India: Situation and treatment of suspected or perceived Sikh militants and Khalistan supporters in the state of Punjab by society and the authorities; prevalence of arrests, including methods used by the police to track them; treatment of Sikhs outside the state of Punjab by society and authorities; ability for Sikhs to relocate within India outside the state of Punjab (2020–May 2022) [IND201037.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada

1. Overview

According to the 2011 census, India's most recent census (The Hindu 17 Aug. 2021), there were 20,833,116 Sikhs among India's total population of 1.21 billion (India 2011) or 1.7 percent of the population (India 25 Aug. 2015). The 2011 census indicates that the majority of Sikhs reside in Punjab with a population of approximately 16 million (India 2011). According to the US Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report for 2020, 54 percent of the population of Punjab is Sikh (US 12 May 2021, 4). The 2011 census also notes the following Sikh populations in neighbouring Haryana (1.2 million) and Rajasthan (872,930) (India 2011). The same source further notes that Uttar Pradesh and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have Sikh populations of 643,500 and 570,581, respectively (India 2011).

1.1 Legal Overview

The Constitution of India provides the following:

15. Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.

(2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to—

  1. access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or
  2. the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.

25. Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion.—(1) Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.

(2) Nothing in this article shall affect the operation of any existing law or prevent the State from making any law—

  1. regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice;
  2. providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus.

Explanation I.—The wearing and carrying of kirpans shall be deemed to be included in the profession of the Sikh religion.

Explanation II.—In sub-clause (b) of clause (2), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.

26. Freedom to manage religious affairs.—Subject to public order, morality and health, every religious denomination or any section thereof shall have the right—

  1. to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes;
  2. to manage its own affairs in matters of religion;
  3. to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and
  4. to administer such property in accordance with law. (India 1950, emphasis in original)

According to the US International Religious Freedom Report for 2020, under the Constitution of India, Sikhs are subject to laws and legislation concerning Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act (US 12 May 2021, 6). The same source further states that under federal law, Sikhs have official minority status, and that the Constitution states that "the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests" (US 12 May 2021, 6). The US report also notes that Sikh marriages are recognized but legal provisions for divorce are not provided and "[o]ther Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes" (US 12 May 2021, 7).

2. Treatment of Sikhs by Authorities and Society

In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio, who has conducted research on Sikh separatism, stated that there might be "rare cases of religious discrimination," but Sikhs "generally" do not face "systematic problems in India based on their identity" (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). However, in an interview with the Research Directorate, an emeritus professor at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, who conducted research on Indian capitalism with emphasis on human rights in Punjab, stated that since 1984, "prejudice" against Sikhs has become "very deep rooted" (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). According to a country information report from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), from 2018 to 2019 the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) received 1,871 complaints, with Sikhs being one of the top three minority complainant communities, and with the top three complaints relating to matters of law and order, service and education (Australia 10 Dec. 2020, para. 3.23). Sources note that Sikhs face communal violence (MRG June 2020; Australia 10 Dec. 2020, para. 3.66). The DFAT report states that religious minorities, including Sikhs, face "varying degrees of socio-economic, cultural and legal discrimination" (Australia 10 Dec. 2020, para. 3.66).

3. Sikh Separatist Organizations

According to the US Country Reports on Terrorism 2020, there have been no "significant recent activities" by Sikh separatist (Khalistan) organizations in India (US 16 Dec. 2021). The Associate Professor stated that while there are "two or three" Sikh political organizations that support Sikh separatism, there are "very few" Sikh militants and there is no organized armed separatist movement within Punjab (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). According to a report from the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), which is "an independent, non-profit social enterprise dedicated to countering disinformation, exposing human rights abuses, and combating online behaviour harmful to women and minorities" (CIR n.d.), a "coordinated influence operation" on social media used fake profiles to promote narratives arguing that "'real' Sikhs support the Indian government and Indian nationalism, and that advocates of Sikh autonomy and independence are extremist or terrorist" (CIR 23 Nov. 2021, 4, 2). The report further states that the accounts targeted the issues of the farmers' protests and the Khalistan movement, "claim[ing] any notion of Sikh independence is extremist and terrorist related" (CIR 23 Nov. 2021, 5).

