The Sabh Ton Khatarnaak Punjabi Alive
- sumail singh sidhu

"You need to find it in your heart that small spark of accountability...You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done, and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world." -- Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed at a white nationalist rally in Virginia. Defiant in grief.

WHITE SUPREMACISTS in Charlottesville, a college town in Virginia, United States, charted a bloody trail of hatred, leading to death of someone opposing hate. Scores of peaceful protesters were maimed when they were holding the rally to seek removal of a statue of pro-slavery Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s military leadership against the forces of the Union, led by Abraham Lincoln, had brought the question about the ideological legacy of American civil war to the forefront with slogans of ‘Taking America Back’, eerily echoing Donald Trump’s electioneering slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Related to the Ku Klux Klan supremacist parivar and emboldened by the Trumpian moral equivalence posited between the victims and aggressors, these attackers have triggered a debate about what it means to be an American. The dead are summoned–once again–from the graves to legitimise contemporary struggles, ideological contests and political battles. 
Syllabus formation is another such site of exercising power, where a suitable national tradition is imagined and thrust upon, through the construction of a corresponding scholarly canon. Criteria for inclusion or exclusion are, in fact, markers of power routinely carried out in almost every nation-state. Mr. D.N. Batra–Hindutva’s field marshal in educational sphere–has suggested to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)  to remove a poem by Punjabi poet Paash along with translations of Rabindranath Tagore, Mirza Ghalib and others from Hindi textbook. Paash's poem 'Sabh Ton Khatarnaak' (The Most Treacherous) is deemed unsuitable for adolescent learners of Indian schools in Mr. Batra's world.  
The attempt to excise his work from national syllabi appears innocuous in the face of Paash’s cold-blooded murder almost thirty years ago for his fearless resistance to Sikh extremist movement. More than his physical elimination, his detractors are aware of their need to sully his image which has survived, rather thrived, after his death. So we have Gurbir (widely presumed to be a Khalistan ideologue who was at one time an associate of Paash) in Rajinder Rahi’s hatchet job ‘Jitthe Paash Rehnda Hai’ (2007) explaining away his murder as a logical outcome of conditions, where Paash, in fact, invited the wrath of extremists by employing provocative phrases in his writings. Moral equivalence is once more on display, when Gurbir (or you know who) virtually absolves the perpetrators. On yet another plane, many aspiring poets have sought to come out of his long shadow by labelling his poetry as ‘average but carried forward by slogan-shouting left-wing cadres'. Writer of epic poem ‘Ilaahi Nadar De Paindey,’ Harinder Singh Mehboob, gracelessly dismissed Paash's oeuvre as a "blatant copying of Pablo Neruda's imagery.”

Arrayed alongside these omnipotent armies of national, cultural, sectarian greatness is a Punjabi blog offering empirical evidence of Paash plagiarising 'The Grass' - a poem by American icon, Carl Sandburg (1887-1967) - and publishing it as his original work. With justice to bloggers, an editorial oversight is the culprit here, due either to the exceptionally tragic circumstances when the said anthology was first published or the editor was unaware of its origins. First published in 1988, roughly three decades have passed without any editor rectifying the lapse or adding a note to the Punjabi version. The editorial omission has contributed to this almost Trumpian muddle aimed at wounding Paash, contributing to the momentum that the campaign gathered and culminating, finally, in an attack by proxy on those who claim to uphold his legacy of ideas. 
The hilarious, high-octane exchanges on the blogpost make for compelling reading. Self-righteous swagger of erudition on display at having consulted dusty files, compared texts and tallied multiple editions to substantiate this grave claim quickly leads to moralist hubris labelling others as dumb bhakts. Heart-rending concern at falling standards of Punjabi letters is accompanied by resolute declarations to further scrutinise modern Punjabi poetry by cataloguing such thefts. Expressions of dismay at Paash's trickery - in substituting proper nouns in the original poem, thus skilfully masking his literary piracy- are worthy of a Lalita Pawar act. 
Paash never included this poem in his three anthologies published while alive. It was noted in his notebook and published posthumously without the requisite mention of its origins in Carl Sandburg. The evidence so heroically rescued by the blog scholars flies in the face of the fact that Paash never published this poem as his original work.

