Ami Bera & The Inconvenience of Talking About Human Rights in India
Transcribed from a conversation with Monica Gill.
When the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were going on and really gaining strength in December of 2019, which is the exact time when Bera got this appointment to chair this Subcommittee on Asia, he did make a couple of remarks. I’ll quote, for instance, he said, that “India’s strength is as a secular democracy,” which was particularly relevant in context of the anti-CAA protests considering that, for those who don’t know, the CAA is an extremely controversial piece of legislation which basically sets religion as the criteria for obtaining Indian citizenship. So, he said, “India’s strength is as a secular democracy…. And the strength of any democracy is protecting the rights of minority groups.” But, he complained, after having said that, which was the strongest statement he ever made about that, he complained that most of his conversations with colleagues were about Kashmir.
That was in December 2019. Just a few months earlier, this Article 370 had been abrogated, had been revoked by Modi’s regime, and the semi-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir was stripped away, and the region was essentially annexed. So, in context of that having happened a few months previously, in context of the anti-CAA protests ongoing at that very time, Bera complained that most of his conversations with colleagues are about Kashmir. He complained that that becomes a “barrier to all the other things that we truly could accomplish in a partnership,” and he said that his desire was for “us to move past a conversation on Kashmir to a conversation on trade, a conversation on defense.”
So, then, that was December of 2019.
Now, if you fast-forward a few months and you go on to March of 2020, just four months later, the anti-CAA protests had grown massive across India. They were becoming very diverse. They were basically spear-headed by Indian Muslims but people from all communities, including the Sikh community, were joining them. They were millions strong. They could not be stopped and they seemed unstoppable at the time.
Well, they were finally stopped. They were stopped in February of 2020 when the Modi regime responded with an anti-Muslim pogrom in the streets of Delhi, with the worst anti-minority violence in the streets of Delhi since the 1984 Sikh Genocide. That basically put a complete halt to the anti-CAA protests, which were ultimately fully, fully stopped, I believe, in March of 2020 when the Modi regime put India under lockdown because of the pandemic.
Bera did comment about the February 2020 Delhi Pogrom. His comment was, “We are all watching the riots in Delhi and worry they are going down a dangerous road that makes it harder for us to be a strong advocate for India.” Again, his strongest statement. And what really popped out to me about his statement was not only his use of the word “riots” for what was actually, according to a wide variety of Indians themselves, a state-sponsored pogrom, but also the fact that his comments about it were wrapped in with a complaint. Once again, a complaint about how the issue is not that this atrocity is occurring, but his concern is that the occurrence of this atrocity makes it difficult for him to be a strong advocate for India.
The Sikh community in California, members of it, had formed a committee, to send a questionnaire to elected officials and political candidates in that area to enquire about their position in relation to particular Sikh issues, especially the issue of the 1984 Sikh Genocide and whether or not the candidate or elected official would support backing and pursuing recognition of the 1984 Genocide and so on.
Bera, however, was among the only people who refused to respond to those questions about the 84 Genocide. Because of that, one of Bera’s earliest and strongest supporters, a Sikh community member in California’s Sacramento region named Amar Singh Shergill who is an attorney and an active party leader in the California Democratic Party, decided that he would withdraw his support from Bera and help to promote a campaign to unseat him. He was subsequently joined by Harmeet Kaur Dhillon, who at the time was an executive in the California Republican Party. Between them and a number of other community leaders, they launched a months-long, bi-partisan campaign to inform the Sikh community about Bera’s position on the 84 Genocide — or his refusal to take a position — and to unseat him. It was such a major issue in his campaign that it dominated media headlines in regards to the race for months.
They almost succeeded. They got so close, in fact, that Bera won re-election to what, at the time, was his second term (which, for a first-term member of Congress, is a crucial election to win ) by just less than 1500 votes, which was about .8 percent of the vote total. It was such a narrow margin of victory that it took weeks for them to announce that he had actually won.