Dr. Iqtidar Cheema warns: “Punjabi government is using police to enhance its agenda of state repression against peaceful protesters”
Organization for Minorities of India provides this first of a two-part interview with Dr. Iqtidar Cheema, an international relations expert based in the United Kingdom, about the growing unrest in Punjab, India and the role of state-led violence by Indian security forces against peaceful protesters.
Transcript: Pieter Friedrich (PF): Hello, this is Pieter Friedrich with Organization for Minorities of India, and today we are speaking with a special guest, Dr. Iqtidar Cheema, who is a doctor of international relations from Birmingham in the United Kingdom. He’s an historian, a journalist, a public speaker. The author of several books, he has been cited by the United Nations’ Commission for Refugees and by the World Bank. And earlier this year he testified at a panel hosted by the U.S. Congress as an expert witness to discuss violence against religious minorities in India. So we’re here to talk about the current tense situation in Punjab, in northern India, which is a flashpoint right on the border of India and Pakistan, which are two nuclear-armed powers. It’s south of Kashmir, which is the most militarized zone in the world. And there’s a lot of political and social tension going on right there right now. Dr. Cheema, can you give us a brief introduction about what’s happening in Punjab right now? There was a massacre of Sikhs by Indian police just a few days ago, for instance.
Dr. Iqtidar Cheema (IC): Yes, Pieter. Thank you very much for having me this evening. Indeed, I mean, it’s very concerning at the moment what’s happening Punjab. Because in Punjab, there are so many issues going on. One issue is of the genocide performed by the Indian State in 1984, as we are aware of, and November is the month of the commemoration of that genocide. Side-by-side, we see that the farmers are protesting against the government, who has failed to safeguard their interests and their crops. We also see a nonviolent movement led by Surat Singh Khalsa for the release of the Sikh political prisoners.
IC: And, most importantly, during the last fortnight (which is really, really shameful for a so-called hegemonic, secular state) is the treatment of the peaceful Sikh protesters who were protesting against the desecration of their holy Sikh scripture. And then the way they have been dealt with by the authorities in India, that is very concerning for people who are human rights activists, regardless if they are Sikh, Muslim, or whatever religion they belong to. But the sort of disturbing images we are watching on social media, and the way we see the faces full of blood, people’s eyes hanging out of their face, and the torture…
PF: Yes, there’ve been some very horrific images…
IC: And the police shredded with the bullets. That’s what we are seeing in the Punjab, which is a state-led violence against very peaceful protesters. Although the mainstream media at the moment is not portraying it very well, but as the world has become globalized we see all this on the social media. And we see new hashtags being created about the Punjab like #1984to2015whathaschanged. We also see #Sikhlivesmatter on Twitter and on Facebook. So, all this is happening in the Punjab at the moment, which is very saddening because it appears that, rather than console the Sikhs, who were the victims of state terrorism in 1984 and onward for years, the government has taken the approach to annoy them more and to keep on the strategy of suppressing their rightful demands.
PF: And this recent protest where these Sikhs were killed — there were, I believe, two Sikhs killed by police firing.
IC: Yes. I mean, there are two of the people who have been killed, but every life matters, whether it’s two or two hundred. When it’s a state repression against a community, it should matter. But though there are only two in numbers, it carries a big message that the Sikhs are still being vandalized in Punjab. As you would understand, there are several injuries and there are various people who have been injured very badly, and they are still hospitalized, so in the days to come the number of people who have lost this life in the state-led oppression may increase.
PF: Yes, and this all is a result of police firing on these peaceful protesters that were protesting this desecration of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Now, police, they also responded to these protesters in other ways — with water cannons, I believe, with tear gas, with charges with lathis. Yes, please?
IC: Yes, I want to clarify one thing, which is my understanding about the Sikh sentiment. Although the world is taking it as the desecration of a book, but we should understand the Sikh perspective. For the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, which is their holy scripture, is not merely a book or a scripture. It’s a living Guru. It’s the supreme guidance of the immortal message. They treat him as a living Guru or a living master who they follow.
PF: Yeah, that’s a very good point.
IC: So, I listen to these comments from various people who obviously have limited understanding of Sikhism as a religion, asking why it is so important for Sikhs to protest. It’s merely a book. But we should understand the Sikh perspective. It’s not a book for them. It’s their immortal, supreme authority of their religion, which should be respected. Which is not the case, and people are trying to desecrate Guru Granth Sahib. So the Sikhs will be provoked, and they should lose the self-respect. Because, if you love someone, if something is very core and very important in your life, and that very thing, or that very personality, or that very sacred text is humiliated, you as a community feel humiliated. So that’s why these people are on the roads and even willing to give their life against the state repression, so that they can preserve the sanctity of Guru Granth Sahib.
