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A Kitchen For The Stateless:
Khalsa Aid and The Rohingya Refugees





Sikh volunteers from Khalsa Aid, a UK-based charity, have established emergency kitchens to prepare hot meals for the impoverished and battered Rohingya refugees arriving in Bangladesh.

This has been aptly called guru ka langar, a concept of community kitchen developed by Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism – as part of the institutional framework that has since then become the core of the Sikh faith and an inseparable part of gurdwaras, the Sikh places of worship, around the world.

For several centuries, gurdwaras have served people of all faiths and persuasions with free meals, langar, in their premises. This includes breakfast, lunch and dinner and even nightly accommodation for wayfarers.

The Khalsa Aid team is camping at Teknaf, the border town in Bangladesh where refugees are pouring in by the day following a gruelling journey to find safety that is marred by unending deprivation. Initially, they distributed packed food items and water to the refugees. After gaining official permission, they started their hot meals service on Shahpuri Island – one of the main spots in the Bangladeshi territory for the Rohingya refugees to converge after fleeing from their country.

According to Amarpreet Singh, the managing director for Khalsa Aid, India, their initial target is at least 35,000 meals per day. Describing the miserable state of the refugees – mainly the children who hadn’t eaten for days – he said that it was difficult for his team to decide where to start and admitted that the meals they offer won’t be enough to feed everyone.

A team from the UN refugee agency that met the fleeing Rohingya in Bangladesh had “found people suffering real hardship and some of the most difficult conditions seen in any current refugee situation”.

There are also some Muslim charities, particularly Turkish NGOs, that are doing some wonderful work and hundreds of Bangladeshis are also working in their individual capacities.

But Khalsa Aid has stood out for its dedication. Last week, a photograph of one of its volunteers clad in a dark blue turban offering water to a young refugee girl evoked strong hate reactions from India’s Hindu extremists, who have been cheerleading the Myanmar Army for their ethnic cleansing.

A self-proclaimed Hindu activist, with more than 100,000 followers on the Twitter, reacted with a heartless display of hate as she tweeted: “I can see that you are going to [the] Myanmar border to feed [the] Rohingya. Can you also go to Pakistan to save Sikhs [who are] paying jizya?”

A Delhi-based lawyer, who also claims to be a public speaker with a large online following, accused Khalsa Aid of being a Khalistani group, conflating them with the pro-freedom Sikh insurgents of the yore. He also tweeted the accusation that they’ve been collecting money for the Rohingya at the Bangla Sahib, a prominent gurdwara in Delhi.

Scores of other Hindu extremists trolled Khalsa Aid’s Twitter account, asking them to send these refugees to Pakistan or even the UK. Others tried to fan the Sikh-Muslim hatred, calling Sikhs naïve and reminding them that “Islam killed their Gurus”.

Earlier, Tathagata Roy, the governor of Tripura, a province in northeast India bordering Bangladesh, condoned the genocide. Roy, who was handpicked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the gubernatorial assignment, called the ongoing genocide as a form of justice. He tweeted: “A bit of historic justice. Buddhist retribution for Hindu and Chakma genocide in East Bengal. The wheel grinds slowly but surely. Nice, what?”

Khalsa Aid’s response to these foul and offensive attacks was that of utmost dignity and honour. Through a series of tweets, it highlighted its previous work, reminding the hateful trolls that its volunteers had helped the Hindus during the 2005 earthquake in Gujarat, the 2009 drought in Maharashtra and last year’s floods in Chennai. They also showed their work for the refugees in Syria and the Yazidis who were forced to flee Iraq when Isis targeted them for their faith.

The Sikhs have a glorious tradition of serving people, irrespective of any distinction. They have done this on a daily basis without fail.

The Golden Temple, the sanctum sanctorum, offers free meals and accommodation for tens of thousands of people daily. I have myself eaten there on umpteen occasions and marvelled at the dedication of hundreds of Sikh devotees – women and men – who cook and serve in the kitchen as volunteers.

I have availed the service at various other gurdwaras around the world – from Europe to Africa – and their spirit to serve humanity remains pristine. Several years back, while driving from Nairobi to the coastal town of Mombasa, the only place that welcomed me with warmth and wonderful food was the Makindu Gurdwara, about 160 kilometres from Nairobi.

In Lahore, Gurdwara Dehra Sahib -- which marks where Guru Arjan, the Fifth Sikh Master was martyred in the beginning of the 17th century -- in the walled city of Lahore is no different. Sadly, no locals are allowed inside by Pakistani authorities.

But I have been fortunate to gain entry a couple of times after I produced my ‘foreign passport’ and spoke in a tone that somewhat resembles a British accent. The warmth of the place continues to fill my heart and taste of the parshad still lingers in my mouth.

Back home in Bijbehara, my hometown, the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sahib stands tall with its yellow walls and a large flag bearing the Khanda – the symbol of the faith – besides the mighty chinar trees of the historic Padshahi Bagh. Tara Singh, the granthi, shows me four large halls to accommodate more than a hundred people.

“Anyone can come anytime to eat and stay here,” he says.

As a show of gratitude for his indefatigable spirit of love, I tell him a little secret. About 20 years back, when this gurdwara was being built, I worked as a volunteer for half a day as a labourer with another friend Manzoor.

“We wanted to show respect to our friend, Rajpal Singh,” I explain. Tara Singh becomes little emotional and gives me a tight hug. I say goodbye to him with a loud shout of the Sikh greeting: Sat Sri Akal! (True is the name of God).

[Courtesy: The News. Edited for]
September 23, 2017

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Khalsa Aid and The Rohingya Refugees"

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