Sikh Exhibit at Canadian Museum For Human Rights

Moninder Singh

It was 6 years ago when a group of us walked into a meeting in downtown Vancouver to discuss 1984 with representatives of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). Each of us brought our individual experiences that inspired us to become active within our community and our concerns as to how the human rights abuses inflicted upon the Sikh people within India were being sidelined in a propaganda infested campaign to malign Sikh Canadian youth as extremists rather than the rightful activists they were and are. I remember leaving that meeting though with a sense of sadness and if I look back to that moment I can honestly say that it completely changed my approach to addressing Sikh issues. It was like sitting across from a group of individuals who were judging just how much pain I was in. How could they know? Who were they to judge? But more importantly, just what was I trying to accomplish in my engagement with western governments and organizations?

Seeking validation from the host nations we reside in is a dangerous game when a majority of our community’s time, resources and physical bodies are engaged in such an act. In 30 years if we had spent the same amount of money and time on the Sikh community and helping them understand the events of 1984…not just the genocidal aspects of it inflicted upon us by the Indian State, but also the inspirational moments our Sikh brothers and sisters provided us, we definitely would not find ourselves in a state of wondering how to “move our movement.” When the Sikh community itself is still confused and torn over the events of 1984, what is it that we are seeking from the host nations that we reside in? This became a fundamental question for me which I still have to check myself on.

This thinking that Punjabis or Sikhs are stupid is becoming more and more internalized. When we are working for the aspirations of a nation or community we should look to its members who are putting their hopes into our hands and asking us to represent them in a way that our Gurus instructed…not to beg for a place at a “table”, but to demand our right to be there. For 2 years after that meeting in downtown Vancouver I was sporadically in touch with a few people at the CMHR and discussion was really going nowhere. I was told that there would be a place for the Komagata Maru and possibly for racism/discrimination suffered by the Sikh community while in Canada. The problem was that this was a museum for international human rights issues so why were Sikhs being represented via issues within Canada only? There was a place for the Jewish holocaust, Armenian genocide, Palestinian plight, and etc. but where was the showcasing of the disappearance and extra-judicial murder of 10s of thousands of Sikhs over a decade within India by state authorities? I wanted to ask the question and so I went to Winnipeg, Manitoba and did.

The meeting I had with the CMHR in January 2011 was the start of a journey for me. Watching so-called Sikh “leadership” engage with politicians and authorities in Canada had me thinking for years that pandering to them was the way it was done. By the time I walked out of the meeting in 2008 with the CMHR I was tired of pandering and even more tired of trying to beg the Sikh struggle into justification in the minds of those sitting across from me. This was a scheduled 1 hour meeting that went on for almost 4 hours with the Director of Communications and Public Engagement and her team. They listened and they understood the information I was bringing to them in regards to why an exhibit solely on Sikh Canadian experiences would be a disservice to the Sikh community globally. I wasn’t there to pander them into liking me or what I was saying, I was there to try and remind them of the purpose of the museum and equal rights for the communities who were looking for a place to showcase their all too real experiences. I was put in touch with the team responsible for research and exhibits at the CMHR and we were ready for the next phase of discussions around a Sikh exhibit and its contents.

For almost 3 years now I have been working with the Head of Stakeholder Relations and a Lead Research Curator for the CMHR. We have had ups and downs and had immense fallouts along the way as well. I had secured the help of academics in presenting the Sikh case and give special thanks to Professor Rita Dhamoon (University of Victoria), Professor Cynthia Mahmood (Notre Dame University) and Professor Indira Prahst (Langara College) for their insight and support. The role of the CMHR is to ensure equal representation of issues that fit the mandate that has been placed upon it and my job in representing the Sikh issue was to hold fast to the ethics and morals that would represent the history of an entire nation and I found out just how difficult that was. Many times I wanted to compromise and move forward and many times I wanted to walk away, but I could do neither as the issue at hand was much larger than my own inflated ego. My father had said something to me when I was quite young, but it has resonated with me in every step I take in life. He told me that I had the choice to be a Sikh that works for the panth and then has a sense of entitlement and a feeling that the panth owes me something for my seva (service)…or I could try and be a Sikh who tries to understand that I will never be able to repay my Guru and panth for the gift of Sikhi that I was entrusted with. That I constantly remember that my confidence and self-esteem comes from inspiration derived from the spilled blood of millions of my people whose trials and tribulations make mine seem minor in comparison. That if I was even semi-successful in creating this mindset for myself that my seva would be selfless. I have always told myself that I try, but never really know if I am succeeding…

