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.