Norwich Sikh independence celebration is criticized by Indian residents
Norwich — City leaders and state legislators are in the middle of a bitter rift between Sikhs and a group calling itself “Indian American Community of CT” concerning the city’s support of an April 29 celebration of Sikh Independence Day.
Since that day, emails, texts, angry phone calls and letters have circulated by Indians demanding that Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom and the City Council rescind their proclamation declaring April 29 as Sikh Declaration of Independence Day.
Similar demands have been made of state legislators to revoke a General Assembly citation started by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and signed by the Norwich delegation and state legislative leaders.
A petition on www.change.org asks the Connecticut General Assembly to rescind its citation in support of the Declaration of Sikh Independence Day. The petition had 747 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
Sikh community leaders, including the World Sikh Parliament, have fired back with their own emails, videos, links to articles describing atrocities against Sikhs allegedly supported by the Indian government. A petition started by Norwich Sikh community leader Swaranjit Singh Khalsa on www.change.org asks that U.S. lawmakers, including President Joe Biden, “must allow Sikh history to be celebrated and acknowledged in U.S.” That petition had 737 signatures by Friday afternoon.
The Indian American Community of CT claims that the General Assembly and Norwich are illegally interfering with U.S. international affairs. The group accused the World Sikh Parliament, which ran the April 29 event program, of having ties to Sikh terrorist organizations. Norwich and state leaders have been “misguided by fringe organizations with nefarious intentions,” said one email sent by Vikram Bhandari of Wilton and signed only by Indian American Community of CT.
The group called the independence celebration of the 1986 declaration of independence by Sikhs for an independent state of Khalistan, “uncalled for recognition of a separatist movement calling for the breakup of India.”
The email contained links to published articles about the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards and the bombing of an Air India passenger jet on June 23, 1985, allegedly by Sikh extremists.
Notably, the email sent Monday, June 20 to Norwich Mayor Nystrom and City Council members was not sent to Alderman Singh Khalsa, whom is a Sikh. He said he was not surprised.
“They don’t like Sikhs, and it’s very painful for them to see me as elected official,” Khalsa said in response to the slight.
Khalsa and other Sikh leaders accused the Indian consulate in New York of stirring up the controversy in Connecticut. Khalsa’s email responses contain links to articles describing an Indian government “disinformation” campaign against Sikhs and Indian government military actions against Sikhs, including the June 1984 military assault on a Sikh temple, and the widely labeled “Sikh genocide” riots against Sikhs in November 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Khalsa cited a book that claims the Air India bombing was planned by the Indian foreign intelligence agency to blame Sikhs.
Khalsa said Sikhs view the Punjab region as the Sikh homeland occupied by India. Khalsa said the 1986 Sikh Declaration of Independence in Amritsar Punjab was “made in peaceful manner among 500,000 people.” He said the April 29 Norwich anniversary celebration likewise was peaceful.
“Sikh nation seeks peaceful resolution with India and just wanted their right of self-determination,” Khalsa said in an email to The Day last week.
On Friday, Khalsa said Sikh leaders are working to set up a meeting with officials at the U.S. State Department to file a written complaint against Indian consulate of New York “and all parties involved in it.”
Reactions to the demand by the Indian American Community of CT's request that the citation and city proclamation be revoked are mixed.
Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom staunchly defended the city proclamation and support for the local Sikh community. Nystrom said more than 25 Sikh families live in Norwich and are peaceful, productive members of the community. Nystrom said he has read about violent attacks and political persecution against Sikhs and Sikhism in India.
“We have Sikh residents living in the city of Norwich who are kind, peace-loving families,” Nystrom said. “This is an argument between people that can never be settled, not even by us and our resolutions.”
On May 24, state Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Matthew L. Lesser, D-Middletown, and state Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, issued a joint letter clarifying their position regarding the citation “perceived as challenging the sovereignty of India.” The letter stated the citation “mistakenly” included their names as introducers and said they were grateful to the Consul General of India for the chance to clarify their position.
“As state senators, we each represent large and diverse Indian American communities,” the letter stated. “We support continuing friendship between the people of India and the residents of Connecticut.”
Duff issued a separate letter June 1 saying he did not authorize his signature and was not aware of the citation at the time.
Republican state Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, whose district includes Norwich, wrote in a June 9 letter to state Rep. Harry Arora, R-Greenwich, an immigrant from India, that Dubitsky too did not give permission for his name to appear on the citation. But Dubitsky’s letter explained that it is common practice and courtesy for a legislator to include the names of fellow legislators representing that municipality on celebratory citations.
“When I present a citation in the Norwich area, I typically ensure that the names of the other Norwich delegation members are on the citations, even if they had no involvement in the subject matter of the citation. It is a common courtesy among legislators,” Dubitsky wrote.
Dubitsky compared the Sikh-India controversy to an effort several years ago in the state legislature to support the people of Northern Ireland in their fight against British rule. Saying he “truly did not know who was right and who was wrong in that conflict,” Dubitsky declined to support the move.
“If I had been asked in advance about adding my name to the Sikh Independence citation, I likely would have taken that same position,” Dubitsky wrote.
Like Nystrom, Osten strongly defended the Sikh citation and said her office sent requests to legislative staffs of all Norwich legislators and Senate leaders Duff, Lesser and Anwar for support of the 36th anniversary of the declaration of Sikh independence. Osten said she has been issuing citations for the past several years for the anniversary, and this was the first time the citation has drawn controversy.
“I’m not retracting mine,” Osten said. “I’ve done this for the past five or six years. Apparently, this has become a political issue this year. I’m not disrespecting either side in this issue. They think that this is the state government taking sides. It is not. It’s a citation. it’s a legislative document, not government action.”