You might have heard about these news stories last year. Although the digit at the end of our calendars has ticked on by one, they continue to pose important questions which we should carry on discussing for the rest of winter, and beyond…
On 4th November, Jagtar Singh Johal, a 30 year old Sikh activist from Dumbarton, was arrested in India’s Punjab region. According to Sikh Federation (UK), he was shopping with his wife and cousin when a group of men bundled him into the back of a van.
His family weren’t told of his whereabouts in the immediate aftermath of his arrest, though the following day, they discovered that he was in police custody. Shortly afterwards, it was revealed that he was suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to murder high-profile Hindu politicians, and of being involved in the killing of a Christian priest.
Some knowledge of Indian history is required to fully understand the case. In 1984, an armed group of Sikhs (who sought recognition for a Sikh state called Khalistan) moved into Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the religion’s holiest site. The Indian Government attempted to remove them during a religious holiday, when many pilgrims were visiting Amritsar and the Temple was especially busy. The mission was codenamed Operation Bluestar and led to the deaths of many Sikhs and the group’s leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Golden Temple was hit by stray bullets and the Akal Takht, a sacred building, was severely damaged.
Several months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for ordering the attack. Following Gandhi’s death, her supporters orchestrated riots across India in which thousands of Sikhs were killed and many others displaced. Though tensions have since eased, many are still angry about the events of 1984, including some members of the Sikh diaspora. In 2012, a group of armed men stabbed the General who led Operation Bluestar on London’s Oxford Street.
According to reports in the local media, Jagtar Singh Johal was part of a UK-based group called ‘Never Forget 1984’ and his social media activities, as well as those of other “Sikh radicals”, had been watched closely by Punjab’s police for over a year. The homepage of NeverForget84.com currently features a splash image calling for Johal’s release and the hashtag #FreeJaggiNow. Other pages on the site refer to Bhindranwale as ‘Sant Jee’ (which loosely translates as ‘Saint Jee’: a controversial moniker because whilst he is revered in some quarters, many Indians believe he was a terrorist) and the site is filled with references to ‘Shaheed’ (Martyrs).
Johal’s outspoken stance on these issues has led some to speculate that his detention has a political element to it. Indeed, the Sikh Federation (UK) alleges that he “finds himself the subject of some sort of conspiracy hatched by the Punjab police and leading politicians” at a time when he should be celebrating, having only got married in October. The UK-based group asks why, if Johal’s crime was to spread politically-charged messages online, the Indian authorities did not liaise with their British counterparts rather than seizing him as he visited Punjab.
As things stand at the time of writing, Jagtar Singh Johal remains in custody. He’s appeared in court over a dozen times and has been transferred between various authorities, including India’s National Investigation Agency. Crucially, in all that time, he has not been charged with a crime, despite occasional rumours of wrongdoing reaching the local press. To muddy the waters further, a clip of Johal was shown on local television in which he allegedly confesses to an array of crimes, though his family have refuted such claims, saying that he is clearly speaking under duress and admits to nothing other than translating articles for a website.
Brown Status is a YouTuber who’s spoken out about Johal’s situation. He’s one of many who have alleged that the Scotsman has been tortured during his imprisonment – a claim repeated by his lawyers, which some believe is evidenced by changes in Johal’s appearance between his various court dates. The Canada-based vlogger, in his clip about the case, speculates that the Punjabi police may have been angry with Johal’s work for NeverForget84.com, which accuses some members of the force of being complicit in the 1984 genocide.
It could be argued that the amount of time which Johal has spent in custody amounts to a human rights violation that is unbecoming of a nation which is often described as ‘the World’s largest democracy’. Fighting for the rights of Britons imprisoned abroad is by no means a zero-sum game, but it’s fair to say that we’ve heard significantly less about this case than about those involving Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Laura Plummer.
Although the Scottish Government have reassured Jaggi’s supporters that they’re liaising with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and some on Twitter have welcomed news that he was recently moved to judicial custody, there is particular concern that the British consulate has not been able to speak to him without Indian officials being present.
Johal’s local MP has tabled an Early Day Motion which has attracted support from some high-profile figures including the Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas, Preet Gill MP (Chair of Parliament’s APPG on Mentoring and Sikhs) and the Liberal Democrats’ Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson. The motion raises concern about Mr Johal’s imprisonment and the possibility that he may have been tortured. Crucially, it’s yet to reach half of the number of signatures required before it can be considered by the House, and even then, it’s hard to say what such a debate could hope to achieve.
Jagtar Singh Johal’s family understandably want to be re-united with him as soon as possible. Unless the Indian authorities are willing to make clear the reasons behind his arrest and give him the right to publicly defend himself against any such charges, their actions are unlikely to achieve anything other than to bolster the movement to #FreeJaggiNow.