New Delhi: Mischief, Thou Art Afoot by I.J. SINGH Claiming our attention now is the recent resignation of Sardar Harvinder Singh Phoolka as the lawyer from cases of the victims of state-inspired killings of Sikhs in 1984. In a way it is like the hara-kiri that Japanese leaders and warriors performed by falling on their own swords after a political, industrial or military disaster. But to be more accurate, I would liken it to a lynching, though not like the kind practiced in the past centuries in America in which Blacks were publicly humiliated, burned and hanged while scores of Whites, many in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, jeered and celebrated. The matter of Phoolka in India is similar minus the visible jeering, robed figures and the noose or the burning - not high tech but a lynching, nevertheless. There is no question that Phoolka dedicated the major part of his life to the pursuit of justice for victims of state terrorism in India. After 26 years of frustration, now he seemed poised for some remarkable victories in the largely opaque judicial system of India. And suddenly, there have surfaced accusations against him of financial irregularities by the Delhi Gurdwaras Management Committee (DGMC) - the people who largely financed his work for the past so many years. Perhaps Phoolka was a tad thin-skinned in response but he decided to walk away from the cases which had come to define him and his life for so long. The next thing he did was to request the Akal Takht (the highest authority on judicial matters in Sikhism) to inquire into this and render justice. Is there any truth to the allegations of financial irregularities? My biased view says - likely not. Of course, I have no access to the evidence. Accountants and auditors exist precisely for such purposes and I leave it to them. A few other matters, however, do bother me about this issue. One is that his Sikh colleague at the bar, K.S. Tulsi was, for a lawyer, uncharacteristically silent at the proceeding when such accusations surfaced against Phoolka. I wonder why? Then a retired Sikh justice, H.S. Sodhi, came out avowing that by walking away from the cases, Phoolka was abandoning his clients and thus committing a breach of professional ethics. In that rush to judgment, Sodhi came across like a partisan lawyer for those who accused Phoolka, not a level-headed judge seeking the evidence to parse truth from lies while preserving the integrity of the pending cases that are a critical aftermath to1984. But a central question that obsesses me is why now; why at this time have the allegations come about? Is there something critical about the timing? Could the people who accuse Phoolks not have waited some or pursued their questions in a low key, methodical process? And finally, why didn't they? I know not the answers but from where we sit - away from the center of the troubles - only one possibility emerges. This was a decisive time against some high profile cases against leaders of the ruling Congress party, like Sajjan Kumar and his ilk, for complicity in the mass-murder of Sikhs 26 years ago. The judicial ambiance seemed to be shifting towards justice; one needs to have some understanding of the workings of Indian bureaucracy to see how remarkable this is - it is unquestionably a sea change. Most likely then, the accusers have acted now to distract people, sow troubles and destroy the process of justice. If true, then these people must be connected to the political party and its leaders who are responsible for the mayhem in 1984. No one else would have such an agenda. The undeniable fact remains that though the leader of the ruling political party is Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the man who led India at the time of the killings and the daughter-in-law of the woman whose death sparked the killings, it is also undeniably true that the public face of the party is a Sikh - the current Prime Minister of the country, Manmohan Singh. It is this party's leaders who are being indicted for fomenting wholesale murder of Sikhs. Keep in mind that Delhi is the capital of the country and the Delhi Gurdwara Committee (DGMC) has historically been in bed with the center of power - the federal government and its political operatives. Raising tendentious issues about the integrity of the lead lawyer, Phoolka, then automatically and mightily undermines the investigation. The allegations could effectively destroy the process and the 26 years of struggle and progress. This, to me, seems to be only way to answer the question - 'Why now?' I know this does not make life any easier for Manmohan Singh who is now a poster child for economic growth worldwide and also for many Sikhs because they badly want to celebrate a Sikh face who has garnered international respect. Why, you could ask, am I pointing a finger at Manmohan Singh? Is he personally responsible? Likely not. Is moral responsibility knocking at his door? Yes. He is doing the heavy lifting for his political masters; he has become the lead person in refloating old suspicions and accusations against Sikhs by claiming the "rise of Sikh separatism and terrorism" without sufficient or convincing evidence. This reminds me of a case that is making headlines in America these days. There has been a sea change in American politics in the past few years. We now have a Black president - totally unexpected and contrary to American culture and history. With President Obama came many Black faces to the