Rights group calls CA rep’s reelection “a defeat for religious liberty and a victory for genocide”
ELK GROVE, CA: Jan. 3, 2015 – When Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) renews his oath of office on January 6, the only Indian-American serving in the U.S. Congress will begin a sophomore term marked by a contentious reelection campaign in which NRI minorities repeatedly denounced the California representative for his controversial relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who is accused of orchestrating a genocide against Muslims while serving as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in 2002) and for his staunch refusal to join other local representatives in acknowledging the Indian State’s role in the 1984 genocide of Sikhs.
The final weeks of Bera’s campaign were overshadowed by his refusal to answer a questionnaire from the local Sikh community inquiring about his willingness to acknowledge the Indian State’s role in conducting a genocide against Sikhs in 1984. On September 27, 2014, the American Sikh Political Action Committee formally withdrew support from the congressman, stating: “Bera’s decision to look the other way when faced with a genocide is in stark contrast to the consensus position of his colleagues, including Sacramento area congressional representatives Matsui, Garamendi and McNerney as well as state legislators Steinberg, Dickinson and Yamada.”
The congressman also faced the fury of Indian minorities for appearing alongside PM Modi on September 28 in New York City, declaring: “I thank Mr. Modi for his inspirational words and for the vision he laid out today. I look forward to continuing to work together.” A week before the election, activists staged a protest outside Bera’s office in Rancho Cordova (a suburb of California’s capital city, Sacramento), where they chanted “No vote for Ami Bera” while distributing flyers suggesting voters “Stop politicians who partner with Christian killers.”
The accusation that Bera partners with “Christian killers” was rooted in PM Modi’s political party’s orchestration of an August 2008 pogrom against Christians. The pogrom took place in Odisha, a central Indian state. The violence was openly orchestrated by subsidiary groups of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the social organization in which Modi began his public life; the state’s ruling party was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition.
Activists from Modi’s party, the BJP, were reported by witnesses as marching through the streets, chanting: “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions.” The result of the mob violence, reported the U.S. State Department, was that “at least 40 individuals were killed, although some Christian groups report more; thousands of church properties and homes were destroyed; at least 20,000 fled their homes to government-run relief camps; and approximately 40,000 were driven into hiding in jungles, the majority of whom were Christian.” Furthermore, “some police prevented individuals from filing police reports, and other watched passively as violence occurred.”
Modi, whose first executive office was as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, presided over a sharp rise in intimidation and violence against Christians in that state. One of his earlier acts was passage in 2003 of the so-called “Freedom of Religion Act,” which had the result, reported Christianity Today, of “in reality making any conversions illegal.” The act criminalizes conversion unless a potential convert first obtains permission from the district magistrate and establishes penalties of up to three years in prison and 50,000 rupees ($790) for converting without government permission. Since Hinduism is considered a non-proselytizing religion, while seeking converts is a central tenet of both Christianity and Islam (the two largest minority religions in India), the act is widely considered an attempt to criminalize Abrahamic religions.
Most dramatically, Modi is strongly implicated by international human rights groups, as well as the U.S. State Department, as an architect of the Gujarat Genocide. Summarizing the February 2002 massacre of Muslims, the U.S. State Department reported: “In response to a train fire reportedly set by Muslims, Hindu mobs killed 1,200-2,500 Muslims, forced 100,000 people to flee, and destroyed homes. Christians were also killed and injured, and many churches were destroyed. India’s National Human Rights Commission found evidence of premeditated killing by members of Hindu nationalist groups, complicity by state government officials, and police inaction.”
Earlier, the U.S. State Department said: “Observers asserted that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi personally told Ahmedabad police officials on February 27 to allow Hindus 2 days to react ‘peacefully’ to the Godhra incident. The police reportedly told Muslim victims, ‘we don’t have orders to help you.’ It was reported that assailants frequently chanted ‘the police are with us,’ according to eyewitness accounts.”
