The Silicon Valley of the Sikhs: #Sikholars

 I was in California again. I wasn't sure when it happened. It just, happened.

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The twists and turns of Portland looked like they were over. As my car emerged from the last mountain, the dark valley opened up before me. Both sides of the road lay shrouded in a dark blue tint. Silver moonlight poured over the valley of shrubs, bushes, and hills. Trees identified themselves against the silver moon. Rolling hills stuck out against the illuminated backdrop. Clouds tried to cover the moon, but only added to the beauty and mystery of the scene. 

I turned off the audiobook and drove in silence. Gratefulness washed over any remaining doubt as I took it all in.

I knew I was in the right place.


I paid the toll and smiled at the attendee. Nice guy. As I drove forward I looked around. Another vast stretch of road before me. 

I reached Stanford. 

I got nearer and nearer my goal. Excitement shot through my veins. Excitement about seeing people I cared for. Excitement about finally being part of Sikholars. Excitement for reaching the end of my 16 hour journey.

Some of the excitement even turned to sweat. Whatever. They'll get over it.

As I neared my turn I looked to the right. There sat a giant "Like" button plastered on a sign. Facebook.

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I took a left into the Stanford campus. It hit me. I was entering one of the top universities in the world for an event that attracted influential Sikhs. I couldn't wait.

I pulled into the facility, unusually surprised to see turbans. 

Fear and doubt hit me again. I felt like I wasn't good enough. Maybe how I dressed. Maybe the fact that I was sweaty. Maybe Drake's 'Thank Me Later' album blasting.

I inched forward and rolled down my window, surprised to see Jasdeep Atwal. One of the most dapper Sikh guys I've met. One of the funniest too. I looked up to him and how hard he worked for the movement, often unrecognized. The same way most of the Jakara family operates.

Jasdeep guided me toward an open parking lot. I drove off to park my car. For some reason I couldn't stop smiling. 

Again any doubt I had washed away. Memories of my time with the Jakara family flooded back.

I knew I was in the right place.


We sat in the back row.  

Everyone packed into seats in front of us. Those without seats stood along the back wall to listen in. I strained to see around the people sitting in front of me. 

Amazing.

From the discussion I gathered the panel focused on abuse and emotional trauma.

Someone asked how to remedy single mothers leaving the Gurudwara Sahib. A panel member addressed the issue. "We need to have reform centers, better transportation, and safer spaces in our Gurdwaras," she said.

"Sometimes victims just want to feel like they belong. Someone to listen. Someone to validate and formalize their experience. Abuse can come from children as well, in the form of financial abuse..."

Abuse by children? That seems weird, I thought to myself...

A few families started coming to mind. I thought of children exhibiting financial abuse on their parents. Men and women my own age who blamed their parents for their own shortcomings. Married couples ready to drive their parents out of their homes for the money.

No, it makes sense. Almost scary how much it makes sense.

I wondered for a second if I abused my own parents. Maybe. Maybe not. Better to worry and try to improve.


After a short break of passing hugs around, we stepped back inside for the next panel.

Jasmine announced what was coming up next. A short film by Ensaaf, followed by a panel of people affected by the 1984 atrocities in Punjab and afterwards.

The lights dimmed. The projector lit up. The film opened.

The scene opened up on river bed, focusing on Satwant Singh Manak. He pointed toward the ground, and then toward the water near where he stood.

"He was shot. Then his head was cut off and thrown in the canal, in this very place. Then his body remained... (They) ripped his shirt and cut open his stomach. They would cut the intestines, so that the body would not float."

Satwant Singh made a throwing gesture into the river. "Then two (police officers) threw him here."

Satwant Singh's family life depended on his work with the Punjab police. After that incident, he became fed up with the atrocities he witnessed. He quit. 

Rather than putting his head down and trying to ignore the injustice, he stood up. Satwant Singh quit and became an advocate for ten of the families who lost loved ones at the hands of the police.

The film continued.

A mother sat in the back of a van with her teenage daughter. Other survivors shared the vehicle with her. They rode toward the courthouse to continue their struggle for justice.  The camera shook from bumps in the road. She shared how the police picked up her husband many years ago. She described how naive she was and how little she knew when they picked him up.

She motioned toward her daughter. "He never knew about her." Her eyes welled up. Her voice cracked.

"I wasn't ready for any of it. And then they picked him up. I didn't know anything. I depended on him, I loved him. And they took him. I raised her all on my own, and he never knew about her..."

