PM Modi showed boldness, but there are hurdles on talks with overseas Sikhs: Jasdev Singh Rai
The British capital has long been the base from where pro-Khalistan leaders and groups have functioned, particularly after the 1984 Operation Bluestar. Over the decades, while the Khalistan issue ceased to be a factor in India, its leaders and supporters based in the UK and elsewhere continued to face so-called ‘blacklists’ at Indian missions that prevented them from visiting the homeland, besides facing other issues with New Delhi.
It was against this backdrop that the first engagement during the first visit of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister in November 2015 was with a delegation of overseas Sikhs. One of the key interlocutors in the talks was Jasdev Singh Rai, a doctor and former president of the International Sikh Youth Federation, which is banned in India and several countries (the ban was lifted in the UK in 2016).
Rai, who has since been involved in talks with Indian functionaries, had described the 2015 meeting as a ‘turning point’ in the relationship between overseas Sikhs and the Indian state since Operation Bluestar. Rai spoke with Hindustan Times ahead of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections on what has been achieved since the talks and what remains to be done.
In November 2015, you described the talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a ‘turning point’. What is the current state of talks?
The talks in London in 2015 were indeed a ‘turning point’ after 32 years of hostile relations between the Indian State many Sikhs and Sikh organisations both inside and outside India. It offered an opportunity towards resolution of some allegedly intractable issues and embark on a road towards reconciliation and constructive solutions. Although some discreet discussions had begun during the previous Manmohan Singh government, it did not seem to have the political will to make any real effort. The first and most important step was for the Indian State to admit that there is a substantive issue between itself and worldwide Sikhs arising from the attack on Sri Darbar Sahib in 1984. Governments had been pretending that it was a domestic issue, to be dealt with within the remit of law and order. The Indian State remained in denial of its responsibility both in the attack and the Sikh massacres in Delhi.
Prime Minister Modi showed boldness and goodwill to offer discussions unconditionally and work towards removing some of the obstacles. He admitted openly at the Wembley Stadium that here are issues from 1984 that need to be resolved. That was the crucial door to further engagement. The discussions are ongoing with the PM’s representatives. Such talks take a few years as there are a number of administrative hurdles as well as suspicions and political pressures to deal with. One of the mature leaders of a Sikh organisation, Joga Singh, said to me at the time, ‘Dr Rai, don’t expect this to go smoothly and resolve matters over a few weeks. This can take a few years.’
What has been achieved so far, and which issues remain to be taken forward?
There have been some important developments. The first was when Prime Minister Modi expressed personal pain and his government’s cognizance of the 1984 attack on Sri Darbar sahib and the massacres of Sikhs in November, which was later described as ‘genocide’ by home minister Rajnath Singh. The use of the word ‘genocide’ was significant.
Secondly, the Sikhs on the indiscriminate exclusion list, the ‘black lists’, have mostly been given visas to go to their homeland and pilgrimages. There are some who have had cases registered against them that have still to be dealt with. Unfortunately, there are still people in some countries in Europe and Canada who face problems.
Third, the Indian State has prosecuted a number of Punjab police officers who had been involved in extra-judicial executions. Independent convictions have also been facilitated. The recent life sentences given to two police officers on cases brought by a British barrister now resident in India, Satnam Singh Bains, is crucial in restoring some trust in the judicial process and to achieve justice. That he is allowed to continue his work there is significant, it would not have been thought of during early Congress years.
The convictions of a number of people – I understand the figure to be above 400 – for the ‘genocide’ of Sikhs in Delhi 1984 is a major step. A number of prisoners serving life sentences have been released on permanent parole. The parole of Davinderpal Singh Bhuller was another milestone, although he is awaiting permanent parole as are some other, particularly Lal Singh. We call these individuals political prisoners as they have been in detention long after serving minimal sentences.
Which issues of overseas Sikhs are yet to be resolved or taken up?
There are three important issues yet to be taken forward are: Permanent parole of some remaining prisoners; an official process of dialogue between representatives of the government and the Sikh organisations; and a process and road map to make worldwide Sikhs inclusive in the decisions of Sri Akal Takht Sahib, the selection of the Jathedar who is representative of the worldwide Sikh community and the autonomy of Sri Akal Takht Sahib from political and legal shadows. There also needs to be a worldwide inclusion of Sikhs in the management of Sri Darbar Sahib complex in recognition of its status as the central institution of the global Sikh community.
What are the key hurdles in resolving the outstanding issues - is it the lack of a representative group of people with whom New Delhi can speak to?
There are hurdles on both sides and some by other interventional third parties, possibly because a resolution between Sikhs and India is inimical to their agendas.
On the part of the Indian State there are some political forces that have been either opposed to the process or resistant. Some have vested political interest to keep these issues on the boil, some fear that their own political interests could face challenges and sometimes the government machinery, particularly in India, works at a snail’s pace with usual obfuscations.
The Sikh organisations were taken by surprise by the Modi government’s offer. They had been used to 32 years of hostile language, labelled as ‘terrorists’, or when talks were offered, to the usual deceptions of governments. Hence, there was and still remains a large trust deficit to overcome, ingrained and entrenched over 31 years before 2015. Some of the organisations still feel that they are being taken for a ride.
Moreover, Sikh organisations do not work in consensus, they are often divided, as usually happens among non-State actors anywhere, by internecine struggles, by punitive issues and fear of being called ‘traitors’. There is a lack of sophisticated leadership with deep and political understanding of other struggles in the world: so small obstacles become big issues. Then, there are third parties who have created unnecessary obstacles or have been discreetly intervening in frustrating dialogue.
How was the court verdict on Sajjan Kumar received in the Sikh community in the UK and outside India?
The Sajjan Kumar verdict is a major milestone. It is the first time that a heavyweight political leader, usually protected by the State machinery, has been convicted for a crime which was clearly a crime against humanity. He enjoyed impunity during the Congress years. Ironically, Congress not only failed to prosecute him, but was even going to promote people like him.
While the Modi government itself is not the prosecutor, most seasoned Indian observers know that various parts of the Government machinery can put obstacles in the process of justice. In this case all those obstructive thorns have been removed and Sajjan Kumar has been successfully prosecuted on the same evidence that existed before.
Some more high-level prosecutions will go a long way to restore justice and will be a deterrent in future against State-led massacres in what are gingerly and deliberately called ‘riots’. A similar conviction of some high-level police officers responsible for extra judicial executions and tortures in Punjab will go a long way.
Are any talks with Indian government functionaries scheduled during your visit to India for the Pravasi Bharat Diwas (PBD) later this month?
Nothing is planned. I have been invited to PBD and was a bit surprised particularly given that I can be quite critical of State politics. I suspect I will have discussions on the sidelines as there are bound to be ministers and senior officials present. I am not sure why I have been invited. I cannot offer any technological skills to India as that is not my field. However, I do feel that the civilisations of India, the ‘Sanatan Dharmas’, Buddhism, Jain and Sikhi have extraordinary depth and wisdom that the world is in desperate need of. Today, the world’s biggest problems are people’s violation of nature and coexistence as the State everywhere is becoming multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial. Indian traditions have long experience of co-existence, of pluralism of respect for each other and of some deep understanding of human relations with nature. However, India has to start adopting these first and then offer that wisdom to the world. It could be the century of Indian wisdoms that can save the world, but India has to recognize and give expression to the first.
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