A Quick Background
The spirit of the Jakara youth movement is a model that I think should be emulated in other countries, including India. It began in 1999 when a handful of Sikhs in their teens and early twenties attended the Sikh Renaissance Conference, run by people of our parents’ generation. They found the message informative, but thought there wasn’t a meaningful discussion because the youth voice was drowned out by the adults. So they decided to start their own conference and keep the adults out.
Growing up in Fresno, there really was no excuse for me not to have attended Jakara until I was 30, the cut-off age. I always found something else to occupy my time with: in 1999, when they first began, I was 21, in the Naval Reserve, and had just started taking depressing Victorian literature courses at Fresno State. So that summer I had extended my Annual Training in Spain to go travel around Europe. In 2000, I wasted most of my time swimming and playing video games. The year after that I was working on my thesis, then I left to go teach in China for two years, and then I was in graduate school. In the summer of 2005, I got married. Then my wife and I went on a backpacking honeymoon across India for six months. The point is, for some reason, although I was a stone’s throw away, I didn’t think to make it a priority to go. And it isn’t that I found the topics being explored boring; I didn’t bother to see what they were. The truth is, I found the idea of being confined for an entire weekend discussing Sikh issues utterly miserable. Yes, I was one of those people.
It wasn’t until 2009, the year I turned 30 that I spent $800 on airfare for me and my pregnant wife to fly 3000 miles to Fresno so we could attend a conference that I could have driven to in fifteen minutes flat when I lived in Fresno. And on one hand, I do regret my decision of not attending past conferences. But, on the other hand, I think it did make me appreciate the experience of going at 30 much more. The topic in 2009 was 1984: Reflect. Respond. React. A kind of revisiting of their conference theme in 2004, which I didn’t attend.
The whole purpose of Jakara is really something I admire. It is to regain the generation that don’t feel like they have a say in their religious identity and don’t know how to connect with it because their voices are drowned out by the adults. And Jakara really empowers the next generation of Sikhs by providing them a platform to to think about the issues affecting their identities, their understanding of their religion, and their place in this world. The Jakara Youth Conference takes place in the summer over a weekend in Fresno, California, with activities from morning until evening. Each year, the topics change.
Jakara has a fantastic policy of separating couples (which my wife didn’t think was nearly as fantastic as I did initially) and pretty much anyone who seems to have come with other people, thereby getting people out of their comfort zone. After making our way to the music building at Fresno State, my old stomping ground, we all congregated in a large room, and played some ice-breaker games before the presentations began. Some of the presentations were collected youtube videos that I had seen before, while some of the presentations were a mix of power-point, or just lecture/interactive sessions that offered fresh and contemporary perspectives on the issues.
We were later divided into groups of about five or six and went off to different rooms in different buildings on the Fresno State campus. What I really liked was the fact that instead of teachers, they use the word facilitators to describe the role of the one or two people who run the classes. Teachers imply that they have the answers, while facilitators are there to guide the conversation towards a particular objective. My facilitators, Sarina Kaur and Preeti Kaur, were fantastic. But I did feel a little out of place in my group as they were all fairly young. I would guess between the ages of 16-21. And some of them had an overly simplistic notion of 1984. One reduced it to “Hindus being jealous of Sikhs.” But it was interesting listening to how these kids from various states, and one from Canada, were processing the information. My wife, Sona, fared a little better with her group because her co-participants were older and her facilitator, Ajeet Singh Matharu, was the one who had designed the lesson plans. So he was incredibly knowledgeable on the issues and was able to challenge them, as well as veer the conversation away from the “Sikh vs Hindu” argument.
One of the major eye-openers for me was meeting my wife’s facilitator, an old friend of mine, Ajeet Singh Matharu, who had just completed th first year of his Ph.D. in History at Columbia University in New York City. He had even utilized his expertise as a Teach For America teacher in NYC to create lesson plans and provide training for all of the facilitators. He was very knowledgeable about “the events,” “the non-events” and the major characters involved, and combined with his university training, was able to analyze it in a way I had never really thought about. He died much too early (July 25, 2010) in a road accident while in India. His death came as an absolute shock and continues to sadden all of those who knew him. Or even of him. The last conversation I remember having with him was about Indira Gandhi and Bhindranwale, the controversial figure attributed with, in a sense, being either the hero or villain of 1984. That one conversation with him really helped to put things into perspective.
One of the most interesting things we started talking about over lunch was the level of importance attached to Bhindranwale and the assumption that you couldn’t discuss 1984 without talking about this polarizing figure, as if he was ’84. Then we started talking about the different views, all involving Bhindranwale (which was partly what his joint presentation had been about). Here is what I remember of the conversation:
A) Scenario 1: Bhindranwale is the villain and is the cause of all the violence and communal disharmony in Punjab. He has called for the death of Hindus and advocated the use of murder in order to achieve his aim for Khalistan, a sovereign Sikh nation. He is the reason the government was forced to storm the Golden Temple so that they could restore peace. The fact that it was one of the busiest pilgrimage days, which apparently not a single Intelligence Agent knew about, is irrelevant. Bhindranwale was the root cause.
B) Scenario 2: Bhindranwale is the hero for standing up for Sikh rights and identity. He never actively engaged in violence and listening to his speeches, there is no evidence to suggest he condoned the use of violence against Hindus or anyone else. He has never said that he was for or against Khalistan, or that he was in favor of violence in order to achieve it. The villain, in this scenario, is Indira Gandhi and her government. In order to discredit the only recognized Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, she provided Bhindranwale with political security and weapons. He was arrested briefly, but released a short time later. The only F.I.R. – a police report akin to a warrant – for him was submitted after his death. Nobody even batted an eye in his direction until Indira Gandhi realized she couldn’t control him.
C) Scenario 3: the one Ajeet and I were leaning towards – Bhindranwale’s role in ’84 has been greatly exaggerated. He was in control for six months at the most. Then the original ideological “freedom fighters” died out, or lost control somehow, and the new batch were more concerned with the power they held to settle old scores or profit from being above the law. Their “income” as so-called freedom fighters came as hired goons or blackmailers. This was a far cry from Bhindranwale’s ideals and his followers’s genuine fervor and ideology. The common people of Punjab were caught in the crossfire. They were either tortured and terrorized by the police (run by K.P.S. Gill) or tortured and terrorized by terrorists claiming to still be part of Bhindranwale’s ideological Freedom Fighters.
Weeks after that conversation had ended, a question started rattling around in my head, one that I can only attribute to the conversation I had with Ajeet: “Are either of them so pivotal to the story that I’m trying to tell?” And the truth is, they’re not. Neither are people like K.P.S. Gill, lauded as India’s “super-cop,” who systematically used torture and faked “encounters” – kidnapping, in most cases, innocent people killing them via horrific use of torture while in police custody, and then dressing the death up as a brave and heroic battle between police and “extremists” in some remote area of Punjab.
Then there are the congress leaders, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, the only two people, it seems, who faced any charges. And of course, neither of them have or ever will face jail time, but the one concession is that they have recently been dropped from the congress party. But this was probably in order to secure Sikh votes.