Police stride through streets in Punjab after Sikh religious summit.

India Charges American Sikhs With Sedition For Attending Religious Summit

 

U.S. Sikhs call on Congress to “demand India stop bullying our American Sikh leaders”

Police stride through streets in Punjab after Sikh religious summit.

Police stride through streets in Punjab after Sikh religious summit.

Amritsar, Punjab: Nov. 17, 2015 — After mass arrests of organizers and participants in a Sikh religious summit hosted in Punjab, India, authorities have filed sedition charges against several, including four American Sikhs.

A North American Sikh summit representing over 100 gurdwaras and organizations formally appointed five representatives to attend the “Sarbat Khalsa,” a global convocation held on Nov. 10 in the Punjabi city of Amritsar to discuss leadership selection processes and other issues of concern to members of the Sikh religion. Two — Harinder Singh and Resham Singh — now face sedition charges in India for attending the religious congregation. Both are U.S. citizens.

“It’s incomprehensible why peacefully conducting internal religious affairs is treated as a crime by the government of India,” comments Bhajan Singh of US-based Sikh Information Centre. “India’s sedition law is a direct carryover from the colonial-era laws of British India that was originally written and used by the British to silence supporters of India’s independence movement. Now it’s being used to intimidate and control the international Sikh religious leadership.”

Harinder is a prominent voice for human rights in his community and serves as CEO of Sikh Research Institute. Resham is a small businessowner from California, while two other American-Sikhs also slapped with sedition charges by Indian authorities are Surjit Singh, a taxi driver, and Gurbhej Singh, a well-known preacher focused on encouraging Sikh youth to reject drugs, gangs, and follow a religious path. All three work closely with Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritar), a Sikh political party headed by Simranjit Singh Mann, who is also charged with sedition.

It is unknown how the cases against the four American Sikhs will proceed as the U.S.-India extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offenses.

Indian authorities appear to think the post-event, independent actions of Sarbat Khalsa attendees, after the event, qualify as evidence against those charged with sedition. Accusing the “supporters” of the summit of raising “communal and anti-country slogans while going back to their homes after conclusion of event,” the police report alleges speeches at the event “were also aimed at hurting national integrity.”

Disturbed by mass arrests of the Sarbat Khalsa attendees and indignant at India’s sedition charges against U.S. citizens, Sikhs in the United States blame the arrests on Indian interference in their religion.

“Sikhs in India, the birthplace of our religion, are being totally denied any freedom of religion,” says Balbir Singh Dhillon. Now the president of West Sacramento Gurdwara, he was in 1996 jailed by Indian police for three months while traveling in Punjab as a U.S. citizen. Held without charges, it took appeals from dozens of congressional representatives for India to admit he had committed no crime and release him, but he says his memories of being tortured in custody increase his concern for the imprisoned Sikhs.

“The poor families of these innocent men are living in terror not knowing what future awaits their loved ones,” laments Dhillon. “Is it a crime of sedition to be a Sikh in India? I really hope our congressional representatives do their duty to speak out against these false charges and especially demand India stop bullying our American Sikh leaders.”

The Sarbat Khalsa was announced in response to recent and repeated desecrations of the Sikh scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, as well as dissatisfaction with the Sikh religion’s leadership, and the Punjab government’s suppression of peaceful Sikh protests. As Congressmen John Garamendi and Patrick Meehan wrote in an Oct. 30, 2015 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: “This desecration prompted hundreds of peaceful Sikh protestors to demand action. Two demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on a crowd of protestors.”

Reports suggest the religious summit drew as many as 750,000 Sikhs from around the world. Bhajan Singh calls it “a million-Sikh march.” The congregation passed thirteen resolutions that included replacing the Jathedars (priests) of its Takhts (sacred seats of authority) with interim appointees, scheduling another Sarbat Khalsa in April 2016 to select permanent Jathedars, agreeing to seek “Vatican-like status” for Harmandir Sahib (the holiest Sikh shrine also known as the Golden Temple), and voicing concerns about several human rights issues.

