Fresno is the latest Valley city to recognize the 1984 killings of thousands of Sikhs in India as a genocide.
The Fresno City Council voted Thursday night to make the formal recognition. The vote came before a packed council chamber.
An estimated 500 Sikhs came from as far as Sacramento, trying to find a spot inside the City Council chambers that holds 250 people. Buses transported community members from Sikh temples to City Hall to show their support.
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 clutched American flags.
The room erupted in cheers when, after more than an hour of public and council comment, the votes came in. Five council members favored the resolution. Two – Paul Caprioglio and Sal Quintero – abstained.
“This is a new chapter for Sikh history here in Fresno,” said Naindeep Singh, executive director of the local youth leadership nonprofit Jakara Movement.
The vote took place nine months after the resolution was initially proposed by Councilman Clint Olivier. 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.
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. Kapoor said the resolution would create hatred and bitterness.
“We mean no harm to those who have a different point of view,” Olivier said Thursday. “This is about healing.”
The resolution was sponsored this time by Olivier, Oliver Baines and Esmeralda Soria. The language did not change from when it was first proposed.
Baines said the council often takes symbolic positions. Though the genocide resolution doesn’t change laws, he said, “you will know that we stand with you. And that means something.”
Councilman Lee Brand’s vote in favor of the resolution was a departure from his remarks to The Bee in June that it would only further divide the community. Meetings with Sikh community members convinced him. “I believe there was a genocide and a coverup by the Indian government,” he said.
Councilman Steve Brandau also voted for the resolution.
Sikhs are a religious minority in India but make up the vast majority of Indians in the central San Joaquin Valley. Other cities in California have recognized the killings as a genocide, including Bakersfield and Kerman, as well as the Fresno Council of Governments. The California Assembly declared it a pogrom, or an organized massacre.
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Mohinder Kahlon of Fresno addressed the council in Punjabi. Through an interpreter, he said his father and brother 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.” In a reference to Kapoor’s perspective, he said denial brings hatred and bitterness, not recognition.
According to Human Rights Watch, Sikh separatists in the early 1980s committed human rights abuses including massacring civilians, attacking Hindu minorities and bombing crowded places. In June 1984, the Indian government deployed troops to remove militants who had seized the Golden Temple in Amritsar – the religion’s most important site.
The military campaign 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.
The Indian government estimates nearly 3,000 Sikhs were killed around the country in the period immediately following Gandhi’s murder. 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 in India 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 slide show 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. State Department 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, Ashok 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.