AMRITSAR SAHIB, Punjab—After mass arrests of organizers and participants in a Sikh religious summit hosted in Punjab, India, authorities have filed sedition charges against several, including four American Sikhs.
A North American Sikh summit representing over 100 gurdwaras and organizations formally appointed five representatives to attend the “Sarbat Khalsa,” a global convocation held on November 10 in the Punjab city of Amritsar to discuss leadership selection processes and other issues of concern to members of the Sikh religion. Two — Harinder Singh and Resham Singh — now face sedition charges in India for attending the religious congregation. Both are U.S. citizens.
“It’s incomprehensible why peacefully conducting internal religious affairs is treated as a crime by the government of India,” comments Bhajan Singh of US-based Sikh Information Centre. “India’s sedition law is a direct carryover from the colonial-era laws of British India that was originally written and used by the British to silence supporters of India’s independence movement. Now it’s being used to intimidate and control the international Sikh religious leadership.”
Harinder is a prominent voice for human rights in his community and serves as CEO of Sikh Research Institute; Resham is a small businessowner from California. Two other American-Sikhs — Surjit Singh and Gurtej Singh — are also slapped with sedition charges by Indian authorities. It is unknown how the cases against the four will proceed as the U.S.-India extradition treaty prohibits extradition for political offenses.
Indian authorities appear to think the post-event, independent actions of Sarbat Khalsa attendees, after the event, qualify as evidence against those charged with sedition. Accusing the “supporters” of the summit of raising “communal and anti-country slogans while going back to their homes after conclusion of event,” the police report alleges speeches at the event “were also aimed at hurting national integrity.”
Disturbed by mass arrests of the Sarbat Khalsa attendees and indignant at India’s sedition charges against U.S. citizens, Sikhs in the United States blame the arrests on Indian interference in their religion.
“Sikhs in India, the birthplace of our religion, are being totally denied any freedom of religion,” says Balbir Singh Dhillon. Now the president of West Sacramento Gurdwara, he was in 1996 jailed by Indian police for three months while traveling in Punjab as a U.S. citizen. Held without charges, it took appeals from dozens of congressional representatives for India to admit he had committed no crime and release him, but he says his memories of being tortured in custody increase his concern for the imprisoned Sikhs.
“The poor families of these innocent men are living in terror not knowing what future awaits their loved ones,” laments Dhillon. “Is it a crime of sedition to be a Sikh in India? I really hope our congressional representatives do their duty to speak out against these false charges and especially demand India stop bullying our American Sikh leaders.”
The Sarbat Khalsa was announced in response to recent and repeated desecrations of the Sikh scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, as well as dissatisfaction with the Sikh religion’s leadership, and the Punjab government’s suppression of peaceful Sikh protests. As Congressmen John Garamendi and Patrick Meehan wrote in an Oct. 30, 2015 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry: “This desecration prompted hundreds of peaceful Sikh protestors to demand action. Two demonstrators were killed when police opened fire on a crowd of protestors.”
Reports suggest the religious summit drew as many as 750,000 Sikhs from around the world. Bhajan Singh calls it “a million-Sikh march.” The congregation passed thirteen resolutions that included replacing the Jathedars (priests) of its Takhts (sacred seats of authority) with interim appointees, scheduling another Sarbat Khalsa in April 2016 to select permanent Jathedars, agreeing to seek “Vatican-like status” for Harmandir Sahib (the holiest Sikh shrine also known as the Golden Temple), and voicing concerns about several human rights issues.
Lasting a full day on November 10, the congregation dispersed peacefully, yet the next day the Indian government reacted with mass arrests of Sikh leadership, including clergy, politicians, and even a journalist.
According to news reports, those arrested were initially “preventatively detained” under Criminal Procedure Code sections 107/151, which allow police to detain anyone suspected of intending to breach the peace. After U.S. citizen Ravinderjit Singh Gogi and his hunger-striking father, Surat Singh Khalsa, were detained under the same law in February, six U.S. representatives protested in a letter to Secretary of State 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.”
India’s sedition law has long faced strong international criticism. Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, which defines “sedition” as any act or attempt to “to bring into hatred or contempt, or… excite disaffection towards the government.” However, it Amnesty International warned in 2014: “India’s archaic sedition law has been used to harass and persecute activists and others for their peaceful exercise of their right to free expression.” Punishing sedition with up to life imprisonment, Section 124a was infamously used by the British to detain Hindu preacher Mohandas Gandhi; more recently, it has been invoked against people like cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for drawing a cartoon satirizing India’s national emblem and Salman M. for not standing during the playing of India’s national anthem in a movie theatre.