Sikhi and Transformative Justice

Guest blogged by Brooklynwala

A few days ago, a friend sent me this powerful open letter she wrote in order to spark critical thinking and dialogue on the pitfalls of calling the police and relying on the criminal (in)justice system to deal with issues in our neighborhoods and communities. We live in New York City, which has a police force widely known for its excessive use of force and violence, especially against people of color. Sundari recently did a post on the NYPD shooting and killing of a Sikh man in NYC, Satnam Singh, just last week.

In a context in which police by and large cause more harm than get us closer to justice and where the prison system dehumanizes people instead of rehabilitating them, the author of this piece, along with a growing movement around the U.S., are challenging us to think of alternative ways of responding to harm. She states,

Many of us dont believe in calling the police. Right now, right here, even before weve sufficiently built all the alternative structures for responding to harm. Both in an attempt to create the world we want to live in, and/but also because the impact of prisons and policing is brutal, oppressive, racist, traumatic. We see almost no good coming of it, certainly no transformation, no making things better. We dont trust police, we dont think of them as the good guys, and we dont think calling them is going to change anything.

My friends compelling piece Feeling for the edge of your imagination got me thinking about what a Sikh approach to justice is. While there is clearly not a simple answer to this question, I tend to think a Gurmukh would place love, forgiveness, rehabilitation, accountability, and recognizing the Divine in all at the center, despite questionable or even horrific actions one has perpetrated. Think about Bhai Kanhaiya Jis seva for enemy soldiers in need, who saw the injured soldiers humanity before he sought vengeance for their attacks against the Sikhs.

I know that some of those of committed acts of racist violence against Sikhs post-9/11 did community service with organizations like the Sikh Coalition instead of being sent to jail, which in many cases led to deep transformation of these individuals and inspiring reconciliation. Check out this clip of a hate crime perpetrator speaking about his experience at a gurdwara.

Carolines letter continues:

I believe in a world without prisons. Ive spent some time and effort working to address harm through non-state responses that are meant to create real change (for example, addressing partner abuse through facilitating a community-based accountability circle). However, as the conversation my partner and I were having turned to ourselves, our safety, and our worst nightmares, I wondered, in what situation might I find myself calling the police? I acknowledged that there would be situations in which I might call the cops because I havent yet imagined an alternative. I half-suggested we go down that road: finding those worst-case scenarios, and then starting to envision alternative responses. We didnt have it in us that night, but something about it seemed smartlike knowing how to stop-drop-and-roll in a fire.

We live in a world thats deeply damaged by policing, in which immediate and effective community-based responses dont necessarily exist, or we dont know how to find/create them. Our imaginations have atrophied, our resourcefulness has withered. There are moments when immediate intervention will save someones life, and it needs to be fast, and the readily available structure for that immediate intervention is the police.

So, can we look to our imaginations and our Gurbani to help answer these complex questions? Can you imagine responding to problems in your community without calling the cops? What is a Sikh approach to justice and how can we ensure that we respond to harm and crises in our communities in a way that truly reflects our values?


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16 Responses to “Sikhi and Transformative Justice”

  1. Paramjit Singh says:

    Community based justice/policing system,now thats a suggestion by and from a very sick and delusional person.Although the criminal justice system might not be perfect,at least it gives a proper venue to punish the wrongdoers.Look what the community based system has donr in haryana,my refrence to the khap panchayats.Every community has its prejudices and hatred of its own members within as well as with members of different comunities.Leave the criminal,civil,administrative justice where it belongs in the hands of competent people.Community elders,religious leaders,and other so called leaders cannot dispense justice coz they have vested interests.As for gurbani it is an amalgamation of ideas for hereafter not for real problems of herein.

  2. Paramjit Singh says:

    Community based justice/policing system,now thats a suggestion by and from a very sick and delusional person.Although the criminal justice system might not be perfect,at least it gives a proper venue to punish the wrongdoers.Look what the community based system has donr in haryana,my refrence to the khap panchayats.Every community has its prejudices and hatred of its own members within as well as with members of different comunities.Leave the criminal,civil,administrative justice where it belongs in the hands of competent people.Community elders,religious leaders,and other so called leaders cannot dispense justice coz they have vested interests.As for gurbani it is an amalgamation of ideas for hereafter not for real problems of herein.

  3. balmeet says:

    Ah Paramjit – you make me smile. Thanks for providing a name to the attitude that frustrates me about our community.

  4. balmeet says:

    Ah Paramjit – you make me smile. Thanks for providing a name to the attitude that frustrates me about our community.

  5. […] hospitalized and the police called in (a fellow Langa-writer, tangentially touched upon the issues, albeit in a different context). In Ohio, a man was killed at the Gurdwara after a scuffle with the police. The community is […]

  6. Bandana Kaur says:

    I think Brooklynwala and Paramjit both raise interesting points; my assumption is that over time there has been an erosion of internal mechanisms within the Punjabi community to deal with conflicts, tragedies, violent acts, etc. and I think it's important to acknowledge and understand what those mechanisms are. Let's take domestic violence as a very real, lived example within our community. My big question would be what spaces existed at a point in Punjabi society to offer support for women who may have been in situations of marital discord, etc. Can we recreate those spaces today so women have places to gather together and support one another?

