Like most people, before 2007 I only knew Sikhs by their appearance—and particularly the physically imposing men with their turbans and beards. But in May of that year, I saw something that turned me around–Shonali Bose’s “Amu”, a dramatization of what amounted to genocide in India in 1984.
In the press notes for the film, Shonali wrote:
Such a history cannot be buried and forgotten. Young people cannot make their future or understand their present without knowing the past. Today, twenty-two years after an elected government massacred its own people in full view of the world, no one has been punished. And as a result, the cycle of violence has continued against other communities. What kind of political system is this in which those in power can get away with such crimes again and again? This is the question Amu leaves the young protagonists with as they walk down a railway track into the future. This is why I made Amu. So that people all over the world will ask the question.
Now, four years later, I return to the Sikh struggle once again through the prism of film.
On October 14th I attended the opening night of the Sikh Film Festival in New York and saw two documentaries that went to the heart of the problems facing this 25 million strong religious group, three-quarters of whom live in Punjab, India, as well as other South Asians suffering from economic oppression.
Harpreet Kaur’s “A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams” featured the director in her campaign to win justice for the surviving family members of Punjabi peasants who have killed themselves out of desperation. Like so many peasants in India, Sikh and non-Sikh, the industrial transformation of Indian farming has condemned many to crushing debts.
Obviously related to the first documentary in terms of its economic focus, Alberto Garcia Ortiz and Agatha Maciaszek’s “The Ulysses” tells the story of Bangladeshi undocumented workers who are living in limbo. Deceived into thinking that they were destined for Europe and gainful employment, they are stranded in Ceuta, Morocco, a European enclave, where they construct a shanty-town and look after each other’s needs.
It is an obvious testimony to the ecumenical character of Sikh society that a film featuring the plight of non-Sikh peoples is featured on opening night.
Arguably, the Sikh religion is rooted in the same kind of belief in social equality that marked the early days of Christianity, long before that religion became associated with imperial power and intolerance. In Purnima Dhavan’s “When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition, 1699-1799”, a book that can be read in part on Google, we learn:
The creation of the Khalsa [initiated Sikh] is important for many reasons. Its foundational texts questioned every facet of the social and political hierarchies that dominated peasant life in the seventeenth century. Other than challenging the moral right of the Mughal emperor to rule, Khalsa Sikhs, who were among the first to describe appropriate Khalsa practices, also questioned the hierarchies of caste and inherited privilege that dominated their world.
In one of the talks given at opening night of the Sikh Film Festival, a Sikh leader gave a brief overview of this formative period that involved some legendary battles of vastly outnumbered Sikh fighters against the Mughal army. Unlike the Old Testament, these heroic encounters were true and did not involve divine intervention. In point of fact, the Sikh religion has little use for such deus ex machina miracles or any other superstitions, as the Sikh wiki points out:
Superstitions and rituals should not be observed or followed, including pilgrimages, fasting and ritual purification; circumcision; idols & grave worship…
Sikhism does not have priests, they were abolished by Guru Gobind Singh (the 10th Guru of Sikhism). The only position he left was a Granthi to look after the Guru Granth Sahib, any Sikh is free to become Granthi or read from the Guru Granth Sahib.
Over centuries, and largely driven by a need to defend themselves against those who would crush their religion, Sikh men became accomplished fighters and actually built up a sizable empire of their own that straddled Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.
Eventually the Sikhs encountered an enemy army that they could not vanquish, namely the British colonists of the mid-19th century who fought two wars of subjugation that eventually led to the loss of Sikh power in Punjab. Once they were conquered, the Sikh warriors were heavily recruited into the British army because of their fighting skills.
While much of Karl Marx’s writings on India is problematic, relying on specious secondary sources, his 1858 Tribune article on “The Revolt in India” is worth noting:
A conspiracy to murder their officers and to rise against the British has been discovered among several Sikh regiments at Dera Ismael Khan. How far this conspiracy was ramified, we cannot tell. Perhaps it was merely a local affair, arising among a peculiar class of Sikhs; but we are not in a position to assert this. At all events, this is a highly dangerous symptom. There are now nearly 100,000 Sikhs in the British service, and we have heard how saucy they are; they fight, they say, to-day for the British, but may fight to-morrow against them, as it may please God. Brave, passionate, fickle, they are even more subject to sudden and unexpected impulses than other Orientals. If mutiny should break out in earnest among them, then would the British indeed have hard work to keep their own. The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India; they have formed a comparatively powerful empire; they are of a peculiar sect of Brahminism, and hate both Hindoos and Mussulmans.
As I said, Marx did not get everything right. Although I am no expert on the Sikh religion, the idea that they are a “sect of Brahmanism” sounds wrong. But from what I have been reading lately, the notion that “The Sikhs were always the most formidable opponents of the British among the natives of India” seems indisputable.
Indeed, Marx was right on this. As the fight for Indian independence grew apace, the Sikhs became vanguard fighters. Launched in part to break the hold of corrupt Mahants (custodians) over Sikh Temples, who were often in fact not even Sikhs, it turned into a fight against the British who propped up the Mahants in their typically colonizing mode of operation.
