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California Sikhs vote for independence from India

Sikhs rally in Sacramento, California ahead of the March 31 independence referendum.

Sandia Dirks/NPR

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Sandia Dirks/NPR

Sikhs rally in Sacramento, California ahead of the March 31 independence referendum.

Sandia Dirks/NPR

It’s a busy Saturday at the Sacramento Gurdwara Bradshaw, located on the edge of the city, surrounded by fields and shopping malls. In front of the new, gleaming white temple, a group of people dressed in their most beautiful clothes attend a wedding. The sound of worship is carried through loudspeakers into the morning air.

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

Khalistan does not exist on any map, but it is an imaginary homeland for some Sikhs who dream of their country being separated from India. Sikh calls for an independent state have become more urgent since last year’s events. foiled assassination attempt Photos of Sikh activists in the United States.Ministry of Justice Charge an Indian national in the plot.

The Sikhs are an ethnoreligious group originally from what is now the Indian state of Punjab.Probably half a million Sikhs in America, many of whom live in California.

A long line of truck cabs and cars snaked through the gurdwara parking lot — trucks driven by the growing presence of Sikhs among U.S. truck drivers. The caravan was preparing to hit the streets of Sacramento and its surrounding suburbs – a rally on wheels to cast votes ahead of Sunday’s referendum.

Poll question: Should there be an independent Khalistan?

Following Europe and Canada, a non-binding Khalistani referendum is underway in the United States. The first vote was held in San Francisco at the end of January. Organizers said the referendum was so popular that they planned a second vote at the end of March.

“We will no longer”

Irbanjit Sahota, who helped organize the rally, said the fight for Khalistan is old but the roots of this referendum go back to events that took place 40 years ago.

“We want the world to know that this happened to us in India, the Sikh genocide in November 1984.”

In the early 1980s, some Sikh separatists made violent demands for Khalistan. In 1984, in response to growing unrest, Indian troops occupied the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, and other places of advice. A few months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

What followed was even more horrific bloodshed—angry mobs took people from their homes, temples were burned, and Sikhs disappeared.

“We will never get justice from India. I don’t know how much the world can do to get justice for us,” Sahota said.

In 2005, then-prime minister Manmohan Singh publicly apologized for anti-Sikh violence. For some Sikhs, that’s not enough. They want what happened in 1984 to be recognized as genocide. Sahota said they wanted something else.

“I feel the only way forward for us is for Punjab to become an independent state where we can practice our religion, preserve our culture, preserve our history.”

Sahota said that although the violence occurred decades ago, India’s current government – Modi’s Hindu nationalist Janata Party – is targeting religious and cultural minorities, including Sikhs. At the rally, a truck towed a U-Haul trailer bearing a giant sign: “Modi: The Face of Hindu Terror.”

Sahota said: “It just makes the situation worse. Now we have no place to stand. Before we felt we were more than equal citizens. But now we feel either we have to do something or we are no longer Yes.”

“Sikhs are happy in India”

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

“To say that this is a systematic, some kind of plan against Sikhs in this day and age is non-existent,” said Jasdip Singh, an American Sikh leader, speaking about his The organization says, “What we do is outstanding.” The contributions of the Sikh community in America and our efforts to integrate that community into mainstream America. ”

Singh is also a founding member of the Trump Sikh group.

He said the situation for Sikhs had improved since the violence of the 1980s and 1990s. “Sikhs do face problems in India like other communities, but they have a legal framework, a constitution, a judicial system in India,” he said. “Sikhs in India are happy. ”

For Sikhs living outside India, he said, “Only a very, very small minority of Sikhs are starting to demand a separate homeland, and I mean, I don’t understand that.”

He pointed out that the referendum has no legal status and is not binding. Even if millions of Sikhs vote for Khalistan, nothing will happen as it is purely a symbolic exercise.

“As immigrants, when we come here, we come here to contribute positively to this country,” he said. “If we want to protest for Khalistan, we should go to India, Punjab and start protesting. Why Are we going to create problems that have nothing to do with the United States by using soil from this country?”

But the U.S. government has begun to take notice of the Indian government’s treatment of religious and ethnic minorities.

In December, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged the U.S. State Department to list India as a “countries of special concernDue to “systematic, persistent and serious violations of freedom of religion or belief”.

This month, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Heard testimony from experts and activists about the threats posed by the Indian government to minority communities.

cross-border depression

Harman Singh of the Sikh Alliance said there are three moments in recent history that changed and shaped the identity of Sikhs in the United States. The civil rights advocacy group itself was founded during one of the first moments, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The first hate crime after 9/11 was murder. Balbir Singh SodhiA Sikh man was killed in Mesa, Arizona, by a white man who wanted to “kill a Muslim.”

Nearly a decade later, in 2012, a white supremacist walked into a Monastery in Oak Brook, Wisconsin and began shooting in what was then the deadliest hate crime at an American place of worship.

These two tragedies united Sikh Americans.

But the third moment, the one we’re in now, reveals a very different threat, Singer said.

Last winter, the F.B.I. unsealed indictment Accused an Indian government employee of plotting a murder-for-hire assassination of a Sikh separatist activist in New York City. The agency called the incident ” cross-border depression — Oppression or interference by a foreign government against a citizen or former citizen abroad.

“This is a major turning point for the Sikh community,” Singh said.

“There are significant safety concerns for Sikhs in the United States, as well as targeted harassment and intimidation in India in an attempt to silence dissent,” he said.

Singh and the Sikh Alliance were not involved in the Khalistan referendum, but New York assassination target Gurpatwant Singh Pannun was. Pannu is the leader of Sikhs for Justice, which organized the referendum campaign. The Indian government has labeled him. a terrorist and banned him and the righteous Sikhs from entering India.

Before the plot to murder Pannon was revealed, another murder was also revealed. Sikh activists in B.C.Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has accused the Indian government of being behind his death. The Indian government denies any involvement and says in the U.S. case their employees acted alone.

Ballots, not bullets

While the killings in Canada and the assassination attempt in New York have drawn attention, transnational repression is not new to many in the Sikh community, Harmansingh said. been highly vulnerable to transnational repression for decades. ”

He believes that Sikhs who support Khalistan or vote in the referendum are not terrorists. “What India has done is criminalize the right to self-determination,” he said.

At Gurdwara Bradshaw Sacramento, trucks are getting ready to hit the road, horns honking and music blasting from loudspeakers.

Avtar Singh Pannu, coordinator of Sikhs for Justice, was on hand to help incite the crowd. He said the referendum was an opportunity to tell their stories and vote for freedom. After California, the next stop is New York.

Asked if he was afraid of being targeted or killed, Pannu said no because “everyone dies one day.” But, he said, everyone should also have the right to self-determination.

“We believe in votes,” he said. “We don’t believe in bullets, that’s what we stand for.”

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