PF: Yes, they have a very legitimate grievance here. They feel that their religion has been directly attacked, assaulted with this desecration of the Guru Granth Sahib.
PF: And here they are now peacefully protesting. Now, how large are these protests? How widespread? They’re still going on, as a matter of fact, aren’t they?
IC: Yes, I think, as it started, the first case we found was on 10th of October when they tore pieces of Guru Granth Sahib in Faridkot. But in a way, people just ignored this and the government has failed to deal with it. And the peaceful protesters just gathered there. They were sitting very, very peacefully. They were not having any arms, ammunition, anything. And they were like any protest. Thousands of people were just sitting, chanting and reading from the sacred texts of Sikhism, and during their morning prayer, police raided them. First they used batons, then they used water cannons, and then they opened fire on them. These were people who had no arms, they were completely peaceful…
IC: And then the way they were dealt with has made the issue widespread throughout the state of Punjab. And after the first incident, if the government would have taken some appropriate measures to maintain the sanctity of Guru Granth Sahib, it wouldn’t have been this widespread. But now we find there are two more cases of Guru Granth Sahib desecration reported. So, the issue has become so widespread because the government of India and the state government of Punjab are not engaging with the Sikhs in a constructive manner to resolve the core issues. They are trying to deal with the events, but the events will keep on happening if you are not dealing with the roots causes, and unfortunately, the government there is not willing to deal with the root cause. Now we see that the roads are being blocked by the Sikhs, the train lines are being blocked by the Sikhs, and there is a call that Sikhs will protest three hours a day. And the issue has become that control-less for the state of Punjab and Parkash Badal’s government.
PF: So this is throughout most of Punjab that these protests are happening?
IC: Yes, and he called an emergency meeting of his cabinet, requesting the Centre to intervene and send troops from the Centre to control the state of Punjab. I think these are circumstances which are very much comparable and compatible to what happened in 1984. In 1984, before attacking Darbar Sahib in June, this is what the Indian State had done. Thousands of troops were deputed to Punjab, Punjab was isolated from the wider world, press wasn’t allowed to go in Punjab. So these are very, very compatible and comparable circumstances with 1984. But this issue, which was a very local issue, has become a wider issue in the state of Punjab. And not only in Punjab. It has become a very big issue for the diaspora of Sikhs, which is present everywhere in the world. So we see that the Sikhs everywhere in the world, including Britain, America, Canada, Australia, wherever they live, they are very much concerned about the issue and situation in Punjab at the moment.
PF: Yes, and you mentioned the government and the way that it’s not dealing with the root causes. This reminds me of a doctor that deals with the symptoms but doesn’t actually address the core issue of disease and cure the patient. The government, it was just reported by Hindustan Times not too long ago, has offered, I believe, a million rupees in compensation to the families of those who were killed in the police firing. And it’s also promised government jobs to the family members as well. Although it strikes me that I don’t know why a family member of a loved one who was killed by the government would want to work for that same government. Now, do you view this offer of compensation as the same thing as justice?
IC: It’s completely non-sensical. It is against the justice. If the government were to deal with it seriously, those culprits who have opened fire on these peaceful protesters should have been brought to justice. Those who killed these people and injured these people would have been brought to justice. And the government would have dealt with the very gangs which are being supported by the current government, which are the so-called deradars. Which, for me, my apologies if it hurts someone’s sentiments, I think deradars are the thugs, they are the gangsters, they are the plunderers, and they have established these gangs on the name of dera. And they are the ones who are actively involved in all sorts of anti-social behavior and activities against the common Sikh public. Now, they are being protected by the Badal government of Punjab. And, obviously, the government keeps on saying that, “We don’t know who is doing this.” But, widely, there is a belief that it is a specific deradar who was pardoned previously by the heads of the Gurdwaras, whom we call Jathedars. They are involved in it! Because in the way the desecration is happening, people are openly leaving notes in Gurdwaras that, “We’re going to steal Guru Granth Sahib, and we’re going to desecrate it. Save your Guru Granth Sahib if you can.” So that is very, very provoking, and that is in the notice of the government. So the government never dealt with it. Now, offering compensation to people — we will give you this much, and we will give you that much, and we will give you the job — that may satisfy those individuals, the kith and kin, and the people related to these very victims, but it does not resolve the vital issue of the Sikh community. I don’t think so that these will be enough to satisfy or to reconcile the Sikh community.
PF: Yes, and one would certainly question what’s going to happen when the government encounters somebody who’s not willing to be bought off in return for keeping silent about the death of their family member.
