December 17, 2011 | By Editor
– By Indira Prasht*
Note: The event – Tears and Ashes was organized by the Sikh Activist Network on November 29, 2011 at 4141 Living Arts Drive, Mississauga.
Former Liberal MPs Sukh Dhaliwal of Surrey, B.C., and Andrew Kania of Brampton, Ontario, were honoured at the second annual Tears and Ashes event organized by youth from the Sikh Activist Network in Toronto last week for raising the November 1984 issue in Parliament.
Over one thousand Sikhs attended the event that commemorated November 1984 in a creative way with speeches by academics, Amnesty International representatives and human rights’ journalists, and acknowledgement of political leaders who took up this issue in the House of Commons.
Dhaliwal spoke from the heart as he underscored the importance of Sikh youth in organizing such commemorative events and acknowledged a motto displayed at the event: “Power belongs to the people.” He said that he always believed in that and told the youth that they are “the real power and part of the larger voice” to ensure that history is no longer suppressed and people are not silenced by those who forsake principles for politics and power.
He added: “It even happens here. Earlier, Indira Prahst spoke about silencing of people in Canada and that is exactly what happened when Sikhs for Justice and Sikh Activist Network and I came together to the Parliament to get the [1984 Sikh genocide] petition accepted in the House of Commons.”
He recalled moving to Canada with minimal English skills and little money, and acknowledged the opportunities that Canada had given him and the justice that Canada stands for. He added: “I felt it is my duty to honour that and stand in the House of Commons and present the petition to recognize 1984 as genocide.” Kania also noted the hurdles in Canada to expose Sikh issues. He said: “It was not easy to do what we did. … After getting educated about Sikh History, I together with Sikhs for Justice, helped to write the petition and presented it in Parliament as did Sukh and I was honoured to do that and I have no regrets because it was the right thing to do. What I learned was that you had thousands of innocent people killed and nobody has been brought to justice. As a lawyer and as a Canadian that troubled me.”
THE event also had a unique dimension with Sikh youth performing short skits in between the speeches and reciting poems they composed themselves which depicted the horrific suffering of Sikh families and the state violence inflicted on Sikhs in villages.
Also, what really struck many in the audience was the art display of Sikh artists who presented their work representing some aspects of Sikh history. One had an image of the Golden Temple in flames, another with a woman blindfolded. One painting that stood out for me was that of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by Anoop Kaur Virk, a student. The portrait captured a powerful expression of Gandhi. Her hair was composed of the word “justice” written hundreds of times and in the background were the names of innocent Sikhs killed in 1984.
I asked Virk what inspired her work and she said: “I wanted to recognize both the victims’ names [that have been] erased from history in the background, while [depicting] the perpetrators, still in their original glory, on ‘Mother India’s’ sari sash.”
This art piece captured in its own unique way the sentiment many people have felt towards Indira Gandhi’s role in Operation Blue Star, a mode of representation which cannot be adequately captured in words.
Indeed, memories of 1984 were kept alive throughout the event which could really be felt by the audience who were very engaged. Also, the spirit of being united was manifest with a raft of students from six different universities across Ontario and Montreal’s McGill University as well as dignitaries and academics who stood in solidarity. This mood was highlighted by NDP MP Andrew Cash who said: “It is an honour to be here tonight. It’s a Tuesday night, it’s raining outside, it’s the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] and this place is packed. This would have made Jack Layton so very, very proud.”
Powerful and informative presentations were given at the event. Harinder Singh, Executive Director of the Sikh Research Institute, clearly laid out what transpired in November 1984 and deconstructed the myths surrounding November 1984. He supported his points with recent facts and made reference to the commission and the limitations of the commission.
The focus of my presentation centred on the effects of 1984 being multifaceted and irreducible. I also illuminated how the label of “extremism” attached to Sikh youth serves the geopolitical climate and neo-liberalist ideals which explains why
Khalistan is conveniently and systematically tagged to the actions of Sikh youth.
NDP MP Jagmeet Singh (Bramalea-Gore-Malton), the first Canadian Amritdhari (baptized) Sikh MP, urged Sikh youth to be proud of their identity and pointed out that the lack of recognition of the Sikh genocide has also affected their self-confidence and psyche.
He added: “To combat these negative feelings and propaganda it is [important] to take pride in the Sikh philosophy which has been about bout equality and justice for all.”
He also suggested two reasons for the genocide, the first being for political gain and the second being a fear of what Sikh philosophy stood for.
Amnesty International Director, Sharmila Seteram, gave an illuminating speech on the violation of human rights of Sikhs in India and clearly laid out the articles. She said: “In 1984, 3,000 Sikhs were killed in four days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and in 2011, 27 years later families are still waiting for justice, for the lives that were stolen during the massacre.”
She added: “The Indian government failed to uphold many of these articles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” She went over eight articles, among them: Article 3 – everyone has the right and liberty to security, Article 5 – no one should be subjected to torture … or inhumane treatment, and Article 9 – no one should be subject to arbitrary arrests, detention or exile.
She said: “Amnesty International calls on the Indian authorities to end impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations.” She added that the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) failed to adhere to basic investigations such as recording eyewitness accounts and those of the survivors.
She said: “The Indian government only filed 586 criminal wrongdoings after the massacre. Many, many more investigations are foreclosed or dismissed due to a lack of evidence. … Only a small minority of police officers responsible for a range of human rights violations, including torture, death in custody, judicial killings and disappearance were brought to justice. … It is a [national] disgrace and those responsible for the massacre must be brought to justice.”
The evening ended with a moment of ‘Simran.’
IN closing, the event was a resounding success and the Sikh youth with the Sikh Activist Network should be honoured for their commitment and volunteering of their time to organize this powerful event, taking much time away from their academic studies and families.
A message of resistance was clear where Sikhs must continue to resist state violence and the tactics of the Indian and Canadian states to suppress Sikhs. In the words of Jay Grewal with Sikhs for Justice: “Our resistance is being foiled. The world’s sharpest sword is meaningless when the hand of the person refuses to wield it. These facts are useless if you today do not wish to act.”
* Indira Prasht
Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
and Race & Ethnic Relations Instructor,
Langara College, Canada.
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Related Topics: 1984 Sikh Genocide, Indira Prasht, Sikh Activist Network, Sikh Diaspora