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On Human Rights*
Cynthia Mahmood**

[* Speech delivered at the 18th July, 1998 Symposium, Columbia University, U.S.A.]
[** (Dr), Department of Anthropology]

[Reproduced from Abstracts of Sikh Studies, Oct-Dec 1998]

I am very happy to be here with you today, but sad that we have to be here to continue to talk about the human rights issues that still shape any dialogue about the future of Punjab and the future of the Sikhs. Through my academic research on the problems faced by religious minorities in South Asia, I have come to understand a little bit about the dilemmas in which they find themselves at the end of the twentieth century. I will suggest today that one of the key problems facing the Sikhs is that of communication to the outside world. There is no doubt that Sikhs have suffered in India and there is no doubt that many have worked with diligence and courage to improve the human rights situation there. We will be hearing from some of these inspiring individuals today. But it is also true that non-Sikhs in the Western world know little or nothing about what has happened and what continues to happen in the country that proudly claims itself as the world’s largest democracy. We have to face up to the fact that this is so, and bluntly ask what we can do about it.

The first problem in talking about human rights abuses is the fact that atrocities against individuals and their homes and their places of worship are, in an important sense, unspeakable. I have found in my own attempts to research and write about these matters that the very essence of terror is that it pushes us beyond the arena in which words can suffice. Who can find words strong enough to convey the horror of torture, of rape and of the sudden ‘disappearance’ of loved ones among us ? What words can capture the image of the devastated Akal Takht in 1984? No one has these words, and instead, we see paintings and photos on the walls of Sikh homes and on the front pages of Sikh newspapers, and we resort to euphemisms like ‘insult’ and ‘dishonour’ when what we mean is the most intimate brutality possible.

Add to this the very real fear that accompanies any attempt to publicize abuses, and one is left with mostly silence, indeed the Dead Silence labelled in the Human Rights Watch document by that name. But still somehow, reports emerge, witnesses appear, and activists press on, refusing to let the world forget what has happened, despite all pressure to do so. Let me share with you an image that always comes to my mind when I think about this. A fellow anthropologist and a good friend of mine recently wrote a book about the civil war in Mozambique, which was accompanied by civilian atrocities on an unthinkably immense scale. My friend described in her book how a vendor in a market at the height of the abuses tried to sell her a wood carving which appeared to be the traditional three monkeys illustrating the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” injunction. She turned away from the vendor in disgust, believing that the covering up of evil was one of the sources of the problem in Mozambique, that persistent terror had turned the population into ostriches who would rather keep their heads in the sand than to take the risk of testifying to the abuses they were suffering. But when she looked at the carving more closely, she saw that while it appeared to be a simple “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, it was not. Two of the fingers covering one eye were slightly parted, and the palm of one hand failed to cover all of one ear. Behind the fingers in front of the mouth, lips were parted in speech. The point is, this wood carver was conveying in sculpture the fact that the truth can never be totally suppressed. People may be afraid, but somebody somewhere will look, somebody somewhere will hear, and somebody somewhere will speak. The mute ebony of that carving testifies eloquently to the irrepressible human spirit, which in Mozambique or Punjab will venture forth despite all threats, horrors, and fears.

No, the dribs and drabs of truth do come out, but the question is whether they are then amplified, heard and acted upon by the world community, or whether they linger briefly as anguished whispers, then disappear. I’m afraid we all know the answer to that question with regard to India. One journalist referred to India as a ‘teflon country’, and it is true that criticisms of the world’s largest democracy seem to roll off like water on oil. Young Americans and Canadians are not organizing solidarity committees like they did for Central America, or pressing for international sanctions as they did for South Africa. Even in India, people are not aware of what is going on in India. There is a lot of talk of government propaganda, but governments always propagandize, and this is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of human rights consciousness in India. The fact is that propaganda in this case builds on a deep mythos that envelops both foreign and domestic observers. Barbara Crossette, who wrote the excellent meditation, India — Facing the Twenty-First Century, commented that in India the ‘mantra’ of democracy, as she calls it, overwhelms all dissent. And this national mantra, chanted ad nauseum both within and outside of India, builds on a yet deeper mythology — that of Eastern mysticism, harmony, and tolerance. How can there be religious persecution in a nation whose most famous spokesperson is known to the world as one of the great spiritual lights of our age? And it is then but a short step to labelling protesters, resisters and separatists as ‘extremists’, ‘fanatics’, ‘fundamentalists’, ‘terrorists’, and so on.

