Fresno City Council Member Clint Olivier on Wednesday backed off a proposal to recognize the 1984 killings of thousands of Sikhs in India as a genocide. That came after the Indian consul of San Francisco met with each council member to convince them that Olivier’s draft resolution was inaccurate and one-sided.
Olivier first proposed the resolution in January. He said he put it on hold to do more research after Sudarshan Kapoor, a retired Fresno State social work professor and longtime peace activist, met with Olivier’s council colleagues to express his reservations.
Kapoor accompanied the consul, Ambassador Venkatesan Ashok, to his meetings Wednesday. Kapoor said what happened in 1984 wasn’t like the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust and said the city shouldn’t get involved.
“This resolution is going to sow the seeds of hatred, bitterness and animosity,” he said. Kapoor said people should be more concerned about issues such as hate crimes against Sikhs and bullying in schools.
Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion, which started in the Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan. While Sikhs represent a small fraction of the Indian population, the more than 30,000 Sikhs living in the central San Joaquin Valley make up the majority of the local Indian population.
According to Human Rights Watch, Sikh separatists in the early 1980s were responsible for 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 gurdwaras (temples) burned and more than 300,000 displaced.
Other cities in California have recognized the killings as a genocide, including Kerman, San Joaquin, Stockton and Bakersfield. The California Assembly declared it a pogrom, or an organized massacre.
Sharnjit Purewal, secretary of the Sikh Council of Central California, said it’s outrageous that the Indian government interfered with local affairs.
“We need recognition. We need the world to acknowledge that this happened,” he said. “We’re not even asking to point fingers at anyone. It was a genocide. It was a targeting of specific people based on their religion.”
Purewal disagreed with Kapoor that the resolution would cause animosity. He said Indians of all religions should want to recognize the past to improve the future.
Ashok, the consul, said extremists are pushing for the genocide resolution.
He said the Indian government has acted in the wake of the violence. The government distributed $130 million in compensation to the victims, convicted 442 people in various courts as of 2012, and investigated the tragedy many times – most recently in February 2015, he said. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is Sikh, apologized in 2008.
“Why is it now necessary again to rake it up and relive the whole thing?” Ashok said.
Ashok called the murders of innocent Sikhs an emotional response to Indira Gandhi’s death. Some members of the ruling party at the time encouraged it, he said.
“I am not saying that what happened in 1984 was not a heinous issue,” he said. “I’m not saying that what happened then was not one of the most unfortunate things.”
Olivier said resolutions are rarely controversial. He initially brought the idea forward after Sikh community members reached out to him.
“I don’t believe it’s the function of a city council member to invoke diplomacy,” he said. “It is not my intention to cause discord.”
Instead, Olivier said he hopes members of Fresno’s Indian community can discuss their differences and achieve harmony.
Councilman Lee Brand said Olivier made a wise choice backing off the resolution. He said the council shouldn’t engage in those types of political statements because “no matter what we decide, one side is going to be mad at the other.”
Brand said that unlike the Armenian genocide, which is well-documented, the anti-Sikh violence is “blurred in the lens of who is looking at it.” The resolution would just create more division between the Sikh and Hindu communities, he said.
“I don’t know what the truth is,” he said. “We have enough issues here in Fresno to deal with.”
Kerman City Council Member Bill Nijjer, who is Sikh, led discussions with Olivier and other Fresno City Council members about the resolution. He is confident it will eventually be brought up again and pass. “No one will quiet down just because the consul put pressure on city officials,” he said.
Nijjer said that if acknowledging the genocide was going to create a division among Indians, it would have already.
“If there was going to be an uproar, why didn’t it come in Kerman?” he said. “Why didn’t it come in Bakersfield? Why didn’t it come in Stockton? It’s not about the people. This is the government.”