, who has an amazing photographic archive of UK Sikh politics dating before 1984, shared this picture of me. It was taken on 23rd September 1984 at the largest ever UK Sikh Panthic Convention. There were over 10,000 attendees from all parts of the UK who descended to the West Midlands town of Walsall. I was 25 years old at the time. This was a historic event where the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) was established.
This convention was held against the background of the Indian State assault on the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar 3 months earlier, and the de facto declaration of war against the Sikhs. It was a time of great turmoil for Sikhs world wide, who were still trying to respond to the terrible situation in Paniab, which was under Indian army occupation and central government control. All democratic accountability had been suspended and a ‘shoot on sight’ policy was being perused by the state. The main Sikh leaders had either been arrested or eliminated by the security forces and the so called ‘militant’ organisations, such as the extremely powerful All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), had been outlawed.
The ISYF was established to become the international wing of the AISSF and its expressed aim was to fight for Sikh liberation in India. Bhai Jasvir Singh Rode, nephew of Shaheed Baba Jarnail Singh, was appointed president of the ISYF, though soon after he was arrested and extradited to India in strange circumstances.
Branches of the ISYF would be established across the world, but the this was to be the inaugural convention where the UK branch was established.
At the convention, 5 regional leads were elected, of which I was one. The others were: Dr Pargat Singh, Hitchen; Dr Jasdev Singh Rai, Hounslow; Dr Sadhu Singh, Wolverhampton; and the late Bhai Harbinder Singh Rana, Walsall.
My memory is a little rusty but thanks to Dr Rai, I can confirm that later, Dr Pargat Singh became the first ‘national’ president of ISYF. Dr Sadhu Singh was the first senior Vice President of ISYF. Harbinder Singh Rana was the first General secretary of ISYF. Dr Rai was advisor on human rights and political matters until he became the second ‘national’ President in 1987 though he left a year later due to policy differences. In total, the ISYF had 21 branches. Though everyone of those 5 leaders went on to take their own paths, each did and some continue to play an important role in Sikh politics and education.
One of the great aspects of the convention was the seemingly total unity amongst UK Panthic Sikhs and jathebabdhis – a far cry from today where there seems to be more hate towards each other than the murderous Indian state that is rapidly descending into fascism.
I can’t quite recall exactly what I said in my speech, but it was something on the lines that “if we believe we are true lions and that each one of us is capable of taking on ‘sava-lack’ (125,000) then we should enter the battlefield with confidence”.
The Indian media had labelled the ISYF and organisations who challenged the Indian state as terrorists and in 2001, along with Babbar Khalsa International, the ISYF was proscribed by the British government. The organisation later fragmented and two factions emerged, one called the International Panthic Dal, who remained loyal to Jasbir Singh Rode, who after his extradition to Indian became the Jathedar of the Akaal Takht, The other faction is the Sikh Federation UK who shifted its focus to domestic politics, in particular pursuing the UK Government for its role in the June 1984 attack in the Darbar Sahib.
My direct involvement with the ISYF and other jathebandhis was quite limited and I tended to focus my energies on Gurmat camps, learning and teaching Sikh martial arts and kirtan and giving lectures. Though I remained closely involved in Panthic politics, my destiny would take me down the academic path. I also realised the futility of armed conflict, especially where one side was so much more powerful than the other and also a realisation that words and the pen are, and can be powerful weapons to fight struggles, especially in the age of social media.
One of the advantages of not belonging to any jathebandhi is that you can speak your mind, and hopefully the truth as you perceive it. The obvious disadvantage is that you are trusted by none with equal measure.
As an academic and journalist I often think that if you are equally disliked by all sides you are probably getting things right. As the saying goes, ‘truth can be bitter’. There can be little use for academics and journalists that seek to negate truth and trade in propaganda, which sadly seems to be the case in most Sikh and Indian media in the present moment.
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
In our moment of precarious togetherness, let us discover a new purpose (Asia Samachar, 26 March 2020)
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