The Day of Release of Detainees

Today is Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains around the world.  Many know the story of Diwali in the Hindu tradition: Lord Rama returns home after slaying the demon-king Ravana, and the people joyously light the kingdom with diyas, oil lamps. In the Jain tradition, Diwali marks Mahavira’s attainment of moksha (527 BC).  And in the Sikh tradition, Diwali marks yet another kind of return: Band Chhorh Divas, the Day of Release of the Detainees.

Here’s how the story was passed down to me.

In 1619, the Mhogal Emperor Jahangir, threatened by the emergence of a new religious community, decided to imprison Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru.  Responding to protests, the Emperor finally agreed to release the Guru, but the Guru refused to leave unless he also freed the other prisoners, fifty-two Hindu princes languishing in detention.  The Emperor granted his wish but on one condition: only those who can hold on to the Guru’s cloak can be released.  Surely, he wouldn’t lose too many prisoners that way.  The Guru brilliantly ordered the making of a special cloak with fifty-two tails.  As the Guru walked out of the gates of the prison, the fifty-two princes followed, each holding on to his own corner of the remarkable cloak.  Guru Hargobind became known as Bandi-Chhorh, Liberator.  And when he returned home, the people lit candles to commemorate the return of the prisoners, Bandi Chhorh Divas.

Of course the Sikh version of the story implies that the fifty-two prisoners were wrongfully imprisoned, but I think that this event, which took place only a few hundred years ago, can speak to our culture of mass incarceration and indefinite detention. What if the fifty-two princes are stand-ins for modern-day detainees, those who languish behind bars in unspeakable conditions, some without trial or charge?

My mind drifts back to one year ago, when I spent a week at Guantanamo to observe the military commission hearing of Omar Khadr, known as the only child soldier the U.S. has charged with war crimes, imprisoned at Guantanamo at 15 years old.  In the hearing I observed, the Obama administration asked for a continuance to consider whether Khadr should be tried in federal court or the controversial military commissions.  They chose the commissions  The trial ended this month.  The U.S. accepted Khadr’s guilty plea for throwing a grenade that killed a soldier, and a military jury sentenced him to 40 years of prison to “send a message” to the rest of the world, even though his plea deal caps his sentence to 8 years.

Khadr should be back in Canada next fall, perhaps this time next year.  But there is no Guru’s cloak big enough for the the remaining 174 detainees (of nearly 800 held at Guantanamo), at least not anytime soon. On this Bandi Chhorh Divas, I light a candle for the criminal, the outcast, the forgotten — the detainees whose plights we may never know, because the prison doors remain closed.

UPDATE — October 30, 2016: Of the roughly 780 people who have been detained at the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, 711 have been transferred and 60 remain. In addition, nine detainees died while in custody. Omar Khadr has been transferred to Canada. Guantanamo remains open for the foreseeable future.