By: Tanveer Kaur and Roopjit Kaur, SFU Students on behalf of the Sikh Students’ Association (SSA)
CW: mention of genocide and sexual harassment
On April 16, 2021, the Institute for the Humanities at SFU planned an online event regarding the ongoing farmers’ protest in India called No Farmers, No Food: Indian Farmers Confront Authoritarian Neoliberalism. At first glance, it seemed like a great initiative taken by the institute to educate its students on the political events taking place in India. However, after realizing what keynote speaker Hartosh Bal stood for in the past, the Sikh and Punjabi communities at SFU were disappointed. SFU needs to consult with the Sikh and Punjabi communities before allowing speakers like Bal to represent them.
Bal is the nephew and an outspoken supporter of the former director-general of police of Punjab, Kanwar Pal Singh (KPS) Gill. KPS Gill is known in the Sikh community as the “Butcher of Punjab,” for he led a brutal campaign of rampant human rights abuses in Punjab in the late ’80s and early ’90s. According to Human Rights Watch, Gill was directly implicated in practices such as abduction, torture, and custodial murder of thousands of Sikh youth, the abduction and disappearance of human rights defender Jaswant Singh Khalra in 1995, and sexual harassment in a decision upheld by the Supreme Court of India.
Despite Gill’s name being synonymous with terror and brutality, Bal has defended his uncle’s legacy on several occasions, including in an article entitled “Lessons not learnt: The Left and Right have distorted KPS Gill’s success against terrorism.” According to Bal’s article, “The credit for peace in Punjab goes almost entirely to the combination of [Gill’s] leadership and the political climate he was allowed to operate in. Moreover, those who accuse [Gill] of succeeding through unchecked force simply do not know what they are talking about.”
Bal downplays Gill’s role in history by using statistics generated by data collected from the Institute for Conflict Management in India. Ironically, this institute was founded and led by KPS Gill himself. This data ignores thousands of extrajudicial murders that took place and were researched by Jaswant Singh Khalra before Gill ordered his abduction and murder. More information about Bal can be found at this link.
SFU’s commitment to engage with its students and community is at odds with its decision to host Bal, especially since UBC had recently cancelled a similar event due to the same concerns from the Sikh and Punjabi communities.
When individuals who do not represent our communities are invited to speak, then we as SFU students have the right to voice our concerns and opinions. In the future, we believe it is important that SFU consults with affected communities when educating students on their narratives.
In response to the controversy, the SFU Sikh Students’ Association (SSA), Punjabi Students’ Association (PSA), and the UBC SSA emailed a private letter to the Institute for the Humanities regarding Bal’s past, expressing concerns over enabling the acceptance of Bal’s appalling beliefs and actions. Along with the letter, SFU SSA tweeted and posted their concerns on Instagram and Facebook.
On April 23, the SFU SSA received an email from the Institute for the Humanities stating that the event had been postponed. The Institute for the Humanities listened to the concerns of the Sikh and Punjabi community and are open to a discussion to compile a list of informed and appropriate speakers on the farmers’ protest.
After the postponement of the event, the SFU SSA was ambushed by journalists in support of Bal. An article written by Gurpreet Singh from The Georgia Straight labelled the SFU SSA as “radical Sikhs,” which is a false statement. Any student or a group of students has the right to question the invitation of someone who supports a mass murderer. We, as SFU students, have full academic freedom to voice our concerns regarding what takes place in our institution, especially when it’s regarding our communities.
While we do appreciate the Institute for the Humanities for listening to our concerns and postponing the event on the farmers’ protest with Bal, we hope that going forward, we continue to be consulted regarding events that speak for our communities so that potentially harmful voices are not represented. Currently, the SFU SSA and PSA are collaborating with the Institute for the Humanities on potential speakers that are better representatives of our community and are better suited to speak on the farmers’ protest.