Ravi Singh founded Khalsa Aid based on the teachings of Sikhism; at the heart of his humanitarian organisation is selfless service. The BBC deemed Ravi the Selfless Sikh. Every year, volunteers of Khalsa Aid risk their own lives to help provide food to those who need it most.
Sarbat da bhalaGuru Granth Sahib
“welfare of all”
Here is what we asked Ravi:
What made you start Khalsa Aid in 1999?
In 1999, Sikhs were celebrating 300 years of Khalsa. At the time, there was a war in Yugoslavia in Europe. Many refugees were leaving and crossing over into Albania. And I thought, hang on, you know we have got such a great philosophy, because the Khalsa means the ultimate humanitarian, we have a very unique identity. We are fearless in saving humanity and fighting tyranny. Why are we not taking this philosophy further on a global level, taking the concept of langar? We always say “deg tegh fateh”. Why are we not having an impact right now; why are we singing the past glories of Bhai Kanhaiya Ji and not actually doing something useful and taking that philosophy forward. In a way, it is our Khalsa gift to the world.
I thought we are now going to be crossing borders and helping people in need of help and not just serving those that come to the Gurudwara. Let’s take the langar where it is needed. So that’s where the inspiration came from, the gurus, taking the concept of Sarbhat da Bhala forward into the world.
In the Selfless Sikh, your mother features; what was the most important thing your mum taught you about Sikhism and humanitarian work?
You know my mother is a real tough cookie, one of the bravest women I know. I remember at the age of eleven before I came to the UK, we were living in a small village in Punjab and we were caught up in a family feud in the village. This particular family didn’t like us and used to hire gunmen to shoot into the air using a shotgun next to our house in the middle of the night to intimidate us and scare my mother. I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear shots fired. My mum would be standing on top of the House with a big two and a half foot kirpan saying ‘come and face me like a man you don’t scare me’.
I remember those examples of courage and she’s only 4 foot something herself. She never stopped me from socialising with any person from any caste or background in the village. We used to mix with everyone. We never had an issue with any family eating food with us regardless of what background, whether they were rich or poor or from a different class.
My mother never believed in segregation, which played a very big part of my life and made me the man I am today as I was friends with everybody in the village regardless of their faith or creed or caste. And that was all thanks to my mother.
What’s been the most rewarding experience of your humanitarian work? We know this one is probably difficult to pick
The most rewarding aspect that comes to mind was at the start, when we launched Khalsa Aid in 1999, there were many impressionable young kids curious about the concept. I am proud to say, that I was able to play a very active part in influencing this generation to be tolerant, accepting and hate free.
There are many rewarding moments since the launch of Khalsa Aid, almost every aid mission we have established are rewarding in their own special way as it involves changing the lives of those we are serving by providing aid.
There is no denying that we have made strong progress in the last few decades from a gender equality perspective, but we still have a long way to go. The parliament in 2017 was only made up of 11.6% women. What do you think India as a whole can do to encourage gender equality and women empowerment?
This morning, I was reading an article where an Indian Minister was saying that ‘women can’t be trusted and they are not equal’. So, there must be respect for women and the government needs to take much tougher stance and action against those who consider women as the weaker sex; especially those who are serving members of parliament and have prejudices towards women. We have to start at the top and the government must also have a policy of positive discrimination to recruit more women. Respecting women and gender equality has to start at the top.
Sadly, much of the politics are being led on religious lines. And I see that it is being used to suppress women and to push them aside. So there has to be a culture change and the change has to come from within.
I’m very proud to say that Punjabi women were treated equal and used to plough the land and participate in farming. And yet when it comes to equal representation, for example Gurudwara committees, we still see a lack of women in these important roles. I’m always saying that we need a quota of 30, 40, 50 per cent representation of women in our committees too. The change has to come from both the institutions and at a government level.
In Punjab, the youth appear to be leaving and settling abroad in search for better opportunities? What do you think needs to change to encourage the youth to stay and thrive in Punjab and its economy?
The key to keep the youth from leaving Punjab is to seek more investment for Punjab. I think Punjab gets treated with prejudice by the central government because there’s no investment in heavy industry like there is in Gujarat. The other argument banded about is that Punjab is a border state, so no investment can be made in heavy industry…despite the fact that Gujarat is also a border state and receives a lot of investment from central government.
