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India Denies Interfering in US Sikh Caucus, Contradicts Indian Press

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Thursday, June 06, 2013 | 12:13 pm

Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao, speaking at The Photographic Exhibition by Sondeep Shankar on Sikh Heritage of India at The Gandhi Memorial Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on May 18, which was co-sponsored by the Indian Embassy.

Photo Source: Sikh News Network

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.



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