As we started early in the morning from Chandigarh to Village Bargari, Faridkot, we took roadblocks, traffic congestion and possible diversions into account.. Our road was full of tractors pulling paddy-loaded trolleys and trucks loaded with grain filled in gunnysacks. After the incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib and the subsequent agitations most of the Sikh organizations and leaders were supposed to share the stage for the first time in Bargari at the Bhog ceremony of Krishan Bhagwan Singh and Gurjit Singh Sarawan, two protesters killed in police firing on October 13. Bargari, a village on Amritsar-Ganganagar National Highway 15 had remained the main site of protests.
As we crossed Kotakpura, big billboards appeared on the sides of the road. They had images of turbaned Sikhs with Punjabi text in Gurmukhi script: Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala in mid-shot with an arrow in one hand and a sword under other arm and cartridge belt put across shoulders; Krishan Bhagwan Singh, Gurjit Singh Sarawan and Baljit Singh Daduwal as mug shots. Daduwal is a Sikh preacher leading this agitation in the area and seems to be the main organizer of the bhog ceremony because his organization – the Panthic Sewa Lehar – has a sizable presence in the area. Despite similar adjectives prefixed to Daduwal and Bhindranwala’s names, Sant Baba, there are dotted lines of approach, time and space between them. Bhindranwala was head of Damdami Taksal, a Sikh Seminary and died while fighting against Indian Army from Golden Temple complex during operation Blue Star in 1984. His image invokes memories of 1984 and armed militants and its combination with other three images create space to think. The juxtaposition of images suggests Daduwal in continuity of Bhindranwala’s tradition.
Without facing any traffic hassles, we reached well in advance. We parked our vehicle and walked through a few protesters partaking in langar on the blocked highway. Despite its shabby look, a small handwritten banner over the entrance drew our attention. It read, “Punjab police, CID and PTC News are unwelcome in our mourning.” While making multi colored billboard on flex ‘Neel Kanth Garments, Jaiton’ would have never thought that its reverse side can carry a much bigger political message with a black marker.
I thought it better to bring our equipment inside and park our vehicle near an OB van stationed near the stage. I asked a senior protest leader whether media is allowed inside or not. He asked the boys guarding the entrance to allow us in.
They bluntly refused and aggressively asked, “Where was media when we were protesting since 12th October. You are sold out. We will not allow you in.”
I told them that I am an independent documentary filmmaker and wants to document their program. One of them came with sharper reply, “We are in mourning and you think of making films. You could come if it would have been an occasion of happiness.”
One of them suggested to my colleague that it could have been a smooth entry if he had asked for permission, . My colleague is bearded and turbaned. The leader of this band of protestors still assured us entry and asked us to bring the vehicle. When our vehicle reached the point where the protestors were gathered, one of them came to me sitting on rear seat, “Had not we told you politely. Now you will be responsible for the consequences.” As he completed his sentence another protestor worded it differently. He was followed by a third, making the comments sound more and more ominous. We retreated.
We left our equipment inside the vehicle and requested them to allow us to attend the function. They argued with each other and reluctantly allowed us with a condition that we will not record anything. Very soon we will witness innumerable camera phone clicking photographs of the stage with or without selfie sticks. The whole program was live streamed for a leader’s website, crews of foreign Sikh Channel and handy-cams were all around.
We started taking stock of arrangements in the panchyat playground where the ceremony was being conducted. The playground seemed to be partially used. The wild plants – with hard thorny seeds called Bakhdha in Punjabi – grew dense as we walked behind stage. The ground between Government Senior School and Dashmesh Public School had twenty-five rows and nine columns of 15×15 feet tents. By estimating the sitting space for fifty people in each block we calculated that more than 11000 people could be accommodated under the tent. There was open space where a similar number of people could come. Booksellers unbundled their stocks, which has Bhindranwala on most of the covers. They had T-shirts of similar images and different colours. Bhindranwala along with Krishan Bhagwan Singh and Gurjit Singh Sarawan was set in different styles and combinations. These posters had no publisher and printer but distributor was in front of me. The imagery of a lion has a resemblance with Shiv Sena posters but the word Khalistan differentiates them. Can this resemblance and differentiation co-exist?
