Supporters call arrests “torture by the Brahmanical Indian State”
LUDHIANA, PUNJAB: July 22, 2015 — As a delegation of senior officials representing the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party in Punjab, India toured North America to woo diaspora support for their 2017 re-election campaigns, Punjab Police arrested hunger-striker Surat Singh Khalsa for the third time since April.
“The cycle of arrests of peaceful protester Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa Ji represents a new form of torture by the Brahmanical State Indian State,” says Bhajan Singh of Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), a U.S.-based human rights group that began advocating for Khalsa in March 2015. “They deny his demands, they refuse to let him die, and yet they will not let him live. He is kept in limbo while the Indian State and its cronies in Punjab place a noose around the neck of all dissenters by forbidding them every lawful avenue for expressing their grievances.”
Eighty-three year old Khalsa, who began a hunger-strike on January 16 to demand release of political prisoners, appears on the verge of death. He reportedly now weighs only 34kgs (75lbs) after a starting weight of approximately 84kgs (185lbs). After his arrest on July 20, he was forcibly admitted to Ludhiana Civili Hospital. He has pledged to stop drinking even water and is refusing all medical assistance, but authorities began force-feeding him on July 22. His son and one of his daughters, U.S. citizens who have been staying with their father during his protest, say police are refusing to let them visit him at the hospital.
Rather than pay attention to the demands of the ailing Khalsa, however, the Punjab Government sent a delegation of senior party leaders and cabinet ministers on a public relations tour of visit the United States and Canada. They got an especially cold welcome as their party visits to areas with dense Punjabi populations like Vancouver, Toronto, New York, and Seattle faced massive protests. Hundreds of Sikhs in New York shouted “Badal Puppets Go Back” as one hurled a shoe at NRI affairs minister Tota Singh. In Toronto, local community members flooded the stage and shut down an event featuring Tota Singh, education minister Sikander Singh Maluka, and Maheshinder Grewal, an advisor to Punjabi Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
After the abject failure of the SAD party tour, Punjab’s representative for the Indian National Congress (INC) party, MP Amarinder Singh, announced plans to tour North America this autumn.
Pieter Friedrich, an advisor to OFMI who has appealed to U.S. representatives to recognize Khalsa’s hunger-strike, remarks, “Both the INC and Shiromani Akal Dal, which is partnered with the ruling BJP party, are deeply corrupt and linked to extreme human rights abuses, including disappearances, torture, and mob genocide of minorities. North America’s substantial Punjabi diaspora exists largely because they are refugees from State terror. Why are these Indian politicians harassing refugees and campaigning in foreign countries for elections in India?”
After quitting his job as a government schoolteacher in protest over the 1984 Sikh Genocide and being shot by police during unprovoked firing on a peaceful rally outside the Punjab Legislative Assembly, Khalsa decided in 1988 to flee Punjab to escape religious and political persecution. He found refuge in the United States, becoming a permanent resident of the country and settling in central California, where he raised six children, including his son, Ravinderjit Singh Gogi, who owns a truck-driving school in Lathrop, CA. After his wife, Satpal Kaur, died on January 11, 2012, Khalsa took solace in the company of his son.
Yet he couldn’t forget the human rights violations his community suffered at the hands of India’s state and central government forces, atrocities that take center stage at most of the huge Sikh festivals that annually attract tens of thousands to the streets of Stockton, Yuba City, New York, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, and other North American cities.
These atrocities include incidents like the military invasion of the Sikh Golden Temple in June 1984, the genocide of Sikhs led by members of parliament and other government officials in November 1984, the decade of disappearances in Punjab, the murder by police of human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra after he exposed the disappearances, and the sorry plight of scores of political prisoners who sat rotting in prisons for decades in retaliation for dissenting against the regime. Every year, Khalsa traveled to Punjab to spend great portions of time working as a social and human rights activist. Finally, after decades of seeing little change through other methods, Khalsa, accompanied by his son, returned to his ancestral village of Hassanpur, Punjab (not far from the city of Ludhiana) to hunger-strike for the freedom of political prisoners.
Since then, Khalsa has been arrested thrice.
First, on February 26, along with his son, Gogi, journalist Surinder Singh, and various supporters. Admitted to Ludhiana Civil Hospital, he was force-fed for 56 days before being released from police custody on April 23.
Second, on June 1, when police placed him in DMC Hero Heart Hospital in Ludhiana, where he was again, but only briefly, force-fed. After the private hospital refused to keep him against his will, Khalsa was transferred by police to PGI Hospital in Chandigarh, where he was detained until June 23.
