BY: NADIA ZAIDI
You might not have heard of him, but Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa is a current day freedom fighter. He’s also an 84-year-old grandfather — and the oldest person to be on a hunger strike till date.
Whether we know it or not, there’s a lot we can learn from him. Compassion, selflessness and conviction are traits we could all use some more of these days.
For over two years, Singh has aimed to help free Sikh political prisoners by committing himself to a hunger strike. He began his strike as a peaceful protest at his home in Hassanpur, Punjab.
It wasn’t long until he was forcibly removed from his residence and placed into a hospital to be force-fed using a feeding tube. He has made numerous attempts to remove it, but authorities are quick to reinstate it.
He wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which reads:
“These political prisoners are suffering for their commitment, belief and ideology of the Sikh struggle. My demand is straight and simple:
- Treat all Sikh prisoners – under trials and those sentenced in cases relating to the Sikh struggle- as political prisoners and
- Release all prisoners who have completed their full jail terms and are legitimately due for release, exactly in the same manner, as other prisoners are so released in various other parts of the country.
Modi has not yet released public acknowledgement regarding Singh’s demands. This, perhaps, speaks to the fragmented relationship that Modi has with much of the Indian population today.
And support in Punjab has been minimal at best. Nevertheless, his gallant efforts have led to the release of 18 Sikh political prisoners. Long-serving prisoners have been granted temporary parole.
Historically, Sikh’s have faced religious oppression in India. They make up only two per cent of the Indian population. Minority groups are almost always vulnerable to discrimination and their safety is at risk. Add volatile history to the equation and the climate worsens.
The tumultuous relationship between Hindu’s and Sikh’s began in 1984 with the controversial launch of Operation Blue Star by former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Gandhi claimed that a Sikh militant named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was occupying a Sikh temple with weapons. He was also accused of promoting an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
Ghandi believed this was a threat, particularly because nearly four decades prior, the country was split into India and Pakistan. Shortly after, she was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
What happened next was a war against Sikhs throughout India, resulting in genocide to the Sikh population.
In Khalsa’s current fight, it’s not just Sikh’s that concern him. He has demanded the release of all political prisoners, irrespective of religion, who have completed their full terms in prison.
India is a country where religion and politics are inextricably linked. Change might not happen overnight, but freedom fighters like Khalsa remind us that there is strength in numbers.