Politics, Investigative

India Denies Interfering in US Sikh Caucus, Contradicts Indian Press

By Anju Kaur | June 06, 2013

Reporting from Washington - The Indian ambassador denied that her government warned US authorities about the newly formed Sikh caucus, contradicting reports in the Indian media that Indian officials pressured US Congress members not to join the alliance.

“Indian interest and the Sikh interest, there is no conflict at all, no difference at all,” Ambassador Nirupama Rao told SikhNN. “We are for the Sikh interest, and we hope that we can all work together.”

The US State Department would not say whether it had been contacted by the Indian government, and referred SikhNN to the Indian Embassy, which declined repeated requests for comment.

The Indian ambassador’s comments came after her speech at a Bethesda event, on May 18, when she was asked whether reports by the Indian press that the Indian government had warned the US government about the Sikh caucus were true. Surprised by the question, she said there was no reason for any warning. The scope of the caucus is to address domestic civil rights issues that concern Sikhs in the US, and the Indian government supports its work, she said.

The Indian news media – including the Times of India and the Press Trust of India, a news service whose stories are published by the Business Standard, Indian West, The Indian Express and Zee News – told a different story.

None responded to requests for comment.

The denial represents a rare divergence between what is said in the Indian media and what is said by the Indian government, experts said.

“Denial of this by the ambassador does not make the Indian media look favorable nor does it hold it accountable,” said Professor Indira-Natasha Prahst, chairwoman of the sociology and anthropology department at Langara College, in Vancouver. “It also questions the credibility of a government that allows its media to represents its ambassador falsely.

“(But) it is not surprising for any government to conceal a certain degree of influence against particular groups,” Prahst added. “In this case, if the Indian state believes that the influence of the people that are part of this caucus could mobilize Khalistan sentiments abroad, and see that as a threat, they will proceed with a plan to influence it and, at the same time, deny it.”

Prahst spent many years studying the Khalistan movement – a push for a separate Sikh state - and the Sikh diaspora. She is writing a book on human rights issues and minority-majority relations, with Sikhs as her case study.

A congressional caucus is a coalition of Congress members united by a common legislative agenda designed to address issues of importance to them or their constituents.

The American Sikh Congressional Caucus was launched April 24 with 28 members of the House of Representatives as its founding members. The purpose of this caucus is to legislatively address issues affecting Sikhs in the United States, including hate-crime attacks, airport-security profiling, school bullying, and the right to serve in the US military, members said at the news conference announcing its creation.

Indian newspapers followed up the news conference with reports that the Indian government had pressured Congress members not to join the caucus because the Sikh activists who lobbied them for the establishment of the caucus were supporters of Khalistan.

“The formation of the Sikh caucus to highlight their plight may seem perfectly legitimate,” the Times of India said. “Why India flipped out at this remains a little unclear.”

Simple geopolitics is driving India to respond the way it has, Prahst said. It all boils down to power.

“India knows very clearly that Sikhs in America have their struggles,” she added. “Sikhs want to create an infrastructure in America where they do not have to worry that they are going to get beaten because they wear turbans. And to have the Indian government interfere in the coalition that may stand up for their rights…

“This is political.”

Khalistan was the name of a separate Sikh nation envisioned in 1947, which was to encompass all of Punjab. Sikhs made up nearly all of the Indian army, which fought alongside the British army during the World Wars. Sikhs then sparked and fought for the Independence movement for India. But during Partition negotiations between the British government and the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs of colonial India, the British divided the region by religion, creating a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, and splitting Punjab and the Sikhs between the two nations. Khalistan never materialized.

Indian Punjab struggled since then for state rights, civil rights and human rights, which led to growing secessionist sentiments. The height of the Khalistan movement occurred after the June 1984 Operation Blue Star when the Indian Army invaded Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple), in Amritsar, with heavy artillery to flush out a small number of militants. The Army began the operation on June 4, on the martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan, when the complex was flooded with worshipers. By June 8, the result was the destruction of what has been called the Sikhs’ Vatican, particularly the Akal Takhat, the historical library and the treasury, and the killing of thousands of worshipers.

