This weekend Sikhs have been celebrating one of the highlights of the Sikh calendar: Vaisakhi. This is the start of the month of Vaisakh in the Sikh calendar, traditionally a celebration of a good harvest in the agriculture rich Punjab, where many Sikhs originate. In the UK we are used to the occasion being celebrated in our families and Gurdwaras but also in our towns and cities with the Nagar Kirtan processions and festivals across the UK. And we now have the seemingly obligatory, but welcome, visits to Gurdwaras and video and written messages by prominent politicians.
The occasion is also a celebration of a very significant and defining moment in Sikh history. It was at the time of Vaisakhi in 1699 that the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, called for Sikhs to gather in the hills at Anandpur Sahib for a special celebration.
It was on this occasion Guru Gobind Singh created the order of the Khalsa through a new and unique baptism ceremony – Khande Ki Pohul. On this occasion Sikhs were given their distinctive identity of unshorn hair, turbans and the five Kakaars (articles of faith) required to be worn at all times by Amritdhari (baptised) Sikhs. And it was on this occasion that Guru Gobind Singh instilled Chardi Kala (an everlasting spirit of optimism) underpinned by compassion and responsibility towards others and for always standing up for right against wrong.
It is significant that the first five ordained Khalsa, the Panj Piyare (five beloved ones) were given the names Daya (compassion) Singh, Dharam (faith) Singh, Himmat (courage) Singh, Mohkam (determination) Singh and Sahib (master) Singh. And compassion, faith, courage and determination are all the essential ingredients for mastery in life even today.
As a child in a practicing Sikh household, I was bought up with stories of bravery and sacrifice in years gone by. I was taught the importance of maintaining my distinct Sikh identity, particularly in a society where secular is the approved default and being of faith is often considered embarrassing and sometimes downright out of place.
To me, my Sikh identity defines my being, underpins my politics and, due to my distinct visual identity, it is something I can never hide from. And this was the key principle Guru Gobind Singh sought to create amongst his Sikhs in 1699 – a people who couldn’t hide in a crowd and who couldn’t walk by on the other side when they saw injustice and oppression.
At this time of celebration, I cannot help thinking of the crisis in Syria, the suffering of innocent people that I see played and replayed across the media and the latest military intervention by Western powers. I see the same arguments being made again that have been rehearsed many times over the last few years. I see the possibility of a further escalation of military action in a region already ravaged by warfare.
The issue of Syria is not easily resolved even in the Sikh context. Some will be of the view that compassion requires we do not escalate an already dire situation. Some will note the importance of a secular foreign policy devoid of any such considerations. Other Sikhs will highlight the examples of resorting to a martial approach of Guru Gobind Singh when all other means have failed.
Wherever one stands and whichever viewpoint one favours, the undeniable fact is that there has been a breakdown of humanity with suffering on an unimaginable scale taking place in a part of the world we don’t have direct links with. And from the point of view of the suffering innocent families and children I expect none of the world powers currently offer any redeeming features.
Whenever and whatever action is contemplated we should firstly consider why such action is proposed. If it is about maintaining a world status for our nation; or to propagate a superior system of governance; or because our beliefs are more civilised than the other; or in faithful observance of a particular ideology; or simply the unending competition of world superpowers then the action, whatever the action, will be destined to failure.
However, if we recognise the only important persons in this equation are those families and children suffering the most horrendous circumstances and our actions are about improving their situation, even the strongest of action is palatable in the defence of humanity.
The latest military intervention by USA, UK and France may lower the chances of chemical weapons being used again, but it remains questionable whether it brings any closer the total ending of suffering. So, even now, do we stand by and shuffle our feet expecting a miracle to resolve the situation? Do we continue with the same rhetoric and promoting the same ‘solutions’ that have failed to date? Or are we prepared to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy by action that may be unpalatable?
For me, the circumstances themselves are most unpalatable and continue to demand action that recognises the inhumanity of the situation. The road of UN resolutions, talks and summits has been well-trodden and has led only to continued death and destruction. To walk by on the other side whilst such heinous crimes continue to be committed against innocent families and children is to be an accomplice. To step up, even at this late hour, and take decisive action may offer some hope to those trapped in a seemingly hopeless situation.
To allow the innocent people of Syria to once again be the masters of their own lives requires those with power to view them with compassion, to have faith in our own abilities and to act decisively with courage and determination. This was the mission Guru Gobind Singh set out on in 1699 in Anandpur Sahib, it is the lesson of Vaisakhi and it is what is still required now in relation to Syria.
Gurinder Singh Josan is vice-chair of Sikhs for Labour and is standing for Labour’s NEC.