During my last visit to India, I was amazed to see how acceptable it had become to speak of restive minorities in these terms, and how readily the frame of national discourse had shifted to accomodate a renascent Hindu nationalism that would have been unthinkable to the founders of the Indian secular state. It had become acceptable because of the perceived threat from minority groups, which in the vision of many Indians justifies a retrenchment, a circling of the wagons if you will. Academics, my own cultural world, has been largely complicit in this. The burden of explanation for communal conflict in India falls on the discontented minorities: what is it about Sikhs that makes them so violent? It’s like asking what is wrong with U.S. Blacks, that they cannot seem to just fit in with the rest of American society, but instead start movements like civil rights, militant Islam, Black Nationalism, Afrocentrism, and so on. Well, we won’t understand racial problems in the United States by looking at African-Americans alone. We have to re-think our view of the whole society to see what has gone wrong. Likewise, no amount of investigation into the Sikh community itself will provide an answer as to why the Sikhs are ‘so violent’. We have to look at what India is as a state and as a civilization to see what has prompted such vehemence. When we see a whole concert of resistive movements — Sikhs in Punjab, Muslims in Kashmir, tribals in the northeast — we are pushed even more strongly to ask what it is about the Center that prompts these continuously rebelling peripheries.

In my opinion, it is only a radical re-thinking of India itself that will allow people to hear the message of human rights abuses that seem now to have such a hard time getting through, no matter how courageously they are being voiced. This re-thinking includes two major points: 1) that intergroup violence in India is not anomalous, but endemic; and 2) that such violence is linked to long-term majority-minority dynamics in Indian society.

This is the hidden context of any discussion of human rights in India, without which assertions of rights appear as chimerical words on United Nations documents, powerful in their proposed universality, but meaningless in a society based firmly on the particulars of caste, status, and community.

As several scholars have pointed out, ‘India’ is best understood not as analogous to states like France or Germany, but as something like ‘Europe’ — a melange of peoples and polities that have moved through time, sometimes apart, sometimes together, in an amorphous cultural trajectory rather than a specific national history. While it is common today to question the artificiality of colonially-imposed boundaries, few of the skeptics in this area push the broader implications of the subcontinent’s long-term fragmentation into, not pacifically co-existing, but in fact often embattled, communities. And the South Asian subcontinent has had its share of intergroup violence in the precolonial period, however whitewashed this is in most of the schoolbooks Indian children today typically grow up with. A key example is the so-called ‘decline’ of Buddhism, portrayed typically as either the failure of an essentially negativistic philosophy to flourish — a view which is contradicted by the wild success of this tradition in every other country it touched — or as the gradual ‘absorption’ of a welcomed reform movement into the broader ocean of Hinduism, the Buddha conceived as an avtar of Vishnu, and so on. What these common views ignore is the fact that this ‘decline’ and ‘absorption’ was accompanied by great violence, as a deeper investigation into the historical record attests. It is important that these historical episodes of religious persecution be carefully and publicly documented, as they cast a different light on the nature of Indian society itself and hence help us understand rebellions against it. The ‘enigma’ of Buddhism’s disappearance, as it is called in the vast scholarly industry spawned by this presumed paradox, is now matched by the ‘puzzle’ of Sikh violence, usually resolved by recourse to the language of psychopathology and criminality.

India is one of the most deeply unequal societies the world has ever known. It is the type case for anthropologists and sociologists teaching about rigid stratification systems, the polar end on the scale of social hierarchy. It is hardly surprising that this system spawns periodic violence. No amount of cultural relativism can explain away the degraded circumstances of India’s millions of Untouchables, for whom the intricacies of the religious philosophy that defines their status mean very little. How much does it mean to an Indian Muslim that the state which failed to protect his place of worship at Ayodhya from Hindu mobs proclaims itself to be liberal and secular, to protect all faiths equally? The claims of spiritual depth and democratic commitment so celebrated in India don’t ring true for Dalits or for Muslims, for whom more concrete images of personal humiliation and crumbled mosques eclipse all religious and political rhetoric. And for a Sikh, the insult to the Guru that occurred in June of 1984 gives lie to every government statement of support for the rights and freedoms of minority communities.

