India has been engaging with the Sikh community to reassure them of their place and role in the wider Indian national identity. India’s ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, faced protests and heckling by some members of the Sikh community at a gurdwara in Long Island, New York, on Sunday as he stepped up his outreach to the community, speaking about Sikhism’s larger message of equality, unity and brotherhood, and highlighting the progress in the India-US relationship, which will have tangible benefits for India in general and Punjab in particular.
The incident, which was recorded on video, occurred at the end of his visit to the Guru Nanak Darbar of Long Island, with some individuals directly accusing India of having killed Candian pro-Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and being part of a plot to kill another separatist backer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Other Sikh community leaders at the gurdwara, however, asked the protesters to quieten down as they escorted Sandhu.
He had, a day earlier, visited the Sri Guru Ravidass Temple in New York on a similar visit. Sandhu’s efforts and the protests come against the backdrop of two developments that have caused a rupture in India-Canada relations, posed a challenge in the India-US relationship, and caused divisions within the Indian diaspora.
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed there were “credible allegations” linking agents of the government of India to the killing in Surrey, British Columbia, of Nijjar, a Canadian national whom India had designated as a terrorist. India termed the allegations “absurd”, said this was not government policy, and offered to look into it if Canada offered specific and relevant information. Ottawa, however, hasn’t yet provided evidence to back its claim.
Last week, responding to a report in the Financial Times, the US confirmed that it had spoken to India about government involvement in a possible plot to kill Pannun, another Khalistani extremist designated as terrorist by India who happens to a dual Canadian-American national. India acknowledged that it had received inputs from the US and relevant departments were examining the issue.
At a time when the allegations have caused concerns among the Sikh diaspora, India has stepped up its engagement to reassure the community of its pivotal place and role in the wider Indian national identity. India strongly believes that radical and violent elements constitute only a minor fraction of the wider Sikh diaspora. It is also understood to be alert about attempts, particularly by external adversaries and those keen to undermine India-US ties, to sow divisions within the diaspora, deepen alienation and stir unrest.
On Saturday, Sandhu visited the Sri Guru Ravidass Temple in New York where he spoke about Guru Nanak Dev’s “timeless message of equality and universal oneness in the well known Shabad of Guru Ravidass”. He later joined the prayers at the Guru Nanak Darbar where he spoke, in Punjabi, about the progressive values embedded in Sikhism, the ability of Sikhs to face adversity, India’s assistance to Sikhs of Afghanistan whenever they faced trouble, including during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021 (a number of attendees were Sikhs from the country), and the dramatic developments in the India-US relationship, including in the domain of education and knowledge partnership which would also benefit Punjab.
“Privileged to join the local Sangat, including from Afghanistan, at Guru Nanak Darbar of Long Island in celebrating Gurpurab- listened to Kirtan, spoke about Guru Nanak’s everlasting message of togetherness, unity, & equality, partook langar, and sought blessings for all,” Sandhu said on X (formerly Twitter).
It was towards the end of this visit that a few hecklers accosted Sandhu. “You killed Nijjar,” a protester could be heard saying on video, while another referred to the allegations about India’s role in the plot against Pannun.
Sandhu is a veteran US hand and among the most senior diplomats in the Indian foreign service. He has a family legacy embedded in the Indian freedom struggle and the Sikh political-religious tradition. His grandfather, Teja Singh Samundri, was a leader of the gurdwara reform movement in the early 20th century. Samundri died in mysterious circumstances in a Lahore prison in 1926, when jailed by the British, and is the only non-guru in whose name there is a building in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar.
Lauding the visit, Balbeer Singh Pahwa, the president of the Guru Nanak Darbar, said, “The Ambassador’s visit was very positive. There were only four protesters and the gurdwara leaders asked them to leave as soon as they created disturbances. But I can tell you that everyone else in the community praised Sandhu’s message of togetherness. There were several other gurdwara heads present and they too were against the protests. We hope that this engagement of the Indian government with the Sikh community continues as they listen to our problems and help resolve it.”
Pahwa added that members of the community were also positive towards PM Narendra Modi and his efforts vis à vis the Sikh community, especially his role in assisting Afghan Sikhs during a time of crisis.
Placing the Indian outreach and protests in context, Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has extensively studied the Indian diaspora and its faultlines in the US, said, “Sandhu’s outreach to the Sikh community reflects sound public diplomacy and comes at a time when many in the Sikh diaspora around the world are feeling unsettled. However, there is no silver bullet when it comes to healing divides within the diaspora. This outreach will only bear fruit if sustained over time and if the extremism of a few is not conflated with the moderation of the masses.”
Source: The Hindustan Times