By Simran Kaur:
When food pipes are stitched into an 83-year-old grandfather’s forehead while pus collects around, indicating deep infection; visitors are intimated; his son is incarcerated – but public outrage remains muted. What does this say about us as a society?
In Punjab, since January 16, 2015, the taunt-faced and blue-turbaned Surat Singh has been on a hunger strike. His demands are around the attention to prisoners’ rights. His fate, in response to his peaceful agitation? Since February 26, he has been forcefully kept at a civil hospital in Ludhiana, where he is subjected to dubious medical procedures, and heavy police presence has curtailed most from reaching him.
The country’s largest civil rights organizations, PUCL, has issued a statement against such inhuman treatment. But even after all this, the ripples of protest are few. Is this because we have a case of a man and his family who are not aligned with any particular political personalities and are not engaged in any mud-slinging?
As a society, our silence is exhibiting to each other and our children, that we respond more to fake bravado or violence than we do to civilized and principled resistance. Other than PUCL, shows of solidarity by fellow Indians, who are usually quick to quote the valour of Satyagraha and non-violent protests, have been absent. Shows of solidarity by fellow Sikhs, who are often quick to cast other Indians as being callous towards Punjab’s strife, have also been absent.
While the reasons for this cowardly restraint by Sikhs might be complex, the result is simple: a man ready to die for the greater good is suffering and dying with minuscule attention as compared to debates around things like the movie Nanak Shah Fakir in India, or the cutting of cakes for ‘Sikh heritage month’ in the otherwise vociferous communities in Canada and the U.S.
The fact that Surat Singh is no one’s cause, is enough for us to pause and think.
For those who think hunger strikes are weak, perhaps you can show strength to skip meals a few days and reassess? For those who think hunger strikes by devout Sikhs are dangerous, perhaps you can ask yourself what sort of resistance you are promoting when you ignore peaceful protest?
While sipping chai and reading the morning paper about whether comments about Sonia Gandhi’s white skin were offensive to Nigerians—missing the point that they are in fact reflective of the shameful racism of us Indians, ever-reaching for tubes of Fair & Lovely—shouldn’t we stop to turn our gaze to our own fathers and grandfather’s wrinkled skin and think of needles and pipes piercing through their foreheads?
Might we then dash off a letter to the editor of Punjab’s largest English daily, The Tribune—“Voice of the People,” asking why there is no coverage of Surat Singh’s situation? Maybe write a note in support to his family on Facebook? Or simply dedicate one of our many vital Tweets or Instas today to the old man of steel? Or maybe the feminists can speak in support of Surat Singh’s steadfast daughter who has been addressing any media that will listen and sitting in on painful court hearings presided by unsympathetic judges who are treating Surat Singh’s situation without any urgency? Maybe we can sign a petition for his son, who the police in the land of Gandhi have held since February 26 only for supporting his father’s peaceful protest—better yet, start a petition that is not appealing to his adopted country, the U.S., but the country holding him, India?
Surat Singh’s history of non-violent protests—beginning with his resignation from government service as a school teacher in response to the attacks of 1984, or the more recent hunger strikes in solidarity with the anti-corruption protests by Anna Hazare—speak of an honest and heroic track record.
Are we so jaded as a community that we can’t spot a courageous inspiration even when it is right there, wasting away slowly, since 80 days?
With much more public pomp and show, and a less clear record, the hunger striker Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa got much attention by heavy-weight Sikhs organizations and individuals. Gurbaksh Singh’s strike too furthered an unpopular agenda—prisoners, that too political prisoners, and further, of a minority community. Surat Singh’s letter to PM of India, explaining his protest, states he is simply committed to “fulfil the unfinished work of Bhai Gurbaksh Singh.” Perhaps if Surat Singh had engaged in some mud-slinging, we would have paid more attention?
The disproportionate attention begs the question: are we so feeble-minded as to believe that one hunger strike should have changed a system, and since it didn’t, any subsequent protest is passé? Surat Singh is not only the Irom Sharmila of Punjab, he is the Nand Singh of Punjab, the Darshan Singh Pheruman of Punjab. He is the tens of thousands of Punjabis who courted arrest peacefully in response to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in the 1970s. And, simply, he is the man who withstood our collective elder abuse and neglect without reproach.
“I call upon you to treat my dying note as a wakeup call,” Surat Singh wrote to the Indian PM. That was on February 11, 2015. The slumber continues.