Meet the real Nelson Mandela of Punjab: Surat Singh, who quite like Irom Sharmila of Manipur has been on fast since January

Surat-SInghThe Sikh Feminist Research Institute (SAFAR), a Sikh feminist organization, comprising of academics, educators, activists, community mobilizers and independent researchers, involved in promoting and sustaining feminist research, praxis and activism, has taken strong exception to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling Prakash Singh Badal as Nelson Mandela of India. While this has turned into a joke on the social media, SAFAR believes, time has come to know the real Mandela of Punjab: Surat Singh, a veteran fighter for civil rights.

After coming India from California, Surat Singh has been fighting relentlessly for the rights of political prisoners in Punjab and has been on hunger strike since January 15, much like Irom Sharmila’s fast in Manipur. On October 10, Surat Singh was discharged from the PGIMER Hospital in Chandigarh, where he was admitted about two weeks ago and kept at the Advanced Cardiac Department forcibly.

Excerpts from SAFAR’s statement:

When he left California, his family did not know of his intention to begin a hunger strike unto death. However, his decision did not surprise them; he always invoked the lessons of Guru Nanak: that the concept of family extends beyond that of biological family.

Surat Singh had followed the news about Gurbaksh Singh, who executed his first hunger strike in 2013 and then another in 2014. Gurbaksh Singh recited an ardaas (a solemn Sikh supplication), proclaiming that he would protest, by fasting, the unjust imprisonment of political activists by the Indian government until they were freed. When he was not able to compel the release of the prisoners and gave up his fast, Surat Singh took the mantle. Surat Singh believes in staying committed to those behind bars since the 1980s, and to their families waiting indefinitely.

Punjab saw over a decade of conflict. There are men in jail for conflict-related violence, alleged crimes, and non-violent crimes; some are now in their late 70s and 80s. Many were convicted under the now repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), which national and international groups have widely condemned as “draconian.” Surat Singh is asking for the release of these men, particularly for those who have no pending case in any legal court, have shown good behavior in prisons, and are senior citizens.

BAPU-SURAT-SINGH-4Regardless of the debate around the unjustness of their underlying sentence or the context of conflict, it is important to note that those on his list have served the terms of the sentences given to them by conflict-era courts. Surat Singh considers such asks as “common sense.” Yet, mainstream media and the Indian government paint his cause as “radical” and “hardline.”

The Indian Government’s reaction escalated from ignoring, belittling, slander, to violence, arrest and force-feeding of Surat Singh. When Ravinderjit Singh (Surat Singh’s son) travelled from the US to see his father in his declining health, he was illegally and arbitrarily detained and jailed, without court hearing and, between February 26 and April 27, 2015, put in solitary detention, and beaten by a police official in front of a courthouse.

As pressure from groups like People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the people of Punjab, and lawyers of Punjab mounted, the government suddenly released Ravinderjit Singh. A few days earlier, on April 23, in the middle of the night, without notice, the police released Surat Singh from force feeding, placed him in a wheelchair and told him he was free to go. Since this incident, Surat Singh has been in his village of Hasanpur, Punjab where a diverse group of Sikhs visit, support him, and vigil over him, in an attempt to prevent another arrest. All that changed again on July 20, 2015.

For the past few weeks days, while hundreds of supporters were flocking trying to visit Surat Singh, the police and paramilitary cordon around his village had reportedly been intensifying. Then water and electricity to Surat Singh’s home was mysteriously cut. Finally, on July 20, while senior officials were inside the house with Surat Singh, his son, daughter, and a few supporters, convincing Surat Singh to break his fast, chaos broke out outside the house.

Led by junior level police officials and vigilante militia groups, the village was raided and supporters were threatened and beaten. Two bus full of people were detained and driven away by the police. Videos from inside the house show the few people left asking the Deputy Commission (the highest ranking government official of the area) how this could happened on his watch. He claimed ignorance, miscommunication, and government incoordination. Meanwhile, Surat Singh’s property was destroyed during the police action on his home including vandalism, broken dishes, and cut electrical wires cut.”

Will the mainstream media ever shed light on the story of this old man’s continuing fast-unto-death, the state run by the political clan whose mentor was just called Mandela by the the Prime Minister?

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