Kids Corner


The Saga Of Buta Singh:
Fleeing India,
A Manhoos Land
Part I







manhoos (Punjabi, Urdu): wretched, inauspicious.[Dictionary]


Having fled oppression in India through a perilous and arduous journey spanning continents, and now seeking refuge in the United States, these Sikhs find themselves once again hounded by Indian authorities, though now on free and civilized soil. 

Buta Singh hadn’t eaten in days, and his body felt like it was vibrating with hunger as he sat up on his bunk bed and watched the prison guards storm in.

The guards rounded up two dozen or so young men, all of them, like Buta Singh, immigrants from Punjab. There was someone there to see them.

Unbeknownst to Buta Singh, the visitor was a representative from the Indian government. As he shuffled after the guards in his baggy navy-blue uniform -- the uniform he’d been wearing for 10 months, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE“) -- Buta Singh wondered whether the visitor was some higher-up from ICE, there to make a deal.

Like Buta Singh, these Punjabis are followers of Sikhism, a religion that emerged some 500 years ago in the region now bisected by the border between the two new nations of India and Pakistan created in 1947. Sikhs are usually recognizable by their beards and long, turbaned hair.

But the ones in this group had shorn their heads and faces to better go unnoticed on their journeys: by air from India to the New World, by land through Central America, and finally to the line dividing Mexico from the United States. Most were asylum-seekers and had passed interviews that determined they could stay in the country as their claims moved forward, and many had close family members living legally in the U.S. -- yet the government refused to release them.

So, on April 8, 2014, the Punjabis at Texas’s El Paso Processing Center went on a hunger strike. It was about a week later when Buta Singh, feeling shaky on his feet, walked into the meeting room where the visitor was waiting.

He was startled to see a short, rotund man in a turban with his beard tied underneath his chin: a Sikh, but one employed by the Indian consulate in Houston.

He was there to offer to send the detainees home.

Should they decide otherwise, the diplomat said, they were wrong to think their hunger strike would sway the American authorities. Buta Singh’s surprise turned to anger. In India, he had been active in a fringe political party that advocates the creation of Khalistan, an autonomous Sikh state. The police in Punjab have a history of persecuting separatists, and Buta Singh sought refuge elsewhere, he says, after they tortured him one time too many.

Now he was in America seeking asylum from the Indian state, and here, facilitated by the U.S. government, was an emissary of that very state. (The Indian Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.)

“None of you are doctors,” the diplomat said. “None of you are engineers. Why would America want you?”

*   *   *   *   *

The number of people caught thus fleeing India and trying to cross the southern border into the U.S. exploded suddenly in 2010, growing sixfold to 1,200 from just over 200 the year prior.

Although the number has oscillated since then, it has remained near an all-time high. And that includes only those caught trying to cross undetected, leaving out Buta Singh and others like him -- thousands, mostly young men, who walk up to a border crossing, turn themselves in, and plead asylum.

The total number of those seeking succour from India’s suffocation who tried to enter the U.S. without papers, including through airports and other points of entry, also spiked in the last five years, peaking at close to 13,000 in 2013, more than double the number in 2009.

Much of this influx, according to dozens of interviews with immigrants, experts, and current and former immigration officials, comes from young Indian men at the border, ferried there by transnational smuggling networks. Although border authorities do not track the religious or regional origins of migrants, government officials and other observers say that large numbers of the new arrivals are Sikhs from Indian Punjab, a region in northwestern India beset by economic collapse and environmental degradation, a major drug epidemic, and decades of what human rights groups describe as political violence carried out by the government against its own citizens with impunity.

The American immigration enforcement apparatus -- [under pressure from the same Indian government they’re fleeing from] -- has responded harshly to these new arrivals. Before the spike, only about a quarter of Indian nationals were detained at the beginning of their deportation hearings. But, according to federal data analyzed for the first time by BuzzFeed News, that percentage shot up dramatically around 2010, coinciding with the rise in Indian nationals at the border.

