Sikh group sues Bollywood actor in U.S. court over '84 India massacre

U.S.-based Sikh group sues Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan over 1984 violence in India

Amitabh Bachchan is hardly a household name in the U.S., but in his native India, he is a megastar. He has appeared in more than 150 Bollywood films and served as a longtime host of the country's wildly popular version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

So when Bachchan made a foray into Hollywood with a small role in the 2013 film "The Great Gatsby," it was big news in his home country.

For a small group of U.S. Sikhs, it was also an opportunity.

The group, Sikhs for Justice, has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. making the improbable argument that Bachchan's work with a U.S. film company gives American courts the ability to hold him responsible for the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in India three decades ago. The group alleges that the actor, now 72, made statements that incited a violent mob.

Bachchan has previously denied the allegation, and legal experts say they doubt the suit will make much headway. But its filing in Los Angeles marks the latest attempt by the Sikh group to use American courts as a last recourse to hold high-profile politicians and other Indian figures accountable for the violence against Sikhs in 1984.

Since the group's founding in 2010, it has played a cat-and-mouse game with high-profile Indian figures during brief stays in the U.S. — a medical treatment at a New York hospital, attendance at a Milwaukee wedding, a weeklong diplomatic visit — to serve legal papers saying that the federal courts should hold these figures responsible for abuses that occurred a world away.

The suits are brought on behalf of surviving family members of those killed in the violence and unrest sparked by the October 1984 assassination of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

In the days after Gandhi's killing, angry mobs targeted Sikhs in retaliation, beating and burning alive Sikh men and raping women, looting and torching their homes, businesses and temples. Over three days, at least 2,700 people but possibly thousands more were slain in what an Indian government-commissioned report called "organized carnage."

The latest case pulls Bachchan into a hotly contested area of litigation in U.S. courts.

The suit hinges on the Alien Tort Statute, which in recent years has become the center of a debate over whether American courts can and should be the arbiter of human rights abuses committed elsewhere in the world by non-U.S. citizens. The 1789 law, which was passed by the first Congress and initially used in cases of piracy and stolen goods, states that federal courts shall have jurisdiction over wrongs "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States."

Since 1980, human rights groups and lawyers have appropriated the long-forgotten law to sue foreign officials over atrocities alleged to have been committed abroad and U.S. corporations for their involvement in such acts.

The law has been used by torture victims to sue former Paraguayan and Liberian officials, and corporations including Yahoo and Coca-Cola for their alleged complicity in human rights violations.

But in 2013, the Supreme Court drastically limited such lawsuits in Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum, largely barring U.S. courts from hearing cases on abuses that took place elsewhere.

That hasn't discouraged the Sikh group, which has filed five lawsuits under the statute since the high court's ruling.

Each filing has generated a flurry of publicity in the Indian press. The suit against Bachchan, who once polled as "the greatest star of stage or screen" by a wide margin over actor Laurence Olivier on the BBC's website, was widely reported when it was filed late last year.

Mohender Singh, a plaintiff in the case against Bachchan who said he lost his father and two uncles in the violence, said the U.S. courts were his last recourse after years of waiting for Indian courts to act. The vast majority of those charged with being involved in the 1984 deaths, including police officers accused of allowing the violence and a prominent political party leader charged with inciting a mob, have been acquitted in Indian courts.

"We have been trying for 30 years, and we didn't get any justice over there," said Singh, now a truck driver living in Hayward, Calif.

Thus far, the group has had little success.

One Wisconsin suit was dismissed after it became clear the process server hired by the group mistakenly served another Sikh man with a long white beard and turban, not the chief minister of the state of Punjab. Hospital security and Secret Service agents proved a hurdle in serving another Indian politician at a New York cancer treatment facility. A case against Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister at the time of the suit, was thrown out after the U.S. State Department stepped in to declare to the court that Singh was entitled to immunity as a head of state.

On at least one occasion, the group resorted to offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who could successfully serve the lawsuit on Punjab's chief minister.

In the Los Angeles suit, the group says that Bachchan, already a top-billing actor in 1984, was seen on television after Gandhi's death making statements similar to those chanted by violent mobs, such as, "Blood for blood" and, "The blood stains should reach the household of Sikhs." The group's attorney contends that because the actor has conducted business in California — appearing in a Hollywood film — U.S. courts have jurisdiction over him.

The actor has publicly and vehemently denied making such statements. In a letter to Sikh religious leaders, he noted that his ancestry was partly Sikh, according to local media reports. Bachchan did not respond to repeated requests for comment through his Hollywood agent and his Mumbai production company.

Suits under the Alien Tort Statute have generally fallen into one of two categories: those against foreign officials accused of committing atrocities, and those against U.S. corporations alleged to have been complicit in abuses abroad.

Bachchan would be in his own category. He did briefly dabble in Indian politics in the years after the violence in 1984, but he isn't accused of acting in an official government role at the time of the massacre. Bachchan was, at times, referred to as a "one-man industry" for the popularity of his films, but his production company is a far cry from the well-heeled multinational corporations that have typically been on the receiving end of such suits.

Experts on the law said the Sikh plaintiffs would probably have a hard time overcoming the restriction placed by the Supreme Court on these types of lawsuits. The Supreme Court ruled that unless the conduct has a significant connection to the U.S., courts here do not have jurisdiction over abuses in other countries.

"There are lots of bad foreign government officials in the world, but the question is, does their conduct in their own countries somehow touch and concern the United States?" said John Bellinger III, a Washington, D.C., national security attorney and a former legal advisor for the State Department. "These Sikh cases look like they would have a hard time overcoming that high bar, but they seem to be undeterred."

There's also the question of whether the group will be able to properly serve the Mumbai actor with the suit. Gurpatwant Pannun, a legal advisor for the Sikh group, said the organization had hired an international service to hand-deliver the suit under rules set by the Hague Convention.

Gurinder S. Mann, a Sikh scholar and a professor at UC Santa Barbara, said the plaintiffs may be looking for something other than a legal victory or financial compensation — simply to keep the memory of the events of 1984 from fading into history.

"Lawsuits keep that conversation afloat," he said. "They're keeping this fire burning, at least not permitting it to go to the back burner."

Twitter: @vicjkim

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times