The Indian government’s recent ban on Sikhs For Justice, a human rights advocacy group which has a significant following in Canada, has once again exposed the real face of the world’s so-called largest democracy.
On July 10, the government led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party declared SFJ, which is headquarted in New York, an “unlawful organization” after accusing it of spreading terrorism.
This move came after a months-long vilification campaign against SFJ by Indian politicians, police, and intelligence officials. The Canadian branch of SFJ, which is based in Toronto, recently filed a defamation suit against the Indian government in Ontario Superior Court.
Sikhs For Justice has been targeted for increased repression due to its campaign for a referendum in 2020 on a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan in the state of Punjab. Many SFJ activists have been arrested by the Indian police for merely advocating support for Khalistan, even though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right to dissent.
Nobody can deny that, in past decades, a violent insurgency for an independent Khalistan left thousands of people dead. But that movement was decimated in the mid-1990s, partly because of police repression and partly due to a loss of support from the Sikh community on account of excesses committed by militants.
The Indian government solely blamed the extremists for the violence and justified state terrorism in the name of restoring peace and normalcy. Indian government and security officials claimed the Khalistani militants were not willing to resolve the issue through dialogue and left them no alternative but to give police a free hand to crush militancy.
Fast forward to 2019. The Indian government has now banned SFJ, which is only advocating for Khalistan through democratic means. While in the past Indian authorities claimed to have ended a “violent movement” through extrajudicial methods, this time it has chosen to suppress a peaceful campaign by branding it as secessionist. Nothing could be more hypocritical.
Seeking justice for 1984
The SFJ was founded in 2007, initially campaigning for justice for the victims of Sikh Genocide. In the first week of November 1984, Sikhs were slaughtered by mobs all over India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The prime minister had been killed by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the military invasion of the Golden Temple complex, the holiest Sikh shrine, in June of that year. The ill-conceived army operation, which had been planned and executed to deal with a handful of militants inside the temple, left many pilgrims dead and important buildings heavily damaged. This enraged Sikhs all over the globe, culminating in the assassination of the prime minister.
Activists from the slain leader’s ruling Indian National Congress had been among those who engineered the mass violence against Sikhs. In New Delhi alone, close to 3,000 people were killed. SFJ’s initial campaign sought to embarrass and hold accountable those political figures involved by trying to block their visits to North America. Similarly, the SFJ opposed visits by Modi to U.S. and Canada because of his complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in Gujarat. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when thousands of Muslims were murdered in the state following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Modi had blamed Muslim extremists for the incident that claimed more than 50 lives.
The ban on SFJ is clearly an attempt to muzzle voices of dissent both inside and outside India. Their actions may be offensive to the Indian state, but cannot reasonably be described as terror-related. India’s laws are supposed to allow its people the right to protest. Around the world, supporters of SFJ and of freedom of expression are protesting this move. In Vancouver, a demonstration will take place on Aug. 15 outside the Indian consulate.
The wise thing for the Indian government to do would be to hold a referendum and let the people decide their political future. Most likely, the majority of Sikhs would opt to go with India as past experiences have shown. The Indian politicians are aware of this reality, but perhaps they are trying to scapegoat the Sikh minority as part of their agenda to polarize the Hindu majority.
The Indian government under Modi, furthermore, has lost any moral ground to ban SFJ considering that it has allowed Hindu hate groups to work freely and spew venom against non-Hindus. Attacks on religious minorities have continued unabated by these groups ever since Modi became the prime minister in 2014.
It’s a shame the Indian government has failed to punish those who indulge in majoritarian extremism, while minority groups face oppression for voicing their grievances. The Indian state should either revoke the ban on SFJ or admit that it is an intolerant Hindu state that does not allow minorities to even ask for the right to self-determination. By banning a group that functions within the legal and democratic framework and choosing to turn a blind eye to the violent activities of the Hindu right, Indian democracy has lost its credibility.