Sikh memorial display removed from Otis Library in Nowich after objections raised

Norwich — The Otis Library has removed a plaque memorializing the thousands of Sikhs killed in 1984 in India, a portrait of a Sikh leader and a Sikh flag installed and dedicated four months ago, citing political divisiveness and complaints received, including from the Indian General Consulate in New York.

The library Board of Trustees approved removal of the materials at its Sept. 16 meeting. Board President Nicholas Fortson said last week the library was surprised by the reaction and cited a need for the nonprofit facility to remain apolitical and nonpartisan.

Fortson said the wording of the plaque, the large portrait of Sikh leader Sant Jarnail Singh Khalsa Bhindranwale — leader of a Sikh separatist movement and considered a martyr after he was killed June 6, 1984, in an attack on the Sikh Golden Temple by the Indian army — and the flag were unlike any other displays in the library.

He said the library agreed to the display “without having all the details,” including the portrait and flag in addition to the plaque. Fortson said all other flags at the library are national flags representing different countries.

Fortson said while the library received some support for the Sikh display, it also received criticism “nationally and internationally.” Library Executive Director Robert Farwell received a call from the Indian General Consulate in New York objecting to the display.

“There was a political tone to it," Fortson said of the plaque, "and the bottom line is the library does not get into political discourse. Obviously, it created a lot of interest. What the library is all about, is it’s a community resource. We try to be inclusive and present a place where people can feel comfortable.”

The Day filed an email media request with the Indian General Consultate seeking to discuss the issue with someone familiar with the phone call and is awaiting a response.

The display was part of an effort by the Sikh Community of Connecticut to raise awareness about the 1984 attack by the Indian army on the temple complex, as well as the widespread violence and murder of Sikhs across India in November 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Sikhs claim the June 1984 attack at the holy temple killed thousands, including Bhindranwale — news accounts say Indian officials put the total much lower and called the attack a raid against armed militants in the complex. The November violence, widely reported by news media, included burning and beating deaths and rapes of Sikh civilians and destruction of homes and businesses.

The plaque title stated: “1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial” with the words “Remember and Honor Sikhs in 1984 Genocide,” flanked by two Sikh symbols.

“In memory of the thousands Sikh men, women, and children who lost their lives and loved ones in 1984, June," the text stated. "The Indian Army carried out a pre-planned attack on Harmandir Sahib, the holiest place of the Sikhs. This was followed in November by a state sponsored genocidal campaign against Sikhs all across India.”

Below the text, the plaque stated: “May 'chardhi kala' (everlasting optimism) reverberate through us as we stand against hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.”

A quote from Bhindranwale was at the bottom: "Freedom from slavery is achieved only when a person realizes that he would rather prefer death than be enslaved."

Norwich Sikh community leader Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, president of the Sikh Sewak Society International, USA, argued that the library and city officials have not fully explained why the materials were removed.

Mayor Peter Nystrom, who attended the June 1 dedication ceremony, said Khalsa failed to communicate in advance with library officials the size and entirety of the display.

But Khalsa countered that city and library knew the details of the display and should not have been intimidated by “threats” from the Indian government.

The flag had hung in Otis Library for two years, Khalsa said, and a very similar plaque with the same text was part of a monthlong temporary display last November in commemoration of the Sikh Awareness Month. Khalsa said apparently no local members of the Hindu comunity had objections to that display, which included books and flags. 

Khalsa said Farwell chose the portrait of Bhindranwale from among options proposed by Sikh leaders.

Farwell was on vacation last week and not available to comment.

“If they had an issue with the flag or the portrait, they could have just removed the flag or the portrait,” Khalsa said. “If they had an issue with the plaque, what was the problem? The (United Nations) has recognized there was a persecution of Sikhs. The state of Connecticut has recognized there was a persecution.”

Fortson said he would not use the word “threat” to describe the call Farwell received from the Indian General Consulate but said the library did receive “some harsh criticism” concerning the display.

“Otis is a nonpartisan organization,” Fortson said. “We don’t take any partisan position. We’re very careful about that, and the perception of taking a partisan position was very concerning.”

He said the library has books, videos and computers with internet access for people to research the Sikh-Indian confrontations and political positions.

“We’re not pushing persons to accept a certain narrative of an event,” Fortson said.

The Sikh plaque has been an issue in the past. The plaque initially was placed at the base of the city’s Freedom Bell in the City Hall plaza in June 2014, approved by the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee that oversaw construction of the Freedom Bell.

But the city removed the plaque after receiving complaints, and the City Council formed a Monuments Committee of three aldermen to review proposed monuments and plaques in the city.

The committee weighed in on the Sikh plaque at its last formal meeting in July 2018, approving a location near a peace pole in the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park. But that area of the park is leased to the Marina at American Wharf, and the marina owner objected to the plaque, Mayor Nystrom said.

The Monuments Committee hasn’t met since, but in “informal” conversations members suggested Otis as a possible location, committee member Alderwoman Stacy Gould said. When the controversy erupted, committee members again informally stressed to library officials that it was the library board’s decision and not the city's to keep or remove the plaque, she said.

Khalsa still hopes to find a home on city property for the plaque, but Gould said the Monuments Committee has a rule that monuments and plaques placed on city property must have a tie to the city's history or a local person.

Khalsa said Sikhs have lived in Norwich for decades and should be represented.

The controversy over the library display will not affect the planned Nov. 9 “Gathering for Peace and Justice,” a candlelight vigil from 4 to 6 p.m. at the David Ruggles Freedom Courtyard in City Hall plaza. The event will mark the 35th anniversary of the 1984 Sikh genocide.

Khalsa said he has invited city, state and federal lawmakers to the vigil.

Nystrom said he has no problem with the Nov. 9 vigil and plans to attend.

“That site is there for everyone to use,” Nystrom said of the Ruggles courtyard. “It has been open to any organizations to hold events.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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