The cycles of repression, rebellion and response that have marked intergroup relations on the subcontinent not only since Independence but for centuries or even millenia are also, let me hasten to add, a fertile source of the cultural wealth with which this part of the world is blessed. Were India a harmonious, consensual and monolithic society, we would not now have the rich spiritual traditions of Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and of course Sikhism, to benefit from. All of these indigenous faiths were born and nurtured in conditions of conflict. South Asian Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam, though originating elsewhere, were shaped by this selfsame milieu, and the animistic traditions of the tribal peoples who are only now finding a voice will benefit from this dynamic as well.

The problem is that the intergroup dialogue which has been so fruitful in one sense, has been highly pernicious in another. Can we find a way to celebrate the philosophical and cultural buoyancy India has to offer, while condemning in the strongest terms the violence that periodically erupts along the fault lines between groups? And make no mistake: this violence does not happen evenhandedly. It is the minorities, the aboriginal peoples, and the backward castes and Dalits who suffer disproportionately.

Political scientist Paul Brass, writing in the prestigious Cambridge History of India series, noted that the mood in India by the middle 1980’s bore an ominous resemblance to that of 1930’s Germany, likening the orchestrated urban pogroms against Sikhs and Muslims to so many Kristallnachts. Nehru, all the way back at the time of Independence, referred to the right-wing Hindu organization RSS as ‘India’s version of fascism’. Who would have thought, despite these insights, that today there would be elected officials in India who would publicly and blatantly express praise for Adolf Hitler and the solution he found to the ‘Jewish problem’, or who would declare outright that the Muslims were a cancerous blot on the face of India. People say crazy things, but the point here is that the people who say them in India now are riding a crest of electoral enthusiasm rather than suffering the condemnation of their society. And, the people who say them have now shown their mettle — and their utter disregard for world opinion — by setting off five nuclear blasts. There is a movement afoot among Hindu nationalists to build a temple at the test site. This horrifying phenomenon, too, is part of the context in which we today talk about human rights.

Despite the recent attention to the South Asian region prompted by the tit-for-tat nuclear testing in India and Pakistan, it is quite amazing how little this area of the world is actually featured in the Western media. Why don’t we see 60 Minutes and 20/20 and PBS documentaries focusing on it? Why did the ten year anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the Indian Army assault on the Golden Temple Complex, pass without much notice outside of gurdwaras? The frankly overblown rhetoric of many Sikh leaders, while effective in re-awakening the wrath of the Sikh community toward the government that attacked its holiest shrine, sounds alien and exaggerated to Western ears. In Western civil discourse there is a different tone and language used in discussion of human rights, and this cultural difference has yet to be fully appreciated by many of the India-born Sikhs. Our discourse is moderated and understated; theirs is inflated, filled with hyperbole, dense with anger. While understandable, it is simply not effective in communicating the message to non-Sikh Western audiences.

The image of Sikh activists as religious fanatics interferes further in any attempt to communicate what is happening in Punjab to the outside world. Education about the Sikh religion is a good place to start. But not many Sikhs reciprocate by trying to learn about other religious groups here who in fact could evolve into natural allies in the human rights arena — Jews, for example, and various denominations of Christians. The expatriate Sikh community is an inward-looking one — again, perhaps understandable since it is in an important sense a community under siege, but destructive insofar as this inner-directedness inhibits the building of critical bridges to others. The abyss that yawns between some Sikh intellectuals and some of the Western scholars studying Sikhism is one that is off-putting, not to say frightening, to many students who might otherwise become interested in the study of Sikh tradition. Sikh Studies is something of an academic minefield. So why bother? Particularly since anyone taking a strongly critical approach to India itself may already find him or herself a pariah among South Asianists. I know from experience that it can feel like one has no home anywhere. This community simply has to make it a priority to be more welcoming to those attempting to learn its ways, share its challenges, and face its risks. Given the apalling human rights record of the Indian state, it is not surprising that resistive movements have sprung up. When, in the discourse of Hindutva, non-Hindu minorities are treated as traitors to the Indian polity, it is not surprising that some of them proceed to aspire to their own polities, where they would be not traitors but nationalists. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights itself proclaims, in its preamble, that if human rights are not protected then people may be ‘compelled to rebel’. This compulsion is in fact granted some legitimacy in the form of widely-accepted respect for self-determination movements. In the United States, we can hardly turn up our noses at such movements, having founded our own nation on one. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; Nelson Mandela ends up as President of South Africa. The list goes on and on, of course. Activists for a sovereign Sikh state of Khalistan believe themselves to be George Washingtons or Menachem Begins, following this line of reasoning. But almost nobody outside the Khalistani community thinks of them that way. It is hard to think of any movement, in my experience, that has so consistently gotten a bad press. Right-wing analysts, left-wing analysts, it doesn’t matter — it’s hard to find a sympathetic voice. Those few journalists and academicians who have spoken or written with some measure of respect on the topic of Khalistan are known by name to practically all politically-conscious Sikhs, so few are they in number.