Agnes Smedley wrote an article for the July 2, 1924 Nation Magazine titled “The Akali Movement—An Heroic Epic”. These are the concluding paragraphs:
According to the official statement of the S. G. P. Committee, published throughout the Indian press, the massacre at the Gangsar shrine in Jaito was deliberately prepared by the British Government. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine, declared the committee, and concealed behind some buildings, the authorities erected a special barbed-wire in-closure to serve as a trap into which the Akalis were to be driven and beaten. The scene leading to the temple looked like a European battlefield. The road leading to the shrine was inclosed by a barbed-wire barricade on the one side and on the other bullock carts chained together. Behind the carts, villagers, armed with clubs and drunk with liquor which had been freely supplied them, were stationed in three rows. According to the statement of Pundit Malaviya, organizer and founder of the great Benares Hindu University, in a speech before the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and according to the statement issued by the S. G. P. Committee, these villagers had been recruited from the surrounding villages, one from each family, on the threat of confiscation of land and expulsion from the state of any family which did not send one representative. A platoon of infantry, two detachments of cavalry, and sappers and miners were ready to receive the Jatha. Lewis guns were fixed at various places. And, more significant still, a, trench had been dug around the temple, filled with water, and then strewn with grass and twigs to give it a deceptive appearance.
The Jatha realized its fate as it approached, but it was under a sacred pledge. In a calm and devotional mood, and singing hymns, it advanced. The English commander gave a signal with a flag, and fire was opened. The Akalis did not waver, but marched forward, with hands upraised and with voices raised in a mighty religious hymn. As their comrades fell about them they picked them up and marched on. Realizing that to stop them meant to kill the last man, the cavalry surrounded them. Some thirty Sikh women in the procession, one whose baby was killed in her arms, attended the wounded; upon their refusal to withdraw they were lashed and beaten. The dead and wounded lay for twenty-four hours without any medical assistance. Some of the dead bodies were piled on pyres, drenched with kerosene oil, and burned. Others were finally loaded on carts like so many sacks of grain, and taken to the fort where the prisoners were detained.
Since the Jaito massacre five more Jathas of 500 have reached Jaito, only to be arrested. As they leave Amritsar on their long march the streets and housetops are jammed with people crying “Sat Sri Akal.” Each night they rest and educate the peasants. Crowds of people wait for hours along the routes, ready to offer them, free of all charge, food and drink.
The Akali epic is not yet ended. It has again raised India from the depression which followed Mahatma Gandhi’s arrest. It has ceased to be purely one of religious reform. It is a social and political movement led by men who prefer martyrdom to surrender. Almost every Sikh now claims the honor of being an Akali, a name drawn from the deep wells of Sikh persecution which means one who is pure in spirit, “the Deathless.”
Last Thursday I attended a press screening for “I am Singh” that opened yesterday at Big Cinemas in NY, a theater specializing in Asian films. This is a film that dramatizes the struggle against racist attacks on both Sikhs and Muslims that took place in the aftermath of 9/11.
The title of this film is almost the same as “I am Sikh” since the name Singh, which means lion, is automatically given to Sikh boys just as Kaur (princess) is given to girls. The main character is Ranveer Singh (Gulzar Chahal) who is summoned to Los Angeles from India by his mother. In the parking lot of their restaurant, skinheads have attacked his father and two older brothers. After accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attack, they begin beating them with baseball clubs. The father is in a hospital, one brother is dead, and the other is in jail falsely accused of attacking his own relatives. In this film, the Los Angeles police department is depicted as riddled with racists. No, it is not a documentary.
After Ranveer comes to Los Angeles to investigate, he finds two allies in the fight to achieve justice. One is a barrel-chested long-time Sikh member of the police force who is fired for refusing to remove his turban while on duty (played by Bollywood veteran Puneet Issar, the film’s director). The other is a Muslim from Pakistan who witnessed the skinhead attack and was also falsely accused of being a 9/11 plotter simply because his father had the same name as someone who sold a cell phone to Mohamed Atta. Once again, I have to remind you that this is not a documentary.
For those who have never seen a Bollywood film, be prepared. The actors act in a way that is a throwback to cinema’s early days, long before there was such a thing as “method acting”—something that probably never made much of a dent in Indian film to begin with. People went to movies in order to enjoy something that was about as far from “natural” as could be expected. Think of Kabuki and you get an idea of the stylized manner of Bollywood that I personally enjoy immensely.
At the press screening, there were a number of my film critic colleagues who were guffawing at the histrionic delivery of some of the actors. I had to restrain myself from going over to one of the louder ones and giving them a piece of my mind. The provincialism of some New Yorkers can be shocking.
I can recommend “I am Singh” as a powerful statement of Sikh resistance to attempts to scapegoat them. That people can be beaten or killed for simply wearing a turban is a threat to some of our most basic rights as Americans, rights that were not handed down by the rich and the powerful but won through struggle. (The Sikh community, including youth who are involved with The Sikh Activist Network, is carrying out the social struggle depicted in “I am Singh” in real life. )
Finally, the song-and-dance numbers in “I am Singh” are about as breathtaking as in any Bollywood movie I have ever seen. Trust me, unless you have seen 6’5” Sikh men dancing with swords, you haven’t seen nothin’ Here’s a clip from the movie’s official website that will give you an idea of the treat that awaits you.