U.S. Political Movement On Indian Transnational Repression Progresses Despite Problematic Discourse
"[N]o foreign government should expect to conduct targeted assassinations inside our borders with impunity."
January 19, 2024 | 4 min. read | Opinion
“We have so many targets.” On November 29, this quote was cited in an unsealed superseding indictment charging Indian national Nikhil Gupta for his part in a plot, allegedly undertaken in coordination with an employee of the government of India, to assassinate a Sikh American in New York.
As Mr. Gupta reportedly indicated to the would-be hitman he had hired, however, the goal wasn’t just to kill one Sikh—there were “more jobs, more jobs,” meaning additional targeted killings to be completed throughout North America. The indictment, of course, also alleged that one such target had already been murdered: Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian who was executed in a hail of gunfire outside a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in British Columbia last June.
The most urgent common thread between the Nijjar assassination and the purportedly U.S.-plot is self-evidently India’s apparent willingness to engage in transnational repression—further corroborated by reporting of other Sikh activists and lawmakers being targeted and warnings from U.S. law enforcement about ongoing threats.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, for reference, describes transnational repression as “when foreign governments stalk, intimidate, or assault people in the United States.” It is typically the behavior of authoritarian states like Russia, Iran and China, and often targets religious or ethnic minority groups, political and human rights activists, dissidents, journalists, and political opponents.
Thankfully, there is already a serious bipartisan piece of legislation circulating on Capitol Hill which can begin to address this threat.
The Transnational Repression Policy Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN), is a vital step in establishing policy to protect the rights and safety of all. Specifically, the measure would offer critical protections against the reach of foreign governments into the United States and aim to counteract actions that infringe upon the civil liberties of individuals within our borders.
Moreover, the past two months have seen two congressional hearings on the subject of transnational repression: one in December, via the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and another just this week in a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee. Both explicitly discussed the Indian government’s malicious behavior vis-a-vis the global Sikh diaspora—a notable development, given that criticizing a strategic ally is no mean feat in Washington.
Much of the U.S.-based commentary around India’s recent alleged transnational repression, however, has focused on the political views of the activists who have been and are being targeted.
Sikhs know that significant context—including colonial-era political dynamics, a campaign of genocidal violence waged by the Indian state in the 1980s and 1990s, and present-day concerns of human rights violations against Sikhs—inform the desire of some throughout the global diaspora to form an independent Sikh state called Khalistan.
Sikhs also know that opinions on Khalistan vary widely among the community, but for more than four decades, the Indian government (and many in its orbit) have inaccurately and purposefully strove to portray all proponents of Khalistan as violent.
Some of this framing is seemingly being injected into the U.S. political discourse, including two recent opinion pieces (here and here) written by non-Sikhs and published in The Hill, a media outlet built around a Washington, DC, based audience of legislators, staffers, and other political junkies.
Both purposefully misdiagnose the current tensions between the United States and India as not a result of the latter’s norm-breaking behavior vis-a-vis transnational repression, but instead lay the blame at the feet of what they describe as an inherently violent Khalistan movement. To be sure, we can all agree to condemn violent acts and rhetoric—but we must all also oppose on principle a foreign government’s use of violence to infringe upon the constitutional rights and basic safety of Sikhs here in the United States.
This common sense framing is absent from both pieces, as is much additional historical context.
Sadly, the Sikh American community knows all too well the danger of falsely being painted as “terrorists” or “extremists.” In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, visible Sikh articles of faith (including turbans and unshorn beards) became falsely conflated with images of the Taliban, putting a target for hate crimes and discrimination on the backs of many in the community ever since.
More than 20 years later, irresponsible conversations about the threat of “Sikh militancy” are stoking fear—and eschewing the very real threat of Indian transnational repression to Sikh lives in the United States and elsewhere.
It is commendable that, for the most part, U.S. legislators are so far steering clear of the temptation to fall for this kind of fear mongering and instead engaging in substantive conversations and policy proposals.
The key, it seems, lies in the fact that regardless of nuance, most Americans can agree upon some common points. First and foremost, calls for violence against any religious, political, or other group are unequivocally wrong. Second, in the United States, all individuals have a right to peacefully advocate for any political views, and no individual should be subjected to extrajudicial execution without a trial. And third, no foreign government should expect to conduct targeted assassinations inside our borders with impunity.
It is for these reasons that the Transnational Repression Policy Act presents a critical first step towards laying out U.S. policy against this harmful behavior and ensuring that anti-Sikh messaging doesn’t forestall good faith conversations about how to better protect the civil rights and safety of all.
Harman Singh is the Policy and Education Director of the Sikh Coalition. The Sikh Coalition is the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States; learn more about their work on transnational repression here.
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