Lessons for today from 1984: Interview with Hari Singh

Sikh organisations in Malaysia, and elsewhere, were awaken to action in 1984. Today, what began as the SGGS beadbi issue, has taken a life of its own. Again, Sikh organisations are responding with vigour. What are the lessons they can take from 1984? Asia Samachar talks to Sikh activist Hari Singh who played a prominent role then in Malaysia.

| Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  | 12 Nov 2015 | Asia Samachar |


Torn pages of Guru Granth Sahib found in villages of Punjab had ignited a spark in the Sikh psyche. It led to protests and a huge gathering under the clarion call of the Sarbat Khalsa on 10 Nov at Chabba, Amritsar.

The last time such emotions ran high was in 1984. Operation Blue Star was the codename given by the Indian government for the army attack on what is probably the most well-known Sikh place of worship – Harmandir Sahib aka Golden Temple.

Back then, Sikhs around the world could not belief what they were seeing – bombs and bullets raining on the beautiful place of worship. There was curfew in Punjab, massacre of Sikhs all around.

Sikhs in Southeast Asia, too, were not spared of the anger and anguish. They were, rightfully, outraged. In Malaysia, the Sikh community had responded in a collective voice. They went to the ground to explain to the community what was happening. Remember, you did not have internet, short messaging service (SMS) or Whatsapp back then. They resorted to the traditional land line, printed material and the gurdwara stages. The campaign was guided by a band of Sikh volunteers who were members of the so-called Ad-Hoc Committee.

“Within the panth itself, 1984 created many institutions that today serve the world,” Hari Singh, who was part of the ad-hoc committee, tells Asia Samachar when met in Kuala Lumpur recently.

We asked him what are the lessons learnt from the 1984 incident that are applicable today in light of the beadbi and other related issue in Punjab.

Hari, also known as Paguman Singh, is a retired Malaysian civil servant who had served the country for many years at the country’s national Social Security Organization known as SOCSO.

He was the first secretary of the Malaysian Gurdwaras Council (MGC). Now based in New Zealand, he is a social security consultant for the International Labour Organisation running a social protection project in Nepal.

The interview was conducted before the recent 10 Nov massive gathering in Punjab.


SIKH ACTIVIST: Hari Singh handling a discussion session at the 2003 Annual Gurmat Parchaar Samelan by Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.
SIKH ACTIVIST: Hari Singh handling a discussion session at the 2003 Annual Gurmat Parchaar Samelan by Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia.

You were involved in the Sikh activity scene in Malaysia in the aftermath of the Indian army attack on Harmandir Sahib in 1984. Today, we see Sikhs responding to the events in the wake of the desecration of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) in Punjab. What were the lessons learnt from 1984 applicable today?

First, the Sikh Panth has never prepared itself, nor planned its next stage of institutional, economic or missionary propagation and development. It never had. It has always let its defenses down and allowed anti-gurmat forces to be able to easily manipulate all aspects of the Sikh religious systems. The main reason is that we are a Panth of trust, of love and of care. We care so much for the world that we have forgotten to care for ourselves.

Second, our emotions run very strong when it comes to panthic issues. But these emotions, somehow, are like the monsoon rains. They come like a flood, than they disappear for a long time until the next issue.

Within the panth itself, 1984 created many institutions that today serve the world. These are not found in India, you find them outside of Punjab and India. Our involvement in world faith is one example. Our ability to take our messages to the governments in countries in which we live – USA, UK, Canada, Australia – and our ability to put forward in an organised manner care for the world as you would have seen from the time of the tsunami (Aceh, Indonesia and the earthquake in Nepal).Our organisations have done well on the world stage.

On the other side, we have always allowed and compromised with the anti-gurmat forces which have then found new ways to divide us. The divisions were done in a planned, systematic and organised manner. They are well funded government movements using all means and ways to attack the Panth.

One method was the buying power into the House of Nanak by using corrupt, non-dedicated, spiritually dead leaders. This was done from 1984 but the Panth did not give up. Despite all the efforts of our enemies by 1997, the Panth had strongly gathered to prepare for the 300th anniversary [of the Khalsa]. They gave the world the most scientifically calculated calendar that was precise to zero point zero zero something second. For the first time, after almost a hundred years, the panth had put forward, for itself and the world, an image of self reliance based on its calendar but yet provided a small leeway to others who were dissenting. Guru Nanak’s birthday was one such event. The calendar was put in place in 1999 and was well accepted for 11 years. This was the Nanak Sahai calendar.

