In Service of Humanity: Sikhs Showing up in the COVID Wars

Jun/29/2021 / by Pratika Yashaswi
Volunteers distributing food packages

Almost all the great religions of India and the world teach the concept of selfless service in some form. Among other things, it offers a way of annihilating the ego, reminding oneself of the oneness of all beings, and moving closer to God.

Jesus was the embodiment of kindness and compassion. The Buddha continued to serve his people long after he had attained enlightenment. Selflessness in a way is both the foundation and the pinnacle of spiritual “achievement”. Sikh lore says that the Gurus and their teachers could be found on their hands and knees fetching water, serving food, dressing the wounds of soldiers and handling devotees’ shoes. 

No task was beneath them. 

In India, at least, the Sikhs are almost unparalleled in their reputation for practicing readily, limitlessly selfless service, inspiring the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, who saw Guru Gobind Singh as a potential nationalist icon for India, and a bridger of caste and religious barriers at a time when the country—and the community itself—was vulnerable to it. In terms of vulnerability to communal conflict, little has improved since Tagore’s time.

A United Sikhs volunteer gives a board game to a child

The Sikh community has suffered immensely as a minority in India right since pre-independence days, during partition and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. UK-based international NGO Khalsa Aid, which recently made headlines for receiving a six-figure donation from JK Rowling, came under unfortunate allegations of being associated with terror outfits  and National Intelligence Agency (NIA) scrutiny earlier this year. Nevertheless, it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Over the past couple of years, as India curdles under great political and natural turmoil, ordinary Sikhs have at great personal risk been present and visible at protests and crises that may or may not have involved their community: they’ve served langarsat Shaheen Bagh, Delhi riots and the Tikri Border protests with equal zeal. Now Sikhs the world over have mobilized support in heaps during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further crippled a country already vulnerable to economic and sociopolitical distress. 

“I’m very connected to my religion because of the community work itself,” says 25 year-old Ramandeep Kaur. She recalls growing up around people constantly involved in service, and also being instilled with a desire to work for the betterment of society. Although she was living with parents who were especially vulnerable to COVID-19 due to comorbidities, she would spend hours every day of India’s long 2020 lockdown arranging transport services for migrant workers and helped hundreds of them reach home. She and her team of three friends gained some media attention, and their work was amplified by actor Sonu Sood. This helped them raise funds to also distribute food and other forms of support. 

This year, after her father suffered some heart problems, she realized she could not continue to put her family at risk, and works from home instead.

Volunteers prepare cooked food packages for distribution

Gurdwaras are becoming essential partners in the Covid fight, and Sikhs have been pitching in at both individual and community levels. They have been importing oxygen concentrators from the US to Delhi, Punjab and Karnataka; distributing food rations and  organizing free hearse services. 

“There is a shabad which means a religious song, which I interpret as ‘When I serve, I am serving you, serving you, serving you,’” says Mejindarpal Kaur, International Legal Director of UNITED SIKHS, who has been serving at the panthic level since 2002. “So you’re not serving a person who needs oxygen because of COVID breathlessness—you’re serving the Master who has instructed you to serve this person. Who are we to say that we feed the hungry? We ourselves are being fed by the Master.” And this is the essential realization of Sikh seva at any level.

Volunteers organize relief material for Covid-affected families

Kaur, who is currently in Malaysia, has been part of a frenzied search for oxygen concentrators and is in the process of helping set up Covid relief centres in India that she hopes will act as a bridge and take the pressure off hospitals. She feels that this pandemic is no less than a major world war. 

“When a person goes to war as a soldier he knows he might be receiving a bullet. And I don’t know whether that’s worse. Or if a COVID relief volunteer on the ground is in a worse position. But they go in fearlessly like the soldier does. People who do the fundraising, buying concentrators, maybe working hard through the night locating concentrators across time zones are doing important work. But the courage to go into the field is a gift. And we all must pray for them. That is a gift given to them because they’re special, and it’s important that their family recognize it and that they recognize it.”

This article appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check the rest of it out here!