Since 2004, the foundation has held its annual Sikh International Film Festival as its mission of community outreach and awareness, said Tejinder Singh Bindra, its president, in an email to SikhNN. Its annual Sikh Heritage Awards Gala, which was to precede the film festival, honors and recognizes “those who have helped elevate the Sikh experience through exemplary vision, leadership, and the arts.”
The chief guest at this year’s gala will be Nirupama Rao, Indian ambassador to the United States. Five other representatives of the Indian government were listed as guests of honor: Hardeep Singh Puri, India's permanent representative to the United Nations, and his wife Laxmi; Manjeev Singh Puri, India's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations; Partap Singh Bajwa, member of parliament; and Prabhu Dayal, Indian consul general in New York.
“I was given to understand that (I) would be at a function of Sikh heritage awards,” said Indarjit Singh, member of the British House of Lords, and the foundation’s awardee for its leadership award. “I now learn from the detailed programme sent me that it is a festival of Indian films with dinner and dance, in the presence of dignitaries from and representatives of the Indian government.
“This festive event coincides with the anniversary of the government-planned systematic slaughter and rape of thousands of Sikhs throughout the length and breadth of India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, commencing with Rajiv Gandhi's broadcast incitement of ‘khoon ka badla khoon’ – ‘Exact blood for blood’,” he said in an Oct. 25 letter to Tejinder Singh. “An official in Africa recently received a lengthy jail term from the International Criminal Court for lesser incitement.”
Indarjit Singh wrote that he would not attend this gala.
“In the circumstances, I hope you will understand why on the anniversary of this massacre, I cannot join you with your guests from the Indian government.”
Since 1984, Indarjit Singh has campaigned to have those responsible for the “genocide against Sikhs” to be brought to justice, he said. He has written articles in the Sikh Messenger, the Journal of Amnesty International, the Times newspaper, and the Guardian newspaper among other British, French, American and Arabic journals, and on radio and TV broadcasts.
“My effort and those of many others for the Indian government to respect civilized norms and bring those responsible to justice have simply fallen on deaf ears,” he added.
The controversy surfaced on Oct. 15 when SikhChic.com, a Canada-based blog, published a commentary by its founder, T. Sher (Tapisher) Singh.
“There is also nothing wrong in welcoming special guests and recognizing their presence in the audience, as long as they are not hostile to Sikh interests, or representing those who are considered hostile, and seen as nursing an antipathy, to our community,” he wrote.
“I am not talking of minor disputes or differences or transgressions. I am talking about the murder of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children. And the 28-year long government cover-up.
“The dust hasn't settled, the blood hasn't dried from 1984 and the wholesale murder of Sikh youth during the decade that followed. Don't we owe justice to them and their grieving families?
“The question, then, is why -- in today’s environment -- one of our own organizations is going rogue on us and honouring our detractors?”
On Oct. 18, the Canadian Sikh Coalition, a non-governmental organization representing more than 50 Sikh gurdwaras and societies, also condemned the gala.
“These individuals may not have been directly involved with the 1984 genocide yet they represent a state (that) committed the gruesome acts and never provided justice. By honoring the Indian state at a Sikh event during the 1984 anniversary is a blow at the hearts of Sikhs worldwide.
“…We need to continue the struggle for justice and not try to coat it with honorariums at film festivals in the United States,” said Moninder Singh, spokesman for the coalition.
The coalition boycotted the event and urged all Sikh organizations that partnered with the film festival, and all those planning to attend, to also boycott the event.
Three Sikh American organizations appeared on the foundation’s list of ‘Community Partners’ as of Oct. 28, including New York-based Sikh Coalition and the Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, in support of the film festival.
“(We) feel they are two separate events, the film festival and the gala,” said Jasjit Singh, SALDEF’s executive director. The group supports the film festival because it promotes Sikh art, and is educational in nature, he said. “The gala has the controversial element.”
SALDEF has no say in what the foundation decides to do for the gala, he added. But yesterday, SALDEF was no longer on its ‘Community Partners’ list.
The Sikh Coalition did not return SikhNN’s request for comment.
But another New York-based organization, Sikhs for Justice, which advocates for international awareness and justice for the November 1984 pogroms, told SikhNN: "Its shameful, tragic and offensive for the Sikh Art and Film Foundation to stand with Indian government responsible for genocidal attacks on Sikh community resulting in deaths of more than thirty thousand. Sikhs For Justice will start a campaign urging (the) Sikh community to boycott the film festival as no Indian government official should be allowed to participate in any such functions."
In light of the mounting criticism of the foundation’s list of political honorees, it yesterday announced that it was postponing the gala. The film festival is on schedule for Nov. 3.
“Above all, the Sikh Art and Film Foundation’s raison d’être was founded as, and remains to celebrate Sikhi, not to divide the Sikh community,” Tejinder Singh told SikhNN. “Some concerns have surfaced, pertaining to our plans for the Nov. 2, 2012, gala. We are, therefore, postponing the Annual Heritage Gala.”