Punjab at Kwantlen Polytechnic; or, “What I’m doing in Vancouver”

A few years ago I published an article on injuries and PTSD among Punjabi Sikh torture survivors in Abnormal Psychology with my colleagues Barry Rosenfeld (Fordham University), Kim Reeves (Simon Fraser University), and my boss, Allen Keller. The manuscript grew out of a forensic assessment done at the request of a couple Indian human rights NGO’s (who I will refrain from naming without their permission) invovled in a large, class action lawsuit alleging torture and abuse inflicted by the Indian government in the 1980s and early 1990s. My colleagues and I were connected to the lawsuit via Physicians for Human Rights. Jas Sandhu, an addiction counselor in Surrey, British Columbia found my article in Abnormal Psychology and invited me out to speak at an annual conference he organizes surrounding Sikh culture, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Surrey, just outside of Vancouver, is home to Canada’s oldest Sikh communities, and one of its largest.

What? You’ve never heard of any campaign of abuse targeting Sikhs in India? A brief history: Following the partition of British India into India for Hindus and Pakistan for Muslims, some among the nation’s third largest religious group, the Sikhs, felt that their interests were left out. A move for more autonomy (“Khalistan”) developed for the only Sikh majority state in India, Punjab, and a small minority started to openly carry guns. In 1984, this militant faction housed itself in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the “Vatican of Sikhdom,” and the Indian Army attacked the temple. Reprisals came a few months later, when Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. This was followed by what is known as the Delhi Massacre, in which mobs of Hindus sought out Sikhs in the capital and slaughtered them. Dark days followed. The Federal Government shut down the Punjab state government, the militancy grew, and a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign was put into full effect, carried out mostly by Punjab state police. Young Sikh men, particularly those who were religious or even looked religious (turbans, uncut beards, steel bracelets, among other distinctions), were swept up indiscriminately. The estimates of those “disappeared” during this time ranges between 25,000 and 75,000 (the broad estimate gives you a sense of just how little is known about exactly what was going on). The militancy was harsh as well, accusing many of collaboration with the authorities, and, as in many such conflicts, many people who had never been political were caught in the crossfire. Punjabi police routinely used torture and threats to get information about the militants, and the militants regularly used torture and threats to intimidate the population. Eventually the militancy was effectively stamped out. Few participants in violence on either side were charged and prosecuted through the courts.

This morning I spoke about how my colleagues and I went about using research methods to document events and assess damages due the litigants. The audience was a group of about 100 or so, some Kwantlen students, some professional counselors, some members of the local Sikh community. The question and answer session (my favorite part of any talk) was a mixed bag about the experience of being an evaluator, psychiatric diagnoses, and evidence-based treatment recommendations for these diagnoses. The last question, from Jas Sandhu, concerned collective identity. Last year a few 15-year old teenage Sikh boys in Surrey had found a website with t-shirts promoting Khalistan with crossed AK-47s on them. They wore them to school, and were quickly suspended for promoting antisocial behavior. Jas has seen my CV, so he knows I worked as a disciplinary dean in New York Public Schools, and he asked me how I would have dealt with these kids. I asked him what the problem was. He explained the situation again, and my response was the same, and then I went on to explain that I don’t think we do anyone any favors by silencing youthful exploration of identity even when we think the tone of that exploration is misguided. Young people need to discuss these things, they need to know their families’ histories, their communities’ histories, in order to make decisions about how to live their lives. It’s only when we don’t discuss these things that they choose simplistic, sometime violent interpretations: Black and Latino gangs, White Supremacist organizations, etc. So assign homework on history of the Khalistan movement, on the consequences of using an AK-47, on the insurgency and counterinsurgency — don’t just call them dangerous or stupid.

What really shook me about Jas’ example was not, however, how these teenagers used their collective identity or the liberal school system’s response, but how the horrific era of the 1980s and early 1990s, so far removed in time and space from present-day western Canada, would resonate so strongly there even today. It was a perfect example of how even far-off, localized conflicts from a previous generation effect our lives in the present day. The complex stories of conflicts that seem long ago and far away are hardly irrelevant; they are real, alive, even vibrant in the present day.

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