The UBC Sikh Students' Association released the following open letter explaining its opposition to the political editor of Caravan, Hartosh Singh Bal, participating in the Harjit Kaur Sidhu Memorial Program. It was addressed to UBC president Santa Ono and Faculty of Arts dean Gage Averill.
April 12, 2021
Dear President Ono and Dr. Averill,
Waheguru ji ka Khalsa! Waheguru ji ki Fateh!
We, the UBC Sikh Students’ Association, wish to share our concerns in regard to the baseless allegations that are circulating to malign the Sikh community and misinform the public about the circumstances in which this year’s Harjit Kaur Sidhu Memorial Program was cancelled.
A few weeks ago, we privately contacted the organizers of this event to object to Hartosh Singh Bal’s invitation as a speaker. We find it very upsetting that our private communications and concerns were publicized in outrageous news articles, which mislabelled us as a radicalized faction of the Sikh community.
These allegations are completely false and defamatory. The UBC SSA represents the interests of Sikh students on campus as well as the Sikh community at large. We have been established at UBC since 1985 and have made countless contributions to the campus and community.
In light of this denigration of our community and university, we are sharing our perspective with you and the public. The following are the reasons for our objection to Bal’s invitation, exactly as outlined in our letter to the organizers:
“Hartosh Bal is the nephew and an outspoken supporter of former Director-General of Police of Punjab, KPS Gill. KPS Gill is known in the Sikh community as the 'Butcher of Punjab," who led a brutal campaign of rampant human rights abuses in Punjab in the late ’80s and early ’90s. According to Human Rights Watch, Gill was directly implicated in practices such as abduction, torture and custodial murder of thousands of Sikh youth and also the abduction and disappearance of human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra in 19950.
Gill was also convicted of sexual harassment, in a decision upheld by the Supreme Court of India.
Despite Gill’s name being synonymous with terror and brutality, Hartosh Bal has defended his uncle’s legacy on several occasions, including in an article entitled “Lessons not learnt: The Left and Right have distorted KPS Gill’s success against terrorism”.
In his article, Bal uses a table of statistics generated by data collected from the “Institute for Conflict Management in India”. This table is intended to show us that Gill was actually much more merciful than his predecessors. Bal states that “Gill’s tenure as DGP saw an overall decline in killings.”
Ironically, the Institute which generated this data was founded by, and for many years, led by Gill himself. The “data” is far from neutral and is highly controversial, as it ignores the thousands of extra-judicial murders that took place and were researched by Jaswant Singh Khalra before Gill ordered his abduction and murder in 1995.
Ensaaf, a human rights organization, continues to find and document the innocent victims killed and disappeared by Punjab Police during this period. More information can be found here.
Bal, calling Gill a "hero", goes on to suggest that the “credit for peace in Punjab goes almost entirely to the combination of [Gill’s] leadership and the political climate he was allowed to operate in.”
Not only does that diminish the violence that Gill unleashed onto Punjab and Sikhs, but it also is a slap in the face of survivors and families who are still grieving for loved ones they have lost (missing and murdered).
We strongly believe that inviting Hartosh Singh Bal and allowing him the platform, at UBC, to speak on a topic like the Farmers’ Protests is not right. This would be extremely disparaging to UBC’s Sikh student community, many of whose families were victims of KPS Gill’s reign of carnage, and who themselves face intergenerational trauma.
As the UBC SSA, it is our duty to stand against individuals like Bal who defend and justify mass murderers convicted of sexual harassment. This is not an attempt to silence free speech or academic freedom. Rather, it is about ensuring that those who justify brutal human rights abuses are held to account. It hurts the Sikh community as a whole to see someone who justifies KPS Gill being given a platform at one of the most well-respected universities in the world, especially one that has a Sikh student body as large as UBC’s.
Both the Punjabi Studies program and the ongoing Farmers’ Protest are important to us. Many of our members are students in the Punjabi Studies program at UBC and have also participated in the protests organized in B.C. to support India’s farmers. In fact, UBC SSA recently organized a discussion on the Farmers’ Protest, and we are thankful to the Punjabi Studies program, UBC Social Justice Centre, and UBC CanAm Health & Wellness for organizing events regarding this issue.
We hold great respect for the Harjit Kaur Sidhu Memorial Program. We understand that it is organized every year to commemorate someone who was extremely passionate about Punjabi language and culture in B.C. Our concerns lay only with the invitation of a speaker who has hurt the sentiments of our community and we are grateful that the organizers considered our objection.
The cancelling of this event was a decision made by the organizers, as they understood the concerns raised by the SSA. Claims targeting the SSA for pressuring them are completely baseless.
As noted earlier, it was only an objection raised by a student-run association, something that we believe is a fundamental right of all students. It is very unfortunate that the event had to be cancelled, but we are glad that it is being rescheduled and look forward to attending the program to honour Harjit Kaur Sidhu.
We hope that through this letter, any misconceptions have been cleared, and the disturbing, misleading narratives being exacerbated these past few days can be put to rest.
Also, we are hopeful that this letter can shift the focus towards the Farmers’ Protest happening in India, a disconcerting issue that many in the UBC community are distressed by. We are confident that the UBC administration, a champion of human rights issues around the globe, will also formally address this matter soon.
Thank you very much.
UBC Sikh Students’ Association