The stress between India and the Sikhs further escalated after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The Indian government responded by killing thousands of innocent Sikhs, including children, in the November 1984 pogroms.

The Indian government crushed the Khalistan movement in the decade-long violent counter-insurgency that followed. According to national and international human rights groups, tens of thousands of men, women and children were extra-judicially killed by the Indian state. No political leader has been brought to justice for any of these atrocities. And the word Khalistan has been stigmatized as anti-India. India has failed to seek reconciliation since, Prahst said. It has not fully acknowledged the innocent Sikhs that were killed, and it continues to sabotage efforts to bring to justice key political perpetrators involved in the “1984 Sikh genocide.”

“When you have diaspora groups getting too involved politically, they can have influence in addressing other needs, such as human rights,” she added. Trying to sabotage the coalition from forming is another example of India trying to weaken the Sikh community so human rights issues that still are not reconciled in Indian history remain hidden.”

While India is now officially denying trying to sabotage the caucus, the Indian press says otherwise.

According to the Times of India, “Indian officials have been briefing US lawmakers about the almost-defunct movement and its bloody history after discovering that the principal movers of the Sikh caucus were Khalistani activists trying to revive separatist sentiments.”

The Sikh community in the United States has taken umbrage at the reporting.

“This is unsubstantiated and unjust reporting by the (Indian) press to malign this caucus,” said Harpreet Singh Sandhu, of Richmond, California. “They have delved into editorialism.”

Harpreet Singh is one of the two “principal movers” of the Sikh caucus. He and Pritpal Singh, of Milpitas, California, spearheaded the grass-roots effort to convince Congress members to form the caucus.

Pritpal Singh declined to comment.

Although many Sikh activists had long envisioned a Sikh caucus, the two Californians were finally successful when Judy Chu (D-Pasadena, California) agreed to be the chairwoman. David Valadao (R-Bakersfield, California) later joined as its chairman. With the help of other Sikh activists and organizations - including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs - 26 more Congress members joined the caucus by the time of the launch.

Neither Chu nor Valadao returned numerous requests for comment on whether they had been pressured by India.

“Evidently, Indian officials were sufficiently alarmed by the influence among the caucus backers of pro-Khalistani elements that they opposed the caucus rather than encourage nationalist Sikhs to take a greater role in it,” the Times of India said. “While Indian officials acknowledge that many of the Sikh grievances are legitimate, they say the issues are being used as a cover for potentially reinvigorating the Khalistan movement.”

“The tone that there are Khalistani Sikhs as part of the caucus tells that there is clear agenda,” said Prahst, who deconstructs media as part of her research. “There is no neutrality in these articles, and these articles are not written for the sake of news worthiness, they are written for a political agenda.

“India continues to use the stigma of Khalistan to prevent progressive strategies by Sikhs to move forward,” she added. “Here we are seeing the tentacles of the Indian government interfering in America in how it deals with certain struggles with Sikhs.”

Harpreet Singh said he was surprised by India’s reaction, especially when the scope of the caucus is to address domestic concerns.

“I can only say that they are trying to influence the US government about Sikhs,” Harpreet Singh said. “We have worked together with Congress members, and they have worked with us on every issue. We will continue to work together because this is our home. To bring harm to this country would be counterproductive.”

Sikhs were the first immigrants from India, more than 100 years ago. Harpreet Singh’s first family member came in 1949, and now he has a very large extended family in California, he said. The number of Sikh immigrants has substantially increased since the mid 1980s. Most are from India, but also from Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. Today, the community of about 600,000 is not only multi-national but also multi-generational native-Americans.

But it is because Sikhism originated in Punjab, and Sikhs are concentrated there, that the caucus was able to use the word “Sikh” in its name. After much debate, the Committee on House Administration, which registers caucuses, accepted “Sikh” as an ethnicity after Harpreet Singh brought to its attention that it had registered the Latino-Jewish Congressional Caucus in 2011. It accepted “Jewish” as an ethnicity to eliminate separation of church and state issues. The Sikh caucus also is an ethnic caucus.

Recent Sikh and Jewish histories have many parallels in terms of genocide and justice, except that the Jewish people were able to move forward from their Holocaust. In 2003, the German government signed a treaty with its Jewish citizens and acknowledged its atrocities. “Why can’t India do the same?” said Prahst, who is half German and half Indian.