When there is a lack of serious investment in industry, then the opportunities for youngsters are far and few between. Despite being highly educated, they are unable to seek employment in the fields of their chosen careers due to a lack of opportunities. So, until there is a significant increase in investment for entirely new industries such as; IT and other industries, it will be hard to stop the youth leaving. Punjab is also considered to be the traditional breadbasket of India, as we have a large agricultural economy, because of this there is an excuse not to invest in Punjab. So, the government of India needs to rethink its policy towards Punjab and investing in heavy industry.
As Brexit looms, In the UK and EU, there has been a long-standing debate surrounding refugees and the influx of refugees; there is also a view that refugees come to Europe to drain resource? What do you think can be done to change this sheer lack of compassion?
My views have always remained the same, in that the West, in particular USA and UK, haven’t learned any of the lessons from the previous Iraq war as we ran into a war with no exit policy or strategy and it appears to be the same with Syria. We have armed all sorts of groups and both countries have been left devastated. So if we are quick to bomb these countries, then we must be equally quick to assist those who are fleeing war as refugees. Sadly, there’s a lot of Islamophobia in Europe and elsewhere and this is why so many Syrian refugees aren’t recognised as genuine refugees. So, if we are to target refugees with hatred, we must also question the actions of our own government and its international policy on interfering in other countries affairs.
So until we rethink our policy we shouldn’t be blaming refugees because refugees are just like you and me. Well, we want the best and a safe place for our family. Especially Syria isn’t a safe place. And so it’s easy to point fingers but it’s very hard to live in a war zone.
In light of recent escalation of tensions between Pakistan and India, having worked on projects in both Pakistan and India; what are your thoughts on recent events?
I think in both countries; the people are extremely warm and hospitable. As far as I am concerned, there are too many politicians speaking up and not enough Statesman. I think until we see a Statesman to stand up and who will bring the change that’s due otherwise this will continue. But my heart goes out to the ordinary people of both countries because when anything like this happens, it’s the villagers on both sides who are evacuated from their homes, people who are poor and already struggling with life, all of sudden they have to quickly evacuate and carry whatever they can, which disrupts their lives, disrupt their livelihoods and their farming. Really, so many challenges to these people who are already struggling but nobody really cares for them or speaking up for them.
Everybody wants peace except these right-wing fanatics or trolls or people who will profit from war.
Sometimes, It would appear, politicians can benefit from speaking to humanitarians to avoid conflicts and crisis such as the Syrian Crisis. Do you think humanitarians should be more involved in policy that is of humanitarian importance?
I agree that more governments should be looking to engage with humanitarian organisations on these matters but sadly, in many many places, war means profit through arms sales. Wars are used for political gains, so when the politics and arms trade are involved, nobody cares about humanitarian issues and what the consequences are and all noises or voices falls on deaf ears. If every government consulted humanitarian organisations saying ‘OK, in this situation what would happen if we weren’t her’, then it would be a very different story. I remember many villages facing starvation in Syria, a couple of years ago, due to being under siege by different factions across the region. I wrote to our defence secretary in the UK back then, at the height of the conflict in Syria. We offered fund the airdrop and provide the food. We were ready and happy to drop two hundred pounds of food, dropped into the villages from the air but we would bare the cost…but they declined our offer stating it was not safe. Therefore, We can’t drop food as it’s not safe but at the same time the government was quick to drop bombs!!! I believe humanitarians need to be listened to but sadly, they’re not and ignored because humanitarian work isn’t profitable for the politicians or warmongers.
There’s always somebody who makes money through wars, somebody always profits from another persons misery and that’s something that we cannot stop. I wish so much that they would listen more to humanitarians.
What can millennials do to pursue more humanitarian causes like Khalsa Aid?
For millennials, social media is second nature to them. They’re very, very fast & fluid and are experts in using the various social media platforms. Social media can be a very useful tool and they can be sharing their posts, they can have social media campaigns for humanitarian work and they can get involved locally. I have always suggested that the youngsters who want to get involved in humanitarian work, first get involved at the local level which means helping the homeless or vulnerable people locally and getting involved with social issues locally, could be in your village or city
So, get involved and learn from people working locally for a month to a year, you can’t just turn up and expect to go on an international mission without any experience. We all started at a local level.
My advice is to use social media for good. Promote causes, could be any cause. Be very wary of anything you put on social media which may end up hurting another faith or person.