FRESNO (Diya TV) — An estimated 500 Sikhs came from as far as Sacramento, hoping to find a place to sit inside the City Hall chambers which sit about 250. Buses were packed with community members from Sikh temples to attend the meeting.
The room erupted in cheers when, after more than an hour of public and council comment, Fresno’s city council recognized the 1984 killings of thousands of Sikhs in India as a genocide Thursday night. The votes came in at five in favor of the resolution, two – Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero – abstained.
Ages of all had flocked to the hall to witness the vote. All seats were occupied on the main floor and on the balcony by men, women and children, young and old. Dozens more stood inside and in the entryway. Many held signs reading “India committed genocide” or held American flags.
“This is a new chapter for Sikh history here in Fresno,” said Naindeep Singh, executive director of the local youth leadership nonprofit Jakara Movement.
Ninth months after the resolution was proposed by Councilman Clint Olivier, it passed. It also followed a controversy in June after the Indian consul of San Francisco met with council members to convince them Olivier’s draft resolution was inaccurate and one-sided — soon, Olivier tabled the resolution to do more research after Sudarshan Kapoor, a retired Fresno State social work professor and longtime peace activist, spoke out against it.
The resolution was sponsored this time by Olivier, Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria. The language did not change from when it was first proposed.
Though the genocide resolution doesn’t change laws, “you will know that we stand with you,” Baines said. “And that means something.”
While they are a religious minority in India, Sikhs represent the vast majority of Indians in the central San Joaquin Valley. Other cities in California, including Bakersfield and Kerman, have recognized the 1984 killings as a genocide. The California Assembly declared it a pogrom, or an organized massacre.
Mohinder Kahlon of Fresno addressed the council in Punjabi. He shared the story of his father and brother who were killed in Delhi in 1984. His three children watched dead people being pulled out of houses. They saw temples and homes go up in flames. Nearly his entire neighborhood was destroyed.
Tadeh Issakhanian, a community activist who is Armenian, said Fresno’s Sikhs, Armenians and Hmong residents “share a unique but unfortunate bond through genocide.”
Sikh separatists in the early 1980s committed human rights abuses including massacring civilians, attacking Hindu minorities and bombing crowded places, according to Human Rights Watch. In June 1984, the Indian government sent troops into the field to remove militants who had seized the Golden Temple in Amritsar – the religion’s most important site. The deployment caused serious damage to the shrine and resulted in hundreds of deaths. In revenge, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards.
In the period following the assassination, an estimated 3,000 sikhs around the country. Sikh advocacy groups say that number is much higher – 30,000 killed, thousands of women raped, hundreds of temples burned and more than 300,000 displaced.
Kerman City Councilman Bill Nijjer, who worked closely with Olivier on the resolution, said elected officials and police were ordered to support death squads. Men were burned, women were raped. Mass graves were uncovered as recently as 2011, he said. While he and others spoke, a slideshow of black-and-white photos from 1984 depicted bloodied people lying in the streets and piles of bodies.
The Indian consul’s June visit sparked backlash.
The activist group Sikhs For Justice lodged a complaint with the U.S. Department of State against the consul, Ambassador Venkatesan Ashok, for referring to some Sikhs as extremists in an interview with The Bee. And the Sikh Council of Central California banned Kapoor as well as Central Unified School District Trustee Rama Dawar from future Sikh events for“representing the interests of a foreign government in genocide-denial over the expressed interests of the Sikh community in Fresno.”
Afterward, Dawar and Kapoor expressed concerns for their personal safety. Dawar later said he supported the resolution.
For his part, Amb. Venkatesan said the Indian government has acted, distributing millions of dollars in compensation to victims, convicting hundreds of people in court and investigating the tragedy. In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is Sikh, apologized on behalf of the country to the entire community.