Gurpreet Singh: Human-rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan speaks at World Sikh Organization events


A prominent secular human-rights lawyer from India is visiting Canada at the invitation of the World Sikh Organization (WSO).

Prashant Bhushan is engaged in an India-wide campaign against corruption. As a part of Team Anna led by eminent social activist Anna Hazare, he continues to speak against corruption and exploitation of the poor in India.

Back in 1984 following the assassination of then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, Bhushan tried to protect innocent Sikhs, who were targeted by Gandhi's Congress Party goons.

Gandhi was murdered for sending troops to the Amritsar Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, to flush out armed militants who had fortified the place of worship.The army assault on the temple during the first week of June that year left many people dead, sparking angry protests by the Sikhs across the world.

The WSO, which came into being shortly after the army assault in 1984, commemorates these ugly events every year. Bhushan was its guest speaker at an event held in Surrey on June 4 and at the WSO's annual parliamentary dinner in Ottawa on June 6. Similar speaking engagements are also planned tonight in Brampton, and next week in Edmonton and Calgary.

He virtually stole the show at the Surrey event when he addressed the gathering with his speech "Human Rights: A threat to one is a threat to all."

Bhushan shared his firsthand experience during the period of anti-Sikh violence. He separately told the Straight that both he and his father Shanti Bhushan, another veteran lawyer, tried to save as many Sikhs as they possibly could.

"My father approached the then home minister of India to seek protection for the Sikhs, but the government machinery was clearly instructed to look the other way when the people were being targeted by the mobs," Bhushan said.

He had just started his career as a lawyer when the violence broke out. As he looks back today, he thinks that there was a larger conspiracy at work as the Congress Party tried to gain political mileage in the forthcoming parliamentary election by whipping up anti-Sikh sentiments prevailing during 1984.

"Following the pogrom, the Congress won with a thumping majority in the election that year," he noted.

Bhushan helped in documenting the testimonies of the victims. For him, the Congress Party, despite its secular credentials, had become an "opportunistically communal party", which had not only groomed the Sikh fundamentalists to weaken Akali Dal, a moderate Sikh political party of Punjab, but had also tried to please ultra-Hindu nationalists by preying on innocent Sikhs.

Bhushan was beaten last year by the Hindu fanatics for expressing his liberal views on Indian Kashmir. He spoke in support of a referendum in the Muslim majority state of India so that people there can decide their political future. An armed insurgency for independence continues in Kashmir.

The Indian news station Times Now covered the attack on Prashant Bhushan.

He also expressed his concern over the perceived bias in the workings of the police and the judiciary in India.

"Often the Muslim terror groups are prematurely blamed for any bomb blast that happens in India, whereas the ultra Hindu nationalist terror groups also stand exposed for carrying out such attacks,'' Bhushan said.

He pulled no punches while criticizing the government for continued oppression of Dalits, the so-called untouchables and tribal population of India.

"This is a root cause of the ultra-leftist Maoist armed struggle in the country," he stated in reference to a rebellion taking place in many states.

Interestingly, he remained silent on questions about terrorism and human-rights abuses perpetrated in the name of separatist movements in India. On being asked to explain his position on the killing of innocents by Sikh militants, Bhushan blamed the Indian government for the crisis in Punjab and elsewhere.

He listed instances of police high-handedness in Punjab, which, according to him, fuelled terrorist violence. He mentioned staged encounters with suspected militants. As well, he cited disappearances of human-rights and political activists in Punjab as a result of actions by the police and vigilante groups during the insurgency for a separate Sikh homeland.

The WSO, which has sponsored his visit, seeks a Sikh homeland through peaceful and democratic means. On the other hand, Team Anna, which Bhushan represents, is largely known for its nationalistic rhetoric.

Bhushan did not answer a direct question on his position on a theocratic Sikh state. Instead, he suggested that the Indian government should hold talks with groups seeking autonomy or the right to self-determination rather than resorting to state repression.

Meanwhile, WSO president Prem Singh Vinning clarified that his group denounces violence and supports human rights for every group—and not just for the Sikh community.

Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.

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