Faith, Empire & Sexuality

A big win in the region this week for Culture and the Arts. Jas Sansi looks at three exhibitions currently running at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

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The Midlands enjoyed positive national news coverage this week. Coventry will be the UK City of Culture 2021. Congratulations to all those involved in the process.

Coventry is one of four cities in the West Midlands Combined Authority, the others being Birmingham, Lichfield and Wolverhampton. It’s important the full potential of each of these cities is leveraged to benefit the entire region. 

Coventry as City of Culture 2021 and Birmingham hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2022 (scheduled to be confirmed this week) is exactly the leverage we need, to build on our success. As a region we have a lot to be proud of. 

If a week is a long time in Politics, then three years until 2021 is a custodial sentence. No need to start counting bricks just yet, there is a mesmerising trio of exhibitions currently running at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery; Finding Faith, The Past is Now and Coming Out.

Finding Faith is a journey through the world’s major religions. There are objects and artefacts, icons and symbols which bring to life many of the faiths represented in Birmingham. 

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The Sultanganj Buddha (above) was buried in India for 500 years for its protection. Find out how it was discovered and how it found a home in Brum. 

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As a Sikh, I was fascinated by this coin (above) from The Golden Temple in Amritsar. Pressed in 1898, the coin depicts the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev Ji with two companions, one a Muslim, the other Hindu.

The Golden Temple has four entrances, one on each side illustrating it welcomes people of all faiths and those of no faith from all parts of the world.

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The image above illustrates a detail from a stained glass exhibit. I learned this week, the stained glass in Birmingham Cathedral was removed during World War 2 and stored in a Welsh mine to protect it from German bombers. It was safely return and reinstalled after the war ended. 

The Past is Now; Birmingham and the British Empire offers a new perspective of the thorny subject of colonialism.

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One of the first sculptures you see when entering the gallery is Sir Jacob Epstein’s depiction of Satan. The artist is also responsible for the bronze head of Rabindranath Tagore. The Indian writer was the first non-European to be awarded the Nobel prize. Rabindranath Tagore was the first to describe Gandhi as ‘Mahatma’ meaning ‘Great Soul.’

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There is a wall for visitor comments. The words above illustrate the complexities of political decisions that impact people in different ways. I had to Google the word ‘abrogated’, its means ‘to repeal or do away with a law, right or formal agreement.’

The third exhibition is ‘Coming Out.’ This celebrates the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The ruling partially decriminalised sex between men, in private, in England and Wales. It was a significant step forward in the ongoing campaign for equality for gay men and the broader LGBT+ community. 

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The exhibition had a two part launch beginning at Birmingham New Street Station before moving over to its home in the gallery’s Gas Hall. 

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The painting above by David Hockney was painted in 1966 and won the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967 the same year the Sexual Offences Act was passed. 

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Coming Out was officially opened by Birmingham born Joe Lycett with the performance artists who made the launch one of the most striking seen in the city.

The Edwardian Tearooms will keep you hydrated should you choose to visit all three exhibitions on the same day. It’s a day you will remember forever. 

Full set of images from Finding Faith: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jassansi/albums/72157690074655345

Full set of images from The Past is Now: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jassansi/albums/72157690989735916

Full set of images from Coming Out: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jassansi/albums/72157690989735916

 

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, B3 3DH

http://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham, a columnist for The Asian Today and LoveBrum Trustee @jassansi

 

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Carnival of Chaos

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un launches another missile and Trump launches the twitter app on his phone. Both are troubled individuals who will do anything for your attention. 

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Rogue Republican Donald Trump does it again. We witness another display of his incredulous inability to lead the United States. He has demonstrated tweet after tweet, he is unfit for office. 

Sooner rather than later, there will be another mass shooting in the United States. Statistically, it will be sooner. 

Before the spent bullet cartridges have cooled down, Trump’s tweet to Prime Minister Theresa May ‘We are doing just fine!’ will be the headline splash to support the images being shared around the world. 

