Permanently Convicted – a poem

My God, my God, why hath I forsaken thee?
Tempted to think this yoke of slavery was
What really set me free. Blinded by the glitter
of what’s not gold, ignoring the voice that
Told me, gently prodding, of the fraud.

Wrapped myself in chains, like cellophane,
Swallowed the key as I turned my back on
Corpus Christi, stumbling in the darkness
Like a zombie. I became the dead walking,
Robbing myself by gobbling flesh as bread.

Denying their humanity stole away my own,
Left me with nothing to adore, so sore,
More broken by every thought of every stroke
I inflicted — yet, still, you never evicted me —
So, dear God, may I be permanently convicted.

Breaking a Butterfly — Irom Sharmila’s Hunger-Strike for Justice in India

Irom Chanu Sharmila: World’s Longest Hunger-striker

Sharmila’s story is one of horror mixed with hope, unspeakable corruption mingled with unaccountable compassion, secret killings, tortures, and rapes of thousands of innocents by those sworn to protect them, confessions by authorities complicit in murder, and, amidst a land staggering under the stench of death, unfulfilled but enduring love stretching across continents.

“They’re breaking a butterfly on a wheel,” says Desmond Coutinho, fiancé of Irom Sharmila Chanu, after her Spring 2016 acquittal in a Delhi court on a 2006 charge of attempting to commit suicide by staging a 15-year political hunger-strike.

desmond coutinhoSpeaking from his home in southern Ireland on the day of the verdict, Desmond remarks, “People will see ‘not guilty,’ think it’s a great victory, the Facebook world will click ‘like’ and not think about what’s going on. They’re trying to kill her off.” He believes the March 30, 2016 verdict marks the beginning of the end for the longest hunger-strike in history, yet his love burns bright even while his hopes are fading.

In response to a Nov. 2, 2000 massacre by the Assam Rifles (an Indian paramilitary group) of 10 civilians at a bus stop in Malom, a village in India’s State of Manipur, the 28-year-old Sharmila immediately vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair, or look in a mirror until repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which prevents prosecution of Indian security forces for any action committed on duty.

On Nov. 5, 2000, three days after beginning her strike, she was arrested in Malom, charged with attempting to commit suicide, and subsequently fed by authorities through a nasal tube. Ever since, Sharmila has been stuck in a cycle of arrest, release, and re-arrest under Indian Penal Code (IPC) section 309, which declares a person who “attempts to commit suicide … shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year.” [1]

Most recently, she was acquitted of the charge by a Manipuri court on Feb. 29, 2016, then re-arrested by Manipuri police on March 2 despite the fact that, according to NDTV, they are still “seeking a relevant law to justify the arrest.” [2]

Discovering Love Amidst Misery

By Indian standards, the 2000 Malom Massacre was small-scale, barely a blip on the radar compared to other state-sponsored crimes in the past few decades. In sheer body count, for instance, it is surpassed in northwestern India’s state of Punjab in June 1984, in the national capital of Delhi in November 1984, in various regions of central India in 1992 and 1993, in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, and in the eastern state of Odisha in 2008. Yet while the quantity of those killed in Malom pales in comparison to many other atrocities, the quality of the attack — the innocence of the victims, the identity of the perpetrators, and the impunity with which the guilty parties were rewarded — matches the pattern of larger massacres.

In every case of a large-scale slaughter in India since 1984, those responsible are members of the state or national ruling party, elected officials serving in a local, state, or national capacity, officers in a local police force (or else protected by the police), or soldiers from one of India’s several military branches — and the Malom Massacre was no different.

Victims of the 2000 Malom Massacre ranged from 18-year-old boys to 62-year-old women, none of whom were linked to any militant or criminal activities. [3] Although no one has ever been held accountable for the massacre, the Manipur High Court ordered in 2014 a payment of 500,000 rupees to each of the victims’ families. NDTV reported: “While troops of the Assam Rifles claim they were exchanging fire with extremists after its convoy came under attack, the High Court observed there was no evidence of any encounter.” [4]

“If you’re giving compensation, you’re admitting guilt,” notes Desmond, a retired social worker. He was born in the island of Zanzibar to a family from Goa, India; his father was a British civil servant and his uncle was a Zanzibari attorney general. He first learned about Sharmila in 2009 when, while studying in northeastern India, he read Deepti Priya Mehotra’s book, Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and Her Struggle for Peace in Manipur.

Mehotra nicknamed Sharmila “The Iron Lady of Manipur,” — Desmond found her description of the determined hunger-striker compelling as she wrote: “I think of Sharmila’s sensitive eyes, questioning look, and a delighted smile waiting to break out. Yet her sorrow is pervasive, deep. With wisdom beyond her years, she has decided to act — an original move aimed at changing, against all odds, the course of history.” [5]

“After a while, I started flirting with her in my letters,” Desmond says. Leaning forward and smiling as he speaks, he admits his audacity as he jokingly remarks, “No one told me you’re not supposed to flirt with a hunger-striker! She wrote back, asking if she had misunderstood and if I would clarify my intentions.”

She had not misunderstood him, and in Feb. 2011 he traveled to Manipur’s capital city, Imphal, where Sharmila has spent most of the past 15 years held in virtual isolation in the secure wing of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital (JNIMS). In Imphal, when Sharmila was in court on March 9, Desmond finally managed to meet for the first time the woman who had captured his heart and soon began advocating on her behalf.

“Yes, he loves me a lot and cares for me,” said Sharmila in 2011. According to India Today: “Sharmila’s room is full of gifts from Coutinho-a wooden statue of Krishna and Radha, Santa Claus cap and bells, a calendar, a diary and a laptop.” [6] Desmond home in Ireland is similarly decorated with keepsakes from his beloved.

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Aside from Sharmila’s imprisonment, and her commitment not to marry until her hunger-strike achieves repeal of AFSPA, her romance with Desmond faced another and even stranger barrier. Upon learning that she was in love with a foreigner, Sharmila’s elder brother, Singhajit, threatened to murder her.

In October 2012, she wrote: “In this society, a woman is assumed to live for the benefit of her family and is treated as property which can be acquired and disposed off at the will of a man. My own elder brother Singhajit, who has been supporting my protest from the very beginning, is also keen to project this outlook to the public.” Bluntly describing Singhajit’s reaction to her relationship, she said, “My brother sent me a letter castigating me and swearing he was ready to go to Gaol without bringing up his children for the sake of honor killing.” [7]

Commenting on the threat, Desmond says, “So, for Sharmila, you’ve got this wonderful brother who’s threatening her with honor killing. It’s not a big deal in India. When it first came out, they said, ‘Oh, you’re lying and making it up,’ then they checked and said, ‘Ok, maybe he was joking,’ then they pressed and said, ‘Ok, he’s serious, but it’s a private family matter’. But you will not find one Indian feminist to say anything about it.”

Sharmila suggests disregard for women’s rights is a core issue behind not only the response to her relationship, but the refusal of the state to recognize her demand for AFSPA’s repeal, writing, “I can’t help feeling that if I were born a man, I would have succeeded ten years before now in my movement of fast unto death.”

Her family and supporters, she claims, have helped state security forces to isolate her from the world. “I have been assumed to be an alien person who is free from human desires and woes, who cannot experience the pleasures of distinct stages of life…. Thus, instead of people sitting with me and conversing with me, I have been placed apart and kept aloof from the people, and as a result, people have been prevented from taking up my ideal.” [8]

Speaking of her supporters in desolate terms during a November 2013 interview with NDTV, she declared: “They are acting like the Taliban. They don’t understand that my love has nothing to do with religion or politics. I have even received honour killing threats.” [9]

Over the ensuing years, despite the impediments, Desmond continued traveling back and forth to Manipur to visit Sharmila whenever possible.

On Dec. 24, 2014, however, Desmond’s time in the state came to a conclusion when Manipur police arrested him at JNIMS, booking him under a public nuisance ordinance after he protested being denied access to visit Sharmila. “They had him arrested on the next day on false charges,” she says. His arrest, as Sharmila recounts, “kept him in jail for 77 days under physical and mental harassment.” [10]

After the Irish government interceded for his release, Desmond was let go in Feb. 2015. Although all charges were dropped, he faced a thoroughly hostile environment in Manipur and returned to his home in Ireland. From there, he regularly exchanges letters with Sharmila, sends her books, and treasures in frames on his living room wall the self-portraits, Valentine’s Day, and birthday greetings she sends him.

Both Sharmila and Desmond look forward to marriage with an optimism measured by reality. “If my demand is fulfilled, after I am getting married to my fiancé, Desmond, I will never stop [being] committed to social works,” said Sharmila in Nov. 2015. [11] Perhaps realism outweighs optimism in Desmond’s case, however, as he remarks after her recent acquittal: “The only thing I want for her is to try and stay alive this year. I can’t see a way forward.”

The only barrier preventing the couple from a joyful union is AFSPA, a 58-year-old colonial-style law that seems set in stone when it cannot even be toppled by the Iron Lady of Manipur’s 15-year hunger-strike. Yet she will not give up. “This is her Alamo,” says Desmond. Sharmila, meanwhile, said after her acquittal in Delhi: “My struggle will continue till the time AFPSA is repealed. It does not matter whether I am released from the jail or not.” [12]

AFSPA: A Draconian Law

“I have been demanding that AFSPA be repealed or lifted from Manipur as the same has caused immense hardship to the common man of Manipur,” declared Sharmila in October 2015. “Thousands of innocent people have been killed, hundreds of rapes have taken place on Manipur’s women. No action has been taken under the garb of AFSPA.” [13]

The law is a direct replica of one imposed on India to stifle dissent during the British Empire’s occupation of the subcontinent. “In 1958, the Indian Parliament imposed on the northeast’s Seven Sister States, including Manipur, a law first used by the colonial British in 1942 to attack the free India movement,” explains Desmond. In short, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act grants Indian security forces nearly unlimited powers, including the right to:

– Shoot to kill any person “reasonably suspected” of breaking the law

– Arrest suspicious persons without a warrant

– Search and seize property without a warrant

– Destroy any structure suspected of use by insurgent groups

– Avoid prosecution for any actions committed under the Act

In “Burning Bright,” Mehotra summarized the result of AFSPA’s imposition by security forces: “They often target ordinary people, misusing these special powers. Newspapers report innumerable incidents of false encounters. Human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of killing, arrest, rape, and torture of innocent people.”

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Innocent civilians are “caught in the crossfire,” Mehotra warned, writing: “People throughout Manipur live in a state of fear: on the one hand they fear insurgents, on the other hand security forces…. Ordinary people have lost all semblance of normal life.” When her book was published in 2009, Manipur was a full-scale war-zone with 60,000 military and paramilitary troops deployed throughout the state. [14]

“Basically,” says Desmond, “AFSPA is a draconian law allowing Indian paramilitaries to rape and kill with impunity. Sharmila wants the basic democratic guarantee that, if a crime occurs at the hands of an Indian soldier, there will be an investigation and, if there’s sufficient evidence, a prosecution. That’s all she’s asking for.”

Around the globe, AFSPA has faced harsh criticism from the most distinguished human rights watchdogs and international bodies, including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

To mark the law’s 50th anniversary in 2008, HRW published a comprehensive report describing AFSPA as a “a tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination” which “protects military personnel responsible for serious crimes from prosecution, creating a pervasive culture of impunity.” Noting that nearly identical laws were imposed on Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir (the former was repealed in 1997; the latter remains in effect), HRW cited the draconian legislation as a cause of the insurgencies for which its apologists say it is necessary to combat:

Enacted on August 18, 1958 as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the army against an armed separatist movement in India’s northeastern Naga Hills, the AFSPA has been invoked for five decades. It has since been used throughout the northeast, particularly in Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. A variant of the law was also used in Punjab during a separatist movement in the 1980s and 90s, and has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. Indian officials have long sought to justify use of the law by citing the need for the armed forces to have extraordinary powers to combat armed insurgents. Human Rights Watch said that abuses facilitated by the AFSPA, especially extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and “disappearances,” have fed public anger and disillusionment with the Indian state. This has permitted militant groups to flourish in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

The AFSPA has not only led to human rights violations, but it has allowed members of the armed forces to perpetrate abuses with impunity. They have been shielded by clauses in the AFSPA that prohibit prosecutions from being initiated without permission from the central government. Such permission is rarely granted.

“Violations under the AFSPA have served as a recruiting agent for militant groups,” said Ganguly. “In both Kashmir and the northeast, we have heard over and over again that abuses by troops, who are never punished for their crimes, have only shrunk the space for those supporting peaceful change.” [15]

In 2012, the United Nations also denounced AFSPA. “I have heard extensive evidence of action taken under this law that resulted in innocent lives being lost,” said UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns after touring regions where it is enforced. “The AFSPA in effect allows the state to override rights in the disturbed areas in a much more intrusive way than would be the case under a state of emergency, since the right to life is in effect suspended…. The repeal of this law will not only bring domestic law more in line with international standards, but also send out a powerful message that instead of a military approach the government is committed to respect for the right to life of all people of the country.”