In 2013, the year Buta Singh arrived in Texas, 83% of Indians facing deportation were imprisoned -- a far larger percentage than for immigrants from any other country, including Mexico, which had the highest overall rate of detention between 2003 and 2014. (BuzzFeed News obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Act request from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, or EOIR, the branch of the Justice Department that operates the country’s immigration courts.)

ICE refused to comment on these findings, citing the fact that the data comes from a different federal agency.

“ICE is focused on smart and effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes its available resources on those who pose the biggest threat to national security, border security and public safety,” Sarah Rodriguez, an agency spokeswoman, told BuzzFeed News.

Two former ICE employees, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, said the agency has an unofficial policy of cracking down on Indian immigrants, especially in states along the border. This policy is connected to the widespread belief among immigration authorities that the smuggling networks bringing Sikhs to the border are training them to file false asylum claims and disappear into the interior of the country. The government also fears these networks could be used by terrorists. As one former official described the approach: “Keep them out. If you catch them, detain them.”

Buta Singh’s 33 years, from his childhood and young adulthood in Punjab, to his voyage to America and his incarceration in Texas, tell the story of this mass migration.

When he first arrived in El Paso in June 2013, trading the filthy clothes he’d worn on his journey for ICE’s navy-blue uniform, Buta Singh didn’t expect to be imprisoned for long. But as the months dragged on, it seemed to him and the other young Sikhs in the South Texas jail that the government was singling them out.

Yet the Sikhs keep arriving.

On April 10, 2015, a company that sells turbans online got an email from an ICE prison near the border: “Florence immigration Federal Detention Center in Florence, Arizona again. We are experiencing another surge in our Indian Sikh population here and I’m wondering if you could send me some fresh turbans to share with the men. Right now we have 45 Sikhs and each week the number increases.”

In 1984, two years after Buta Singh was born, the Indian army stormed into the city of Amritsar and laid siege to the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, with tanks and heavy artillery. They were after a man named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of an armed separatist insurgency loosely known as the Khalistan movement. Bhindranwale -- [responding to the Indian government’s long-standing plan to storm the Sikh shrine under any pretext] -- had fortified his  barracks so as to defend it with snipers, machine guns, and grenades.

The Indian Army operation, code-named “Blue Star,” killed Bhindranwale and reduced much of the temple complex to rubble. It was also timed with a religious day that brought droves of Sikhs to Amritsar. Though the precise casualty count has never been clear, official figures cite many hundreds of civilians died in the siege, according to estimates by journalists [pliant to the Indian government] who overed it. [Independent sources have evidenced thousands of bodies hurriedly and secretly cremated by Indian authorities.]

Four months later, in retaliation, two Sikh bodyguards shot and killed Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the garden of her residence in Delhi. The assassination unleashed a government-sanctioned campaign of retribution against Sikhs across India. Marauding bands went from neighborhood to neighborhood, voters lists in hand, targeting Sikhs’ homes for arson or killing them in the streets. India’s Supreme Court estimated the death toll at nearly 3,000. [Again, independent sources list the murdered innocents at tens of thousands acroos the country.]

Before Blue Star, Bhindranwale was a fringe figure who appeared in public wearing a bandolier and, in the manner of the medieval Gurus, symbolically holding a long steel arrow in one hand. His followers had practiced armed resistance for years, massacring civilians (a claim by the government later proved false); assassinating police, journalists, and politicians; and, on one occasion, hijacking a plane.

But the insurgency intensified after Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogroms, and support for it grew among ordinary people. The decade that followed saw a bloody resistance by separatists. Two infamous reports [cited in Indian government propaganda and subsequently proved false] describe attacks in 1987 and 1991, when Khalistani fighters purportedly boarded a bus and a train, respectively, rounding up and shooting Hindu passengers.