The words will haunt the USA and those advocating gun control, but not the President. Trump fails to understand the damage he inflicts on the country he is supposed to be leading. 

He knew exactly what he was doing when he re-tweeted those videos. The only explanation I can suggest is an attempt to distract from his inability to deal with Kim Jong-un’s rocket launch on Wednesday. China continue to ignore his pleas to impose sanctions on North Korea. 

Creating a diplomatic storm shifts attention away from another Trump failure. 

His invitation to visit the UK in 2018 has not been retracted. The security around the visit will be unprecedented and I fear our valued emergency services will be put at risk. 

Trump is a threat to world peace, social cohesion and public safety. His visit to the UK will be a carnival of chaos. 

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi

Brace for Impact

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As a country, we pay about £43 Billion a year to service the national debt. That’s an incredible amount of money. It would fund free University education for every British Student. 

£43 Billion would finance UK Defence for just under two years or cover the costs of Primary and Secondary Education for six months. 

With zero national debt, we would not have to pay a penny in interest charges. Never mind funding the NHS with an extra £350 Million a week, we could give the NHS that sort of money every two and a half days. 

Its a mind boggling figure. Without it, the Government could give everyone £700 a year, every man, woman and child. Do the maths for your own household. And they could do it every year. 

On the other hand, the interest paid by home owners, especially those on variable rates has been historically low since 2009. In fact it hasn’t been higher than 1% since January 2009. A decade of extremely cheap borrowing. 

The UK Government is paying a lot of money to service the national debt, but individual home owners are paying very little to finance their biggest asset.

Imagine the scenario if it were the other way round. Government with no national debt to service but home owners faced with 15% interest rates as in 1990. The public would be strapped for cash but Government could help by extending tax breaks including a lower VAT rate. 

Imagine the scenario of the Government paying £43 Billion a year to service the national debt AND interest rates creeping back up to pre financial crash rates. Government no longer having the funds to extend tax breaks and the general public stretched. 

Throw in a falling value of sterling making imports more expensive and the uncertainty around Brexit having a negative effect on inward investment. 

The Brexit Impact Reports are expected to be released this week. I would suggest you strap yourself in, and brace for impact. 

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sikh Identity

The founding fathers of the Sikh faith gifted us a unique sense of purpose. Ahead of the anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s death, Jas Sansi explains why our identity as Sikhs comes with a heavy responsibility. But one we can demonstrate we are worthy of.

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Sikh identity was forged in tragic circumstances. The ninth Guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Tegh Bahadur sacrificed his life defending the rights of all to practice the religion of their birth. Facing decapitation, he made it clear his head can be taken, his faith will remain intact. 

As a Sikh, the courage Guru Tegh Bahadur demonstrated in the face of horrific adversity is inspirational. It fuelled the bravery of Sikhs who became a martial race. Over 80,000 Sikhs lost their lives in World Wars I and II. 

The decapitated head of Guru Tech Bahadur was carefully wrapped by others who accompanied and returned it to his ten year old son, Gobind. The young boy asked if other Sikhs were present at the execution. He was told, there may have been, but it was impossible to identify them. 

The need to recognise members of the faith fostered the identity of Sikhs. This includes uncut hair, the turban and the wearing of a bangle. The purpose of this identity is to recognise a Sikh, able to come to the aid of others.

Sikh identity remains critically important four centuries later. The case of Jagtar Singh Johal, presently in Indian police custody and rumoured to being tortured is a clear example. 

The 30 year old British national is accused of influencing youth on social media about Sikh human right violations. This is exactly what Sikh identity was forged for; to cast a light on injustice. 

Sikh identity remains critically important four centuries later…

Many Sikhs and indeed those of other faiths have highlighted the plight of Jagtar Singh Johal. Many Sikhs have adopted the identity inspired by the death of Guru Tegh Bahadur but have yet to exercise the spirit and purpose of that identity. 

