In recent weeks, the world has witnessed cataclysms in Burma (Myanmar) and China beyond the ability of most of us to comprehend: tens of thousands of people dead, millions homeless. The devastation caused by cyclone Nargis was compounded egregiously when the junta generals in Burma refused to allow international humanitarian aid to enter the country freely during the critical first two weeks. In China, there are complaints by local residents that corrupt construction practices, facilitated by bribed party-state officials, caused the deaths of many children and others in Sichuan province, who in properly-built schools would have survived the earthquake. The hearts of the entire world are saddened by what has happened to so many in both nations; the thoughts, sympathies and prayers of all of us go unreservedly to all families of the victims.
Dignity for All
Article one of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." When we look at the political forces shaping the 1900s and present today in varying degrees in those nations still ruled by tyrants of various stripes, we see dehumanized politics often placed ahead of dignity, justice and non-violence for all members of the human family; we are still far from the ideal of article one.
Even in rule-of-law and democratic Canada, we recently had the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Accommodation of Immigrants recommending that Sikh members of the Surete du Quebec and prosecutors not be permitted to wear turbans, despite the fact that the Supreme Court of Canada ruled almost two decades ago that your community can wear them as RCMP officers. The report in fairness has strengths but also other defects in terms of full respect for all members of la famille Quebecoise.
One estimate of the number of believers from spiritual communities who died prematurely because of their faiths in the twentieth century is a dismaying 169 million worldwide, including:
70 million Muslims,
35 million Christians,
11 million Hindus,
9 million Jews,
4 million Buddhists,
2 million Sikhs,
1 million Baha'is,
5 million other faiths.
In fact, the past century was the most violent in all of recorded history in terms of religious persecution. Most of it was committed by despots, including Stalin, Hitler and Mao, who despised spirituality of any kind, primarily because it fosters citizens with values very different from their own. Faith communities before, during and after the tectonic year 1989 played pivotal non-violent roles in toppling numerous totalitarian regimes.
The dehumanized politics phenomenon was evident at times in India too. In Lawrence James' The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, he relates that in 1919 Britain's Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer imposed martial law in Amritsar. Dyer then ordered his soldiers to fire into an unarmed and peaceful demonstrating crowd, in ten minutes killing 379 of Punjab's civilians and wounding hundreds more. He later even expressed regret that he'd been unable to use his machine guns. Afterwards, Dyer also inhumanly had real and suspected protesters flogged. The incident, concluded James, proved that the British Raj ultimately depended upon force. Dyer was later effectively dismissed from the British army.
Edwin Montagu, who was appointed the UK Secretary of State for India in 1917, denounced Dyer's allies in Britain as racist: "An Indian is a person who is tolerable so long as he follows your orders, but if he thinks for himself, if once he takes advantage of the educational facilities which you have provided for him, if once he imbibes the ideas of individual liberty which are dear to the British people, why then you class him as an educated Indian and an agitator. Even Winston Churchill, no friend then of India's independence, termed the Amritsar massacre as "a monstrous act."
In the three months before independence for India on 15 August 1947, fear was understandably greatest in Punjab – then home to 5.5 million or so Sikhs – which was split between India and Pakistan. As the summer of 1947 approached, Punjab became a sea, as James puts it, of "massacres, counter-massacres, looting and arson." Cyril Radcliffe, a British civil servant, drew the line which divided the Punjab and the consequences haunted him until he died. Had it been done with more time and had the British forces acted as an impartial police force of instead of being evacuated, thousands of lives might have been saved. Instead, as you know, perhaps half a million civilians died, but no one tallied the exact numbers. Military observers said it was "a thousand times more horrible than anything we saw in the war."
My own late uncle, Frank White, a Canadian soldier, and his family were present in India during this period and the appalling consequences of violence they saw seemed never to leave them afterwards.