She stopped talking, wiping tears from her face

My own tears started. They streamed down my cheeks. I heard others sniffling behind me.

The van reached the courthouse. Everyone poured out.

The scene cut to the advocate's office. Satwant Singh sat with another Singh in front of his advocate's desk. The advocate explained the situation. The trip turned out to be a waste. Papers filed with the courts only requested the chance to file a case. That chance still had not arrived, despite years of pushing.

The advocate apologized. The exhaustion showed on his own face. It drew bags under his eyes. He promised to continue pushing for justice.


The film ended after a few more scenes. Credits rolled. Someone turned the lights back on. I heard people sniffling as the lights brightened the room.

Jaskaran Kaur took to the podium with a mic.

"Thank you for watching. It's a difficult film, and part of a new series to highlight stories of struggle in Punjab."

She described the work Ensaaf is doing. As she spoke, her tone and volume rose in pitch. She described the difficulty in getting our community to pay attention.

"We've been working for years, most of us on volunteer basis. Operating costs continue rising as we do better work. We set a goal for $732,705 this year to cover our operating costs. Usually we fall about $300,000 short.. We need more support from our community. The people we serve need to know the community cares."

I scribbled notes about what Ensaaf needed. I wrote questions, then answered my questions. I had to pause as Jaskaran shared what triggered her passion.

"When I started, we went to Punjab to interview people whose lives had been affected. We interviewed a family member of a victim. She expressed deep gratitude for us to even listen to her. I realized at that moment how important it is to hear their stories. To be an ear for these victims and their families. Many of them go decades thinking no one cares about what happened to them. That's when I dedicated myself to this work."

I realized then that I needed to interview her. It wasn't much, but it was the best I could do at that moment. If I hadn't driven down, that idea might never have occurred to me.

I knew I was in the right place.


After Jaskaran's speech, four panel members sat at the main table to answer questions.

Jagdish Singh sat as a panelist. The Punjab police had murdered his wife in custody. While sitting in the jail cell with her daughter, she asked for a glass of water. An officer brought a glass to her. Just before handing it over he smashed it and used a piece to stab her in the throat. Satwant Singh lost his wife. The police returned his daughter in time.

Navjot Kaur sat with Jagdish Singh. Police forces had picked up and tortured her brother. Later they tried to cover up his death with a fake encounter. Her husband stood with her as shared the story for the first time in over 22 years. 

Norman Kreisman rounded out the panel. Seeing a white man among the other panelists surprised me. As he told his story, we found out Norman lived in Punjab in the 1980's. He was studying to become a Giyani Ji, and lived as a Sikh with the name Baba Nam Singh Khalsa.

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He stayed in Sri Harmandir Sahib for a year and half before the June 1984 attacks took place. He shared his story living in the vicinity, meeting Bhai Jarnail Singh Ji, and seeing how the Indian Army prepped for the attack. Norman referenced the overwhelming evidence that the Indian Government planned the 1984 attacks in advance over and over. 

While most of us directed questions to Norman, he refocused our attention on the other panelists. He reminded us of the sacrifices they suffered at the hands of the Indian government. They were the real heroes, he explained, by standing up and telling their stories. 

Then Norman said something that stuck with me. 

The discussion turned to Khalistan and whether Sikhs need a separate state or not. He encouraged us to remember why we'd want Khalistan in the first place. He'd seen so many Sikhs opposing the Indian Government and Punjab police while fighting for Khalistan. Most of the people he talked to spent little building a solution to the problem.

"We need to spend more time focusing on and building the solution, and less on the problems."


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As I drove through the valleys and hills back to Seattle, I thought about what Norman said. 

My thoughts drifted back to the entire weekend. Spending time with my cousins. Chats with Sikh leaders during breaks. The insights gained from other panels.

I looked around at the beauty on display. Something dawned on me. The solution Norman urged us to create existed at Stanford this past weekend.

A Khalistan, where Sikhs act on their inherent sovereignty. Where we discuss issues affecting our community and explore solutions. Where we take time to meet with one another to execute on those solutions. Spaces where mentors meet with young activists. A place of service through action.

I started realizing that Jakara is our solution. That Sikhs have been organizing throughout the world. That each act of organizing was an act of Khalistan.

Gratefulness washed over me again one more time.

We're building our Khalistan, and we're just getting started.