This is a note written by Harbans Mukhia shared by Peace Vigil along with an invite for an online event being organised to mark the martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. The event titled, ‘Continuing the Legacy of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev’ is a conversation by Bhagat Singh’s nephew and an activist Dr. Jagmohan Singh and the Co-director of the Peace Vigil, Sameer Dosani. Dr. Singh will be illuminating on ‘Indian youth in the fight against fascism-corporatism and Dosani will be speaking on ‘Colonialism and the commonality of repression and strategy by its present avatars.’ The online event is scheduled at 8 PM today and you may register here.
Many years ago, my aunt who is rather absentminded decided to attend a friend’s wedding in Amritsar, Indian Punjab. She booked a hotel and along with her two young sons and a domestic worker, arrived in the city a few days before the wedding. She showed her printed hotel reservation to the taxi driver and it suddenly struck her that the address had “Chandigarh” in it. She couldn’t believe her eyes so she asked her sons, the domestic worker and the driver to check. They all confirmed that the reservation was for a hotel in Chandigarh. That is about 250 kilometres from where they stood – outside the Amritsar Junction railway station.
Big problem. My aunt had been in many tricky situations before but it is still no fun standing outside a railway station with nowhere to go. Things would have been a bit easier if she were alone. But she stood there with an eight-year old and a 10-year-old, a domestic worker in her early 20s and two big suitcases full of wedding clothes, shoes and accessories, a huge boxed wedding gift and several hand bags and water bottles.
There were no cell phones in those days so my aunt asked everyone to wait near the stairs of the station while she went to a phone booth. She was going to call the friend who was getting married. She lived in Amritsar. Nobody picked up the phone so my aunt called another number that had been given on the wedding card. No one picked that too.
After the initial shock and anger at herself, panic gripped my aunt. There were no credit cards in India those days. What was she going to do? She had return tickets after four days. It has never been easy to change railway tickets in India. She had some money but not enough to buy new tickets or book a hotel. Her mind was racing to find a solution. The only way out was to find her friend or someone from her family so she could find a safe and free space until they could get on the return journey.
She tried the numbers again and this time someone picked up. It was her friend’s uncle. He understood the situation and was amused. Who wouldn’t have been?! He was also very sorry that he couldn’t help her right away. He explained that the friend was out of town and would only return the next evening and he was in their ancestral village which is a few hours from Amritsar. He was happy to accommodate them in his village home but they would have to wait till the next morning. He told my aunt to go to the Golden Temple. “You’d be safe there. You’ll have accommodation and food. I will come to pick you all up at 10 in the morning.”
For those who don’t know what the Golden Temple is, it is the most important Gurdwara or Sikh temple and is also known as Harmandir Sahib. Situated in Amritsar, it was constructed about 430 years ago. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the Golden Temple every day.
My aunt was well-aware of Gurdwaras and had even visited a few in Delhi where she lived. But she had visited them to pray like many Indians who pray in all places of worship – Sufi dargahs, Gurdwaras, Hindu temples and Christian churches. As part of her syncretic beliefs, she visited all abodes of God and prayed there. But she had never thought of a place of worship beyond the function of praying.
She wasn’t sure what it meant to sleep and eat in a place of worship! Also, she wasn’t a Sikh. Will the Gurdwara accept her and her kids – Hindus and her domestic worker who was Christian? She expressed her doubts to her friend’s uncle who was Sikh like her friend. He said, “Don’t worry. Just go there and explain your situation. You will be fine.” As she had no choice, she followed his advice.
They took a taxi to the Golden Temple. There were thousands of people going in and out. The complex was huge and my aunt was nervous. The taxi driver offered some advice: “Find a volunteer. Tell him your situation and he will take you to the right office.” The passengers alighted with all their luggage. As my aunt contemplated whether to ask everyone else to wait in a corner while she found a volunteer or whether everyone should walk together to do so, a man approached them. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked them if they were alright. My aunt obviously did not trust him. Who would trust someone who just came up to you? But things eased as more people came up to help, including a woman who explained how it all works.
It is very simple. If you are hungry, you get food. If you don’t have shelter, you get a place to sleep in. If you need to shower and use the toilet, you get access to the bathroom. My Hindu aunt and her kids and their Christian domestic worker were not asked what their religion was. They were also not asked to pay any money. They were accepted by people in a house of God for what they were – fellow human beings.
The memory of eating at the langar – the free communal kitchen and dining hall – has stayed fondly in the minds of my cousins who are now grown up. The langar is a main feature of a Gurdwara. It literally means the place of fire or a kitchen. It serves meals – free of charge to anyone who enters. No questions are asked and everyone sits together without any distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. The food is cooked and served by volunteers who can themselves be of any religious or caste background. Since their stay in the Golden Temple, my cousins and aunt have volunteered many times at a langar close to their home in Delhi. The domestic worker who accompanied them on the trip to Amritsar now lives in Mumbai and volunteers at her local langar every Baisakhi, a harvest festival of north India, particularly important in Sikh history.
I thought of this fateful trip to Amritsar when I read that recently a 14-year-old boy was brutally beaten up for drinking water in an abode of God – a Hindu temple – in Ghaziabad, India. In the video that surfaced, the boy is asked by a man what his name is. The boy says, “Asif”. He is then asked his father’s name which he gives. The next question is, “what are you doing in the temple?”. Asif says, “I came to drink water” at which point the man starts to slap, punch and kick him. Through the verbal abuses he hurled, hitting the teenagers’ head and kicking his private parts, one can hear Asif’s plea that he only wanted to drink water.
What will become of a teenager who is beaten up for drinking water from a religious place because he comes from another religion? What will happen to Asif? Is he more or less likely to be tolerant and accepting of other communities? We don’t need a degree in psychology to know the answer.
And what will happen to the man who attacked Asif? He is arrested for now but will the case be pursued? Even if it is, will he be held accountable and asked to apologise to Asif? Will he be asked to ensure that Asif gets the psychological counselling he will need for the trauma he suffered in addition to the medical treatment for his physical injuries? Will the perpetrator be sent to a rehabilitation centre where they will teach him that his actions go completely against humanity, that he is infected with the virus of hate and bigotry and that he must overcome it for it has no place in a democratic and secular nation?
I can tell you what will happen from my experience working in societies moving towards fascism. Rumours will start circulating about Asif that he was in the temple for some ulterior motive. The perpetrator will be welcomed by right wing organisations as a hero and will probably end up contesting and winning elections. For all we know, he may one day come to head the nation!
Why will this happen? It will happen because despite the large numbers of well-meaning people, silence will be the norm. There is little difference between apathy and criminality when we refuse to stand up for what is right. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
It may not be possible for all of us to demonstrate on the street or call a public meeting but there is always some action that we can take. One of such actions is writing to your elected representative expressing your opposition to what is happening in India. Another action is to prepare a presentation about the situation in India and share it with friends, colleagues and relatives who may not know what is happening or may be misinformed.