Self-determination has been a widely respected bulwark of the global international order since the time of Woodrow Wilson. It made particular sense in terms of the decolonization of Asia and Africa that took place through about the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. It also made sense when the world was divided into geographically rooted and territorially defined ethnic groups in a sort of cookie-cutter fashion.

This is no longer the case today, however; only a handful of states now are actually congruent with nations — using this word to mean, as it did classically, ‘peoples’. Although we use the phrase, ‘nation-state’, in fact what we have around the world today are mostly multinational states.

And intra-state violence has reached the proportions of being virtually a third world war, in terms of casualties at least. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in an essay titled Pandaemonium, provocatively asserts that the principle of self-determination has in this age of deteritorialization wreaked havoc on the world order. Nobody opening up a newspaper today can fail to agree with this on some level. If one minority group succeeds in getting its own state, there’s yet another minority within that erstwhile minority clammering for sovereignty. The First Nations and Quebec, for example.

The standards for self-determination movements are getting higher, as the world has become sated with calls for revolution that seem to lead to states which again prompt revolutions within their borders. It is no longer the case that a heroic insurgency automatically wins the alliance of rebellious or wishfully rebellious segments of other societies. During my college days in the United States, we all had posters of Che Guevara up on our dormitory walls. Students today are much more likely to sport Save the Rainforest T-shirts, and to express cynicism about revolutionary projects centered on the social rather than the environmental order. In this climate, a separatist movement hoping to win allies in the West faces an uphill battle.

All guerilla insurgencies face problems that armed forces legitimated by state authority do not. But the Khalistani militancy, even among this set, has been particularly chaotic. Multiple committees claiming leadership, multiple organizations conducting operations, and eventually a nearly complete breakdown of order ended up alienating the bulk of the population of Punjab. When a Sikh arrives in London or Ottawa or Washington claiming political asylum as a Khalistani, if that person is seen to have been involved in militancy, the suspicion will be that he is seeking to avoid prosecution for crimes rather than persecution for political activism. I believe we will be hearing later from Mary Pike, who has worked extensively on this issue. The plain fact is that because of the amorphousness of authority in the Khalistani groups, many wrongdoings occurred, and even the most vehement supporter of Khalistan has to acknowledge that. Combine this with the fact that what we have here is not a secular but a religious sort of nationalism, and we’ve got a movement very difficult for outsiders to get a grip on.

The Khalistan movement has the further problem of a very poorly articulated conception of what the proposed state of Khalistan would actually be like. There is a Declaration of Independence but no guidelines or drafts or suggestions for a constitutional order. When I am around Khalistanis, I think often of Thomas Jefferson, who distinguished between those who embrace ‘the wild gas of liberty’ and those who have the discipline and clear-sightedness to draw up the laws that will guarantee that liberty. The Khalistanis are clearly of the ‘wild gas’ variety. No one doubts their courage and dedication as fighters, whatever else one may think of them. But as future statespersons, most of them leave a lot to be desired.

Despite all I have said just now, I want to make the assertion that although the Khalistan movement is full of flaws and although its religious character renders it alien to many of us in the West, and although it is chaotic and can never be reduced to a kind of flow-chart military model — something I once tried to produce for my book but had to give up quickly — the Khalistan movement is in its essence a political and not a criminal movement. To return to my opening remarks about the character of India, let me say that when one looks at the broader, subcontinental context of Sikh insurgency, one is brought to the inevitable conclusion that what we have here is a political order that has hovered around the threshold between majoritarian democracy and proto-fascism, and when it slips toward the latter it sparks armed resistance. Let me say this clearly. The rhetoric of ‘terrorism’, carrying all the heart-pounding connotations of psychopathology and monstrousness, covers up the plain fact that it is regular human beings who have been pushed to involvement in the Khalistan movement by the circumstances of late twentieth century India. As long as we are unable to see India for what it is, blemishes and all, we will be unable to see Khalistanis and others like them as anything other than ‘terrorists’ beyond reason and beyond redemption.