Third, on July 20, when his arrest was accompanied by a statewide crackdown on supporters of his peaceful protest, including an ongoing ban on free assembly (previously instituted in April using a colonial-era law designed to prevent dissent) and the preemptive arrest of dozens of prominent Sikh community leaders.
Khalsa’s cause has not gone unnoticed, however, and in two separate letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a total of nine Californian congressional representatives have appealed for him to intervene on the aged man’s behalf. The first letter, on April 15, noted: “It is a fundamental American responsibility to protect our citizens abroad.” The second letter, on May 28, asked Secretary Kerry to “urge the Indian government to immediately release Mr. Khalsa,” and stated: “We also request that you urge the Indian government to abide by its international human rights commitments under international law and ensure that these rights are safeguarded for political prisoners and all citizens in India.”
Secretary Kerry has yet to reply.
Yet Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, prompted by a visit to her office from Khalsa’s daughter, Devinderdeep Kaur, took action on June 3 by offering formal remarks to the U.S. House of Representatives, stating: “I also ask that this Congress honor the struggle of many political prisoners in India today, including Mr. Surat Singh Khalsa…. Today, we should reflect on his advocacy for the rights of political prisoners, support his right to free speech and ask for his release.”
Members of the British Parliament are also sitting up and paying attention, and, on July 7, tabled a motion in the British Parliament that “notes the enduring hunger strike of Bapu Surat Singh,” as well as “notes the ongoing 14-year hunger strike of Irom Sharmila in Manipur protesting against Indian army human rights abuses.” Sharmila has refused to eat since November 2000 to protest impunity for soldiers who massacred 10 civilians at a bus station in Malom, Manipur. The world’s longest hunger-striker, who is caught in a cycle of arrest and force-feeding, told OFMI in June: “Thank you for informing me about Bapu Surat’s hunger-strike. You see new blooming flowers.”
Meanwhile, the global Sikh community has rallied to Khalsa’s side. Throughout Canada, the U.S., and Europe, thousands of Sikh diaspora have turned out on the streets to speak for the man. He has been the subject of rallies in Alberta, Ontario, British Columbia, California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Milan, Covo, Birmingham, London, Paris, and elsewhere.
Sikhs by the thousands blocked traffic as they streamed into the streets outside London’s Houses of Parliament on July 15. Amrik Singh, an organizer of the rally, expressed disappointment that Parliament has not prioritized the issue, remarking: “It is a sad reflection that the present UK government is turning a blind eye to human rights violations of minorities in India fearing various trade deals could be jeopardised. We have been forced to peacefully demonstrate at the lack of courage and action by the UK government on behalf of British Sikhs.”
In North America — Surrey, Canada, specifically — Khalsa’s daughter, Roopinder Kaur, presented before an estimated 300,000 at an April 19 Sikh Day Parade.
On May 22, Khalsa’s youngest daughter spoke at a rally on the steps of the Sacramento, CA State Capitol, declaring: “He’s doing this for humanity, for human rights, for those people whose human rights have been violated in Punjab and in India. Those political prisoners who fought for their beliefs.”
On June 8, approximately 10,000 Sikhs paraded in a Sovereignty Rally in San Francisco, CA, carrying banners and shouting slogans in support of Khalsa. Navkiran Kaur Khalra, daughter of Jaswant Singh, spoke in San Francisco about how her father was murdered by Indian police for documenting their secret killing and cremation of tens of thousands of Sikhs in Punjab. “I am one of many thousands who found safe haven by fleeing India,” remarks Navkiran.
Khalsa’s cause is even garnering support from local Christian communities. At the rally in Sacramento, Fr. Joshua Lickter of the Anglican Church in North America stated: “As I’ve heard the plight of Bapu, I am humbled. Historically, other people in his shoes have taken up arms against their oppressors. But what does he do? His faith teaches him to love those around him. To love the people who are persecuting him…. So he can’t raise up arms against them. So what does he do instead? He takes it upon himself. He starves himself because he himself is starving for justice.”
“Bapuji Surat Singh Khalsa, a man who hungers for justice in India, is fighting back against an oppressive government, in accordance with his beliefs, by not lashing out in violence against his oppressors,” Fr. Lickter elaborated when speaking at a June 20 conference in Stockton, CA. “Instead, he’s taking this hunger for justice upon himself. He believes that even his oppressors are his brothers, his neighbors, and his faith prevents him from bringing violence against them unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
During the Sacramento rally, Mandeep, speaking about the political prisoners for whose release her father is agitating, said, “They have been in the jails for 25 to 30 years. Most of them have a term which is 14 years. They’ve served double their terms but they’re still languishing in the jails.”