Lasting a full-day on Nov. 10, the congregation dispersed peacefully, yet the next day the Indian government reacted with mass arrests of Sikh leadership, including clergy, politicians, and even a journalist.

According to news reports, those arrested were initially “preventatively detained” under Criminal Procedure Code sections 107/151, which allow police to detain anyone suspected of intending to breach the peace. After U.S. citizen Ravinderjit Singh Gogi and his hunger-striking father, Surat Singh Khalsa, were detained under the same law in February, six U.S. representatives protested in a letter to Secretary of State Kerry: “The existence and use of these laws, which India has used to restrict freedom of expression and association, is contrary to democratic principles, and specifically to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which India has ratified.”

Along with four American Sikhs and 14 Punjabi Sikhs, authorities in India have registered sedition charges against Sikhs from Italy and the United Kingdom.

India’s sedition law has long faced strong international criticism. Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, which defines “sedition” as any act or attempt to “to bring into hatred or contempt, or… excite disaffection towards the government.” However, it Amnesty International warned in 2014: “India’s archaic sedition law has been used to harass and persecute activists and others for their peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.” Punishing sedition with up to life imprisonment, Section 124a was infamously used by the British to detain Hindu preacher Mohandas Gandhi; more recently, it has been invoked against people like cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for drawing a cartoon satirizing India’s national emblem and Salman M. for not standing during the playing of India’s national anthem in a movie theatre.

amritsar-personnel-amritsar-november-november-hindustan-tibetan_f0308b56-86e9-11e5-9788-42b4b9d38c49

Indian Police Mass Arrest Sikh Media, Clergy, Politicians After Global Sikh Convocation

International Sikh community demands release of all, warning the Indian government wants control over their religion

 

Indian security forces march through the streets of Punjab after Sarbat Khalsa.

Indian security forces march through the streets of Punjab after Sarbat Khalsa.

Amritsar, Punjab: Nov. 12, 2015 — The preventative detention on Nov. 11 of several key Sikh leaders and a journalist by Indian police at the conclusion of a global convocation of Sikhs called “Sarbat Khalsa” is a cause for concern among some who see it as an indication of government interference in their religious affairs that they fear may result in the torture of those arrested.

“As an American citizen traveling to Punjab in the 1990s, I was arrested, jailed, and tortured for three months by Indian police,” remarks Balbir Singh Dhillon, president of California’s influential West Sacramento Gurdwara. “Held without charges, it took 50 representatives from U.S. Congress speaking out to get my release. My prayers are with our recently arrested Sikh leaders, especially after my firsthand experience with the horrors of Indian police custody.”

Those arrested in Amritsar and surrounding areas of Punjab include Simranjit Singh Mann (president of political party Shiromani Akali Dal – Amritsar), Mokham Singh (president of political party United Akali Dal), Dhian Singh Mand (newly elected proxy priest of Akal Takht, the Sikh religion’s governing institution), and Surinder Singh (a journalist with Talking Punjab who was providing in-depth, on-location coverage of the Sarbat Khalsa). The Sarbat Khalsa, held on Nov. 10, was called in response to repeated desecration of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, and the resulting massacre by police of peaceful Sikh protesters.

Many other prominent Sikhs involved in organizing the event were also rounded up. None are charged with any crime, as Amritsar Police Commissioner Jatinder Aulakh says they are “under preventive detention.” Dhillon speculates police may have invoked Criminal Procedure Code sections 107/151, which allow police to arrest people they think are “likely to commit a breach of the peace.”

After the law was used in February to detain U.S. citizen Ravinderjit Singh Gogi and his hunger-striking father, Surat Singh Khalsa, six U.S. congressional representatives protested in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: “The existence and use of these laws, which India has used to restrict freedom of expression and association, is contrary to democratic principles, and specifically to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which India has ratified.”

