The 17th general election in India is already underway in seven phases over 38 days. Voting for 545 seats between April 11 and May 23 that will decide the next Government of India. There are 900 million registered voters, and about 70% are expected to cast their vote. 15 million are voting for the first time; 18 and over are eligible to vote. The result will be declared on 23 May 2019.
Who holds the ‘key’ to the elections for the Panjabis and the Sikhs?
"...$270 million has been seized by the election commission officials; in the 2014 election, $42 million was seized..."
Election rules require that no Indian citizen should have to travel more than two kilometers to vote. Model Code of Conduct demands minimum behavior for peace, freeness, and fairness of the election process. Hate speech, asking for votes in the name of religion and caste, and using the state machinery for campaign purposes by the ruling party are considered violations of the Model Code. To-date, $270 million has been seized by the election commission officials; in the 2014 election, $42 million was seized. Who really follows these codes?
The Election Commission of India runs the elections with a permanent staff of 800 employees. It borrows 12 million employees from federal and state governments.
In 2014, 75,237 villages were deemed sensitive with a history of conflict and violation during elections. It also identified 200,000 individuals who had a history of misconduct, threatening or intimidating voters, polling officials or representatives of other political parties on the polling day.
The Indian state of Panjab will hold its elections on 19 May 2019, on the seventh and the last phase of the election. Thirteen Members of Parliament will be elected for the Panjab. There are four competing alliances, some are just one party in the Panjab. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) includes Indian National Congress (INC); National Democratic Alliance (NDA) includes Shiromani Akal Dal (SAD) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP); Aam Aadmi Party (AAP); and Punjab Democratic Alliance (PDA) includes Lok Insaf Party (LIP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Punjabi Ekta Party (PEP), Communist Party of India (CPI), Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), and Punjab Front (PF). UPA has all 13 INC candidates. NDA has 10 SAD and 3 BJP candidates, respectively. AAP has all 13 candidates. PDA has 3 candidates each of LIP, BSP, PEP; 2 candidates of CPI, and 1 candidate each of RMP and PF.
The real coalition in the Panjab is actually of PDA alliance: from left to right, from religious to atheist, from high caste to low caste, and from the former establishment to anti-establishment.
‘Parachute candidates’ include Bollywood actor Sunny Deol and current Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri, both from BJP.
In 2014 elections, NDA, AAP, and UPA won 6, 4, and 3 seats, respectively. But this is not your average election campaign.
Four of the thirteen constituencies are reserved for “SC”; SC stands for Scheduled Castes which are essentially so-called lower castes or untouchables.
Khadur Sahib is located near the river Bias, about 38 kilometers from Amritsar, Panjab. It was founded by Guru Angad Sahib after he was anointed as the uncontested leader of the Sikhs by Guru Nanak Sahib. Khadur Sahib is where Guru Angad Sahib replicated the Kartarpur Sahib model as the hub of Sikh activity near the river Ravi. Eight of the ten Guru Sahibs visited Khadur Sahib. There are seven Sikh historical markers commemorated as Gurduaras (Sikh place of learning) in Khadur Sahib.
Khadur Sahib is where Guru Angad Sahib spent 13 years, furthering the IkOankar paradigm of 1-ness. This is where the Gurmukhi script was organized, the first Gurmukhi Primer was developed, the first Sikh school was established and the first pothi (short anthology) of Sabad-Wisdom was prepared. This is also where the first Mal Akhara for wrestling was established. Institutions were developed to create access to education and health to free people.
Vira Bai or Sat Bharai’s (because she had seven brothers) home was what brought Khadur Sahib on the Sikh map. Guru Nanak Sahib visited her up to six times. Her home is where Guru Angad Sahib came and deliberated on how to further ‘jot-jugat’ (light-method) amidst the chaos that was taking place in the Sikh world. Guru Angad Sahib came here instead of going to his ancestral home at Matte di Sarai, Muktsar, Panjab.
