International Sikh community demands release of all, warning the Indian government wants control over their religion
AMRITSAR, Punjab—The preventative detention on November 11 of several key Sikh leaders by Indian police at the conclusion of a global convocation of Sikhs called “Sarbat Khalsa” is a cause for concern among some who see it as an indication of government interference in their religious affairs that they fear may result in the torture of those arrested.
“As an American citizen traveling to Punjab in the 1990s, I was arrested, jailed, and tortured for three months by Indian police,” remarks Balbir Singh Dhillon, president of California’s influential West Sacramento Gurdwara. “Held without charges, it took 50 representatives from U.S. Congress speaking out to get my release. My prayers are with our recently arrested Sikh leaders, especially after my firsthand experience with the horrors of Indian police custody.”
Those arrested in Amritsar and surrounding areas of Punjab include Simranjit Singh Mann (president of political party Shiromani Akali Dal – Amritsar), Mokham Singh (president of political party United Akali Dal) and Dhian Singh Mand (newly elected proxy priest of Akal Takht, the Sikh religion’s governing institution). The Sarbat Khalsa, held on November 10, was called in response to repeated desecration of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, and the resulting massacre by police of peaceful Sikh protesters.
Many other prominent Sikhs involved in organizing the event were also rounded up. None are charged with any crime, as Amritsar Police Commissioner Jatinder Aulakh says they are “under preventive detention.” Dhillon speculates police may have invoked Criminal Procedure Code sections 107/151, which allow police to arrest people they think are “likely to commit a breach of the peace.”
After the law was used in February to detain U.S. citizen Ravinderjit Singh Gogi and his hunger-striking father, Surat Singh Khalsa, six U.S. congressional representatives protested in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: “The existence and use of these laws, which India has used to restrict freedom of expression and association, is contrary to democratic principles, and specifically to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which India has ratified.”
The Sarbat Khalsa, according to some reports, drew upwards of 750,000 Sikhs. “It was a million-Sikh march,” states Bhajan Singh of Sikh Information Centre. He says, however, that India-based associates of Bhim Rao Ambedkar Sikh Foundation, an international nonprofit of which he is a board member, were prevented from attending the convention, explaining:
“Over 50 BRASF activists were left stranded on their way to the Sarbat Khalsa when the bus company they’d arranged refused service because police had threatened to revoke their commercial licenses if they transported anyone to the convention. It is incredible that perhaps a quarter of a million Sikhs from every part of the earth gathered peacefully despite persistent government harassment. We estimate that perhaps 250,000 more were prevented from attending, not to mention the millions who watched online.”
Announced in September, the emergency convention had two primary goals, according to Manjit Singh Uppal, who traveled to the event from California as a representative of historic Stockton Gurdwara, the oldest Sikh-American institution. “We need to build a system for our representation so that we can hold another Sarbat Khalsa in six months. Also, we need to decide how we can represent the Sikhs all over the world that live outside of India.”
Thirteen resolutions passed by the assembly focus on revitalizing the Sikh religion’s leadership by removing four of five Jathedars (priests) of its Takhts (sacred seats of authority), replacing them with symbolic interim appointees, and calling for a more intensive Sarbat Khalsa on Vaisakhi 2016, a festival in April.
The next Sarbat Khalsa is expected to dwell extensively on the declaration of Resolution 11 that the Sikh community “aspires for Vatican-like status for Harimandir Sahib Complex to ensure every Sikh’s birthright to visit and deliberate at the Akal Takht Sahib.”
Human rights was a harmonious theme in other resolutions, which denounce police and army officials involved in the Sikh Genocide and declare the Sikh Nation “demands all political prisoners of any movement in India such as Sikhs, Naxalites, Nagas, and others, be released unconditionally.” Invoking the religion’s egalitarian foundations, another resolution “appeals to stop the construction of caste-based gurdwaras and cremation grounds.”
Gogi, the son of 83-year-old hunger-striker Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, who completed his 300th day without food on Nov. 11 despite repeated arrest and force-feeding by police, spoke about his father’s struggle from the convention stage. An American citizen, he was released from an Indian jail in April after repeated letters from Congress pled for him. Detained for two months without arraignment, he also reports being tortured.
“The recent wave of ideological and political pushback by people like Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh shows how India’s downtrodden masses are using every faculty to struggle against a deeply oppressive environment,” suggests Bhajan. “India’s minorities are exhausted by de facto dictatorships, and genocides, and torture, and they are rejecting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s politics of hate.”
India’s ruling party, the BJP, also shares power in Punjab’s state government. After orchestrating a genocide of Sikhs in 1984, India’s other leading party, the Indian National Congress, finds less popularity in the community, although the BJP is similarly accused of genocidal attacks on Muslim and Christians.
The Indian government, under every party, has long faced unresolved charges by international human rights bodies of torture, extrajudicial killings, creation of mass graves, persecution of religious minorities, and other atrocities. Tales of genocide survivors are common among the Sikh diaspora, which includes thousands who claim refugee status. And now the arrest of so many influential Sikhs at the conclusion of the convention is incensing Sikhs outside India.
“I’m really sorry to see a journalist also arrested for reporting on our Sarbat Khalsa,” says Dhillon. “The Indian government is so desperate to keep control over the management of the Sikh religion. The government in Punjab is politicizing our faith. So they arrested all the top Sikh leaders for nothing but to interfere in the operations of our religious institutions. There’s no religious freedom in India, none at all, not like the United States.”
According to Jago Punjabi, the arrests were planned at a Nov. 10 meeting hosted by Punjab’s Chief Minister, Parkash Badal, with key cabinet ministers and the president of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the managerial body for the Sikhs set up by the British Empire under its colonial “Gurdwara Act of 1925”), all of whom consulted with Punjab’s Advocate-General, Ashok Aggarwal, and senior police officers about the legality of preventatively detaining Mann and other Sikh leaders.
“The world should not stand by silently as peaceful Sikhs are being arrested, tortured, and killed in Punjab for protesting government interference in their religion,” concludes Bhajan.
He adds, “Congress, especially, has a duty to keep a protective eye out for the many Sikh-Americans who are returning from the Sarbat Khalsa. And as a patron of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, I call on those representatives to talk about issues like this which so deeply concern the global Sikh community. Religious freedom in India is on the brink of a cliff not just for Sikhs, but for all the country’s religious minorities, who are at risk of a terrifying amount of violence from the State and its associates.”