Please bear with me. I write this with a heavy heart but also with familiar tedium because all my life I have seen much of media report complex situations - especially when it comes to Panjab, Sikhs, Khalistan - in a black and white manner. With an overdrive of Indian nationalism. It hasn't helped anyone and even after a quarter century of guns going silent Panjab remains trapped in this question of Khalistan. This time the article Shekhar Gupta has tweeted is mis-reporting. Let me show you how.
"Trudeau’s Sikh minister Amarjeet Sohi was arrested in 1988 under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (known as TADA) and remained in jail for over 21 months in India before being released for lack of evidence."
To me, it seems like Amarjeet Sohi was a terrorist let off for lack of evidence. Since the story is about Khalistan, the implicit message is Sohi must be a Khalistan terrorist.
I do not understand what is the media trying to achieve. Why is it urging the Central government to deny permission to the Canadian ministers from visiting India - duly elected Canadian Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
On the night of 27th September 2014 a friend took me to a Mela at the Grain Market near Barnala in the south of Panjab. It was to commemorate the death anniversary of one of the tallest people's movement figures of Panjab Gursharan Bhaji and the birthday of another tall figure, a much cherished ideologue and freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh. It was a night of plays organised by Punjab Lok Sabhyacharak Manch, PLS Manch, Jalandhar. I knew about Bhaji from earlier and it was uplifting to watch plays he had written, directed, even acted in. Especially one with the iconic character Bhai Manna Singh after which he was even lovingly named. The attendance must be around 7 - 10 thousand people who had come from long distances on tractors, trolleys, jeeps, cars, bikes and what we call chotta hathi - a modified small truck. The atmosphere was one of solidarity. People's love for Bhaji was overflowing.
In the dark era in Panjab, what is called the Khalistan era, Gursharan Bhaji was one of the few who had stood against the militants and sought to claim the nights in far and interior villages. He had worked relentlessly in rural Panjab to keep the focus on people's issues and had stood against the mayhem of guns - both state and anti-state. As part of his work with the poor and the dispossessed he had also toured Bihar. On that tour a young man had joined him after having returned from Canada earlier because he wanted to work among his people. This man was Amarjeet Sohi.
Ironically for these theatre folks opposed militancy in Panjab, the Bihar police saw them as sympathizers of Naxalites and picked up Sohi. When they checked his bag they found two things: a book of poetry by the poet Paash and a Ponds Cold Cream bottle. Luckily for Sohi a Panjabi Sikh IAS officer was serving in Bihar and learnt about the case. The officer was familiar with Panjab, with people's theatre, asked Sohi to recite poetry, checked his credentials and satisfied that he was no terrorist, got him medically examined, rescued him from Jehanabad police and produced before a Chief Judicial Magistrate. Basically saved his life and saved him from torture to extract a false confession. The case was fought by theatre organizations and took 21 months to be decided in his favour.
That is the case the journalist has quoted above, just the bare bones. By hiding the details, the context, the journalist has misinformed the readers and made Sohi out to be a Khalistan supporter. Ironically, I read about Sohi in the very newspaper in which the journalist earlier worked. So, it is not the journalist did not know. Yet, it is very typical of how Sohi, being a Sikh, continues to be demonized. (Anyway, upon release Sohi went back to Canada.)
The bigger shame is that Shekhar Gupta and the senior journalist know the nuances of Panjab's politics. They know the reasons for the demand of Khalistan. They know that none of those reasons have been addressed by the state.
In the very next paragraph the article says: "Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan’s parents are believed to be closely associated with the World Sikh Organisation, a Sikh advocacy group which supports the Khalistani movement."
This is what current Panjab CM Amarinder Singh had also said when he opposed Sajjan last year. When he rebuked him by not meeting him on his visit to Panjab. Yet, where is any proof? Any statement by Sajjan? In fact, the only statements Sajjan has made are clarifications about not supporting Khalistan which later the Panjab CM lauded. Is there any real reason to visit upon the son his father's political leanings?
I do not understand what is the media trying to achieve. Why is it urging the Central government to deny permission to the Canadian ministers from visiting India - duly elected Canadian Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. All this does, as it has done in the past, is a great damage to Panjab and to India. Flatten the complexity to suit a black and white framework, elicit false rhetoric, but solve nothing on the ground.
The bigger shame is that Shekhar Gupta and the senior journalist know the nuances of Panjab's politics. They know the reasons for the demand of Khalistan. They know that none of those reasons have been addressed by the state. In fact, today Panjab is in an even more miserable condition than in its past because it is a post-conflict region but we have failed to look at it as such. We also know about the US Gurdwara politics - the supposed ban on Indian politicians and embassy staff. But also remember the biggest terrorist act of the times, the Kanishka air crash, happened on Canadian soil. Canada's ministers will not be irresponsible with their own country.
The article forces us to ask what should be the role of media in post-conflict societies. For if we continue to look at Panjab through the lens of Khalistan and the Diaspora, how can Panjab seek justice, heal? Move on?
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Panjab.
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