Why India Is Murdering Sikhs Across the World
"[T]he space to speak and advocate freely shrinks by the day in India. Having achieved success at home, this government now seeks to expand its repression to critics abroad."
Arjun Singh Sethi
January 4, 2024 | 5 min. read | Opinion
Prologue: NYT Opinion asked me to write an essay on the recent news that the Indian government was targeting Sikh activists across the world. I offered to write a personal essay, and after sharing an outline, an editor told me to proceed. Upon submission of the final essay, I was told the essay wasn’t personal enough and overlapped too closely with another op-ed they published on the matter (it clearly didn’t!). Here’s the essay near verbatim as submitted, which I first published on my Substack, The Reimagining.
President Biden and Congress welcomed the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to the United States in June with a joint address and state dinner. While Modi courted Washington, his government was plotting to murder a Sikh American on U.S. soil.
When news broke in late November that U.S. prosecutors had indicted a conspirator in the plot, it kindled old wounds and painful memories. The Indian government has long targeted Sikhs in India and across the world. This persecution braids through our shared history and collective memory; some have directly experienced it; many have been shaped by it; nearly all of us have felt it.
As a child in the U.S., I attended rallies where community leaders delivered impassioned speeches decrying how government-organized mobs murdered an untold amount of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere during the genocidal violence of November 1984. The Congress party ruled India then, and marshaled its constituents and state resources to massacre Sikhs over days of unabated violence. At my local Gurdwara in Virginia, or Sikh place of worship, elders taught us how these atrocities were followed by more than a decade of torture, unlawful killings, and enforced disappearances of Sikhs in India.
I remember listening to a refugee and new member of the community, who, after losing everything in the violence, advocated for a sovereign state in India called “Khalistan.” It was the first time I had heard that word. In the years that followed, I learned how community demands for justice and accountability always went unanswered.
So when news of the foiled assassination plot emerged, the Sikh community recalled this troubled history. And yet, we weren’t surprised. This latest act is part of an escalating trend of transnational repression targeting the Sikh diaspora, particularly under Modi and his ruling BJP party.
Two days before Modi’s U.S. visit., masked gunmen murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a gurdwara in Vancouver, Canada, an attack that Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has openly linked to the Indian government.
British and American intelligence corroborate PM Trudeau’s allegation, as does the recent indictment, which explicitly references “many targets” for assassination in the U.S. Sikh community.
Around the same time, the FBI warned several Sikhs their lives could be in danger as well, all while an operative connected to the Indian government surveilled a gurdwara and later cajoled a religious leader there into providing sensitive information.
What generally connects India’s targets, both in Canada and the U.S., is their support for Khalistan.
In the interim, the repression has reverberated across the entire Sikh community. Any Sikh, or member of the Indian or Kashmiri diaspora in the U.S, who dares to criticize Modi fears they could be targeted. Others, even those not engaged in activism, have shared with me that they worry they could be under surveillance or face violence, as the Indian government typically casts a wide net. Some share that they want to publicly distance themselves from those who support Khalistan, which, though maybe understandable, ostracizes that group, making them even more vulnerable to violence.
Many experts and policymakers have asked in recent days, almost quizzically, why the "world's largest democracy," which commands one of the most important economies in the world, would risk the potential fallout. After all, the Khalistan movement jettisoned armed resistance decades ago, and focuses today on political activities like protests and referendums. The individuals India surveils, harasses, and murders generally engage in protected speech under the U.S. Constitution and human rights norms.
As many have correctly noted, Modi is an authoritarian who has long targeted minority communities in India. But he’s also a fragile and paranoid one, as is his government. He has participated in just one solo press conference in the nine years since he was elected; his government leads the world in internet shutdowns; routinely imprisons critics, including journalists and human rights defenders; and deploys an army of 150,000 social media workers to spread misinformation online.
And these measures are working: the space to speak and advocate freely shrinks by the day in India. Having achieved success at home, this government now seeks to expand its repression to critics abroad.
They may also see Sikhs lawfully mobilizing in the diaspora as a reputational or security concern that merits a violent response. A recently leaked secret memorandum from India’s Ministry of External Affairs provides a glimpse into this distorted reality. It specifically blames “Khalistan extremism” for “degrad[ing] India’s international image” and orders government agencies to take “concrete measures” against Sikh activists in North America.
There’s another related explanation for Modi’s contempt and targeting of Sikhs. His government suffered its singular greatest defeat and embarrassment when millions of Indians took to the streets some years ago to protest a new set of draconian farm laws, a movement that Sikh farmers from Punjab helped lead and organize.
Although the government acceded to many of their demands, it’s naive to think that they or their base have forgotten that episode.
Perhaps India’s transnational repression is thus intended to chill Sikh expression at large, and baseless accusations of “Khalistani terrorism” offer a convenient bogeyman for a government always seeking to demonize a minority community and manufacture a threat, especially ahead of a national election next year.
All of this brings us to today. A criminal indictment is a welcome first step, as are U.S. senators demanding answers from India in a recent hearing on transnational repression. But it’s not enough. The response from our government must be comprehensive, severe and unequivocal, just as it would be if any other country attempted to carry out an assassination on U.S. soil.
The Department of Justice must publicly prosecute all those responsible, no matter how senior their position; the U.S. government must sanction any individuals and entities employed by the Indian government found to be responsible or connected to the foiled plot; there must be additional hearings on transnational repression that include experts on India and Sikhs and other survivors; and the government must pass the Transnational Repression Policy Act.
In the years following 9/11, many Sikhs in America were told we didn't belong and to go home. That message was painfully reinforced, on August 5, 2012, when a white supremacist stormed a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, murdering six Sikh worshippers. Today, many Sikhs are being told again they don't belong, this time by India.
Arjun Singh Sethi is an author, community activist, human rights lawyer, and law professor based in Washington, D.C.
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