Dehumanized violent politics were certainly evident in the massacre in June, 1984, when thousands of innocent Sikhs, including women and children, were killed during the military assault by the government of Indira Gandhi on the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
The World Sikh Organization, the largest Sikh Organization in Canada, has held this parliamentary dinner commemorating the tragedy every year since 1984. While the rest of the world has largely forgotten what occurred, quite understandably it continues to be a defining event for Sikh communities everywhere. The reasons for the attack have been widely misunderstood by media and academics alike, but one credible opinion as to its cause was provided a year ago by William Warden, who, in 1984, was Canada's High Commissioner to India and resident there.
Testifying before Justice Jack Major at the Air India inquiry, Warden was quite candid in outlining what he believed to be the real reasons behind the government of the day's actions against the Sikhs. In 1975, when the late Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in India, the Sikh Akali party of Punjab launched one of the largest and most effective demonstrations against what she was doing. After the "emergency" was lifted in 1977, Mrs Gandhi was re-elected as prime minister in 1980. In the view of Warden and many others in and beyond India, Mrs. Gandhi was particularly angry about the Sikh protests against her dictatorial rule during the two years of emergency rule.
Upon becoming prime minister again, Mrs. Gandhi unfortunately appeared determined to teach Sikhs a lesson. The brutal treatment of India's Sikhs did not end with the military assault on the Golden Temple. In November of 1984, thousands more were killed in New Delhi and other cities in India in the aftermath of the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. Successor governments of India until today have provided no accountability for the perpetrators of the violence.
In Punjab itself, mistreatment of Sikhs by the army continued for well over a year after November, 1984. A Canadian parliamentary delegation from three political parties (former MPs Barbara Green and Svend Robinson and the still-serving Derek Lee) visited Punjab in January 1992 at the request of World Sikh Organization; they were reportedly deeply troubled by what they saw. Their fact-finding trip came almost eight years after the assault on the Golden Temple.
Jaswant Singh Khalra
Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist in Punjab, was killed in October 1995 after he exposed numerous secret cremations by the Punjabi police. It took ten years before a judge finally convicted six police officers for their roles in the abduction and murder of Mr. Khalra. During this period, the police had attempted to intimidate key witnesses by laying false criminal cases against them, which ranged from bribery, rape and robbery to establishing a terrorist organization.
Eyewitness testimony reportedly implicated the then Director General of Police, KPS Gill, in Khalra's illegal detention, torture and eventual killing. The Central Bureau of Investigation has to my understanding yet to act upon a petition from Khalra's widow requesting prosecution of Gill.
The government in New Delhi today refers to the existence of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to assert that human rights violations are being prevented and addressed. It claims that its national human rights bodies have real autonomy and powers of investigation. Concerns have been expressed that partisan political considerations affect operations, although in fairness the same charge is made in other democracies with such commissions.
Violent crimes by individuals are normally addressed by their own national governments. What happens if governments themselves turn against their own citizens? The answer is to continue to raise public awareness internationally, as the World Sikh Organization is doing.
We live on a planet seemingly becoming smaller by the day, thanks in part to the worldwide reach of the media and the internet. Names of places, such as Darfur, Sudan, are now instantly associated with atrocities, which have awakened people of conscience to act. The media react to viewers and readers. Unfortunately, places such as Darfur and Amritsar are quickly squeezed out of the national consciousness. It is vital that people and organizations with consciences not allow such events to be forgotten. We must continue to remind our political leaders that human dignity and opposition to all forms of violence must remain at the top of the agenda. Human dignity is increasingly indivisible across the world today
No people or nation can prosper for long nowadays without the active co-operation of other governments and peoples. Pressure from citizens is what causes many democratic governments to do the correct thing for responsible reasons. Economic greed must never trump the dignity and rights of other peoples.
It is an honour to speak to Sikhs anywhere about human rights, given your long commitment as a spiritual community to respecting each other and humanity at large, regardless of faith, race, or income. June marks a very trying period for your community; it is the month that saw both the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev ji and the storming of the Golden Temple.
