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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 Manjit Singh.

“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 for comment.

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 Independence.” 

“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 Punjab. 

“This (drug) issue should be seen as a national threat,” said Rajwant Singh.

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





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