A Sikh global movement for justice: Filing of petition before the UNHRC in Geneva a historic event that gives Sikhs a sense of hope and victory

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BY INDIRA PRAHST

Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Langara College

 

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A view of the gathering outside the United Nations in Geneva.
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Sikhs signing the  petition in front of the United Nations in Geneva.

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Robin Singh from Germany, Indira Prahst, Gurdeep Singh Kundan from Switzerland and Pavandeep Kaur from England.

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Gurpatwant Singh Pannun of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) with Jasbir Singh, one of the prime witnesses against Congress (I) leader Jagdish Tytler.

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Karan Singh, representative of MAR and committee member of Gurdwara Sahib in Langenthal, Switzerland.
GENEVA, Switzerland: More than 10,000 Sikhs from all over the world gathered in front of the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland, to stand in solidarity on the issue of human rights violations of Sikhs in November 1984. The Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) and the Movement against Atrocities and Repression (MAR) organized the rally which was a resounding success.

Earlier they filed a petition before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva seeking an international investigation into the November 1984 genocide of Sikhs and the UN’s recognition of the atrocities as “genocide” under Article 2 of the U.N. Convention on Genocide.

The energy and enthusiasm at the rally could be felt throughout and as one German Sikh, Robin Singh, put it: “I have attended many events, but this time it was really inspiring. It is inspiring for youth, we are looking forward now, we can see the light with this unity before us today.”

You had to be there to experience it, but I will try to capture some of it in this piece. Thousands of Sikhs stood in front of the United Nations Office, a symbolic space for civil and human rights, from all over the world. They came in about 70 buses and 400 cars, besides flying in from all over the world. Sikhs from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, India, Australia, United States, Canada and Japan were present. Their message and flags from their respective countries sent a loud and clear message that Sikhs are united on the issue of seeking justice for the 1984 genocidal violence inflicted on innocent Sikhs. Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) legal advisor and a human rights lawyer, said that people from around the world “are raising one voice – that is the justice. This is about justice and about impunity to those who in broad daylight massacred thousands and thousands of Sikhs and they are roaming free in parliamentary positions in the government. There is too much disparity.”

 

SIKHS felt a sense of hope and victory with the petition signed by a million people from around the world which sends a very serious and clear message to the world and the Indian state that Sikhs have not forgotten the history of 1984 and are seeking justice. Details of the petition were made public at the Geneva Press Club prior to the rally. According to Sikhs for Justice: “With the support of over a million signatures from around the world, we have come here to submit on behalf of the Sikhs victims of November of 1984, a petition to the UN. to investigate the systematic killing of Sikhs carried out throughout India during November and to recognize the same as “genocide” under Conventions on Genocide.”

Some of the key speakers in the first half of the event included Dr. Charles Graves, General Secretary of the Interfaith International at the Palace of Nations, who said: “I have invited Sikh friends to the United Nations Council and you can see the Sikh people’s concern with the petition concerning 1984 in front of the UN.” He added that the Interfaith congratulate Sikhs for bringing their human rights claims before the United Nations. “Their rights in India must be respected … and best wishes for Sikh influence within the UN,” he said.

Jatinder Singh Grewal, Director, International Policy, Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) from Canada, gave an overview of the significance of the petition. Dr. Karj Singh, Senior Vice President with AISSF, spoke about the importance of this rally and human rights violations against Sikhs in 1984.  Karan Singh, representative of MARS and committee member of Gurdwara Sahib in Langenthal, Switzerland, spoke about the work they have done for human rights and his hopefulness in seeing Sikhs from around the world united and seeking justice.

This was echoed by other influential Sikhs in Switzerland and gurdwara committee members of Gurdwara Sahib, Langenthal, Ranjit Singh and Harminder Singh Khalsa. Jasbir Singh, one of the prime witnesses against Congress (I) leader Jagdish Tytler, who’s one of the main accused in the 1984 Sikh massacre, spoke about his eye witness accounts of state violence in November 1984. He broke down and when he left the mike, his hand was on his heart in pain, as we gave him water and calmed and comforted him. To witness this, speaks to the continued trauma that lurks deep in the minds of Sikhs and the impact it continues to have post-1984.