 Paash never published this poem 'Ghaah' while alive. It was published posthumously without the requisite mention of its origins in Carl Sandburg. Did Pash refer to this connection to Sandburg? Those out to call him a plagiarist should have used this thing called Google. Shamsher Singh Sandhu, in his 'Ik Paash Eh Vi' (2011) narrates the crucial incident. It was never meant to expose some bloggers in the future, but does just that...If we are tuned in, both Carl Sandburg and Paash could almost be heard in conversation here. 
The blogging researchers would have saved themselves much effort and tomfoolery if they had just run some search engine queries about books with the name ‘Paash’ in the title. Shamsher Singh Sandhu's collection 'Ik Paash Eh Vi' (2011) narrates the crucial incident while underlining Paash's immense popularity amongst students. Paash was invited for a recitation at a youth festival in Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial Science College Jagraon, where his recitation of ‘Jiddan Tun Pirthi Nuun Jammia Si Maan’ was rapturously received by hundreds of students. Later, a motley bunch of students followed him for yards on foot, pestering him to recite some more. In deference to their enthusiasm, the poet stood by the roadside and launched into an impromptu recitation of the poem Ghaah. As was his wont, he outlined the context of the poem. But read Sandhu's eye-witness account on page 63-64 of his book, wherein Paash said: 
"The poem I am about to recite is a Punjabi adaptation of an English poem by Carl Sandburg 'The Grass', done while I was jailed. You could ascribe this (version – Ed.) either to him or to me, because it has come to be associated with my name.”
Composed in ironic mode by Carl Sandburg in 1916 when the First World War was deploying science, technology and progress to ratchet up destruction, ‘The Grass’ is a pacifist poem dwelling upon the wretchedly industrial manner of human loss, underlining the futility of war. Fated to be mere blips in time, fading from memory, all the decisive battlefields will be erased by grass that states’...let me work’. However, the ghaah in Paash’s adaptation is about remembrance of struggles by people in protest. But for the humble swaying of Paash’s ghaah, the memory of Moga, Barnala, Phagwara-Banga road, Ludhiana or Sangrur would be obliterated. If we are tuned in, both Carl Sandburg and Paash could almost be heard in conversation here.

The bigger question is, why Paash still remains the favourite target to vilify? Why is he summoned from the ashes to answer our allegations? Why can’t he understand our desire to live in peace for the sake of our children’s future? What does he get by asking annoying questions all the time? Why does he so stubbornly refuse to be dead and gone, forever? It is also a commentary on his followers and other Punjabi poets that none of them is considered dangerous enough to be targeted by ideological adversaries or powers that be.
The internal evidence of this incident narrated by Sandhu concerns the times in the wake of the murder of a very popular student leader, Pirthipal Singh Randhawa, in 1978. By then, since the poem had come to be identified as his work, it must had been in circulation prior to this incident. So the great detective feat of forensic exactitude is deflated by Paash's own words in late 1970s, which are then published in 2011 by Sandhu. The Panjab University had included ‘The Grass’ in MA English syllabus, so it was not exactly an obscure work to be appropriated by Paash, as the bloggers make out. So another attempt to fell Paash comes unstuck. So much for the evidence and court martialling.
Mr. Batra, on the other hand, in one stroke, has bracketed Paash with Mirza Ghalib and Tagore. In all sincerity, we should reassess our characterisations of Mr. D N Batra, for he is spot on here. Gulp this irony. This farcical exercise about Paash would have been quite amusing, had its timing been a little less fraught.  
The larger historical question is, why Paash still remains the favourite target to vilify? Why is he summoned from the ashes to answer our allegations? Why can’t he understand our desire to live in peace for the sake of our children’s future? What does he get by asking annoying questions all the time? Why does he so stubbornly refuse to be dead and gone, forever? Contrarily, it is also a commentary on his followers and other Punjabi poets that none of them is considered dangerous enough to be targeted by ideological adversaries or powers that be.
A much popular poet in the social media sphere fitted the bill, though. Surjit Gagg faced much vilification for his choice of words when referring to the first Sikh Master in his poem, ended up seeing the insides of a prison cell, but then wasn't the opportunity to seriously engage with a debate about the state of affairs in Sikhism allowed to pass? By all means, one may have a justifiable grievance to settle with anyone who one thinks denigrates religious figures, but by not having the debate, status quo was allowed to prevail. None are so blind as those who just won't see.
Well-known for its brimming coffers, assorted kaar sevas of gold work, never-ending marble-cladding and complicit in obliterating the architectural heritage of Sikhs, the SGPC has woken up from its deep slumber. Having earned ignominy through spectacular somersaults when crowds of the devout were asking uncomfortable questions about desecration of Adi Granth Birs, it now wants to be the final arbiter on movies, books, academics and everything under the sun, claiming the sole copyright to be the saviour of Gurus who ceaselessly laboured to sustain dialogue across the divide. Soft targets are being found to deflect attention from grave issues staring the Sikh panth. The debate about democratic accountability is reduced to inane issues. Thus, printing mistakes in the English translation of 'Mahan Kosh' come in handy to target the state government.
We all saw the less-than-academic, rather abusive, exchange around Baldev Singh and his latest novel 'Suraj Di Akkh,' based on the life and legend of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Pleading for respite for himself and his family from abuse and reiterating an abiding faith in Gurbani, he declared he will be shelving further research into many projects he had planned on Sikh history. Painful as it is, I am equally intrigued by Baldev's citing of gurbani and withdrawing from the arena of debate in the same breath. At the very least, Gurbani offers a resource of resistance in which ethics of debate are consistently articulated. If our authors who otherwise claim to uphold the legacy of Sikh gurus and sufi masters are unwilling to stand up for their freedom of expression, then we are relinquishing space to megaphones and bully pulpits, thus emboldening them. Kanwar Grewal, a popular singer, is the latest victim of this tendency to demonise. The idea is that there could be sensible things to say for and against these men and women, but increasingly, hurling invective is often the chosen form of articulation. 
An earlier instance of this self-righteous silencing of the hapless intelligentsia happened in Mohali at Saarang Lok where some individuals claiming to be members of Guru Granth Sahib Satkar Committee barged into a reading session where exegetical discussion of Gurbani was in progress. Silencing the pleas of organisers and participants, the intruders charged that proper etiquette was not followed and hence it amounted to desecration. The innovative method and the quality of discussion underway with an eminent classicist Dr. B. S. Rattan striving to unravel deeply embedded meanings of Gurbani were brushed away. 
Chastening of diverse voices, pluralist approaches, eclectic experiments are a strict no no in Punjab as in Charlottesville of the Trumpland. While our founding texts, historical figures are sought to be reified, brave contemporary thinkers like Paash are stigmatized. Both these processes are simultaneously carried out blocking any attempt at engagement with these texts of immense beauty and hope. While exhortations to safeguard democratic rights; calls to mount resistance against fascist tactics or passing resolutions in meetings are the stock responses, these are clearly not enough. The contest over history, symbols, individuals is definitively on since the late-seventies in Punjab. Its enabling ideological habitat and political charge has eventually cornered a clueless Punjabi intelligentsia busy in churning out tonnes of words or plotting for awards. 
Paash has given his assessment of the situation that we confront today in his important poem Khooh (The Well): ‘In the face of such formless darkness, your cozy corner isn’t enough. You cannot walk unarmed in the face of such formless darkness.” While we seem to have made our peace with shadows and dimming of light, Paash remains a luminous monument of verdant green, the grass mound reminding us of directing our attention to horizons surrendered, battles deserted, ideas abandoned.
Mercifully, these wretchedly difficult choices are not the only way out of the morass. There’s an effective one, easy too: this sabh ton khatarnaak Punjabi alive is a pain in the neck, not letting us go about business as usual. Summon the bullets, blogs, books. Let’s kill Paash, instead.

