Remembering Madiba: Freedom for Prisoners in Punjab

Earlier this month, one of the world's greatest leaders took his last breath. Living in Cape Town, South Africa this past November, I learned how pivotal Nelson Mandela was in changing the course of history. Through the way in which citizens spoke of him, it is possible to envision the values of righteousness that he embodied and the innate desire to fight for justice that he was governed by. As his legacy speaks for itself, no one can deny the importance of his role in the end of Apartheid and the founding of the nation. Transcending past his role within the freedom movement, his heartwarming and positive nature has won over many hearts all over the world.

Because his lessons are ones that we should continue to learn and grow from, it is of the utmost importance to continue using the political and social struggle he represented as a catalyst for progressive change. Not only does South Africa have a long way to go to correct the errors of Apartheid, but many places all over the world still suffer from the poison of inequality and injustice that he opposed. In order to celebrate and honor Madiba's life, it is our responsibility as individuals to continue fighting against the systems that oppress and marginalize people. More leaders need to emerge to continue challenging the issues that our predecessors fought against.

One of the emerging world leaders dedicating his life to a freedom movement in the way Mandela did is Bhai Gurbaksh Singh Khalsa in India. He is an activist who has been on a continuous hunger strike for more than thirty-seven days now. He is demanding the release of six Sikh prisoners who are being held by their respective governments despite the fact that they have served their full sentences. Having been prisoned by the Indian state due to opposition against discriminatory legislation himself, he understands how political prisoners are treated and is putting his life on the line to prevent the degradation they will face from an unjust government.

The relationship between Sikhs and the negligence of the Indian state is complex and gruesome, as the events of 1984 have shown. In many ways, Sikhs continue to be treated as secondary citizens within society. The government still has not reprimanded those responsible for the killings of thousands of people during riots in major Indian cities and the ensuing tensions in Punjab killing thousands more. Although the historical oppression of Sikhs by the Indian state dates back to the emergence of the religion itself, the fact that the State continues to ignore and not take heed to a dying man's just cause in this day and age is frightening.

As his health deteriorates, Gurbaksh Singh will not survive much longer. The lack of action from the Punjab government, Chandigarh administration, and the Government of India on this issue is infuriating. What is even more frustrating is the silence from different human rights organizations, as they should be the unbiased protectors and responders against the violation of any rights. In addition, the state-controlled media is not reporting about his hunger strike. Currently in Punjab myself, I have not found any substantive coverage in any newspapers or on any news channels. The only information that exists about his struggle is through Sikh groups and social media. Constricting information is another way of suppressing the wants and needs of a minority group.

In the world's largest democracy, it is necessary to critically question whether every citizen has access to the equality that is presumably outlined. The continued imprisonment of Sikh political prisoners shows that everyone does not. The blind eye to Singh's struggle is a direct challenge to the sacrifices that activists everywhere make to protect their freedoms. Gurbaksh Singh, and those he represents, opposed legislation and oppressive rule in the 1980s that hindered the individual and religious liberties of Sikh citizens in India. The fact that they are not releasing these prisoners and their right to due process is being denied, even though they have served their sentences within a biased system, is outright injustice.

Before Nelson Mandela became the President of the Republic of South Africa and a world-renowned hero, he too was held as a political prisoner for twenty-seven years. In his struggle for equality, he was reprimanded and imprisoned for fighting for what was true and right. Although Mandela was able to help lead the movement that tore down the walls of Apartheid, there are many activists who are still unjustly behind bars because they chose to bring light to issues that no one else has. Gurbaksh Singh's fast was actually interrupted about halfway through because he was illegally imprisoned for going on this hunger strike -- a further violation of his individual liberties and desire to raise awareness about a very important cause.

His fast now extends past the freedom for six political prisoners in India. It is representative of a mistreatment and inequality that still detriments many lives. It is representative of a larger justice that still does not openly thrive in our world. Though I am excited that the Sikh community is collectively organizing behind the cause, it is crucial to get justice for these prisoners and continue spreading awareness of further injustices before the flame of Gurbaksh Singh's life burns out.