The prisoners also include people like Prof. Devinderpal Singh Bhullar, who was sentenced to death in 2001. Bhullar was convicted of involvement in a 1993 bombing on the sole basis of a coerced confession. In a 2013 declaration of innocence, he stated:
“I have always maintained my innocence except for when they put my thumb on a piece of paper while I was being tortured. Later, they called it my confession. As a mechanical engineer and college lecturer, I have never signed anything with a thumb print.
“This judiciary, all the way to the Supreme Court, which we were taught in school is the highest seat of justice in India, has sentenced me to death on the basis of that forced thumb print.
“I have spent some 20 years in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. I have been kept in various forms of confinement, often in solitary, not seeing a single person for days and weeks at a time. Or maybe it was months. I don’t even know.”
According to The Times of India, “The custodial disappearance of Devinderpal Singh Bhullar’s father and uncle is believed to have been a turning point in his life.” After police picked them up in 1991, Bhullar’s father, Balwant Singh, and uncle, Manjit Singh, were never seen by their family again and are believed to have been tortured to death in police custody. Their disappearance is linked to Sumedh Saini, who is is accused of fielding death squads in the 1990s but is now Director General of Punjab Police. In 2008, Saini was indicted for the disappearances by India’s Central Intelligence Bureau (CBI). Charging Saini with abduction and illegal detention, the CBI reported that Bhullar’s relatives “were tortured in the presence of and on the orders of Saini.” The case was abandoned in 2011 at the demand of the Supreme Court.
Disregarding this blemish on the State’s human rights record and despite a total lack of evidence, the Indian judiciary maintains Bhullar was involved in a Delhi bombing that claimed seven lives. In 2002, a split decision of the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, claiming that proof “beyond reasonable doubt” should be a “guideline, not a fetish.” His case gained Amnesty International’s attention in 2003, when they warned he “may not have been given a fair trial,” stating: “He was found guilty solely on the strength of an unsubstantiated confession he made in police custody, allegedly under intense police pressure, which he later retracted.”
The Supreme Court commuted his death sentence to life imprisionment on March 31, 2014. That places Bhullar in the same category as most of the other political prisoners, who are sentenced to so-called “life terms,” which in Indian jurisprudence typically means they are eligible “to apply for premature release provided they have completed 10 years of actual imprisonment.” Surat Singh Khalsa believes they have been treated unequally with other prisoners, including police officers convicted for murdering citizens.
One example is Gurmeet Pinky, who served in death squads in the 1990s under former Director General of Punjab Police K.P.S. Gill, a notorious officer who is also linked to the killing of Khalra. In 2006, Pinky was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a grocer, but released last year after just seven years in prison. Calling his release “an antithesis of the rule of law,” Punjabi attorney Rajvinder Singh Bains said, “The government has made a special case for its blue-eyed officer. In fact, the state violated its own instructions which say that you cannot consider the case of a convict who has not served a 10-year sentence.”
Overall, the prisoners were arrested during the 1980s and 1990s for dissenting against oppressive State policies imposed on Punjab in the wake of the 1984 Sikh Genocide led by INC members of India’s Parliament. Just as MPs were accused of hiring rioters to commit the genocide, Punjab Police leadership reportedly issued cash bounties to officers who murdered Sikhs suspected of dissent. Human rights group Ensaaf found, “KPS Gill established a system of bounty rewards to officers.” Ensaaf also reported: “Security forces engaged in torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances.”
In the face of such a horrifying human rights situation, Khalsa chose to sacrifice his life in pursuit of change. “I will remain committed to the cause of Sikh political prisoners until my last breath,” he declared in a brief interview after his latest arrest. In February, he expounded his cause in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Modi, writing:
“The question is about the inalienable right of a person to live life without fetters. The question is about the regaining of liberty after you have completed the full term of one’s sentence in prison. The question is about justice, equality and fair play. The question is about parity between the rich and famous and the poor and the underdogs.”
“The tyrants have to budge,” says Bhajan Singh. “Our opportunity in supporting Bapuji’s struggle is to amplify his weakened voice by appealing to every national and international body possible. I urge Indians and everyone who cares about human rights to reach out to their legislators, to the United Nations, to their friends and neighbors to tell them the story of the man who is starving to death for justice.”