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duz it pay to be white?


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Unlike Gillian Gibbons who (quite rightly) was afforded all the diplomatic assistance Britain could muster following her farcical arrest, Paramjit Singh still languishes in a jail in the Indian Panjab a year after he was picked up by Indian police.

The retired foundry worker from Wolverhampton was arrested in December last year on spurious charges that he was planning to make bombs and disrupt local elections that were due to take place the following month.

Investigations by human rights campaigners and local reporters in the region have shown the evidence is seriously flawed, if it has any basis at all.

A folk singer in the British Sikh community, Paramjit Singh was a vocal critic of human rights abuses carried out against Sikh activists in the Panjab, one of the few states in India where some human rights groups are still banned from conducting research.

He had been on holiday in India with his wife Balvinder in order to build a holiday home near the family's ancestral village. Despite being arrested on 23 December, Paramjit Singh was not visited by British officials for seven days, even though his arrest dominated Panjabi media over the Christmas period and allegations of torture were made by Mr Singh and his other men who were arrested with him.

his family refrained from being too critical of the Foreign Office because they were hopeful that what they thought was a simple misunderstanding could be sorted out with a few firm words in Delhi's ear from London.

But thirteen months on they are desperate and increasingly angry at how little has been done to try and free a British national arrested abroad on spurious charges.

So is the government racist in the way it deals with British nationals who get into trouble abroad? It's very difficult to prove. But compare Paramjit's position now to that of Ian Stillman and Peter Bleach. Both men were British nationals convicted in an Indian court for crimes they may or may not have committed but both were released early because of direct diplomatic pressure from the British government. These men were found guilty and they got help, Paramjit Singh has yet to be convicted but still he languishes.

Now part of the reason why Paramjit Singh has spent so long in jail is the laborious Indian legal system, courts are woefully overcrowded and trials can go on for years. He has had little chance to clear his name in court because each time a session is scheduled for him to appear the prosecution finds a way of delaying the hearing - they even claimed once to be out of petrol and unable to reach the court house!

But like Gillian Gibbons there is a very good chance Paramjit Singh has become the victim of ludicrous charges abroad that should never have been brought against him. So why is it we hear so little about these events and why is it non-white British families consistently complain that they are treated differently by the UK authorities? So perhaps it's worth asking a different question: If Paramjit Singh was white, would he still be in jail?

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To the police in India, Paramjeet Singh is a "Sikh terrorist" recently arrested with two others for supposedly carrying explosives and handguns with the intention of disrupting the local elections that took place last month.

But to his family and numerous supporters, he is just a musician who happens to sing about human rights abuses in the Punjab and is now paying a high price for speaking out in a region of India where human rights groups are often refused access.

There are suspicions that Mr Singh, a British national and retired foundry worker from Wolverhampton, has been caught up in a miscarriage of justice. Because of the delays built in to the Indian judicial system, he could be imprisoned for up to three years before getting a chance to prove his innocence.

Today he faces a hearing in a Punjab court charged with a string of offences.

Staring at a television screen in their suburban home in Wolverhampton, Mr Singh's wife, Balvinder Kaur, watches a recording of her husband, shackled in chains, from the news report last December that announced her husband's arrest. "This is so hard to watch," she says, wiping away a tear with her pink headscarf. "I can't forget that day, I can't believe what he's going through."

On 23 December, police in the Punjab claimed they had uncovered a major terrorist plot aimed at disrupting the elections. They called a press conference and displayed a vast array of weapons, including RDX explosives, grenades and hand guns, which they alleged were found in the boot of a Sikh nationalist's car. Three suspected terrorists had been arrested.

One of the three arrested was Mr Singh, who was in India with his wife and baby granddaughter buying supplies for a holiday home he was building in his ancestral village. The weapons, police claimed, were found in his car. The next day Mr Singh and his co-accused, Amolek and Jaswinder Singh, appeared in court charged with terrorist-related crimes. Despite police protestations, they were permitted to speak briefly to the media. All three of them claimed they had been tortured overnight by policemen who wanted them to sign a written confession.

"He was in such a state," remembers Ms Kaur. "His legs were painful and he could barely walk. He said they kept standing on his back and legs to try and force him into signing a confession."

Within 24 hours Indian reporters had unearthed discrepancies in the evidence against the three men, and soon the police began changing their story.

Not only did the police repeatedly alter exactly where they had arrested the three men, but during a second press conference held by the authorities the next day, they said they had in fact not found the explosives in Mr Singh's car but in a haystack on land near his farm in the village of Gakhal.

Doubts were soon cast on those accusations when local reporters went to Mr Singh's village immediately after the press conference and could not find a single villager that had seen a policeman for more than a week. Protests soon erupted outside the prison nearby demanding the three men's release.

Further suspicions about the police evidence were then published after a woman claimed two days later that she had seen police digging a hole in the haystack near Mr Singh's farm, trying to make it look like they had found the weapons cache.

Mr Singh's daughter Ravi Gakhal, a lawyer based in Birmingham, believes her father's arrest was politically motivated.

She is concerned by the fact that the evidence against her father is similar to that in the case of another British Sikh activist who spent three years in an Indian jail before being cleared of all charges.

Balbir Singh Bains was arrested in 1999 by Delhi police who said they had found a consignment of RDX explosives. When Mr Bains finally had his day in court, the judge threw out the charges, calling them a "balloon of falsehoods" after it emerged the RDX in question had come from a police warehouse.

A spokesperson from the Foreign Office said that consular officials have visited Mr Singh in prison.

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It does make a lot of difference , but I think the biggest issue is the judicial system in India . They have been getting away with delaying cases , giving false evidence ,etc.. for years and it pays if you know the right people and the biggest culprit is money talks .

I think it does not a big shake from an external entity which has enough power to shake the judicial system from its roots , not just individual cases but the whole system itself

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  • 8 months later...

. . . and what a joke us diaspora , especially British Sikhs are for not managing to protest strongly enough to stop this, if he is being setup. Were there any coordinated efforts of lobbying and protests?

What did Gurdwaras do ?

I dont know this guy, or if he's genuine, or what happened, but I do know that this story is perfectly plausible, the way things are in India and it could happen in the future again - if there is a brave soul who is willing to stand up for us, that is:

By not doing anything, we not only allow a justice seeker of ours to get tortured and improsoned, but we will also end up with a situation where, on seeing that there is so much risk in defending sikhs and that none of your sikh brothers will care about you anyway if you end up being setup, no sikh will then ever bother to stand up for the justice of others.

If all our gurdwaray had been told to give just 15 minutes on a Sunday morning programme and make their sangats aware and guide them on how to act, over 100,000 sikhs could have very quickly been made aware and involved in some action. We've got the base and network ie. Gurdwaray and Sunday sangats. We could have a powerful effect if the will, organisation and coordination was there.

Although a lot is done in some, I still think we greatly under-use the potential that our Great Gurdwara system could offer us.

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