REMINISCING THE EIGHTIES THIS SEP 11

NIRMAL SINGH

Today is Sep 11, 2007. I have watched snippets of remembrances on the unfortunate events that visited Americans six years back this day. I sense a certain degree of fading of the feeling of horror and pain that was so visible on that fateful day but I am touched by the way the memory of those who perished and those who suffered, others who came out to help and yet others who silently shared the pain are all honored. Not that there were no failures – the ease with which the terrorists were able to carry out such a difficult, precise and coordinated attack only testify to a deeply flawed ability to secure the US homeland. There has been so much analysis of that but mostly people have collectively tried to look at whatever may be seen as heroic in the face of tragedy and memorialize all those who sacrificed or brought relief, succor to a grieving, demoralized people and helped them to cope with their sense of helplessness, loss, fear, anxiety, grief or anger.

Concurrently I have been looking at snippets of the testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to the Senate on the Iraq situation. There is widespread cynicism about the war and the way it is going. In a dismal picture with dim possibilities of a resolution and no honorable end in sight, it seems we are witnessing an event where actions of the belligerent parties only continue to plunge a vast number of innocent Iraqi people deeper into a life of untold suffering. Polls show that most Americans want out of Iraq – the question is how and when. The sacrifices made by American troops in service of the mission assigned to them and the suffering endured by their families is greatly lauded but apart from them there is hardly any praise for anybody else or expressed anguish at what the Iraqis are being made to endure.

I also have been closely following a discussion on the Internet regarding a proposal to honor Ragi Darshan Singh for his contribution to the community over the last several decades. The thrust of those who started the discussion is that the Ragi does not deserve to be so honored mainly for the reasons that he had been charging high fees for his kirtan; that by stretching the interpretation of Gurbani and writings of Bhai Gurdas in his kirtan tapes he tended to encourage the Sikh youth to wage violent struggle in the aftermath of operation Bluestar; and as Jathedar of Akal Takhat he directed that Surjit Singh Barnala be tied to a pillar as punishment or tankhah. All these failings by the Ragi are said to have taken place during the eighties.

Looking back to the eighties several thoughts cross my mind. I was in India though not in Punjab or Delhi. I read papers, listened to news and commentaries and took in a lot of what was written or being said about us. I also experienced being picked out for checks at airports and police posts when traveling by road. There was a sense of forlorn-ness – of being stared at among crowds; of being viewed as different, possibly suspect, even likely to be a source of danger unless among those familiar.

I talked to several Sikhs locally and at different places during my frequent travels. We all did. There was a sense of despondency, fear and anxiety. There also was a sense of hurt and anger – the latter not only at those who may have stereotyped and profiled us all as terrorists but also at our collective incompetence that brought us where we were. This feeling, widely shared, seemed to make the community tremendously anxious about their safety, security and future as a part of that society.

I heard during those hectic days that cassettes of Ragi Darshan Singh were a rage all over Punjab. I heard one and somehow felt somewhat encouraged. It did not even cross my mind if he was profiting by his kirtan or in his presentation he was stretching the thought of the Gurus or the intent of Bhai Gurdas. I was not thinking about rights and wrongs of the Sikh cause or the appropriateness of what the khadkus were doing. I was not even thinking of the obvious malevolent handling of the situation by the civil authorities, grave suspicions of planted agents and instigators and free reign given to the lumpen element. The dominating feeling within me was of being let down by all that we may have thought as intended to be reassuring of a life of quiet enjoyment and dignity as Indian citizens. There seemed nowhere to turn to.  In that frame of mind I found his kirtan calming, momentarily lifting my spirits.

As my thoughts drift around these episodes I am reminded of the pictures we glean of how Nanak saw the world around him. There is an evident sense of societal decay – the ruling elite reveled in pleasure and sensuality and had lost their higher consciousness  – saahaa(n) surath gavaaeeaa ra(n)g thamaasai chaae – Asa M I, p. 417. Religious leaders, Qazis and Brahmins had abdicated their moral and ethical influence to Satan – saram dhharam dhue shhap khaloeae koorr firai paradhhaan vae laalo kaajeeaa baamanaa kee gal thhakee agadh parrai saithaan vae laalo – Tilang M I, p. 722

The people in their quest for riches have yielded modesty and righteousness both to falsehood. Their wealth was not gathered without sin and has been cause of ruin and disgrace for many. It seems avarice is the king, sin the minister, false­hood the chief officer and lust the adviser while the subjects continue to be blind, without wisdom; and like the dead, they dance to their tune – lab paap doye raja mehta koodh hoa sakdaar, kaam neyb sadd puchhiye beh beh karai beechar, andhi rayyiat gian vihhoni bhah bharai murdaar – Asa M I, p. 468-69.

This decaying kingdom was attacked by Babar and as the Guru says his invasion laid this priceless country to waste with none paying any attention to the dead – rathan vigaarr vigoeae kutha(n)aee mueiaa saar n kaaee – Asa MI, P. 360. People were mercilessly killed and tortured by Babur’s army of sin – paap kee janj lai kaabalahu dhhaya joree ma(n)gai dhaan vae laalo – Tilang M I, p. 722. Women, who wore beautiful tresses with parting of hair dyed with vermilion, had their locks shorn with scissors and throats choked with dust. Soldiers were given orders to dishonor them and carry them away. Their wealth and youthful beauty that gave them so much pleasure became their enemies – dhan joban doey vairee hoey jinhee rakhae ra(n)g laae dhootaa no furamaya lai chalae pat gavaae – Asa M I, p. 417.