Heyns additionally expressed concern over human rights violations such as “excessive use of force by police including fake encounters, custodial deaths and traditional practices affecting women such as honour killings.” [16]

“People are being murdered all the time and nothing happens,” comments Desmond. “We’ve got these victims saying, ‘Why are they being killed?’ They’re called encounters. Each one, the security forces say they’re insurgents, they’re evil, they’re bad people generally. No trial. Nothing. So the Human Rights Alert decides to take these to the Supreme Court.”

The issue of encounter killings of innocent Manipuri civilians by security forces over the past several decades has produced such a crescendo of misery in the state that the national government can no longer ignore it. In Jan 2013, the Supreme Court was prompted by the initiative of Manipur-based Human Rights Alert to appoint the Santosh Hegde Commission. The commission began investigating claims that “1,528 innocents, including 31 women and 98 children, [were] extra-judicially executed by the security forces during 1979-2012.” [17]

“There’s no evidence of these people having anything to do with insurgency,” notes Desmond. “No evidence that they had any weapons or were doing anything at all. They were just shot.”

As described in an Indian Express article, one shocking but tragically typical incident was the murder of a 12-year-old boy:

The Santosh Hegde Commission, set up by the Supreme Court to probe “fake encounters,” tried six sample cases of alleged fake encounters and found each and every one of them to be “not an encounter’’ and not carried out by the security forces in self-defence.

One of these cases was the death of Azad Khan, a 12-year-old boy who was shot by a joint group of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur commandos.

According to the family’s version, on March 4, 2009, months before Meitei was killed, Azad was sitting with his friend Kiyam Anand Singh on the family verandah when 30 security personnel arrived at his home and dragged Azad to a nearby field. His parents and a cousin were at home at the time. The officers allegedly locked Azad’s family members and his friend in a room. From a window in the room, which overlooked the field, Azad’s parents watched him fall to the ground and the security men shoot him and then throw a pistol near his body. [18]

Rape, gang-rape, and the murder of rape victims also number among the horrifying atrocities committed by security forces shielded behind AFSPA. One incident in 2014 brought the law’s shelter for rapists to international attention.

On July 10, 2014, 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama was arrested from her home by soldiers from the Assam Rifles, raped, shot six times, and dumped dead in a field, where her body was discovered the next morning. [19] Five days later, the brutal rape and murder famously inspired several dozen Manipuri women to strip naked and stage a protest outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, shouting: “Indian Army, rape us, kill us! We are all Manorama’s mothers. Come, rape us, you bastards!” [20] Inadvertently admitting guilt but still refusing to prosecute anyone involved, the Manipuri government paid out one million rupees to Manorama’s family. [21] Yet, protected by AFSPA, no one faced prosecution.

With outrage in his voice, Desmond asks: “If a soldier is accused of raping someone, should he not at least be investigated? That seems reasonable enough. But it’s impossible under the martial law of AFSPA.”

Passed in 1958, AFSPA gave governors of a state the power to declare areas “disturbed” — in 1980, when the entire State of Manipur was first declared a “disturbed zone,” there were only four major insurgent groups. Yet, after hearing the Santosh Hegde Commission’s findings, the Supreme Court reached similar conclusions as HRW — namely, that AFSPA is fueling militancy in Manipur. When a Manipuri legal representative admitted the number of insurgent groups has since increased to over a dozen at present, the Supreme Court asked: “You mean to say that in 35 years of Army presence in the state, the situation has not improved to remove the disturbed area tag from the state? Has nothing changed on the law and order front for the last three decades?” [22]

Ultimately, wrote American Consul General (Kolkata) Henry Jardine in a leaked 2006 cable, “AFSPA has become a symbol of oppression and only serves to radicalize the ethnic groups.” Its colonial origins do not escape the attentions of Manipuris. Recalling his “many interactions, even with some government officials,” Jardine reported:

A reoccurring comment was that Manipur was less a state and more a colony of India. The general use of the AFSPA meant that the Manipuris did not have the same rights of other Indian citizens and restrictions on travel to the state added to a sense of isolation and separation from the rest of India “proper.” The overwhelming presence of military, paramilitary and police officers contributed to the impression that Imphal was under military occupation. Several Manipuris argued that they had greater rights under the British Raj than under the present federation. [23]

Since then, a coalition of over 60 prominent Indian social activists publicly condemned AFSPA for identical reasons. In November 2015, the coalition, including Aruna Roy, Prashant Bhushan, Nikhil Dey, Teesta Setalvad (described earlier that year by the BBC as India’s “most hounded activist” for her role in exposing state complicity in the 2002 Gujarat Genocide [24]), jointly stated:

The law exposes people to wanton and reckless use of force by security forces as it grants them absolute power and authority to use force. Over the years, a consensus has emerged on the AFSPA being a security measure of colonial origin in that it is a distinctively regressive tool, which sets up a military ecosystem where security forces act with impunity and whip up an environment of fear and terror in the hearts and minds of people living in these places. [25]

Reporting on the situation for Manipuris as of February 2016, Kadayam Subramanian, a former Director General of Police (DGP) in northeast India, says, “Enforced disappearances, arbitrary executions, torture, rape, housebreak, loot, and arbitrary detention became everyday features of life in Manipur. And yet, few perpetrators of these gross violations of human rights were ever prosecuted. Thus, the armed forces enjoy complete immunity.” [26]

Complete immunity is typical policy for occupying military forces in a colonial state. Whether indigenous Australians under British occupation, African Congolese under Belgian occupation, or Native Americans under U.S occupation, colonized peoples are routinely treated as subhuman. Entire philosophies are spun by the occupiers to justify their supposed superiority and right to complete immunity.

India holds true to that pattern as its ruling elite cling to any and every excuse under the sun as legitimate reasons for treating the powerless as inferior people with no natural right to the most basic civil liberties. Whether attacking religious institutions like the Golden Temple in Punjab in 1984 or the Babri Mosque in Uttar Pradesh in 1992, or orchestrating pogroms against minorities like the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 or the Christians in Odisha in 2008, the state agents behind the atrocities invariably find a justification for massacring innocent civilians. When protests against atrocities are too loud to ignore, they will concede only by investigating, selecting low-level scapegoats, and absolving themselves of all guilt — often while arguing the necessity of the atrocity at the same time they pay millions in compensation to the families of victims.

It is increasingly clear that the ruling elite are subject to a different law than the rest of society. Politicians, soldiers, police, and those who bribe them are free to pillage, rape, and murder with complete immunity while those who endure these crimes are denied the legal right to do anything but silently suffer. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the social structure instituted by “Manusmriti,” the ancient Hindu law-book which teaches people are born into division, falling into four segregated classes of humanity ranked from superior to inferior, with Brahmans at the top as the philosophers and guides and sole beneficiaries of society and Shudras at the bottom as the slaves of all those above them.

Is AFSPA a symbol of Brahmanocracy reigning over the oppressed masses of India?

The Failed State of Manipur

In 2012, Sharmila provided the aptest summary of Manipur’s situation, writing: “It seems that the dark lesson of acquisition of position and power by hook or by crook is most valued as the way of governance in Manipur.” [27] Years earlier, Consul Jardine’s cable harmonized with that grim evaluation. Prefacing his conclusions with an overview of the state’s demographics, he wrote:

Manipur is situated in the remote corner of Northeast India, sharing a 358 kilometer border with Burma. The population of 2.3 million people is predominantly tribal. The Meiteis are the major ethnic group and are primarily in the Imphal Valley, while the Nagas occupy much of the hill districts. Numerous other ethnic groups, including the Kukis and Paites, inhabit the state, and each community has its own socio-economic-political aspirations. Manipur is economically backward, ethnically diverse and politically unstable. Violence, kidnappings, extortion and killings by militant groups are common occurrences. [28]

Describing the background of Manipur’s ongoing conflict, Indian activist Bhavana Mahajan wrote: “Originally a kingdom, Manipur acceded to India in 1949. However, many groups within Manipur viewed this merger as being against their ethnic and territorial interests.”

Dissent against Manipur’s assimilation into India (also a cause of conflict in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, and other areas of the country) initially sparked the ongoing insurgency. Unlike in other conflict zones, however, Manipur’s militant groups are sharply divided and totally disunited. “There are over 30 different ethnic and tribal groups in Manipur,” explains Mahajan, “with some wanting a separate state under the Indian Constitution, some seeking sovereignty in alliance with sister tribes from neighbouring countries, and others demanding protection of their customary laws.” [29]

Jardine recognized the lack of cohesion or even political purpose behind the insurgency, writing: “Manipur suffers from over 30 active insurgency groups claiming to represent various ethnic and community interests but mostly are simply kidnapping and extortion rackets.” Desmond agrees that, whatever they may have been in the past, today’s insurgent movements are little more than criminal enterprises. “Not a single Manipuri I’ve spoken with believes there is any real insurgency anymore,” he says. “It’s all just family or money connections.” He suggests the various insurgent movements are closely linked to state security forces and have become self-perpetuating.

“Complicating effort to control the rising violence is the rampant corruption,” reported Jardine. The corruption produces an unbelievably blurry line dividing the state from those it claims to be fighting. After speaking with Indian civil servants in Manipur, Jardine says they are “clearly frustrated with their inability to stem the growing violence and anarchy in the state, feeling their efforts to effectively control the insurgencies was hamstrung by local politicians either in league with or at least through corruption, helping to finance the insurgents.”

A member of the state’s Legislative Assembly, speaking to Jardine, characterized Manipuri Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh (in office since 2002) as “Mr. Ten Percent,” a nickname earned “for the amount of money that he takes from contracts and government projects.” Several other sources “agreed that many key government officers and politicians receive kick-backs and skim-off money from government funds.” Bribes equivalent to thousands of U.S. dollars are a basic requirement for obtaining a Manipuri government job; Jardine’s cable, released by Wikileaks, said the bribes are paid out to state government ministers.

“The corruption results in a nexus between politicians and the insurgent groups,” wrote Jardine. Naming various sources, including the state’s Chief Secretary, the state’s Youth Congress leader, and the Indian Army’s Chief of Staff, Jardine reported that not only did they claim strong links between politicians and insurgents, but that the Army Chief of Staff even accuses Chief Minister Singh of directly contributing 15 million rupees to militant groups. [30]

Meanwhile, in January 2016, a Hindustan Times columnist noted: “Manipur is a failed state. No one’s really interested in it. Insurgency and the killings will not end. In fact, they can’t. There are too many vested interests involved there: Promotions and political careers, and, most importantly, insurgency is a money-spinner and everyone, just about everyone in power, has their hand in the till. It’s Manipur’s one and only functioning industry.” [31]

A Grim Future for Manipuris

In her struggle against AFSPA, Sharmila has achieved some small measure of victory, as the Act was repealed from the municipal limits of Imphal in August 2004 after intense public outcry against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. Chief Minister Singh brags about his part in the withdrawal, noting that Imphal “comprises seven Assembly constituencies,” yet neglecting to mention that Manipur’s 53 other constituencies remain under shadow of the Act. [32]

While he thinks Sharmila should be credited for the partial repeal, Desmond sees it as a meaningless political concession arranged without her participation. “Sharmila’s brother, who is completely owned by the police, did a private deal Manipur’s Chief Minister in 2004 to remove AFSPA from Imphal, at least,” he says. “So, the Chief Minister used Sharmila’s protest and her brother to get AFSPA removed just from Imphal, where 65% of the population live, including all the Meitei. But her campaign for removal of AFSPA was never that simple, because she’s trying to get rid of the immunity and lack of accountability. Yet they never credit her with that change, anyway. It’s gone from 65% of the population, but it’s played down because it was designed purely to give the Chief Minister power and help him make his fortune.”

“There’s no real complaint in Imphal about AFSPA anymore,” continues Desmond. “It’s gone from the Meitei. So now AFSPA is there for the Army to play war-games among low-caste or outcaste hill tribals. Their problem is whether to replace the Indian Army, with whom they have some —not much, but some — redress with the Manipuri police who are obviously getting away with murder.”

In the early 1980s, shortly after Manipur was declared a “disturbed” area subject to AFSPA, the state government formed a militarized police wing known as the Manipur Police Commandos. As The Indian Express reports, “The commandos were to be used only to fight insurgents, not for day-to-day law and order enforcement of the police.” [33] Upon withdrawal of AFSPA from Imphal, commandos became the primary anti-insurgency force, with the result that, “as their profile increased, the commandos have, to a large extent, replaced the military in Manipur as the face of power and terror.” According to retired DGP Kadayam Subramanian:

The sense of immunity from prosecution available to central armed forces under AFSPA has percolated to the state security forces as well. Hence, Manipur Police Commandos have freely killed people on their own without fearing the consequences. Instituted for the purpose of containing insurgency in the state, the Manipur Police Commandos have digressed from their original purpose to embark on a path of fulfilling personal agendas of getting police medals and other recognitions for career advancement. [34]

A case filed against the police by the mother of one victim, 22-year-old Chungkham Sanjit Meitei, illustrates how even public exposure of their modus operandi fails to make a dent in the system’s cycle of oppression. The mother alleges her son was unarmed when police dragged him into a shop in Imphal on July 23, 2009 and executed him in cold blood; a pregnant woman standing on the street outside was also killed in the same incident by a stray police bullet. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is still investigating the charges against nine police officers (none of whom are under arrest), even though one of them confessed in Jan. 2016 to pulling the trigger on orders from his superiors.

