Opening Old Wounds 

A new US law could send immigrant torture victims back to their tormentors.

For eight years, Ranjit Singh lived in almost constant fear of being deported back to India.

Throughout the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the Indian government and its police targeted men like Singh, a Sikh who publicly opposed the widespread oppression of his people. The 54-year-old refugee said Indian police abducted and secretly tortured him on several separate occasions. But his tenth arrest was the worst by far.

Two policemen held him down while another tied his feet together and dropped a large wooden roller atop his thighs. Then two other corpulent cops stepped onto the thick, five-foot-long piece of wood and laughed as their weight slowly crushed the muscles in his upper legs. Waves of pain roiled Singh's body.

After he was released, it took him several weeks to walk again. And he feared he would not survive an eleventh arrest. So in 1992, the devoutly religious man fled the northern Indian state of Punjab and made his way into the United States, settling eventually in the East Bay. Eight years later, the US government granted him political asylum, which allowed him to stay in America indefinitely. Although the memories of what happened in India still haunt him, the former political activist now lives a mostly quiet life in Union City with his wife and two grown sons. But while the daily torture of Sikhs ended in the mid-1990s, Singh still remains too afraid of the consequences to ever seriously consider returning to India. "I want to see my father," he said. "My father is ill. He is 85. We feel I can't see him."

Yet Singh recently discovered that he may have more to worry about than seeing his dying father again. Last month, President Bush signed into law the Real ID Act of 2005, which makes it tougher for torture victims to gain asylum in the United States. Republicans have championed the law as a new weapon in the war on terror, but immigration lawyers and human-rights groups view it as a misguided assault on the United States' long history of welcoming refugees who have escaped persecution in their homelands.

Had Real ID been in effect in 2000, Singh might not have received asylum. But far more worrisome for him, and hundreds of thousands of others who have been granted asylum in the past few decades, is that part of the law is retroactive. Real ID allows the government to reopen old cases and deport Singh or other torture survivors back to their tormentors.

Twenty-one years ago, Ranjit Singh was an unlikely candidate for torture. As a longtime member of the Indian Army who regularly served alongside Hindus, he had little time for Sikh customs, religion, or separatism. The husband and father of two rarely went to temple, and certainly never wore the beard and turban that signify religious devotion within the Sikh faith. But everything changed for Singh and millions of his countrymen in June 1984.

Sikhs in the northern Indian state of Punjab had grown increasingly unhappy with the authoritarian central government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party. There were unresolved disputes with neighboring states, and Sikhs believed that national policies had stymied efforts to transform agricultural Punjab into a manufacturing hub. The primary Sikh political party, Akali Dal, was prone to factionalism but was gaining influence and power in India.

Gandhi hoped to keep the factions from unifying against her by backing the popular, if messianic, politician Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who openly called for Punjabi autonomy from India.

It was a fatal miscalculation. Bhindranwale was a political extremist who was far too independent to fall under Gandhi's control. While Sikh dissatisfaction threatened the rule of the government, Bhindranwale and a few hundred well-armed followers assembled inside the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, in the city of Amritsar.



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