Unsettling the Myth of the Model Minority: the Life and Legacy of Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh
Following Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s shaheedi, there have been multiple conversations around the meaning and significance of his life and sacrifice. In mid-July, Bhai Moninder Singh of the Khalistan Centre and Bhai Prabjot Singh of the Panth-Punjab Project spoke with Bhai Akashdeep Singh (UndyingMorcha) in a two-part conversation delving into Bhai Hardeep Singh’s life and the path forward. Below is an edited excerpt from part one of that conversation for our readers.
When we think of Bhai Hardeep Singh, I often look at it from the perspective that he embodied Guru Sahib's culture and projected that, embodied that, throughout his life and a lot of the work that he did. We hear about our shaheeds, we hear about our jujharoos, who embodied our Guru’s culture, who lived by it, who died by it. But then to have someone with you for like, say, 10-15 years, who genuinely embodied that while living, and to be able to feed off of that and learn off of that, it's an amazing gift.
In the beginning when you were talking about Bhai Hardeep Singh, you talked about the kurbani (sacrifice) of his family, how they helped the jujharoos, how he was tortured. I'm wondering if you could talk about some of the discussions that we used to have about the sacrifices that Bhai Hardeep Singh had to make in Canada regarding the banks stopping his accounts, how he used to get hassled by police and CSIS. I'm wondering if you could touch on that to provide some context for the sangat that may not have known him to that extent.
India had a target on him, but then Canada played a role in that as well. I think that's what we're touching on here. I believe wholeheartedly that various states and their machinery–whether it's political, judiciary, law enforcement, intelligence, media–they'll attack and demonize those they see as a threat. Otherwise, why would they attack and demonize them? It has to be somebody that poses a threat. This is where the idea of baagi (rebel/rebellion) comes in. You can't be a baagi if you're not a threat. You can't just tattoo it on yourself, that doesn't make you a baagi.
At the end of the day, there must be something about what you're doing and your existence that creates that threat of being a baagi. History is littered with these examples from Guru Nanak patshah's arrest to Guru Arjun patshah, Guru Tegh Bahadur patshah's shaheedi, the Chottee Sahibzade, Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, Bhai Mani Singh jee, Baba Deep Singh, Baba Gurbaksh Singh shaheed, and in the modern context of Sant Jarnail Singh jee and Bhai Fauja Singh jee. There's a threat, and then the state comes–whichever state it is–whichever authority it is, and the authorities change. States changed over that entire period that I referenced, but the threat was the same. To them, the threat is Sikhi.
The target is always Sikhi, individuals that embody that Sikhi that we talked about, seva, abhiyaas, gurmat, sangarsh, they then become the target. The issue is Sikhi in and of itself as a threat to all these powers that exist, and those amongst us that actually embody it. They become the primary targets for ruling powers to eliminate in some fashion. So I should say, this is a continuation of that pattern. The target is Sikhi and what it represents.
I believe Bhai Hardeep Singh became the biggest threat that we had, because of a certain reason, and it wasn't because of what most people are thinking. I think he was making inroads internally with the Sikh sangat at a pace that we probably hadn't seen in 30 years, and he became a prominent face across the world. Globally, he was the most recognized Khalistani, as a Sikh leader. He had changed the way the Gurdwara was run. Everything from local level politics, how he engaged, all the way through to the morche that were run, challenging the Indian state, supporting students that were coming from Punjab, supporting local communities here during floods, and all these other things that were happening.
He had turned that Gurdwara into the definition of what a Gurdwara is based on, what, Bhai Khan Singh said, it was a qilla (fortress), it was a place for nitane (the oppressed), langar was flowing from there, healthcare and other opportunities for those that needed it. So we had turned it into the definition of what a Gurdwara was, which is not just ‘a place of worship’.
It’s a fortification of everything that Guru has given us in order to protect that sidhant (Sikh principles). Bhai Hardeep Singh acted that way within that space. The normalization of Khalistan in conversation, its insignias, flags–everything that was happening in the last four or five years. The intensity in which it happened in the Vancouver area had impacts everywhere. We saw our local sangats in Seattle, California to the east coast of the U.S, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, London, all over the U.K, Australia and New Zealand, Europe. Anywhere in the world, you could see the acceleration of the narrative of Khalistan, the soch (ideals) of Khalistan, and the idea of Khalistan becoming normalized.