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Comment by: chandan

बड़े फलक का लेख..बेजोड़..


Comment by: Dhido Gill



Comment by: Harman Kapoor

The writer, in his ideological throes, makes some valid points about the orthodoxy inherent in some religious groups who try to suppress scholarly or heretical research into Sikh scriptures.

However, the writer is clearly not also for freedom of expression of those views which are not to his liking. Had he bothered to actually see the footage of Charlottesville, or more recently, in Boston, he would have understood that the vilification and suppression, and curbing of free speech, is in fact from the left-wing AntiFa and BLM groups who are opposed to right-wing authors and intellectuals even holding a simple rally, seminar or talk in a college.

In addition to the incident in which a car injured and killed street protesters in Charlottesville, there are hundreds of incidents in which the right-wing speakers and rally-goers are attacked, bullied and beaten up. In his fervor based on news reports peddled by global media and in his passion to decry Trump in every other sentence, Mr Sidhu dares not ask the question whether he himself, by aligning with left-wing extremists found at Charlottesville and Boston, is not on the side of oppressors.

It is important to be against Fascism, but it is also equally important to be aware that fascist tactics can be used by both the left and right. If we understand oppression to be curbing the liberty of expression and using threats of violence, intimidation, purges and actual violence, then Hitler, Mao and Stalin are equally guilty.

Let Mr Sidhu say that he is against the violence used by BLM and AntiFa and that he is for freedom of expression of right-wing people as well. Let him read Chomsky's essay on his defense of his forward to Faurisson's book, or the essays by Glenn Greenwald against censorship as worse than hate speech.

The writer would do well to keep aside his well-known sympathies for left-wing movements and be true to the spirit of liberty and humanism by realizing that just because he disagrees with someone does not mean that the other is evil.


Comment by: Dr. Smith

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