Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra: The Politics of Human Rights and the Promise of Sikh Liberation
Prabjot Singh | @SikhShahadat
Drawing on the recently published collection of Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra’s written work, this article looks closer at Bhai Khalra’s legacy in order to critically interrogate the theory and role of “human rights” activism in the politics of Sikh liberation. The article was originally published in the October 2022 print issue of Sikh Shahadat.
"...the haakam (ruler) is the fence [protector] of justice, meant to serve as the defender of the rights of all of Creation. When such rulers abandon protecting these rights and try to annihilate them instead, then the Khalsa is duty bound to “honour the righteous and punish the wicked” (Bhagat Kabir jee, Ramkali, Ang 69) by destroying and uprooting the tyrants. The jujharoo Singhs of the Khalsa are upholding these principles today, and with a firm commitment, will establish such a raj (polity) under Akaal Purakh’s hukam (command) which will share the rights of all as ordained by Satguru, like a rivulet of pure water. This halemi raj, Khalsa raj, or Khalistan, which the jujharoo Singhs are fighting for, will fulfill the ideals of Sache Patshah.”
-Shaheed Jathedar Sukhdev Singh Babbar (“Sikhi and Human Rights”, message delivered at Punjab Human Rights Organization Conference, March 12, 1989)
“More than 50,000 freedom fighters have made the ultimate sacrifice for Khalistan. About 50,000 Khalistani heeray (diamonds) have been languishing in jails for years. Many are waiting to kiss the rope at the gallows. Bhai Satwant Singh and Bhai Kehar Singh have surpassed even Sarabha and Bhagat Singh. More than 500,000 Indian Army and countless more paramilitary forces are hunting Sikh naujawan day and night. We are bearing the brunt of more draconian laws than anywhere else in the world”
-Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra (Liberation Khalistan, February 1992)
For the Guru Khalsa Panth, dharam, justice, and politics have never been separable. Driven by the vision of sarbat da bhala and “gareeb di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya”, the Khalsa has always fought to establish a sovereign political structure, committed to ensuring dignity, harmony and justice for all of Karta’s (the Creator) creation. This vision of raj is not based on the political dominance of a specific community or the cultural protection of an ethnic group. Instead, it is built on a vision of the co-existence of all elements of creation on the basis of justice. This is the Guru’s promise of halemi raj.
Naturally then, the concept of “human rights” cannot be separated from notions of justice and political power. In a Sikh context, the legitimacy of any political structure purely depends on its ability to mete out justice evenly, ensure the dignity of its constituents, and its respect for the Khalsa’s Guru-granted sovereignty (patshahi). Accordingly, the notion of stand-alone “human rights”—divorced from questions of political power and legitimacy—is foreign to Sikh political theory. The rights of individuals—and those of all elements of the kainaat (universe)—are inherent to the Sikh vision of politics.
In this sense, Sikhs do not struggle for “human rights”—which has practically been simplified to the prevention of violence and discrimination. We have been given a proactive vision for justice and liberation in the institution of halemi raj. As we strive for this vision of justice, we cannot simply reproduce the limited discourse of “human rights” as conceptualized by Western institutions. Instead, we must creatively imagine new concepts and institutions capable of transforming social and political structures on the basis of “gareeb di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya” and the Guru’s maulik (original/unique) vision of sarbat da bhala.
The Political Limits of “Human Rights”
This Sikh vision of justice stands in stark contrast to the development of “human rights” within Western/modern conceptualizations of justice. The development of the international human rights regime in the modern world was largely premised on a need to protect against the inherent violence of nationalism and the identity-obsessed modern state structure which enabled the horrors of ethnic cleansing, fascism, and genocide. As articulated by anti-colonial activist, Aime Cesaire, Europe’s horror at the Holocaust was actually at the fact that Hitler “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ”coolies” of Indian, and the “niggers” of Africa”.