Twenty years ago, it wasn't that way. Twenty years ago, we were told don't talk about it. Twenty years ago, parents would tell their kids not to talk about it. We were seen as threats to their kids because we were trying to engage with Khalistan. So now the impact of what you're talking about, of what happened because of his activity, because of all this that he was doing, he was attacked from every which angle within Canada. His travel was restricted to nothing. Before it was limited, he was banned from the U.S. and then all of a sudden outright he couldn't travel, his travel ban was initiated.
I remember the day he came to my house with this letter in his hand, asking “‘what does this mean”? And I'm reading this letter and it pretty much says you have thirty days to pay back any mortgages, bank loans for his business. Basically the financial institutions–on instruction from Canadian security agencies–are saying that you're a threat to the country. He had to–within 30 days–come up with all this money to pay all these loans back because banks didn't want to do business with him. He was seen as a threat and a liability. He couldn't get credit cards for a while because everything was revoked. Interpol had multiple notices out on him. A ‘red corner’ notice was issued multiple times–more than the two times that was actually listed. They were trying to corner this individual, at the same time India ran their propaganda.
They've got the wrong face [in the media] and they're saying it's Hardeep Singh Nijjar–saying that he's running training camps in Mission, which is a common area where people locally here go to shoot guns. That might've been a seven, eight year old story. But if you look at the continuous pattern that they create, anything that happens: this Khalistani did this, that Khalistani did that, just to malign the movement. The fake news they run, Canadian media would pick up on it and paint Bhai Hardeep Singh in that fashion as well, all the way through to anything that was happening in Punjab.
The things that happen in Punjab are up to the people of Punjab. From how they engage with the state, whether it's kalam de naal (with the pen) or hathyaar de naal (with arms)–it's their choice in any way. They need to safeguard themselves, defend themselves, and move their issues of sovereignty forward. And that's up to them. No one here, at least amongst us, is going to say that our sangarsh is limited to one thing or the other. it's not. The only limits it has is what Guru Sahib has given us. All these other things; that it has to be peaceful, it has to be this, that, and the other–those are dunyavi (worldly). Sangarsh is sangarsh at the end of the day for a Sikh; it's what the Guru has given us, and it runs according to what the Guru has given us, or we're not Sikh. It's very simple, black and white.
India turned Bhai Hardeep Singh into something through their nationalist media. They had to. They had to turn him into this demon that they had created themselves because when they execute their surgical strike, just like Darbar Sahib and the years of propaganda against Sant Jarnail Singh against the jujharoos of that time, against the Sikh populace. Because when they had taken it to a fever pitch and they strike, it would be accepted by the rest of the “nation”.
They had spread this propaganda for multiple years and this was no different. What they're doing with jujharoos right now. With Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda, Bhai Parmjit Singh Panjwar, Bhai Harmeet Singh PhD, Bhai Harminder Singh Nihang. It is a common pattern, and right now, in this moment with Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar the pattern is the same. The pattern is to vilify them and demonize them among their own populace.
What they're stating though, and I have to kind of reiterate this, what they're stating, what they're putting in their heads is that these people are fighting for Khalistan. These people are trying to break our country up. These people are using many different means to do so. All of that within Sikh sidhant is fine. We have to be clear that we're not going to go out there and say his involvement was limited to one aspect just because India is trying to vilify Sikh sangarsh, any type of armed struggle or physical confrontation with the state. They depend on this idea that only the state has a monopoly on violence and nobody else can raise anything against them.
That is not okay within a Sikh context. I would end by saying that he normalized the idea of Khalistan. He became a central figure, not only online, not only in writing, or not only in videos that people were sharing until his travel was limited–he was tireless. He would be in the U.K., he would be in Europe, he would be all over the U.S. He would be all over Canada. Once his travel was limited he would still drive across Canada for days. It takes three to four days to get from Vancouver to Toronto for most people, and he would drive over to Toronto, when activities were happening in Toronto, or he needed to speak in Toronto or go to the Nagar Keertan in Toronto. All of what he was doing was from that tireless, endless drive he had. I'll take it back to the promise. He had set out after making a promise and he was kehni karni da poora (steadfast in doing what he said). Whatever he said, he went out and did it–and he did it to that last breath.