“Then, the eternal Guru, the son of Pheru, came to dwell at Khadur” records Guru Granth Sahib when the leadership was transferred to Guru Angad Sahib.
Now, in 2019, is Khadur Sahib the place from where a Sikh woman will rise amidst the chaos?
In 2009 and 2014, Khadur Sahib’s MP seat was secured by SAD beating INC, though in 2009 it was a close contest. In the last election at Khadur Sahib, 31, 62, and 2 polling stations were declared hypersensitive, sensitive, and critical, respectively. The by-polls were conducted with 2,100 security personnel, which included 1,500 police officers and 6 companies of the paramilitary forces. The polls had 150 micro-observers appointed at different polling stations.
There was a by-election in 2016 for Panjab Assembly’s Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) seat; at the time this constituency had 187,184 voters; of which 58% voted. The by-polls were necessitated after the sitting INC legislator Ramanjit Singh Sikki resigned in October 2015 over incidents of sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib throughout the Panjab. The state failed to stop the incidents and catch the criminals. SAD candidate Ravinder Singh Brahmpura won with 79% votes, INC and AAP boycotted, Bhupinder Singh Bittu and Prof. Sumail Singh Sidhu received 16% and 2% votes, respectively.
Khalra: Shahid’s Bibi
Paramjit Kaur Khalra (Bibi Khalra) is vying for a parliamentary seat in the Panjab which has nine Panjab Legislative Assembly segments. She is a 65-year young Sikh woman who is contesting elections from Khadur (popularly Khadoor) Sahib. In doing so, Bibi Khalra is making history. She is the first openly defiant Sikh woman to take on state repression in the Panjab, first to run in the parliamentary elections for the Panjab on human rights as a core theme. This is monumental given the current trends in India and the globe where the economy is trumping human rights. “From this platform, we hope to tell the world why people like Jaswant Singh Khalra (Shahid Khalra) are important for democracy and peace in society,” she remarked. For 24 years, she has fought a long and lonely battle to ensure justice for her husband and the 25,000 missing Panjabi-Sikhs.
The community has been waging a long battle for justice, both before the law and with society. Shahid Khalra, a banker and a human rights advocate, was abducted on 6 Sep 1995 and killed on 27 Oct 1995 by the Panjab Police under the direct orders of the then Director General of Police KPS Gill. Shahid Khalra’s body was disposed of in Hari-ke-Pattan, largest wetland in northern India in the Panjab. Six police officers were convicted for his murder in 2005; four of them were later sentenced to life imprisonment for his murder. The verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011. Shahid Khalra’s work was to share evidence and to highlight unclaimed and unidentified bodies during fake encounters of Sikh youth by the Panjab Police during the Sikh militancy.
The Shahid Khalra narrative has become an epic story in the annals of human rights. His work is cited by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Ensaaf, among others. Many community organizations, artists, songwriters have paid tribute to him. Awards, scholarships, trophies, and parks have been named after him. Why? Because he traveled from cremation ground to cremation ground and established that, the police had cremated over 2,000 “unidentified” bodies in Tarn Taran district alone. Shahid Khalra is featured in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
“He dared to pose a question to the mighty state: Who were those people? It was a simple question to which the state didn’t have an answer. They tried to silence his voice but before that, he was able to tell the world about the malpractice of fake encounters,”
-Bibi Khalra shared.
This is not the first time Bibi Khalra is contesting an election. Earlier, she was a candidate of the Sarb Hind Shiromani Akali Dal (founded in 1999, dissolved in 2003) floated by Gurcharan Singh Tohra after parting ways with Parkash Singh Badal of SAD.
As for the elections, the political arithmetic is loaded against her. Bibi Khalra is up against SAD heavyweight candidate Jagir Kaur, a former MLA of the Panjab, a state minister, and a former head of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) who was sentenced to 5-year imprisonment for the honor killing of her own daughter.
