Memorial to 1984 Sikh ‘genocide’ removed 3 months after installation

indica  News Bureau-

A ‘1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial’ to victims of the mob violence in India following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on Oct 31 that year has been removed from the Otis Library in Norwich, Connecticut.

The memorial, which featured a prominent photograph of Sikh separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and accused India’s government of genocide against the community, has been removed barely three months after it was installed, partly on the Indian government’s urging.

“Otis Library and the Norwich Monuments Committee jointly agreed to remove the plaque, flags and portrait,” Nicholas Fortson, president of the library’s board of trustees, told The Bulletin, a local newspaper. The memorial was removed about two weeks ago, he said.

Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, the town’s Sikh community leader and a local business owner, had donated the memorial and lobbied to have it put up. He said he opposes the library trustees’ decision. “It’s not Indian-held territory,” Khalsa said. “The [Sikh] community is very upset.”

The city’s Plaques and Monuments Committee, whose members are Alderwoman Stacy Gould, Alderman Joe DeLucia and pro-tem Council President Bill Nash, agreed to the library’s request to remove the memorial, Gould said. “They just decided this was not good for the mission of the library,” she said.

After the memorial was unveiled in June, the library received “harsh criticism as well as support”, Fortson said. Among the critics was the Indian government. An official from the Indian consulate in New York telephoned Otis Library executive director Bob Farwell about the memorial, Fortson said.

A call to the consulate in New York seeking a comment was not returned, The Bulletin said.

The memorial also upset local Hindus, Gould said. “The library does not want to get involved in some controversy.”

Fortson said the library is a nonpolitical organization and neither endorses products nor partisan political causes. “We want to make sure our visitors are in a safe atmosphere,” he said.

The memorial was placed on a wall of the library’s main lobby. An unveiling ceremony was held in June, with many Sikhs as well as several city officials and community leaders present. It was the only one of its kind in the US.

“As a community space, we welcome the opportunity and encourage the public to view the memorial and learn more about the Sikh community and its history,” Farwell had told a reporter for The Bulletin before the unveiling. “We are a venue that attracts a diverse body of patrons, which certainly helps broaden public awareness.”

Sept 16, the library received the Norwich Rotary Community Diversity Award. The award presentation said it was given partly because of the Sikh memorial.

The memorial featured flags and a plaque honoring Sikhs who fought to protect places of worship in India beneath a portrait of Bhindranwale, who was killed during Operation Bluestar, the army operation to flush out terrorists holed up in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Punjab.

Operation Bluestar led to the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Her death sparked mob violence in Nov 1984 in which around 3,000 Sikhs were killed, mainly in Delhi.

Although the US government says “grave human rights violations” occurred, it has always refused to term the killings genocide, the paper said. The plaque, however, called the killings “a state-sponsored genocidal campaign against Sikhs all across India”.

According to Khalsa, the memorial was a rare chance to present the Sikh narrative of what happened in 1984, which he said the Indian government has tried to suppress ever since.

The plaque, flags and portrait have been returned to Khalsa. He said the memorial could be moved to City Hall. “I still hope we will be able to resolve it,” he said.

He is planning an event Nov 9 outside City Hall. “We should continue with our narrative,” Khalsa said.

According to Religion News, India’s consul general in New York wrote to Connecticut state Sen Cathy Osten, who had requested that Sikh Genocide Remembrance Day be included in a bill designating commemorative days. In the letter, the Indian official said Sikhs do not face persecution in India and referred to Khalsa and other local Sikhs’ efforts as “vociferous, pernicious and divisive”.

Connecticut has a small Sikh community of around 400 families and there are five gurdwaras in the state. However, thanks to Khalsa’s efforts, Connecticut became the first US state last year to recognize the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as a genocide when it passed Senate Bill 489 to name Nov 30 Sikh Genocide Remembrance Day.

The state has also designated June 1 as Sikh Memorial Day and April 14, Baisakhi, as National Sikh Day. Khalsa, who has received awards for his work coordinating the area’s many Sikh awareness campaigns and political engagement initiatives, was also involved in Norwich’s recognition of November as Sikh American Awareness and Appreciation Month, says Religion News.