government as well. But that does not translate into a complete and overnight cure of the age-old racial bias against Blacks, even within the government and its bureaucracy. Sometimes this Black president seems to think that his election has made the point of racial equality and he need not remain overtly sensitive to racial matters in policy any more. He may even be trying to overlook Black issues so as not appear visibly partisan. The very recent case in point that surfaced only a few days ago was that of a mid-level Black official, Shirley Sherrod, who was dismissed for making a racist speech. She was contacted while she was driving somewhere and an immediate resignation demanded, which she submitted via her blackberry. Notice that there was no hearing and no conversation, hence no investigation or due process. It turned out that the speech that the operatives at the White House looked at was a totally doctored version where her comments were edited, cut and pasted to yield a result far from the truth. The point is that the political operatives at the White House were so sensitive to the charge of being unduly biased in racial matters that they did not even look at her record or her speech. She had a flawless track record on integration and racial justice as had her husband who, 40 years ago, was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) - a key group dedicated to racial justice. Now there is a clamor and a gaggle of worried voices wrestling with how best to reinstate her with dignity. I know that with the public persona of Manmohan Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the recently retired General J.J. Singh, and some others, we have a growing number of Sikh faces prominent in the public eye. That is indeed a first in the 63-year history of free India. But a few prominent Sikh faces do not mean the end of injustice as we have known it in India ever since it became independent. The unholy connection between the federal government's political operatives and gurdwara management politics (DGMC) to sideline issues of justice by destroying the legal process and diminishing the lead lawyer (who is primarly responsible for the progress to date in the prosecutions) at this time will leave us a poisonous residue that will surely tear India apart once again, just as the events of 1984 did not so long ago. Sikhs remain a very small minority - two percent -- in India. Perhaps Manmohan Singh is overly sensitive to being a Sikh himself and thus blind to the injustice done to his own people. The Government of India and its allies need not bend backwards to deny any connection to Sikhs or Sikhi. Considering our history in India, perhaps the government needs to establish a desk for liaison with Sikhs, as also with other minorities that are increasingly being marginalized. And that's what Manmohan Singh needs to do, even though he is Sikh. Only then can he govern India such that every Indian, no matter the religion, can look equally to the glow of freedom. What should Harvinder Singh Phoolka do about the predicament he has been placed in by the political centers of power in India and the DGMC? Walking away from a commitment - both professional and personal - does not make the cut. To my mind a simple statement like this from him should suffice: "I have dedicated my life to justice within the Indian judicial system for the wrongs done to Sikhs in 1984 and the surrounding years. I totally deny these allegations of financial misconduct against me; their sole purpose is to discredit me and destroy the work for justice that we are embarked on. At this time we stand at a historic and critical moment when justice seems possible in some key cases. Let these matters conclude; they are more important than any person. Let us not undermine them. I would then more than welcome a full and thorough inquiry into the charges that have been laid at my door." firstname.lastname@example.org. June 26, 2010 POST SCRIPT Phoolka ready to face probe, disclose assets PRESS TRUST OF INDIA In the wake of allegations hurled against him by the DSGMC head, senior lawyer H.S. Phoolka, who has been appearing on behalf of the victims in 1984 anti-Sikh riot cases, on Sunday, July 25, 2010, said he was ready to face any kind of probe by the Income Tax Department. The advocate, who has accused DSGMC president Sarna of levelling reckless allegations against him, said he would welcome any kind of inquiry against him provided Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee members were also covered under such a probe. Phoolka had recently announced his withdrawal from all the anti-Sikh riot cases following allegations levelled by Sarna. However, he took back his decision after the Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of the Sikhs, intervened and asked him to continue appearing on behalf of the victims. "I will welcome any kind of inquiry by the IT office. But at the same time, the IT probe should be conducted against all DSGMC members," said Phoolka. The advocate said whatever assets he had amassed were acquired through fair means. Phoolka said he was ready to disclose all his assets though he was not holding any official position or post. "But before that, every member of the DSGMC, who is holding a statutory post, should also declare their assets," he said. On the allegations against him, Phoolka said "these charges are being made now under a deep rooted conspiracy as some '84 anti-Sikh massacre cases are nearing completion."