On 21 April 2018, minority communities of Canada connected as never before, when the Kwantlen First Nation were invited to open the Surrey, British Columbia Nagar Kirtan (Sikh religious procession), known as the Khalsa Day Parade, which takes place on First Nation land. Sikh activist and community figure Moninder Singh was instrumental in this historic show of unity. Below he details just why he helped arrange it all.
Not even two weeks before the Nagar Kirtan (Sikh street procession known as the Khalsa Day Parade) in Surrey, I picked up my keys off the kitchen counter in my home and took a deep breath.
Looking up I saw my wife Dalvinder Kaur staring at me, then asking if something was wrong. I shook my head no, but explained that for months I had been involved in and pushing conversations in the Gurdwara and organizing circles for the Nagar Kirtan to begin communication with various First Nations (native Canadians) on whose traditional lands we have settled on and carry out such a large and significant event. I explained I was apprehensive as I was sensitive to the issue, wanting to ensure it was genuine and not an act of “tokenism”, where we were using it as an opportunity to further our own agenda in some way.
I struggled with my definition of solidarity and whether my experience in regards to the occupation and colonization (and its after-effects) of Punjab by the British and later by India, was the wrong reason to make this connection, as regardless of my personal experiences and political position, I am still carrying out a settler history here on their lands. At the same time, for true solidarity to exist, there must be an exchange of respect and acceptance to ideas, aspirations and movements. It is a reason for me, as the issue of occupation and resistance resonates with me personally and many others, to take this first step in its attempt to build relationships and solidarity moving forward.
All of this was going on internally within myself and others involved in the organization of the Nagar Kirtan and in the meantime, a friend and fellow Sikh activist Satnam Singh Sangra had already reached out and started the process of communication and dialogue with First Nation communities. In truth, it is Satnam Singh who worked tirelessly to ensure that this bond of friendship and solidarity was built between our communities. His sole focus during the entire process was to ensure a respectful dialogue and he left no stone unturned to ensure our conversations and interactions were done in-line with First Nation traditions.
In carrying out this momentous ceremony, the bond between us as friends has grown deeper, through how deeply we both care about this issue. Satnam Singh’s persistence and coordination of the conversations and ceremony were instrumental in ensuring our two communities came together in the celebration of a pivotal moment in Sikh history.
The welcoming ceremony occurring on a day where celebrations center around the creation of the Khalsa could not have been more appropriate. The Khalsa is a collection of Sikhs committed to the Guru, and in turn, to the needs of the downtrodden and oppressed. Using the teachings of the Gurus as its guidance, the Khalsa was created to ensure social justice was delivered, the innocent were protected, and tyranny was uprooted. While the qualities of the Khalsa are rooted in the adherence to Gurus teachings and Sikh Rehat Maryada, the definition of the term Khalsa is captured beautifully as follows:
“Khalsa, is an Arabic word. The meaning of which is – ‘The land of the Emperor, That land that cannot be taxed’. Meaning derived from this is that the free individual who is free from all forms of subservience, is Khalsa.”
Piara Singh Padam, ‘Gobind Sagar’, Pg.107.
The Nagar Kirtan in Surrey has become many things to many different people. We celebrate the Khalsa on this day as a community and not a “harvest festival” or the coming of a “new year” as is often depicted in mainstream media. The Khalsa is timeless and relentless in its pursuit of justice and patshahi (sovereignty; both spiritual and physical).
The Khalsa exists within the moral and ethical codes of the Guru Sahiban (masters); it is the Guru Panth (path) being led by the Guru Granth (scriptural Guru). The Khalsa was delivered to the world on the edge of the sword by Guru Gobind Singh, after Guru Amar Das had already declared that the path they were leading us down was sharper than the edge of that same sword. Not all can tread this path, but the more worrisome issue is that more and more of us are not even able to properly define this path in our diaspora existence. When we have to pick and choose words, dilute our conversations, and justify our existence at every turn because the “societal norms” of these countries don’t align with the instruction of our Guru Sahibans, we ourselves are slowly becoming a part of the same cultural genocide and degradation of identity that we fear so much at the hands of others.
“The main substance of this doctrine is that any sovereign state, which includes Sikh populations and groups as citizens, must never make the paranoiac pretentions of almighty absolutism, entailing the concept to total power, entitled to rule over the bodies and minds of men in utter exclusiveness. Any state, which lays such claims, qua the Sikhs, shall automatically forfeit its moral right to demand allegiance of the Sikhs, and there is thus, an eternal antagonism between such a state and the collective community of the Sikhs, represented by the order of the Khalsa, and in this deadly duel the state shall never emerge out as finally victorious, for self-destruction is the fruit of the seed of non-limitation and the status and the prerogatives of the Khalsa are imprescriptible.”
Sardar Kapur Singh, Sikh Historian.