The Guru ponders over the tragedy and avers that God had sent the Mughal as messenger of death to punish these erring people. Says he ‘God strips of virtue those He wants to destroy – jaaee jis no aap khuaaeae karathaa khus leae cha(n)giaaee’ – Asa M I, p. 417. 

Nanak raises questions of Divine response and responsibility when such tragic events hit humans collectivelyand the One who created, and attached the mortals to pleasures, sits alone, and watches it play out. He chides God that didn’t He feel compassion hearing the helpless screams of people being slaughtered? Yet the Guru seems to suggest that the responsibility for sorting out societal ills and strife is that of humans. They have to find remedies. They have to act and if attacked the rulers must defend for ritualistic prayer and charms are of no avail – koee mugal n hoaa andhaa kinai n parachaa laaeiaa – Asa M I, p.417.

The Guru does not place much trust in career officials. He says, “Deer, falcons and government officials are known to be trained and clever. When the trap is set, they trap their own kind; hereafter they will find no place of rest. He alone is learned and wise, and he alone is a scholar, who practices the Name. First, the tree puts down its roots, and then it spreads out its shade above. The kings are tigers, and their officials are dogs; they go out and awaken the sleeping people to harass them. The public servants inflict wounds with their nails. The dogs lick up the blood that is spilled – harnaan baajaan tai sikdaaraan aynhaa parhh-aa naa-o. faandhee lagee jaat fahaa-in agai naahee thaa-o. so parhi-aa so pandit beenaa jinhee kamaanaa naa-o. pahilo day jarh andar jammai taa upar hovai chhaan-o. raajay seeh mukdam kutay. jaa-ay jagaa-inih baithay sutay. chaakar nahdaa paa-inih ghaa-o. rat pit kutiho chat jaahu. jithai jee-aan hosee saar. nakeen vadheen laa-itbaar – Malar M I, p.1288. In another strain he say that some can claim that they did great service, were important leaders or part of ruling elite but in the eyes of God they failed and were no more than a worm howsoever much corn they may have gobbled – jae ko naao dhharaaeae vaddaa saadh karae man bhaanae khasamai nadharee keerraa aavai jaethae chugai dhaanae mar mar jeevai thaa kishh paaeae naanak naam vakhaanaeAsa M I, p. 360.

Looking back at our conversation I ponder that these various situations represent cases where suffering descended collectively on the innocent. The problems in all cases were complex being further complicated through insensitivity and neglect. Political leaders did not grasp the fatal implications of their approaches and committed blunders. So did others – the officials, advisers and public. None of the belligerents was above blame. But when violence erupted the innocent lay people became victims of tyranny as well as apathy and incompetence. The people felt helpless as if they had nowhere to turn to.

What is the crying human need in such times? Bringing justice, removing the causes of strife, alleviation of suffering – all takes time. But people need succor; they need empathy; they need to hear that their hurt, their agony is understood. They search for and look to those they can relate to and trust. Guru Nanak raised consciousness about the agony of a traumatized people. He showed no favors or any fear when commenting on the failings of the rulers, officials, religious leaders, common people or the winning invaders. His main concern was to empathize with those looking for succor in a situation where deep anguish prevailed; there was little hope and the time just hung in balance. As the Guru says ‘how did their night pass whose dear ones did not return home’ – jinh kae ba(n)kae gharee n aaeiaa thinh kio rain vihaanee – Asa M I, p. 417.

Coming back now to the question about whether the Ragi should be honored or not, I do not know the details about his life in those days; have never met him personally and cannot vouch for the veracity of any facts but I am perturbed that there are so many among us who would so strongly and persistently advocate that he be not honored for all the good that he may have done because of their disagreement with some of the things that he may have done during that difficult period. I however do find a strong exonerating factor – he raised consciousness about and gave voice to what all Sikhs were wrestling with in their minds. To some it brought succor and ability to get on with their lives; to some it may have served as motivation for reacting and to yet others it may have been an irksome distraction.

This also did make me question if during that sorry period there were any for whom we may have a good word and a sense of sadness engulfed me when I felt that in fact the community may only be looking at failures, at missteps rather than the small acts of heroism, compassion, encouragement that some may have contributed to and helped others get through that period.

I posted the following message as my intervention well aware that there may be no response: ‘— has explained his reasons for advancing the plea that Ragi Darshan Singh should not be honored.

‘I would respectfully submit that it is time we should be able to more dispassionately look at the events of 80’s. We should first clear our conscience if we had a cause – for if there was no cause the entire episode was a sorry failure of the entire Sikh community.

‘If there was a justifiable cause, howsoever poorly articulated and led we should ponder if there were any heroes – politicians, willing martyrs, religious leaders, civil servants, police, military leaders, lay public, khadkus, instigators, media, those who had the courage to protest and those who caved in et al – Sikh or non Sikh – who may be considered worth honoring.

‘My sense is that such an examination even at our individual levels will leave us cannot comprehend that such cataclysmic events could only be recognized by anti heroes.

Some do stand out – Justice Sikri and others – many whose lives and careers were not with a chilling sense of all round failure and massive exploitation by all. At the same time I threatened. But how about among Sikhs and in Punjab were there any heroes fit to be honored?’ What is it with us that our responses are so self critical almost to the point of being self-destructive? What do we expect of ours?

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