Critics Misunderstand Sikh Death Penalty Campaign

Sometimes I think Sikhs are a little like inkblots. What people see when they spot a bearded man in a turban says more about them than it does about members of my faith, which probably explains the number of media commentators anxious to revive the myth that Sikhs are extremists after a recent rally in Ottawa.

They’re missing the story. Sikhs from Toronto to Paris, London, Brussels, and New York are all protesting the state-sanctioned murder of Balwant Singh Rajoana precisely because they are not terrorist-sympathizers. They are trying to prevent the sort of injustice that led to violence in India two decades ago.

Rallies have been organized throughout the World in support of Bhai Balwant Singh Rajoana

As a Sikh, and as a member of a human rights group the World Sikh Organization of Canada, I don’t condone violence of any sort, let alone the sort that targets civilians — and that includes capital punishment. Our supreme religious authority the Akal Takht specifically opposes capital punishment, which is one of the reasons protests against Rajoana’s hanging brought the Punjab to a halt on March 28.

But to understand why so many Sikhs around the world are lobbying to spare this man’s life you have to know the tale of the horror that led to Rajoana becoming involved in a plot to assassinate Beant Singh, then Chief Minister of Punjab.

When he committed his crime in 1995, Rajoana  was living in a world that most Canadians can’t imagine: one in which rape and torture were tools of the state, police were corrupt thugs who disregarded the rule of law, and the government murdered its own citizens to maintain its power. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm that thousands of young Sikhs were tortured and disappeared in police custody during that period of strife in Punjab.

By the early 1990s, Rajoana was a young man who watched as his closest friend Harpinder Singh was hunted and killed by the Indian police. He also saw Harpinder Singh’s newlywed sister arrested, raped by the police, and ultimately murdered.

He went to their parents, who were like family to him, and said, “I am now your son,” and vowed to oppose the State’s terror.

Like most Canadians I’d like to think that no one would ever go to the extremes Rajoana did, but it’s also true that there are few Canadians who can understand what it’s like to live in such harrowing circumstances. In Canada we have recourse to the courts, our politicians, and our community. Here, relatively rare police abuses are met with public inquiries, and we take it for granted that authorities are mostly trustworthy. Not so in the India of two decades ago.

But times have changed in Punjab.  The Sikh community has worked hard at creating a peace there.  And the man who faces hanging for his attempted suicide-bombing writes letters asking that political activists avoid violence.

“I have a request of all the youth,” Rajoana writes from prison. “And that is that even after my death they should not become a part of any armed struggle. This is the time to plough the earth and plant the seed of the Khalsa [ideal of righteousness] …This is a struggle that must be advanced peacefully and with great wisdom…”

While he has never expressed remorse for what he did, it’s telling that those opposing his death sentence include the daughters and grandsons of the politician he targeted as well as politicians across the political spectrum.

Indians are aware that Rajoana’s crime was committed in a different time under circumstances that most of that nation now considers shameful. But Canadian media cling to an image of Sikhs as a community of extremists largely due to their recollection of the Air India bombing 27 years ago.  Many writers failed to do even the most rudimentary research about the historical facts that led to terrorism. Nor kept up with the political changes in India — including the fact that the Sikh community has openly rejected violence and extremism a long time ago.

One columnist, Jonathan Kay, even argued that Canadian Sikhs are “expressing solidarity with an unrepentant terrorist” because a poster for a Toronto rally was headlined, “I am Rajoana.” For him it’s a kind of inkblot: he sees a Sikh and all he can see is an extremist.

But those kinds of statements are really a humanitarian call for compassion and for the sort of values that will prevent the injustices that lead anyone to think that bombing his oppressor is the only solution.

When those Sikhs say “I am Rajoana,” it’s just another way of saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

If most of us are honest, I think we’d admit that we don’t know what we might do if faced with the terror Rajoana experienced. Being lucky enough to be Canadian, it’s unlikely we’ll ever have our limits tested.

The Sikh community unequivocally rejects violence. But murdering this man in the name of justice makes a mockery of the word, which is why human rights activists everywhere are opposing his sentence.

Implying Sikhs are “extremists” because they recognize our shared humanity and rally to prevent yet another state sanctioned murder is simply wrong.

Balpreet Singh is legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada


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