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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    An estimated 40,000 Sikhs vote in Sacramento to show support for independence from India

    Sacramento, Calif. — In a remarkable display of democratic aspirations, an estimated 40,000 Sikh Americans lined up around the state Capitol on Sunday to enter a tent and cast a vote for independence.

    The voting is part of a non-binding election being held by Sikhs around the world who aspire to break away from India, and form in what is today the Indian state of Punjab, an independent nation called Khalistan.

    On Sunday, amid a sea of bright yellow Khalistan flags, volunteers kept spirits up among the electorate by passing out sweet and savory snacks and pouring pitchers of hot chai tea.

    For Bhupinder Singh, Sunday marked a second attempt to cast his vote. His initial journey in January, traveling six hours from his home in Oregon to San Francisco for an earlier vote there, was thwarted by overwhelming turnout organizers say exceeded 100,000. Lines stretched to six hours, leaving thousands unable to vote.

    In response, the organizers of the referendum, the Punjab Referendum Commission, a panel of direct democracy experts chaired by Dane Waters, a former official in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, added a second day of California voting in Sacramento.

    An estimated 250,000 people of Sikh descent live in California, with most in the Central Valley.

    Looking on as Sikhs entered the voting area Sunday, Waters said that everything was “going smoothly” and he expected, unlike in San Francisco, everyone who wanted would be able to cast a ballot.

    “We won’t be intimidated. Sikhs are a determined people,” Singh said with his arm around his 9-year-old nephew, Armaan Singh, from Chico.

    “We want Khalistan,” Armann said.

    Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and Western intelligence agencies alleged in September that evidence suggested India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was behind the assassination of Nijjar.

    In November, U.S. officials unsealed an indictment alleging that another Khalistan referendum backer, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer for an organization Sikhs for Justice, was also the target of an India-backed assassination plot. The alleged plan was exposed after the plotters offered $100,000 to an undercover American agent they thought was a hitman, to kill Pannun.

    The threat to Sikh activists has also been felt in Sacramento.

    Bobby Singh, a local activist and Sacramento State student who was close to Nijjar, received a chilling death threat days after the Sikh leader was killed. Since then, the FBI has been in touch with Singh frequently. Recently, the FBI urged him to limit his movements in public, Singh said.

    Heeding those warnings, Singh stayed away from the Capitol Sunday, observing from a few blocks away. He said he was proud as he watched streams of “my Sikh brothers and sisters,” heading to vote.

    Last month, Indian officials, according to a report by Bloomberg, informed U.S. authorities that an internal investigation revealed that rogue elements of India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), were behind the plot to kill Pannun.

    Stanton said that with the plots involving Sikh leaders, he considers it “progress in that India has admitted complicity.” The former intelligence officer said that because of the scrutiny India has been under, further high-profile assassination attempts in the U.S. and Canada authorized by India are “not likely to be attempted again. Notwithstanding this, we need justice for Mr. Nijjar.”

    Stanton is not buying claims that Modi was unaware of the assassination plots. “He knew. It’s his out.”

    Karam Singh, director of advocacy for the California Sikh Youth Alliance, said that Sunday’s vote was a proud day for his family. Singh grew up in Sacramento, where he still lives. His parents came here in the 1980’s, fleeing violence directed against Sikhs many consider to have been a genocide.

    “This same process, an independence referendum, ultimately needs to take place in Punjab. This is a challenge for the Indian government; Can they act as a mature democracy and allow a free and fair vote in Punjab? Or, will they keep criminalizing democracy and dissent?”

    That said, experts on India believe there is little chance the Modi government would allow any such vote to take place. Even amid international outrage over the killing of Nijjar, the Indian government continues to label Khalistan independence advocates “terrorists.” While non-binding votes such as Sunday’s send a message and raise awareness globally, at the moment they remain largely symbolic.

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