As Vice President Joe Biden visits India this week, I was reminded of President Barack Obama’s visit to India in late 2010, in which he avoided visiting the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, Punjab, a site which reportedly draws up to a hundred thousand of visitors per day, not including Presidents of the United States. For a well-known location which has such appeal to Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike and to residents of and visitors to India, it was noteworthy that the President bypassed a visit to Amritsar. It would seem, to much less fanfare, that the Vice President will follow in the President’s footsteps. However, that the Vice President is not likely to visit Amritsar does also bring several additional issues to a rhetorical full circle.
One of the discussions during the earliest days of this blog in November, 2010, was of President Barack Obama’s trip to India at the time, when Sikhs around the world became excited about the potential of a visit by a US President to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar and the Darbar Sahib (also known as Harmandir Sahib, or commonly as the Golden Temple). However, the visit did not come to pass. At the time, the prevailing theory (unverified as it was) circulated about this decision was that it was not optically beneficial for the President to be seen among crowds of turban-wearing men or scarf-covered women because it would evoke accusations that the President was a Muslim. The President’s avoidance of what is the most sacred — and, most visited — site of the Sikh faith was particularly glaring as it is not uncommon for world leaders to visit Darbar Sahib, if even for a photo-op. It is not even uncommon for Americans to visit Darbar Sahib, even as early as the mid-nineteenth century. As such, when the President declined to visit with no explanation, the Sikh community in India, the United States, and around the world, expressed feelings of being slighted.
Certainly, the Sikh community should not need the sense of validation that a token visit to Amritsar by a world leader might provide, but such a visit does offer benefits to Sikhs, and particularly to Sikh Americans who are still combating stereotypes and ignorance among the broader American public about the Sikh identity. That the President might make a visit to the center of the Sikh faith would offer a media opportunity that is rarely available to Sikhs outside of major tragedy. It should be noted, however, that even during major tragedy, such as last August’s mass shooting of Sikh worshipers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which six Sikhs were killed, the President untypically did not even visit the site of the shooting — a Sikh house of worship — or even the city. To forgo a visit to the site of such tragedy was not typical for him after such events (though the First Lady would visit some time after the shooting), and despite the President’s otherwise unprecedented support of the Sikh community, a line seems to be drawn where Sikh places of worship are concerned.
In the context of the above, the Vice President’s current travel to India has not come with the same expectation of a visit to Amritsar. Perhaps, the Sikh community has learned from past experience that there is little appetite by American leaders to visit the central Sikh shrine in Punjab. And, indeed, given the current news cycle that includes political scandals in New York or the birth of a son to the royal family in the United Kingdom, Joe Biden’s visit to India has flown well under the radar (just try to find a headline about the trip on CNN’s website), but it is certainly noteworthy.
While the trip seems to be focused on strengthening ties between the United States and India (especially economic ties), the Bidens have taken the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal and nearby impoverished communities, and in Delhi, the Gandhi National Museum to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, a location which is not ten miles from one of the sites of grossest carnage during the anti-Sikh pogrom in late 1984. It was this same pogrom (and incidents against other religious communities in India) that has been explicitly discussed by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), most recently in their 2013 Annual Report. The USCIRF has placed India on its watch list since 2009.
Justice for past incidents of sectarian violence targeting Muslim, Christians and Sikhs has not been achieved fully. — United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2013.
While members of state agencies and the ruling Congress Party were complicit or even involved in organizing these atrocities, they and most perpetrators have continued to live with impunity while the victims of the massacre in 1984 have been marginalized. Unlike in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, there is no opportunity for a foreign dignitary to lay a wreath in tribute to the thousands of victims who were slaughtered in just days, because no memorial has (yet) been constructed — largely due to the resistance by India’s ruling class to see this massacre and its victims acknowledged.
It is unclear and perhaps with reasonable doubt about whether the Vice President will take up the matter cited by the USCIRF of the 1984 pogroms, its survivors, and the impunity conferred onto the perpetrators, with the Government of India. Accordingly, one wonders if a visit to the Sikh heartland in Punjab has the potential to be an inconvenient reminder of the atrocities perpetrated on the Sikh people that have yet to be accounted for and reconciled. It certainly appears that we will not find out on this trip.
Punjab offers another inconvenient reminder as it pertains to India-US ties. The growing epidemic of drug addiction in Punjab has reached critical status, wherein even Amritsar, located near the Indian-Pakistan border, has become an epicenter.
…it was the rise over the past two decades of the Golden Crescent region — which became the world’s main poppy-growing and heroin-producing center and encompasses Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran — that turned Punjab into a major transit route for the drug. — Washington Post, January 1, 2013.
Much of the heroine that has infiltrated into Punjab has originated in Afghanistan, where the decade of war has given rise to an explosion of heroine production that not been curbed. The plague in Punjab has significant internal causal factors as well, and often state officials have been implicated in facilitating and profiting from the drug trade. Still, one might imagine that state of the narcotics trade in Punjab would be an undesirable reminder for an American leader of the legacy of the war in Afghanistan, and the (at minimum) complacency of state and central governments in India to effectively intervene.
Of course, especially given the lack of coverage or perceived American interest in the Vice President’s visit to India, Sikh Americans will again receive no acknowledgement from their traveling executive, and the issues of impunity for the atrocities perpetrated decades ago, and of the current state of Punjab’s population today, will remain in the shadows.