Buta Singh grew up during the worst of the fighting. He said his family never participated directly in the insurgency, but his mother and other relatives were involved in political parties sympathetic to the cause. When Buta Singh was 10, an older cousin was dragged from home by police and never seen again.

This was not unusual for the times. The centerpiece of the state’s repression of the insurgency was a campaign of disappearances abetted by the Indian government’s decision, in 1988, to suspend the article of the constitution protecting due process.

Police rounded up suspected Khalistanis, tortured and killed them, then dumped their bodies in rivers or burned them a half dozen to a funeral pyre.

“When the government was questioned about ‘disappeared’ youth in Punjab, it often claimed they had gone abroad to Western countries,” reads one report from Human Rights Watch.

There has never been a full accounting of the disappeared. Ensaaf, a human rights research group focused on Punjab, estimates that 20,000 people suspected of collaborating with the insurgency vanished or were killed between 1984 and 1993.

Of his cousin, Buta Singh says, “Maybe he’s dead. I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

By the time Buta Singh entered his teens, the state had all but stamped out the  Sikh resistance movement. The police went to great lengths to keep Punjab pacified. On a regular basis, Buta Singh said, groups of officers arrived in his village, took over the gurdwara loudspeaker, and summoned all boys older than 15 to a public place for interrogations. [Most of them, now totalling tens of thousands, were never seen again.]

Buta Singh’s worldview was shaped above all by his mother, a pious Sikh who inculcated him with a deep spirituality and a strong sense of religious nationalism. As a teen, he began to spend a lot of time with an “uncle,” a close friend of his father’s, who had the job of reading aloud from Sikh scripture in the gurdwara. When Buta Singh was around 17, this uncle, like his cousin years before, was taken from his home by police. Unlike his cousin, Buta Singh said, they found the body a few days later in the forest.

Buta Singh took over his uncle’s job in the gurdwara. When he went to college, he focused his studies on Sikhism, and he started going to rallies of the Shiromani Akali Dal Mann, a radical Sikh-centric party. As they always had, the police regularly came to town to question young men and boys, and they began to pay special attention to Buta Singh.

One afternoon, after a police officer had screamed threats in his face, Buta Singh asked his mother for advice. She was proud of him but suggested that he keep his politics under wraps for the time being. “You are a child,” she said. “Focus on your studies.”

His graduation from college in the early 2000s coincided with the beginning of the slow collapse of Punjab’s agricultural sector, the linchpin of its economy. Punjab has historically been called India’s breadbasket; though it occupies only 1.5% of India’s land, it produces 20% of its wheat.

In the decades before the collapse, Punjab owed much of this fertility to the Green Revolution of the 1970s, which introduced technologies that quickly multiplied yields. But the revolution was unsustainable, relying on massive quantities of nonrenewable groundwater and pesticides that steadily eroded the quality of the soil.

Buta Singh watched as more and more families around him lost their harvests. His father’s farm, by luck, retained good soil and access to water, so Buta Singh worked the fields. He dreamed of being a teacher but, try as he might, couldn’t find work. Disaffected, he ramped up his involvement in the Shiromani Akali Dal Mann, this time with his mother’s encouragement.

In 2004, police began to show up to his house. In a sinister line of inquiry, they would calmly question Buta Singh and his parents on the whereabouts of the cousin who had disappeared 12 years prior.

Buta Singh fled the country. He paid smugglers to sneak him into Greece, where he spent four miserable years working on a vegetable farm on the outskirts of Marathon. He had no legal status and rarely left the plot of land where he lived and worked. In 2008, figuring that he’d been gone long enough for the police to cool down, he returned to India.

Things at home, he found, had gone from bad to worse. Heroin was pouring in across the Pakistani border, compounded by synthetic opiates, and the drugs found willing users among young Sikhs crushed by widespread unemployment. There is a neighborhood in Amritsar known as the Village of Widows because so many of its men have died of overdoses. Buta Singh and many other Sikhs say that corrupt local officials ignore or profit from the crisis, and several politicians and police officers have been implicated in the drug trade.