Speaking to The Indian Express, police commando Thounaojam Herojit Singh said, “Yes, I shot him. I shot Sanjit Meitei. No, he was not armed. I felt no remorse, no sympathy after I killed Sanjit. I felt nothing. It was an order and I had to simply carry it out.” Herojit says he was directly ordered to “finish him off” by Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Dr. Akoijam Jhalajhit, who was subsequently promoted to Superintendent of Police (SP). Furthermore, the commando claims the execution was authorized from the top, with orders passed down from Chief Minister Ibobi Singh to DGP Yumnam Joykumar to the police officers on the streets. [35]

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This was not Herojit’s first time as an executioner. Terming him “Manipur police’s main ‘hitman’,” The Indian Express reported: “Associates close to Herojit in Manipur’s police force say that this may have been the most high profile incident (the incident which got most media attention) that the encounter cop was involved in but he is alleged to have been involved in other cases too.” [36]

In total, according to Asia Times, Herojit has reportedly killed 133 people in similar encounters. For his hard work, he received a gallantry award. His example is typical, as officers commit encounter killings to “please their political masters,” or for “awards and promotions,” or even for “economic benefits.” [37]

Despite the most blatant confession imaginable, the system remains unchanged. “Even the head constable is not in custody,” mourns Desmond. “He’s been saying, ‘Yes, I murdered this man, I was given an award for that, my boss was given promotion, and he got his permission from the Chief Minister,’ and nothing happens to him. From the head down, the police commandos were set up to replace the army in Imphal to just murder people at will. The politicians back them. There is no protection in law for what they’re doing. There is no AFSPA for the police, so there is not even a bad law to repeal.”

One can understand the lack of action, despite the clear confession of a killer cop, in context of how widespread encounter killings are throughout the rest of India. Awards are handed out for murdering detainees and promotions are linked to filling body count quotas, reports Human Rights Watch: “The government awarded gallantry medals and promotions to police who ‘scored’ dozens of  encounter deaths, crediting the deaths, rather than arrests, with breaking organized crime’s stronghold on Mumbai and Delhi, and reducing gang violence in Bangalore.” [38] As seen in the case of Manipur, however, the victims are not only killed in cold blood, and while unarmed, but often are entirely innocent people unaffiliated with any criminal endeavor. Of course, regardless of their guilt or innocence, no democratic country enforces law and order through secret, extra-judicial lynchings of suspects.

There have been glimmers of light in recent days as small cracks appear in the system of impunity. In early April 2016, 47 Indian police officers were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering 11 Sikh men in an encounter killing. On July 12, 1991, the cops had stopped a bus, arrested the men in sight of other passengers, detained them without charges at local police stations, and then killed them that night.

Yet, while a minor victory, the conviction hardly represents a systemic change. After all, it took 25 years to achieve the judgement despite clear evidence of guilt; 57 were originally charged, but ten died during the course of the trial; and only low-level officers were charged even though, as reported by The Indian Express, “police officers who were holding important posts must be behind the incident, but the CBI kept them away from the investigation.” [39]

At issue, then, especially considering the routine failure of the judicial system to prosecute commanding officers (when it prosecutes anyone at all) is not only the corruption, the totalitarian legal system, or even the atrocities committed by the security forces, but the unapologetic and unflinching willingness of the individuals involved to carry out even the cruelest and most unjust orders with unquestioning obedience.

As Herojit says, he has no remorse or sympathy for murdering a man in cold blood. “He presents himself as the perfect professional, doing his duty as best as he could within the confines of the job profile he is given,” writes Imphal Free Press editor Pradip Phanjoubam. “The picture is as chilling as one of the Grim Ripper himself. It is still more frightful because it is unlikely Herojit is the only executioner in the Manipur Police, or for that matter any other armed law enforcing unit operating in the state.”

“The entire episode,” Phanjoubam further wrote, “almost evokes the debate in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna literally coerces a reluctant Arjuna to pick up his weapons to kill his enemies as a soldier should, without once worrying about the consequences. Herojit too had come to believe the insurgents – actual or suspected – were his enemy, and killing them was his duty. With robotic compliance, he followed orders to perform actions which were, for the law abiding and human at heart, monstrous.” [40]

Therein lies the real horror for Manipuris. The central government in Delhi passed a law permitting the nation’s army to commit atrocities with impunity. The state government in Imphal created a police force that operates as a death squad. The entire system of state terrorism is laid bare, even by the unvarnished confession of the executioners involved, and yet the judiciary does nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, the only person who has ever consistently stood in the midst of this wave of bloodshed, Irom Sharmila, remains locked away from the world as punishment for her dissent.

The Iron Lady Soldiers on in Isolation

“Irom Sharmila is not fasting unto death,” wrote Deepti Mehotra. “Rather, she is fasting unto life, to remove a brutal law that allows the murder of innocent people.” [41]

Sharmila, however, thinks many people are missing the point. “The world seems to be think of me as if I am demanding for my right to death, so they are just campaigning for my release without condition,” she said in Nov. 2015. “They don’t bother to touch on my cause, my real hopes, which is to repeal AFSPA.” [42]

Yet her ability to speak her mind freely is deeply restricted by an almost complete isolation. Desmond has been unable to return to Manipur to visit her since being freed from detainment. She is estranged from her family and supporters, who she says treat her like property, try to control her actions, and have even threatened her with death over her engagement.

Moreover, the national Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in July 2015 passed new guidelines for visiting prisoners; supposedly intended “to regulate the entry of NGOs and filmmakers into the prison for making documentaries,” the guidelines require visitors deposit one million rupees before entering a prison — or, in Sharmila’s case, a secured hospital wing. Protesting the stringency of the new guidelines, Sharmila said, “The MHAs terms and conditions to deposit Rs one lakh to meet a prisoner like me is nothing but to shatter the freedom of speech of political prisoners in the country.” [43]

“There are three things no one is talking about regarding Sharmila,” says Desmond. “First, how Herojit’s confession shows the police have impunity to murder just like the army. Second, how she’s being kept in total isolation by these MHA guidelines. Third, how the repeal of AFSPA is her only demand, which groups like Amnesty International miss by insisting on her immediate and unconditional release. If she’s released, she will continue her hunger-strike without the feeding tube and be dead in weeks. What anyone who supports her should be demanding is the end of AFSPA.”

The struggle remains in deadlock, however. The Iron Lady of Manipur shows no signs of giving up, but neither have the central or state governments relented. “I know that violence will never solve any problems,” said Sharmila in June 2015. “With love and kindness everything can be solved.” [44] Yet where are those willing to show love and kindness to the suffering hunger-striker by joining her demand for justice?

Determined as she remains, she knows what the future holds, remarking: “The absence of mass support is certain to have me face death due to starvation without fulfilling my demands.” Speaking in a mournful voice in a Nov. 2015 video, she implored people to take up her cause. “I just want to gain success — which is so rightful — with the intervention of the public. I am really in need of their joining hands.” [45]

“She will neither compromise, nor give up the fight halfway,” wrote Deepti Mehotra. “In staking a claim to peace as a basic right due to all people, she has become a symbol, an icon and an inspiration. The symbolism is powerful in its surrealism. She is down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, yet her act of daring is, literally, unthinkable for the rest of us.” [46]

Yet as much as of a symbol as Sharmila has become, she asks: “Why should our people remain contented just seeing me as a symbol of resistance?” She insists she wants to “resume my past normal life,” and reiterating her love for Desmond, says that, if AFSPA is ever repealed and she can give up her hunger-strike, “I want to commit to him, my life partner, just like a couple of peace birds to give message of hope to the world.” [47]

For the foreseeable future, however, Sharmila remains isolated in JNIMS in Imphal with a feeding tube attached to her nose. Desmond remains in Ireland, his heart and mind still devoted to Sharmila, periodically appealing to local Irish politicians to speak out for the hunger-striker as he spends his time walking his dog, Carruthers, writing letters and sending books to Sharmila, and telling everyone he meets about the Iron Lady of Manipur.

“Her hunger-strike is an attempt to shame the government into recognizing its wrongs,” says Desmond. “It’s just like Yeats wrote in ‘The King’s Threshold.’” Written by Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the play about a bard’s hunger-strike to demand justice from the king is, as Desmond notes, a mirror of Sharmila’s struggle —

Seanchan went out, and from that hour to this,

Although there is good food and drink beside him,

Has eaten nothing. If a man is wronged,

Or thinks that he is wronged, and will lie down

Upon another’s threshold until he dies,

The common people for all time to come

Will raise a heavy cry against that threshold,

Even though it is the King’s. He lies there now

Perishing; he is calling against my majesty.

Will the governments of India and of Manipur listen to Irom Chanu Sharmila as she lies down upon their thresholds, now perishing as she is calling out against their majesty? As this poor, perishing woman remains caged and cut off from society, one of the most important lessons she offers the world is that even the most feeble creatures can strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful by refusing to let them forget the wrongs they’ve committed. Forbid the thought, but should she die, the common people for all time must raise a heavy cry against the tyrants who failed to heed the gentle Manipuri lady’s demands for truth, justice, and peace.

Citations
1. Central Government Act, Section 309 in The Indian Penal Code.
2. “Irom Sharmila Arrested Yet Again After Resuming Her Hunger Strike.” NDTV. March 2, 2016.
3. Thokchom, Khelen. “Relief for Malom victims’ kin.” The Telegraph. December 6, 2014.
4. Pandey, Alok and B. Sunzu. “Manipur’s Malom Massacre: High Court Orders Rs. 5 Lakh Compensation For Victims’ Families.” NDTV. December 7, 2014.
5. Mehotra, Deepti Priya. Burning Bright: Irom Sharmila and Her Struggle for Peace in Manipur. London: Penguin Books, 2009. Preface.
6. Deka, Kaushik. “Irom in Love.” India Today. September 17, 2011.
7. Coutinho, Desmond. “Sharmila in her own words.” SaddaHaq 2.0. March 25, 2015.
8. Ibid.
9. Pandey, Alok. “Faced ‘honour killing’ threats for relationship with foreigner, says activist Irom Sharmila.” NDTV. November 7, 2013.
10. “15 Year Hunger-Striker Irom Sharmila: ‘Repeal India’s AFSPA or I Die of Starvation’.” Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
11. Ibid.
12. “Irom Sharmila Acquitted In 2006 Case Of Attempt To Suicide.” NDTV. March 30, 2016.
13. “Irom Sharmila breaks down in Delhi court, reiterates demand for AFSPA repeal.” The Hindu. October 6, 2015.
14. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
15. “India: Repeal Armed Forces Special Powers Act.” Human Rights Watch. August 18, 2008.
16. Dhar, Aarti. “U.N. asks India to repeal AFSPA.” The Hindu. March 31, 2012.
17. Subramanian, Kadayam. “India must repeal law that gives military sweeping powers in Manipur.” Asia Times. February 23, 2016.
18. Roy, Esha. “A ‘confession’ brings Manipur and its shadowy encounters back in focus.” The Indian Express. February 1, 2016.
19. “‘These Fellows Must Be Eliminated’: Relentless Violence and Impunity in Manipur.” Human Rights Watch. September 2008.
20. Bhonsle, Anubha. “Indian Army, Rape Us.” Outlook. February 10, 2016.
21. Nitesh, Ravi. “‘Right to Justice’ Deprived by State: Case of ‘Manorama Vs AFSPA’ from Manipur, India.” Oxford Human RIghts Hub. January 7, 2015.
22. Mahapatra, Dhananjay. “SC: Is AFSPA in Manipur eternal?” The Times of India. January 15, 2016.
23. Jardine, Henry. “NORTHEAST INDIAN STATE OF MANIPUR EXPERIENCES ESCALATING VIOLENCE.” Wikileaks: Public Library of US Diplomacy. September 1, 2006.
24. Biswas, Soutik. “Is Teesta Setalvad India’s most hounded activist?” BBC news. September 2, 2015.
25. “Eminent citizens oppose HC order on AFSPA.” The Hindu. November 27, 2015.
26. Subramanian, K.S. State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016.
27. Coutinho. SaddaHaq 2.0. March 2015.
28. Jardine. Wikileaks. September 2006.
29. Mahajan, Bhavana. “A woman challenging state-sanctioned violence in Northeast India.” openDemocracy. January 27, 2016.
30. Jardine.
31. Dasgupta, KumKum. “Insurgency: Manipur’s one and only functioning industry.” The Hindustan Times. January 29, 2016.
32. Sunil, Oinam. “Can’t remove AFSPA from Manipur yet: Okram Ibobi Singh.” The Times of India. January 23, 2012.
33. Roy. The Indian Express. February 2016.
34. Subramanian. Asia Times. February 2016.
35. Roy, Esha. “Imphal encounter: 6 years later, the admission — ‘Yes, I shot him dead, he was unarmed, officer told me to’.” The Indian Express. January 27, 2016.
36. Roy, Esha. “Why Manipur head constable Herojit Singh became an encounter cop.” The Indian Express. January 28, 2016.
37. Ramachandran, Sudha. “Most ‘encounter’ killings by Indian police to please officials, get promotion.” Asia Times. February 11, 2016.
38. Human Rights Watch. “Broken System: Dysfunction, Abuse and Impunity in the Indian Police.” August 4, 2009. 92.
39. Sahu, Manish. “1991 Pilibhit fake encounter: CBI court awards life sentence to 47 cops.” The Indian Express. April 5, 2016.
40. Phanjoubam, Pradip. “Killer Cop Confessions and the Banality of Evil in Manipur.” The Wire. Jan. 29, 2016.
41. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
42. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
43. “Irom Sharmila opposes MHA guidelines to meet prisoners.” The Economic Times. Nov. 9, 2015.
44. Singh, Sanjeev. “AFSPA Responsible for Attack on Armymen in Manipur, Says Irom Sharmila.” NDTV. June 6, 2015.
45. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.
46. Mehotra. Burning Bright.
47. Sikh24.com. November 19, 2015.