“India’s actions of trying to sabotage this caucus already shows a lack of progressive strategies in allowing Sikhs to move forward in terms of reconciliation,” she said. And this may not be the first time India interfered in Sikh politics abroad.

When the Canadian government was considering labeling the 1984 pogroms as genocide, there allegedly was talk that the Indian government used its influence to deter that process, she said. “When the American Congress recognized Sikhs as an entity, as a separate community, it sent fear in their minds,” said Yadvinder Singh, an activist who spoke at the launch. “They recognized Sikhs as a community outside India, but not in India.”

According to the US state department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, the Indian constitution provides that Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism be considered a subset of Hinduism. The report also outlined the continued efforts by Sikhs to bring alleged perpetrators of the 1984 pogroms to justice.

The formation of a caucus labeled “Sikh,” which recognizes the community and its issues in the US and gives it political status, all of which is still a struggle in India is very significant in how India represents itself as a secular nation, which is part of its World’s Largest Democracy platform – “part of its wrapping paper,” Prahst said.

According to a Rediff News story about the launch, unnamed Sikh sources at the inauguration complained that the caucus would be less effective because of pro-Khalistani individuals and organizations that were instrumental in its formation, including Avtar Singh Pannu, coordinator for Sikhs for Justice, in New York; Amarjit Singh, head of the Khalistan Affairs Center, in Washington; and Yadvinder Singh of New Jersey, former president of the American Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

Avtar Singh and Amarjit Singh did not return requests for comment.

“They are trying to create fear,” Yadvinder Singh added. “It does not matter what our political affiliation is, Khalistan or Congress (party of India), we have a common agenda in this country.

“I don’t think that the people (Sikhs) involved in the caucus, if you look at their profiles, constitute a major threat,” Prahst said.

But India will remember who is involved.

“India will be doing research on who associates with whom, and if you start to see defamation happening within the caucus, I would believe that is not a coincidence, she added.”

None of the Sikh activists in this report were sure how the Indian government found out about the caucus. It was kept under tight secrecy for fear of sabotage. The caucus was probably exposed when the original launch, set for March 14, was suddenly postponed just days ahead of the scheduled event. All the Sikh individuals and organizations, including a South Asian group, that were invited to the launch were given one-week notice. The event was cancelled as many were making plans to come to Washington. The second launch date, April 24, also was announced with short notice.

According to the Times of India, “The Indian effort to sensitize lawmakers to New Delhi's concerns began even before the launch of the caucus, but much to the Indian Embassy's surprise and dismay, pro-Khalistani Sikhs succeeded in getting the caucus off the ground.”

In the days after the launch, the Indian press reported on India’s tactics, and on some of the Congress members it could not “sensitize.”

The Indian lobby targeted members of the Sikh caucus who also were members of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. The India caucus, with about 186 members, is the largest country-specific caucus. Its focus is US-India relations.

On the top of the target list was Ami Bera (D-Sacramento, California), the only member of both caucuses who is of Indian origin. The “Indian lobby” had pressed Bera not to join the Sikh caucus, the Times of India reported. “Indian sources were so confident that Bera, who is also a member of the India caucus, would not join the Sikh pressure group, that they had even offered a wager on it.”

Although Bera’s name was not on the list of 28 founding members, his staff confirmed that he had joined the Sikh caucus on the day of the launch, Harpreet Singh said.

Bera’s office sent a news release to the Press Trust of India about his decision.

“The memory of the tragedy at Oak Creek is still fresh, and in my own community of Elk Grove, two Sikh men were murdered in 2011 in a probable hate crime,” he stated. “Violence and discrimination against the Sikh American community is a real and important civil rights issue in the US… We must work together as a country of diverse cultures, faiths and beliefs to end these senseless acts of violence and find understanding and peace. These are the issues the American Sikh Congressional Caucus will work on.”

According to the Press Trust of India, Bera's statement, three days after he publicly announced to join the caucus, “is considered to allay concerns of the Indian government...”