The Sarbat Khalsa, according to some reports, drew upwards of 750,000 Sikhs. “It was a million-Sikh march,” states Bhajan Singh of Sikh Information Centre. He says, however, that India-based associates of Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation, an international nonprofit of which he is a board member, were prevented from attending the convention, explaining:

“Over 50 BRASF activists were left stranded on their way to the Sarbat Khalsa when the bus company they’d arranged refused service because police had threatened to revoke their commercial licenses if they transported anyone to the convention. It is incredible that perhaps a quarter of a million Sikhs from every part of the earth gathered peacefully despite persistent government harassment. We estimate that perhaps 250,000 more were prevented from attending, not to mention the millions who watched online.”

Announced in September, the emergency convention had two primary goals, according to Manjit Singh Uppal, who traveled to the event from California as a representative of historic Stockton Gurdwara, the oldest Sikh-American institution. “We need to build a system for our representation so that we can hold another Sarbat Khalsa in six months. Also, we need to decide how we can represent the Sikhs all over the world that live outside of India.”

Thirteen resolutions passed by the assembly focus on revitalizing the Sikh religion’s leadership by removing four of five Jathedars (priests) of its Takhts (sacred seats of authority), replacing them with symbolic interim appointees, and calling for a more intensive Sarbat Khalsa on Vaisakhi 2016, a festival in April.

The next Sarbat Khalsa is expected to dwell extensively on the declaration of Resolution 11 that the Sikh community “aspires for Vatican-like status for Harimandir Sahib Complex to ensure every Sikh’s birthright to visit and deliberate at the Akal Takhat Sahib.”

Human rights was a harmonious theme in other resolutions, which denounce police and army officials involved in the Sikh Genocide and declare the Sikh Nation “demands all political prisoners of any movement in India such as Sikhs, Naxalites, Nagas, and others, be released unconditionally.” Invoking the religion’s egalitarian foundations, another resolution “appeals to stop the construction of caste-based gurdwaras and cremation grounds.”

Gogi, the son of 83-year-old hunger-striker Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, who completed his 300th day without food on Nov. 11 despite repeated arrest and force-feeding by police, spoke about his father’s struggle from the convention stage. An American citizen, he was released from an Indian jail in April after repeated letters from Congress pled for him. Detained for two months without arraignment, he also reports being tortured.

“The recent wave of ideological and political pushback by people like Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh shows how India’s downtrodden masses are using every faculty to struggle against a deeply oppressive environment,” suggests Bhajan. “India’s minorities are exhausted by de facto dictatorships, and genocides, and torture, and they are rejecting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s politics of hate.”

India’s ruling party, the BJP, also shares power in Punjab’s state government. After orchestrating a genocide of Sikhs in 1984, India’s other leading party, the Indian National Congress, finds less popularity in the community, although the BJP is similarly accused of genocidal attacks on Muslim and Christians.

The Indian government, under every party, has long faced unresolved charges by international human rights bodies of torture, extrajudicial killings, creation of mass graves, persecution of religious minorities, and other atrocities. Tales of genocide survivors are common among the Sikh diaspora, which includes thousands who claim refugee status. And now the arrest of so many influential Sikhs at the conclusion of the convention is incensing Sikhs outside India.

“I’m really sorry to see a journalist also arrested for reporting on our Sarbat Khalsa,” says Dhillon. “The Indian government is so desperate to keep control over the management of the Sikh religion. The government in Punjab is politicizing our faith. So they arrested all the top Sikh leaders for nothing but to interfere in the operations of our religious institutions. There’s no religious freedom in India, none at all, not like the United States.”

According to Jago Punjabi, the arrests were planned at a Nov. 10 meeting hosted by Punjab’s Chief Minister, Parkash Badal, with key cabinet ministers and the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the managerial body for the Sikhs set up by the British Empire under its colonial “Gurdwara Act of 1925”), all of whom consulted with Punjab’s Advocate-General, Ashok Aggarwal, and senior police officers about the legality of preventatively detaining Mann and other Sikh leaders.

“The world should not stand by silently as peaceful Sikhs are being arrested, tortured, and killed in Punjab for protesting government interference in their religion,” concludes Bhajan.

He adds, “Congress, especially, has a duty to keep a protective eye out for the many Sikh-Americans who are returning from the Sarbat Khalsa. And as a patron of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, I call on those representatives to talk about issues like this which so deeply concern the global Sikh community. Religious freedom in India is on the brink of a cliff not just for Sikhs, but for all the country’s religious minorities, who are at risk of a terrifying amount of violence from the State and its associates.”

