Cry for Khalistan in Connecticut
NEW YORK – After almost two decades of calls for Khalistan being discredited as a terrorist-and-separatist-oriented movement by India lobbyists and diplomats on Capitol Hill, and rejected by lawmakers around the United States, momentum is again building for the cause at the behest of some Sikh groups, in the Tristate area.
The state of Connecticut allegedly marked the month of June as ‘Sikh Memorial Month’, and a town in the state, Norwich, inaugurated on June 1, 2019, a ‘1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial’ and unveiled a portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom the Indian government designated as a terrorist.
Bhindranwale, an extremist leader of the Sikh organization Damdami Taksal, was killed by India’s armed forces, in Operation Blue Star, within the confines of the Golden Temple complex, in 1984.
Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, President of Sikh Sewak Society International USA, based in Norwich, CT, in a press release, communicated that members of the Sikh community, along with some city and state officials unveiled America’s first “1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial”, at Otis Library, located in the town.
The memorial marks a series of attacks on thousands of Sikhs in Delhi, following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
According to the release, the memorial also had a plaque to condemn Indian Army’s flushing out of terrorists from the Golden Temple, in June 1984.
A portrait of Bhindrawale was placed on top of the memorial plaque in Norwich, “to honor all Sikh soldiers, who fought to protect Sikh places of worship and save rights of Sikh Homeland Punjab and people of Punjab”.
A section of the plaque also has these words: “May ‘Chardi Kaleh” (everlasting optimism) reverberate through us, as we stand against hatred, ignorance and intolerance”.
“Our motive is to bring to light the right narrative which has been suppressed for many years, and also to educate fellow Americans on what happened to Sikhs in 1984, and why Sikhs decided to choose America as their home,” said Khalsa, in a statement, in the release.
According to the release, Connecticut State Comptroller Kevin Lembo sent a citation to show his support for the ‘Sikh Nation’. Also, Congressman Joe Courtney sent his “warm wishes to Sikh community in recognition for 1984 Sikh Genocide Memorial by City of Norwich”.
The Sikh group also released a proposed flag of Punjab, which was installed in downtown Norwich to recognize “Sikh Homeland Punjab”.
The local newspaper Norwich Bulletin in a report quoted Khalsa as saying that the group’s plea was first heard five years ago in the town.
Bob Farwell, executive director of Otis Library, said members of the Norwich City Council approached library officials about placement of the memorial. Otis Library has sponsored some displays in its atrium cases on the Sikh community.
Khalsa also claimed that Gov. Ned Lamont declared the month of June as “Sikh Memorial Month”, in Connecticut. He claimed the Connecticut General Assembly also passed a resolution to declare June 1st as “Sikh Memorial Day” and the month of June as “Sikh Memorial Month”.
Call to the governor’s office to verify this, and for his comments, were not returned, as of going to press.
If Lamont did back the wishes of the Sikh group and mooted the idea of a separatist state in India, it would be a startling, strange and awkward decision, as he, like his predecessor, Dannel Malloy, has wooed India-oriented multinationals to set up business in the cash-strapped state.
The Bengaluru-headquartered IT services giant Infosys were impressed by those overtures and opened a new technology and innovation hub in the state capital, Hartford, in December, 2018, with a promise to hire at least 1,000 American workers. A new Forbes report out this week recognizes Infosys as one of the best companies to work for in the state, ranked 34th, ahead of Aetna, and the Fairfield Public Schools.
The Mayor of Norwich, Peter Nystrom, also read the proclamation issued by the Sikh group, and declared June 1st as “Sikh Memorial Day” and the month of June as “Sikh Memorial Month”.
In a phone interview to News India Times, Nystrom defended his decision to go ahead with the memorial and plaque and portrait unveiling, terming it as a “worthy acknowledgment.”
Asked why he would take a call to back a section of people from India, which would be offensive to even some other others members of the Sikh community, apart from Indians from other parts of India, Nystrom said he had not met other Indians, apart from the Sikh community, in Norwich.
“It is more than just my acknowledgment,” said Nystrom, of the decision to go ahead with the memorial. “The state of Connecticut has also acknowledged it. The Governor of Connecticut, Ned Lamont, has issued a proclamation too.”
What is evident is that lobbying by some Sikh groups’ grievance of action that took place in India in 1984, is also being cleverly manipulated and interwoven into the narrative of a separatist movement, which a majority of the Sikh community condemns and is not in favor of.
Some prominent community leaders, speaking to News India Times, on the condition of anonymity, as they did not want their names dragged into the issue, said that the movement for Khalistan has been alive in the US since the 1990s, by some vested interest groups, and there is no difference now, except that propaganda through social media has increased; there is more visibility for some groups.
“Consequently, these Sikh groups have gained some sympathizers, who may not be fully aware of the stand taken by the Indian government on the issues they back,” said one source.
Another Sikh group in the Tristate area lobbying for ‘self-determination’ for Sikhs is Sikhs for Justice, headed by a New York-based attorney, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
A media relations firm hired by Pannun sent out a notice for a rally by the group in Washington, DC, June 6, to demand ‘justice’ for “84′ Sikh Genocide”. Patrick Meehan, the former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, and a former chair of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, was to deliver remarks at the event.
An email from News India Times, to the firm, asking for details of the event, did not get a response back.
According to a source, the so-called rally in Washington, DC, which was also to mark the 35th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, did not get much support from the Sikh community.
Call to the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, and the Indian Consulate, in New York, were not returned, as of press time.
The Khalistan movement flickered on Capitol Hill in the nineties, with the backing of several lawmakers in Congress, especially the then Republican Congressman from Indiana Dan Burton.
The Hill newspaper put out an expose, in 2002, which detailed how the movement led by Gurmit Singh Aulakh, the self-styled president of the Council of Khalistan, had printed pro-Khalistani letters on Congressional letterheads, and then obtained signatures of US legislators under false pretenses. That expose debilitated the movement, and made its backers pariah on Capitol Hill.
The Telegraph newspaper had reported the then India’s Ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh, had written a letter to Burton, saying: “The so-called ‘Council of Khalistan’ does not have any following within the state of Punjab or anywhere else in India. It is an organisation of self-serving people who are misusing US hospitality to indulge in false and baseless propaganda against a friendly country”.
Earlier, the Hill had also reported how Burton, and other members of Congress, who championed the cause of Khalistan received campaign contributions from the Council of Khalistan. The report said the Council funneled at least $65,000 to the Republican Party and several congressional candidates, including Burton, in an apparent violation of federal tax laws because the money was collected by a charitable non-profit group.
The Hill also revealed then, according to a report in Rediff.com, that Burton, at the behest of the Council, urged the State Department to revise the extradition treaty with India, which would have the effect of making it more difficult to extradite to India terrorists arrested in the US.
The report said Aulakh’s 10 co-founders, many of whom were since killed in clashes with the Indian police, represented some of India’s most notorious terrorist groups. They have been blamed for killing of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, and helped foment widespread violence by police and Sikh militants that led to more than 100,000 deaths in India.
A source News India Times spoke to, suggested that a revival of the Khalistan movement is also to help political asylum in the US, by Sikh immigrants.
A Reuters report last year said a large number of Indian illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico, were claimants for political asylum, especially Sikhs. Data for the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2018, showed “around 9,000” Indian nationals had been apprehended versus 3,162 in fiscal year 2017.
Some 42.2 percent of Indian asylum cases were denied between fiscal years 2012 to 2017, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. That compares with denial rates of 79 percent for El Salvadorans and 78 percent for Hondurans.