HomeSikh AmericansThousands gather in Sacramento to vote on Sikh independence referendum

Thousands gather in Sacramento to vote on Sikh independence referendum

On Sunday, March 31, thousands of Sikhs gathered at the California State Capitol in Sacramento to vote on a referendum calling for Sikh independence in India. ABC 10 Sacramento estimates that around 5,000 people showed up to vote.

The referendum is officially known as “The Khalistan Referendum,” and calls for an independent Sikh state (to be called Khalistan) in Punjab, a northern region in India. Sunday’s vote was the second of its kind in the United States. The first vote was held in San Francisco with around 125,000 people participating.

The history of Khalistan can be traced back nearly a century but it gained traction in the 1980s after a Sikh genocide, advocates note. In the early 1980s a few Sikh extremist responded violently to a repressive Indian government. The Indian government, in response, deployed hundreds of troops to Punjab to root out the extremists in 1984. A few months after the initial deployment, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

According to the Sikh Research Institute, over 30,000 Sikhs were killed and more than 300,000 were displaced as a result of the Indian government’s response.

Now, Sikhs feel that an independent state would help protect their people and their culture.

“I feel our only way forward is to make Punjab an independent state where we can practice our religion, preserve our culture, preserve our history,” Irbanjit Sahota told NPR at a rally the day before the vote.

The threats Sikhs face did not end in the 1980s and extends beyond India’s borders. In June 2023, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an activist and independence advocate, was shot and killed in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has formally accused the Indian government of being involved in his death.

For many Sikhs in the United States, the vote symbolizes a peaceful response to decades of violent oppression.

“We believe ballots not bullets,” Avtar Singh Pannu, the President of Sikhs for Justice, told KCRA 3.

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