I took all this with me when I got in my car and drove to Walnut Grove in Langley BC and into the traditional territories of the Kwantlen First Nation to meet Chief Marilyn Gabriel. I arrived early and found that Satnam Singh, being ever so diligent, was already present and waiting for the Chief and her husband to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long as a few minutes later. Smiling brightly, they arrived. After we made our greetings and sat across from each other, it suddenly became very real to me what was actually happening. Looking at Chief Marilyn Gabriel, all I could see was glimpses of a deep struggle on a dignified face of resistance. I understood in that moment that I wasn’t speaking to just anyone. In her rightful position, Chief Marilyn Gabriel carries a lineage thousands of years old that she is responsible for maintaining and taking forward. I felt humbled and privileged to be speaking to her on her peoples’ land.
I felt the need to acknowledge why it took so long for this conversation to happen, a need to recognize their rightful place on this land, and a need to apologize for something I felt I should have recognized as a sevadaar (selfless volunteer)/organizer of the Nagar Kirtan for the last decade: “I wish…we could have done this sooner and we should have done this much sooner as organizers of this event on your traditional territories. I would like to sincerely apologize for my oversight and …” was all I got out before Chief Marilyn very diplomatically cut me off with a smile.
Chief Marilyn responded, “Let me stop you right there. We were supposed to meet right now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. Right now. This is how it was meant to be and we accept that. You never need to apologize ever again to us. Now is the time for us to work together.”
As I continued to listen more than talk, Chief Marilyn took me through how her once powerful people numbered in the tens of thousands and by the time she became Chief their numbers had dwindled to barely 60 individuals. We speak regularly in the Sikh community of genocide and the extinction of our people through linguistic, cultural and religious subjugation by the Indian state. The physical and cultural genocide of a people able to trace their lineage back thousands of years resulting in only 60 individuals remaining, the reality of genocide and extinction in the face sitting across from me made me lower my eyes for a moment. We cannot compare suffering or genocide amongst communities and rather our focus should be on the resiliency of those who suffer and continue to fight for their existence.
At one point, during a brief moment of silence, I asked how she became Chief and of her impact on her people. Chief Marilyn’s determination in her response was nothing short of stunning: “We used to be called the Langley Indian Band. All three words are foreign to my people, yet somehow, this is how we were defined. The first thing I moved to do after the passing of my father was to take our name back. It’s not just a name…it’s our identity. Our language, culture, and every part of us…it is tied to our name. We are Kwantlen…there is no Langley Indian Band.”
The erasure of a nation’s identity by the colonizer/oppressor using governmental agency and documentation, such as the constitution, to re-define their existence (i.e. name) is something the Sikh community knows all too well. We are classified as Hindu through Article 25 of the Indian constitution. Occupation, colonization, genocide, and stripping away of identity are all common points of understanding between Sikhs and the First Nation, and the foundation for true solidarity to be built.
Never did I feel helpless, hopeless or alone while I spoke with Chief Marilyn about our communities. I have much to learn, but meeting with Chief Marilyn and her husband provided a glimpse into a way of life and existence that mirrored my own in many ways. I saw in my conversations with Chief Marilyn an unapologetic warrior and leader of the Kwantlen and it truly gave me inspiration to further push these conversations within Sikh circles, with no fear and plenty of love for my people who are all shaped through various experiences and therefore, carry various perspectives.
ਕਬੀਰ ਜਉ ਤੁਹਿ ਸਾਧ ਪਿਰੰਮ ਕੀ ਸੀਸੁ ਕਾਟਿ ਕਰਿ ਗੋਇ ॥
Kabeer, if you desire to play the game of love with Akal Purakh, then
cut off your head (ego, desire, etc.), and make it into a ball.
ਖੇਲਤ ਖੇਲਤ ਹਾਲ ਕਰਿ ਜੋ ਕਿਛੁ ਹੋਇ ਤ ਹੋਇ ॥੨੩੯॥
Lose yourself in the play of it, and then whatever will be, will be. ||239||
Although everything is already provided to a Sikh by the Guru Sahiban, there are many like us scattered throughout the world that are raising their heads and eyes to the oppressor and that is where solidarity can be built. Our struggles have intersecting points and where our political ideology may not align, our commonality in resistance provides other opportunities. For Sikhs to exist as Sikhs and not a by-product of colonialism and its effects, as a Panth we have to start by reverting to a very simple type of existence, where the Gurus word is final and absolute and it is expressed with clarity and no dilution:
ਕਹਿਯੋ ਪ੍ਰਭੂ ਸੋ ਭਾਖ ਹੋ ॥
ਕਿਸੂ ਨਾ ਕਾਨ ਰਾਖ ਹੋ ॥
I speak and act only to which Akal Purakh has instructed,
I don’t yield to anything or anyone else.
Moninder Singh – Sikh Liberation Front (SLF)