4. Farmers' Protests

According to media sources, protests that occurred in response to new agricultural laws were "largely led" and organized by Sikh farmers from Punjab (RNS 30 Nov. 2020), or largely populated by Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana (The New York Times 19 Nov. 2021). According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), senior leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, their supporters and pro-government media blamed Sikhs for the protests, stating they had a "'Khalistani' agenda" (HRW 19 Feb. 2021). ThePrint, an independent news organization based in New Delhi (ThePrint n.d.), states that the BJP accused the Indian National Congress party, which was then in power in Punjab, of "aligning with radical elements" (ThePrint 27 Nov. 2020). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, an attorney for Voices for Freedom (VFF), an international human rights NGO working in India, UK, Canada and the US to "publicize the plight of the oppressed" by campaigning and publishing reports (VFF n.d.), noted that when Sikhs speak out against BJP policies they are called "anti-nationalist" by the government (Attorney 27 May 2022). According to an article from Asian News International (ANI), a news agency in India, the Haryana Chief Minister stated that the farmers' protests contained Khalistan supporters (ANI 3 Dec. 2020). According to New Delhi Television (NDTV), a news broadcaster in India (NDTV n.d.), the Chief Minister also stated that the protesters were from Punjab and not from his state of Haryana (NDTV 28 Nov. 2020). The Hindustan Times, an Indian English-language newspaper, stated that the BJP national general secretary "alleged that the farmers' protest has been hijacked by extremist elements and claimed that pro-Khalistan and pro-Pakistan slogans were proof of it" (Hindustan Times 29 Nov. 2020). According to an article from the Indian Express, a daily Indian English-language news publication, during Supreme Court hearings challenging the new farm laws, the Attorney General of India claimed that his office had been informed of a "'Khalistani infiltration in the protests'" (The Indian Express with PTI 12 Jan. 2021). A country policy and information report by the UK Home Office notes that the "majority" of protests were peaceful with "isolated instances" of police "using tear gas, beating protesters with batons and using water cannons to disperse crowds" (UK Nov. 2021, para. 2.4.18).

Media sources report that a climate activist was arrested due to links to a "toolkit" document connected to the farmers' protests (Reuters 15 Feb. 2021; The Times of India 23 Feb. 2021), with Reuters describing the document as an "action plan" shared on social media, identifying ways to help the protestors (Reuters 15 Feb. 2021). According to an article from the Times of India, an Indian English-language newspaper, the prosecution asserted that the "'pro-Khalistan'" group Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) [1] was associated with the creation of the document and the climate activist was linked to founders of PJF, but a Delhi court granted bail to the activist when they found no "'direct links'" between the activist and the founders, that neither the activist nor PFJ incited violence, and the PJF is not a banned organization (The Times of India 23 Feb. 2021).

5. Treatment of Perceived Separatists or Khalistan Supporters in Punjab

According to the Associate Professor, there are Sikh political parties which ascribe to separatism, including the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) (SAD(A)) [Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann); SAD(M); SAD(Amritsar); Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar) (Simranjit Singh Mann)] and the Dal Khalsa; SAD(A) is recognized by the Election Commission of India and advocates for Khalistan through democratic means (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). For further information on SAD(A), see Response to Information Request IND200258 of June 2020.

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a representative of the World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO), an organization promoting the interests of Canadian Sikhs (WSO n.d.), stated that the "government, civil society and media vilify Sikhs advocating for Khalistan as extremists and militants by default" (Representative 12 May 2022). The Emeritus Professor noted that the government is "hostile" to separatist movements (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). The same source further noted that the societal view of Khalistan activists from the Hindu population is one of suspicion and while "some" Sikhs are sympathetic, many view Khalistan activists as "problematic" (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022).

According to sources, the police "keep track of" (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022) or "monitor" Khalistan supporters (Associate Professor 4 May 2022; Representative 12 May 2022). According to the Associate Professor, security services are more likely to focus on Sikh separatists because they represent "a perceived political threat to the unity of India" (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). According to the Emeritus Professor, individuals who attend SAD(A) speeches will be tracked by the police and Khalistan activists who participate in activities such as demonstrations, meetings or posting on social media will be monitored (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). The same source further stated that individuals who move to another city will continue to be tracked since that information will be shared (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). The WSO representative noted that Khalistan activists are tracked through social media, with police and intelligence forces having "vast and sophisticated IT cells which devote considerable resources to tracking Khalistan supporters and also create false accounts and content in order to lure individuals to express support for Khalistan so they can also be tracked" (Representative 12 May 2022). According to the Indian Express, the Punjab police has "many deradicalisation cells" which monitor social media posts and track down individuals with separatist connections who are then counselled by senior offices (The Indian Express 23 Aug. 2020). Based on information provided by ten youths who were summoned to "counseling" by the Punjab police, the Indian Express noted that these youths had their "photo, finge[rp]rints, copies of the Aadhaar card [a national identity card] and details of their family" recorded by police (The Indian Express 23 Aug. 2020). The same source also states that a man whose son was studying in Canada said he was called to a police station to provide his son's passport number due to a social media post "related to Referendum 2020" his son had liked; the man also said that he paid a bribe to officials in order to "'close the chapter'" (The Indian Express 23 Aug. 2020).

According to the Emeritus Professor, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including those in Punjab, are controlled by the central government which views Khalistan supporters "very suspiciously" (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). The same source also stated that the police will not say that they have arrested someone for supporting Khalistan, rather that the arrest is attributed to "illegal activities or supporting militants," such as putting up pro-Khalistan posters, having weapons, or providing shelter to militants; the police will blame Khalistan activists for crimes in which they cannot find the perpetrator (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). Similarly, the WSO representative stated that perceived Khalistan supporters are "often implicated in false cases" and police forces "harass" Khalistan activists and their families and friends (Representative 12 May 2022).