The attacks, conducted by activists from the RSS and members of the BJP, including Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), were reported in 2002 by Human Rights Watch as “planned in advance and organized with extensive participation of the police and state government officials.” This was confirmed when participants in the violence inadvertently confessed on hidden camera that Modi helped orchestrate the genocide. In 2007, for instance, MLA Haresh Bhatt stated in a secretly filmed interview: “Modi told me I’ll give you three days. Do whatever you want, you will not be touched. No other CM could have done this.”
Consequently, in 2005, the U.S. State Department denied Modi a visa under Section 212 (a)(2)(g) of the “Immigration and Nationality Act,” which makes any foreign government official responsible for having “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religions freedom” ineligible to enter the United States. Modi’s blacklisting for entry marked the first time a foreign elected official had been denied entry to the U.S. under provisions granted by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a U.S. Congress bill.
Nevertheless, Congressman Bera helped spearhead an attempt to invite Modi, now Indian Prime Minister, to address a Joint Session of Congress. Bera signed a July 2014 letter to U.S. House demanding the address and insisting that the United States and Modi share “core values” like “religious pluralism” and “peace and security.” Although the Joint Session never materialized, Bera did take to the stage in September 2014 to announce his ideological partnership with Modi. He also met privately with Modi earlier that day, according to news reports.
Many of Bera’s NRI minority constituents, meanwhile, remain riled by his apathetic response towards their appeals for the only Indian-American congressman to speak out against the 1984 Sikh Genocide, especially in light of its recent 30th anniversary. Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of the US-based human rights group Organization for Minorities of India (OFMI), pledged: “We will not allow the public to forget that Bera not only turns a blind eye to the massacres of Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, but actually partners with the architects of genocide. I proudly protested his reelection and OFMI will continue to warn people that Bera’s second term in office represents a defeat for religious liberty and a victory for genocide. It is not over, however, and truth will win out in the end.”
Bera, like many politicians throughout Northern California, received a questionnaire from the Sikh-American PAC which asked: “Do you agree that thousands of Sikhs were murdered in India in November 1984 with the assistance of or lack of intervention by political parties, law enforcement, military or members of the government?” Although most recipients responded affirmatively, Bera declined to give a “yes” or “no” answer, instead stating:
“I am aware that in November 1984, anti-Sikh violence took place in some states of India in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own bodyguard. In remembering the victims and survivors of this tragedy, we can learn, as we have learned from other such tragedies, and as the people of diverse faiths of India have themselves acknowledged over the years, that there is no place for such violence in a free society.”
In an interview with the Elk Grove Citizen, Bera additionally remarked: “There is no question that the 1984 riots were a terrible tragedy that should never be repeated. Communal violence is intolerable, and India and all countries, including the U.S., must respect religious diversity.”
Although Bera refused to condemn the Indian State’s orchestration of the genocide, international human rights groups have very frankly declared that it was organized by the government. On the 25th anniversary of the killings, Amnesty International wrote a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama describing how “Sikhs were massacred when the governing Congress Party incited mob violence targeting Sikh civilians…. After two decades, a judicial commission concluded that members of the governing Congress Party were involved.” An October 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, published to commemorate the 30th anniversary, was even more explicit, stating:
“Fact-finding bodies and civil society groups found that the 1984 anti-Sikh violence was led and often perpetrated by activists and sympathizers of the then-ruling party, the Indian National Congress, some of whom later became members of parliament or occupied posts in government. The police simply stood by, and were often complicit in the attacks. Instead of holding those responsible for the violence to account, many police officials and Congress party leaders involved have been promoted over the last 30 years.”
Bera’s aversion to repeated requests by constituents that he echo the findings of human rights organizations in condemning the Indian State’s role in the 1984 Sikh Genocide prompted a wave of prominent California NRI minorities to publicly reject his reelection campaign.
Attorney Amar Shergill, a politically active Democrat who is a constituent and former supporter of Bera as well as a spokesman for American Sikh PAC, told India West in August of last year: “There’s a growing concern that there’s a right-wing fundamentalist movement in India which could lead to further atrocities.” In September, he told the Elk Grove Citizen: “As a longtime supporter of Dr. Bera, I am shocked and disappointed that he is the only Congressional representative in the Sacramento area that has refused to acknowledge that the Indian government was responsible for the 1984 slaughter of thousands of Sikhs. Dr. Bera apparently is more interested in protecting the Indian government than he is in speaking the truth about a genocide.”