Sorrow Bleeds – a poem

Sorrow bleeds into my tomorrow
Because I really want to follow but
Need someone to wash away the
Mud in which my flesh tends to wallow.

I’ve been made a new creature
With every feature fresh, but I can
Hear the devil revel whenever I walk with
The dragon rather than drink from the flagon.

He is always ragging on me, the
Accuser of the Brethren. When I
Listen I can feel my heart leathering
Until the guilt is dragging me down.

There’s such a long journey ahead,
And I feel too yellow to enter the tourney.
A coward, I must remember I am showered
With grace by One who sends daily bread.

So I pray the Lord, “Maranatha,” for
I am in a spot of trouble as I feel the
Rubble of life crashing down on me.
I’ve got to see light in the darkness.

Shame has a bite of intolerable sharpness,
But there is a Word to silence all
The accusation through assurance of
Salvation for those burdened by a frown.

On His head sits a crown and we are
Always welcome in His town, if we will
Yet bow down and lay away the violence
Calling treacherous lullabies like Sirens.

War, Faith, and Love: A Christian Missionary's Life in the Middle East

Singh of Judah (SOJ): Today, we’re speaking with Frances Fuller, who lived in the Middle East for 30 years and has written a book about her experiences called: “In Borrowed Houses.”

Author Jeanne Larsen describes Frances’s book as:

“Wise, honest, sensitive, funny, heart-wrenching, and a compelling read…. Frances Fuller has a sharp eye for human natures of all sorts, and she knows a great deal about how life should be lived. Who would think that the story of years spent in a war zone can make you laugh out loud? This one does. And then it goes much further.”

So, it seems that terrorist attacks around the world are increasingly drawing our attention. Just a few weeks ago, on Dec. 2, just a few weeks ago, 14 people were murdered with apparent responsibility of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. On Nov. 13, 130 people were slaughtered in Paris. And, around the same time, on Nov. 15, 43 people were killed in bomb attacks in Beirut, Lebanon.

Now, Frances, you lived in Lebanon and the Middle East, in general, for 30 years. Can you tell us a little bit about howe you ended up there and what you did there?

Frances Fuller (FF): Well, yes. We were mission volunteers, and we came to the place where we had to decide where we wanted to go, and we chose to go to the Arab World. We learned, after we made that choice, that the mission board was thrilled because there were very few volunteers for the Arab World.

Every Friday night, in Berkeley, for several years we went to a big international gathering where there were people from all over the world. So we had a chance to see who do we relate well to, and when we stopped to think about it we realized it was the Arabs. For some mysterious reasons, there was this rapport that we had with the Arab guys who were going to the University of California and other schools.

They were real up-front people. We always knew if an Arab liked us or he didn’t. We were never afraid they were just being courteous or something, you know. We just related to them well, and so we chose to go the Middle East.

We studied Arabic at Georgetown University, taking just colloquial Arabic, and then we went to Beirut and we began to learn to read and write. We had one year in Beirut, and then we went to Jordan, and my husband was instrumental in establishing a school in the capital city, in Amman.

We lived in Jordan for five years, and in those five years, we went through the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab countries. Then the Palestinian refugees created a conflict inside of Jordan, so that there was a year or more of serious fighting in Amman.

During that period of time, we went for a while to Beirut. And during that period of time, the director of a little publishing house that we had in Beirut died. The publishing house needed somebody who was already on the field, somebody who had already studied Arabic, somebody who already knew something about the publishing program and had some vision for it.

And so, it fell on me by default. I had studied journalism. It didn’t truly prepare me for the job, but some people thought it might. I came closer than anybody else, and I was willing. So my husband agreed to transfer to Lebanon so that I could be the director of the publishing house.

So I directed the publishing house for 24 years, and I established another publishing house under a different name — under a kind of generic Arabic name. It’s called Dar Manhal Al Hayat, which means “House of the Source of Life,” and that publishing house is still going and still reprinting things that I published as long as 30 or more years ago.

SOJ: So, Frances, you’ve described Lebanon as “the Paris of the Middle East: and called it a “microcosm of the Middle East.” What makes Lebanon so important to this region?

FF: The reason Lebanon is so important. There are several different reasons. One reason our publishing house was there was that Lebanon is a free country. You could do anything in Lebanon. You could hand out Christian literature on the street in Lebanon.

And so we could print, and we had all the technical facilities, we had the technology, we had the freedom, we had everything that we needed to run a publishing house in Lebanon.

Lebanon is the most sophisticated of the countries of the Middle East. When I say that it’s a microcosm, everything that you will find anywhere in the Middle East — it may be big in Iraq, you will find it somewhere in Lebanon. Everything that is anywhere in the Middle East. I’m talking about a philosophy, I’m talking about an ideology, I’m talking about a political idea. I’m talking about food, languages, movies, styles, anything. Everything is in Lebanon.

So, it kind of connects the East and the West because, at the same time, it’s a very westward-leaning country. So Lebanon is kind of a bridge. It’s kind of like us and kind of like the Arab World at the same time.

And it is the most diverse country, and the thing that the Arabs have not learned is how to live with diversity. Lebanon herself had that civil war which really was, in a kind of a fundamental way, about diversity.

SOJ: So you lived in Lebanon during the civil war, during some very violent times. You experienced this war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.

FF: Right.

SOJ: A hundred and twenty thousand people died.

FF: Right.

SOJ: What was that like?

FF: Well!

SOJ: That’s a big question…

FF: Well, the war went all over Lebanon. There was always someplace where it was safe, but every day we had to keep an ear to the ground. Every day we had to get up and know which road is safe, and which road are they kidnapping people on, and which road is the shooting, you know. So, the battle came to all of us at one time or another.

Really, it was a very fearful experience. I have to admit that I was scared to death a lot of times, but never enough to leave. We always were, every day, hopeful.

There were a few times when we thought: “We won’t survive the night.” There were a few times when we thought that. But then, when you do survive, then you’re suddenly euphorically happy and you think: “Oh, it’s great. Everything is great. Tomorrow will be better, you know!”

So, we never really wanted to leave. I had lots of narrow escapes. Anybody who lived through that in Lebanon has a lot of narrow escape stories. We weren’t alone. There were 24 of us who stayed through the war, and God took care of all of us.

SOJ: Now, Syria was occupying Lebanon during this war.

FF: Right.

SOJ: The war broke out in 1975, and I guess Syria invaded in 1976. What was the Lebanese reaction to this occupation? Did they perceive it as well-intentioned by the Syrians? And even it was well-intentioned, did the Lebanese accept it as such?

FF: Well, it was very interesting. When the Syrians invaded, they actually saved the Christians of Lebanon.

There was this terrible, terrible battle that was between a Palestinian refugee camp and the Christian area in which we lived. Really ferocious battle when the Christians had made siege against the refugee camp. The Christians nearly went under. They were losing.

The Syrians invaded, and got between them, and really rescued the Christians. We were puzzled about that for a while, then we realized that Syria did not want an Islamic state beside it. They didn’t want to see Lebanon fall to a radical Muslim ideology.

What the tyrants of the Middle East did — one of the ways they functioned — was that they were afraid of radical Islam. They were secular governments. Assad’s government was secular, like Saddam Hussein’s. As a secular government, they protected the minorities who would have been in danger if there had been a radical Muslim group in charge. So they were enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Qaeda, and all the organizations that preceded ISIS.

When the Syrians first arrived, the feeling toward them was fairly comfortable because of the circumstances. But then they stayed, and they stayed, and they stayed. And we got tired of the roadblocks. And we started to think, you know: “This is my street. What right do you have?”

Even I, I’m a foreigner already, and I’m thinking: “This is my street, and you’re telling me that you have to search me on my way down to work.” We had to stop at their roadblock on the way to work and on the way back, and they had complete control, and if we didn’t stop or if we didn’t stop as fast as they wanted us to, they could shoot us!

So, we start to feel like it’s time for you to go.

Then there is also the complication that there was a time in history when Lebanon — the territory that is Lebanon — and Syria was Greater Syria. It was all called “Syria.” And so the Lebanese feel, rightly, that Syria always kind of coveted Lebanon and wanted it all to be one country. And there were even people in Lebanon who had that view, that this should all be one country. So, the Lebanese who didn’t want that were very fearful when the Syrian Army stayed so long. Stayed for many years!

And then the Israelis came, and then we started to wonder the same thing. “Okay, you’re welcome here for a few days, but you can go now. We’re tired of you. It’s time for you to leave.” I really feel like any soldier standing in somebody else’s street is going to be disliked very soon. No matter why he came to start with.

SOJ: No matter how well-intentioned it was.

FF: Right.

SOJ: So, you’ve talked a little bit about these secular dictators and how Syria didn’t want to see Lebanon turn into a Islamic state.

FF: Right.

SOJ: And that’s been one of their concerns.

FF: Right.

SOJ: And Syria has been a secular dictatorship for quite a while now. Currently, it’s ruled by the Assad regime, but in Syria there’s been a civil war…

FF: Right…

SOJ: … That’s broken out in 2011 to overthrow Assad and topple his regime.

FF: Right.

SOJ: How does this conflict, in which now ISIS has joined the side of the rebels that are fighting against Assad (who’s a secular dictator) — how does this conflict impact Lebanon?

FF: Well, first of all, it’s right on the border. It’s right there. And it’s so easy for people to come across the border. It’s almost like our border with Mexico. It is easy for people to find a way across, you know. So, anything that’s in Syria can infiltrate into Lebanon.

The whole situation is so complicated. In Syria, there are all these different factions, and there are so many different factions in Lebanon. And in Lebanon, there is the Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is a militia group that formed in the south of Lebanon with the support of Iran, which is Shia, and that regime has supported Assad. Hezbollah has fought actually in support of Assad, and that is not the position of the Lebanese government, though Hezbollah has some power in the Lebanese government. So it’s all highly complicated.

Even some groups, you don’t know for sure whose side they’re on. They’re fighting against Assad, but do they like ISIS or not? Maybe they will go over and help ISIS when it benefits them in their fight against Assad.

SOJ: So Lebanon is in a really tough spot here.

FF: Lebanon is in a very tough spot.

SOJ: Lebanon is at enmity with Assad, but ISIS is at enmity with Assad.

FF: Yes.

SOJ: But Lebanon doesn’t necessarily want to side with ISIS.

FF: Not at all. Not at all. And Lebanon, you see, having survived this civil war — it was so long and so dreadful. Seventeen thousand Lebanese people disappeared during their civil war, and nobody ever knew what happened to them. Seventeen thousand people. There are all of these things that are still unresolved because of that war.

The last thing that anybody in Lebanon wants is another war. Lebanon wants in every way possible to stay out of that. Lebanon doesn’t want to be involved.

Modi Followers Assault American Christian Peacefully Protesting in California

While peacefully protesting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, September 27 in San Jose, CA based on his orchestration of genocide of minorities, criminalization of religious liberty, and other human rights violations, I was assaulted twice by his followers.

I was not injured. But I was repeatedly pushed and shoved and touched against my will and as I repeatedly and loudly stated: “Do not touch me. You are assaulting me. Stop touching me.”

The first time I was assaulted, my signs were stolen.

Modi spoke in the SAP Center across the street from a public park. A giant screen was set up on the park green to project his speech and the hours of entertainment beforehand. About 6pm, while it was still light, I walked into the park as probably a couple hundred Modi followers sat watching the screen.

Standing behind them while they sat watching the screen, I silently and peacefully stood there holding two signs — one said “Modi committed genocide” and the other “#ModiFail.”

