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Blacklisted US Sikhs in visa tangle
Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington
Three decades after many Sikhs fled
the violence that devastated their families in Punjab, the Indian
government is continuing to make it hard for them to visit India.
Their crime? Sikh Americans say it’s the price they’re being
forced to pay for having sought political asylum in the West.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise on a recently concluded visit
to the U.S. to make it easier for people of Indian origin and U.S.
citizens to travel to India has thus received a cool reception from
Sikh Americans, some of whom have been kept out of India because of a
government “blacklist” that includes the names of Sikhs accused of
terrorism, supporters of Khalistan and those who sought political
asylum on the grounds of religious persecution in India.
“We are disappointed that the prime minister has not indicated any
reforms to the Indian government’s maintenance of a ‘blacklist,’
which unfortunately includes innocent and law-abiding Sikhs,” said
Manjit Singh, co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and
Education Fund (SALDEF).
“Currently there is no official process to appeal the incorrect
inclusion of your name on the blacklist by providing documentary
evidence to prove your case,” he added.
Those who manage to travel to India often get harassed by immigration
officials who “single out all Sikhs ... regardless of if they were
ever Indian citizens in the past, to more closer scrutiny and checks;
clearly indicating the process’ dual standards that apply to Sikhs
and other Indians (who are non-Sikhs) entering the country,” said
“This subtle and implicit ‘discrimination’ and assumption of
‘guilt’ is in direct contradiction with India’s ambitions of
being a world leader and having a fair and equitable treatment of all
individuals,” he added.
The “blacklist” was constituted in the 1980s when the separatist
Khalistani movement was at its peak in Punjab. At least half a dozen
Sikh Americans interviewed for this story said many Sikhs ended up on
the government blacklist despite never having committed any crime.
“At that time a lot of people fled to escape the violence and sought
political asylum in the U.S. But now things have changed in India, yet
for us Sikhs living outside we are looked upon as people who are not a
part of India any more,” said Jasdip Singh, chairman of the South
Asian Democratic Caucus of Maryland.
Jasdip Singh, who came to the U.S. from Indore in 1986 and is
currently settled in Baltimore, was part of a delegation that met Modi
in New York over the weekend and raised the issue of the blacklist.
Some Sikhs who fled India have for years been living illegally in the
U.S. As U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has created
opportunities for some illegals to legalize their status, Sikh
Americans find themselves stuck in limbo as the government of India
refuses to renew their passports, said Jasdip Singh.
An Indian Embassy spokesman in Washington did not respond to a request
Sukhpal Dhanoa, a Washington-based realtor who also attended the
meeting with Modi, said Sikhs fleeing Punjab had two options on their
arrival in the U.S.: They could either marry a U.S. citizen and
eventually become U.S. citizens themselves, or they could apply for
political asylum. Those who sought political asylum were automatically
put on the blacklist by the Indian government, he said.
Dhanoa moved from Amritsar to the U.S. in 1997 not because he was
fleeing persecution, but because he believed his daughter would
benefit from living in the U.S.
Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education
(SCORE), said by lifting the visa restrictions on Sikhs the government
of India will “help ease the feelings of many who have been wronged
in the turbulent times of the 80s.”
“Blacklist is a big impediment in creating an open atmosphere. India
is a democratic country and people should be able to freely travel and
interact with their kin to make their own judgment about the political
situation,” he added.
The Sikh American community has become alienated from India as a
result of years of perceived neglect by successive governments in New
Delhi. In the three decades since the violence that followed the
assassination of Indira Gandhi, some Sikhs’ resentment toward the
Indian government has grown as the crimes committed against them and
their families have remained unaddressed and the perpetrators of those
crimes remain out of prison.
The formation of a Sikh American caucus in the U.S. Congress, separate
from the Indian American caucus, underscored the alienation felt by
some in the Sikh American community.
As Modi visited U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on
Tuesday, a large group of Sikh Americans protested in a park outside.
Some of them held signs demanding “Sikhs Want Their Own
“Some people want to go back to Punjab, while others want Khalistan
and to have no dealings with India,” said Dhanoa touching on the
divided loyalties within the Sikh American community.
Besides easing travel restrictions and bringing the perpetrators of
violence against Sikhs in the 1980s to book, Sikh American community
leaders want the government of India to tackle the drug menace in
“This (drug) issue should be seen as a national threat,” said
Khalistan movement fallout
The ‘blacklist’ was constituted in the 1980s when the separatist Khalistan movement was at its peak in Punjab
It includes the names of Sikhs accused of terrorism, supporters of Khalistan and those who sought political asylum on the grounds of religious persecution in India
But a large number of Sikhs who had never committed any crime ended up on the blacklist. A few of those who have managed to travel to India have allegedly been harassed by immigration officials
There is currently no official process in place to appeal the incorrect inclusion of one’s name on the blacklist by providing documentary evidence to prove their case