PF: Now, the police, as we’ve discussed, they’re responding to these peaceful protests with violence. They’re using water cannons, they’re using tear-gas, they’re using indiscriminate and open firing on crowds of protesters. So, in this situation, you’ve talked about a media blackout. You’ve talked about comparisons to 1984, where journalists were denied entry to Punjab. So, in light of all of this, do you think that basic freedoms like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and of press, or even freedom of religion are safe here in Punjab?
IC: Well, I don’t think so. I think it is very clear to us in the way the protesters have been dealt with. It is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which clearly endorses freedom of assembly. We have the UN Charter. We have conventions on civil rights, and in all these conventions — Section 20 of the UN Charter, Section 21, Section 5 — all these are talking about the freedom of peaceful assembly. And, of course, there is no doubt that it was a very, very peaceful assembly. The repression came from the state and not from the protesters. As we live in the real democracies like Britain and the U.S., you must have seen thousands and hundreds of thousands of people gathering, on occasions, in the major urban areas of these real democracies.
PF: Very commonly.
IC: Where you see that police cordons, they help these protesters. They protect the protesters. And we have recently seen the right, where we see that a lot of the right-wingers, they gather with some of the very non-productive slogans and activities. But the police role is to protect the protesters and not to repress the protesters. So, that’s not happening in Punjab. That is not happening in India. Rather, the government is using police to enhance its agenda of state repression against the peaceful protesters. So, there is obviously no issue of the freedom of assembly. When it comes to freedom of expression, although we find people often reflect that there are so many channels in India and there are so many newspapers in India, but I do not think that they have a very productive approach to freedom of expression. I think they are having a self-censorship on them. They are not willing to talk about these issues. But it really hurts me that the mainstream media organizations which are in Punjab and India, they are completely ignoring it. And we have seen recently, a BBC program being interrupted by a Sikh gentlemen who had to bring it to the BBC authorities’ attention…
PF: Yes, and this was Canadian MLA Jagmeet Singh.
IC: Yes, and therefore, the media is completely ignoring this. For them, it may be a non-issue. We see that, when something happens elsewhere in the world, whether it’s a small thing, it becomes a world news. But Sikhs are being vandalized. Sikhs are being terrorized, but nobody is paying any attention to this, which makes me feel that we have entered the 21st century, we call ourselves very civilized, we call ourselves the defenders of the human rights in the modern world, but, I’m sorry people and media organizations have double-standards. Which shouldn’t be there. That’s not a productive approach. But, I would also say that it’s very unfortunate that the Sikh diaspora has been very weak in their advocacy. They have never been able to tell the world the complete picture of their genocide. They have not been able to engage the mainstream world in the way that they should have. So, a lot of atrocities against them have not very well been communicated to the mainstream world. Therefore, there is a need that the Sikh diaspora should learn from their previous experiences and should focus more on advocacy of their cases and their matters.
PF: And here in California, for instance, earlier this year we did see some attention drawn to this 1984 Sikh Genocide when the California State Legislature passed a resolution recognizing it. The governor signed that. And, yet, as you’ve mentioned, the Sikh diaspora, the diaspora of Indian minorities in general, have not yet been extremely successful in drawing widespread international attention to these issues of oppression, of injustices that their communities have suffered. And even Western media — you mentioned the Punjabi media in Punjab, that they don’t focus a lot of attention on these issues — but even Western media is almost entirely blacked out. In fact, it took this MLA Jagmeet Singh speaking out on BCC out of turn, interrupting the broadcaster in order to say that, “Hey, there is a media blackout on these issues of Sikh oppression.” It took that in order to even generate a few news articles in some British media outlets.
IC: Yes, again, Pieter, my point is that one of the things which happened after 1984 is that the Sikhs were the victims of state terrorism, there was a planned genocide against the Sikhs, but the government of India has spent a huge lot of money, before 1984 and after 1984, “proving” that these Sikhs were terrorists. So, they tagged the Sikh public or the people who were asking for their right of self-determination which is very much endorsed by the United Nations Charter. Right of self-determination is not something unlawful. However, I mean, no one endorses any sort of violent activity for that. I don’t endorse any sort of use of arms, ammunition, or militancy…
PF: And yet, case in point right now, and I agree with you in that I condemn any sort of militancy and I advocate peaceful means, but case in point right now is that, although the Indian government has spent so much money and so many years trying to label the Sikhs as non-peaceful, we see the most attention-grabbing and the most sustained campaign right now for Sikh civil rights being conducted by this hunger-striker, Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, who actually is from California. He’s a perfect example of how the Sikh movement right now is focused around peaceful means.