This past semester I showed my class on South Asia the famous movie, Gandhi. As most of you know this film paints a wildly idealistic picture, which was lapped up by Westerners aching for a noble Third-World pacifist. As a class we criticized the film in this way and that way, with me as a teacher hoping to show the students how to respond to such films with an appropriate level of skepticism. But the power of the image of Gandhi was too much for one young man to resist. Amidst the flurry of critical comments he asked, “But don’t you think this is a beautiful movie, a beautiful idea? Even if it’s not entirely accurate?” Well, it’s beautiful all right. But since it’s led to a whitewash of a seriously rights-abusing country, I cringe when I see it, its seductiveness playing on Western gullibility about Eastern simplicity, humility, and tranquillity. A news commentator, noting the recent nuclear blasts, said with an entirely straight face that it seemed that India was not living up to its Gandhian heritage. From my viewpoint, that is so understated as to be obscene.

The Khalistani insurgency has wound down over the past few years, and the human rights situation in Punjab has greatly improved. We know that this improvement is severely incomplete, and other speakers will be addressing the details of that incompleteness. Although I celebrate attempts to rectify the human rights situation such as the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission, I think the bigger picture should caution us not to leap too quickly to agree that everything is fine. Abuses continue unabated in Kashmir and the northeast, where insurgencies threaten, and not only do they continue but they continue without much protest from the Indian electorate at all. Therefore, I cannot conceive of rights improvements in Punjab as durable or fundamental. This is a state which uses abusive tactics when it feels it needs to, with the support of most of its population. It’s a state in which nationalists of the majority community publicly proclaim the unreliability of minority communities as Indian citizens, a state on a swing into the proto-fascist side now. Will it rebound ? It always has so far. India came back from the dictatorship of the Emergency period; its democracy is rooted enough to assert itself again and again. The point is, when it slips, people are killed.

That’s the risk we have to assess when we think about the question of asylum for Sikhs here in the West. And it’s a risk many in their community want to take no longer, and so have turned to radicalism.

It is no longer true that all Sikhs or all amritdhari Sikhs have a well-founded fear of persecution in the immediate sense. While the decade of the 1980’s and the first part of the l990’s saw random harassment, detention, physical and mental abuses, and extrajudicial execution of Sikhs, today this egregious pattern has declined significantly. Reports from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and similar agencies in other countries all emphasise the weakening of the system of large-scale abuse that marked Punjab up until a few years ago. I and others have argued, however, that we must be cautious in celebrating this apparent turn-around.

First of all, there are some categories of people who remain at significant risk. Militants or perceived militants, Khalistani activists, and their family members and close supporters top this list. We continue to see harassment of anybody thought to have now or to have had previously an association with Khalistanis, and both former Director General of Police, Gill, and current Director General of Police, Dogra, have said that monitoring Khalistan sympathisers abroad was a key part of their attempt to forestall a revival of separatist sentiment. This latter aspect of Punjab security efforts must be taken into account when we think about the potential return to India of people who are politically active here, whatever they may or may not have done in the homeland.

A second category of people still at risk are those typically termed ‘history sheeters’, that is, individuals with a record of previous arrests and detentions. The important thing to remember here is that at the local level police in Punjab, like police in most other states of India, are only relatively under the control of directives from the central government.

The criminal justice system in India is chaotic, by the standards of most Western countries. While the attempts to focus attention on human rights at the national level are themselves severely limited, even were they more extensive one would not be able to assume the programs are effectively put into practice at grass roots level. We know that bounties were paid to police during the height of the Khalistani insurgency to bring in ‘terrorists’, but it is also true that extortion, bribery and the carrying out of personal vendettas form a normal part of police functioning even in times of ‘normalcy’. Someone with a local history of abuse in these terms may still face persecution despite the improved overall climate. Furthermore, lists are still kept of ‘habitual offenders’, who are then rounded up for questioning whenever something untoward happens. Note also that these lists are distributed across India via police computers. Therefore, internal flight may not help an individual whose name appears.

