California City Renames Park After Sikh Human Rights Advocate
Members of Fresno's Sikh community look on as the city council votes to rename a park after Jaswant Singh Khalra, a Sikh human rights activist who was killed in 1995 by police officers in India.Courtesy of Deep Singh
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A city in Central California last week approved a resolution to rename a park after a Sikh human rights advocate who was killed in 1995 by police officers in India.
In a unanimous decision, five members of the Fresno City Council voted Thursday to change the name of Victoria West Community Park to honor Jaswant Singh Khalra, who exposed the killing and cremation of innocent people by police in two districts of India’s Punjab state, according to the Supreme Court of India. Two members of the council were not present at the meeting.
Khalra’s daughter, Navkiran Kaur Khalra, attended the vote. She told NBC News that her family was honored that her father’s work has been recognized.
“Naming the park is recognizing what he did and inspiring future generations that no matter how hard the situation is that you have to be the light in that darkness,” she said.
In 1994, Khalra was investigating the disappearance of a friend when he discovered that police had cremated him and labeled him as “unidentified and unclaimed,” according to a 2005 report by Ensaaf, a U.S.-based nonprofit pursing justice for state crimes in India.
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Khalra further investigated these cremations along with another Sikh man named Jaspal Singh Dhillon, eventually presenting his evidence to the Supreme Court of India with an organization called the Committee for Information and Initiative on Punjab.
On Sept. 6, 1995, Khalra was abducted from outside his home, according to the Supreme Court of India. He was killed by Punjab police officers the following month and his body was dumped in a canal, never to be retrieved, court papers said.
Five police officers were eventually convicted in Khalra’s death, receiving life sentences in 2007.
The resolution to rename the park in Fresno was introduced by City Councilmember Oliver Baines. Last year, Baines also helped pass a resolution recognizing the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India, which killed nearly 3,000 according to Reuters, as a genocide.
Baines, who has served on the city council since 2010, said he worked with the nonprofit Jakara Movement for about a year before introducing the resolution to rename the park. He added that, to his knowledge, there are no monuments in the city named after any South Asian individuals.
“The Punjabi community represents the fourth largest community in Fresno and ... it's almost as if we haven’t recognized them as the valuable community partners that they are and valuable cultural partners to Fresno. So it was important to make sure we’re including the Sikh story and the Punjabi story in the larger fabric of Fresno,” he told NBC News.
Signage reflecting the park's new name, Shaheed Jaswant Singh Khalra Park, is expected to be installed in the fall, Baines said.
The park is located in west Fresno, which is home to a large Punjabi Sikh population, according to Deep Singh, executive director of the nonprofit Jakara Movement. Sikh residents are also frequent users of the park, Singh added.
“Naming of the park represents the best values that we can strive toward: A person that’s willing to give their life in the pursuit of truth, justice, and human rights,” he said.
Khalra's daughter said that, as a member of a community that is a minority both in India and in the U.S., she feels it is important for Sikh youth to have people who have made a difference in the community to look up to.
“[Most] of the people who get inspired by my father's work was [because] he said it's not just a Sikh issue, it's a human rights issue,” she said. “We should help each other to come out of this collective community trauma. This was something really different he tried at that time and I think that's what motivates many of the activists from our community to do something for the society.”