- Organized by Sikhs for Justice, the rally aims to gather the maximum number of votes possible, and then move to have a binding referendum organized by the United Nations as soon as 2025.
Thousands of Sikh Americans congregated in San Francisco, California, this past Sunday, to vote on a referendum on Sikh independence, the first of its kind in the United States. They came in cars, buses, and trains, waving bright yellow-and-blue flags, and waited patiently in long lines to cast their votes for Khalistan — an independent country of their own. The Jan. 28 event at the Civic Center Plaza was organized by Sikhs for Justice, an activist group that has been banned in India since 2019. A social media post by the independent Punjab Referendum Commission (PRC) announced that 127,000 Sikhs were able to cast their votes while around 30,000 were unable to vote due to a shortage of time.
As the San Francisco Standard notes, the ballot measure, known as the Khalistan referendum, is nonbinding, “meaning even if the majority of voters favor independence, it won’t guarantee a new nation.” The first such referendum was first held in London on Oct. 31, 2021. Since then, similar events have been held in Canada, Australia, and other places with large Sikh populations. The next event in the U.S. will be held on March 31 in Sacramento, California.
Sikhs for Justice co-founder Dr. Bakhshish Singh Sandhu told several media outlets including The San Francisco Standard that “the turnout was brilliant.” He said the organization is “gathering a maximum number of votes possible, and then move to have a binding referendum organized by the United Nations as soon as 2025.” He said he envisioned an independent state for Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. “We will create the country, and promise to the people religious and personal freedom, like here in the United States of America.”
New York-based Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a leader of the Sikh separatist movement and an outspoken critic of the Indian government, addressed the attendees. He announced that “the campaign against India would accelerate after confirmation by the Canadian and the U.S. governments that India was planning to kill Sikhs who asked for their right of self-determination for a separate Sikh homeland,” the San Francisco Bee reported.
In November, the U.S. accused the Indian government of plotting to assassinate Pannun. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, Indian citizen Nikhil Gupta was “recruited” by an Indian government employee who directed an assassination plot from back home.
Before that in June, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of being involved with Sikh activist and independence advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s death. He was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak.
According to the Sikh Coalition, Sikhs have been in America for over 125 years. There are over 500,000 Sikhs in the country, out of which half live in California.
Jay Wi, who drove from Campbell to San Francisco, told The San Fransisco Standard that Sikhs like him want their own country. “It’s always been a struggle for us to be in India,” he said. “They’ve been trying to push us down, and we have been slaughtered over there.”
Manteca resident Maninder Virk told the publication he hoped for a future in which Sikhs like him could be citizens of both Khalistan and the United States. “We need our country, separate from India,” he said. “That’s why we are protesting here.”
Speaking to the Sacramento Bee before the Jan. 28 referendum, Gursharanjit Singh, a West Sacramento resident and school administrator said that “with each vote cast, a Sikh martyr will be liberated and finally be at peace, exonerated from their spiritual obligation not to rest until the eternal home for Sikhs is built. He told the paper that he planned to drive with around 45 family and friends from Sacramento to San Francisco. Gurdeep Singh, a 53-year-old Fresno truck driver who is active with the organization Sikhs for Justice, was expecting around 5,000 Sikhs from the Fresno area alone to make the seven-hour round trip. “We want freedom,” he told the Bee. ”We want our kingdom back.”
The concept of Khalistan dates back to the Partition of India in 1947, which caused extensive violence, displacement, and large-scale deaths. Following the Partition, the Punjabi Suba movement emerged which called for the establishment of a Punjabi-speaking autonomous Sikh state. In 1952, the then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared he would suppress the demand for a Punjabi-speaking state, leading to divisions between Sikhs and Hindus. Ultimately, in 1966, the state of Punjab was created with Chandigarh as its capital.
Encouragement for the Khalistan movement began to accumulate in the 1970s and early 80s, resulting in a wide, armed rebellion headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The rebellion lasted more than a decade and was suppressed by a violent crackdown by the Indian government, in which thousands of people were killed, including prominent Sikh leaders. In efforts to suppress the growing agitation and violence, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the invasion of the Golden Temple in 1984, to drive out Sikhs who had barricaded themselves inside. Known as Operation Blue Star, hundreds were killed, including Bhindranwale. In October of that year, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. These two highly controversial and devastating incidents, triggered a huge series of anti-Sikh riots and Sikh retaliation, causing widespread ethno-religious violence. The following year, 329 people were killed by a bomb explosion on Air India Flight 182, revealed to have been planted by Canadian-Sikh fighters.