Trying to hold true to this advice and with the help of many around me, I pushed forward a project proposal for an exhibit titled “We are the Light.” It was an exhibit that was aiming to accomplish a few different things. We wanted to show Sikh activism around the world and challenge this label of extremism and to do so we decided to use two very inspirational aspects that many of us connect to, the events of 1984 and the life of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra. The inspiration we draw from our resilience in relation to 1984 and the dedication and bravery of Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra became the foundation for the exhibit.

In January 2014 I received confirmation of the exhibit from the CMHR. Even though I knew it was coming I was still a bit shocked and a bit overcome with emotion at what it meant to me. It was a long process and tiring with 12-15 trips to Winnipeg and across the country, but with kirpa (grace) it allowed me to forge friendships across the country that have now linked me to the some of the best and brightest amongst Sikh youth in Canada. The same kirpa allowed me to function without asking for funding for the project as it was something that I personally was absorbed in. I wanted it to be something the Sikh nation could see as theirs and not of a particular organization. Going back to my original point, the purpose of this exhibit is to serve not just as a tool to educate those in our host nations but more importantly to help in validating to our own people the larger story that they are a part of.

I would like to thank three individuals for the support and dedication they provided to this exhibit. All three are people I admire and have tremendous work ethic for panthic issues. Sami Kaur Brar from Edmonton is the definition of passion for me. I have yet to come across an individual that is so eloquent and yet so grounded in their beliefs with an amazing ability to dissect an issue to get to the core of it. Amneet Singh Bali from Ottawa is a figure within the Canadian Sikh community that guides many of us with his ability to connect with Sikh youth across the country and represent issues at the highest level with integrity. Finally, Jagmeet Singh from Brampton. I don’t need to give his professional titles as those are not what I believe define Jagmeet Singh. He is unwavering in his dedication for the panth is an inspiration for the Sikh community globally. His advice and guidance in this project were pivotal in its success.

This group of Sikh youth across British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario came together to create a place within the international community and in a Human Rights Museum where the plight of Sikhs in India over the last 3 decades could be placed forever. We worked as a team and in silence to ensure the project would not be compromised and even though none of them wanted recognition, their dedication and work ethic should serve as an inspiration for Sikh youth across the world that they too can drive change in their communities and in doing so can pay homage to the sacrifice of tens of thousands of their people in India.

When the museum opens on September 19, 2014 the “We are the Light” exhibit will be unveiled. It will be a growing exhibit (over years) and mainly information will be available by electronic kiosks in the area. Future plans with this exhibit include expanding it to cover more aspects of 1984 and the decade of violence inflicted upon the people of Punjab. There will be two images that will adorn the walls of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for this exhibit. The first is the picture you see of Amneet Singh Bali, Jagmeet Singh and Sami Kaur Brar in front of the Toronto Court House as a representation of Sikh activism and combatting the label of extremism. The second picture attached will be of Shaheed Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra addressing an audience on Parliament Hill in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario in 1995 in regards to his work in uncovering thousands of bodies of Sikh youth murdered through extra-judicial torture at the hands of the Indian state. There will be no credit for the exhibit except for the entire Sikh Nation and the only names that will adorn a place alongside Bhai Jaswant Singh Khalra’s picture will be of his wife Bibi Parmjit Kaur Khalra, his daughter Bibi Navkiran Kaur Khalra and his son Bhai Janmeet Singh Khalra.

No funds should be collected on this project and no single organization should take any credit for the work that was done. The entire Sikh nation contributed to this exhibit through a collective suffering which today serves as the inspiration for all of us to demand freedom for all.

What do we do now? We do what we have always done and we stay true to the mission we were given by our Gurus. We refuse to be oppressed…We refuse to be silenced…We will constantly move forward…Tomorrow in Anandpur.

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