Internationalising the 1984 riots

The ghosts of the 1984 riots are not going away just yet. Vigorous efforts are under way to resurrect them

Updated - December 03, 2013 02:35 am IST

Published - December 03, 2013 01:26 am IST

LONG FESTERING: The renewed focus on the injustice towards the victims even decades later is a testimony to old wounds that do not go away, and which the government should address. File photo: V. Sudershan

LONG FESTERING: The renewed focus on the injustice towards the victims even decades later is a testimony to old wounds that do not go away, and which the government should address. File photo: V. Sudershan

This year, on the 29th anniversary of what we in India call the “anti-Sikh riots of 1984,” a little known United States-based human rights advocacy group called the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) submitted a petition to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva, asking for the recognition of the killing of Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination as “genocide” under Article 2 of the U.N. Convention on Genocide. The event is significant not just because it is a milestone in the organisation’s six-year long effort to resurrect the fading issue of justice for the 1984 riot Sikh victims, but also because of the enthusiasm that the “genocide” campaign has received from Sikhs across the world and in Punjab.

Indeed, the failure of the Indian judicial system to deliver justice for victims of the 1984 riots has reached international forums and is galvanising Sikhs across ideological divides toward this common cause. Although the country’s political leadership might squirm at the unflattering international visibility it has got in recent months, it isn’t doing much except perhaps using its intelligence agencies to hack into the website of the SFJ to prevent it from disseminating its message. This, because there is concern that an organisation like the SFJ which has “a sovereign Sikh state” as its eventual goal, has been able to reach out and co-opt moderate elements within the community for this cause — even those who shrink at the mention of “Khalistan.”

Few remember that in July 2010, the Akal Takht (the supreme temporal seat of Sikhism), acting on material provided by the SFJ, declared that the 1984 riots will henceforth be referred to as “Sikh Genocide” by the community, the media and organisations around the world. The Akal Takht jathedar followed it up by asking all Sikhs to support the SFJ in its effort to get justice for the victims of the 1984 killings.

Petitions abroad

The SFJ spent the better part of the last one year collecting 10 lakh signatures across 18 countries in support of the “Yes, it’s Genocide” petition that it filed under 1503 procedure before the UNHCR on November 1. A few weeks earlier, it had filed a class-action lawsuit under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) and the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) in a New York court on behalf of two Sikh victims against Congress president Sonia Gandhi for allegedly “shielding and protecting leaders of her party who were allegedly involved in the 1984 killings.” The court issued her summons when she was in New York for medical treatment. A similar suit has been initiated against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress party for “preventing the prosecution of leaders like Sajjan Kumar, Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath.”

The “genocide” petition, which is expected to come up for hearing before the UNHCR next August, stresses that successive governments in India have deliberately misled the world community into believing that the 1984 killings were “riots” confined to Delhi when there is ample evidence to the contrary. It provides “new evidence” aimed at proving that the killing of Sikhs had spread to 18 States and 100 cities beyond Delhi and that it was a one-sided “state-sponsored massacre.”

Last November, the SFJ and its supporting organisations like the All-India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) and the Movement Against Atrocities and Repression submitted a similar “Genocide” petition with 45,000 signatures to U.S. President Barack Obama. And, a month later, in December, a “genocide” petition was tabled in Australian Parliament, requesting its government to apply pressure on India to enact “all reasonable measures” to prosecute all those involved in anti-Sikh violence. The flurry of “genocide litigation” also includes petitions against Union Minister Kamal Nath in the U.S. and Belgium, and against Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal for protecting police officers guilty of rights abuses against Sikhs in Punjab during the fight against terrorism.

In August, Punjab’s Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal was forced to call off a proposed visit to Canada after prominent NRI Sikhs warned him that the SFJ was planning to file a case against him in a Canadian court during his visit.

Speaking to The Hindu from New York, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, legal adviser of the SFJ, says the singular achievement of the group formed in 2007 with a handful of U.S.-based professionals, is the realisation within the Sikh community that the 1984 killings were not a “riot” but a “systematic and organised killing of Sikhs.” “The 2010 declaration by the Akal Takht was the first significant milestone which has given us strength to pursue the cause.” With the AISSF as its partner in India, persuading many key witnesses to depose afresh, the SFJ has also been instrumental in the recent headway made in several cases of the 1984 killings against key Congress leaders.

Reactions in India

So far, political parties in India have been dismissive of the SFJ’s international campaign calling it a “cheap attempt to get publicity” for a cause that does not have any resonance in Punjab today. While it is true that the idea of Khalistan has few takers in Punjab now, few can argue with the campaign for justice that the SFJ is spearheading. It resonates among all shades of Sikhs; even moderate Sikhs are not uncomfortable with the idea of Indian leaders being forced to appear before foreign courts. As H.S. Phoolka, Supreme Court lawyer representing several 1984 victims in the courts, told this correspondent in a recent interview: “To say that the riot victims’ quest for justice becomes less important just because the SFJ is pursuing it is incorrect. The way these leaders have shamelessly protected fellow Congressmen from the law, they should be prepared to face the shame before the outside world.”

Says Mr. Pannun: “The fundamental difference between us and the Sikh terrorists of the 1980s and 1990s is that while they picked up arms to follow the path they believed in, we have picked up law books. The U.N. Convention on civil and political rights is our guiding principle and violence has no place in our mission.”

The SFJ’s strategy to internationalise the Sikh issue has gained visibility, if not results, so far. But the renewed focus on the injustice towards the victims even three decades later is a testimony to old wounds that do not go away.

They just fester and, in this case, are a potent agent for the alienation of the restive Sikhs who had forgotten, if not forgiven, and moved on. In ignoring the “genocide” campaign and not giving it the attention it deserves, the government is only making things worse for itself. Perhaps it thinks that the events of November 1984 that have faded from public memory will vanish sooner rather than later.

This is probably why the ruling Congress disregarded Sikh sentiment and gave a ticket to Jag Parvesh, son of Sajjan Kumar (facing prosecution in several cases pertaining to the 1984 riots) for the Delhi Assembly election. In the 2009 Parliament election, Mr. Sajjan Kumar was denied a party ticket after the Congress faced embarrassment for giving the accused of 1984 Sikh killings the ticket.

The SFJ has countered by declaring that it is filing an amended complaint in the ongoing case against Ms Gandhi in New York, in which it will include her acts of “rewarding those involved in genocidal attacks on Sikhs with political positions” with specific reference to the nomination of Mr. Sajjan Kumar’s son. Contrary to what many in the government and outside may think, the ghosts of 1984 are not going away just yet. If anything, vigorous efforts are under way to resurrect them. But is anybody listening?

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