IC: Yes, I think that’s a very good example of Surat Singh Khalsa, who has exposed the Indian administration and the dysfunctional judicial system. But the Indian government has not even tolerated him. As we are aware, Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, who is an elderly gentleman who is 82 or 83-years-old, went on a hunger-strike, which is completely peaceful. But he was arrested. His son was arrested. He was force-fed. The state tried to intervene even in this affair. And he hasn’t asked for something which is unusual. He is asking, under the Indian Constitution, as per Indian laws (its debatable whether they are appropriate laws or not, but he’s not challenging them) — what he is saying is, “Your courts have sentenced the Sikhs.” And bear in mind that everywhere in the world, political prisoners are not treated as ordinary prisoners.
IC: United Nations asks all the civilized nations to treat political prisoners differently than normal prisoners. But here, the political prisoners have been exposed to all sorts of torture and extended stay in the jails. And it’s the Indian judicial system which has imprisoned them for 20 years, which they have completed. And now they are there more than 20 years; a few have been prolonged to about 30 years, and they are still there, and they may die there. Most of them entered there as young people, and they have now grown so old and sick. It’s shocking to know that even the very little boys who were just in their teens or 10-years-old, they were taken by the Indian authorities to jail, and a lot of Sikh youth was vandalized, and they were tagged as “terrorists,” “potential terrorists,” or “future terrorists.” It’s really shocking…
PF: Well, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but it’s worth noting that many of these political prisoners that were arrested, as you said, in their youth, were arrested because they were reacting and protesting against the government’s involvement in this 1984 Sikh Genocide. In fact, Surat Singh Khalsa himself, speaking of police attacking peaceful protesters, he has personal experience with that as, in the 1980s (I think it was 1986), he was wounded when police, again, indiscriminately opened fire on a peaceful protest that was happening outside of the Punjab Legislature.
IC: Yes, they have special acts to terrorize people which they used in the state of Punjab. They had Operation Black Thunder and Operation Woodrose to vandalize the Sikh youth.
PF: And these were, again, small-scale invasions of the Golden Temple?
PF: And Operation Woodrose?
IC: Yes, indeed. Let me add into this, it’s not necessarily that these were the peaceful protesters. They were people who were little ones, who were just ordinary little boys, they never knew what Khalistan was, they never knew what was going on in the world, and they were just arrested because one of their relatives or anyone whom they knew was struggling for some recognition of the Sikhs. They were just taken to jail due to those links. They were never tried in a judicial way, and they were just imprisoned. Now these little boys are in their 30’s and still nobody going to release them. This is completely nonsensical. I think we can’t imagine this happening in the modern world. It looks like we have reached to the Stone Age or Medieval Ages, where the king can imprison anyone for the rest of their life.
PF: Yes, it’s like the return of the divine right of kings. Or, another way of putting it, is you actually wrote the other day that “the state of Punjab has virtually become a police state.” And you’ve mentioned these issues of torture and of extra-judicial killings. What is it that goes on there? The police engage in torture of people? What forms of torture? Extra-judicial killings, for instance, what are those?
IC: Well, it’s not me who has written it in one of my iCNN reports, it is what the United States’ Department of State religious freedom board suggests. There is a recent release of Department of State report on India about its current human rights situation. It mentions quite a lot of significant issues, but one of those issues they very clearly commented and elaborated the police and the police torture, not only in Punjab but in the whole of India, where the State Department has clearly identified that the police arrest people without warrants, they enter in people’s houses without any sort of judicial consent, they arrest people, take them to the police station, torture them physically, and, obviously, psychologically — the whole family is tortured when someone is just arrested without any specific reason and in an injudicious way…
PF: Without warrant or charges….
IC: And it was really alarming to see that the State Department report also mentioned that, in the custody of the police, women are raped. Now, the police as we understand in the modern world, is someone or a department which is supposed to maintain the law and order. How can that department can violate the law itself? And there are various cases of rapes in police custody in India. And we also see that, in the Indian judicial system, the police officers are accepted by the courts as a very neutral evidence. And all these sort of evidences are collected by the police. They say, “We have witnessed it.” Nobody double-checks it. And the whole system of police and judiciary is dysfunctional. When it comes to the states or to the country, to use them to torture and to use this force against political dissent, that happens. We have seen this very recently in Punjab. That’s not the time when police are protecting civilians or maintaining law and order. Rather, these police are deputed to do a lot of protocol duties on the Ministers, on the MLAs, on the MPs, and always there to escort them. So, the whole concept of policing as we understand in the modern world, is entirely different from what is the role of police in India.
PF: Yes, it seems flipped on its head.
PF: Yes, it seems flipped on its head that, there, the police exist solely to protect the power of the government against the freedoms of the people.
IC: Yes, it’s like a king’s servant who is there just to safeguard the interests of the king. That is a very, very medieval concept. Modern states and their law enforcement agencies don’t work like this.
PF: Yes, it hardly seems democratic. Conversation continues in part two of this interview with Dr. Cheema…