They were targeting him because he was the continuation of that threat of Sikhi; that threat of sangarsh that he embodied. He embodied it more than probably anyone else in the world. I think that's why he was a target. The bigger question for us going forward will always be–especially for those of us that exist in Canada–what is Canada's role in all of this?
It's not just limited to the fact that they didn't act on intelligence. It's also the fact that they restricted this individual. They actually attacked him as a Canadian citizen. They limited him. All of that has to be explored as well. It gives us a better idea of where we sit in this country, and who we are in this country. At the end of the day, why the idea, the discussion around Khalistan will always be forefront for us, because this space is not truly ours. We exist within it. If we're quiet, if we're the model minority then we're okay. The moment we raise our heads even a little bit, and start asking the real questions, or challenging the government, its structures and everything else that goes with it, we’re a liability. At best we're a bargaining chip for Canada with India when it comes to ‘extremism’ discussions. That is all we're gonna get out of this, and we have to be prepared for that.
You can't sit here and think we're safe anywhere. The reality has significantly shifted. That's something to discuss as well, that our reality is completely different now and then as tomorrow will come, the path forward will have to be discussed as well.
In terms of Bhai Hardeep Singh being targeted, I think there's a lot of stuff that we can talk about tomorrow in terms of the context of why he was targeted by India, what their interests are, why they're threatened by him, and what Canada's role is. When Canada has a security and cooperation framework where Canada is actively sharing intelligence with India, including examples of people who are picked up, who are being interrogated and recordings of Bhai Hardeep Singh are used.
So I think that's an important context, but that's also what our dushman (adversary) is doing. There's also, I think Moninder Singh talked about this a lot and I think he hit the nail on the head with the reason Bhai Hardeep Singh was a threat: it’s because Bhai Hardeep Singh embodied gursikhi. And it's the fact that he embodied that fully in its entirety, with the entirety of his being and in every facet.
When we look at his seva, he operated on this basis that our sangarsh is not dependent on any foreign power, but on building the panth’s sovereign power. Our sangarsh is not dependent on any other structure. How do you turn the gurdwara sahib into a qilla? How do you turn it into a fortress–the base from which the panth builds its own political structures. This idea of building sovereign institutions in every realm of his seva, not looking for handouts or solutions from the government, or deferring authority and responsibility to anyone else. That if our naujawan international students who are coming to Canada are not having their physical needs met, we're not going to the government saying, “hey, you solve this”. The solution is internally within our own institutions and structures.
How do we give meaning to ideas of Degh Tegh Fateh? How do you embody gareeb di rakhya jarvane di bhakya (the welfare of the vulnerable and the destruction of tyrants). Bhai Hardeep Singh did both of those facets of seva actively and consistently and was not constantly fixated on government or MPs; that they're going to do this or they need to speak out about this.
How do we build our own internal infrastructure to this point where we don't need anybody else. We're not relying on anybody else. Even in the wake of his shahadat there are a lot of conversations that are important that need to be had about what Canada's role in this is, what Canada's responsibility is, and the role of Indian intelligence agencies. But there's a much more fundamental conversation that needs to be had about understanding who and what Bhai Hardeep Singh was, what he represents, and how he moved, and how we emulate that going forward.
The fact that justice, or accountability, freedom, liberation, Khalistan, are not going to be given to us by anybody else through par-adheen (subordinated) institutions. It's going to be through this idea of developing our own infrastructure through this idea that the Gurdwara Sahib is a physical, territorial, representation of our patshahi, of the sovereignty that Akal Purakh has given to the Khalsa in and of itself.
How do you function and operate a gurdwara to exist within this world? Through our own parameters and through our own paradigms–not through anybody else. Not trying to explain that this is a house of worship or something like that. If there's a Nishaan Sahib outside, if there are shastar here, if the Khalsa's pehra (guard) is here, those things have weight. I think Bhai Hardeep Singh lived in such a way, organized and did things in such a way that he gave these concepts and these ideals real, physical, tangible meaning.