WASHINGTON — In a rare display of solidarity, a member of the House of Representatives has unequivocally expressed support for the Sikh community in the Indian state of Punjab, which is currently grappling with a crackdown on civil liberties. On Thursday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) issued a statement underscoring the need to defend the rights of religious and ethnic minorities worldwide, as right-wing authoritarianism continues to rise.
Omar specifically referred to the Indian government’s crackdown on civil society in Punjab in order to capture one individual: Amritpal Singh, a controversial Sikh leader who began rising in prominence about a year ago, advocating for Sikhs to reduce their reliance on the Indian state and build their own parallel structures of support, including a Sikh state called Khalistan. Multiple narratives have cropped up around Singh and what’s been taking place in Punjab, but much is still difficult to verify.
In her statement, Omar said that she is deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Punjab. She condemned the Indian government’s “draconian communications shutdown,” the arrest of hundreds of people and the blocking of Twitter accounts belonging to civic leaders and journalists, including those of BBC Punjab and a Canadian Member of Parliament.
“This has unmistakable echoes of the crackdown in Kashmir, and the sweeping response to the farmer’s protests,” Omar said, referring to other instances of human rights abuses in India. “For many Punjabis and Sikhs, it also bears unmistakable echoes of the brutality against their community in 1984.”
Following the partition of India in 1947, which resulted in the creation of India and Pakistan as separate nations, Sikhs were left without their own state, resulting in years of marginalization and discrimination. The events of 1984 were a turning point for the Sikh community in India. After it was alleged Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, a violent backlash against the Sikh community ensued. Thousands of innocent Sikhs suffered unspeakable horrors, including rape and murder, while their homes and businesses were destroyed, and their bodies set on fire.
The Indian government perceives the demand for a separate Sikh state, known as Khalistan, as a national security threat. But that hasn’t stopped the Khalistan movement’s recent surge in popularity, partly as a result of persistent human rights abuses, like extrajudicial killings, against Sikhs in India. Even Sikh activists hailing from Western nations, such as Jagtar Singh Johal from Scotland, have been subjected to arbitrary yearslong detentions. However, not all Sikhs support the Khalistan movement, and it has been a divisive issue in the community for decades.
Whether they support the Khalistan movement or not, Sikhs and their allies have been united in speaking out against the government repression in Punjab.
Omar is the only member of Congress so far to call for the civil liberties of the Sikh community to be respected in the wake of the clampdown on Punjab. While there is a Sikh Caucus in Congress, which ostensibly includes Reps. John Garamendi (D-District 3) and Jim Costa (D-District 21), it has been silent on the issue. Locally, only state Assemblymember Liz Ortega (D-District 20) expressed concern about the Indian government’s actions in Punjab.
“Disturbed to hear about Punjab being cut off by the Indian Government,” Ortega posted on Twitter. “I stand in solidarity with our Punjabi community and all those calling for an end to this injustice.”