Wednesday, July 19, 2023


Please, Mr. Editor, can I too have a say on P.M. Modi?

by Vish Murthy


From an aside on the many blaring headlines that came from Mr. Modi’s visit, what really caught my attention was a view that had come, a little earlier, from New York City. The Prime Minister had within a few hours of his touch down, sought out a meeting with the Sikh community, at large.


At the end of the meet, the declaration that came from that membership, was just a happy vindication.  A well know representative of the Sikh community, speaking into a New York mic for the whole world to hear had said The Sikh community stands behind PM Modi. He has done a lot for the Sikh community and India. We are very proud to have him here today. We are against terrorism, that is why we have come here. India is working hard to fight terrorism."


 A Sikh community member in New York speaks on their resolution

This brought me to my own personal feelings in dealing with the Sikh Community, which I had held for long, in a bond of respect, but which due to certain events in the past, had cast a long shadow forbidding any mention of it.


Growing up as a boy in India, having come into the world at a time when the country had attained freedom, the sight of a tall strapping and turban-ed Sikh, meant the world to me. They were our warriors. They were our protectors, and I felt the country safe in their hands.  This view had gained further strength in some personal ways.


In school, Harinderjit and I, had become the best of friends. We used to look out for each other at lunch breaks, spend the hour in circling around the school, munching up mouthwatering “tuck” (an Irish/ British term for confectionaries from a bakery). Growing up, I had not been the beneficiary of any pocket money in a long time till I graduated high school, and it was he who had always divided everything that he would buy, in an equal share between us. On a day, when someone had touched his turban (and done so without a due apology), I had been stung deeply. You just cannot do that. It constituted the entire fabric of a Sikh’s being. So, on another planned day, both of us found ourselves into addressing that dishonor done by the offender. Through my friend’s fisticuffs, in a backyard of the school, we found ourselves settling the account in front of a jury of peers.


A lunch-hour walk in high school at St. Patrick’s, Asansol, India [Photo: Ankan Mitra 2017]


 In more mature years, in college life, and in a love of the “paratha,” I had felt the warmth of many a Sikh driver in a “Dhaba” on the Grand Trunk Road. There was also the growing admiration of witnessing a high sense of discipline in the Gurudwaras, long lines held in a patience of receiving the “langar” even as the gentle swishing took its place, continuously, in respect to the holy “Granth Sahib.”  There were also the images of high minded officials, who for their own atonement of an egregiousness act of vanity, were asked to humble themselves in the cleaning and polishing of the shoes of hundreds of unknown devotees.

There were also those rare moments of having enrolled as a student member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC), and of being trained in the art of the rifle in a camp from those very Sikh soldiers of India’s army (the soldiers used to be known as “Jawans” back then).


In a vintage piece, there were the memories of none other than Air Marshal Arjun Singh, who in a touch-down towards a landing at an Air Force Base, had thought it best to call an elderly relative of mine. The relative had been a local civilian chief of the Home Guards in the same town that had held the base. The call had sent a tingling down the spine on hearing that the Air Marshal had intoned “I will be touching down soon … and I am looking forward to lunching with you on some Idli and Dosa at your home shortly.”


Finally, there was the interaction with Mr. Khushwant Singh, the late great editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, whose ribald humor had opened up for me new imaginations from the very staid days of A.S. Raman. On graduating from college In Bengal, and on landing on my first job in Bangalore, I had written to Khushwant directly about why I loved his writings in The Weekly. Little did I know that he would surprise me weeks later with an autographed copy of his Train to Pakistan, accompanied with a Thank You letter. Many years later, on a cold winter’s night in Brooklyn, in a dorm, I had sought him out again through a letter. I had told him of how much I missed home. His benevolent heart responded with a 6 week paid subscription, and reading those copies warmed me up as much as a fireplace on a cold wintry night.


Many years later, domiciled in the US, I would be told to give up on those deeply in-grained feelings. They were, now, to be held as distant ones, or to be shredded. The generations of Sikhs in the California belt (from 1903) and in Canada (since Kesur Singh landed in 1897), were now constituted in three or more generations of extended mixed families, and not to be bothered by any understanding of a world of strong connections to the land from which their forefathers had come. They had all connected, exclusively, in terms of being together in their local Gurudwaras, and open to an abetting by forces in a foreign land (their homeland, was now, susceptible to different allegiances and to a different vibe called Khalistan). They were, now, willing to sever Sikhism from any notions of it being thought Indian, on account of a governmental mishap that had once taken place. Gone were any old notions of an understanding, based on forgiveness. The priesthood, and its influences too had departed from any outlook coming from an integrated soil in India.


The breaking by forces was so unforgiving, that they were even willing to hack mercilessly into the structure of families, entwined together for long in marriages between Hindus and Sikhs. Both had worshipped in a belief, together, at the Gurudwara and temples for centuries. Even, the first born used to be baptized as a Sikh in an integration and protection of either faith. Even in the quiet towns, of a Princeton suburb, I could feel the palpitation of families, whom I knew had been enjoined in both faiths. For me, in a personal understanding, I had taken to appreciating and learning of the “Japji Saheb” (a revered Sikh Scripture) from a Sindhi Swami. In interfaith meetings, it was painful for me to pick up the small booklets on display, to discover that certain passages that had once appeared in the originals, were now expunged.


It has now taken the many millions of Sikhs all over the world, many years, to heal from those bitter days.


I am glad that in these times that Prime Minister Modi of India, has come to be acknowledged as that healer, from that community itself. As late as in September 2022, it was a great comfort to hear the words of a former Indian IPS officer-turned-BJP leader Iqbal Singh Lalpura saying “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a “better Sikh than most of us.””


I am for once glad, that I can now go up to my local gas station guy, and wish him “Sat Sri Akal-ji,” and pronounce it in the very Punjab manner he has always been used to hearing.