The reaction of Sikhs to any historical challenge is to stand up and strengthen society by challenging its prejudices. Your community lobbied hard for the right to wear a turban while serving our country in the R.C.M.P., thereby challenging Canada's commitment to cultural inclusiveness. You supported a youth who fought for his right to carry the kirpan to school, thereby helping to define religious freedom within our educational systems. The kirpan and the turban are symbolic reminders that Sikhs must stand up for anyone of need of help. Your community not only speaks, but acts for truth, equality, and justice. You make our nation and global community a more vibrant and just place not only for Sikhs, but for all of us. For this, the Sikh community deserves the profound thanks and respect of Canadians as a whole. Candidly, I wish that your community, which is doing so well, would do even more to help other communities across Canada and the world.
The concerns you are raising over human rights and trade is another instance of your ability to adapt historic concerns to modern realities. The Asia-Pacific has become Canada's second largest trade partner, and we all have a responsibility to apply our concern for human rights violations to our economic relationships throughout the region. Our country cannot strike a balance between human rights advocacy and the promotion of trade without recognizing three points.
First, our commitment to human rights advocacy should not be compromised by an effort to increase trade anywhere. The argument is made that the primary goal ought to be to promote trade; if that means turning a blind eye to human rights violations, so be it. I could not disagree more. Fundamental rights, including, the right to life, to religious freedom, to live in a system where torture by government is absolutely prohibited and the right to one's cultural heritage, should be non-negotiable.
Second, promoting human rights and international trade are not mutually exclusive; quite the opposite. In most cases, Canada is far more influential with states with which we have strong economic ties. Canada has been one of the most effective human dignity advocates in the world, largely because other states trust us, and this trust is built on interdependence, familiarity, and common interest– all strengthened by trade and investment. Furthermore, human rights are closely tied to standard of living. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 1.2 billion members of our human family live on less than $1 a day. Poverty often denies them the right to an education and usually freedom of movement. Canadian trade with the Asia-Pacific countries helps to combat poverty and to enable at least some poor families to access the dignity they deserve. Promoting trade and ensuring that people everywhere live with basic human rights and in peace are in fact complementary and must be approached hand in hand.
Third, this is not a problem to be fixed exclusively by governments. Our businesses need to act in a socially responsible manner, and civil society needs to promote justice and equality rather than reinforce prejudices. The best way to guarantee rights is for civil society everywhere to act as the eyes, ears, and mouth of the cause. International NGOs are also an effective way of monitoring what goes on within other countries. I understand the WSO is attempting to gain NGO status. With or without it, I am sure that you will continue to speak out for those who are unable to speak, and bring their plight to the attention of Canadians generally. Together, governments and civil society stand the best chance at finding and helping those many in need.
What Sikhs have experienced in different places, times and circumstances, has only made you stronger and better able to forge ahead. Sometimes it has taken them very long to obtain rightful redress (e.g. the Kamagata Maru matter in 1914, when 376 passengers, mostly Sikhs, were not allowed to disembark from a Japanese steamship in Vancouver). Canadians at large have learned much about Sikhs and Sikhism since 1984 and have come to better understand both.
The political climate has changed in India much for the better too. The current government, headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, is focused on economic growth and is seeking a place of pride among the responsible community of nations. It also seems inclined to mend fences with an energetic and enterprising global community with strong roots in India: Sikhs.
Finally, and in a similar vein, I believe that Canada and all dignity-respecting countries should now be building special political-trade-investment relationships with India, along with all other rule-of-law democracies across Asia. Certainly, India's governments have made mistakes—as those in all democracies have--but the citizens of India have never abandoned government of, by and for the people. Given the special challenges Indians face as the planet's largest democracy, that is a remarkable accomplishment and is perhaps attributable in no small measure to the extraordinary leadership provided by the late Mahatma Gandhi, who is increasingly admired by people of all ages and backgrounds across the world for his commitment to non-violence.