Several dozen Sikhs on Thursday protested a speech by an Indian minister who they say instigated mob riots in their country in 1984 that left more than 3,000 dead, most of them Sikhs.
About 100 members of the Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based human rights organization, gathered outside McGraw-Hill's headquarters in Manhattan where Kamal Nath, India's federal minister in charge of road transport and highways and a Congress party member of India's Parliament, was addressing McGraw-Hill Construction's Global Construction Summit.
"We want to put him behind bars. Anyone guilty should be behind bars," said Avtar Singh Pannu of Queens, the group's coordinator.
The group's legal adviser, Gurpatwant S. Pannun, called Nath "a violator of human rights" who shouldn't be in the U.S.
The 1984 riots remain a controversial issue in India. They were sparked by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards after ordering a crackdown on Sikh separatists in northern India. The separatists were fighting to carve their own state out of Hindu-majority India.
A government commission set up to investigate the carnage questioned Nath about his presence near a Sikh temple during the period of the riots.
Nath maintained that he was in the area only to help create peace.
In its 2005 report, the commission said there was no evidence to suggest that Nath had instigated a mob to violence. The commission said Nath's testimony was vague but that was probably because he was questioned nearly 20 years afterward.
Sikhs for Justice filed a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court this week against Nath on behalf of the deceased and injured riot victims and their families. Jasbir Singh, 44, and Mohinder Singh, 27, of Hayward, Calif., also are plaintiffs.
Nath told The Associated Press he had not seen the lawsuit but was "surprised, shocked and appalled because I have never been charged."
Asked about claims that he helped instigate the riots, Nath said: "Well, if I had done that I would have been charged by the police, I would have been charged by the courts in India as others have been and I was never charged. I've come to the United States God knows how many times. ... It's never been an issue. This is the first time."
In the years since the riots, there have been repeated allegations that top members of the Congress party helped organize the mobs that rampaged through Sikh neighborhoods in New Delhi two-and-a-half decades ago.
Investigations into what role, if any, senior Congress party members played in the killings have moved slowly. Critics accuse the party, which has ruled the country much of the time since the riots, of trying to protect its own. Party officials deny a cover-up.
Several other people, none of them senior Congress members, have been sent to prison for taking part in the riots.
At the New York demonstration, protesters held up signs that said "Stand for Justice" and "Demanding Justice" and black inner tubes that symbolized the tires that were burned during the riots.
"We want to create awareness within ourselves and the international community and embarrass Kamal Nath and the people who invited him here," said Ranjit Singh, 52, of Valley Stream, N.Y., manager of an air conditioning company.
Jasbir Singh, a truck driver, said he witnessed 26 of his family members burned alive and saw others cut to pieces on the streets in Delhi. He said rioters would kill anyone with a beard and a turban.
"Three days, day and night, killings, houses burned, people burned," said Jasbir Singh who came to the U.S. in 2002. "Twenty-five years, I waited for justice."
Mohinder Singh, also a truck driver but unrelated to Jasbir, was 2 years old at the time of the riots. He said he lost his father, two uncles and his grandfather's brother. He said he was told the mobs killed his father in front of his mother and hacked his relatives to pieces.
"He's guilty. The Indian government hasn't given us any justice," Mohinder Singh said.
Pannun, the legal adviser, said the group had never protested a visit before because they wanted to exhaust all possible remedies in India. He said Nath should not be invited to speak in a country that stands for human rights.
H.S. Phoolka, a lawyer in Delhi who represents victims and who co-wrote a book about the riots called "When A Tree Shook Delhi," said the evidence is clear.
"We are saying he should be prosecuted," Phoolka told the AP by phone. "The law is not being implemented just because of his influence, because he is a minister."