This strengthening of the Panthic forces was not acceptable to some. They then created a new type of institution known as the Sant Samaj. It started its agitation, slowly eroding away the authorities within the SGPC and the Akal Takht. This lead to the Nanak Shahi calendar being changed back to the Bikarmi calendar. Such an event had never occurred in any race or religion and it was not in accordance with the panthic system of making decisions.

The Panj Pyara did not have the authority to change a panthic decision, decided by the sarbat khalsa. This created a wedge in the Panth.

Not satisfied, the next salvo fired by anti Panthic forces was the Dasam Granth with the intention of dividing the Panth further which has led to relative success.

The situation then began to deteriorate in Punjab on an economic, social, cultural and religion basis. This is the political formula of success: when you divide, you get to rule.

Of course, those who had been given the political blessings to go ahead now wanted to go a step further. This is where you find the attempts at tearing Guru Granth Sahib ji maharaj came about.

The response is very emotional and it will die off soon. The way in which it had been handled so far has not given people who are involved in it to add on something more spiritual in their protest about the matter. 1984 led to waves of black turbans, refusal to celebrate Diwali in Malaysia, prominence of the Vaisakhi celebration, acceptance of Sikhi as a separate religious entity by the Malaysian government. What will we achieve now?

In our present response, I ask this question: What are objectives? What’s next? Are you having a program through which people will know more about the immense value system of GGSJ? How many pearls of gurbani are you going to pick up, how many diamonds are going to put around your neck? All of them are available. At the moment, we have simply found a ritualistic system, which in itself, has been criticised by our own religion. How does it help?

What do you do next if the Indian government refuses to do anything? How are you going to push the international agencies, the governments of Malaysia and Singapore? Are the regional [Southeast Asia] Sikh leaders even thinking about having a regional meeting on this matter? Are we, as regional institutions, going to sit and cooperate and say this is what we want and this should not happen at Akal Takht?

It is like the individual fires, just candles. You have not ignited a total fire. All this is because the panth has never had a plan. It’s haphazard, responding to moments of emotional flares.


Q: So, what should Sikhs do today?

Sikhs need to set up an organisation known as the SSR (opposite of RSS)- Singh Sabha Revival – a reply to the RSS. Singh Sabha revived Sikhism in the 1900s when it was under total attack from the Hindus and Christian missionaries. Back then, gurdwaras and other organisations had been taken over by the mahants with the support of the British government. The Singh Sabha had a clear objective: to tell everybody hum hindu nahi [I’m not a Hindu]. It clearly stated that they were not followers of ritualism; they were the masters of intellectual spiritualism. It’s time we come back to that stage to revive our missionary work and realize that the Sikh is on a path of the highest spiritual realization. .

Every organization within the Sikh Panth who feels that Guru Granth has been desecrated needs to ask this simple simple question: am I doing exactly what GGS wants to me to do, or am I interpreting Sikh philosophy  with ritualistic lenses and have been drawn in by Hindu concepts?

Change the focusing and we will be able to understand that Guru Nanak only gave us the path of spirituality to change from within, to spread the love of the creation and the Creator within it.

Every Sikh Panth organization should not deviate from this path and work together to ensure that shabad guru is the only spiritual divine light for us. How this message is to be spread and brought into the lives of every follower. Faith cannot be bought but has to be practiced by the individual.


Q: But Sikh organisations today are besieged with maryada differences? Do you see them coming together?

I don’t. Not until and unless they inspect themselves. When panthic organizations move away from the panth the centre of our thought process, they will fight among themselves. They pretend to respect, love each other, but in actual fact, they do the opposite from within. Gursikhs and parcharaks should respect each other, not undermine each other.  The Khalsa Panth is the only organisation that the Guru gave us.

The Guru never created anything else. If we are believers and followers of that Guru – where we want to dress like him, look like him and say we are his children – yet we create our own sect, how is that acceptable?


Q: Some of these organizations seem to behave as though they are the true guardians of the faith. This is more so as they deem SGPC and other panthic organisations  have failed the panth?