A man ran up behind me and grabbed the signs out of my hands. I turned around, saw him crumple them up, approached him, pointed and shouted: “Thief, thief, thief. This man assaulted me. This man stole my signs.” He then threw them on the ground and I picked them up, threw them in a trash can, walked out of the park and told an officer as I passed: “I was just assaulted.”

I went to get more signs (corrugated plastic this time) and returned, but the police had formed a ring around the park and were denying people access. I engaged with the police repeatedly, pled with them to Google Modi, told them Modi committed genocide against minorities and told them that his police officers massacred thousands of Muslims and Christians.

Friedrich near police line segregating protesters from Modi followers
Friedrich near police line segregating protesters from Modi followers

Someone told me that police were under orders not to speak to protesters. I spoke to one officer, asking loudly so that others could hear: “Is that true? Were you ordered not to speak to us? Did you take a vow of silence?” The man remained mute. I said: “That’s sad. Don’t you have free speech? If I had to give up my free speech in exchange for a paycheck, I would find another job.”

I then spoke to several other police officers and protesters, stating:

“So you can support genocide in America, you just can’t protest it? Is this free speech? Regulated speech is not free speech. This is a public park. Don’t we have a right to be here? We want peace. We are here because we are protesting violence. The Modi supporters are initiating violence. A foreign politician who committed genocide gets celebrated by the city but American citizens protesting it are banned from a public park.”

I also repeatedly said to police officers: “Please, listen to your conscience. Modi is a murderer. Google him. In the name of Jesus Christ, listen to your conscience. I can feel you are ashamed.”

Several officers seemed moved to think differently as I told one he had kind eyes, told a sergeant, “God bless you,” and watched as several listened to Indian minorities reason with them by explaining Modi’s atrocious human rights record.

In the photo attached, you will see Modi on the big screen. The police line gave way and allowed us in – strangely – right before he took stage inside center across the street. Police several times told me and other protesters that they were there to reduce tension and prevent incidents. But nobody bought that argument.

A police lieutenant finally came down the line and, not far from me, told a sergeant they were going to allow us to “make our point.”

It was very odd timing when the police line finally gave way because it was dark by then, there were hundreds more Modi followers, and they welcomed him with religious fervor as he came on screen — rising from a seated position on the grass and raising their hands and screaming his name.

But I walked in, with others. I walked down the sidewalk to stand directly in front of the screen so the crowd could see my new signs — one said “Atrocity Nation: #End Caste Apartheid Now” and one said “Crimes of Modi: Forcible Conversions of Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs | 2002 Massacre of Muslims” on one side and “Modi Believes in Violence Not Development” on the other side.

That was when I was assaulted for the second time.

Friedrich pictured with other protesters minutes after being assaulted while standing directly in front of the screen
Friedrich pictured with other protesters minutes after being assaulted while standing directly in front of the screen

I was in front of the screen in the park when Modi started speaking. A very large, probably 300lb man muscled up on me. He began touching me and shoving me. I told him: “Do not touch me!” He responded: “What are you going to do about it?” I said: “I want peace.” He shoved me again; again I told him not to touch me. “You are assaulting me,” I said.

“I will break you,” he threatened me. Then someone grabbed one of my two signs (the “Crimes of Modi” sign) and I walked around behind the projector, came back to the other side, gathered with protesters, and when I saw my sign was dropped on the ground in front of the projector I dodged in to retrieve it.

It is worth noting that I was standing at the very front of the crowd, in full view of the police, while this man assaulted me. Female protesters reported to me that the same man approached them earlier in the evening and similarly threatened and attempted to intimidate them as well.

Then I stood and watched the crowd, many of whom tried to stare me down. I spoke to several, especially after the silence when they would applaud Modi. “Please do not applaud a mass murderer,” I said. The protesters chanted “No Justice, No Peace” on a portable loudspeaker just feet from the hundreds of Modi followers who sat bedazzled by the screen. “Shame on Modi,” we also chanted.

“Modi is not God, Modi is below God,” I implored the crowd. Many people in the arena seemed uncertain, which is good because I am certain that was I was saying was true. A lot of the followers seated nearby did not applaud when others did and they kept glancing at the line of protesters.

The police lieutenant moved down the line in-between the protesters and the Modi followers. He came up to me, put his hands on me, and told me to move. I asked: “Where do you want me to go.” He said: “Move back two feet, you can’t block their view.” I said: “Yes, sir.” He pushed me back and I stepped back without resisting.

I don’t understand why they did it, but I commend the San Jose Police Department for finally listening to the appeals of the many protesters who called on them to respect their right to peacefully express their sentiments about Modi’s egregious human rights violations. After hours of holding back protesters from entering the park, they finally gave way and allowed protesters to enter at the emotional high point — when Modi began his speech — and speak freely in opposition, as citizens of the United States, to a foreign politician guilty of genocide.

There were thousands of protesters present from a wide, wide, wide range of communities — myself, a Christian, as well as Sikhs, Muslims, Tamils, Gujaratis, Maharashtrans, Kashmiris, Dalits, and God only knows who else. The protest was active for hours (from about 4pm – 8pm) and still going when I left. Protesters were assertive, but I witnessed no aggression on their part. All the violence I saw was initiated by Modi followers and I heard multiple reports of female protesters being grabbed, threatened, and intimidated.

There is no greater proof that Modi’s tactics — indeed, the tactics of the Indian State’s system as a whole — are built on brutality, violence, and murder than for rabid followers of this foreign politician to assault a U.S. citizen while he peacefully protests in his home-state.

Syria's Refugees Flee Fallout of Imperial Foreign Relations

Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, refugees from the world’s worst conflict zones are fleeing towards Germany rather than away from it, and they’re doing so to escape bloodletting caused by decades of an imperial “Great Game” of international manipulation played out by the victors of 1945.

The Nazis were evil and deeply depraved.

So, too, was the British Empire’s regime, which at its height in 1922 (just after World War I) dominated 22 percent of the earth and 20 percent of its human population.

Ever since its empire collapsed shortly after the close of World War II, Britain and its fellow victor, the United States, have toyed with the rest of the world in an attempt to control a perceived balance of powers.

Despite allying during the war with the Soviet Union, an Evil Empire that surpassed even the atrocities of Nazi Germany (at least in body count), the British and U.S. governments (along with other former colonial powers) linked arms afterwards to break Soviet influence over any other nation — and replace it not with their own influence, but with actual control via a flow of money, guns, advisors, military trainers, and, eventually, their own troops.

This happened over and over again from 1945 to the dawn of the 21st century — in a Cold War against the Soviet Union, in a series of hot wars fought against Asian and Central American proxies for the Soviets, in sponsored coups, clandestine support of civil and regional wars, and backing of suitably servile rulers of recently liberated colonial nations around the globe, and, finally, in invasion and occupation of major Middle Eastern powers.

One of those powers is Syria, which was released from the French Empire’s occupation in 1946.

The horrifyingly bloody civil war currently raging in Syria is a direct result of decades of foreign control exercised by world superpowers — both clandestinely and directly. Committed to a misguided concept of foreign relations being nothing but a power struggle, the actions of their meddling sparked the most extreme reactionary response in the shape of ISIS. If every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, then the only way to short-circuit the system seems to be to stop acting.

The Great Game must see the curtain close. The playing of nations like puppets on strings by superpowers only results in more evil, no matter how good intentioned it might ever be. The actors need to stay at home.

Where is the Democracy in India?

1. Democracy
Today, in recognition of India’s 68th Independence Day, I want to talk about democracy, about equality, about liberty, about prosperity, and about peace.

The independence of any people from colonial shackles is an event deserving fervent celebration, but achieving independence is, unfortunately, not necessarily synonymous with achieving liberty, as historian Clarence Carson explains:

“It sometimes happens that a colonial revolt will result in both national independence and increased protections of individual liberty. It happened in America in the 1770s and 1780s. But it hardly follows that one will lead to the other. In the 20th century, there have been colonial revolutions in many lands. Often, they have been promoted and defended under the banner of freedom. In fact, 20th century revolutions have usually resulted in one party rule, dictatorship, and tyranny, even those that did achieve national independence. However desirable national independence may be, it is something quite different and separable from freedom.” [1]

The foundation of any true democracy is the free practice and propagation of religion without interference by the State. This is why, for instance, the very first amendment of the United States Constitution protects religious liberty. James Madison, called the “Father of the Constitution” and considered chief architect of the Bill of Rights (among which rights are the First Amendment), wrote:

“We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings and nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with, the aid of Government.” [2]

That is, it was the considered opinion of the author of the world’s oldest written constitution that religion is more likely to be practiced free of force or fraud when the State has nothing to do with it. He did not stand alone in holding to this principle. John Adams, second president of the United States, put it thus: “Nothing is more dreaded than the national government meddling with religion.” [3]

When they do meddle with religion, national governments often justify it in terms of a perceived necessity to prevent “antinational sentiment,” to protect people from “force or fraud,” or to somehow test the sincerity of a person’s beliefs. Yet, as Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, stated: “The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty.” [4]

So we come to considering how India fares as it celebrates achieving national independence.

In February 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.” [5]

That sounds pretty good. If all you heard was that soundbite, you might be convinced. But we need to seek a little more information. What does Modi mean when he talks about “freedom of faith”? Let’s look deeper.

One of his earliest acts after being elected Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat was to pass the so-called “Religious Freedom Act of 2003.”

This act says that if you want to switch your religion, you first have to ask permission from the government. The act says this is to prevent “forcible” conversions, but it says force includes talking about divine displeasure. That means that if I told a Gujarati that I believe “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” a saying of Solomon taught by both Christians and Muslims worldwide, then I can face up to four years in prison and a 100,000 rupee fine.

Modi’s cabinet ministers and senior members of party, the BJP, have repeatedly demanded this be made a national law. In December 2014, arguing the necessity of the national government meddling in religion, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said: “To check conversion, I think an anti-conversion law needs to be framed. All political parties should think about this.” [6]

Yet, in February of this year, Modi also said: “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext, and I strongly condemn such violence.” [7]

That sounds pretty good, too. Another soundbite. Let’s look deeper.

In 2002, six months after becoming Chief Minister, Modi’s government in Gujarat sponsored a genocide against minorities, about which the U.S. State Department reported:

“Hindu mobs killed 1,200-2,500 Muslims, forced 100,000 people to flee, and destroyed homes. Christians were also killed and injured, and many churches were destroyed. India’s National Human Rights Commission found evidence of premeditated killing by members of Hindu nationalist groups, complicity by state government officials, and police inaction.” [8]

The State Department also said: “Police reportedly told Muslim victims, ‘we don’t have orders to help you.’ It was reported that assailants frequently chanted ‘the police are with us.’” [9] Additionally, Human Rights Watch reported the attacks were “planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.” [10]

Many members of Modi’s own administration have also spilled the beans. In 2007, Gujarati MLA Haresh Bhatt, one of those who led murderous mobs to massacre Muslims, was caught on hidden camera saying: “Modi told me I’ll give you three days. Do whatever you want, you will not be touched.” [11]

For ten years, Modi was banned from entering the United States because of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Genocide.

Twelve years after the genocide, however, he became Prime Minister of India.

If Modi speaks of religious liberty, but defines it as State regulation of religion, is there democracy? If Modi speaks of rejecting violence against religion, but sponsors a genocide against religious minorities, is there democracy? Where is the democracy?

2. Equality
Meanwhile, peaceful protesters like 83-year-old hunger-striker Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa face repeated arrest for peacefully practicing democratic dissent.

In 1986, Surat Singh Khalsa was working for the freedom of the Sikh people by helping organize protest rallies. He was at a rally outside the Punjab Legislative Assembly when police, without provocation, opened fire on peaceful and unarmed protesters. Khalsa was wounded in the leg.

Khalsa was protesting the Indian State’s systemic discrimination against Sikhs. Maybe you have seen a Sikh before? They are very recognizable. Initiated Sikhs wear turbans and so stand out in a crowd which, unfortunately, can also make them easy targets for persecution. Human rights organization Ensaaf reports:

“From 1984 to 1995, Indian security forces engaged in systematic human rights violations in the state of Punjab, India…. leading to a dramatic increase in disappearances and extrajudicial executions…. Although all Punjabi Sikhs were vulnerable to disappearance and killing, police especially targeted Amritdharis (initiated Sikhs), those who were politically active with the Akali Dal parties, and families and friends of alleged militants.” [12]

This period of genocide began in June 1984 when the Indian Army invaded the Sikh Golden Temple to kill politically outspoken Sikh community leaders. They also killed thousands of pilgrims who were caught in the crossfire of the attack that was launched at the height of a major Sikh festival.

Then, in November 1984, the Indian State sponsored further genocide against Sikhs in the country’s capital city, New Delhi. Members of Parliament, city officials, and political party leaders took to the streets to slaughter Sikhs in the most ghastly and brutal ways possible — gang-raping the women, burning people alive, dismembering them.

