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California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India

Sikhs in California vote on independence from India

On a bustling Saturday morning, the Sacramento Gurdwara Bradshaw, situated amidst fields and strip malls on the outskirts of the city, is alive with activity. Dressed in their finest attire, a crowd gathers in front of the gleaming white temple for a wedding ceremony while the morning worship echoes through loudspeakers.

Venture around the back of the domed structure, and you’ll encounter a sight of bright yellow flags adorned with bold, blue letters spelling out a single word: Khalistan.

Khalistan, though not recognized on any map, holds deep significance as an envisioned homeland for certain Sikhs who aspire for a separate nation distinct from India. The fervor for an independent state has intensified within the Sikh community, particularly following last year’s thwarted assassination attempt of a Sikh activist on American soil, for which an Indian national was charged by the Justice Department.

Sikhs, an ethno-religious group originating from what is now the Indian state of Punjab, count roughly half a million members in America, with a significant presence in California.

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India (Credits: 88.9 KETR)

A procession of trucks and cars forms a lengthy queue across the Gurdwara’s parking lot – a testament to the increasing number of Sikhs within the American trucking industry. This convoy prepares to traverse the streets of Sacramento and its sprawling suburbs in a rolling rally aimed at mobilizing voters ahead of Sunday’s referendum.

The pivotal question on the ballot: Should Khalistan be an independent state?

Following similar initiatives in Europe and Canada, the nonbinding Khalistan referendum unfolds in the United States. The inaugural vote took place in San Francisco at the end of January, and due to its popularity, organizers scheduled a follow-up for the end of March.

“We will be no more.”

The genesis of the Khalistan referendum traces back four decades, notes Irbanjit Sahota, one of the rally’s organizers.

“We seek to illuminate the atrocities endured by Sikhs in India, particularly the Sikh genocide of November 1984.”

Amidst escalating unrest in the early 1980s, certain Sikh separatists resorted to violence in their pursuit of Khalistan. In response, in 1984, the Indian army seized control of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest site in Sikhism, along with other Gurdwaras. Months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering further bloodshed – a wave of violence that saw mobs targeting Sikh homes, torching temples, and causing disappearances.

“We cannot expect justice from India,” asserts Sahota. “Our only recourse is to establish Punjab as an independent state where we can safeguard our religion, culture, and heritage.”

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India (Credits: The San Francisco Standard)

Despite the passage of decades, Sahota contends that the current Indian government, led by the Hindu nationalist BJP under Narendra Modi, continues to marginalize religious and cultural minorities, including Sikhs. At the rally, a truck pulls a U-Haul trailer bearing a stark message: “Modi: Face of Hindu Terror.”

“This exacerbates our plight,” laments Sahota. “We feel increasingly marginalized. It’s either take action or face extinction.”

“Sikhs are content in India.”

However, not all American Sikhs perceive the Hindu nationalist agenda of the Modi government as a threat.

“The notion of systematic persecution against Sikhs today is unfounded,” argues Jasdip Singh, leader of Sikhs for America. “Our focus is on showcasing Sikh contributions in the U.S. and integrating into mainstream American society.”

Singh, a founding member of Sikhs for Trump, highlights the improved conditions for Sikhs since the tumultuous decades of the 80s and 90s.

“While challenges persist in India, Sikhs there have legal protections and recourse through the justice system,” he asserts. “Sikhs in India are content.”

Singh questions the relevance of advocating for a separate homeland, particularly among Sikhs residing outside India, a minority within the global Sikh community.

“It’s a minuscule fraction of Sikhs seeking Khalistan,” he remarks, emphasizing the symbolic nature of the referendum, devoid of legal ramifications.

“As immigrants, our focus should be on contributing positively to this country,” he contends. “If there are grievances, they should be addressed in India, not imported here.”

Nonetheless, the U.S. government has begun to acknowledge concerns regarding the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities by the Indian government.

In December, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended categorizing India as a “country of particular concern” due to ongoing violations of religious freedom. This month, the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights convened to address threats facing minority communities in India.

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India

California Sikhs Cast Votes for Independence from India (Credits: Sacramento Bee)

Transnational Repression

Harman Singh, of the Sikh Coalition, identifies three pivotal moments shaping Sikh American identity, with the most recent highlighting a distinct threat.

During the recent winter months, the FBI revealed an indictment against an Indian government employee, alleging involvement in a murder-for-hire scheme targeting a Sikh separatist activist in New York City. This case epitomizes transnational repression, illustrating foreign governments’ interference with citizens abroad.

“This marks a significant shift within the Sikh community,” observes Singh. “We face not only safety concerns but also concerted efforts by India to stifle dissent abroad.”

While the Sikh Coalition is not directly involved in the Khalistan referendum, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the intended target of the New York assassination attempt, spearheads Sikhs for Justice, the organization behind the campaign. Designated a terrorist by the Indian government, Pannun and Sikhs for Justice are banned from India.

The revelation of the assassination plot coincided with the murder of another Sikh activist in British Columbia, prompting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to implicate the Indian government. India denied involvement, attributing the U.S. incident to the actions of a lone employee.

The ballot, not the bullet

While recent events have brought transnational repression to the forefront, Harman Singh underscores its longstanding vulnerability within the Sikh community.

“Advocates for Khalistan or participants in the referendum are not terrorists,” he asserts. “India’s suppression of the right to self-determination is egregious.”

Back at the Gurdwara Bradshaw Sacramento, trucks rev their engines, horns blare, and music fills the air as Sikh for Justice’s coordinator, Avtar Singh Pannu, rallies the crowd. For him, the referendum symbolizes an opportunity to assert their narrative and pursue freedom. Following California, New York awaits.

When queried about fears of reprisal, Pannu remains resolute.

“We all meet our end someday,” he reflects. “But the right to self-determination is universal.”

“We advocate for the ballot, not the bullet,” he declares, encapsulating the ethos driving their cause.

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