The Indian state's banning of a New York-based advocacy group, Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), has once again revealed the discriminatory and anti-minority mindset of the government in the world’s so-called largest democracy
On July 10, the Indian Home Ministry declared SFJ an unlawful organization and prohibited it for five years.
SFJ is being accused of spreading terrorism not only by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi, but also by the Congress government in Punjab.
Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh has welcomed the move. Thus, two parties that are ideologically opposed to each other have come under one tent to isolate SFJ, which has been campaigning for a referendum on a separate Sikh homeland of Khalistan in 2020.
Many of the group's activists have been arrested in the past by the Punjab police for merely propagating support for a referendum that Captain Amarinder Singh and the BJP claim to be secessionist.
Undoubtedly, a violent insurgency between the mid 1980s to mid 1990s for Khalistan in Punjab left thousands of people dead. But that movement has not existed for many years, partly because of police repression and partly because it lost popular support from the Sikh community due to excesses committed by the militants.
Only some fringe groups, such as SFJ, are asking for Khalistan through democratic means and yet the Indian government chose to ban it.
The SFJ was founded in 2007. Initially, the group was campaigning for justice for victims of the 1984 Sikh genocide.
In the first week of November 1984, Sikhs were slaughtered by mobs all over India following the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This came in retaliation for the military invasion of the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, in June that year.
The ill-conceived army operation was planned and executed to deal with a handful of militants inside the temple. Known as Operation Bluestar, it left many pilgrims dead and important buildings destroyed. The attack that was preventable alienated the Sikhs from the mainstream and galvanized the movement for Khalistan.
In early November 1984, activists of the slain leader’s self-proclaimed secularist Congress party were seen instigating murderous mobs that targeted innocent Sikhs. SFJ has been trying to embarrass all of those political figures involved by trying to block their visits to North America. Some of these individuals were served with summons by the courts following the sustained efforts of SFJ.
Notably, SFJ did not just confine itself to Sikh issues as it also opposed visits of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to the U.S. and Canada, alleging that he was complicit in the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre. Modi has denied any wrongdoing and has never been charged.
Modi was chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat when thousands of Muslims were murdered following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. Modi blamed Muslim extremists for the incident, which claimed more than 50 lives.
However, SFJ went a step further when a far-right Hindu nationalist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), announced in 2015 that India will become Hindu state by 2020. The statement came from VHP Leader Ashok Singhal after Modi became prime minister in 2014.
The VHP was involved in the Gujarat massacre and is known to be closely associated with the BJP. Both groups are determined to turn India into a Hindu theocracy.
This gave SFJ an excuse to raise the issue of a referendum in 2020.
Whereas the government of India under Modi remained a mute spectator to the vicious statement of Singhal, despite India being governed by a secular constitution, SFJ continues to receive a backlash and bad press. Nobody talks about Singhal being a troublemaker.
Leave aside the question of banning the VHP for spreading hate and violence. When Singhal died the same year, he was given last respects by the ministers in the BJP government. Modi also paid tributes to this leader, who was known for spewing venom against Muslims.
So much so, minorities have continued to be attacked by Hindu extremist groups, including the VHP, with impunity since 2014. In the recently concluded general election, the BJP fielded Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur as a candidate—she's a controversial female ascetic charged in connection with a bombing incident that left six people dead and 100 injured in a predominantly Muslim locality in 2008.
Now an elected MP, she was openly supported by Modi. This is despite the fact that she is still facing trial and hasn’t been acquitted.
This clearly shows that the Indian state under Modi is shamelessly patronizing those involved in majoritarian terrorism and has given them legitimacy. To punish Hindu fanatical groups is one thing. The Indian state lacks will to ban them.
So, the question is: why and on what basis has SFJ been banned?
These simple facts are sufficient to understand that the Indian state is being selective. Its definition of terrorism remains flawed as it arbitrarily decides who is a terrorist and who isn’t. Not a single Hindu extremist organization has been added to its growing list of banned terror groups.
People in North America need to raise their voices in defence of SFJ and press upon the Indian government to lift the ban, which is aimed at polarizing the Hindu majority and scapegoating the minority Sikh community to gain political mileage.
Both the BJP and the Congress are aiming to pocket the support of the Hindu majority by "othering" non-Hindus, be they Muslims or the Sikhs.
If a democracy like India has an appetite to accept the rhetoric of the Hindu right, then, for the sake of consistency, it must also show respect to the demand for a referendum on Khalistan.
Either that, or India should honestly admit that it was always a Hindu nation where minorities hold second-class citizenship.