This genocide is a major cause of Sikh immigration to the United States, where they found refuge and true freedom.

But were these Members of Parliament who led genocidal gangs ever punished? They were promoted to cabinet positions. The sick irony is the positions in which they were placed. Kamal Nath was made Minister for Urban Development. Jagdish Tytler was made Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, dozens of Sikh leaders who were arrested decades ago for protesting the Indian State’s genocide have finished their court-appointed sentences, are eligible for release, but remain imprisoned.

Yet early release is readily given to murderous police officers convicted of disappearances, torture, and murder. People convicted to life in prison for orchestrating the Gujarat Genocide — those like Minister Maya Kodnani and activist Babu Bajrangi — get bail after just a few years behind bars. [13] And, in Punjab, adding injury to the insult is that the current Director General of Police is Sumedh Saini, a man who, when he was appointed to that position, was still facing a criminal trial for abducting and killing three people in 1994. [14] Saini built his career by leading death squads in the 1990s, a dark history expounded on the Floor of Representatives in 1995 by Congressman Dan Burton:

“Over 41,000 cash bounties were paid to police in Punjab for extrajudicial killings of Sikhs between 1991 and 1993. That was 41,000 people. Murdered…. This is not me talking. Read Amnesty International. Read the International Red Cross.” [15]

Sikhs suffer genocide, are victimized by death squads, and are arrested for peacefully protesting these atrocities. Modi sponsors a genocide, passes laws criminalizing religious liberty, and he is made Prime Minister. Where is the equality?

3. Liberty
In January 2015, human rights activist Sukhman Dhami wrote:

“Whether it’s mass graves in Kashmir, mass cremations in Punjab, razing villages in Chhattisgarh, or rampant torture, India has refused to confront and redress atrocities perpetrated by its security forces. Just four years ago, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission uncovered nearly 3,000 bodies in numerous unmarked mass graves….

“These mass graves mirror the pattern of mass cremations uncovered in Punjab, where security forces secretly cremated thousands of bodies to hide evidence of their crimes committed during the counter-insurgency operations in the 1980s and 90s.” [16]

These victims are the produce of the Indian State’s death squads, but the State punishes the human rights activists who expose evil.

Jaswant Singh Khalra was murdered by Indian police in 1995 for uncovering and reporting that police death squads were secretly rounding up Sikh men in the Punjab, imprisoning them off the books, torturing them, killing them, and then quietly cremating their bodies at local cremation grounds.

In Amritsar alone, Jaswant identified the names of 2,097 Sikhs who were secretly cremated after being murdered by a police death squad. [17]

Amritsar is just one of thirteen districts in the Punjab.

The Indian State admits it killed Jaswant Singh Khalra in the exact same manner as the sufferers of the secret genocide he exposed, but it took sixteen years before it upheld the convictions of six low-level officers involved in his abduction, torture and murder.

In 1996, Jalil Andrabi was murdered by Indian soldiers for documenting mass disappearances in Kashmir.

Before his murder, while visiting Geneva, Switzerland, he warned the United Nations: “More than 40,000 people have been killed, which includes all — old men and children, women, sick and infirm.” [18]

Twenty days after his disappearance, Jalil’s body was discovered in a river — he was stuffed inside a sack, his hands were tied behind his back, his eyes were gouged out, his body was covered in wounds indicating torture, and he had been shot in the head.

Again, it was an agent of the Indian State who was to blame for murdering this peaceful human rights activist. An investigation identified Major Avtar Singh. But he could not be found, because he inexplicably managed to flee the country, taking refuge in North America, where he ultimately committed suicide.

Meanwhile, India refuses to sign the UN Convention Against Torture. The use of torture is employed as a daily tool by police. A study of 9 out of India’s 30 states conducted by watchdog group “People’s Watch” calculated that India’s security forces torture 1.8 million people every year. [19]

Laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — the AFSPA — allow Indian security forces to shoot to kill upon mere suspicion, arrest without probable cause other than suspicion, and search and seize without warrant. The law grants total immunity from prosecution. Human Rights Watch calls it “a tool of state abuse, oppression, and discrimination.” [20]

Surat Singh Khalsa is on hunger-strike since January 2015 to demand freedom for political prisoners. Irom Sharmila, called the “Iron Lady of Manipur,” has been on hunger-strike since the year 2000 to protest the AFSPA after Indian security forces used the law to get away with massacring 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop. [21] And yet, with so much blood on its hands, the Indian State wants a national law requiring people to receive government permission before changing their religion.

So, we must ask, where is the liberty?

4. Prosperity
When Modi became Prime Minister, 21 of his 66 cabinet members faced criminal charges, including five people charged with rape and kidnapping and others charged with attempted murder. [22] When his party took power last year, 186 of 543 candidates who won election parliament — 34 percent — faced criminal charges, including 112 facing “serious” charges “such as murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and crimes against women including rape and molestation.” [23]

But while the perpetrators of injustice rule the land, the common Indian has no recourse in India’s injustice system. India has the largest backlog of cases in the world. As many as 30 million cases are pending. A report estimated it would take 466 years for India to clear its backlog. [24] Countless innocent people languish in Indian prisons for decades just waiting for a trial.

Shall we touch on the issue of mass poverty? India has more poor people than any other country — one-third of the world’s poorest people live in India. [25] Up to two million Indian children die every year before their fifth birthday. [26] An Indian’s life expectancy is one of the lowest in the world, ranking 139th out of 194 countries. [27]

The most slaves in the world are to be found in India, according to the Global Slavery Report. Over 14 million Indians, especially those treated as low-caste, are chained by forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, forced sexual exploitation, and forced marriage. [28]

Meanwhile, one of the biggest slave-masters is the Indian State. Under the Rural Employment Guarantee Act, it hires 50 million households a year to dig proverbial ditches for $1 to $2 per day. This is India’s solution to the problem of poverty. Journalist Edward Luce puts it best: “It is difficult to see how a scheme that requires the poor to provide twelve hours or more of backbreaking physical labor for just $1 or $2 will transform their conditions.” [29]

We have heard much about the “Make in India” public relations campaign. Yet the Indian government’s solution to poverty is not to allow businesses to form and investments to be made, but to sign backroom deals with multinationals and then use the country’s security forces to implement land-grabs for the benefit of foreign corporations. As Arundhati Roy explained in 2009: “There is a whole spectrum of struggles all over the country that people are engaged in — the landless, the Dalits, the homeless, workers, peasants, weavers. They’re pitted against a juggernaut of injustices, including policies that allow a wholesale corporate takeover of people’s land and resources.” [30]

In India, the 99 percent are ruled by the one percent. The wealthy are the rulers who tax, enslave, and kill while they grow fat on bribes, kickbacks, and the blood of the innocent. So, we cannot help but ask, where is the prosperity?

5. Peace
As Sukhman Dhami notes:

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly half of India’s states, including states such as Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh, regularly experience anything from ‘civil unrest’ to outright insurgency.  The common denominator in these regions is human rights atrocities committed by the military, paramilitary, or police against minority communities.”

Yet India continues to thrust Gandhi, the so-called Mahatma, upon the rest of the world. They say he is the face of peace. Yet the Indian State pays to install his statues everywhere, including throughout North America. [32]

How did all this happen? Was it a surprise? Were there no warnings?

At India’s constitutional convention, several framers of the Constitution warned that the document was deeply flawed.

For instance, Professor Ranga from Tamil Nadu said: “Centralisation, I wish to warn this house, would only lead to Sovietisation and totalitarianism and not democracy.” [33]

Expressing similar concerns, Hukam Singh of Punjab said: “There is enough provision in our Constitution… to facilitate the development of administration into a fascist state.” In fact, the Sikh representatives from Punjab refused to sign the constitution at all. Hukam Singh said: “Let it not be misunderstood that the Sikh community has agreed to this constitution.” [34]

Dr. Ambedkar, the champion of the downtrodden people of India, is commonly credited as the author of the Constitution. The Indian State trumpets his involvement, but ignores his comments made just three years after the document was adopted. Speaking on the floor of Rajya Sabha, Ambedkar declared:

“My friends tell me that I made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. But whatever that may be, if our people want to carry on, they must not forget that there are majorities and there are minorities, and they simply cannot ignore the minorities by saying, ‘Oh, no. To recognise you is to harm democracy.’ I should say that the greatest harm will come by injuring the minorities.” [35]

So where does this leave us?

The first Asian ever elected to United States Congress was Dalip Singh Saund, a Californian Sikh who, speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1961, warned:

“We have been identified with the ruling classes. We have been coddling kings and dictators and protecting the status quo. The status quo for the masses of people in many lands means hunger, pestilence, and ignorance.” [36]

Today, will the governments of the world continue to coddle kings and dictators or will they speak out boldly against the status quo that has left so many suffering?

The people of India want peace.

Yet, are compelled to ask, where is the peace?

Indeed, in modern India, where is the democracy, where is the equality, where is the liberty, where is the prosperity, and where is the peace?

Citations:
1. Carson, Clarence. The Beginning of the Republic: 1775-1825 (A Basic History of the United States, Vol. 2). American Textbook Committee; 1st edition (1984). p. 2.
2. Madison, James. Letter to Edward Livingston. July 10, 1822.
3. Adams, John. Letter to Benjamin Rush. June 12, 1812.
4. Jefferson, Thomas. Bill No. 82, “A Bill For establishing religious freedom.” Virginia General Assembly. 1779.
5. Gowen, Annie. “Comment on religious tolerance by Indian leader sparks national debate.” The Washington Post. February 19, 2015.
6. “Anti-conversion law needed, Rajnath Singh says.” The Times of India. December 28, 2014.
7. “Won’t tolerate violence against any religion, promises Modi.” The Hindu. February 17, 2015.
8. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Annual Report 2013.” pp. 3-4.
9. U.S. Department of State. “India: International Religious Freedom Report 2005.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
10. Human Rights Watch. “India: Gujarat Officials Took Part in Anti-Muslim Violence.” May 1, 2002.
11. “Sting on BJP, VHP men links Modi to 2002 riots.” CNN-IBN. October 25, 2007.
12. Ensaaf. “Frequently Asked Questions.”
13. Bhan, Rohit. “2002 Gujarat Riots Convict Babu Bajrangi Granted Bail for Sixth Time.” NDTV. July 23, 2015.
14. Kaur, Jaskaran. “Mother testifies against police officer Sumedh Saini.” Harvard Blogs. August 19, 2008.
15. Representative Burton (IN). Congressional Record 141: 107 (June 28, 1995) p. H6451-H6452.
16. Dhami, Sukhman. “Confront India on poor human rights record.” The Hill. January 26, 2015.
17. Human Rights Watch. “Protecting the Killers: A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India.” October 2007.
18. Mathur, Shubh. “Impunity in India.” Guernica. February 1, 2013.
19. People’s Watch. “Torture and Impunity in India.” National Project on Preventing Torture in India. November 2008.
20. Human Rights Watch. “India: Repeal Armed Forces Special.” August 18, 2008.
21. Organization for Minorities of India. “Irom Sharmila’s Fiancé on Torture, AFSPA, and Surat Singh Khalsa.” June 12, 2015.
22. Macaskill, Andrew. “Nearly third of Indian cabinet charged with crimes, despite Modi pledge.” Reuters. November 11, 2014.
23. Bedi, Rahul. “A third of India’s newly elected MPs face criminal charges.” The Irish Times. May 20, 2014.
24. “Indian PM plea on justice backlog.” BBC News. August 17, 2009.
25. Bhowmick, Nilanjana. “India Is Home to More Poor People Than Anywhere Else on Earth.” TIME. July 17, 2014.
26. Stancati, Margherita. “Almost 5,000 Indian Children Die Daily.” The Wall Street Journal. September 13, 2012.
27. “Global Health Observatory Data Repository: Life expectancy – Data by country.” Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Statistics 2015, World Health Organization, WHO. 2015.
28. Sinha, Kounteya. “India is now the world’s slave capital: Global Slavery Index 2014.” The Times of India. November 17, 2014.
29. Luce, Edward. In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. First Anchor Books Edition, March 2008. p. 203.
30. Roy, Arundhati. “The heart of India is under attack.” The Guardian. October 30, 2009.
31. Dhami, Sukhman.
32. Organization for Minorities of India. “Texas Town Plans to Install Statue of Religious Figure Some Call a ‘Symbol of Segregation’.” May 8, 2014.
33. Constituent Assembly of India Debates (Proceedings). Vol. VII. November 9, 1948.
34. Constituent Assembly of India Debates (Proceedings). Vol. XI. November 21, 1949.
35. Parliamentary Debates. Vol. IV, No. 7. September 2, 1953.
36. Speech of Hon. D. S. (Judge) Saund. Congressional Record. Proceedings and Debates of the 87th Congress, First Session. August 16, 1961.

First Asian in U.S. Congress Deplored American Foreign Policy

The same year the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, an immigrant in California achieved the triple honor of becoming the first Asian, Indian, or Sikh to serve in the United States Congress — and so vote for the act to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens to vote.

