About two months ago, I observed the continuing engagement by representatives of the Indian government with the Sikh American community, which in that instance took the form of an exhibition on Sikh heritage in Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by the Government of India. This exhibit has just recently been presented in Washington, D.C., as well, and it is consistent with increased engagement and activity related to the Sikh American community — be it directly, or through lobbying of US officials — by representatives of India. The increasing effort by Indian officials to promote the Sikh community in the United States is problematic, however, as it runs contrary to India’s track record with the Sikhs in its own borders over the past several decades.
Whether in the aftermath of a hate crime (such as in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or recently in Fresno, California), or in what appears a deliberate attempt to brand the Sikh identity with Indian nationalism, representatives of the Indian government are insisting that they be the custodians of the Sikh community in the United States.
To an observer unaware of context, there would seem nothing out of the ordinary with such engagement by representatives of the Government of India. Historically, Sikhs originated in the Punjab area of what is now Pakistan and India, and since the Partition of British India in 1947 to create those countries, the majority of the world’s Sikh population resides in India. Many Sikh Americans have strong ties to Punjab on both religious and personal bases. And, certainly, as India’s Ambassador to the United States recently wrote to me on Twitter, there is a role for the Embassy in protecting the interests of Indian nationals — presumably, this includes Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and others — in the United States. (It must be remembered, of course, that many Sikhs and others have no proximate ethnic or familial ties to India — having adopted Sikhism later in life or having been born and brought up in the United States, in some cases for several generations.)
It is not difficult to see where this expression of solidarity with Sikh Americans is problematic, and where this role presents a conflict for India’s representatives.
When India’s representatives in the United States are hosting “Sikh heritage” exhibitions to promote the Sikh people as “the shield of India,” or insisting on their place in addressing Sikh American civil rights issues such as hate crimes and discrimination, this activity is in stark contrast with the Indian Government’s own well-documented participation and lack of responsibility around the severest of human rights abuses of Indian nationals within its own borders. Specifically, in but one example, India has itself failed to adequately address the horror of the anti-Sikh pogroms in November, 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were butchered, burned alive and raped in the streets of Delhi in just three days by organized and unfettered mobs. From complacency to active participation, government officials and police agencies have long been implicated, and various human rights organizations (such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International) have lamented both India’s refusal to administer justice for the surviving victims and its protecting of government officials who were responsible. In fact, even the US Council for International Religious Freedom continues to track India for its failure to administer justice for these abuses towards its religious communities. Recently, the White House itself asserted its condemnation of the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984.
In this disconnect between the stances taken related to the Sikhs in India versus the Sikhs in the United States, the recent public relations effort appears as little more than a propaganda campaign to maintain a colonial ownership over the Sikh American community — one that is slowly increasing in prominence and organization. It is difficult to see these efforts as more. There is nary a mention by Indian officials in the United States of the more recent history of suffering of the Sikhs during 1984 and beyond, nor is there any concern shown for the obfuscation of justice in India towards Sikh and other communities that still continues today. For India’s representatives in the United States to “promote Sikh heritage” on one hand, and deny recent and painful Sikh history on the other (and attempt to deflect attention by defaming anyone who nonviolently raises concern about human rights as a terrorist or extremist), is certainly a scenario that begs many questions.
If representatives of the Indian government wish to present themselves as allies of the Sikh American community, they must start by first becoming so for the Sikhs in India. Until justice for large-scale and decades-old human rights abuses exacted by complicit governments, agencies and officials towards Sikhs in India is achieved, it is difficult to accept with any legitimacy the overtures made towards the Sikh community in the United States.
[Cross-posted on The Langar Hall]