Harjit Sajjan

Canada Appoints First Sikh Defence Minister While Winding Down Middle-East Combat

“We hope Minister Sajjan’s appointment coincides with a non-interventionist foreign policy,” says Bhajan Singh

Harjit Sajjan

Ottawa, Canada: Nov. 5, 2015 — After Canada’s Liberal Party rode to victory, newly-minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed Sikh veteran Harjit Singh Sajjan as Defence Minister, making him the only Sikh in the world to hold such a position.

“We congratulate Harjit Singh Sajjan for this historic achievement,” comments Bhajan Singh of Sikh Information Centre (SIC). “As his selection came days after Sikhs worldwide commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Indian State’s genocide against our people, we are reminded of how important it is for a nation’s security forces to understand how to operate in a defensive rather than offensive capacity. So we hope Minister Sajjan’s appointment coincides with a non-interventionist foreign policy and gladly welcome his cooperation with Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to winding down Canadian involvement in foreign wars in the Middle-East.”

Sajjan, a decorated Lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, has served abroad four times — once in Bosnia and thrice in Afghanistan — and previously made history in 2011 as the first Sikh to command a Canadian Army regiment. Elected to parliament as a representative for Vancouver South, he previously worked for 11 years as a Vancouver Police Department detective. His Nov. 4 appointment as Minister of National Defence comes after the Liberal Party, upon coming to power, pledged to end Canada’s bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria; last year, their predecessors ended the country’s participation in the Afghanistan War.

“He should concentrate on policy,” remarked retired Brigadier-general Dave Fraser, who tasked Sajjan in 2006 to serve as an intelligence liaison to Afghani politicians. Speaking on behalf of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, an NGO that promotes informed public debate and discourse on national security and defence issues, retired Colonel George Petrolekas suggested Sajjan should have a “serious conversation” with United States officials about whether or not Canadian troops should play a role in training militants in Middle-Eastern hotspots.

Harjit Singh Sajjan takes his oath of office as Minister of National Defence.

Harjit Singh Sajjan takes his oath of office as Minister of National Defence.

“With his record of diplomacy, negotiation, and intelligence-gathering, Minister Sajjan seems well-suited to guiding Canada’s foreign policy away from expensive and perpetual military intervention,” says SIC Executive Director Pieter Friedrich. “Before him stands the opportunity to play a momentous part in the future of a thriving Canada by steering the country towards a foreign policy of freedom that embraces peace, commerce, and honest friendship as its most effective tools. We saw just last month the tragedy that can result from military intervention abroad when 30 civilians died after the U.S. bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and in light of that, we hope that Sajjan will draw on the history of his Sikh people to see the higher road.”

Sajjan joins a total of four Sikhs appointed to cabinet positions, including Navdeep Singh Bains (Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development), Amarjeet Singh Sohi (Minister of Infrastructure and Communities), and Bardish Chagger (Minister of Small Business and Tourism). Chagger is the first Sikh woman ever appointed to the Canadian cabinet. Sohi, meanwhile, personally tasted state-sponsored violence against Sikhs. Born in India, he began organizing peaceful protests there in the 1980s to agitate for rural land reform. Arrested for his efforts, the Edmonton Journal reports: “He spent two years in prison, without charge, the victim of torture, malnutrition and solitary confinement, before he was eventually exonerated by a CSIS investigation and an Indian court.”

satwinder singh bhola

Political Motivation Contemplated in Slaying of Chicago Sikh

Son-in-law of hunger-striking Surat Singh Khalsa stabbed to death

Peoria, IL, USA: August 19, 2015 — Family of Satwinder Singh Bhola (53), who was found stabbed to death in the parking lot of his Peoria, Illinois apartment complex shortly after midnight on Monday, are questioning whether his murder could be related to his father-in-law’s internationally-recognized hunger-strike protest in India.

satwinder singh bholaBhola was the son-in-law of Surat Singh Khalsa (83), a U.S. permanent resident who has been on hunger-strike in Punjab, India since January 16 to demand release of Sikh political prisoners. His wife, Sarvarinder Kaur, just returned to her home in Illinois on August 5 after spending several months in Punjab ministering to Khalsa and serving as his spokesperson. As of Monday, Khalsa’s official Facebook page states: “This is believed to be an act of Indian agencies to force Bapu Surat Singh to give up his peaceful hunger-strike.”

