Opinion: New fronts for justice in Sikh massacre

NEW YORK — Mohinder Singh never saw what happened to his father. But his grandmother watched him hacked to pieces after his eyes were gouged out during the 1984 Sikh massacre in New Delhi.

“My father’s death never leaves me,” said Mohinder, who is now a 27-year-old truck driver in California.

Exhausted by the slow pace of prosecutions in India, a group of Sikhs have opened a new front to seek justice in the United States for the horrific crimes committed more than 25 years ago.

After Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh body guards on Oct. 31, 1984, leaders of the then-Congress Party had a hand in instigating revenge attacks that led to the Sikh massacre. Thousands of Sikhs were killed but there have been few convictions over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades, and not one of a high-profile politician.

In April, Mohinder and Jasbir Singh, who is no relation but lost 26 members of his family in the massacre, filed a civil suit in a New York Federal District Court against India’s Transport Minister Kamal Nath for his alleged role in the anti-Sikh pogrom.

This is the first attempt to seek legal remedy for the carnage in a foreign court. “We are now looking for American justice,” said Jasbir, who was 18 at the time of the massacre and still shudders at the slogan “Blood for Blood.”

He holds backs tears while narrating how his brother-in-law plead for water as his slayers allegedly poured petrol into his mouth and set him on fire. “The bodyguards that shot Indira Gandhi were hanged two days later. ... What about those who murdered my relatives?” he asked.

The legal action is brought under the Aliens Torts Claims Act, which allows foreign citizens to file civil suits for human rights abuses committed outside the U.S. In this case, the petitioners want compensatory and punitive damages from Nath for crimes against humanity and wrongful killing.

While the act dates backs to 1789, it was only in 1980 that it began to be used against individuals and corporations. The American courts have been generous in allowing foreigners to use this law, according to George Fletcher, a law professor at Columbia University who has written the book "Tort Liability for Human Right Abuses."

“These cases are very successful in getting to the trial but much less successful in getting the money,” Fletcher said. “In terms of embarrassing this minister it’s an important case.”

In the handful of cases under this act, however, there are more victories against corporations than individuals, according to Anand Ahuja, a practicing lawyer in New York who taught international law at Howard University.

“It is difficult to nab politicians and government officials because they claim sovereign immunity,” he said, pointing out that two successful convictions had involved American defendants.

Nath was shocked when the court summons was sprung on him at a press conference at the Indian Consulate in New York in April. “Nobody has ever charged me in India,” he said. “I’m surprised and appalled.”

Ahuja argues that the summons doesn’t count because the Indian consulate is regarded as foreign territory — in other words a “sanctuary.” But Fletcher is confident that there are “tactics and counter-tactics” to get past the sovereignty glitch.

And the lawyer on this case, Gurpatwant Pannun, intends to use every maneuver possible. “We are confident in our case,” he said. Pannun is satisfied that the case achieves the twin tasks of scaring human rights abusers in India and putting the 1984 killings in the limelight.

“It is the first time in U.S. history that a suit for human rights has been brought against someone in India,” he said. “This case is critical to raising public awareness here about the atrocities that are forgotten there.”

Future cases in the U.S. will target people who have eluded justice in India because of money and power, not only for the 1984 killings but also for other grave human rights violations, according to Pannun. “If the Indian courts won’t help us, we’ll go to other courts. ... We’ll take it to the United Nations,” he said.

Several Sikhs are concerned that the civil suit lacks practical value. “Nath has already gone,” said Davinderpal Bhaita of Queens, N.Y., who was shot by a mob that killed his grandfather and brother. “Will he come back and face the judge? No way,” he added.

Fletcher, however, warns that it would better for Nath to respond because the case against him appears to be strong on merit. “It has a substantial possibility. They have a pretty good case,” he said.

Nath was cleared by the last inquiry commission in 2005. While describing the minister’s testimony as “vague” and “strange,” the investigation concluded that he had not incited any mob.

The non-profit organization that is behind the suit, Sikhs for Justice, asserts that there is sufficient evidence to prove Nath inflamed a crowd at a religious site called the Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib in New Delhi where Sikhs were burnt alive.

Many Sikhs have left the tragic events of 1984 behind. In another 20 years, the perpetrators may be dead or too old for the trials to matter. But Mohinder, who was orphaned as child, is not ready to forget.

The emotional young man evokes the visit Priyanka Gandhi, granddaughter of Indira Gandhi, made to the convicted woman who killed her father Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The woman in the prison, Nailini Sriharan, is the only surviving member of the assassination squad of the Tamil Tigers — the separatist group in Sri Lanka that was defeated in 2009.

It was widely reported that Priyanka asked Sriharan why her father was brutally killed in a suicide bombing. Mohinder remembers her words, “I needed to make peace with all the violence in my life.”

“What about my father?” he asked. “What about my peace?”

Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist.