In Brampton, Sikh survivors, community mark India’s 1984 ‘bloodletting’

It’s been 40 years since thousands of Sikhs were killed and displaced in India, but many in Brampton’s Sikh community say they’re still waiting for justice.Nearly 1,000 people gathered at The Rose theatre last week to commemorate the 40th anniversary of anti-Sikh violence in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.The violence resulted in thousands of Sikhs fleeing the country, many to Canada where Brampton is now home to over 160,000 Sikh people.”Not many people know that there’s this horrible… bloodletting that took place against us,” Ravi Singh, founder and CEO of Khalsa Aid, told CBC Toronto. Singh spoke at the event about the impact of family members killed for being Sikh and about the Indian government’s involvement. He wasn’t alone. Their goal, he says, was to ask residents to advocate for Canada to recognize the 1984 massacre as Sikh genocide and call upon the Indian government to penalize perpetrators who remain at large. “Yet everyone’s gone silent,” Singh said. “Why are the Sikhs being made to feel that we don’t deserve justice?”Now-federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s advocacy led the Ontario government to recognize the violence as a genocide in 2017. In 2018, Singh, who had by then become the party’s leader, said the same should be done at the federal level. The federal government has so far not done so. At the event, his brother Gurratan Singh, a former MPP for Brampton-East, asked attendees to sign the NDP’s petition launched last week for Canada to recognize the “state-organized killing spree” as Sikh genocide. CBC Toronto has requested comment from the federal government and will update this story with its response if received. Sikh leader’s death should be ‘wake-up call’: advocateRavi Singh said Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s death in a shooting outside a Surrey gurdwara in June 2023 only adds urgency to the calls.Nijjar’s killing sparked calls from the Sikh community for an inquiry into foreign interference, as well as a diplomatic dispute between Canada and India over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accusing the Indian government of involvement in Nijjar’s death.  “If his death is not a wake-up call for you, I don’t know what will be,” Ravi Singh said. At an event in Brampton last week, survivor of 1984 anti-Sikh violence Satpal Singh shared his story of narrowly escaping death when a mob attacked him on a train to Delhi. He received a standing ovation. (Saloni Bhugra/CBC)An April foreign interference hearing heard that according to Canada’s spy agency, India tried to influence votes in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections.Even though India called the allegations “baseless” in a statement to CBC News, experts like Wesley Wark at the Centre for International Governance Innovation say India has a goal “to intimidate or suppress diaspora communities — particularly Sikh Canadians — to kind of take them out of the political game if they can.” WATCH | The Fifth Estate’s ‘A Contract to Kill’: A U.S. indictment bolstered Justin Trudeau’s claim that the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada was carried out by the Indian government. We speak to other alleged targets and give exclusive insight into the plot.Ravi Singh from Khalsa Aid says the perpetrators got away in 1984, and worries that the Indian government is on the path to repeating history. “If you are raising a voice against the state of India for what they’re carrying out, they will target your family and friends,” he said. According to a 2005 report by a retired Indian judge into the violence, about 2,800 Sikhs were killed, some “cut into pieces” and “burnt alive” by violent mobs. But many in the Sikh community say the death toll is much higher.Sikhs felt the attacks were organized by members of the then ruling Congress party and their supporters, wrote Justice Girish Thakural Nanavati in the report, and felt the Delhi police were not only negligent in protecting Sikhs but “instigated such attacks.” The Consulate General of India to Canada did not respond to CBC Toronto’s requests for comment.’Like going to a funeral… for months’Survivor Satpal Singh received a standing ovation Friday for sharing how he narrowly escaped death after a mob attacked him on a train to Delhi in 1984.”Someone snatched the turban off my head, pulled my hair and dragged me by it… tearing my hair out, swearing at me, kicking every part of my body,” he said during his speech.He said all he could think was about hugging his wife and kids. But he survived by escaping to an army camp and called it “a miracle.”Mandeep Singh grew up in Brampton and was seven years of age in 1984. He remembers visiting the Pape gurdwara in Toronto with his family to get information on his relatives’ well-being, which felt ‘like going to a funeral… for months,’ he said. (Submitted by Mandeep Singh)Ravi Singh from Khalsa Aid says such attacks were common, adding that he lost a brother who was shot and tortured by police.”I saw all this myself at about 14,” Singh said. “It is like an indelible mark on your mind, your whole existence,” he said in tears.CBC Toronto has not independently verified these accounts. Mandeep Singh was just seven in 1984. He says he remembers how the Pape gurdwara in Toronto — which was a playground for him — turned into a centre for Sikh families to get information about their family’s well being.”I remember there was this intense feeling,” he said. “It was like going to a funeral… for months at a time.”Attendees hope event inspires youthAttendees like Ranbir Kaur say the Sikh community won’t remain silent against injustice.Kaur, a Brampton resident, said she felt compelled to attend the event last week to hear about her community’s suffering.Ranbir Kaur said she attended the Friday event to hear about the resilience of the Sikh community and pass on those stories to her children. (Saloni Bhugra/CBC)She says stories about the community’s resilience in troubled times could reignite passion for justice in Brampton’s Sikh youth. “But we are losing those voices with age, with them passing,” she said, adding she hopes the stories will resonate with her children. 

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