Dalip Singh Saund emigrated from Punjab, India to study at the University of California, Berkeley in 1920, a time when Asians were denied the right to become citizens or even own land. Within forty years, he cracked the racial barrier for Asians to become federal elected officials. Upon arriving in Congress, he refused to play it safe, instead speaking out boldly for equal recognition of civil rights; as a member of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, he also raised his voice against using American taxpayer dollars to fund foreign aid bailouts.

Speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 14, 1957, just four days before voting for the Civil Rights Act, Saund said: “No amount of sophistry or legal argument can deny the fact that in 13 counties in one State in the United States of America in the year 1957, not one Negro is a registered voter. Let us remove those difficulties.” Addressing supporters of segregation, he remarked, “Please modify your way of thinking. Look at the clock. Go ahead, and do not hold the game up.” [1]

Saund knew discrimination first-hand. He arrived in the United States at a time when the federal Chinese Exclusion Act treated all Asians as “Chinese” and banned them from citizenship. If he had arrived just a few years later, he would not have even been allowed in the country at all, as the 1924 Alien Exclusion Act firmly entrenched anti-immigrant laws by prohibiting anyone ineligible for U.S. citizenship from immigrating. In California, he also faced state laws like the 1913 Alien Land Law, which prohibited immigrants ineligible for citizenship from owning land.

Although Saund faced a monumental struggle, he credited his parents for investing in his future: “My father and mother could not read or write. But when my parents made money, it was their first ambition to give their children the benefits of higher education.” Because his parents scraped by to send him to school, he learned to read. In 1917, while living in Amritsar, Punjab, he read speeches by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson printed in Indian newspapers. Saund said: “I was simply fascinated by the beautiful slogans of Woodrow Wilson – to make the world ‘safe for democracy,’ ‘war to end wars,’ ‘self-determination for all peoples.’” [2]

After earning a degree in mathematics from the University of Punjab in 1919, Saund left British-occupied India to pursue a future in the country whose president spoke of “self-determination for all peoples.” On arrival in California, he began studying agriculture at the prestigious UC Berkeley with patronage from Stockton Gurdwara, living in the gurdwara-owned Guru Nanak Khalsa Hostel. [3] Within two years, he was elected national president of the Hindustani Association of America and began speaking publicly for India’s independence from the British Empire.

“All of us,” he wrote about the association, “were ardent nationalists and we never passed up an opportunity to expound on India’s rights.” One one occasion, when he introduced a political science professor at an association event, Saund said, “First, I delivered a half-hour talk on the right of India to independence and the inequities of English rule.” [4]

The Stockton Gurdwara’s unflinching support for self-determination doubtless guided the future statesman’s ambitions. Recognized by the State of California on the anniversary of its 2012 centennial celebration as “the first permanent Sikh American settlement and gurdwara in the United States,” the gurdwara also formed the Ghadar Party in 1913. As declared by the California legislature, “The Ghadar Party was the first organized and sustained campaign of resistance to the British Empire’s occupation of the Indian subcontinent.” [5]

From its base in California, the Ghadar Party sent 616 members to spark an independence movement in India, of whom 527 were Sikhs. [6] Among those Sikhs was Kartar Singh Sarabha, who, like Saund, was a student at UC Berkeley. With funding from Stockton Gurdwara, a 17-year-old Sarabha founded The Ghadar in November 13, 1913 — the first Punjabi-language publication in the country, the newspaper remained in print until 1948 and is considered instrumental in achieving India’s independence. [7]

Sarabha returned to India in 1914 to join the struggle against the British. He was arrested not long after and hanged to death in Lahore, Punjab by British authorities on November 16, 1915. Saund, a 16-year-old living just 30 miles away in Amritsar, almost certainly heard about the martyred young freedom fighter Sarabha. Just two years later, Saund was inspired by Wilson’s speeches; soon, he arrived in the U.S. to study at the same university as Sarabha, also with patronage from Stockton Gurdwara as he joined his voice to the same call for independence.

In recent years, Saund’s nephew reported that his uncle was actually already involved with the Ghadar Party before he left India, and traveled to the U.S. partly because “the heat from the colonial authorities regarding his Ghadar activities was getting too much.” [8]

After beginning studies in agriculture at UC Berkeley, Saund switched to mathematics, earning a masters in 1922 and a doctorate in 1924. Despite his years of higher education, Saund said, “Because I could not become citizen of the United States, I could not find a teaching job.” So he moved several hundred miles south to take work as foreman of a cotton-picking crew. [9]

Recognizing his vigor for India’s freedom movement, Stockton Gurdwara maintained a relationship with the young Saund. Then, in 1930, the gurdwara commissioned him to write a manifesto of independence. Called “My Mother India,” the book offered a history of India and a plea for an end to its imperial occupation by the British. Saund said his book was intended to “answer various questions that commonly arise in the minds of the American people regarding the cultural and political problems of India.” [10]

The issue of India’s caste system was one of those common questions, and Saund’s book pleaded for the civil rights of the downtrodden in India as he compared caste in India to racism in America and elsewhere.

“Even in our present stage of advancement we find that caste prevails throughout the civilized world,” he wrote. “Its ugly symptoms are most prominent in America, Australia, and the white colonies of Africa. In the United States, the lynching of negroes in the South and the strict anti-Asiatic regulations of the state of California, and in Australia the ‘Keep Australia white at all cost’ spirit among the population — both of these show how deeply the spirit of race hatred has penetrated into the system of the dominant white races of the world.” [11]

Suggesting the Asian Exclusion Act legally enshrined “the caste of race,” Saund explained:

“In the state of California, which is the center of oriental population in America, law prohibits the Asiatics (Japanese, Chinese, Hindus) from owning property and even from temporarily leasing lands for farming purposes.… The anti-Asiatic land lease regulations of California have given a severe blow to the oriental population of the state…. The simple, peace loving, industrious, and retiring Asiatics who toiled to make the name of agricultural California great are barred by law from making even an honest, meager living through farming on a small scale. And all because of the caste of race.” [12]

His response to both Western and Eastern forms of racism was a call for “the purity of the human soul.” Excoriating caste practitioners and affirming racial equality, he wrote: “Let those who wish clamor loud about their Nordic superiority or Brahmanic purity. What is needed in the world today is not the purity of the race so much as the purity of the human soul and its motives…. By denying to their fellow brethren their rightful position as human beings, the upper classes of India have sinned most atrociously against themselves and their gods.” [13]

Saund concluded starkly: “India needs a reorganization of its antiquated social system in order to fit properly into the modern world.” [14]

After writing his book, Saund continued campaigning for a clear path to American citizenship for Asian Americans. In 1946, Congress passed the Luce-Cellar Act, finally opening the door for at least a handful of Asians to immigrate and allowing those already in the country to naturalize as citizens and own land. Saund immediately took advantage of this new freedom.

By 1949, Saund was a naturalized U.S. citizen. Since 1948, he had served as General Secretary of the Stockton Gurdwara, a position he held until 1950. That year, though, Saund discovered duty called him elsewhere — to serve as an elected official, a privilege now open to him by citizenship. He ran for county judge in southern California, losing his first election on a technicality but winning when he ran again in 1952.

As an Asian running for public office in a racially tense society, Saund faced discrimination even from voters he was running to represent. During his 1952 campaign, he said “a prominent citizen“ saw him in a restaurant and shouted: “Doc, tell us, if you’re elected, will you furnish the turbans or will we have to buy them ourselves in order to come to your court?”

Saund replied: “My friend, you know me for a tolerant man. I don’t care what a man has on top of his head. All I’m interested in is what he’s got inside it.” [15]

Having won his first election, the newly-minted judge wasn’t about to stop breaking racial barriers. In 1956, he ran to represent the 29th Congressional District of California. On January 1, 1957, he resigned his judgeship to take office as the first Asian, first Indian, and first Sikh elected to serve in the United States Congress.

For Saund, who had spent so many years speaking for freedom, his first priority as a United States Congressman was to demand equal civil rights for all U.S. citizens.

In 1947, India became independent — by 1957, the West African region of Ghana also gained independence from the British Empire. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., after spending the first months of the year establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize civil disobedience campaigns against segregation, traveled to Ghana to join the independence festivities. While there, he drew parallels between the struggles against colonialism and against racism, saying: “Eventually the forces of justice triumph in the universe, and somehow the universe itself is on the side of freedom and justice.” That a colonized country should gain independence from the empire, King said, “Gives new hope to me in the struggle for freedom.” [16]

Meanwhile, Saund was in Washington, D.C. working to protect the votes of African-Americans by speaking on behalf of the Civil Rights Act.

In a speech given the week before the Act was passed, Saund said, “In the United States of America today we have built a splendid and glorious edifice of human rights and moral values.” Referring to another foreign-born member of the House, Saund asked rhetorically, “If he had been born in the State of Mississippi and born with a black skin, would he be a Member of the United States Congress today?” [17]

Saund, however, found his own personal history offered comforting evidence of the possibility for positive social change, stating: “Ten years ago, I was not only a foreigner, but I was an alien, ineligible to citizenship in the United States of America. Because of the opportunities that were open to me and that are open to everybody in this country, I, with the help of great Americans, acquired the right of citizenship. I received my citizenship papers, and today I have the honor to sit in the most powerful body of men on the face of this earth.” [18]

As the first Asian in U.S. Congress, Saund was swiftly added to the influential Foreign Affairs Committee. Soon after first taking office, he took a tour of several Asian countries including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, India, and, lastly, Pakistan. Reporting on his travels, he concluded that some of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, such as Taiwan and Vietnam, demonstrated “a feeling of actual hostility and definitely not of any warmth and friendship toward the people of the United States.” This surprised him. [19]

“Because those people were receiving such tremendous amounts of American aid from us, I expected, as an American, to be greeted with warmth and affection,” wrote Saund. “But the love of a people can never be bought by military aid.” The problem, he suggested, was that U.S. dollars were being handed out indiscriminately, so he warned: “You do not win hearts and minds by propping up dictators with gobs of military aid.” [20]

Shortly after returning from his tour of Asia, Saund was reelected to Congress in 1958 and again in 1960. Between his international travels, concern for civil rights, and years of experience gained serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Saund decided to take up a new cause.

In meetings with Indian diaspora groups, a more contemporary congressional representative from California, Tom McClintock, noted: “In my experience, there are typically two types of political parties worldwide — those that are authoritarian and those that fight authoritarianism.” [21] Over a half-century earlier, the first Indian-American in U.S. Congress, expressed a similar sentiment after his own experiences witnessing the global political scene. “America has been given the leadership of the free way of life, based upon a democratic system of government that recognizes the dignity of man,” Saund wrote. “The other side is represented by international communism where a minority rules by force, where free thought is suppressed, and the individual is merely regarded as a tool of the state.” [22]

Consequently, Saund was convinced that the best path for the United States government to trod was to focus international relations on human rights issues. A biographer of Saund from the Riverside Historical Society describes the congressman as “almost prophetic in his views about channeling foreign aid through central governments.” He believed unconditional promises of cash “would lead to corruption.” [23]

Believing that aid to foreign governments should be conditional on their respect for human rights, he introduced a House resolution declaring: “It is the desire, hope, and expectation of the Congress that nations receiving military assistance under the mutual-security program guarantee to their people freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.” [24]

Saund then proceeded to fight, tooth-and-nail, to introduce an amendment to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act.

The Act completely reorganized the structure of the United States Government’s foreign aid system, unifying existing agencies and separating military from non-military aid. But one of the most extreme changes it proposed was to give the executive power to unilaterally grant foreign aid loans on a long-term basis to any country — in other words, allow the president to authorize multi-year loans of American tax dollars to foreign governments without having to receive annual approval from Congress in the form of an appropriations bill.

Saund found the proposal intolerable; as reported at the time by The Milwaukee Sentinel, he considered the Act “an attempt to avoid congressional control over the government’s purse.” [25]

So, on August 16, 1961, Congressman Saund took to the floor of the House to defend his amendment. His stance set him directly at odds with President John F. Kennedy, who was specifically requesting the new power. Just six days earlier, the president had expanded U.S. involvement in Vietnam by ordering a surreptitious chemical defoliation program, spraying the Vietnamese jungles with poisons as an counterinsurgency measure. Eager to increase foreign aid to South Vietnam and other nations without having to secure support for his vision from the elected representatives of the people, Kennedy now demanded the Foreign Assistance Act.

Dalip Singh Saund speaking with John F. Kennedy (JK) and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ)
Dalip Singh Saund speaking with John F. Kennedy (JK) and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ)

Saund, however, would not let the Act pass so long as it granted the president such unprecedented and unrestrained new power.

