When Navkiran Kaur Khalra arrived in the Valley in fall of 2009, she was eager to begin her master’s degree at Fresno State. While her fellow Bulldogs fumbled to find their new classes, few of her classmates knew about the journey of Navkiran, her family, and her father that led her to the Valley.
Navkiran is the daughter of Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra. Now an engineer in Milpitas, she returned to Fresno Thursday to take a seat in Fresno City Hall along with 250 members of the Sikh community. The purpose was to witness her father’s story becoming known to a new generation of Fresnans.
Councilmember Oliver Baines moved to rename Victoria West Park on Clinton and Brawley in honor of her late father – Jaswant Singh Khalra. It was passed with a unanimous vote, including Councilmembers Esmeralda Soria, Paul Caprioglio, Garry Bredefeld, and Clint Olivier each sharing heartfelt words.
Jaswant Singh was born in 1952, the grandson of Harnam Singh, a well-known freedom fighter against British colonialism and Canadian white supremacy. Jaswant was wedded to social justice causes. By his late 30s, Jaswant Singh was working as a bank director in Punjab, married to Paramjit Kaur, and had two children – a son, Janmeet, and a daughter, Navkiran.
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Life had been good personally, but he was not immune to the injustice around him.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a “dirty war” was conducted in Punjab. The Indian Government launched its full state armed forces against Sikh nationalists. During this war, tens of thousands of Sikhs “disappeared,” a euphemism for extra-judicial killings.
Sikhs were picked up from their homes by police forces, with their families forced to either pay ransoms or see their sons killed. Many of the thousands of Sikhs who live in the San Joaquin Valley arrived here to escape this violence.
Jaswant witnessed his colleagues disappearing before his eyes. He could not stay silent and began a journey for which he would give his life. Slowly and meticulously, he visited the families of those who disappeared and found material evidence of their extrajudicial killing by the Indian government. He publicized his findings.
He traveled throughout the world to tell anyone who would listen about what was occurring in Punjab. He provided his evidence in front of the Indian Human Rights Commission, United Nations, Amnesty International and the Canadian government.
He claimed his inspiration was the humanistic values of the Sikh gurus and his desire to lift a candlelight of protest against the darkness of injustice. Upon his return to Punjab in 1995, the police issued him a direct threat – “If 25,000 could be made to ‘disappear,’ why could they not make one more?”
While most would have quit after the threat of physical violence, Jaswant could not. He often remarked, how could he quit when he saw the longing and hurt of those mothers still waiting to know what happened to their children?
This same spirit of human rights animates others who have given their lives in the spirit of justice and human rights, including the Kashmiri Jalil Andrabi in India, the Armenian Hrant Dink in Turkey and Steven Biko in apartheid South Africa. On Sept. 6, 1995 Jaswant was picked up while washing his car outside of his house by the Punjab Police.
Days later he was tortured and killed; his body never being returned to his family.
What Navkiran’s classmates at Fresno State never knew was that she along with her mother and brother continue the struggle her father had initiated through the Khalra Mission Organization. Weekends and time between classes were spent making sure the stories of the ‘disappeared’ stay alive and known.
On Aug. 31, 2017 Navkiran returned to Fresno for this special occasion. Now the city of Fresno will make sure that the name of Jaswant Singh Khalra is remembered.
The Sikh community can be seen in all walks of Fresno life and Punjabi is now the fourth most spoken language in the city. To have a park named for this human rights hero honors the Sikh presence in the city makes the city’s landmark geography reflective of their contribution, and is a celebration of those shared values – justice, truth, and human rights – that makes Fresno such a wonderful community.
Deep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.