June 17, 2012: As Harbinder Singh Rana rubbed shoulders with the royal posse during the Queen's barge, his criminal past was quickly discovered by British tabloids and then catapulted into the limelight. Now, with his history exposed to the entire world, will Rana ever be able to move beyond it or will his past haunt him for life?
By now everyone must have heard about Harbinder Singh Rana, the honorary director of the UK-based, Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail (ASHT). Yeah, he is the same guy who had got all the Sikhs excited for having the privilege of being invited on the Queen's barge, only to find himself de-listed from all further invites after his past life was exposed. Out of their concern for the queen, the media had gone to town suggesting how lucky the queen had been to have gotten away, as Harbinder Singh, who had served a jail sentence for four years in 1986 on various accounts of sexual abuse, was inches away from her during the jubilee celebrations.
Well, since the queen now is safely back in her palace, the point to ponder is how should the civil society behave with people like Harbinder, given his background.
The obvious tactic is to admonish them, banish them and blah blah blah. But then, is there a different way to look at it? An approach which gives folks such as Harbinder a second chance should they want to rehabilitate into the mainstream? Talking about the second approach, I reckon, rather than chickening out, the British royalty could have done well by acknowledging the fact that Harbinder Singh had been called because of his contribution to charity and here was a man who had decided to begin his life afresh. Alas, blue-blooded or pale we are stereotypical in our reactions when it comes to situations like these.
No, I am not giving Harbinder Singh a character certificate for I am not competent to. Moreover, I wouldn't want to. Hang him for all I care, if he is not willing to reconstruct his life. But his actions over the last so many years reflect his rehabilitative mood. He has wisely used the community route and immersed himself in promoting the Anglo-Sikh relations, a connection that goes back almost two centuries. ASHT, of which he is the director, runs some very classy and high profile programmes and raises charity for various organisations. Some of the prominent programmes include the Battlefield tours to sites in France and Belgium where the Sikhs fought along the British in the World Wars and the Saragarhi Polo Cup which is held each year to commemorate the bravery of the Sikhs in the battle of Saragarhi.
I have known Harbinder for more than six years now. Emails, similar to the ones that landed in the offices of the tabloids, had also arrived in my inbox a few years ago after I had highlighted some of ASHT's initiatives. I must confess that I was embarrassed and hugely disturbed on receiving them. I even contemplated exposing Harbinder, since the taint was huge and his crime inexcusable. What would the victims be going through, when they saw him shaking hands with the high and mighty? And then there was this hidden temptation of selling the story for a couple of thousand pounds to the British tabloids.
However, experiences during my book, Sikhs Unlimited, stood in the way. I had encountered similar situations which had made me realise that majority of the people carried some baggage. For example, a section of the white-American community which converted to Sikhism were originally hippies and into drugs and all kinds of other things. They came across Harbhajan Singh Yogi in their quest to reinvent themselves who in turn showed them the path through Sikhism. Today, some of them are the most successful entrepreneurs. My experience told me that as long as the baggage had been redressed, be it through counselling or punishment (punishment in Harbinder's case) the benefit of doubt should be passed to the guilty. And heck, if Prince Charles was okay with Harbinder, what was stopping me?
My acquaintance with Harbinder grew further as we found common meeting grounds. For instance, my book on marathoner Fauja Singh was launched by the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail in the House of Lords at a glittering ceremony in the UK, whereas all other Punjabi organisations which had claimed Fauja to be apna banda wiggled out when the time came.
Unfortunately for Harbinder, the jury is still out judging him in spite of one convicting him 26 years ago. One hopes this one is as fair as the last one and recommends his name as a role model for the 'reconstructing life' advertisements.
Punjabi by nature is a fortnightly column. The columnist is a Punjab-based author and journalist.