Toronto, Canada, 6th June 2010: The term 1984 for Sikhs represents two seminal moments in Sikh history: First, the attack by the Indian Army on Harmandir Sahib (also known as the “Golden Temple”) and the Akal Takhat (seat of Sikh political sovereignty) in June 1984, and second, the organized and systematic killing of Sikh civilians after the assassination of Indira Ghandi in November 1984. These two events are inextricably tied and form the impetus behind over two decades of struggle to gain recognition for these mass atrocities.
Now, after more than two decades, what seemed as a glorious opportunity to end the silence, has now been marred by the inflammatory remarks of Canada’s Political Liberal Party Leader Michael Ignatieff. On June 9, 2010, Andrew Kania of the Liberal Party will read a petition that seeks to gain recognition for the events of November 1984 as a genocide against Sikhs. However, Mr. Ignatieff, in a statement issued regarding the Sikh petition before Parliament, unabashedly indicated that he was against such recognition.
By denying the pain and indignity suffered by the Sikh community in 1984, Mr. Ignatieff has committed the gravest act of spiritual violence, the denial of truth and the suppression of victim’s voices. Shockingly, Mr. Ignatieff, who is trained as a historian, is a former Harvard professor, and who was once the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, has utterly failed to grasp the significance of the events surrounding 1984.
This may not be surprising considering recent commentary by the NewInternationalist calling Mr. Ignatieff a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who has made the discussion of human rights into a “disreputable slogan.” Moreover, the New Humanist discusses Mr. Ignatieff’s support for imperialist policies, his equivocation on human rights issues, including what constitutes torture and its permissible use, and the growing chasm between him and his human rights colleagues. If Mr. Ignatieff sought to distance himself from these charges, his inexplicable statement that the events of 1984 bear no resemblance to the “genuine contemporary instances [of genocide] such as Rwanda,” only adds to the growing chorus of doubt about his human rights philosophy.
Nonetheless, let us briefly discuss the comparison between Rwanda and 1984 that Mr. Ignatieff so summarily dismisses. President Juvénal Habyarimana, leader of the Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement (MRND), was assassinated when his plane was shot out of sky before its arrival at Kigali International airport. The initial claim was that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsi rebel group) was responsible. Within days, political leaders: directly incited violence against the Tutsi civilian population, organized mobs (particularly youth gangs called the Interahamwe), distributed weapons, and passed out lists directing mobs to Tutsi neighborhoods. Moreover, the media began inciting violence with fabricated claims of Tutsis planning to massacre the Hutus. The subsequent result was the brutal rape, mutilation, and massacre of the Tutsi minority population.
If we rewind to 1984, Indira Ghandi was assassinated by her Sikh body guards who retaliated against her Order (in June 1984) for the Indian military to storm Harmander Sahib. The Nanavati Commission, a Commission charged with investigating the incidents following the assassination of Indira Ghandi, concluded that atrocities of November 1984 were “organized carnage” led by local Congress party leaders who had tremendous control over mobs and either incited or directly participated in targeting of Sikh homes and shops. The Commission recounted that mobs came armed with weapons, kerosene, petrol, and white powder and killed “in a systematic manner and without much fear of the police.” Furthermore, the Commission stated that “[b]ut for the backing and help of influential and resourceful persons, killing of the Sikhs so swiftly and in large numbers could not have happened.” Also, the role of the media cannot be understated as they perpetuated rumors that Sikhs were poisoning the water supply and furthered inflamed the genocidal intentions of the organized mobs. What resulted was the systematic rape of Sikh women and the mutilation and burning alive of Sikh men with kerosene, petrol, and white powder (which is likely white phosphorous that burns on contact).
Undoubtedly the scope of the genocide in Rwanda is incomparable to the situation in India, however, that doesn’t take away from the legitimacy of those who claim that genocide occurred in 1984. A brief account of the incidences in Rwanda and India reveal many factual parallels, including, the intentional and systematic nature of the attacks.
If Mr. Ignatieff is more impressed by the scope of killings rather than its intent, maybe the Sikh community can garner his support for the hundreds of thousands of Sikh civilians who were extrajudicially murdered in fake encounters and enforced disappearances from 1984-1995. This reign of impunity parallels or even exceeds the crimes against humanity that occurred in Latin American countries and have been adjudicated by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Moreover, These events are detailed in important scholarly works that have both documented testimonies from 1000s of victims and exposed India’s use of state sanctioned terrorism during the militancy/ counterinsurgency period. These works have been published by international human rights organizations: Smoldering Embers: Long and Unending Wait for Justice for the Disappeared in Panjab (Voices for Freedom), Protecting the Killers (Ensaaf and Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reduced to Ashes (Ensaaf); and India: Break the cycle of impunity and torture in Punjab (Special Report by Amnesty International).
Instead of recognizing the unhealed wounds of a community that seeks acknowledgement, Mr. Ignatieff believes the only reason for this petition is to “provoke a charged, visceral response.” His comments that the “Liberal Party of Canada will always support any initiative which promotes justice for human rights abuses throughout the world” rings completely hollow as his irresponsible and unsubstantiated words sear the consciousness of both the Sikh and human rights community.
Mr. Ignatieff concluded his statements by saying, “let me affirm that we will never support any initiative which seeks to tear the threads of mutual respect and common citizenship we share as Canadians.” One may ask, how the illumination of mass atrocities through a peaceful process of submitting a petition harms the fabric of Canadian society. Obviously, Mr. Ignatieff needs reminding that only the purging of truth and the sincere acknowledgment of past atrocities have the ability to heal and end violence, not its suppression. In the end, Mr. Ignatieff’s overreaching statements only reveal his insensitivity and arrogance to the victim’s of 1984, while seeking to thwart their pursuit for justice.
Dr Sudip Minhas, Executive Director
Voices For Freedom
The Voice of the Oppressed