By Manpreet Kaur
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Indian Government waged a “dirty war” in Punjab. The Indian Government launched its armed forces against Sikh nationalists.
During this war, tens of thousands of Sikhs “disappeared,” a euphemism for extra-judicial killings. Sikhs were picked up from their homes by police forces, and their families were forced to either pay ransoms or see their sons killed.
Many of the thousands of Sikhs who live in the San Joaquin Valley arrived here to escape this violence.
Jaswant Singh Khalra witnessed his colleagues “disappear” before his eyes. He could not stay silent. Slowly and meticulously, he visited the families of those who disappeared and found material evidence of their extrajudicial killing by the Indian government. He publicized his findings.
He traveled throughout the world to tell anyone who would listen about what was occurring in Punjab. He provided his evidence in front of the Indian Human Rights Commission, United Nations, Amnesty International and the Canadian government.
He claimed his inspiration was the humanistic values of the Sikh Gurus and his desire to lift a candle of protest against the darkness of injustice. Upon his return to Punjab in 1995, the police issued him a direct threat – “If 25,000 could be made to ‘disappear,’ why could they not make one more?”
While most would have quit after the threat of death, Jaswant Singh Khalra could not. He often remarked, how could he quit when he saw the longing and hurt of those mothers still waiting to know what happened to their children?
This same spirit of human rights animates others who have given their lives for justice and human rights, including the Kashmiri Jalil Andrabi in India, the Armenian Hrant Dink in Turkey and Steven Biko in apartheid South Africa.
On Sept. 6, 1995 Jaswant was picked up while washing his car outside of his house by the Punjab Police. Days later he was tortured and killed; his body never being returned to his family.
It was the violence he documented that saved the lives of many Sikhs during the 1980s and 1990s. In Khalra’s legacy even today, this violence is documented by Ensaaf, bringing voice to those made to disappear in Punjab.
This evidence gave rise to the huge growth in the Sikh community, many arriving seeking political asylum and finding a home in southwest Bakersfield.
Today more than 35,000 Sikh residents call Bakersfield home. The Panama-Buena Vista and Greenfield school districts serving South Bakersfield list Punjabi, the community’s primary language, as the third most spoken language in students’ homes, behind English and Spanish. Census data shows Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Kern County.
In 2015, the City of Bakersfield officially recognized the genocidal atrocities that occurred in India. The Bakersfield City Council passed a Resolution commemorating the Sikh Genocide. By acknowledging this crime against humanity, the council signified its official historical condemnation, voicing the hope that those responsible will be punished, while expressing official sympathy in the anticipation that history will not repeat itself again.
The Sikh community dynamically contributes to the wider community as an economic engine powering agriculture, transportation, healthcare and factories and establishing small businesses.
For the local Sikh community, there are few greater heroes that unite the community and showcase a spirit of generosity, truth, courage and compassion than Jaswant Singh Khalra. We hope this is a legacy that all in Bakersfield will be proud of.
When a petition originally circulated about renaming an existing park after Jaswant Singh Khalra, many neighbors shared their attachment to the old name. We respected their wishes and withdrew the petition.
We spoke with city officials about naming a new park in honor of Jaswant Singh Khalra rather than hurting anyone’s sentiments. The Sikh community has always respected and honored the wishes of the neighborhood and community.
On October 16 the Bakersfield City Council has the opportunity to fulfill its promise to the Sikh community and name a new park after Jaswant Singh Khalra.
A vote to name the park after Jaswant Singh Khalra will unite all Bakersfieldians. This isn’t about a single park. It’s about a new Bakersfield that embraces all residents and builds a new legacy together. We hope the entire community will join us in support and celebration.
Manpreet Kaur is a community organizer with the Jakara Movement, a statewide organization that creates a new generation of Sikh leadership through individual development and community building.
South Kern Sol is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.