    I would agree with Paramjit that it's quite probable that corruption has penetrated multiple levels of our Punjabi institutions for dealing with problems, and he's rightfully cautious. But I think the failure to acknowledge that this may be a solution leaves no space for collective action, for vigilance, for building the much-needed internal institutions to challenge some of the core ills that hinder true community development.

  7. Bandana Kaur says:

    I think Brooklynwala and Paramjit both raise interesting points; my assumption is that over time there has been an erosion of internal mechanisms within the Punjabi community to deal with conflicts, tragedies, violent acts, etc. and I think it's important to acknowledge and understand what those mechanisms are. Let's take domestic violence as a very real, lived example within our community. My big question would be what spaces existed at a point in Punjabi society to offer support for women who may have been in situations of marital discord, etc. Can we recreate those spaces today so women have places to gather together and support one another?

    I would agree with Paramjit that it's quite probable that corruption has penetrated multiple levels of our Punjabi institutions for dealing with problems, and he's rightfully cautious. But I think the failure to acknowledge that this may be a solution leaves no space for collective action, for vigilance, for building the much-needed internal institutions to challenge some of the core ills that hinder true community development.

  8. Paramjit Singh says:

    Well Balmeet i am happy that i could make u smile,as for Bandana ur questions and assumptions are well founded,however here is the problem,while Juaism,christianity,islam,and hinduism have well defined penal codes,sikhism has nothing.In fact this is the biggest drawback/shortcoming of sikhism ,its leaders and its gurus.If within a community there is no mechanism to punish a perpetrator statutorilly or punitively,people become brazen more often and start repeating the crimes.This lack of penalty and retribution is the core reason why crime/domestic violence is rampart within sikh community.And before i forget there is another reason known as greed.

  9. Paramjit Singh says:

    Well Balmeet i am happy that i could make u smile,as for Bandana ur questions and assumptions are well founded,however here is the problem,while Juaism,christianity,islam,and hinduism have well defined penal codes,sikhism has nothing.In fact this is the biggest drawback/shortcoming of sikhism ,its leaders and its gurus.If within a community there is no mechanism to punish a perpetrator statutorilly or punitively,people become brazen more often and start repeating the crimes.This lack of penalty and retribution is the core reason why crime/domestic violence is rampart within sikh community.And before i forget there is another reason known as greed.

  10. Bkaur says:

    I shared this link with a friend who happens to be in law enforcement here in the states, and this was his response…

    I understand where they are coming from, but some of the points are a little naive. One that I'd like to point out is when the author talks about Bhai Kanhaiya giving water to wounded enemy soldiers. Those soldiers were not criminals, they were simply doing their jobs. That's what a soldier does. They fight who their commander tells them to fight. Similar to our military's treatment of prisoners of war; they feed them and give them water, etc… Fighting a war doesn't necessarily constitute a "horrific actions" as the author points out.

    Furthermore, would the author have the same attitude if someone broke in to his/her house, then raped and murdered their mother? Probably not. In my experience, the folks that are against the justice system as a whole have not had a serious crime perpetrated against them or one of their loved ones. It's easy to say forgive and forget when one isn't the victim. That being said, I'm all for alternative punishments and yes, the justice system is flawed. But for serious crimes where there is often a high percentage of repeat offenses, there are not many other options besides incarceration.

  11. Bkaur says:

    I shared this link with a friend who happens to be in law enforcement here in the states, and this was his response…

    I understand where they are coming from, but some of the points are a little naive. One that I'd like to point out is when the author talks about Bhai Kanhaiya giving water to wounded enemy soldiers. Those soldiers were not criminals, they were simply doing their jobs. That's what a soldier does. They fight who their commander tells them to fight. Similar to our military's treatment of prisoners of war; they feed them and give them water, etc… Fighting a war doesn't necessarily constitute a "horrific actions" as the author points out.

    Furthermore, would the author have the same attitude if someone broke in to his/her house, then raped and murdered their mother? Probably not. In my experience, the folks that are against the justice system as a whole have not had a serious crime perpetrated against them or one of their loved ones. It's easy to say forgive and forget when one isn't the victim. That being said, I'm all for alternative punishments and yes, the justice system is flawed. But for serious crimes where there is often a high percentage of repeat offenses, there are not many other options besides incarceration.

  12. Cole Kitson says:

    I am enchanted with the idea of the liberation treatment to cure MS. From what information I can gather about clinics that provide treatment, I can only find one vague list duplicated on a dozen websites. Is there a better way to find treatment, per say in North America. There are places that offer Liberation Treatment for the United States that no one knows about, such as Liberation Treatment Now

  13. Cole Kitson says:

    I am enchanted with the idea of the liberation treatment to cure MS. From what information I can gather about clinics that provide treatment, I can only find one vague list duplicated on a dozen websites. Is there a better way to find treatment, per say in North America. There are places that offer Liberation Treatment for the United States that no one knows about, such as Liberation Treatment Now

  14. […] religion and articles of faith and to foster positive relations between local police and Sikhs. My feelings about the role of the police in our communities aside, the Village Voice is reporting that New York City cops have been doing […]

  15. […] of a broken and inhumane criminal justice system (which I’ve discussed before here and here). This is a Sikh issue. Indeed, Harinder Singh of the Sikh Research institute states, As a […]

  16. […] have talked elsewhere about what a Sikh approach to justice might look like (and might not look like). What is clear is […]

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