The founding fathers of the Sikh faith gifted us a unique sense of purpose. They injected us with courage and resolve. It is our responsibility to exercise that courage to help Jagtar Singh Johal in his hour of need. 

Do it publicly using social media channels, use traditional and broadcast media or do it privately using your networks, contacts and relationships. I’m confident many have already done so. Do not stop until he is free. 

Some Sikhs have huge platforms that can be leveraged for the safe return of Jagtar Singh Johal. The biggest platform is the identity you have inherited. It was gifted to you for a reason, do not waste it. 

This Friday marks the 342nd anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s death. Demonstrate that his death was not in vain. Help support the campaign to #FreeJaggiNow. 

 

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi

 

The Silence is Deafening 

With little news coming out of India on the welfare of Jagtar Singh Johal, the relationship between the UK and India is being tested. It is one worth fighting for.

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Prime Minister Theresa May accompanied by Midlands Mayor Andy Street on a visit to the region yesterday spoke to BBC Asian Network about Jagtar Singh Johal. Mrs May stressed the Government is concerned about the Scottish Sikh man’s well being; ‘Representatives from the Foreign Office have met with Jagtar Singh Johal, they are monitoring the situation and will take action as necessary.’ 

In addition to Jagtar’s local MP, Martin Docherty, there are two British Sikh MPs, Preet Kaur Gill (Edgbaston, Birmingham) and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough, Berkshire) who sit in Parliament ensuring Jagtar has representation at the highest level. Voices beyond British shores have spoken out about this case with Canadian Sikh Politicians showing immense leadership on the matter. Their support is very much appreciated. 

The actions of Punjab Police risk reigniting tensions around the abuse of human rights, especially those of Sikhs in North India.

Nobody wants the dark days of the 1980s to return when Punjab was effectively a no go zone following Operation Blue Star and the assassination of Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.  

The only ones to gain from such a situation would be security forces in Punjab. They alone would attract greater funding from central Government to tackle unrest and instability in North India. 

The safe return of Jagtar Singh Johal goes above and beyond the immediate angst of his family and friends who naturally want their grandchild, son, brother and husband back. It speaks for the stability of the entire Punjab. 

Equally worrying is the security of Indian Consulate staff around the world especially the UK, the rest of Europe and North America. There are sixteen million Indians living outside of India of which two million are Sikhs. 

Nobody wants the dark days of the 1980s to return…

The Indian Consulates around the world are the face of India and it is important they are allowed to function safely. The need for British nationals to secure a visa to travel to India means their presence is essential. 

The Indian Consulate were recently extremely helpful in getting me an emergency visa on a Saturday in order to fly out the following day. It took four years of hard campaigning here in Birmingham to reinstate the direct flights to India and they are a remarkable success. 

British and North American politicians have spoken out. It is now vital Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian President Ram Nath Kovind are made aware of the plight of Jagtar Singh Johal and a solution engineered.  

So much has been achieved between our two countries, and for Brits of Indian origin, it really is our ‘two’ countries, there is so much at stake here.  

Influencing youth on social media is no reason to incarcerate Jagtar Singh Johal. If it was a crime, most of the world’s corporates would be in handcuffs. 

Do not damage the relationship between India and the UK. Please release Jagtar Singh Johal, escort him to Amritsar Airport and send him back to Scotland unharmed. 

 

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi

For Whom the Bells Toll 

Jagtar Singh Johal’s only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What price do we put on human life?

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I’ve just glanced at Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s timeline on Twitter. It’s disappointing she’s made no mention of Scottish born Jagtar Singh Johal, presently imprisoned in North India. His crime; influencing youth on social media. 

The crime did not warrant him being refused a visa to travel to India. British Asians of Indian origin will understand the complexities of getting a visa to travel there. The process often sees applicants turned away from one of the Indian Consulates across the UK for very little reason. 

