January 26, 2020 | By Pieter Friedrich
by Pieter Friedrich
“Ami Bera is a Sikh Holocaust denier,” I shouted at the US congressman’s 22 January 2019 town hall in Elk Grove, California. “Ami Bera, you need to answer for your refusal to recognize the 1984 Sikh Genocide was sponsored by the Indian government.”
Bera’s event was just concluding. I’d arrived with a prepared question, hoping to ask the congressman about his stance on the most significant event of Sikh history in living memory. Yet his town hall — which was presumably intended to allow concerned community members to interact with the representative — was carefully structured to prevent any critical questions. They were only taking written questions. I submitted one. They filtered it out.
So I stood up to call out the congressman.
In 2014, US Congressman Ami Bera almost lost his re-election to a second term because of his stance on the 1984 Sikh Genocide.
When Bera was first elected in 2012, he was the only Indian-American in US Congress — and one of only three to serve since Dalip Singh Saund had the distinct honor of being the first Asian, Indian, or Sikh elected way back in 1957. The Indian minority community in his district, including Sikhs, initially had high hopes for Bera. The Democratic congressman had strong support even from local Republican Sikhs.
In 2013, Bera joined the newly-formed American Sikh Congressional Caucus, indicating he would lend an ear to the community’s concerns. But then he pledged that the Sikh Caucus would ignore the most important issue for the global Sikh community and only “deal with domestic civil rights issues.” He declared that “any matters involving India” would be handled by the Congressional Caucus on India (of which he later became a co-chair).
Thus, just as a platform was founded with the promise of providing Sikhs a voice in the federal government, Bera demanded that American Sikhs who are pursuing justice for the 1984 Sikh Genocide — which was perpetrated by the Indian government — should raise that issue through the pro-government India Caucus rather than their own Sikh Caucus.
Bera’s anti-Sikh position crystallized the following year.
In April 2014, prominent community leaders and organizations formed the American Sikh Committee to Evaluate Congressional Candidates. Its sole purpose was to question congressional representatives and candidates about their positions on key Sikh issues. Among questions about racial profiling, school bullying, and the rights of Sikhs to serve in the military, the committee also asked two questions about the Sikh genocide.
Would the respondents agree, asked the committee, that “thousands of Sikhs were murdered in India in November 1984 with the assistance of or lack of intervention by political parties, law enforcement, military or members of the government” and would they, as members of Congress, “seek to remember and acknowledge the pogroms against Sikhs in November 1984, pursue justice for the victims, and work to ensure it does not happen again”?
Bera — a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — refused to answer. His refusal sparked a firestorm of opposition. Californian Sikhs launched a sustained campaign to unseat him.
“For two elections, I told my community that Dr. Bera was a man of conscience that would stand with the Sikh community on civil rights and human rights issues,” announced local Democratic Party activist Amar Singh Shergill. “I was wrong. Now it falls on me to correct that impression.”
Taking the lead, Shergill formed American Sikhs for Truth. The group mailed out anti-Bera flyers to Sikhs in his district and organized personal visits to approximately 1,300 registered Sikh voters.
“This is the equivalent of denying that the South African government was responsible for apartheid,” explained Shergill. “Bera apparently is more interested in protecting the Indian government than he is in speaking the truth about a genocide.”
Bera confirmed Shergill’s evaluation when, while Sikhs were campaigning against him, he traveled to New York City to join newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a political rally at Madison Square Garden. Although Modi had been banned from the US since 2005 because of his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom — another state-sponsored atrocity that left thousands of Indian minorities dead — Bera was elated to join Modi’s “rockstar reception” in New York. “I thank Mr. Modi for his inspirational words and for the vision he laid out today,” he declared after the event.
As Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party — guided by the fascist ideology of its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — implements its Hindu nationalist agenda with increasing speed and lethality, Bera has remained a staunch supporter of the controversial prime minister. When Modi was re-elected in May 2019, Bera declared said, “[I] look forward to working with him and his government to advance the values and interests that bind our two nations.” His support appears entirely unconditional.
Meanwhile, Bera’s political clout is rising. He is now a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In December 2019, he was also appointed chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation — the subcommittee responsible for handling America’s foreign policy towards India.
The 22nd of January — the day of Bera’s town hall — marked the anniversary of the murder of Graham Staines.
Staines, an Australian Christian missionary who had dedicated his life to working in a leper colony in the Indian state of Odisha, was burned alive along with his two young sons by a mob of Bajrang Dal activists on 22 January 1999. Pratap Sarangi, the man who headed Bajrang Dal in the state at the time is, today, a member of parliament serving in the Union Cabinet. His rise to power is not an anomaly.
In the state of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath is now chief minister despite eyewitness claims that, as a former member of parliament, he led a mob that torched a Gurdwara and burned Sikhs alive during in 1984. After L.K. Advani oversaw the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (which was followed by anti-Muslim pogroms), he became deputy prime minister. Modi, of course, is currently prime minister despite being implicated in the anti-Muslim violence of 2002.
Indeed, everywhere one looks in India, the only punishment the powerful receive for orchestrating the grossest of atrocities is promotion to ever higher positions of power.
In 2019, the culture of oppression escalated rapidly. Modi’s government annexed Kashmir, placed nearly two million Assamese on a list of people who may be stripped of citizenship and placed in detention camps, issued the Ayodhya verdict to green-light construction of a temple on disputed land and hand the rights to build it over to the same people responsible for the violent demolition of the Babri Masjid, and passed the Citizenship Amendment Act to make religion the basis for acquiring Indian citizenship. Now the BJP wants to implement a National Register of Citizens that would require every resident of India to prove their citizenship — and it is violently crushing anti-CAA/NRC protests as they continue to erupt all across the country.
Are these the “values and interests” which Bera believes bind the US and India together? Are the CAA and NRC — which many people are comparing to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws — representative of the “inspirational” vision for which Bera has praised Modi?
How will Congressman Ami Bera, who now holds the reins to American foreign policy towards India, react to the reality of Modi’s fascist regime?
Will he continue to be more interested in protecting the Indian government than he is in speaking the truth about genocide?
“Ami Bera denies the 1984 Sikh genocide,” I shouted at Bera’s town hall. “The Sikh community of California has launched a bipartisan campaign to unseat you, and you have ignored this minority community. You will be held accountable for this, Congressman Bera.”
As I raised my voice, Bera put his hands in his pockets and continued to do what he has been doing for years — ignored the outrage.