I was given the chance to reflect back on my time in Punjab, this time thinking about how my experience differed from the images I had of this homeland throughout my childhood. You can find the piece, and other great posts, on the Sikh Studies Forum. Check it out here: http://sikhstudiesforum.com/what-remains-of-punjab/.
The somewhat nice thing about traveling is that I’m able to ignore what’s going on back home, at least to some degree. At a time when Islamophobia and white supremacism seems to be on the rise, it’s nice to be able to disengage and just focus on what’s in front of me.
Home seems both very distant and very near right now. As I enjoy the tropical weather around me, I’m thrown off by the abundance of Christmas carols and decorations everywhere. I rarely read the news, but I also don’t need to because every time I meet someone and they hear I’m American, they share their views on the election and most recent Donald Trump incident, keying me into the fact that things are, essentially, still getting worse. For the first time in my life, I’m actually thankful to be away from home because I truly believe that I am safer outside the US than I would be in it. The worst interactions I've had in the last few weeks have actually been due to the animosity of fellow Americans. And those feelings alone are ones that I’m having trouble reconciling with my traditional feelings of home.
Recently, my brother found out he was accepted into U of M for next fall, to no one’s surprise but his own. After the initial excitement died down, we started talking about logistical things that come with college, whether he decides to attend U of M or not. Discussing potential majors and programs, sports and extra curriculars, we landed on the subject of roommates. Knowing that I went in blind for roommate selection my freshman year (and had a wonderful result), my brother started mentioning the idea of doing the same.
I paused for a moment, first asking him whether one of his closest friends, a Muslim boy from his school, had been accepted. My brother said he had. “Well, you know, not that this should be the only reason you guys are roommates, but it may be smart to live together. Just because, you know, as a practicing Sikh and practicing Muslim, in this day and age, you can’t really guarantee that going in blind will be okay, or even safe, anymore.” As soon as the words had left my mouth, I immediately felt ashamed for even putting the thought in his brain. “Actually, sorry, forget it.” “No, no, you’re right…I’ll talk to him.” Our conversation moved on.
I am constantly in awe of the South Asian, but specifically Sikh diaspora, that I see throughout the continent. In Hong Kong, in Bangkok, and I’m sure in other Asian cities I will visit, the Sikh community has truly thrived. I was fortunate enough to be in Hong Kong when the Sikh community there was protesting against current social injustices in Punjab (which you can read about in my past blog post). I only had a few hours before my flight to India, but I was able to join them, and it was an eye-opening experience.
As we marched down streets from the gurdwara to the Indian embassy on Hong Kong Island, we saw crowds gather and traffic stop. Police was guarding the cordoned off lanes the entire way, but I felt something different from what I normally feel in the US. Rather than feel nervous, that the police were there to ensure that we didn’t do any damage, they actually felt like they were protecting us, the protestors. Many on the street engaged in conversation, and cars stopped to take photos of the signs that youth were carrying. At no point was there any animosity, simply curiosity for what had taken over Hong Kong’s busy streets that day. Honestly, it was how things are supposed to be in a modern community.
Ironically, it was in South Asia, where Sikhism was created, that I have faced the most trouble. I was denied entry to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka because I refused to remove my dastaar (Sikh turban), which the guards saw as a security threat. In India, I had to be careful in my own home state of Punjab as police and government prevented Sikhs from peacefully protesting the unjust conditions that the government has created for decades. In a conversation with some close friends the other day, we realized the sad reality. In the two places we should feel the safest, the US and India, we are probably the most at risk. In our homelands past and present, it is where our identity is most misunderstood and targeted.
In Islam, the traditional greeting is “assalam alaikum,” directly translating to “may peace be upon you.” Ironically, this faith community is one that is experiencing anything but peace right now. Through the demonization of an international community, the safety of Muslims, and other communities, has been forgotten. As in the US, I’ve been mistaken for Muslim more times than I can count on this trip, even by other Muslims themselves! Yet it has brought a strange calm, because rather than the confusion being led by anger, disgust, and hatred, it comes from a place of love and familiarity. It comes from people who are also trying to find their place in the world through a community that they love, and are simply being accused for the bad actions of a few.
I’m discouraged by the fact that my home is a place that I can no longer trust to keep me safe, but also inspired by the success stories of community that I’ve seen through my travels. I’ve seen that it is possible to cherish many types of people without hurting others and it is possible to be knowledgeable about various identities, and even be respectful if you aren’t. Most of all, I hope that the US can start to re-learn that the most success happens when you realize that there is always room to improve, and that there are always more strides to go to reach the top.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
To read more about the impact of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan on Punjab, check out the following articles:
To read about recent government-induced violence against Sikhs in Punjab and India,, check out the following report:
To learn more about Sikhs in general, check out the link below:
Feel free to reach out with any additional questions!