Punjab is Burning

In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.
— Octavia E. Butler

To travel properly through Punjab, to see its acres of farmland and roadside dhabas, its colorfully painted trucks and tractors blasting keertan and bhangra music, one must take a bus. Varying in size and comfort, from people sitting on the floor and on luggage to each person having their own seat with a Bollywood movie playing in the front, these busses go from Delhi all the way east to Amritsar, where Punjab was cracked in two, all the way south to Chandigarh, where the mountains provide a backdrop to the perfectly organized city.

These bus rides often last hours for even short distances, due to narrow roads that didn't foresee the invention of the automobile. Bus drivers weave through scooters and cows, tractors and rickshaws, hoping to make it to the destination at least relatively on-time. Between acres of farmland will come quick bursts of towns and cities, filled with shops and lights and food and honking horns, only to be followed by the peace of farmland again.

Riding during the day allows one to take all of this in. At one point on a recent bus ride, I smelled smoke, and looked outside to be shocked by flames leaping up in the middle of a field with black smoke billowing in the air. It seemed that it would take everything with it—burn down the whole state—as the dried crops could be easy fuel. But I noticed this multiple times on my ride, and researching it later, found that burning excess from paddy straw is common to decrease the cost of disposing it properly. Unfortunately, this has had negative side effects for the local environment and crop.

Punjabi culture is vibrant. Our food, our clothes, our shops, and even our language bleed colors more than most could imagine. But painted against the brown and dying fields, the dried river beds, and polluted gray skies, these colors only serve as a reminder of how far we've fallen.

 Looking up at Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Looking up at Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Punjab directly translates to five (punj/panj) rivers (ab). The land of five rivers. But after partition some of these rivers and a lot of land went to Pakistan and what was left for the Sikhs was taken by India, one by one. But history started long before partition, and is too much to cover in a few hundred words. What we've been left with is a diasporic community spread across nations and continents, a community divided in a broken homeland, and leaders who look like us but would rather see us bleed than lose their own throne.

If you want to know what nostalgia smells like, come to Punjab. It's in the air, foggy from smoke and car exhaust. It's in the streets with a family begging on one corner while an overly-lavish banquet hall is filled with wedding festivities of the upper class (or here, as they say, caste). It's in the brown fields and dirty, yet still limited, water. It's in the broken down houses, cars, and shops, once surely seen as signs of grandeur. It's in the music...

A lot of bhangra songs are about how great it is to be Punjabi, and most of us like them, being traditional feel-good, pump-up songs. One time though, with one of these playing in the background, my mom told me, "I used to love these songs, but now I hate them. They've left nothing for us to be proud of."

The last few weeks, months, years, have been hard for Punjab. But, again, there's too much to cover here. All you need to know is that, for the first time in decades, Sikhs came together to say enough. We've seen enough bloodshed and let enough go, it's time to take a stand. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs collectively came to the consensus to remove current political puppets and find ways to self-advocate and put the power back in the people's hands. The process may have been rushed or flawed some will say, but it was also the first time in decades that a broken people made an attempt to mend.

I selfishly missed the beauty in this until it was almost over. Wanting to attend the event myself, I was caught up in my own anger when government-blocked roads succeeded in stopping me. I wanted to be a part of this community and faith—one I've felt distanced from for quite some time, something I didn't admit out loud until I saw how my frustration had blinded me into making the same mistake as too many other Punjabis.

 Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

Harmandir Sahib Complex, Amritsar.

You see, I believe Punjabis are born with broken hearts, mirroring our own land that has been conquered and divided too many times to count. This does not mean our hearts are small though. Rather, we often give far too many second chances, have expectations that are far too high, and foolishly think that everyone else will return the immense levels of love that we give out.

I strongly believe that Punjab will rise, soon and strongly, without hesitation. Yet all great things take time and work and suffering. We often keep compromising with each fall, saying that we will make things work, and it's not until we're at the bottom of the well that we see that we should've fought harder to stay above ground.

 Sign at Jallianwala Bagh describing how at least 120 people jumped to their death in a well instead of being shot during an unprecedented attack by the ruling British. Amritsar, Punjab.

Sign at Jallianwala Bagh describing how at least 120 people jumped to their death in a well instead of being shot during an unprecedented attack by the ruling British. Amritsar, Punjab.

In order to move forward though, we need to stop repeating the mistakes of those who have oppressed us. Including women in these conversations is essential. Sikhi is a faith that actively preaches gender equality and the significance of females, yet the involvement and acknowledgement of women has been close to zero. There is also a need for the empowerment of youth, as they will be the ones to carry the movement forward into the next generation.

Most importantly, though, I believe in the power of diaspora. Most commentaries on the notion of diaspora talk about the pain of a community splintering and trying to create new hyphenated identities, but through the last few days, I saw its renewed strength. Sikhs do not just belong to Punjab anymore. We belong to Kuala Lumpur, which holds the largest gurdwara in southeast Asia, boasting a community of nearly 800,000. We belong to Canada, where Punjabi is now the third-most spoken language in its Parliament. We belong to the U.S. and the U.K., we belong to Kenya and Chile. Sikhs have grown and spread and put down roots in many more places than Punjab. And uniting these communities, including all of its voices, will strengthen our fight for our homeland.

 Overlooking Anandpur Sahib.

Overlooking Anandpur Sahib.

Punjab has gone through lifetimes of violence, bloodshed, wrongful incarcerations of our community leaders, rape of our women, murders of our children, and representation by our own who then go on to put their own financial success above the lives of Punjabis. Punjab will move past this; the wheels have already started rolling, and will continue to until we're back in green farmland and blue skies and have rulers of our own.

But first, Punjab will burn.


More Information/Additional Reading

To read more about the Sarbat Khalsa meeting that just occurred, involving the traditional Sikh process of communal gathering and resolutions, check out the following websites:

http://sarbatkhalsausa.com/faq/ (What is Sarbat Khalsa?)

http://sarbatkhalsausa.com/ (information on Sarbat Khalsa meetings in US)

https://www.facebook.com/revivesarbatkhalsa/ (acting as central data repository for US Sikhs & more)

To read more background on recent events in Punjab, check out this primer:

http://www.jakara.org/punjab2015

To read more about the impact of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan on Punjab, check out the following articles:

http://www.global.ucsb.edu/punjab/journal/v19_2/Sandhu.pdf

http://faculty.washington.edu/brass/Partition.pdf

To read about recent government-induced violence against Sikhs in Punjab and India,, check out the following report:

http://ensaaf.org/publications/reports/descriptiveanalysis/

To learn more about Sikhs in general, check out the link below:

http://sikhcoalition.org/resources/about-sikhs

Feel free to reach out with any additional questions!