LONDON—The Sikh Lives Matter movement held a large protest here today in front of the Indian Embassy, which numbered in the thousands. The initial protest was peaceful—with Sikhs demanding human rights and justice in India—but according to most witnesses, due to heavy handed police tactics, it turned violent. The protests come after numerous Sikhs have been detained, beaten, tortured and killed by police and paramilitary forces in the Indian state of Punjab.
London Metropolitan Police had advance notice of the protest and were aware of the issues.
When the protesters started arriving outside the Indian Consulate office, there were no barriers placed by the police. As the protesters started coming in, they sat down in front of the embassy. The organizers had planned to keep the protest as a “sit-down”, similar to the ones taking place in India where protesters sit down peacefully for hours on major roads and highways while meditating and praying. Due to the lack of road barriers which are usually installed by the police beforehand, a large flow of protesters ended up right in front of the embassy. Police seemed intimidated as they were not prepared to handle such a large group of protesters.
Eye-witnesses report that police began to surround and close in on the protesters, including families. They moved in with exaggerated force, including riot police, batons and 8-10 horse mounted officers. Even after these horses marched into crowds of women and children, Sikhs remained largely peaceful, but pushed the police lines back.
At this point, say numerous sources, officers snatched the venerated Sikh flags, known as Nishan Sahibs and broke them. The Nishan Sahib is a triangular flag, usually made of orange coloured cotton or silk cloth. The word Nishan means symbol or emblem. It is considered to be the emblem of the Sikh peoples and also serves as a spiritual marker of Sikh identity and philosophy. The Nishan Sahib is so ingrained in the Sikh religion that it is remembered every day in the Sikh prayers.
Police officers were seen throwing broken Nishan Sahibs on the ground, which is a huge sign of disrespect. Our eye witnesses, as most Sikhs would be, were shocked and appalled at this lack of respect for Sikh sentiments and heavy handed attitude.
Mr. Jasveer Singh Gill of the Sikh Press Association said, “Some protesters were walking into the road where they were not supposed to be, but it is unfortunate that the police decided to respond to that with a lot of aggression…I saw with my own eyes, the Nishan Sahib…being snatched from one person and broken by a police officer. There is no need for that.”
As aggressive officers forced their way in, they were trampling on sitting protesters, which further aggravated the situation. Many were fearful of injury from the horses and riot gear. Despite commitments and orders from Chief Inspector Nick Collins that no officer would attempt to remove Sikh Articles of faith, Sikh turbans and Kirpans were forcibly removed by police offices without provocation.
At this point community leaders called to the police to allow women and children to leave the penned in area, but the police did not allow this until approximately two hours later. Mr Gill, “Women and children were being shoved…I understand the police have a job to do, but these are provocative actions.”
Reports also say that three young teenage girls and boys were pinned against a bus by up to fifteen officers and were treated without dignity. These youngsters had their Kirpans removed where there was no need, after all groups had been dispersed.
The Chief inspector Nick Collins failed to note two serious complaints of police aggression, assault and denial of human rights, even after witnessing these himself.
The police were prepared to allow the situation to escalate and arrest more people without any consideration to Sikh religious sentiments.
Murtaza Ali Shah of Geo news tweeted “Police overreacts at the #SikhLivesMatter demonstration. Thousands protesting against bias in India, want justice”
UPDATE 10PM GMT: Sikh24 reached out to the Met Police and confirmed that twenty protesters were arrested, but are unable to confirm how many were released. When asked further questions, the police said, “We are unwilling to comment any further at this point beyond what is on our website.”