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Bapu Surat Singh’s struggle: Where is our Conscience?

April 8, 2015 | By

When food pipes are stitched into an 83-year-old grandfather’s forehead, and pus collects around indicating deep infection, while visitors are intimated and 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 taut-faced and blue-turbaned Surat Singh has been on a hunger strike. His demands of the government are around prisoners’ rights: he is calling for the release of all prisoners who have completed their full jail terms, and are legitimately due for release. His fate, in response to his peaceful agitation for this common-sense demand? Since February 26, he has been forcefully kept at civil hospital in Ludhiana, subjected to dubious medical procedures, and heavy police presence has curtailed most from accessing him.

Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa

Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa

Surat Singh has a proven track record of non-violent protest. His resignation from government service as a school teacher in response to the attacks in Punjab in 1984, or the more recent hunger strikes in solidarity with the anti-corruption protests by Anna Hazare, speak to an honest and heroic track record.

The country’s largest civil rights organizations, PUCL, has issued a statement against his treatment, but the ripples are few.

“PUCL believes that the arrest of people on 26/2/15 (or thereabouts) including Surat Singh’s son, subsequent release of two persons and continued incarceration of two persons clearly supports the inference that these acts are meant to intimidate, silence and crush both the protest and any possibility of democratic support.”

Perhaps the government’s approach has worked too well? Or the lukewarm response is because we have a case of a man and his family who have not aligned with particular political personalities, or engaged in mud-slinging, or slithered away from their commitment?

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, principled, resistance.

Outside of PUCL, shows of solidarity by fellow Indians, quick to quote the valor of satyagraha and non-violent protest, have been absent.

Outside of his family’s close circle, shows of solidarity by fellow Sikhs, often quick to cast other Indians has 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 when compared against debates around say the movie Nanak Shah Fakir in India or the cutting of cakes for ‘Sikh heritage month’ in the otherwise vociferous diaspora communities in Canada and the U.S.

The fact that Surat Singh is no one’s cause, is enough cause for a pause.

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 to 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, Fair & Handsome—might 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 instead of the feuding men—also silent on this issue—of AAP?

Or, sick of all the male egos, 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 the 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?

Or, for those of us of sterner stuff, sit quietly outside his hospital, even if our stuff is not stern enough show ID to the police and walk inside, risking the screening and monitoring by the notorious khakis later?

Are we so jaded as a community that we can’t spot a courageous inspiration even when it is right there, wasting away slowly, in our faces, for 80 days?

With much more public pomp and show, and a less clear record, the hunger striker Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa begot 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 “fulfill 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 Shamila of Punjab” (per PUCL), he is the Nand Singh of Punjab, the Darshan Singh Pheruman of Punjab, who quietly protested and died for their convictions in the 1960s, inspiring young people everywhere. 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 grandfather who has withstood our collective elder abuse and neglect without reproach.

“I call upon you to treat my dying note as a wake up call,” Surat Singh wrote to the Indian PM. That was on February 11, 2015. The slumber continues.

About Author: Simran Kaur is an activist, accountant, avid reader, mother, and a Punjabi who spends her time between Moga and Canada. She has been following Surat Singh’s protest for a month now, and wonders who else is following this principled response in a world often lamenting the lack of principle?

Note: Above write-up was previously published by The Citizen, under title: Irom Sharmila of Punjab: Where is our consciousness, at source url:

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