Agreeing to provide aid to a foreign country for multiple years at a time, he cautioned, put the U.S. in the unfortunate position of committing to fund countries where “governments were overthrown and the character of officials completely changed.” [26] He offered an example:

“Suppose that the Congress had passed this kind of a bill 3 years ago. That was the time when Iraq was governed by a King and Prime Minister who were very friendly toward the United States. Suppose then we had promised the King of Iraq an annual sum of $100 million for 5 years…. One day we woke up to find that the King and Prime Minister were gone and the Government was taken over by a revolutionary leader not very friendly to the United States of America. Then, if we had decided later that it was not in the best interests of the United States to give this massive aid to the new government of Iraq, where would we be? We would be in a position of offering apologies and making excuses for not giving a foreign government our own money.” [27]

The better option, Saund proposed, was to pass his amendment to the Act to require yearly reauthorization by Congress of foreign aid packages.

When another representative opposed the Saund Amendment, expressing his surprise “at Saund’s opposition to long-term aid in view of the fact India had benefited by this kind of assistance,” Saund replied that he was now an American, not an Indian. Further, he said, “he made his judgments not on the basis of what was good for India but what was good for the United States.” [28]

In fact, Saund seemed suspicious of the very idea of foreign aid, suggesting that, although “the purpose of this program is to help the less fortunate people in the underdeveloped areas of the world,” those benefiting from the bailouts were “a thin strata on top.” [29]

“We have been identified with the ruling classes,” he warned. “We have been coddling kings and dictators and protecting the status quo. The status quo for the masses of people in many lands means hunger, pestilence, and ignorance. There are glaring instances where our aid has helped to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” [30]

The Saund Amendment passed by a razor-thin margin — a vote of 197-185 — but along with it was introduced language to the Act prohibiting aid from going to “the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.” [31]

This language remains a legally binding principle for U.S. foreign relations.

Despite a lifetime of working for self-determination, helping to achieve the independence of India from the British Empire, agitating against discriminatory laws until he finally was able to obtain U.S. citizenship, breaking racial barriers in government, speaking for the civil rights of blacks, and, finally, standing up against the use of American foreign aid to prop up foreign dictators, Saund might yet still have done much more.

Yet tragically, in 1962, at the outset of his campaign for a fourth term in the House of Representatives, Saund suffered a stroke that left him unable to speak or even stand. With the help of his wife, Marian, he eventually recovered the ability to walk, but was compelled to withdraw from public life. He spent the rest of his years with his family in Southern California until his death on April 22, 1973.

Dalip Singh Saund with his family
Dalip Singh Saund with his family

Saund’s policies should serve as an inspiration to all who seek to follow in his footsteps. A judge, a writer, a civil rights activist, the man declared: “Discrimination of man against man in any form is repugnant to the ideals which all Americans cherish.” However, only two other Indian-Americans have subsequently been elected to U.S. Congress — Ami Bera and Bobby Jindal — and neither has stood as a particularly shining example of principle. Bera, on the one hand, was widely protested by Indian diaspora members for his denial of the 1984 Sikh Genocide and patronage of India’s genocide-linked Prime Minister, Narendra Modi [32]; Jindal, on the other hand, dealt with his cultural heritage by abandoning his birth-name, Piyush, and bloodthirstily asks: “How else do we win wars if not by killing our way to victory?” [33]

In contrast, Saund stated: “No people, no nation has ever won or ever can win real freedom through violence.” [34]

Thus, Dalip Singh Saund is rightly remembered as a statesman of supreme principle who recognized his duty to serve his own country first and foremost, raised a courageous voice for truth, reason, and liberty, and defended all minorities as he demanded recognition of equal rights.

Citations:
[1] Saund, Congressman Dalip Singh. U.S. House of Representatives. Speech. June 14, 1957.
[2] Interview with Senator Harry P. Cain. WCKT Miami. July 12, 1959. Click to view video.
[3] CA State Legislature. SCR 104. “Relative to the 100-year anniversary of the Sikh American community.” August 20, 2012
[4] Patterson, Tom. “Triumph and Tragedy of Dalip Saund.” California Historian. June 1992.
[5] CA State Legislature.
[6] Kaur, Anju. “Smithsonian alters Gadar history.” SikhNN.com. May 16, 2014.
[7] CA State Legislature.
[8] Singh, Roopinder. “Remembering the US Congressman from India.” The Tribune. January 12, 2002.
[9] Cain, Senator Harry P.
[10] Saund, Dalip Singh. My Mother IndiaPreface.
[11] Ibid. Chapter 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Singh, Roopinder.
[16] King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warner Books. 1998. Chapter 11.
[17] Saund, Congressman Dalip Singh. June 14, 1957.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Saund, Dalip Singh. My Mother India. Chapter 8.
[20] Ibid.
[21] “USA: Bahujans and Christians Link Arms With Sikhs to Warn Congressman About Persecution in India.” Sikh Siyasat. May 13, 2015.
[22] Saund, Dalip Singh. My Mother India. Chapter 9.
[23] Patterson, Tom.
[24] Saund, Dalip Singh. My Mother India. Chapter 9.
[25] “Congress Cuts Alters JFK’s Aid Requests.” Milwaukee Sentinel. August 17, 1961.
[26] Speech of Hon. D.S. (Judge) Saund. Congressional Record. Proceedings and Debates of the 87th Congress, First Session. “Saund Amendments Sets Brakes on Foreign Aid Spending.” August 16, 1961.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Milwaukee Sentinel.
[29] Congresional Record. August 16, 1961
[30] Ibid.
[31] 22 U.S.C. § 2151n: US Code – Section 2151N: Human rights and development assistance.
[32] NRI minorities disavow Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera as he begins second termSikh Siyasat. January 6, 2015.
[33] Yuhas, Alan. “Governor Bobby Jindal talks foreign policy: ‘We are at war with radical Islam’.” The Guardian. March 16, 2015.
[34] Saund, Dalip Singh. My Mother IndiaChapter 5.

What if we listened to Dr. Ambedkar?

SOJ Producer Pieter Friedrich presented the following remarks at a July 19 banquet hosted by the Begampura Educational and Cultural Society of Sacramento, CA.

Ladies and Gentlemen —

I am honored at the opportunity to speak in honor of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar Ji’s 124th birthday.

I will not keep you for too long, but I hope to spend a few educational minutes with you.

Dr. Ambedkar was the most influential advocate for recognizing and respecting universal human dignity that India has seen in the past century.

The Indian civil rights movement owes an infinite debt to this passionate and tireless champion.

Perhaps no one did more to expose the religiously and culturally enforced caste system that has shackled India’s downtrodden people for millennia.

As a child, Bhim Rao personally suffered caste discrimination.

Growing up, he was treated by the culture around him as an outcaste.

He experienced the horrors of being viewed as subhuman when he was made to study in a segregated classroom, was forbidden to speak to his teacher or interact with other students, and was forbidden to even share the school’s common water supply.

He knew that the so-called low-castes and outcastes routinely face lynchings, rapes, beatings, and other forms of violence and humiliation simply for breaking the taboo against mixing with other castes.

So Dr. Ambedkar devoted his entire life to pursuing the “Annihilation of Caste,” as he called it.

He burned Manusmriti, the Brahmanical religious law that teaches people are born into division, into four segregated classes of humanity, from superior to inferior. He declared that if caste is to be destroyed, then the Vedas and Shastras (which teach that human beings were created unequal) must also be destroyed. He exposed how caste is the foundation of Brahmanism.

As Dr. Manisha Bangar, of BAMCEF and Mulnivasi Sangh, said when she visited California earlier this year: “Hinduism is nothing but a tool for propagation of caste.”

And so Dr. Ambedkar found some of the best solutions to escaping the spectre of caste are interdining, intermarriage, and, above all, conversion. And he led by example, swearing, “I will not die a Hindu,” and leading millions in conversion to a different faith tradition.

Today, India desperately needs new leaders like Dr. Ambedkar. The majority of Indians live in grinding poverty, with 723 million Indians living on just two dollars per day — or less. The national Planning Commission “estimated that subsidised foodgrain entitlements will cover 67 per cent of the population,” meaning two out of three Indians lives in such desperate poverty that they depend on the State to provide their daily bread.

Is this poverty any surprise when two out of every three Indians is also legally labeled by the State as low-caste or outcaste — that is, SC, ST, or OBC? In 2011, India conducted the first census to demand caste status since the British Raj fell. And we wonder why the caste system is still so strong?

But Americans often only hear about another Indian, Mohandas Gandhi. They know about him mostly from the Hollywood film, which was co-funded by the Indian State. And they know about him from the dozens of Gandhi statues dotting the United States.

What Americans and many Indians don’t know is that the Indian State pays to install these statues. Between 2001 and 2010, Delhi paid to install nine statues in North America alone and 65 around the world in total. But Gandhi has no connection whatsoever to this country.

Dr. Ambedkar, however, earned a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City; in 2013, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of his arrival to study in the United States.

Meanwhile, whose picture hangs on the wall of every government office in India? Torture is legal in India, death squads have killed untold thousands, and there are mass graves in several far-flung regions of the country. But the government still calls Gandhi the hero of the oppressed.

The Indian State doesn’t want you to know that, in 1895, Gandhi praised Manusmriti, saying: “The… law, as laid down by Manu, gives some of the qualities needed for the discipline of the mind and reaching the highest Truth.” Or that, in 1932, he said: “Caste is necessary for Christians and Muslims as it has been necessary for Hinduism, and has been its saving grace.” Or that, in 1933, he said: “To abolish caste is to demolish Hinduism.”

The Indian State definitely doesn’t want the world to know that Gandhi used his position of power to become a sexual predator and that his own grandnieces were his victims.

One thing that scares the power-brokers more than anything else is education.

What if people like you and me actually studied Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar on our own and discovered the real truth?

What if we listened to Dr. Ambedkar?

What if we listened to things like….

His warning in November 1949, when, just days before the passage of independent India’s constitution, he said: “It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact…. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves. There is great danger of things going wrong.”

Or his warning in September 1953 when, speaking on the floor of Rajya Sabha, he said: “My friends tell me that I made the Constitution. But I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn it out. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody.”

Or his warning in 1955, just one year before he died, when he said: “I always say that, as I met Mr. Gandhi in the capacity of an opponent, I’ve a feeling that I know him better than most other people, because he opened his real fangs to me.”

Let us educate ourselves and learn the truth.

Thank you for your time.

Khalra, a Sikh activist in India, was disappeared for documenting a state genocide

I want to tell you about Jaswant Singh Khalra.

Jaswant Singh lived in northwestern India in a region called the Punjab. He was from Amritsar, the central hub of Sikh culture. He had a wife, Paramjit Kaur, a daughter, Navkiran Kaur, and a son, Janmeet Singh.

His grandfather, Harnam Singh, joined an independence movement formed out of California called the Ghadar Party and worked to overthrow colonial rule of India by the British Empire.

A bank director at first, Jaswant Singh became a human rights activist after a government-led genocide centered in New Delhi, India’s capital, killed thousands of Sikhs in the streets at broad daylight.

Jaswant was murdered by the State for uncovering and reporting that death squads of Indian police were secretly rounding up Sikh men in Amritsar and other areas of the Punjab, imprisoning them off the books, torturing them, killing them, and then quietly cremating their bodies at local cremation grounds.

In Amritsar alone, Jaswant identified the names of 2,097 Sikhs who were secretly cremated after being murdered by a police death squad.

Amritsar is just one of thirteen districts in the Punjab.

The Indian State admits it killed Jaswant Singh Khalra in the exact same manner as the sufferers of the genocide. Khalra was killed in 1995. It only took the State sixteen years before its Supreme Court finally upheld the convictions and sentences of six low-level police officers involved in Khalra’s abduction, torture, and murder.

But the statewide police director, KPS Gill, who is alleged to have personally ordered the killing, was never charged. Amnesty International recognizes the genocide revealed by Khalra. In an interview, Gill said: “I don’t care about the Sikhs who call me the Butcher of Punjab.” His police did care about intimidating Khalra’s family as they pursued justice in the courts. During a court hearing in 1998 — three years after Khalra’s murder — Amnesty International reported “the tyres of a vehicle belonging to members of the Khalra Action Committee were slashed outside the court building.”

The Sikh Genocide was sponsored by the Indian State.

The genocide is acknowledged by the State.

The killings have declined but the same police officers who fielded death squads remain in power in the Punjab.

The current state police director is Sumedh Saini. He has faced multiple charges for human rights violations but no convictions. Charges against Saini are diverse. They include murdering two Sikh government workers, who were the father and uncle of Davinderpal Singh Bhullar. Bhullar is a mechanical engineer now sitting on death row after allegedly confessing to a bombing; Bhullar says he was tortured to make a false confession. Charges against Saini also include murdering two Hindu businessmen and their driver over a personal dispute.

But all is fine in the Punjab. There is no reason for concern. Let us cry peace, peace, peace.

That is the tune those who don’t like to be made uncomfortable sing when they hear words like “state-sponsored.”

There is nothing more uncomfortable than admitting the State created genocide.

Admitting as much invokes a requirement for justice. Justice requires the guilty and the innocent be separated. The thirst of justice cannot be slaked while those accused of guilt still lead the land.

The work of Jaswant Singh Khalra is not finished.