My speech was grounded in the work on Sikh issues. I said: “The Sikh Genocide continues to lurk in the minds of Sikhs bringing back the past. We have a responsibility to illuminate the eclipsed facts that have distorted the history of 1984, to rupture an uncritical acceptance of it as a “riot” and to create a space for a global recognition of this atrocity which has been long overdue.”

Then leaders and gurdwara representatives from all across the world took the stage one by one to express their solidarity and their support for recognition of the 1984 atrocity as genocide.

Gurmubh Singh Sandhu, Vice President, AISSF, who came from India, told me at the rally that he was pleased to see so many Sikhs from all across the world gather in front of the UN. He said: “This event today should give a new spirit to Sikhs in India. Many Sikhs and groups are misleading the people. If they would come together under one issue, then they could [be unified].”

From New York, Avtar Singh Pannu, Coordinator, Sikhs for Justice, and Tajinder Kaur from Surrey, B.C., Canada, did an excellent job of moderating the event.

 

DURING the event, I spoke to Sikhs assembled at the rally who had a raft of stories and perspectives to share. From that I could gauge that there is no doubt that the atrocity against the Sikhs in 1984 continues to lurk in the mind of Sikhs which was also evident in my fieldwork across Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Punjab (both in India and Pakistan)  and my visits to the ‘1984 Widows Colony’ in Tilak Vihar, Delhi.

Sikhs spoke about their outrage in the denial of justice for 29 years. Jaidep Singh, student studying in London, said: “I am here to support the petition to recognize the 1984 genocide in Punjab and all over India.  They (India) have tried to cover up and are trying to make people recognize them as a supposedly world figure of democracy.” He added: “1984 has humiliated Sikhs all across India, therefore they are humiliating my identity. If they humiliate one Sikh, they humiliate me being a Sikh.”

Robin Singh, a German Sikh, said: “Every Sikh person is related to this historical moment of the killings of 1984.”  Indeed, memories of trauma and tragedy that were individually felt were collectively expressed through this space in front of the UN, but they were also recounted individually with one Sikh from Paris recalling how she saw smoke in the air in Delhi during the November 1984 atrocities. Pavandeep Kaur, who’s studying psychology in London and resides in Germany, told me: “This morning, I said let’s be part of history. Every Sikh person is related to this historical moment of the killings of 1984.  From my mama ji’s [mother’s brother’s] side, people were killed and they saw the killings with their own eyes, but don’t want to have anything to do with it. Even though I am an Amritdhari Sikh and they knew I was going to this event today, they did not like it.”

One Sikh woman from England told me she had visited the widows in Delhi and spoke about the trauma that they continue to suffer even today. Indeed, I echo these sentiments from my own visits to Tilak Vihar where many of the survivors are so traumatized that if they speak about 1984, they are unable to work for days after that.

 

IN closing, Sikhs claimed a space in front of the United Nations peacefully, respectfully and with substantiated facts. It was a collective effort and the Sikh bodies present in front of the UN who sacrificed their time to be there was what made the event such a resounding success. As Karnail Singh Mann, General Secretary of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C., Canada, and probably the only representative of a gurdwara in B.C., said: “I wanted to be present to show support for the petition and achieving justice for Sikhs representing the gurdwara and as a Sikh. It is worth it.”

The continued sacrifices made in the present day to lobby for justice, the tireless work to get one million people to sign the petition and the cooperation of the Swiss government made this event a runaway success. We have seen Sikhs in action on November 1 from all over the world, following the words of their Gurus, including Guru Gobind Singh Ji who preached about standing up against injustice and that one cannot witness an injustice and turn away.  As such, Sikhs will continue to lobby for recognition of the genocide and the violence by the Indian state in 1984 which is inseparable from protecting the Panth’s independent entity.

In writing this piece I think of Sikhs in general, but in particular, of Parmjit Kaur, a widow in Tilak Vihar, who shared her stories of losing 26 members of her family, including both parents, and those women who were raped and are living in isolation and shame with the children that they bore because of rape – for whom 1984 is a living memory.