Sikhs React To US Committee Hearing Exploring Transnational Repression From India

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“India was, for the first time, openly included with countries like Russia, China, and Iran by American authorities as a country of concern [for transnational repression].”

Jaskaran Sandhu
December 7, 2023 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting

Sikh reactions have been swift following what was an unprecedented full Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on “Transnational Repression: Authoritarians Targeting Dissenters Abroad” yesterday.

India was, for the first time, openly included with countries like Russia, China, and Iran by American authorities as a country of concern. This comes following a US Justice Department indictment against Nikhil Gupta exposing the lengths the Indian government has gone to attack Sikh Americans, as well as those in Canada, including attempting to assassinate American Sikhs across the United States.

“Given India’s escalating violence and intimidation towards people critical of India, both domestically and abroad, it is vital that future hearings on transnational repression include experts on India and from the Sikh community,” Sukhman Dhami, co-founder of Ensaaf, shared with Baaz.

Transnational Repression has a “chilling and far-reaching” impact on “diaspora and exile communities, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and others,” the Foreign Affairs Committee released in a statement.  India was examined in the hearing, alongside other “authoritarians exporting persecution abroad.”

Chair Cardin opened his remarks by sharing that “Both friends and foes send their agents across borders to hunt down and harass critics. Even here on U.S. soil.”

He went on to immediately add, “We’ve seen disturbing allegations against an Indian Government official for involvement in planning to assassinate a U.S. citizen in New York who’s critical of the Indian government. This follows allegations of India’s involvement in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader earlier this year. The Modi government had labeled both critics as terrorists.”

Sikhs have challenged the Indian government’s wide assertion that any advocacy for Khalistan is a terrorist act, including the administration of a non-binding referendum within the Sikh community on the Sikh self-determination movement.

“Regrettably, India has criminalized the right of self-determination for Sikhs and overbroadly deems any expression in support of this political belief as terroristic,” the Sikh Coalition wrote in their detailed submissions to the Committee. “In a democracy like the United States, individuals have the right to peacefully express their political beliefs without fear of retribution. The freedom of speech and expression of our citizens is a fundamental cornerstone that cannot be violated by any domestic law, much less by a foreign government,” they go on to add.

India has worked to silence Sikh advocacy from diasporic communities for decades now. Jody Thomas, Canada’s national security advisor, had stated earlier this year, for example, that India was one of the top actors for foreign interference in Canada. The Sikh community has been vocal in raising awareness around human rights violations in India, the Sikh Genocide, and other issues.

The harshest criticism of India during the Committee Hearing came from Senator Kaine.

“We often say we’re the oldest democracy in the world and India’s the largest democracy,” he shared, while also reading out loud for the public record a Wallstreet Journal article on the failed Indian assassination of US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York.

India’s role in targeting Sikhs around the world “is not the behavior of a respectable democracy,” he added.

Senator Kaine also flagged the vast difference between the Indian response to Canada, which included a refusal to support any investigation into the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, denial of any connection to the murder, and the arbitrary threat to strip immunity from 41 Canadian diplomats which would eventually lead to their removal and the much more submissive Indian response to America.

All of which caused the Senator to ask experts at the Committee Hearing, “How do we deal with [transnational repression] when it’s a nation we’re in partnership with?”

Freedom House’s Michael Abramowitz shared in his answer that India is an example of alarming democratic backsliding in the world. Many Sikh activists have argued that India was never a “real” democracy to begin with.

The Sikh Coalition also alluded to larger issues of Indian oppression of minority communities within India.

“These egregious actions by India attempting to murder Americans not only violate our democratic ideals but are part of a broader pattern of suppressing religious minorities domestically and abroad,” they wrote.

“When Sikhs and other religious minorities peacefully dissent, the response from the Indian government has too often been marked by attempts to suppress freedoms of expression through internet shutdowns, media censorship, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, escalation of violence, and characterizations of peaceful dissidents as terrorists.”

Dr. Pritpal Singh of the American Sikhs Caucus Committee shared in a statement that “[India’s] acts of violence are not a bug; they are a deliberate feature of Indian foreign policy.”

Dr. Pritpal Singh has been warned by the FBI, alongside other Sikh activists,  of threats to their lives because of their advocacy work for the community. The US Indictment of Gupta made clear that India had multiple targets for assassinations within America and Canada.

America and India have made increasing efforts over the years to establish closer ties, which had at first led some observers to wrongly believe, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed that Canadian intelligence believed India was behind the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia, that the US would not overtly call out India.

The US has seen India as a potential bulwark to China’s growing influence globally. India continues to lose territory to China as well as falling further behind them economically.

More questions are being asked, however, if a partnership between the US and India is one that can be sustained based upon shared democratic values, as some geopolitical observers had once first believed.

“This information also raises serious concerns about India’s commitment to democratic principles, its reliability as a strategic partner, and its commitment to bilateral agreements with our nation,” the Sikh Coalition argued.

The Sikh Coalition also points towards the fact that “India appears to be actively financing and promoting criminal enterprise activity in the United States” is alarming.

“[T]he government of India using criminal elements—including but not limited to recruiting an international narcotics trafficker—to target Sikhs in the United States, [is] a clear violation of democratic principles, due process, and respect for the rule of law.”

India’s foreign interference in Western countries has led to increased scrutiny of the far-right Hindu Nationalist regime of Modi. Alongside concerns in Canada’s and America’s halls of power, Australian Senator Shoebridge also raised concerns in Canberra about the potential for “hostile” Indian activities against Australian Sikhs.

“The prosecution and removal of some of India’s intelligence agents is a welcome measure to ensuring the safety of Americans,” Dhami shared when asked what is the Sikh community expecting next.

“US authorities must complement this effort by conducting a comprehensive investigation to uncover and shut down India’s entire overseas intelligence network operating in this country,” he added.

Kiran Kaur, Executive Director of SALDEF, agrees.

“The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations hearing on transnational repression was a promising first step in addressing this critical global issue…[h]owever, we need concrete action and continued transparency to ensure the safety of the Sikh American community, our freedom of speech and our right to live our lives free of transnational repression including censorship, intimidation, assault and violence.”

Chair Cardin did point towards American legislative action to fight against transnational repression.

“In the coming days, I will be introducing the ‘International Freedom Protection Act.’ This will address the growing use of transnational repression by autocratic and illiberal states. I look forward to working with all the colleagues of this committee, Democrats and Republicans, on this legislation,” he confirmed in his remarks.

This is something that Dr. Pritpal Singh made clear in his submissions to the Committee Hearing as well.

“I urge the swift passage of the pending TNR legislation currently under consideration in both chambers (S. 831 / H.R. 3654). And I urge this body to include India in all conversations and discussions relating to transnational repression and to protect Sikhs across this country, many of whom are your constituents, from the long arm of the Indian government.”

The Sikh Coalition has made seven different recommendations to Congress, including the suspension of trade talks, the passing of legislation, and greater resources to address transnational repression.

“It is imperative that the U.S. government take a strong stand against India’s escalating violations of human rights and sovereignty,” they state.

“Congress’ leadership in this matter is crucial to safeguarding not only the Sikh community but also the foundational values of our nation.”

Jaskaran Sandhu hails from Brampton, Canada, and is the co-founder of Baaz. He is a Strategist at the public affairs and relations agency State Strategy. Jaskaran also previously served as Executive Director for the World Sikh Organization of Canada and as a Senior Advisor to Brampton’s Office of the Mayor. You can find Jaskaran on Twitter at @JaskaranSandhu_

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