Jasveer Singh: Astroturf Anti-Khalistan Campaign Feared To Lead To Anti-Sikh Hate Crimes
An anti-Khalistan mobile digital billboard campaign by an unknown "Sikh" organization in Norwich, Connecticut, could result in anti-Sikh hate crimes according to locals
November 22, 2022 | 3 min. read | Original Reporting
On November 12, 2022, a truck fitted with digital ad screens drove through downtown Norwich rotating various slides targeting the Sikh community, including one using an image of a man with a Muslim-style turban holding a machine gun and ammunition.
The mobile digital billboards attempt to associate Khalistan with “Pakistan sponsored” “terrorism” and included a host of other common anti-Sikh bigoted tropes.
Local Sikhs, including Swaranjit Singh Khalsa, an elected City Council member of Norwich, are concerned this problematic campaign, with mysterious origins, could result in violence against a minority group that has already faced fatal hate crimes in America.
“What happened last week outside Norwich City Hall is dangerous and must be investigated by local authorities. If we see any hate crimes carried out on Sikhs in these areas, those behind these anti-Sikh messages will have blood on their hands. They have labelled us terrorists and pushed misinformation about our community initiatives. This could have violent consequences towards Sikhs. As such, local authorities must investigate this issue,” Singh said
The displays shown outside City Hall directly addressed Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, asking him not to “support” or “promote” Khalistan, without clarifying what that alleged support is. There has been no official support for Khalistan from Mayor Nystrom, who has otherwise supported the use of space for local Sikhs to speak about community movements as protected under free speech laws in America.
Many Sikhs are in favor of the pursuit of Khalistan, a movement which has grown after the Indian state facilitated the Sikh Genocide from 1984 onwards. An estimated 300,000 Sikhs have voted in a non-binding democratic Khalistan Referendum campaign which has so far been held in the UK, Italy, and Canada since 2021, drawing the increasing ire of the Indian government.
The digital billboards use the 2021 Hudson Institute’s report, “Pakistan’s Destabilization Playbook: Khalistan Separatist Activism Within the US”, as evidence of Khalistan being a “Pakistan sponsored” project. A common anti-Sikh position community activists argue is dubiously used to strip the Sikh community of any agency on self-determination.
In the introduction of the Hudson report, the Institute shares that it was inspired in part by Terry Milewski’s much-derided and ridiculed MacDonald Laurier Institute report on a similar topic. Widespread criticism of Milewski’s report and thesis at the time picked up mainstream coverage in Canada and elsewhere.
Jaskaran Sandhu, a co-founder of Baaz, had written in an opinion piece from September 2021 about the Hudson Report sharing that “much like Milewski’s work, the Hudson Institute’s paper adopts the kind of questionable reference structure, conjecture, and innuendo that resulted in over 50 Sikh-related scholars denouncing haphazard writings that malign the legitimate activism of oppressed minority groups under the pretext of seemingly academic rigor and process. For example, claiming that there needs to be greater monitoring of supposed acts of recent violence by Khalistani activists in America, however providing no real examples of said violence - referencing instead peaceful protests led by Sikhs that share similar messaging to other progressive movements like Black Lives Matters.”
Milewski was forced to concede in court, in an ongoing defamation and libel matter, that he had “no evidence” that the Khalistan Referendum was a project of Pakistan despite his various works publicizing the theory.
The Norwich incident, which Sikhs say is part of an ongoing “defamation and disinformation campaign”, is believed by locals to have been carried out by Indian nationalists upset with the local government’s growing relationship with Norwich’s Sikhs, led by Councillor Singh.
Since 2014, Singh has helped Norwich city council hold various events furthering understanding of the Sikh faith and Sikh history. This has even led to the state of Connecticut formally recognizing Sikh occasions like “Sikh Declaration of Independence Day” and the “Sikh genocide” through the state legislature.
“American Sikhs across our nation have been working hard to authentically engage with local government, as seen with the recent Texas Sikh genocide commemoration. In particular, we Sikhs here in Connecticut have found a great friend in our local government. Unfortunately, Indian ultranationalists wish to export their fascism to the USA to destroy this relationship,” Singh shares.
There has been evidence of the Indian state, through its American consulate, for example, interfering in the affairs of local Sikh Americans. This a common issue across the diaspora, and one that is garnering increasing concern from security analysts in the West.
The digital billboards seem to suggest that a group called “United Sikhs of New England” are behind the campaign. American Sikh groups and New England Sangat share that they are completely unaware of the existence of an organization with this name. A search of the organization by Baaz came up with no results, and we have confirmed that it is in no way associated with the humanitarian charity United Sikhs.
Many speculate that it is an astroturf campaign. It is a common tactic of Indian actors to feign Sikh identity to push an anti-Khalistan narrative, as evidenced by recent reports of disinformation campaigns driven out of India.
Investigations have traced the trucks used for the anti-Sikh display back to a media agency called Boost Outdoor Media, whose manager is Durga Aluri. A staff member of the media agency refused to reveal any information about who funded the display.
Singh is amongst those that would like to learn who is behind the campaign.
“I challenge these ‘United Sikhs of New England’ to actually come out and have a public discussion with us about this issue which we can invite the Norwich public to, and they can decide if Sikhs should be allowed to continue to engage with local government about our issues and history. Until then, I hope the people of Connecticut will continue to support its growing Sikh community and not fall for these divisive tactics.”
According to a local paper, The Day, Mayor Nystrom still attended a local Sikh Genocide memorial event this past weekend, even after receiving some calls pushing against his support for the Sikh community.
When asked by The Day if the anti-Sikh intimidation campaign worked, he said, “It’s not going to work. [The Sikh community] are people of peace. They are a part of us.”
Update: The FBI and Norwich Police have initiated an investigation into the billboards.
Jasveer Singh hails from Southall, UK, and is the Senior Press Officer of The Sikh Press Association, a position he has held since 2015. In this role, Jasveer works across all sectors of media supporting Sikh organisations and individuals on panthic endeavours. Jasveer previously worked as a freelance journalist which included stints with Sky News, Super Fight League, and more. You can find Jasveer on Twitter at @Jazzthejourno.
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