In the Western context, the liberal notion of “rights” was premised on access to political power. As the modern state wields absolute power as the ultimate arbiter of “justice”, it has been the instruments of power that dictate the scope and application of rights, as well as those who can claim them. As a result, full political rights are only enjoyed by members of a “national” community—represented by the state apparatus, while minorities and other excluded groups are left to the whims of the majority. Given the exclusionary discourse of nationalism, citizenship and the politics of belonging, the concept of “human rights” was thus largely designed as a depoliticized tool to manage the treatment of “minority” groups within these states in order to ensure their treatment was maintained above a certain minimum threshold.
The history of this human rights project is replete with examples of how the aspirational idea of human rights was consistently curtailed and expressly limited by the interests of Western imperial powers. For example, despite the fact that the theory of genocide originally developed with the concept of “cultural genocide” at its core, Western powers forced this clause out of the Genocide Convention in October 1948 due their culpable treatment of Indigenous peoples within various settler-colonies like the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
This Western notion of human rights is thus, supposedly devoid of politics. It is invoked as a neutral standard for bare minimum treatment of already marginalized and disenfranchised groups.
Through the process of colonialism, indigenous modes of governance around the world came to be forcibly replaced by the colonial state to enable the efficient administration of imperialist exploitation. As a result, indigenous legal systems and concepts of justice (for example, those exemplified by Sirkar-i-Khalsa) were destroyed and replaced with imperial structures built on the juridical principles and doctrines of Western hegemony. The ensuing transformation of “colonies” into colonial “states” and then to independent “nation-states”—with their own judiciaries—is the very manifestation of colonialism’s “civilizing” arc to transform the populations of the world into an international system—still marked by Western domination.
While the UN Declaration of Human Rights may be celebrated for its lofty ideals and aspirations, it is imperative to engage in critical evaluation of the human rights project, especially with regards to its practice in the world today. Despite major contributions from Third World liberation movements to the architecture of human rights, the evolution and practice of “human rights” today, largely exemplifies the fundamentally unequal and exclusionary nature of the current world order.
The vision for human rights articulated by the Third World, however, must be distinguished from the ossified rhetoric of a legalistic mode of “human rights'' activism today. While the latter simply seeks “justice” from the judicial institutions of the very state apparatus maintaining an oppressive status quo, the former imagined and reimagined human rights within a broader context of dignity and transformation through the political project of decolonization. The defining difference is the politics of either perspective and how human rights are linked to questions of political power: formalistic legal rights promised in exchange for maintaining the status quo versus a vision intertwined with a transformative dream of justice and decolonization. These obscured voices of human rights in the Third World struggled for political change in their locales while making meaningful contributions to a broad sense of human rights based on holistic visions for liberation.
This is not to disregard the validity and utility of human rights as a tool altogether, but an attempt to engage in a critical analysis that allows us to understand what it is that we are actually dealing with and what limitations are endemic to it. While there is undoubtedly value in human rights institutions that we must consider and strategically mobilize, it is important to acknowledge that “human rights” activism alone is not a replacement for the political transformation needed to truly achieve justice.
As outlined above, the Sikh vision of justice transcends notions of legality and goes to the heart and legitimacy of the political structure itself. Despite this, many individuals turn away from the Sikh sangarsh and seek to fit themselves within the frame of legal activism alone, disavowing the pursuit of halemi raj altogether. In this vein, when anyone mentions “human rights” in a Sikh context, an image of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra is immediately conjured in the mind. While Bhai Khalra is one of the most prominent figures of the Sikh sangarsh (struggle) in recent times, the framing of his politics, seva and shahadat by many not only reflects the limitations of the discourse of “human rights” but an erasure of his politics altogether.
The Life and Politics of Bhai Khalra: Setting the Horizon of Sikh Liberation
Bhai Jaswant Singh is a legend of modern Sikh history who embodied foundational Sikh principles. His commitment to grassroots seva without any desire for the limelight alongside a determined willingness to sacrifice his life stand out as guiding examples. While his life is celebrated primarily due to his labour to uncover the names of thousands who were forcibly disappeared by Indian security forces, this is only one part of Bhai Khalra’s overall life and contribution.