This case is worthy of Nicola Sturgeon’s comments. An acknowledgement of the predicament Jagtar Singh Johal from Dumbarton, 20 miles from Glasgow finds himself may provide some comfort for his family. I’m reminded of what Martin Luther King Jr once said; ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’  

The case is politically sensitive. The UK does not want to upset India at a time it is trying to navigate the infinite complexities of exiting the EU. India is one of the key countries we are targeting for post Brexit trade deals. 

Consider these details to grasp an idea of what is at stake; India consumes more Whisky than the rest of the world combined. Scotch Whisky represents 25% of the UK’s total food and drink export value. There is a 150% tariff on Scotch Whisky in India, something which may be removed if the two countries strike a Free Trade Deal.

The relationship between Scotland and the rest of Britain is uneasy. The 2013 Scottish Referendum narrowly retained the Union. The EU Referendum saw Scotland vote Remain whilst the rest of Britain chose to Leave. 

If the SNP (Scottish National Party) want to campaign for a second referendum on Independence given the ‘change of circumstances’ bought about by Brexit, it’s feasible the vote may go the other way. 

Scotland will be reliant on the foreign currency its Whisky distilleries attract as an independent country. 

All of this politicises the position of Jagtar Singh Johal. He has been released from Police custody, where he may have been exposed to torture and transferred to prison until 30th November. Jagtar’s only crime is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

This is a predicament for Nicola Sturgeon and the UK Government. It’s a challenge for our Diplomatic Service. 

The question is, do we turn a blind eye on Jagtar’s welfare in order to protect our future trade with India? For Nicola Sturgeon, its a question of for whom the Bells, the Famous Grouse and the Glenfiddich toll? 

Bring him home Nicola. 

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi

#FreeJaggiNow

 

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In 1984, the Indian Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered tanks to enter the holiest site of the Sikh faith, The Golden Temple. It was a decision that would prove fatal for unimaginable numbers of worshippers who were there for no other reason than to meditate, pray and carry out the duties of their religion. 

In an interview with Narenderpal Singh on 12th September 1984, Indira Gandhi, pressed on the attack answered;

 ‘I know the sentiments of the Sikhs have been deeply hurt. But I want to assure you that my sentiments have also been hurt because their pain is my pain. It is true that the (Indian) army never went into the Golden Temple before. We tried not to resort to army action. We tried to avoid it altogether, because it was a hard decision to take. I have never felt so bad about any decision as I have about the decision to send the army there. Normalcy should return at the earliest and the hurt feelings be assuaged.’

49 days later, ‘normalcy’ came in the guise of 33 bullets from her Sikh bodyguards ending her Premiership and unleashing hell for Sikhs living in New Delhi. 

I was twelve at the time, too young to understand politics but acutely aware of the power of the images I saw on television of tanks entering the holy shrine. A place I had visited five years earlier being ripped apart by the shells of tanks crushing the marble steps I had walked down hand in hand with my dad. 

Halloween 1984 was celebrated by Sikhs worldwide. In the 33 years that have passed, the ‘hurt feelings’ uttered by Indira Gandhi have not been ‘assuaged.’ How can they? The dead cannot forgive and the living cannot forget. We, the Sikhs, have learned to live with those painful memories.  

The fallout continues. On Saturday 4th November, a British citizen, Jagtar Singh Johal was seized by plain clothed Punjab Police and bundled into a van. He is presently in custody for ‘influencing young people on social media around the 1984 attack.’ 

There is rumour he is being tortured in order to extract a confession. There is a social media campaign to have Jagtar released and returned to his home in Scotland. 

In 1984, Sikhs did not have a political voice. We may not have enjoyed much influence or power 33 years ago. It’s no longer 1984. And we want Jagtar back, unharmed. 

The Sikhs rarely ask for help. We’re asking now. #FreeJaggiNow

Jas Sansi is a freelance photographer based in Birmingham @jassansi