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#FreeJaggiNow: A Movement for Sikh Justice

In broad daylight on November 4, 2017, Jagtar Singh Johal, a British Sikh man, was abducted from the streets of Jalandhar, Punjab in India by police officers in plain clothes. He was subjected to abuse, ranging from body separation techniques to electric shocks, in order to extract a confession of involvement in the murders of prominent Hindu figures – crimes he did not commit. He was initially denied access to British consular officials, his family, or a lawyer. He became a man in the midst of oblivion for ten days after his arrest, not permitted to speak to his family, including his newly-wedded wife. Johal is a simple man with a passion for uncovering the truth and advocating for justice. He runs a website called Never Forget 84 , which strives to highlight the 1984 Sikh Genocide and injustices faced by Sikhs in modern-day Punjab. Simply because he advocated for human rights, for justice, and against genocide, the police force tried to break him down through excruciating physical pain and wrenching mental torture- a pattern seen throughout the history of independent India. Alone and hidden away from the outside world, his existence could too easily have been forgotten if not for the brave activists of #FreeJaggiNow.

jaggi2Johal was vacationing in India after his wedding when he was arrested under the pretense that he was involved in targeted killings of minority leaders and funding the Khalistan Liberation Force, an armed group dedicated to creating a separatist state. The Sikh Federation UK, an organization that raises awareness about Sikh issues, suggests that Johal was targeted because he is a human rights activist who detailed the atrocities of the Indian state during the 1984 Sikh Genocide on a website called Never Forget 1984. Senior Punjab Police officials maintain that he was “neck-deep” in targeted killings and also express concern about Johal’s activism and his influence on youth, calling it radicalization, a tactic long used by oppressive regimes as an excuse for extra-judicial action.

Johal is still under custody and his lawyer, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, meets with him for an hour every day. His request for an independent medical board was deniejaggi4d because it would be too late to find physical signs of torture or the effects of severe medical torture, Manjhpur has since decided not to press for an examination. Manjhanpur has also expressed concern that no formal charge has been named and that his court date keeps getting postponed, thus extending his stay in police custody.

The Sikh diaspora in the United Kingdom and the United States have raised their voices through social media and protests, starting a campaign called #FreeJaggiNow. A petition for Johal’s release has almost hit its 50,000 signature goal. The social media campaign has also gained significant momentum with multiple individuals conducting street parchar (educating pedestrians) in the UK and many gurudwaras (Sikh houses of worship), have held prayers and educational events. A gurudwara in San Jose recently brought together Bay Area universities in order to host a kirtan (a melodic recitation of the verses in the Guru Granth Sahib) night for Johal, and many other student groups and communities are following suit.

The Johal case has brought the 1984 Sikh Genocide and subsequent killings, illegal arrests, and discrimination against Sikhs to the forefront of conversation once again. Johal’s activism has reawakened the narrative of Sikh suffering, and continued human rights abuses against Sikhs by the Indian state. Recent legislative acts have darkened the Sikh population, and include tjaggi3he National Security Act of 1980, the Terrorist Affected Areas Act of 1984, the Armed Forces Special Powers Acts of 1983, and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) of 1985. Since independence in 1947, these pieces of legislation have given extra-judicial powers to the police, inciting a trend of false cases and mass incarcerations of wrongfully accused activists and innocent Sikh men. In 1955, security officials killed 200 Sikhs and illegally detained over 12,000 in an attack at Harmandir Sahib, the main house of worship for Sikhs in Amritsar, Punjab. In 1984, Harmandir Sahib was attacked again by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This attack, known as Operation Blue Star, killed 70 innocent pilgrims, and around 40 bodies were found. 

This opprejaggi1ssion and continued denial of genocide and human rights abuses did not end in the 1980s, and Sikh political prisoners are still held, without trial, under false allegations. In 1995, human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra, known as a martyr of Sikhism for his justice work on missing and killed Sikhs, was also arrested for revealing ledgers documenting the firewood used for the mass cremations of Sikhs during the decade following the genocide. He was only able to investigate one of the 13 districts of Punjab, but even within this one district documented the mysterious disappearance of 25,000 Sikh youths. Khalra was killed while in police custody, and although witnesses have implicated the police, the chief at the time, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, was never held responsible for the crime. Over 10 years later, six minor police officials were finally convicted; however, the main conspirators and human rights abusers escaped without any implications. The lack of justice for those that commit mass state crimes against Sikhs is evident in the way the Indian government continue to glorify perpetrators through posthumous memorials, appointments, or reinstatements of Indian off

Without fair trials and condemnation of genocide perpetrators, the Sikh community will continue to face oppression by the Indian state, and Jagtar Singh Johal’s murder will become one of many examples of this horrific cycle. Johal cannot be forgotten or become another statistic. As activists and believers in justice, we must raise our voices for his release and condemn the use of physical and mental torture against both Johal and all human rights advocates. As Johal did, we must come together as community to raise awareness about the Indian government-sponsored human rights abuses and continued oppression of Sikhs. We must work with the Sikh diaspora and the sympathetic Indian citizens to stop discrimination against Sikhs and create space for justice in India.

