Is There Really a Media Blackout on Sikh Deaths in India?

Over the weekend, Jagmeet Singh interrupted <i>Sunday Morning Live</i> to talk about the killings of two Sikh youths during a peaceful protest, sparking online fury about a lack of media coverage. I had a chat with Singh about the complaints.

Samantha Rea

Samantha Rea

Jagmeet Singh (centre) before the filming of 'Sunday Morning Live'

Yesterday, you probably saw that clip of Jagmeet Singh interrupting Sunday Morning Live host Sian Williams to announce that Sikhs were being killed in India. Williams warned him that if he wasn't quiet he'd be escorted out of the studio; the programme cut to a pre-recorded clip, and when the camera returned to the studio, Singh was no longer there.

What he was referring to were the deaths of two Sikh youths last week in Faridkot, Punjab during clashes with police. A peaceful demonstration was held by Sikhs calling for the arrest of those responsible for tearing up pages from the Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, and police allegedly responded by using water cannons and tear gas to clear the crowds, before firing live rounds at the protesters.

Singh, along with many other Sikhs who voiced their opinions on Twitter, believes there's a wilful lack of reporting on the subject. The BBC in particular has been strongly criticised both on social media – with some alleging the Indian government are bribing the BBC to keep the story out of the press – and via a petition on Change.org.

A BBC spokesperson I contacted responded to accusations that they'd failed to cover the issue. "The BBC is covering this story online and on radio and it has been discussed on the BBC Asian Network," he said. "The BBC operates independently and impartially and makes its own editorial judgements." In response to the suggestion that the BBC had been bribed, the spokesperson said: "Clearly, that's a ludicrous suggestion."

The BBC press office then provided these links to coverage: two stories from the 15th of October, and one from the 17th, which mentions the deaths.

All of those links are in Hindi, but Singh himself has now been interviewed by the BBC Asian Network, and the BBC has since provided coverage in English. However, when I looked into it over the weekend, the most comprehensive coverage I could find was in the Indian Express, which reported that Bittu Singh and Krishan Singh were killed on Wednesday the 14th October as they staged a peaceful protest in response to the discovery of pages ripped from the Sikh holy scriptures, which were reportedly stolen in June.

To get a better handle on the situation, I called Jagmeet Singh up for a chat. The below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Jagmeet on 'Sunday Morning Live'

VICE: When you raised the issue that Sikhs were being killed and the media weren't covering it, were you hoping it would lead to a discussion on the show?
Jagmeet Singh: I'll tell you what I was truly hoping – I was hoping the killings would stop. In the Sikh nation, our hearts are heavy, everybody feels the pain – there was a massive social media outcry. Our guru had put me in a position where I could say something, and I thought: "Shame on me if I don't."

Were you concerned that you would be criticised for it?
I thought I'd be condemned and I did it anyway. I thought I would be ostracised by the whole world, because, as Sikhs, we don't like negative publicity – we don't want to disrespect ourselves or anybody else. But my guru made that come out of me.

Did you plan to draw attention to Sikhs being killed or was it spur of the moment?
I knew I would talk about it. I was invited on the show to talk about interfaith marriages in the Sikh community, because I married a Spanish woman who converted from Catholicism. I thought the interfaith marriage debate was a puff piece. I was already frustrated that the media in general were giving so much credence to an issue that affects less than 50 people a year. I thought, 'These people are so worried about their wedding day, but people are dying.'

When you announced that Sikhs were being killed, the presenter, Sian Williams, said you'd had your time and you'd be taken out unless you were quiet.
I felt that she was being highly unprofessional. A lot of times, commentators and the host play devil's advocate to get the debate moving, and they always come back to give you your say. She was quite happy to shut me down and shut me up.

I thought, 'If I don't speak up now then I need a slap from every Sikh mother whose child has been killed, every Sikh brother, father, every loved one.' And the thing is, Sikhs care about atrocities going on all over the world – we should protest against anybody that is against humanity. It's not only about Sikhs' plights; it's about everyone's plights.

When I spoke out about the killing of Sikhs, Sian had the power to say: "You've told us Sikhs are being killed – what do you mean? Let's take five minutes to explain it to the world." And that would have been a real debate. That would have been eye-opening to everybody.

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After you announced that Sikhs were being killed, viewers were shown a pre-recorded clip. When the camera came back to the studio, you weren't there. What happened in that time?
I got up and I apologised to everybody. I said, "I'm very sorry for how I said it, for stopping the show. I said this is not about me or you, it's about people dying and no one's reporting it. You guys are paid by the British public via their licenses – you have a duty of care to report in a fair and balanced way." And you know what? They didn't have anything to say; the producers kind of nodded their heads.

The BBC has received criticism for not covering this issue, from you, on Twitter and via an online petition. But there are other news outlets that haven't reported on this and the BCC has actually given it coverage. Why is the BBC being so heavily criticised?
Some Sikhs feel the BBC makes Sikhs look bad. They have people masquerading as Sikhs that make Sikhs look like clowns.

So the issue is that you feel Sikhs on the BBC aren't representative of the real Sikh community?
I wholeheartedly feel – and I've been watching the BBC for years – they show a very narrow representation of what a Sikh is and what Sikhs are. Even when the BBC reported figures for the 1984 massacre, they downplayed the figure drastically. They have an agenda to suppress the Sikh voice. It's been said that the message I got across yesterday is more than the Sikh nation has been able to do for the last 30 years because no one will report on it. And it took one fool like myself to say something when God had me there, with his blessing.

Do you feel that the lack of media coverage overall is deliberate?
We have the Sikh Press Association, which has been set up to communicate with the British media. We actively provide press releases and quality images. In this day and age, journalists that investigate are gems. The rest are not journalists; they're churnalists – they churn out whatever they're told to say. Even when we do all the legwork and give them the story, they still don't report it. They're cold hearted – they don't care. The lack of coverage is deliberate and calculated. They must be made accountable for what they're doing.

Thanks, Jagmeet.


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