I once met an elderly man who had taken pictures before and after 1984.
I asked him: “What was it like photographing 84’?”
His response: “I feel like I have been photographing 1984 my entire life.”
His response shook me and it became a very significant moment for me.
This experience led me to question - Why do I care about the violence that occurred during 1984…why should I care?
I have thought about why local Sikhs marched through the streets of Vancouver in 84’…why did it matter for them to raise their voice for a Panjab they had left behind?
Because back home, their existence was deliberately being set on fire. The violence was a direct attack on the dignity of the Sikh nation and it served as a reminder of their inferior position in Indian society.
In her article “Boundaries between Home and Diaspora,” Diditi Mitra explores the question of, “What does the Sikh interest in Panjab say about the group’s attachment and this construct of a homeland or a place to which they belong?”
Listen on: Spotify, Apple Podcast, Anchor or Podbean
Sikhs came all the way from India to leave a life of marginalization and deliberate targeting of their identity only to relive that very heartache from a distance.
Panjab…a place they called home…the very home that became the grounds of organized brutal murders of innocent people. Despite this, Sikhs raised their voices, the voices of the Guru’s that led the fight against such tyranny. Guru Arjan Sahib’s shahedi (martyrdom) during the Mughal Empire is indicative of refusing to stay quiet to spread the message of Sikhi. Guru Teghbahadur Sahib sacrificed his life for human rights when interceding on behalf of members of the Hindu faith.
There is a disillusionment amongst the diaspora: that we do not know which way to turn to make effective changes so Sikhs in Panjab can move on from the nightmare they continue to live. Being in another country creates a mental separation of not being able to connect or fully understand what is needed and where to begin. We are faced with the challenge to separate our lives in the diaspora from the roots of our ancestral Panjab that run through the veins of our existence.
Regardless of initial attempts to muffle and ultimately silence the Sikh populace, we can never forget our ancestral ties that have made us who we are. Because of the trapped voices of 84’, I have been given the privilege of a voice I thought had been lost.
My silence would be a true disservice to this nation that continues to bleed for every single human’s freedom. That is the essence of a Sikh. By remembering 1984, I am reminded that the Sikh identity was intentionally targeted and that very Sikh identity is a part of who I am.
Despite the separation, as our Guru’s Sikhs, we must connect to our history that lives through us mentally, not just physically.
As a Sikh youth, I have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to our history and struggles through conversations and literature. I believe conversations have been key to the development of my Sikhi and to make sense of why it is so critical to harness my Sikh identity.
However, that space is not available for everyone. The fine line that we tread of modernity and remaining connected often times becomes a mental anxiety, creating thoughts of “where do I fit into all of this” and fears of diverging from the status quo. Our identities have become diluted because of the challenges Sikh youth face connecting with Sikhi trying to find ourselves in this chaos.
The Guru’s bani (Wisdom) was the strength-hold of Sikhs pre and post 84’. That is where I believe the true disconnect begins.
The Indian State’s greatest enemy and fear: A Sikh connected to Guru’s bani.
ਜੈਸੇ ਜਲ ਮਹਿ ਕਮਲੁ ਨਿਰਾਲਮੁ ਮੁਰਗਾਈ ਨੈ ਸਾਣੇ ॥
ਸੁਰਤਿ ਸਬਦਿ ਭਵ ਸਾਗਰੁ ਤਰੀਐ ਨਾਨਕ ਨਾਮੁ ਵਖਾਣੇ ॥
~ Guru Granth Sahib 938
As the lotus flower floats untouched upon the surface of the water, as the duck swims through the stream; with one’s consciousness focused on the Guru’s words and uttering Nam, one can cross over the terrifying world-ocean. O Nanak.
We must as Sikhs connect with our heritage and the Guru’s Word. As Professor Puran Singh has said, “You must not allow no decay of fervour.” The Guru’s bani will create sparks of life, and a chance spark will burn up all the heaviness and make you light as if you had no body.
Michel Foucault was a 20th-century French philosopher and historian who ascertained that space is fundamental in any exercise of power. If we are displaced from the very space that is home, we have no choice but to push back and create spaces anew.
Although the context Foucault focused on is 18th century Europe, I believe his body of work speaks true to the difficulties Sikh youth face today.
The most critical signifiers of what a Sikh is connects to our history of oppression and resistance. The resistance to not forget and to remember to maintain who we are.
This is exactly why creating spaces for Sikh youth to express these ideas must exist here. The lack thereof has resulted in a loss of connection with the Sikh identity because people stop or do not begin to look for those spaces.
For the Sikh psyche, 1984 represents the treatment of the Sikh body as an object, an object that became a target of power to a degree that did not exist before.
Power was practiced upon Sikh bodies through “micro processes” such as disciplining bodies to produce “subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.”
Continued control of the movements we make in the diaspora has mentally “captured and fixed” us into a field of surveillance.
Through this field of surveillance, two bodies are created – the normal and abnormal body. The norm belongs to the homogenous social body and the latter is exiled and spatially separated.
And that is where the struggle continues. Sikh youth struggle to define where we must place ourselves within this society, but we also face the internal fight of where and how to connect to Panjab.
Remembering is not enough. We must show we are very much alive in chardi kala (Spirit Ascendant) because our gifted identities from the Gurus are our greatest form of resilience.
We must continue to speak about these atrocities because these atrocities do not purely exist as memories of the past.
We must continue active conversations about not only the genocide of 84’, but also about other genocides that have occurred like the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women in British Columbia.
It is the only way language and its meaning will change for the future.
I think it only fitting to end with an excerpt from a poem by Professor Puran Singh that truly speaks to my heart and connection with Panjab.
“Come back, come back my land of the five waters,
My Punjab of the cheerful mien and blossoming brow
of the days gone by.
Come back to me a thousand-fold, a million-fold, come back my land,
Come and dwell in the innermost sanctuary of my heart,
My sacred soil of a myriad hues.
Punjab-the all – pervading spirit of my soul, come!
Announce yourself with that bounteous clang;
Come as the sweet buzzing of a thousand honey bees
Over beds of blossoming flowers.
My whole being goes out to you with arms outstretched,
In the affluence of love and sacrifice.
Return to me, my own.”
Amanpreet Kaur has a Bachelors of Arts in Sociology and a Bachelor of Laws. She is an alumna of Sikh Research Institute’s Sidak program and the World Sikh Organization’s (WSO) Sikh Youth Leadership Institute program. She is driven by a passion for defending the human rights of all, women’s empowerment and the protection of animals. Amanpreet’s most recent Seva project includes acting as WSO’s Lower Mainland representative for the 1 Billion Rising Initiative, a global initiative raising funds and creating care packages for survivors of domestic violence.