“Pray, fervently, for Punjab,” pleads priest, calling on U.S. officials to “give a voice to those who don’t have one”
Sacramento, CA: Oct. 22, 2015 — The following is a statement on ongoing tensions in Punjab, India by Fr. Joshua Lickter (Incarnation Anglican Church), who, in 2015, has spoken on behalf of human rights in India at a May rally for hunger-striker Surat Singh Khalsa, at a July conference on caste, at a September commemoration of murdered Sikh activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, and at an October seminar on persecution of religious minorities.
Things are heating up in Punjab right now. This state, along with all of India, needs our prayers; and they need our actions. I don’t pretend to know all the details about what’s happening, but that’s part of the problem. The details are being suppressed. I am hearing reports from friends and colleagues in that region that their social media posts are being censored and taken down.
How can this be? Didn’t Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just visit Google and Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley, where he was praised for his efforts in raising up a “Digital India” in which even its poorest citizens will have internet access and net neutrality will rule the day?
Where is the neutrality when posts that question if the government might be responsible for inciting the recent acts of violence are being censored?
I know those are strong accusations, but based on what I’ve heard so far and on the history of this region as well as Modi’s checkered past, I think they are fair accusations to make. If people in India are being robbed of their voices to speak out against oppression, whatever form that may take, then people like myself need to help their voices be heard.
Here’s what we know so far. Copies of the Sikh community’s most sacred scriptures, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, have been desecrated throughout Punjab by unknown assailants. Initially, hundreds of Sikhs took to the streets to peacefully protest and to ask the local authorities to intervene. I completely understand their desire to seek justice in this manner.
In the 1960s, African American churches in the Southern United States were deliberately targeted and burned by those who wanted to see America perpetually divided along racial lines. When local authorities refused to investigate or to stop further acts of arson and hatred from happening, protesters peacefully took to the streets to raise public awareness and insist the authorities act. Eventually, public outrage grew so intense and widespread that both state and national officials had to respond.
The Sikh community in Punjab wants the same thing anyone in their circumstances would want.
However, as Sikhs took to the streets to peacefully protest last week, the very same police they were appealing to for justice ended up firing upon them. Police claim they only fired into the air. However, in the aftermath, two Sikhs were dead and dozens others were wounded. This has caused the protests to increase in numbers and intensity as thousands have now gathered throughout the entire state of Punjab to demand that those who desecrated their holy books be apprehended and brought to justice and request investigation of the police who fired upon the peaceful protestors. This pattern sounds eerily familiar to what happened in this same region in 1984 just before thousands of Sikhs were senselessly slaughtered by local police and national military forces.
In our modern digital age, we have an advantage that didn’t exist in 1984. Pictures, videos, and stories can instantly be posted online moments after they transpire. We are seeing some of that in Punjab right now. What members of the Sikh community are posting online seems to directly contradict the reports presented by other “official” Indian media outlets.
Of greater concern are the stories I am hearing of posts being taken down on various media outlets. Are outlets like Google and Facebook intentionally censoring Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, and anyone else that they deem “insurrectionists” against the Indian government? Is the government itself involved in an internet censorship campaign?
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that the Indian Government took control of what information they allowed to be made public. Prior to the 1984 Punjab Sikh Genocide, the 2002 Gujarat Massacre of Muslims, and the 2008 Pogrom against Christians in Odisha, the government blacked out local media coverage. It wasn’t until much later that the rest of the world heard about the horrific acts that had transpired. Elsewhere in India, a journalist was burned alive this year, reportedly by Indian police, after writing about corruption charges against his state government.
As a leader in the Christian community, I therefore call upon Christians and all who would consider themselves a people of prayer, to pray, fervently, for Punjab and for the rest of India. Pray for protection for the peaceful protestors, and pray that their voices would be heard. Pray also that the government, both locally and nationally, would hear their protests and work towards peaceful resolution. Pray, as the Prophet Amos proclaimed, that justice would “roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
I also call upon everyone, regardless of race, creed, or background, to stand with the oppressed in India and help give them a voice. What happens to one community in India eventually impacts all of us. Contact Google and Facebook, both of whom met with Prime Minister Modi last month, and let them know you know that the flow of information online is being censored in India. Ask them to investigate how their platforms are being used, and tell them to reconsider what kind of partnerships they forge with government leaders who rob people of their voices rather than give them one.
Let your elected representatives know what is happening in Punjab as well. Share your concerns; remind them that they work for you, and that you want to help give a voice to those who don’t have one right now. And, finally, educate yourselves and others about what is happening in India. Take advantage of social media, and post and repost the stories you hear and the information you gather.
Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can speak for those whose voices are being silenced. Together, we can stop things from escalating like they did in 1984, 2002, and 2008.
Let me close with a prayer for social justice taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. These words apply to the current situation in India just as much as they apply to any situation where the oppressed are robbed of their right to speak up for justice.
Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.