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Sikh group in UK moots 'independence referendum': Upcoming rally in London should worry India

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 8:33am, 11 August, 2018


This weekend, all eyes and ears in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs will be on a rally happening 4,000 miles away, in the heart of London. Various Sikh groups, both UK-based and global, are congregating at Trafalgar Square on Sunday to kickstart the campaign to petition the United Nations (UN) and demand the right to self-determination for an independent Punjab.

The ‘London Declaration on Punjab Independence Referendum 2020’ as the organisers call Sunday’s rally, will seek to bring out the declaration that will then be presented to the UN and 'its member countries to let them know that the independent state of Punjab that once existed seeks to be re-established', according to Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the legal advisor to the organisers, a group called Sikhs For Justice.

While this is not the first such event held by diaspora Sikh groups, it might be a crucial one since it seeks to lay the foundation for a 'non-binding' referendum to be conducted in 2020 among Sikhs across the world about carving out an independent Punjab from India.

Sikhs For Justice, the New York-based advocacy group, says that the event is likely to draw thousands of Sikhs from all over the world. News reports have even quoted the organisers to be offering ‘sponsorships’ to Sikhs in order to attend this rally.


The rally follows an intense strategy of mobilising support through social media and ground activities, especially in areas of Britain where Sikhs reside in large numbers. The rally has drawn the ire of the Indian government, which has called it a 'separatist activity, which impinges on India’s territorial integrity.'

A protest organised by Sikhs for Justice. File image. Reuters

However, it isn’t Indian authorities alone who are being critical of Sunday’s rally. Even Sikh Khalistani groups have raised doubts about the rally and the credibility of the organisers, distancing themselves from the campaign. In fact, Dal Khalsa and the Shiromani Akali Dal Amritsar (Mann), both pro-Khalistani groups based out of India, have refused to support the referendum and instead, have asked searing questions of the campaign and its effectiveness. On social media, many, including Sikhs, are critical of the campaign with many quarters even alleging that the rally and the referendum campaign have been backed by foreign agencies to stoke tensions between the Indian State and the Sikh community.

Trees, not the woods

Irrespective of the outcome of Sunday’s rally and the questions that surround it, a closer look at the Sikh diaspora within the UK would reveal that dismissing the mobilisation around the campaign might be missing the trees for the woods.

It is crucial to understand the larger context which surrounds relations between the Sikh diaspora and the Indian State, in the UK, one of deep antagonism, historical hurt and mistrust. Over the last two years, some sections of the Sikh diaspora in the UK have intensified their demand that Sikhs no longer be identified as ‘Indians’ in the UK Census surveys. Instead, they have demanded that there be a separate ‘Sikh’ ethnic category in the UK Census to facilitate this. The influence that these groups and the campaign exert can be gauged from the fact that nearly 140 British Members of Parliament (MP) backed this demand in a letter to UK’s Office for National Statistics, in charge of conducting the Census in September last year. This came after it was revealed that nearly 83,000-odd Sikhs had refused to be identified in the UK Census of 2011 with any of the existing categories and had, instead, marked themselves in the ‘Other’ category to be ‘Sikhs’. The opinion over this demand, though, is mixed since the British Sikh Report, 2018, an annual report on the Sikh community in the UK, in a survey said that an overwhelming majority-87 per cent-of British Sikhs continue to identify themselves as ‘Indian’.

This notwithstanding, the campaign seems to have achieved what it set out to — news reports last month have said that ONS is said to be seriously considering listing ‘Sikhism’ as a separate ethnic category.

While Sikh groups insist that a separate category is needed to ensure better policy-making towards the Sikh community, others are much more sceptical. “This demand is very much driven by some groups wanting to distance themselves from India. They have admitted it themselves,” says Sunny Hundal, journalist and editor of Barfi Culture news magazine, which reports on South Asians in Europe and North America. He believes that such a move will negatively impact the Sikhs living in Britain, an effect that the campaign does not seem to have considered.

Even as this campaign was playing out, in November last year, a British Sikh, Jagtar Singh Johal, was arrested in Jalandhar under the country’s anti-terror laws on charges of being involved with a series of killings, including that of an RSS leader. Soon after, 225 of the 270-odd Sikh gurudwaras announced a ‘ban’ on the entry of Indian officials into these gurudwaras. This became a larger global campaign through Sikh groups in the UK and North America, which followed suit and announced similar restrictions for Indian diplomats. The arrest was greeted with mass protests and outrage in the Sikh diaspora in the UK, with organisations pressuring the British government to take this up with the Indian government.

2017 report quotes a survey which had found that many of the Sikhs who came to the UK as asylum seekers in the 1990s from Punjab had claimed that they had been incarcerated or tortured by the Indian police.

Little wonder, then, that the circumstances of Johal’s arrest spooked many in the Sikh diaspora — he was in India to get married and was arrested weeks after he got married. For many in the diaspora, Johal’s incarceration is a reminder of the persecution that Sikhs faced in the 1980s, especially in 1984 around Operation Blue Star and the Sikh genocide following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which saw over 3,000 Sikhs, mostly men, killed by rampaging mobs.


