Sikhs across the globe are up in arms over sectarian violence in India and are calling on Prime Minister Modi to respond.
On October 14 in Punjab, northern India, violence erupted amid a peaceful protest. The protesters were Sikh, from a religion native to the region but with followers all over the world. The violent actors, who killed two and injured some 80 or more, were local police.
When I first saw my fellow Sikhs adopting the hashtag #SikhLivesMatter, despite my initial wariness at their cooption of the moniker used by African American activists, I accepted it. I assumed there was a direct comparison being made between unwarranted state action, the devaluation of human life and a call for accountability.
Over the past few weeks, as the global Sikh community exploded with anger and concern, I was shocked to see how my community focused on issues that were beside the point.
Time was lent in major media outlets, after an on-air protest, to assess the concerns as they were actually voiced. In particular, Sikhs complained of a media blackout, which led to obliging language of inclusion on the part of some media organizations. But the coverage concluded with assessments that the situation was confusing, and no specific recommendations were offered on how to address the issues that Sikhs face.
While the situation is still tense, it has not escalated. However, the relevant questions that were present at the outbreak of violence have not been addressed, and the media’s attention is threatening to ebb without asking anything germane.
Sikhs are a very visible but often misunderstood population. They are industrious, and part of their own narrative about a “media blackout” was generated online because they have built their own media networks to address their needs as a diaspora. In this case, that is how the anger and frustration built so quickly, and why #SikhLivesMatter became the banner for Sikh activism.
A Sinking Feeling
Sikhs are a people who have also endured injustice. Sikhism is built into the DNA of the Punjab, which was invaded almost constantly since the beginning of recorded history, until the first Sikhs came along and created a religion—and an army—to serve their needs in peace and war.
More recently, violence directed at Sikhs came at the hands of Western powers. Within living memory are the last acts of the British Empire, including a massacre in Amritsar and the still-unrecognized genocide of partition that followed India’s independence. And a single generation ago, in 1984, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rolled tanks into the Golden Temple with the help of British planning.
All this accounts for why, when a curfew was recently enforced in Punjab, the air around the world hung heavy with fear for the worst.
Such an outbreak also explains why the relevant issues became lost in explosive emotional elements of the situation. These events are traumatic in the medical sense, and as with the survivors of war, they trigger effects in cognition and speech and impact the ability to ask the right questions.
Punjab: Battleground for Global Capital Interests
With a traumatized population on one hand, Punjab is also home to a host of natural resources and international corporations hungry to profit from its historically fertile fields.
In Britain, Jagmeet Singh appeared on television for a panel discussion and demanded the BBC devote air-time to the developing situation—a plea that worked. In Canada, where the largest group of Punjabis outside of the region lives, the situation has become a political football during election season, partially because the community has long-called for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address his role in sectarian violence. In the United States, Sikh communities are threatening to renounce their central, Indian religious authorities in order to root out the corruption.
Long the breadbasket of India, Punjab was the source of the British Empire’s sustenance. With five rivers of flowing Himalayan snowmelt feeding a relatively flat region, Punjab has long-been so fertile that it has been the wealthiest state in India for as long as the statistics have been recorded.
In the late 20th century, this meant the region captured the imagination of Western agricultural giants, who have employed the same seed patenting tactics in Punjab as they have in the US and elsewhere (though Europe and South America have largely outlawed the practice because of its deleterious effects on farming, farmers and the food provided to the general public).
Today in Punjab, these companies run roughshod over the long-preserved agricultural lifestyle. Rivers are running lower due to the multi-generational impact of genetically-modified seeds leaving chemicals in the soil. The farmers, in a land without basic education, sign into unfair contracts and end up buried in debt to the seed companies, leading to astronomical suicide rates among Punjabi farmers. With all this affecting the primary business of the region (and due to the proximity of Pakistan), rates of heroin use are also alarmingly high, especially among the young men who would otherwise be looking to take over these businesses.
Sikhs Should Focus on Modi and Transparency
With all this as background reading, it is easy to see why a diaspora dealing with painful memories might not be able to articulate itself perfectly. And it also explains why Sikhs would gravitate toward the hashtag African Americans have used successfully to both bring attention to their issues and to unite a widespread activist network that had been in disarray for years.
But it does not mean the hashtag should be used, or that Sikh issues are to be conflated with those of African Americans. (Although the use of that hashtag could be used as an invitation and bridge-building tool by the Sikh community.)
However, it is painfully clear that Sikhs have reason to be afraid. America has recently cemented relations with India, which has long-been key to the US economy as a source of cheap technology and manufacturing labor. India is increasingly seen as a large player in the global economy.
All this means power and influence is pouring in from international bankers. And the road to Punjab’s lucre runs right through the office of Prime Minister Modi, who has a history of promoting sectarian violence to advance his own political purposes. It even means the holiest site in Sikhism, the Golden Temple, could potentially fall into the hands of Modi’s government.
These are the reasons Sikhs across the globe are up in arms about a seemingly trivial skirmish. But the single, most pressing question now should be—as it was in Ferguson and Baltimore—will there be justice for those who died at the hands of the police?
Every effort should be made to follow this process in its most minute detail. And calls should come from every corner of the globe to pressure Modi to attend to these matters and denounce his own cold and deliberate history of profiting from sectarian violence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.