Earlier this month, in a historic move demonstrating commitment to democracy and human rights, the Ontario Legislature passed a motion to recognize the 1984 anti-Sikh violence as genocide.
The term genocide is politically charged and because of this it is rarely used. But, in this instance, acknowledging what happened in 1984 was genocide was truthful, sincere and healing.
In the 1980s, Canada opened its borders to Sikh refugees fleeing persecution at the hands of the Indian government. Sikh youths were being disappeared by the thousands, with the government claiming they were terrorists that had gone underground. With Canadian assistance, it was later revealed that the government had engaged in a campaign of extra-judicial killings.
The campaign to systematically exterminate Sikhs in Punjab lasted over a decade. In 1995, Jaswant Singh Khalra uncovered police cremation records proving the murders of innocent Sikh youth. He presented his findings to the Canadian Parliament in June of that year. Upon returning to India that September, he was abducted by police and tortured for a month. His body was cut into pieces and dumped into a river.
Belatedly, Indian Supreme Court Judges Justice Kuldip Singh and Justice Saghir Ahmed expressed 'horror and shock' at the evidence Khalra had collected, describing the acts it proved as 'worse than genocide'.
Today, Amnesty International recognizes Jaswant Khalra as an International Defender of Human Rights and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has an entire exhibit dedicated to his honour.
Jaswant Singh Khalra shed light on a horrific historical episode that many including myself grew up witnessing. During my childhood, the weekly newspaper was full of photos of the bullet-ridden bodies of Sikh men, some emasculated and dressed in saris, but all photographed with police officers hovering over them the way that hunters might loom over their prey. Women, too, were objects of extreme sexual violence, including rape by officers of the State. This was the plight of Sikhs in India, a hunted minority that comprised 2% of India's total population.
Disappearances were unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg. Human rights violations were widespread and in November 1984, when the genocide climaxed in four days of State-facilitated, unhinged violence. While the Indian Government has often claimed that the violence was a result of Indira Gandhi's assassination, this canard was debunked by the Nanavati Commission report headed by the former Supreme Court Justice, G.T Nanavati. In his report, Justice Nanavati concluded that "[a]ll this could not have happened [in November 1984] if it was merely a spontaneous reaction of the angry public. The systematic manner in which the Sikhs were thus killed indicate that the attacks on them were organized."
At that time, anti-Sikh violence was facilitated by political leaders who used voter lists to identify Sikh homes and direct mobs armed with incendiary materials and bussed into the capital city of Delhi via the State-owned and operated transit system. For four days, Sikh men were burned alive. Women were subject to grotesque and inconceivable sexual violence. Children were beheaded.
Justice Nanavati confirmed that at many places the Police had taken away their [Sikhs'] arms or other articles with which they could have defended themselves against the attacks of mobs and that rumours to incite violence against Sikhs had been systemically circulated by many, including the police.
I was born in 1986 and raised in the aftermath of what has come to be known as the 1984 Sikh Genocide. I was raised among trauma-afflicted families, and carried much of my own. In university, I elected to study genocide. I completed an Honours degree in Social Justice and Peace Studies, a Master's in Conflict Studies, and weeks from today I will be graduating with a Law Degree from the University of Windsor.
From all of my studies and reviews of the academic literature, it is clear that the Indian government committed genocide. Arguments to the contrary overwhelmingly and disproportionately come from organizations heavily linked to India's consular services in Canada, who have exerted pressure on the Ontario Legislature with threats of economic sanction. Jagmeet Singh, Deputy Leader of Ontario's New Democrats, has been denied a visa to India, and has openly spoken about the Consulates attempts to blackmail him. Fortunately, the divisive message propagated by these organizations are not reflective of many, including India's very own Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who himself has referred to what happened in 1984 as genocide.
Canadian democracy is resilient, but more importantly it is compassionate. For decades, violence carried out by the Indian state has deeply traumatized Sikhs. That hurt has been intergenerational.
Nonetheless, there is a path to healing from all of this. As noted by leading trauma and reconciliation specialist Dr. Judith Herman, the path requires remembrance and truth-telling as prerequisites. That is why the Ontario Legislature's motion is unifying and healing.
Canada's and Ontario's democratic institutions have demonstrated their commitment to seeking the truth. I offer my thanks to those courageous MPPs that voted to support this motion, but also some counsel. The path forward will be unifying and healing, but it will also be difficult. As Dr. Herman almost prophetically notes:
"Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator's first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought this upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on."
I see this happening now. To those who are standing up for truth and justice, all I can say is, stay on the path. Stay strong. Truth, in the end, is the only way we can heal.
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