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Talks with Modi, A structured progress (Dr. Jasdev Singh Rai)

July 21, 2016 | By

It is yet too soon to know how the process of dialogue with the Modi Government will proceed. However there is considerable apprehension among some Sikh groups who have been struggling for Sikh self determination since 1984. It is only right to address concerns and explain what these talks are all about.

After my presidency of the International Sikh Youth Federation in 1986, I became director of Sikh Human Rights Group. I have been to several sessions of various branches of the United Nations and participated in several conferences, consultations and investigations.

At the UN I saw how struggles around the world operated, succeeded or failed. The PLO managed to get its own observer status for Palestine and its then head, President Arafat, used to come in his own jet to address UN delegates. The Palestine issue was and continues to be alive at the UN.

The Kashmir issue has always been championed by Pakistan. It is on the agenda year after year with many countries siding with Pakistan and many other with India.

The Sudan struggle worked in different ways but extremely effectively at the UN. They held event after event and managed to lobby many countries. Although war continues in Sudan, Southern Sudan managed to get independence.

However one feature marks all these struggles, including that of Northern Ireland. They had very intelligent statesmen who were experts in international diplomatic speak. Secondly they continued with the struggle while engaging in dialogue and diplomacy at the UN or in their own region.

Some of these struggles have succeeded and some are still in progress. One organisation whose sophistication struck me was the Pir Gillani group from Afghanistan. It worked extremely effectively when the Afghan war with Russia was going on. Gillani, who I met a few times at Geneva, told me that his people had decided to spend half the money on lobbying in 5 countries including UN, Geneva. It was after 5 years they succeeded in persuading the United States to back the Afghans.

The Sikh Lehar has lacked a sophisticated and multidimensional strategy to achieve their goals. Most organisations concentrate in one field or other without coordinating with each other in a grand strategy. Competition rather than cooperation often determines the outcomes.

All struggles have to reach a stage of dialogue. And all struggles that reach this stage use diplomatic language which does not compromise its core ambition but at the same time enable the ‘enemy’ to come to the table. That onus is also on the ‘enemy’.

There are many reasons for dialogue process. The most important is that without table talk, as is generally said among Sikhs, there is no solution. Since we cannot choose our enemies or adversaries, we have to engage with who ever is in power. A dialogue is with the ‘adversary’ and not with a friend.

There are other reasons for a dialogue. It puts the rationale of the issues on the table and achieves a recognition that there indeed is a dispute. To date the Indian State under Congress has brushed off any opportunity to engage in talks by saying that matters in Punjab are essentially about law and order and internal concerns of India.

By engaging in direct talks openly with Sikhs across the world, the Modi regime has broken that barrier. It has now put the Sikh issue on the world map. PM Modi spoke at Wembley in front of the world and admitted that there were issues of concern to the Sikhs across the world which his Government recognises and which his Government is willing to engage with.

Perhaps equally important for any dialogue is the plight of those who are under ‘enemy’ power. These are ordinary members of a struggle and the political prisoners. We all know that people like Davinderpal Singh Bhuller and Lal Singh remain in custody not because of Indian penal code, but because of their politics. The decision to continue their imprisonment beyond the usual maximum period is a political one.

A struggle survives if it looks after its foot soldiers and ordinary members. If it abandons them to the enemy, gradually support for any struggle withers away

It is important for the Sikh leadership to free these political prisoners so they do not end their lives in jail. Their families are embittered by the lack of any approach by the leadership to push for their release.

If a leadership shows sensitivity towards its supporters, the support for a struggle remains strong. Some of the prisoners have been there for 25 years and more. They need to be allowed to join their families if the Indian State is willing to do so through a negotiated understanding.

There are also issues that have affected many families, particularly those who have sought asylum outside India. While the person who sought asylum will have difficulty in getting passport as well as entry to India (after all he is seeking asylum from persecution in India), there is no reason for his family to be punished as well. This point was put across to the Indian State.

This leaves the wider agenda of the talks. In the discussions running up to the Modi dialogue, I was insistent that the talks will be open ended on the issues that have arisen from the attack on Sri Darbar Sahib in 1984. This can be any thing.

Those who are campaigning for Khalistan should not feel that talks are intended to end the call for Khalistan. A struggle and its core issue cannot depend on the continuing suffering of people for whom we can do something for, for instance release of prisoners and removal of blacklists. The issue of Khalistan has its own merits and should be promoted on the principles and ideas that it is inspired from rather than only on a period of suffering. Most periods of suffering eventually come to an end.

It is in this context that one has to admire Mr Simranjit Singh Mann. He has suffered but he has continued with his main issue within India refusing to seek refuge in another country. He does not feel that release of prisoners, or supremacy of Sri Akal Takht reduces the merits of his cause. He has his agenda and has chosen to engage within the democratic process of India. However there are many across the world who cannot have the indulgence of fighting their corner in the Indian electoral system. The issues of 1984 affect them equally and directly. Therefore a process of engagement is a necessity for them.

The issue of miri-piri of Sri Harmandar Sahib and Sri Akal Takht Sahib is important and I believe also at the core of the struggle for a Sikh State. It is in fact a perpetual issue. I believe that if Maharajah Ranjit Singh had not abolished Surbutt Khalsa, the Sikh Kingdom would not have collapsed.

Our most important aspects are what we received from our Gurus. The Takht is a throne which should not have any political or legal shadow over it. This applies equally in a Sikh state as it does now. We cannot permit a political president of a Sikh State to appoint the Jathedar anymore than we can tolerate the Chief Minister of Punjab to be doing so. Recent events have shown that the issue of Sri Akal Takht is extremely urgent. It affects almost every Sikh across the world regardless of whether they support a Sikh state or not.

The dialogue will proceed in stages. I have talked to many organisations and with their consent a team will be formed who will start the talks. In the first stage are the issues of prisoners, visas, blacklists, passport etc. In the second stage is the core issue of miri-piri of Sri Darbar Sahib, a system of institutionalising engagement in decision making by the worldwide Sikh community and removing all political and legal shadows upon Sri Darbar Sahib.

In the third stage are wider political and human rights issues that arose from the attack. This includes issues such as Delhi massacres, of Sikh sovereignty, of Article 25, of compensation to victims, of redress of victims of human rights abuses etc.

Different people will of course be engaged at different times. There are three people who have started the first process, myself, Mr Gurmel Singh Malhi and Mr Gurmeal Singh Kandola.

Any process of dialogue can take years. The Palestinian process is still on going as is the agenda of Sinn Fein in Ireland. The dialogue also depends on the Indian State co-operating on the issues and agreeing to have them on the agenda. Some issues will be easily acceptable to be placed on the table. Others may need persuasion including external pressure from other countries for instance the USA. Khalistani organisations should lobby their countries to adopt their issue as foreign policy.

The dialogue is only the beginning. No one should feel that anything has been compromised. However if an issue has merit and support from the wider community, it will not go away simply because prisoners have been allowed to join their families or our institutional system at Sri Akal Takht has started to engage the worldwide Sikh community.

It may be of interest to everyone to note that when PM Modi responded to the proposals, he did not mention the Indian constitution. The talks are not constrained or limited, at least not at this time. They simply have to proceed stage by stage.

*Views expressed are personal.

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