From Punjab to San Francisco: Why Sikh activism matters

GRAPHIC BY SOPHIE REICHERT/GRAPHICS CENTER

Broken windows, graffitied walls, makeshift camps, and a sign that read, “Honk for human rights.” This was the scene over the past month in front of the Consulate General of India in San Francisco, two blocks down from USF, as Sikh protesters flooded the streets in support of Amritpal Singh, a political activist who looks to revive the Sikh spirit and values. These values include perseverance in the face of persecution and taking action to fight tyranny. Beginning in 2022, the government has targeted Singh for his influential criticism of the Indian state and support for the Khalistan Sikh-separatist movement.

Singh is the leader of Waris Punjab De, an organization that targets the drug epidemic in Punjab and fights human rights violations. He has criticized the government for the continued persecution of Sikhs and mistreatment of the Punjab region. This discrimination stems from the year 1947, the year of the partition, and has seen clashes between the Indian government as Sikhs fight for their sovereignty and religious freedom. The failure of the Indian government to provide Sikhs these rights, along with the violence against their community, has even led many Sikhs to declare the possibility of an ongoing Sikh genocide. In his fight against the drug epidemic, he has spoken out against politicians who have attempted to deplatform him. As we are privileged with the freedom of speech and expression at USF, it is our responsibility to speak out against injustice and stand with Sikh activists.

Most recently, Singh was involved in a protest that devolved into violence at a police station. This was the excuse needed for the government to create a massive police state in Punjab, as they began a month-long crackdown to find Singh, who was able to defy the deployed forces sent to arrest him. While Singh became a fugitive, police detained hundreds of Sikh activists and journalists and committed numerous other human rights violations, such as accosting family members of said activists and restricting freedom of assembly. Perhaps the biggest issue was the Indian government’s decision to shut down internet access across the entire state of Punjab, a tyrannical move that would be similar to turning off the internet across California.

It is clear why this is a problem — the mass detainment of activists and blocking of access to media is a tactic used to stifle dissent and prevent individuals from voicing their concerns. The situation is eerily similar to the widespread civil unrest and violence in Punjab following the 1984 storming of the most sacred Sikh site, Sri Harmandir Sahib. This led to extensive measures by the Indian government to suppress Sikh movements and separatism, with many measures involving the use of torture and coercion. An example of this crackdown against Sikh activism was the brutal assassination of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a Sikh activist and vocal critic of the Indian government for its continued human rights abuses.

If you were to ask most USF students about the protests that happened in front of the consulate, you would be greeted with confused expressions. This is not their fault, of course, there is a lack of awareness and knowledge on Sikh subjects. However, this issue is not thousands of miles away — it has been brought to our doorstep. These protests have been happening in San Francisco over the past two decades, and will most likely continue to happen as Sikhs fight for their rights in the face of oppression.

As an institution that prides itself on civic engagement and responsibility, it is imperative that we at USF recognize these causes and bring more attention to Sikh issues. I have proposed the methods to do so in the following passages.

Numerous Sikh organizations, including USF’s own Sikh Student Association, condemned the arrests and human rights violations in Punjab. This has included the passing of student resolutions at universities such as UC Berkeley and University of Southern California. Beyond student advocacy, it would be a historic statement for USF to condemn these arrests along with making a statement on these recent violations.

I call on USF to consider the introduction of Sikh studies courses within its curriculum in order to raise awareness and provide insight into the history of the Sikh religion and Punjab. These courses would also introduce context for the protests and why Sikhs feel so strongly about the situation. By studying Sikh activism, we could learn from the perseverance of the Sikh community in its fight for democracy and track the evolution of their identity over time.

These are relatively simple steps to demonstrate our civic duty and show solidarity with marginalized communities. While they may not be achieved immediately, USF can show its commitment to supporting those who fight for their rights and freedoms.

Dark history is repeating itself in India. With support from the diaspora and enhanced methods of communication to raise awareness, we can bring to light the severity of human rights violations against Punjab. As for now, I know that I will continue to honk for human rights.

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