by SS Simran Singh Khalsa, Santa Fe NM
Our Gurus were at the forefront of combating religious repression, and it was indeed Guru Tegh Bahadur’s sacrifice that guaranteed India’s religious freedom. I’ve spent some time looking at the issue of religious freedom from a 21st century Sikh Minister’s perspective and found that nearly 70% of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on the freedom of religion.
Over 50 governments impose high levels of restrictions on the way its people may practice their faiths, and around the globe, social hostilities towards faith minorities are significant. It is horrifying that faith-based genocides are currently underway and affect millions, including the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Yezidis in Iraq, the Uyghurs in China, and the Copts in Egypt—to name just a few.
My journey exploring this subject started in Washington, DC, where I spent some years working for Akal Security. I would often find myself unable to get a partner conversation to progress without affirming, in some way, our community values.
I would tie the Sikh struggle to the US civil rights movement by explaining how compatible Sikh and American values are, by lamenting the effect school bullying has on Sikh children, or by detailing how the restrictions on uniform standards placed by police and military agencies are harmful to our community’s psyche. In response, there was usually interest and sympathy, but I noticed that without speaking out on the rights of those who aren’t Sikhs, our own struggle notwithstanding, heart-to-heart conversations could not really happen.
In parallel, I would spend some time with faith-based human rights organizations, and interestingly, it was a group of Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic organizers who asked me to represent our own Guru by helping them engage in support of groups that have less representation than Sikhs. After listening over countless lunches and dinners to their faiths’ interpretations of what it means to serve the oppressed, the obvious became a bit clearer to me—if we are in Chardi Kala, then we would naturally defend the rights of others. Indeed, many religious groups are doing exactly that already.
Finding Shared Values
Interestingly, it became much easier to connect with a government official on a shared value than it was to only discuss the Sikh struggle. Most already had a deep desire to see good manifested in the world and were immediately grateful to see the same in the Sikh community.
Given that DC is a small town, this eventually led to persecuted groups asking for a Sikh presence when it came to engagement for their communities. The Sikh voice was requested often and sincerely, and eventually, I would travel around the world in support of human rights struggles at the invitation of many of our allies.
Whether in Morocco in support of the Jewish community, in the Balkans following their brutal religious war in the ’90s, or in Myanmar, in opposition to the genocide, I found a deep resonance with our Guru’s vision for a pluralistic and deeply tolerant society that is in pursuit of world peace. I remembered the Siri Singh Sahib’s founding of Peace Prayer Day and the faith leaders he used to bring to Ram Das Puri. Indeed, I found likeminded people in virtually all communities. I quietly consider these human rights warriors, who fight for others first, to be Khalsa.
The Guru’s Alchemy
I also realized something profound that Guru Gobind Singh must have purposefully encoded in our Roop (a Sikh’s physical form, such as wearing bana and maintaining our kesh). Whenever I have spoken out for a persecuted group, I’ve felt as though I had the room’s full attention.
But when I’ve done so in full bana, the room would become pin-drop silent and almost hypnotized. I should have known this all along, but as soon as the Guru’s bana is combined with taking a position in defense of others, alchemy seems to occur. What a privilege it is to wear the Guru’s bana and to speak out on the rights of others. It is also an honor to continue to do this work under the purview of the Dharmic Office of Public Affairs.
About the Author
SS Simran Singh Khalsa is a Sikh Dharma Minister and KRI-certified teacher trainer. He has experience as a human rights activist and corporate strategy executive. He is currently Senior Vice President for Akal Security and the Secretary for International Religious Freedom for the Dharmic Office of Public Affairs. Previously, Simran Singh was a Managing Consultant at Grieboski Global Strategies, a government relations firm. He has held a variety of human rights-related board positions. Notably, Simran Singh was named by Secretary Clinton as a Member of the State Department’s Strategic dialogue with Civil Society and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London.