A group arrived with publicity material. They put up their banners and started distributing the handbills on behalf of Jathedar Surat Singh Khalsa who is on hunger strike since January 16 to press his demand for the release of Sikh prisoners. The prefix to his name has been changed from popular ‘bapu’ to Jathedar. It has contact details such as a twitter handle, Facebook page, email, WhatsApp numbers and YouTube channels. It seems a hard copy of social media protest with no organization and protest site mentioned. The handbill testifies that this protest has sustained through social media and on support of diaspora. It carries a call to a global Sikh community to restore the sovereignty of the Akal Takht, for the release of prisoners and a call to attend the Sarbat Khalsa on November 10. Another distributor handed me a handbill issued by Sikhs for Justice, which is very brief and invokes the memory of 1984 and links it with 2015 as a continuation of sacrilege and genocide. It is a call of Azaad March to Red Fort, New Delhi on November 1 at 12:00. Again it has no contact details or details of printer and publisher.
A brief unseasonal rain came down. Protesters started pouring in. Within no time the site was flooded with people as protesters lined up to pay homage to Guru Granth Sahib placed alongside the stage. Taking responsibilities of the stage secretary, Baljit Singh Daduwal fixed a two minutes time cap for every speaker. Speakers started linking mis-governance, corruption, sacrilege and political intervention in religious institutions. Punjab government was on the target so was the Chief Minister and his family. Speakers lampooned the comment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who on October 11, while attending a function to mark the 113th birth anniversary of Jayaprakash Narayan had described Prakash Singh Badal as ‘Nelson Mendala of India. Modi’s remarks initiated a series of advertisements from SAD leaders in print and online media, congratulating Badal. Bargari continued the tradition of comparing Badal with historical characters but of a different kind. Speaker after speaker compared him with Babar (Jabar), Ahmed Shah Abdali and Mir Mannu who had attacked India and fought nasty battles against Sikhs.
Speakers raised demands for a proper inquiry into instances of sacrilege, booking the culprits, cases against police officials responsible for killing of two protesters and withdrawal of cases against two Sikh youth who have been implicated in sacrilege. Joga Singh, who claims to be the district president of Youth Wing of SAD (Amritsar) from Ludhiana, circumambulated the gathering with a saffron flag and Khalistan embroidered in blue saying, “The Granth and Panth can’t be safe in Hindu India so we need Khalistan.” His enthusiastic allies intervened, “Bhindranwals laid the foundation and we are here to build the roof of Khalistan.”
A protestor Iqbal Singh from Nehiawala asked for the flag and posed for a photograph. He is a graduate in Technology and international cricket player in orthopedic handicapped category. He wants to be a freedom fighter for Khalistan. He claims to work for foreign organizations: Sikh National Commission and Sikh Voice but doesn’t know anyone in the organizations. His classmates settled abroad co-ordinate with him for different activities. He requested me to write an article about him to highlight that the Gurudwara committees, despite his being a baptized Sikh, have not honored him.
As religious preachers dominated the stage, the narrative of political leaders of different parties, sans the ruling and the Left parties, expressed solidarity with the protestors. Nine resolutions were passed to press the demands and continue the struggle. Preachers called for unity. The stage secretary thanked every one and the media. I thought of my cameras. My colleague had his camera. He had taken confidence from other cameramen around.
On our way back I thought of taking some photographs and asked for the camera from my colleague. I had just placed my eye in the viewfinder that someone asked me, “How many people must have gathered?”
In other rallies, I have heard many people discussing a question like this. I replied, “No idea.”
He insisted that being witness to such occasions I must have better idea. When he insisted I asked him about his guess and looked into his eyes to anticipate the expected figure. He had my arm in his hand and implored to give an idea. I inflated my estimate to fifty thousand. The gentleman on his side shouted, “You are deflating. It is more than two lakhs. Media is sold out, we have seen it.”
As I turned back to avoid his anger, I heard someone say, “They need to be thrashed.”
In this peaceful protest I picked everything wrong. May be this is what a spontaneous outburst of anger means.
(The article was written after attending Bhog Ceremony at Bargari on October 25, 2015 in memory of two protestors killed in Behbal Kalan)