Amarpreet Singh is Asia-Pacific Director and Manpreet Singh is Operations Coordinator of Khalsa Aid, an organisation providing relief to crisis-affected people across the world. In light of the controversy over the aid provided by them to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, they put forward their response in a candid interview with Ridhima Malhotra.
Edited Excerpts from an interview •
Amarpreet you are a trained pilot and Manpreet you run an established business. Why did you join Khalsa Aid where you put in so much time and effort?
Amarpreet: I was in Punjab and I got to know of Khalsa Aid as a charitable organisation. When I first approached them to fund the surgery of a child who needed urgent medical attention, they were very forthcoming. I was impressed as they were helping people without looking at their religion or caste. So I got involved with them in beginning their India Chapter around five years ago. Since then I’ve been associated with the organisation full time.
Manpreet: I was following Khalsa Aid’s charitable works for a long time and was inspired by Ravi Singhji, its founder. When I started participating as a volunteer, it gave me a lot of personal satisfaction to work for those who are in dire need of life-saving necessities.
Both of you went to Bangladesh to help the Rohingya refugees. Tell us about your experience there.
Amarpreet: It was me who went there first along with a volunteer to assess the situation. We wanted to see what was going on and how we could help. We had assumed that there were 50,000 to one lakh people, but when we reached there we were shocked. There were three lakh people and more kept pouring in via boats. They were all in such bad shape, some were almost half dead. They were all dehydrated and starving. People were dressed in tattered clothes, many were barefoot, thousands of children were completely naked. There was no means of shelter. The weather was also not on their side.
Knowing that many people could die, we somehow arranged drinking water for them and distributed ORS and biscuits. We faced a lot of difficulties in arranging immediate relief. Firstly, it was difficult for us to transport such a large number of water bottles to the border area. Secondly, when we distributed the bottles, we realised that there were so many people that the bottles would be insufficient. So we ourselves made as many as ten people drink from a single water bottle to at least meet everyone’s basic need. Drinking water was the most valuable thing there.
After doing this for two days, we decided to cook food for the refugees. So we bought big utensils, gas, stoves, everything from scratch and cooked food and took it to the border area to distribute langar. It was difficult to transport so much food. So we requested the administration to allow us to make a permanent make-shift kitchen in that area itself where we could cook. We were given the space, we hired some employees and fed 40-50,000 people on the first day. Since then, we have been feeding at least 20-25,000 people every day till date. The cooks prepare food all night and our team distributes it during the day.
Manpreet: First fifteen days it was just the two of them there. After that more volunteers went. Today we have a team of eight volunteers stationed there. Apart from food and water, we distributed kits containing daily necessities, toileteries, etc. The Bangladesh Army was majorly relying on Khalsa Aid for relief works. It was they who suggested that we make nutritious food for expecting mothers, so we started preparing suji halwa specially for them. They also requested us to make kids’ meals at a school run by the Red Cross. Then we started sending nutritious food for the kids too.
Were you affected after seeing so much suffering around you?
Amarpreet: It was a heart wrenching experience to see more than 50,000 orphan children, over 30,000 pregnant women completely helpless. Their suffering was unbelievable. No one can even imagine the kind of persecution that those people are fleeing. There is manslaughter happening across the border (in Myanmar).. We saw people’s grave injuries. One man’s hand had been chopped off while he was fleeing. While working at the refugee camps, we ourselves could see across the sea villages burning in Rakhine. Many people who came had burn injuries.
Manpreet: There is so much suffering there. I’ll tell you one case. A seven-year-old girl had seen her father being killed, her mother being raped and killed. Her two-year-old brother was thrown in the fire. She had herself saved the brother from the fire and had reached Bangladesh by traversing the jungles for several days. I still cannot take my mind off that little girl. She was inseparable from her brother. She was so traumatised that she feared losing him.
There were many cases like that. A large number of people had missing family members and they were in such trauma. Now we are back but sometimes while eating food when we think of the circumstances there, we lose our appetite. We get so disturbed thinking about those people. There is so much pain there.