Also in September, Shergill told The Sacramento Bee: “To American Sikhs, this is the equivalent of denying that the South African government was responsible for apartheid.” Later that month, he again spoke with India West, arguing: “Since Congressman Bera is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it is not unreasonable to ask him to take a moral stand against the genocide of Sikhs by the Indian government in 1984.”
Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, who is vice-chair of California’s Republican Party, told The Sacramento Bee: “When I see members of Congress downplaying the 1984 riots, it really makes my blood boil. Bera is a holocaust denier.” She organized an October 11 precinct walk on behalf of Bera’s challenger and asked fellow Sikhs to join her. Later that month, PBS reported Dhillon said: “It was a huge, horrible crush to the psyche of the Sikh community worldwide.” She noted that her relatives in India were forced into hiding by the massacre.
Bhajan Singh, a community organizer, told Sikh Siyasat in October: “There is no more anti-American act than betraying the freedom of religion. Bera has planted his flag firmly in the camp of those who reject our God-given liberty to choose, change, and spread our faith. He turned a deaf ear to the pleas of his constituents because he thinks his political bread is buttered by siding with foreign politicians who sponsor genocide against people of faith. That is a meal we simply will not swallow.” In additional coverage by Sikh Siyasat, Singh stated: “Ami Bera sides with oppressors of Buddhists, Christians, Dalits, Sikhs, and Muslims. Narendra Modi is a pioneer of the anti-conversion laws. That means anyone who wants to convert to another religion would have to first get permission. Now he wants to bring these anti-conversion laws across India.”
Mohan Ram Paul, who hails from Sri Guru Ravidass Sabha (Rio Linda) and serves as a director of OFMI and other advocacy groups, told Sikh Siyasat in October, prior to participating in a protest outside the congressman’s office: “Bera is a politician who has chosen to deny the values of religious freedom by partnering with Christian killers after ignoring repeated warnings from his American constituency about persecution facing people of faith in India. Our message to him on Tuesday, a week before the election, will be simple. We support you if you stand solid with persecuted Christians, but if you partner with their persecutors, we will do everything possible to run you out of office.” Later that same month, Paul added: “All Modi’s anti-minority policies are directed at the poorest of the poor, the Dalits, the low-castes, the Untouchables. Ami Bera advances discrimination by supporting Modi. Bera’s friendship with Modi puts the most vulnerable at risk, which is why we say vote no on Ami Bera.”
Darshan Singh Mundy, a well-known face to area politicians and spokesman for the West Sacramento Sikh Gurdwara, told The Sacramento Bee in Septemberthat “mobs orchestrated by government officials ‘burned Sikh homes, gurdwaras, holy books and family and raped your sister, wife and daughter in front of you. They did it all over India.’” Although he personally supported Bera in the past, he urged his community members to reject the congressman based on his denial of the Sikh Genocide.
Fox 40, a local TV channel, reported on October 28: “The American Religious Freedom Coalition protested outside of Bera’s district office in Rancho Cordova. They’re protesting Bera’s alleged ties with the Prime Minister of India. The Prime Minister’s political party has been accused of persecuting and killing Christians in India. The American Religious Freedom Coalition says that they fear that will have an influence on Bera.”
On October 29, NRI minorities again protested Bera’s reelection at a campaign event at a California university. Sikh Siyasat reported: “Bera was joined by former President Bill Clinton and fellow representative John Garamendi at a campaign rally on the UC Davis campus. Demonstrators showed up again, this time distributing flyers headlined: ‘Stop politicians who partner with Christian killers.’ An estimated 1500 flyers were distributed to the thousands of students waiting in line for the rally.”
Bera won reelection by a less than one percent margin over his opponent, former Congressman Doug Ose. With only 1,455 votes separating the two contestants, South Asia expert Pieter Friedrich remarked: “Bera is clearly returning to Congress without a mandate from his constituency and we hope this foreshadows him being unseated in 2016.” The race was so close that election officials did not call it for Bera until 17 days after the November 4, 2014 poll.