A protest by British Sikhs seeking justice for the 1984 riots. File image. Reuters

Not just in the present

“One of the biggest factors fuelling a lot of activism in the diaspora is the lack of closure towards what happened in those years. The Indian government has not done enough to try and achieve that closure and that has been a big grievance in the community,” says Dr Gurnam Singh, Principal Lecturer in Social Work at UK’s Coventry University, pointing to the incarceration of political prisoners like Balwant Singh Rajoana, whose execution for the assassination of former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh was stayed by the Centre in 2012.

This is precisely the nature of arguments put forth by Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) in mobilising support for Sunday’s rally. “There was deliberate genocidal violence against the Sikh community in 1984 but the community has suffered after that as well. The community continues to be labelled as terrorists in India and Sikhs continue to live in fear there,” Pannun of SFJ says. To buttress his point, he points to a recent cross-country research conducted by Lokniti along with Common Cause, an NGO, which showed that the fear of the police is the highest in Punjab and, among religions, was the most in Sikhs.

In fact, a report from November 2017 titled ‘The Idea, Context, Framing and Realities of ‘Sikh Radicalisation’ in Britain" by Dr Jasjit Singh from University of Leeds, points to how, till 1984, the Sikh community in the UK would generally support India. But 1984, the report notes, changed that.

As a result, a recent UK court judgement asking the British government to de-classify papers related to correspondence with India over Operation Blue Star kicked off a huge political row when it revealed that the then British government had attempted to ban protests by Sikh groups in 1984, after the genocide, in order to appease the Indian government.

And the present

These factors are made potent by the gradual rise of extremism within the Sikh community, especially in sections of younger generations of Sikhs who live in the UK. In fact, much of the Khalistani movement is being spearheaded by younger Sikhs, many of whom were born in the UK and after 1984. What is driving them, then?

Dr Singh from Coventry University believes that a sense of rootless-ness might be driving them to this fiercely protective stance towards their religion. “There is a sense of religious revivalism in the third generation Sikhs here, in the UK. For many, it is about finding their roots in a globalised world and hence, they are attracted to their religion and towards fighting historical injustice.” Such extremism is seen in different aspects of the community’s existence in the UK. For instance, Sikh groups led by youngsters have repeatedly disrupted inter-faith marriages happening inside Sikh gurudwaras and have even attacked Sikh families for inter-faith marriages. So much so, that a report in The Guardian noted how families were hiring guards during inter-faith marriages.

More recently, the extremism has emerged through the Islamophobia that has emerged in some sections of the community, around the issue of the sexual abuse of Sikh children. The report by Dr Singh from Leeds talks about how the narrative around Sikh girls being abused by Muslim men has become a key factor in some instances of tension between Muslim and Sikh communities in the UK. This has, however, had a rather extreme side-effect, where some Sikh groups in the UK have aligned themselves with the far-right English Defence League, a hardline group which stokes Islamophobia and claims to be a ‘counter-jihad’ movement.

However, observers like Hundal from Barfi Culture, says that such groups represent a very small section of the Sikh community. “A very small number of British Sikh groups have aligned themselves with the EDL in the past, but many Sikhs have also criticised them for it. What it shows is that some people are willing to make a deal with the devil because they are consumed by hatred,” adding that this was not specific to the Sikh community.


The India-UK factor

All this has meant that the India-UK relationship, however, has been on a downward spiral in recent times. Sunday’s rally has proved to be the latest flashpoint in this, with the Indian government sending repeated requests to the UK government to not permit the rally as it was ‘secessionist’ in nature. However, the UK government has refused to entertain these requests, saying that people in the UK had 'the right to protest.'

This comes just weeks after news reports that the Indian government rejected a request by the British authorities for extending leniency to Johal, the British national arrested in Jalandhar.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Kingdom was also shrouded in controversy after it emerged that India had refused to accept the UK government’s push for signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreeing to take back undocumented Indian immigrants in the UK. News reports had attributed India’s stance to the UK government’s refusal to grant Indians easier access to British visas. In addition, the UK government had omitted India from a list of 25 countries from which student visa applications would be granted easily, like China, Bahrain and Serbia among others, a move that will not go down well with the Indian government.

The UK government, too, finds itself in a predicament especially when it comes to contentious issues like those about the Sikh diaspora, which, though, not as big as the non-Sikh Indian diaspora, remains a vocal and active diasporic group in the UK.

Many, like Hundal, believe that the way the Indian State must deal with this is by setting its own house in order. Agreeing that a section of the Sikh community is increasingly turning ‘anti-India’, he explains, “Part of this is driven by events in India itself (the rise of Hindutva, arrests of Sikh nationalists without evidence) and partly because second/third generation Sikhs brought up abroad have little cultural connection to India.”

Dr Singh, from Coventry University, believes that the Indian State cannot keep pushing the Sikh diaspora away by using the rhetoric of terming these rallies and movements as ‘ISI-created’.  Hundal,too, believes that the government must do more. “Unless the Indian establishment makes more of an attempt to understand, reconcile with and talk to Sikhs, this divide will get worse."

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