The third category of people still at substantial risk are women. With the exception of a Canadian Refugee Board document on Women in India, this half of the population is entirely neglected in the many reports and guidelines that come out on the Punjab situation. This silence is in spite of the glaring fact that almost all women taken into police custody in Punjab are abused in some form or other. Rape is very common, often gang rape, and other sexually-related tortures like vaginal electric shock and cutting of the breasts and nipples take place routinely. Though it has been said often before, I will say once again here that the cultural proscription against talking about the sexual abuse of women in Punjab means that reports of these events are drastically understated. Even the close family members of abused women may not be aware of what has happened, and if they are, they may not want to report it because of a sense of shame and a fear of social repercussions like unmarriageability. On top of this, women are rarely able to leave their home environments for economic and cultural reasons, and internal flight is a virtual impossibility save for a tiny minority of professional and educated women. We see very few female asylum claims here in the West for the same reason. Despite the absence of information about women in the reports and guidelines on Punjab, women today are among the top risk categories, in my opinion.

To sum up : there have been improvements in the human rights picture in Punjab. Exceptions to the improved situation are activists and their close relatives and supporters, ‘history sheeters’ or persons with a record of local abuse, and women. Other signs of improvement should be welcomed, but received with a degree of skepticism because the overall rights picture in India fails to show durable and fundamental commitment. Counterinsurgency-related abuses in Kashmir and the northeast show that if the Khalistani insurgency again flares, Punjab can expect more of the same.

How likely is it that the Khalistan movement will revive ? It is certainly true that the population at large, while at one time heavily sympathetic towards the Khalistan idea, has become disenchanted and today appears quiescent. It is not true, however, that all the militants have been killed or jailed or have turned around; there is still a core group which may retain some capacity for action and I believe that this core group retains some level of support from a broader resistance community. More significant, however, is the fact that the initial grievances of the Khalistanis have not been resolved, and have been topped by fifteen years of government excesses that have alienated a large proportion of the Sikh population irrevocably. It is my considered judgement that eventually tensions will rise once again — maybe in the form of the Khalistan movement or maybe in some other form. I think it would be naive and short-sighted to suggest that the current relative quiet means, in fact, ‘peace and normalcy’. There are many serious discontents in Punjab and sooner or later they will surface. Impressions of the civic loyalty of the urban elites, which form the primary contacts for many scholars, political analysts and others interested in India, do not hold true for the vast rural masses. We should not forget that most of us entirely missed the depth of the tensions in Iran that led to the Khomeini revolution, as we also failed to predict the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Last weekend, at another meeting, someone asked me whether, if the original grievances of the Sikhs were resolved, a true peace and normalcy could be established in Punjab. I had to say honestly that I did not think this was the case. Had a greater measure of autonomy been granted Punjab and other regions at the time of Independence, these Center-periphery tensions might have been avoided. But now a great deal of damage has been done, and much of that damage does not relate to hydroelectricity, agricultural pricing, or Chandigarh, but to the deeply wounded pride of a people. I do not know whether the sentiments of these people who have experienced every sort of fear, pain and degradation, can ever be brought round to a feeling of pan-Indian pride and solidarity. I do know that any hope of the long-term integration of the Sikhs with the nation of India will have to be based on a full and fair accounting of the past fifteen years of atrocities. The spiritual cleansing offered by a Peoples Commission might not be enough, but it is a critical start in my opinion.

If we want to prevent the pandemonium of infinitely-regressing self- determination movements, we have to unhesitatingly work for the protection of human rights within existing multinational or multiethnic or multireligious states. That is the message I am left with after years of study of movements like that centering on the demand for Khalistan. Some extremists will always be there advocating revolution, but the reason they find fertile ground in the population as a whole is that it is a population whose human rights are not secure. India was founded on the noblest of principles. Despite its massive human problems — devastating poverty, illiteracy and disease highest among them — it has maintained enough momentum to continue as some kind of democracy for over fifty years now.

Nobody really wants to see a country with such high aspirations fail. But if it does fail, it will not be because of Sikh terrorism. It will be because, good intentions aside, it has failed to protect the elemental rights of its citizens.

True, the Sikhs are not like many of us. We don’t always understand their religion and we feel frustrated with the complexities of Punjabi social life. They don’t run their political movements the way we do and certainly they haven’t run their independence movement the way we would like. But I’ll conclude by saying that the reason most of us are here today has nothing to do with whether we like them or whether we think the notion of Khalistan is a good idea or whether we sympathise with their religious beliefs. We are here because the human rights of many of the Sikhs have not been respected and their dignity as human beings has been challenged by torture, rape, disappearance and death. It is our great honor and privilege today to play a small role in ensuring that they retrieve it.

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