Bhai Jaswant Singh’s shaheedi in the Fall of 1995 is often portrayed solely as an act of state violence. An act in which a Sikh of the Guru has been turned into a passive victim and statistic of yet another “human rights violation”. In reality, however, this narrative ignores—and wilfully erases—the agency of Sikh shaheeds. Walking the path of the Guru, Sikh shaheeds are not killed nor do they simply “die”. Sikh shaheeds proactively surrender their self to Guru Granth-Panth, and join the Sikh sangarsh with their head on their palm as jeevanmukat (liberated while alive). Shaheeds are not killed by the forces of the state; they are the agents of Sikh history who willingly walk the path of struggle to establish halemi raj and drink the nectar of shaheedi. It is the path and determination of the shaheed that is the focal point of our history, not the evils of the oppressor.
Contrary to this, many of the accounts around Bhai Khalra’s life obscure—or actively erase—the radical activism that defined most of his life. From an early age, Bhai Khalra was committed to transforming the social-political order around him. His early years included involvement in the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist organization with ties to the revolutionary Naxalite movement in the early 1970s. He spent brief periods of time underground due to this work. He later split from these organizations in the late 1970s when he joined the International Democratic Party. Taking a different line than some other leftist organizations, the IDP supported the Anandpur Sahib Resolution’s vision for the devolution of power and, in particular, advocated for Punjab’s unique status as an autonomous region within a broader confederation of South Asia.
As Bhai Khalra’s journey continued, his friends and companions describe how he was transformed by the Indian army’s invasion of Sri Darbar Sahib and Sant Jarnail Singh jee’s shahadat on June 6, 1984. From this point on, Bhai Khalra reconnected with his roots and actively became involved in the Sikh sangarsh, even engaging with some of the gurmukhs leading the armed struggle. From establishing political formations to advocate for Khalistan in the diaspora to founding the Liberation Khalistan magazine in 1992, Bhai Khalra’s primary work, uncovering the mass graves of Sikhs killed by Indian security forces, was not apolitical activism that existed in a vacuum. Again, it was a radical act embedded within his wider struggle dedicated to transforming the social and political order around him.
Understanding the nature of anti-Sikh violence in India is imperative to fully grasping this difference. The nature of anti-Sikh violence in India is not merely limited to the torture and death of Sikh bodies. This mode of violence goes beyond the body itself as it seeks to annihilate any expression of sovereign Sikh existence and thereby neutralize the threat of Sikhi itself by erasing it from the public sphere. When Indian security forces specifically targeted amritdhari naujawan across Punjab’s countryside, the state sought to erase an alternative mode of being and therefore, the promise of Sikh liberation.
Limiting Bhai Khalra’s massive seva within the “human rights” sphere alone erases his politics and contributions to the Sikh sangarsh while adopting the Western discourse of “human rights” as justice. To do justice to Bhai Khalra’s legacy is to celebrate his commitment to uprooting and the status quo and establishing an alternative structure of political power and justice.
Rather than seeking borrowed power or “rights” from coercive institutions, we must build autonomous grassroots power and have the confidence to define the terms of liberation on our own terms (sovereignty); to author our own decolonized future, rather than simply reading from the old colonial script of the past. How do we operationalize the radical inclusivity (sanhjivalta) of gurmat that is envisioned in the Sikh concept of sangat to reimagine the concept of ‘political community’? How do we imagine the transformation of power and decentralization of sovereignty that is envisioned by halemi raj? How do we conceive of an administration of justice that enacts gareed di rakhiya, jarvanay di bhakhiya? This is the horizon of Sikh liberation that we must set ourselves towards if we seek to truly honour Bhai Jaswant Singh’s legacy.
Bhai Khalra’s shahadat is a beacon for our generation and an example of how to follow in the footsteps of those before us. Bhai Jaswant Singh sacrificed the comforts of life in the diaspora and committed himself to concrete work at the grassroots level in Punjab while understanding that his work is ultimately only one piece in a larger struggle to redefine the terms of our future.