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Sikhs in California vote on independence from India

Sikhs hold a rally in Sacramento, California ahead of a March 31 referendum for independence.
Sandhya Dirks/NPR
Sikhs hold a rally in Sacramento, California ahead of a March 31 referendum for independence.

It's a busy Saturday at the Sacramento Gurdwara Bradshaw at the edges of the city surrounded by fields and strip malls. In front of the new, gleaming white temple, a crowd of people are dressed in their finest for a wedding. The sounds of worship are piped out into the morning air through loudspeakers.

Walk around the back of the domed building and you encounter something else, a sea of bright yellow flags emblazoned with bold, blue letters spelling out a word: Khalistan.

Khalistan doesn't exist on any map, but it is an imagined homeland for some Sikhs who dream of their own nation separate from India. The calls for an independent state have grown more urgent among Sikhs in the wake of last year's foiled assassination attempt of a Sikh activist on U.S. soil. The Justice Department charged an Indian national in the plot.

Sikhs are an ethno-religious group who come originally from what is now the Indian state of Punjab. There are an estimated half a million Sikhs in America, many of them based in California.

A long line of truck cabs and cars snake across the Gurdwara parking lot — trucks because Sikhs make up an increasing percentage of truckers in America. This caravan is getting ready to take to the streets of Sacramento and its sprawling suburbs — a rally on wheels to get out the vote ahead of Sunday's referendum.

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

After stops in Europe and Canada, the nonbinding Khalistan referendum is rolling out in the U.S. The first vote was in San Francisco at the end of January. Organizers say it was so popular that they scheduled a second vote for the end of March.

"We will be no more"

The fight for Khalistan has a long history, but the roots of this referendum can be traced to events that happened 40 years ago, says Irbanjit Sahota, who helped organize the rally.

"We want to let the world know that this happened to us in India, that there was a Sikh genocide in November 1984."

In the early 1980s some Sikh separatists were violent in their demands for Khalistan. In 1984 in response to growing unrest, the Indian army took over the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh sites, along with other Gurdwaras. A few months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

What followed was more horrific bloodshed — angry mobs pulled people from their homes, temples were burned to the ground, Sikhs disappeared.

"We're never going to get justice from India," Sahota says. "I don't know that the world can do much to get us justice."

In 2005 then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formally apologized for the anti-Sikh violence. For some Sikhs, that wasn't enough. They wanted what happened in 1984 recognized as a genocide. Sahota says they also wanted something else.

"I feel our only way forward is to make Punjab an independent state where we can practice our religion, preserve our culture, preserve our history."

Sahota says even though that violence happened decades ago, the current government in India — the Hindu nationalist BJP, led by Narendra Modi — is targeting religious and cultural minorities, including Sikhs. At the rally, one truck towed a U-Haul trailer with a giant sign: "Modi: Face of Hindu Terror."

"It just makes it worse," Sahota says. "Now we have no place. Before we felt like we were not just equal citizens. But now we feel like either we have to do something or we will be no more."

"Sikhs are happy in India"

Not every American Sikh believes the Modi government's Hindu nationalist agenda is dangerous for Sikhs.

"To say that it's a systematic, some kind of program going against Sikhs in this day and age is not there," says Jasdip Singh, the leader of Sikhs for America. "What we do" he says of his group, "is highlight the contributions of the Sikh community in the U.S. and we try to integrate the community into the mainstream America."

Singh was also a founding member of the group Sikhs for Trump.

He says the situation for Sikhs has significantly improved since the violence of the 80s and 90s. "Sikhs do have issues in India like any other community, but they have a legal framework, they have a constitution, they have a justice system in India," he says. "Sikhs in India are happy."

For Sikhs living outside of India, he says, "which is a very, very small percentage of the Sikh population to start asking for a separate homeland, I mean, I don't understand that."

He noted the referendum has no legal standing — it is nonbinding. Even if millions of Sikhs vote for Khalistan, nothing will happen, because it's a purely symbolic exercise.

"As immigrants, when we come here, we come here to contribute to this country — positive things," he says. "If we want to protest for Khalistan, we should go to India, Punjab and start protesting. Why are we using the soil of this country to bring issues that are not relevant to America?"

But the U.S. government has begun to take notice of the Indian government's treatment of minority religious and ethnic groups.

In December, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the U.S. State Department to list India as a "country of particular concern" due to "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief."

This month, the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights heard testimony from experts and activists about the threat to minority communities coming from the Indian government.

Transnational Repression

There are three moments in recent history that shift and shape Sikh American identity, according to Harman Singh, with the Sikh Coalition. The civil rights advocacy group was itself founded as a result of the initial moment, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

The first post-9/11 hate crime was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man in Mesa, Arizona by a white man who wanted to "kill a Muslim."

About a decade later, in 2012, a white supremacist walked into a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and started shooting, in the deadliest hate crime in an American place of worship at the time.

Both tragedies brought American Sikhs together.

But the third moment, the one we are in right now, Singh says, reveals a very different threat.

This past winter, the FBI unsealed an indictment accusing an Indian government employee of orchestrating a murder-for-hire assassination attempt of a Sikh separatist activist in New York City. The agency labeled the incident an example of transnational repression — oppression or interference by foreign governments on citizens or former citizens abroad.

"This is a major turning point within the Sikh community," Singh says.

"There are significant problems with the safety of Sikhs in the United States, but also the targeted harassment, intimidation attempts by India to silence dissent here," he says.

Singh and the Sikh Coalition are not involved in the Khalistan referendum, but Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the man targeted for assassination in New York is. Pannun is the leader of Sikhs for Justice, which is organizing the referendum campaign. The Indian government has labeled him a terrorist, and banned him and Sikhs for Justice from India.

The revelations of the plot to kill Pannun came on the heels of the murder of another Sikh activist in British Columbia. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of being behind his death. The Indian government denied any involvement and says that in the U.S. case their employee had acted alone.

The ballot, not the bullet

While the killing in Canada and the assassination attempt in New York drew attention, transnational repression is not new to many in the Sikh community, says Harman Singh. "Folks who advocate for this idea of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state, have been very vulnerable to transnational repression for several decades."

Sikhs who advocate for Khalistan or vote in the referendum are not terrorists, he argues. "What India has done is criminalize the right to self determination," he says.

At the Gurdwara Bradshaw Sacramento, the trucks are gearing up to get on the road, horns are honking and music is blasting from loudspeakers.

Sikh for Justice's coordinator Avtar Singh Pannu is there helping to fire up the crowd. He says the referendum is a chance to tell their story and vote for freedom. After California, the next stop is New York.

When asked if he is afraid of being targeted or killed, Pannu says no, because "everyone dies someday." But, he says, everyone should also have the right to self determination.

"We believe ballot," he says. "We don't believe bullet, and this is how we stand for that."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.

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