Another act of Violence, Another Wait for Justice: The Murder of Priyantha Kumara

Weeks after national outrage, the Senate of Pakistan passed a resolution unanimously condemning a horrific incident in which a Sri Lankan national was lynched in Sialkot on Dec. 3, 2021. Identified as Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, the 11-year Pakistan resident was attacked by a mob of enraged young factory workers. He was then lynched brutally and repeatedly until death; the perpetrators then set his body on fire.

In the midst of this atrocity, with Kumara’s mangled body burning up in flames, men were gleefully taking selfies and posting on social media as if in celebration of some delusive victory.

What aggravated this group of men to act so heinously? “Alleged blasphemy.” Why “alleged”? Because in most cases, no one can quite prove how the victim blasphemed. But as columnist Fatima Bhutto writes, “in Pakistan, to accuse someone of blasphemy is a death sentence.” The state deems it punishable by death. Misuse, therefore, is not unheard of in the country — angry civilian mobs taking matters into their own hands, persecuting minorities and calling it a day. It’s also true that, oftentimes, blasphemy labels in Pakistan are merely used to settle personal scores.

Hence, another unapologetic, gruesome display of violence, another individual, a victim of intolerance and another family now await justice. It’s all too familiar. 

Kumara traveled to Pakistan from Sri Lanka over a decade ago. As a quintessential migrant, he dreamt of better opportunities and a chance to give his loved ones a comfortable life back home.

In Sialkot, the 49-year-old was working as an export manager for Rajco Industries. On the morning of Dec. 3, 2021 Kumara asked his staff to remove a sticker from a machine in their factory, ahead of a visit from a foreign delegation. The sticker in question had religious verses printed on it. When the workers refused, Kumara proceeded to remove the sticker himself or so has been the consensus. This action was enough to trigger the cruel insanity that followed: workers, who were apparently supporters of the far-right, extremist Islamic party Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), unleashing their wrath and disregarding any sense of basic humanity in the name of religion. 

According to police officials, after brutally killing Kumara, the mob also wanted to kill the factory owner and set the building on fire.

“The mob wanted to set on fire the entire factory after lynching Kumara. A group of charged workers headed towards the residence of the factory owner to kill him, but timely action by police prevented further violence,” Sialkot District Police Officer Omar Saeed said.

Since the incident, Pakistan’s political and religious leaders have vehemently condemned the attack on Kumara, denouncing such “extrajudicial vigilantism” and calling it against the fundamental laws of Islam. Prime Minister Imran Khan also vowed that the perpetrators of this ghastly murder will be strictly punished. 

“A total 131 suspects, including 26 main ones, have been arrested so far. The 26 prime suspects have played a key role in inciting the people, lynching Kumara and setting his body ablaze,” Punjab police officials confirmed.

At least 15 prime suspects were presented before the Anti-Terrorism Court Gujranwala, where they were remanded in police custody.

But while a resolution reiterating that extremism is deplorable in all its forms and manifestations has been passed, it does not erase the harm that has been done nor address the mindset of extremism that exists within the society.

This violence is a  cycle that’s been witnessed far too many times. According to the Guardian, in one 2009 incident, an entire local Christian community was set ablaze and six people burnt alive in the Pakistani city of Gojra on blasphemy allegations. This followed an incident in 2014 in which a Christian couple was bludgeoned to death and later burnt in the furnace of a brick kiln after being accused of blasphemy, BBC reported. Most recently, 23-year-old student Mashal Khan was stripped naked, severely lynched and then shot over allegations of posting blasphemous content online in 2017.

According to Al Jazeera, at least 77 people accused of blasphemy have been killed extrajudicial since 1990. In most of these cases, the culprits were never quite punished to the full extent of the law. Government promises have been nothing but hollow words, for the fact remains that it dare not risk supporting a blasphemer and be outcast as blasphemous itself. Such is the caution required in a state that’s driven more by ideologies instead of the law.  

In the recent past though, the entire region has been swept by this wave of intolerance and fanaticism. Incidents of brutality against Muslim minorities and communal violence in India have drastically increased with little to no intervention from the ruling party. Long-running discrimination toward Hindu minorities in Bangladesh took a deadly turn in October, triggering a series of protests worldwide, yet little to nothing is done by leaders in power within their own jurisdiction. It’s ironic, the bigotry, when patrons of these very communities fight for rights and representation outside of their own countries and fail miserably in extending those on home ground. 

Nonetheless, for the citizens of Pakistan and those overseas, it’s a moment of shame and global embarrassment. Once again the nation is grappling to save its international image that this is not true of all Pakistanis. That the abysmal state of affairs and the violent actions of some are not representative of the entire population. Local protests and vigils in solidarity with the Kumaras have been held across the country whereas overseas Pakistanis have also reportedly raised thousands of dollars to support the grieving family. Kumara is survived by his wife and two sons aged 14 and 9.

The story of Malik Adnan, the co-worker who tried to save Kumara from the manic mob has been a headliner across media outlets, perhaps also for some possible damage control. 

In Kumara’s case, there is a glimmer of hope for his family seeking justice. There are diplomatic relations in play here — Kumara being a foreigner and Sri Lanka being an ally to Pakistan. Officials from both countries have discussed possible financial compensation and security for Priyantha’s immediate family — his wife and two children — while the Pakistani government has assured the political leadership of Sri Lanka that it will pass on all information from its investigations at the earliest. Mounting international pressure has resulted in swift action, so far. 

As of this report, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani said he will send a delegation of senators to Sri Lanka to personally hand over a copy of the resolution to to Kumara’s family.  

While a step in the right direction, this still prompts the question: will this incident finally pave the way for much-needed reform in Pakistan? There is reasonable doubt for there still stands a shrine to the murderer who gunned down a governor in office for voicing concerns against the country’s blasphemy laws. 

By Nida Hasan

Managing Editor at Brown Girl Magazine, Nida has worked and written for several publications in a journalism career spanning almost … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).