Bibi Khalra neither has the money – her assets total $158,000 (Rs 1.1 crore) – nor the electoral machinery to reach about 1.5 million voters. But Bibi Khalra does not count electoral success as the only parameter. “For me, each vote is a sign of acceptability, of one more person accepting me and our community.”
The campaign is also deeply personal. That’s why the fame and adulation she has achieved as a candidate is a validation of her life choices: “The world knows me for continuing the legacy of my husband Jaswant Singh Khalra.”
She keeps getting better at making the core agenda for this election consistently about human rights.
Bibi Khalra’s constant allies are her daughter Navkiran Kaur and son Janmeet Singh. Together, they continue to build on Shahid Khalra’s legacy in India, the United States, and Canada. For decades many in the Homeland and in the Diaspora, have been publicly claiming at “panthak” platforms that they stand with the Khalras. Are they really supporting via intellect, field-work, or money?
My first introduction to Shahid Khalra was in 1994.
There used to be a Human Rights Wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal. Shahid Khalra was this wing’s General Secretary and Jaspal Singh Dhillon was its President. I would get faxes at my work, which I then would disseminate to relevant Sikh and non-Sikh organizations from my Kansas (USA) aerospace office. On 16 Jan 1995 press release, Shahid Khalra went public with the allegations regarding police abductions, disappearances, and illegal cremations; the court took note.
Yes, the same SAD party who created the human rights wing temporarily and the same INC party under which the abduction and extrajudicial killing took place, are running major candidates opposing Bibi Khalra now. However, many Sikhs outside of INC and SAD are converging for her victory. In fact, there are 19 candidates in total, many with similar sounding names to confuse and break the votes. For example, 2 last names of Khalra and one of Khambra. Bibi Khalra’s differentiation on the ballot is the insignia of a ‘Key.’
Key is a powerful symbol in the Khalra story. It symbolizes opening and closing powers; in this instance, depriving a person’s and community's freedom and unlocking it. Metaphysically, it is a journey from mystery and curiosity to knowledge and wisdom. Will enough Sikhs and Panjabis vote for her to become their MP? 80% of the global Sikh population still lives in the Panjab.
This is the only election that matters to Sikhs, 1 out of 545 seats. Not because it will change policies or parties necessarily, but because it is the only one ‘challenging the darkness’ with an impeccable track record. For a Sikh of the Guru, it is not about losing or winning, but “Speaking the Truth, at the moment of Truth” as per Guru Granth Sahib.
On 20 April 2019, the District Election Officer who reports to the Chief Election Commissioner of Panjab issued a notice to Bibi Khalra for terming Guru Granth Sahib as her election manifesto; she was given 48 hours to submit clarification. The complained was based on ask of SAD and INC candidates. She responded:
Firstly, the message of Guru Granth Sahib is not only for a particular community. The message of Guru Granth Sahib is for the entire humanity ... I am saddened that the notice was issued to me on the complaints of those leaders who oppose Guru Granth Sahib’s thought-process and were responsible for the attack on Darbar Sahib with tanks and guns (June 1984) … those who are responsible for sacrilege of Guru Granth Sahib. I want to tell you that the guidance of Guru Granth Sahib is about human equality, elimination of caste system, opposing persecution, supporting the downtrodden and assuring goodness for humanity. . . I consider taking support-guidance from Guru Granth Sahib is not a violation of the model code of conduct.
Recall, Kanshi Ram (1934-2006) and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), both leaders of the Mulnivasi movement which works to establish rights for the so-called Dalits or untouchables, considered Guru Granth Sahib as their manifesto to free the people of India.
On this 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak Sahib, will the people of Panjab send Bibi Khalra to continue Shahid Khalra’s mission and build her own legacy in Delhi as the representative of the people of Khadur Sahib?
Harinder Singh is a thinker, author, and educator. He is the co-founder of the Sikh Research Institute. He tweets at @1Force