“During and after the 1984 violence, the United States monitored and publicly reported on the grave human rights violations that occurred and the atrocities committed against members of the Sikh community,” the White House said on March 29. “We continue to condemn - and more importantly, to work against - violence directed at people based on their religious affiliation.”
The statement came in response to a petition submitted to the White House last November, by Sikhs for Justice, to declare the pogroms as genocide.
“The intentional and deliberate nature of the attacks on Sikh lives, properties and places of worship during November 1984 makes them (a) crime of genocide as defined (by)… the U.N. Convention on Genocide,” the petition says.
Last year, online petitions required 25,000 signatures to prompt a response from the White House. That occurred on Dec. 3, 2012, for the Sikh petition. The requirement changed to 100,000 in January. The petition now has 30,517 signatures.
If genocide were declared, the U.S. could sanction India, and the U.N. could prosecute individuals responsible for the genocide in the International Criminal Court, said Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, legal advisor for the New York-based human rights group.
The White House declined to comment on why it did not declare the pogroms as genocide.
“I don’t have anything further for you on the text of the petition response,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House. “It speaks for itself.”
“The response is too political,” Gurpatwant Singh told SikhNN. U.S. foreign policy strategies of siding with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran have failed in the past. “They are in habit of siding with the wrong people.”
The U.S. is also building stronger economic ties with India, perhaps to position itself against China, he added. “So it overlooks human rights violations, even those happening now.”
In retaliation for the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on Oct. 31, 1984, the leaders of the Congress Party organized mobs to kill Sikh men, women and children.
From that day until Nov. 3, 1984, mobs armed with weapons and address lists of Sikh homes and businesses massacred more than 30,000 Sikhs, raped women and burned gurdwaras. More than 300,000 survivors were displaced from their homes, the petition says.
The U.S. monitored the violence and its aftermath in detail, the White House said in its response. The State Department reported on the political killings, disappearances, denial of fair public trials, negative effects on freedom of religion, and the Indian government's obstruction of civil society organizations investigating allegations of human rights violations.
“The systematic violence against Sikhs was concealed and portrayed by the Indian government as anti-Sikh riots,” the petition says. A riot is a form of civil disorder characterized by disorganized groups lashing out in sudden and intense violence, whereas a pogrom is a government-organized massacre of a minority group.
Then, in 2011 and 2012, mass graves of Sikhs killed during the pogroms were discovered throughout India. This is “the most specific and convincing evidence that violence against Sikhs in 1984 was genocide,” the petition says.
“The (White House) response ignores the recent discoveries of mass graves of Sikhs killed during 1984, and falls short of taking a position on the issue of genocide,” Gurpatwant Singh added in an email.
The U.N. defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
According to a 2010 BBC report, the U.N. also imposes a general duty on member countries to "prevent and to punish" genocide. The U.N. has 192 member countries. The U.S. and India both joined in 1945.
The term “genocide” was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew whose entire family, except his brother, was killed in the Holocaust. His campaign to have genocide recognized as a crime under international law led to the U.N. Convention on Genocide, which took effect in 1951.
Since then, the U.N. treaty has come under fire by people frustrated with the difficulty of applying it to different cases, the BBC report says. Among the more frequent objections is that U.N. member countries are hesitant to single out other members or intervene. This was the case in Rwanda where 800,000 people were massacred in 1994. And, even during the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms.
And it is not a question of the scale. In 2004, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia, was genocide.
Because the United States failed to fulfill its obligation as a member nation of the U.N. Convention on Genocide, Sikhs for Justice will approach the U.N. Commission on Human Rights this November to recognize the November 1984 pogroms against Sikhs as genocide, Gurpatwant Singh said.
“It is the truth. The truth needs to come out.”