Bera did not respond to questions about being pressured by the Indian government or lobby. “That’s really all he has to say on the matter,” said Allison Teixeira, spokeswoman for the congressman, in an email to SikhNN.

“If members do not talk about this, then there is a lack of transparency,” Prahst said. “It shows the power that India continues to have on them.”

According to the Indian press, India also targeted Frank Pallone (D-New Brunswick, New Jersey) and Mike Honda (D-Fremont, California). Both also are members of the India caucus.

“What has distressed New Delhi is that signatories include veteran lawmakers such as Frank Pallone, a New Jersey democrat who has been a long-time friend of India and a leading member of the India caucus,” the Times of India reported. “Indian officials surmise that Pallone and many others have been misled by the separatists into believing that they were backing a besieged group that was fighting ethnic profiling and racial discrimination…”

Pallone also did not return requests for comment.

“Ditto for Congressman Honda, whose 17th congressional district is in the heart of Silicon Valley,” the Times of India said. “Honda in fact is locked in a fight to retain his house seat against another Indian-American Democrat, Ro Khanna, who has a strong record of supporting Sikh issues and taking part in their festivities.”

But Honda has a much longer political history with Sikhs than Khanna. He was one of the first Congress members to speak out after 9/11 about hate crimes against Sikhs. He has addressed many events held by Sikh advocacy groups over the years. And he recognized the efforts made by Harpreet Singh and Pritpal Singh at the news conference announcing the Sikh caucus.

“I have fought alongside the Sikh-American community against racial profiling, bullying, and hate crimes - authoring a resolution condemning racially-motivated crimes after 9/11 - and am proud to join a caucus that will ensure their voices are heard as productive, vital members of our society,” he said in an emailed statement to SikhNN.

"As someone who has experienced government-sponsored discrimination, we need political leaders to stand up for the underrepresented communities that make our nation great,” he said. As a child during World War II, the congressman was held for several years in a Japanese internment camp in Colorado.

Sikhs continue to experience “government-sponsored discrimination” in India. After the British divided Punjab, India would not recognize Punjabi as its official language, and again divided the state, in 1966, based on language. A large section was carved out to form the state of Haryana, and another section given to the state of Himachal Pradesh. India then diverted Punjab’s river waters and imposed crippling agricultural loan rates for water-hungry farms, which has led to the largest number of farmer suicides in the world. The struggle for political, civil and human rights led to state-sponsored atrocities from 1984 to 1995. The Indian political and judicial system then blocked high-level perpetrator from being brought to justice.

“To deny some of the struggles and sacrifices that Khalistanis have made… is unfair,” Prahst said. “(Albeit) some were horrible leaders and some actions unjustifiable where innocent people were killed, there were some very good Khalistanis that left their studies, who did not kill anyone, but were just there to advocate for freedom to be a Sikh without a persecuted status.

“The Khalistan movement was a human rights movement,” Prahst added. “That is what it is today. It’s a movement to have historical repair and ensure that the structure in India does not continue to suppress Sikhism in the name of modernity.”

In the US, India was absent in supporting its Sikhs on hate crimes and other issues until after the massacre at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, gurdwara where a white supremacist killed Sikh worshipers – when hate crimes were put on the international stage.

“President Obama spoke to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,” the ambassador said. “It’s because the Sikhs are identified with India first and foremost.”

“(The) Indian government, currently headed by a Sikh, seems to believe these (issues) are best lobbied by the India caucus rather than a separate ethno-religious caucus,” the Times of India reported.

“(But) the India caucus’ intent is inter-government rather that our social issues,” Harpreet Singh said. He asked Sikh advocacy groups about how the India caucus had helped Sikhs after 9/11.

“They could not find any examples.”

Note: In 1984, Sikhs used the Hindu lunar Bikrami calendar to determine historical dates. Guru Arjan’s martyrdom anniversary occurred on June 4, according to that calendar, the first day of Operation Blue Star. But Sikhs have since adopted the solar Nanakshahi calendar, in 2003, which accurately times Sikh historical dates, and is in sync with the Common Era calendar that is used worldwide. The new calendar corrects Guru Arjan’s martyrdom day as June 16.

_________________________From Sikh News Network archives.