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Kulvir Singh Barapind: "Soldier" or Non-Violent Activist?

Emily Bazar can be reached at (916) 321-1016 or

The Sacramento Bee, Oct. 10, 2004

Photo: Kulvir Singh Barapind

The Indian government accuses him of murder. He says he's an innocent victim of political persecution.

Thousands of Sikhs in Yuba City, Woodland and elsewhere consider him a folk hero.

The convoluted and fascinating tale of Kulvir Singh Barapind will come before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later this week when a panel of federal judges will be asked - again - whether he should be sent back to India to stand trial.

Barapind, a separatist who fought for the creation of an independent Sikh state, has been detained since he tried to enter the United States in 1993. Though he sits in Fresno County Jail, he maintains a devoted following among local Sikhs who profess his innocence and praise his sacrifices. They also help pay his legal fees: Another Sacramento fund-raiser has been scheduled for early December.

'He gave his entire life for the cause,' said John Gill, a 41-year-old Woodland farmer and trucking company owner. 'He is more than a hero. He's a living martyr.'

But an official at the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., laughed at the notion some Sikhs consider Barapind a hero.

Francis Aranha said Barapind, 40, committed murders, attempted murders and robberies in 11 incidents in 1991 and 1992. The extradition request accuses Barapind of killing 26 people.

'You have relatives of people who have been killed who are looking for closure,' Aranha said. 'One way or the other, once he is brought to trial, the court will decide. If he's found guilty, he will face punishment; if not, so be it.'

Sikhism, founded more than 500 years ago, is based on the teachings of 10 gurus. The religion stresses the virtues of honor, sacrifice and public service. Orthodox Sikhs exhibit five symbols, among them uncut hair and a steel bracelet reminding them not to perform evil deeds.

The Sikh separatist movement in India erupted in 1984, after government forces stormed the Golden Temple complex, the holiest Sikh shrine, located in the Indian state of Punjab.

After that, Barapind became an active member of the All India Sikh Student Federation [A.I.S.S.F.], a group advocating the creation of a separate nation called Khalistan.

The Indian government alleges Barapind's political activism turned violent. Barapind and his attorneys have consistently denied the accusations and say he was beaten and tortured by the government.

'All the Indian government charges, I'm not involved in any one of them,' Barapind said during a brief telephone interview from jail. 'I'm innocent. I'm a political leader.'

In 1993, Barapind fled to the United States. He was detained in Los Angeles because he tried to enter using fraudulent documents, and soon after applied for asylum. Since then, he has been held in jails and detention centers from Bakersfield to Reno.

Barapind's asylum case has been put on hold since Indian officials requested in 1997 that he be extradited to face a trial that could bring the death penalty.

In March, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled that Barapind could be extradited for crimes tied to three of the 11 incidents. But in August, the 9th Circuit voided that decision and an 11-judge panel will rehear the case Thursday.

Stanley A. Boone, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, will represent the Indian government, pursuant to a treaty signed by both nations.

He said the Indian government has provided adequate evidence to support sending Barapind back for trial, and cited a number of other cases in which Sikh separatists fought extradition but ultimately were returned.

'If somebody comes to America and murders people and appears in India, we would want to bring them back for trial,' Boone said.

Jagdip Sekhon, Barapind's lead attorney, counters that the allegations are meant to discredit his client, who he said would be tortured and killed if returned to India. 'Any allegations that he has committed any violence in India are meant to frame him as a terrorist or militant,' Sekhon said.

There are more than 10,000 Sikhs in the greater Sacramento area, with a large concentration in Yuba City and Marysville. 'If you ask most Sikhs here what they think of him, they would say they respect him for what he symbolized,' said Jugdep Chima, a Yuba City resident and research fellow at the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Chima, 35, is writing a book about the Sikh separatist movement.

Barapind still wields power in the Sikh community, calling supporters collect every day - Barapind says he keeps a list of more than 300 phone numbers in his jailhouse notebook - and offering advice about community projects and disputes.

On Monday, four Sikh men gathered in Chima's Yuba City home to discuss Barapind. They ranged in age from 27 to 61, and had come to the United States as far back as 1988 and as recently as May.

All shook their heads in an emphatic 'No' when asked whether they believed the accusations. They maintain Barapind was framed by police and should be released.

'We respect him as a political leader because he did what the 10th guru taught us. He is both a saint and a soldier,' said Yuba City truck driver Pawinder Singh Karinha, 58.

The men said they have not been asked to support Barapind financially, but would gladly do so. They follow his case by talking to friends and neighbors and reading Punjabi newspapers.

'We feel it's our own son in jail,' Karinha said. 'He is the Sikh nation's hero and diamond.'