The reasons you will find that you are successful and others are failing is because you are looking through your egoistic eyes. My son is better, I can do better. Its about such an attitude. Is it not strange that Guru Nanak never said that he is the only one who can bring change? He worked with everybody to reform them. The success with yogis, Muslims and Hindus is witness and accepting them in the highest spiritual stage is an example.


Q: But SGPC and institutions seemed to have failed the Sikhs?

The institutions, as we all know, had clear visionary objectives at the time they were setup. The leaders were neither ambitious nor corrupt. They were spiritual people with the clear objective of ensuring the panth and its institutions ran in accordance with the principles set in a 230-year practical history of a religion. Unfortunately, the system that was adopted for election purposes, conforming to normal modern day laws, provided a vehicle for politicians to hijack the administration and rule it according to their whims and fancies. The politicizing of spiritual institutions has led to a completely corrupt administration of the institutions, leading to the present failure that we see. To a certain level, it was acceptable. But now, it has gone to a stage where it is a blatant breaking of the principals of the institutions, which cannot be accepted. Clear cut reforms are required.


Q: What is the remedy? Discard the organizations?

The institution of the Akal Takht is a foundational pillar of social, economic and political justice for the world. It cannot be compromised. Throughout its history, it stood as an institution that prevented exploitation of the poor, did not allow oppression, defended  the weak and the women. These are goals that cannot compromised today.

The administration  and the processes that are in place need to be reexamined. This needs to be done so that all undue influences upon it can be removed to create that authority which was envisaged and established during the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji.


Q: Did the Alkaal Takhat actually stand for these lofty things?

Right from the times of Guru Hargobind Sahib, when there were disputes, people used to come to Guru Ji for resolutions and justice. This is the judiciary of the world to provide right decisions without fear or favour.  Later, during the times of Sikh misls, when a Brahmin’s new wife was kidnapped, the Khalsa fauj went for the rescue. Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself had to bow before th Akal Takht and accept its tankah. You find throughout history, the Akal Takht has been the institution for spiritual as well as judicial authority.


Q: Can it function as such in today’s world?

It still can. When there is any unrest, religious prosecution or persecution, the Akal Takht can step in. It can say, that based on the facts that this is not according to the religious requirement of whichever religion  It can stand for poverty reduction; it can stand for the human rights that we talk about.

It would be great to have the Akal Takht sending out a hukumnama to say that within any two mile radius of any gurdwara, no person shall fall asleep without having a meal. It can run a poverty reduction programs globally.  Guru Har Gobind Sahib said that he was not coming out the Gwalior prison until and unless the 52 Hindu maharajas were released (of course not related to Dawali). He had asked for social justice. The Akal Takht is the same. That is what we should be doing.

But what has become of the institution. It has been reduced to discussing mundane matters that do not have a proper worldview. It is managing day to day small operational matters.


Q: 1984. What was the mood back then?

Back then, the Sikh religious population in Malaysia, and throughout the world, was very different. All of us had a strong language anchor, in Punjabi, I mean. We had come through a number of years of actual seva and attachment to gurdwaras. The emotions had been cultured in us from the time of birth. There were very strong attachments.

Today, the attachments are not that strong because of institutional failures that we are seeing. Gurdwaras are more social gathering spots with religious gloss on it. The younger generation had missed out on the wonders of seva which ingrains the love of Sikhi. They seem to be attached superficially. A majority, I believe, had not even seen what is under the rumalaa (cloth covering the SGGS), leave alone finding out the gems within Gurbani.

The Sikhi parchaar (preaching) over the last few years done by imported Gianis from India – who use language strange for the younger generation – has not helped in any way to improve the knowledge on the Sikh way of life.

These are the difficulties we face now in Malaysia and other places as well. How do we take the children to the next stage to ensure that, when such events take place, they are looked at from an intellectual plane and conducted in a planned way, rather than an emotional outburst?



Big Sikh presence at KL Remembrance Sunday (Asia Samachar, 8 Nov 2015)

To remember & to celebrate (Asia Samachar, 10 Nov 2015)

Dogma of the Indian State (Asia Samachar, 28 June 2015)

1984: What The Media Couldn’t Tell You 31 Years Ago (Asia Samachar, 8 June 2015)


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