“Satwinder Singh was closer to me than my own son,” says Khalsa about the murder, “but closer still are those Sikhs languishing in prisons. This incident will not affect my resolve or determination for the cause to free Sikh political prisoners.”

Police have yet to identify any suspects, but robbery did not appear to be a factor as the local newspaper reported that Bhola, a convenience store owner who was returning from work, “had more than $2,000 cash in his pocket and other financial items like a blank check that were not taken during the deadly encounter.” He suffered multiple stab wounds, including one to the neck which appeared to be the fatal blow, perhaps implying the attacker’s intent was to kill.

Sikh community leader Bhajan Singh remarks, “My heart is filled with sorrow at this bizarre and bizarrely timed tragedy.” Singh, founder of US-based NGO Sikh Information Centre, urges Peoria police to investigate every possible angle of the case, including potential international dimensions. “While Khalsa’s son-in-law was murdered here in the U.S., his son, Ravinderjit, has personally communicated to me that he is receiving death threats while at his father’s side in India,” says Singh.

He continues: “Surat Singh Khalsa’s protest movement has sustained irreparable damage after the brutal murder of his son-in-law, Satwinder. The culprit, whoever it is, must be apprehended, but his killing appears to possess the fingerprints of agents provocateurs. Such is well within the realm of possibility as the Indian State has notoriously orchestrated false flags, bombings, and assassinations of dissenters. Absolutely the only people that benefit, and greatly so, are the Punjabi and Indian governments who have been deeply embarrassed by the international attention paid to Bapuji’s hunger-strike.”

The ruling party of Punjab, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal), has faced strong criticism from Khalsa and his family for reacting to his peaceful protest by repeatedly arresting the 83-year-old man. His son, Ravinderjit Singh, a U.S. citizen from Northern California, was also arrested, held without trial for nearly two months, and beaten in custody. Their treatment prompted nine U.S. congressional representatives to request Secretary of State John Kerry’s intervention.

In June, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (San Jose) even delivered formal remarks to the House of Representatives, asking her colleagues to “honor the struggle of many political prisoners in India today, including Mr. Surat Singh Khalsa.”

Meanwhile, the SAD party was recently protested during a public relations tour of North America; in New York City, for instance, Punjab’s Minister of Non-Resident Indian (NRI) Affairs Tota Singh was struck by a shoe derisively hurled by an angry Punjabi-American.

Meanwhile, Indian diaspora have cheered legislators in Canada and the United Kingdom for joining U.S. Congress in speaking out about Khalsa. A UK Parliament motion backed by 21 MPs “calls for the release of multiple political prisoners who are held by the Indian state.” Last month, Canada’s NDP and Liberal parties both issued statements praising Khalsa. Calling him a “peaceful protester,” the NDP’s July 24 statement noted that “the Punjabi-Canadian community has expressed concern abut the situation of political prisoners in India” and asks the Foreign Affairs Minister to “raise these cases with the government of India.”

“I grieve for Bapuji’s daughter, Bhanji Sarvarinder Kaur, and the incredible pain she and her entire family must be feeling right now,” says Fr. Joshua Lickter, an Anglican priest who has spent the past few months advocating for Khalsa in California. “I pray that she and her family would be comforted in their time of sorrow and that whomever is responsible for this horrific act would be apprehended and brought to justice.” Expressing suspicion over the motive behind Satwinder’s killing, he notes: “The details surrounding his murder strongly suggest a connection between his death and his family’s peaceful protests against the Indian government.”

Satwinder Singh Bhola leaves behind his wife, Sarvarinder, and three children. Like his father-in-law, Bhola came to the United States as a refugee from political and religious persecution in India.