In the meantime, more and more farmers were killing themselves, stricken by crop failure and debt.

“There are areas in Punjab where the heads of multiple households within a village will have committed suicide,” said Supreet Kaur, an economics professor at Columbia University.

Buta Singh watched as many of the people he grew up with became lost in the drug trade, whether as users or pushers. Among the youth, many of those who didn’t succumb to addiction embraced an increasingly indignant politics of Sikh purity. Punjab’s youth were drifting apart, the dissolute and the righteous, and the distance between them grew.

On the evening of December 27, 2011, Buta Singh returned to his tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayas after a long day at a political rally organized by the Shiromani Akali Dal Mann. He was 28 then, tall and even-keeled, with large, expressive hands. His profile had been rising in the party, and he was now helping them recruit youth members and organize events.

Minutes after walking into his house, Buta Singh said, while he was standing in the kitchen and drinking a glass of water, there was loud banging on the door. His mother quietly ushered him into his bedroom and locked it from the outside. From a knothole in the wooden door, he could partially see what was happening in the living room. Three uniformed policemen burst into the house, he said, accompanied by two men in civilian clothes. He recognized some of the officers: A few weeks prior they had stopped him on a country road, roughed him up, and told him to steer clear of any rallies.

Now, Buta Singh’s mother, who was frail with liver cancer, stood in front of them with her hands clasped, saying her son wasn’t home. An officer pushed her to the floor. Buta Singh could see her lying there, too weak to get up.

His younger brother, a 27-year-old with a mental disability that gave him the intellect of a small child, had been watching with alarm. One of the officers approached him holding a pair of pliers. Buta Singh saw the policeman grab his brother’s hand. As soon as he heard the screaming, Buta Singh started banging on the door.

The officers yanked him out of the room. They asked him why he had gone to the rally when they had warned him not to. With his mother on the floor and his brother weeping, he heard the officers say that they wouldn’t warn him again, but not before one of them slammed him between the eyes with the butt of his rifle.

The next day, Buta Singh’s mother pleaded with him to back away from the party. He reluctantly kept a low profile for several months.

On March 29, 2012, police opened fire on Sikh demonstrators in the Punjab city of Gurdaspur, killing an 18-year-old engineering student. Party leaders told Buta Singh that they needed him -- he had a way of speaking to the youth, converting them to the cause, and this was a time to show resilience.

On the day of an important harvest festival, Buta Singh rode his motorcycle into town and took a bus chartered by the party to Amritsar. The rallies that day were tense. As he returned home at night on his bike, he said, a police jeep and two unmarked sedans blocked his way on a dark, secluded road. Eight men got out, four in police uniforms and four in civilian clothing. They pulled Buta Singh off his motorcycle and kicked it to the side of the road.

“You’re coming from Amritsar, ah?” a policeman asked. Buta Singh didn’t lie. Three men stuffed him into one of the sedans while another picked up his bike. They tied his hands, gagged and blindfolded him, and drove three hours to an empty farmhouse in the hills. They brought him inside and tied him to a narrow wooden bed. By then it was nearly midnight. The men conferred until four of them left.

“Don’t let him sleep,” one of the civilians said on his way out the door.

The remaining four sat on chairs, Buta Singh said, and passed around a bottle of whiskey. The heat that night was suffocating, and he asked for water. One of the men stood up and, laughing, urinated on his mouth. This, Buta Singh says, marked the first night he ever found himself wanting death. For several hours, the men did things to Buta Singh that he asked not be put in print.

To be Continued tomorrow …

[Courtesy: BuzzFeed. Edited for]
February 3, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Arjan Singh (USA), February 04, 2016, 2:10 AM.

First of all, thank you, and its editorial staff for publishing this. This is real journalism that brings forth the truth to the world. I am going to wait for the next part of this write up; especially the last paragraph has shocked me into brain paralysis.

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Fleeing India,
A Manhoos Land
Part I"

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