You received a lot of flak on social media for helping Rohingyas because they are Muslim.
Manpreet: We work for humanity. Our Guru said, ‘Recognize the whole human race as one,’ and that’s what we are doing. We have been helping anyone and everyone affected by conflict and natural calamities. We don’t see their religion, caste or nationality. We were helping Rohingya Hindus too. There were 120 Hindu families or around 400 people in a camp there. When we talked to them, they denied that the Muslim Rohingyas tried to harm them in any way. In fact they said the Hindus and Muslims lived in Rakhine like brethren.
Amarpreet: I have been to around 15-16 relief missions in many parts of the world but controversy was generated for the first time this time. I have never been so demotivated while saving someone’s life. With the kind of things some people said on social media, calling us terrorists and supporters of terrorists, we started doubting and questioning what we were doing. We were already so stressed in that situation and the propaganda against us made things more difficult for us.It increased our stress levels. Our family and friends got worried and started calling us up.
How did you deal with the criticism?
Manpreet: We knew we were doing the right thing. How can we be wrong in spending money out of our pockets to feed those who were being hunted and killed for no fault of theirs? It was a very tough situation and the politics around it was quite demotivating. We decided to ignore the criticism and focus on our tasks.
Amarpreet: This wasn’t the first time that we had gone out of our way to help someone. For the past five years we have been providing relief to so many Indians — Assam floods, Chennai floods, Manipur, Saharanpur riots. We have never considered the religion or caste of anyone before helping them. And we were not there (in Bangladesh) providing visas or giving access to Indian land to Rohingyas. The criticism was very unfair. But when we saw that thousands of children looked forward to seeing us everyday because they knew that we’ll get fresh food for them, it gave us a lot of encouragement.
Did you get any support from people?
Manpreet: Yes of course we did. Even on social media there were people praising us and offering to help. When we came back, many people came to us and told us why are you helping out ‘snakes’? But at the same time a large number of people — Hindus, Jains, Sikhs — came and hugged us saying you guys have saved humanity. That was our motivation. We are proud of our volunteers. Despite the controversy, many volunteers came to offer help. Today there are 400 people willing to volunteer at the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh.
Amarpreet: Throughout Bangladesh, wherever we went people came to us saying that ‘you are the ones from India who are helping refugees’. They got pictures clicked with us. The same thing happened in other parts of the world, recently Sri Lanka and Nepal, when we went there for relief works. So now a lot of people know that Indians go out of their way to help. We have brought glory to our nation.
Apart from criticism, we have also got so much love and respect from people. In UK, the Jain community felicitated Khalsa Aid for working on the Rohingya project. We got a call from a teacher telling us that he wants to teach his students what Khalsa Aid has been doing. An old woman called from Odisha saying she wants to donate Rs 10,000 that is her life’s saving, her son’s salary if Rs 15,000 a month. There have been people who have donated all the shagun received on their weddings to us. There are so many people who want to help.
What do you have to say about the popular discourse in India that Rohingya Muslims are terrorists?
Amarpreet: There were around 5,20,000 refugees there out of which 80 per cent were women and children. Out of that number, approximately 55 per cent were children. Do you think those 55 per cent children can be terrorists?
Manpreet: When people told us that those people are terrorists, we said that in 1984 (during the anti-Sikh riots) all members of our own community were similarly labelled terrorists. If out of 10,000 people even 500 are wrong, can we brand the entire community as terrorists? Don’t the Indian courts follow the policy that not a sole innocent person should be punished even if many guilty go scot free?
So why do you think that such allegations are being made against those refugees?
Amarpreet: It’s a political issue and we cannot comment on that. We have nothing to do with politics. We only care about humanity. Today, people only debate and discuss issues; nobody takes any action. We need to take action on the ground to change things, not just debate.
So many bad things are happening around us in the world. All we need to focus on is to do the right thing for humanity.
Manpreet: People are being misled by fake news propaganda on whatsapp and other social media. In such scenario, we need to listen to our conscience.