Here are some things you can do right now:



Harleen Kaur is a freshman at Stanford University, studying International Relations on a pre-medical track. She has been a part of STAND for five years and is the Field Organizer for high school chapters this year. Her family comes from Punjab and can recall the horrors of the 1984 Sikh Genocide. This family history has inspired her to study human rights and raise awareness about genocide prevention.

How can we make “Never Again” a reality? Remembering the 1984 Anti-Sikh Genocide

Death envelops an entire state time and time again. It takes away the honor of families, the sons of mothers, wives of husbands and it leaves only destruction in its path. The fires burn homes and hearts, the bullets pierce adults and children alike, no innocent is spared and no guilty is punished. That’s the story of Punjab. That’s the story of the Sikhs.

The Sikh genocide occurred in India in the 1980s as a result of mounting tensions from the partition of Pakistan and India. The partition occurred in the state of Punjab, primarily home to the Sikh people, thus creating a Punjab, Pakistan and a Punjab, India. While Pakistan was declared a Muslim country and India a Hindu nation, Sikhs were given recognition in neither nation. Since many of them lived on the Indian side of the partition, most Sikhs reluctantly left Pakistan, their birthplace. However, Sikhs have not received recognition in the Indian constitution as citizens with distinct religious beliefs. Instead, they have been referred to as “long-haired Hindus.” Thus, they weren’t given the same rights and social securities as the rest of the population, a problem that created extensive tension. This tension—combined with a rising Sikh political presence—prompted Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister, to conduct Operation Blue Star, an attack on the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine. In retaliation for this slaughter of thousands of innocent people, Gandhi’s two Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This assassination triggered an eruption of violence, which reached its height in 1984 in Delhi and in some Punjab areas. Independent reports estimate the number of deaths to be around 8,000, though the official government number is only 2,800 across India. As in other genocides, downplaying of the number of people killed is a strategy in genocide denial, and the Indian government continues to dismiss ongoing discrimination and violence against Sikhs today. At the time of the attacks, Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s son, mourned the loss of his mother and justified the anti-Sikh violence by saying, “When a big tree falls, the earth shakes a little.” Still, her death provides no justification for the genocide and continued killing of Sikhs today, and there is no reason for the government to continue to detain Sikh political prisoners.

In 1947, the partition tore the Sikhs apart, and in 1984, the Indian government dealt death and destruction with its own hand. Still, there is no justice. India celebrates Independence Day, yet Sikhs mourn the loss of their loved ones; India reveres Indira Gandhi, yet Sikhs demand justice for her bloody transgressions. The international community is ignorant of the atrocities the Sikhs experienced, the South Asian community refuses to speak of them, and yet, with an opaque or discriminating memory, we all pledge, “never again.” The truth is that until we recognize each mass atrocity, honor each martyr, and serve justice to each perpetrator, “never again” cannot be a reality. Death will continue to envelop states, and we will stand by and watch. If we are to preserve our humanity and truly achieve the ideal of “never again,” we must never stop raising our voices against old, new, and continuing injustices.

All of us can work together to realize “never again” by taking a few simple steps. First, sharing articles such as this will allow us to spread awareness and understanding of the genocide. We must inform others of the Sikh identity, the 1984 Sikh genocide, and the cruelties that continue to be imposed by the government of India. Second, you can sign the petition at to support the Sikh community’s plea to the UN to investigate the genocide. Lastly, you can stay informed about mass atrocities and lesser-known genocides around the world by staying up-to-date with STAND’s actions. When we fully understand the depths of injustice, our inner humanity calls us to action. With enough passionate, informed, and motivated people, we can realize great change.

Note: Photo above is by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse, and taken on November 1, 2013 at a protest in front of UN headquarters in Geneva.

109Harleen Kaur is a senior at Terre Haute South Vigo High School in Indiana, and is the 2016-2017 STAND Midwest Regional Coordinator. Her interest in mass atrocities prevention stems from the horrors her parents and grandparents experienced during 1984 Anti-Sikh genocide. She is about passionate about raising awareness of mass atrocities and lesser-known genocides while also advocating for prevention.