The WSO representative stated that the prevalence of detention in Punjab and India is "increasing" with a "large number" of Sikh youth reporting harassment or questioning and a "significant number" arrested and charged due to support for Khalistan (Representative 12 May 2022). According to media sources, three Sikh men were sentenced to a life term on the charges of "waging war" against India for possession of literature related to Khalistan (The Indian Express 24 Feb. 2019; SBS Punjabi 11 Feb. 2019). Sources also note that three people were arrested for distributing or providing registration forms to hold a vote for a referendum to form Khalistan and that they were sentenced to six-day police custody (The Tribune 28 Dec. 2021; PTI 28 Dec. 2021).

6. Treatment of Suspected Separatists or Khalistan Supporters Outside of Punjab

According to the WSO representative, "suspected supporters of Khalistan are not safe outside of Punjab, anywhere in India" (Representative 12 May 2022). The same source added that "no Sikh can openly be an advocate for or support the creation of Khalistan" and doing so results in "harassment by the police, false cases and also hatred of those who do not support Khalistan"; the government portrays anyone supporting separatism as "an extremist or terrorist and as an 'anti-national' that can be legitimately targeted for violence" (Representative 12 May 2022). The Associate Professor stated that Sikhs who display separatist beliefs face "persecution" by government authorities and "possible retribution" from the "majority community outside of Punjab" (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). The Associate Professor further stated that Sikhs living outside of Punjab "generally" do not experience "noticeable" issues with health care, education or employment, but Sikhs with separatist beliefs would have "negative interactions" in education and employment, would be "monitored" by the authorities, and would find it "more difficult" to live outside of Punjab (Associate Professor 4 May 2022). The WSO representative stated that requirements that have made the relocation of Sikhs facing "persecution" "more challenging" include registration at a police station when moving, use of the Aadhaar card for basic services such as banking, and tenant verification (Representative 12 May 2022). For information on the Aadhaar card, see Response to Information Request IND200627 of May 2021. For information on tenant verification, see Response to Information Request IND201036 of June 2022.

The WSO representative stated that if an individual is outside of Punjab and their support of Khalistan becomes known, "there is little doubt they would face discrimination, harassment or worse" (Representative 12 May 2022). The Emeritus Professor stated that society outside of Punjab is "more hostile to Sikhs in general" and that if the beliefs of a Khalistan activist outside of Punjab were to become known, they would be in danger of violence from local people (Emeritus Professor 29 Apr. 2022). According to the Press Trust of India (PTI), an Indian news agency, a Khalistan supporter from Punjab who was "hiding" in Bengaluru was "'traced'" by the police and arrested (PTI 12 Jan. 2020). The Hindu, an Indian English-language daily newspaper, states that in Delhi, three "alleged" Khalistan supporters were arrested; according to police, they had ties to the Khalistan Liberation Force leaders, were planning targeted killings, and had weapons in their possession (The Hindu 27 June 2020). The Hindustan Times states that a special investigation team in Himachal Pradesh arrested an individual for putting up Khalistan flags and writing graffiti at the Himachal Pradesh Vidhan Sabha [legislative assembly] (Hindustan Times 11 May 2022).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Note

[1] A Toronto Star article indicates that the Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF) is a "grassroots rights advocacy group"; the co-founder of PJF indicated in an interview that the group has facilitated dialogue on Khalistan, but does not take a stance on the subject (Toronto Star 20 Feb. 2021).

References

Asian News International (ANI). 3 December 2020. "Khalistan Sympathizers Use Farmers' Protest to Promote Their Separatist Agenda." [Accessed 27 May 2022]

Associate Professor, Hiram College, Ohio. 4 May 2022. Telephone interview with the Research Directorate.

Attorney, Voices for Freedom (VFF). 27 May 2022. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Australia. 10 December 2020. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). DFAT Country Information Report: India. [Accessed 19 Apr. 2022]

Centre for Information Resilience (CIR). 23 November 2021. Benjamin Strick. Analysis of the #RealSikh Influence Operation. [Accessed 25 Apr. 2022]

Centre for Information Resilience (CIR). N.d. "About." [Accessed 15 May 2022]

Emeritus Professor, Oxford Brookes University. 29 April 2022. Interview with the Research Directorate.

The Hindu. 17 August 2021. Priscilla Jebaraj. "Explained: Impact of Delay in Census 2021." [Accessed 25 May 2022]

The Hindu. 27 June 2020. "3 Khalistan Supporters Arrested in Delhi." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

Hindustan Times. 11 May 2022. Naresh K Thakur. "Punjab Man Held for Putting Up Khalistan Flags at Himachal Assembly." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

Hindustan Times. 29 November 2020. Kalyan Das. "Farmers' Protest Hijacked by Extremists, Cong Wants to Incite Riots: BJP Leader." [Accessed 26 Apr. 2022]

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 19 February 2021. "India: Government Policies, Actions Target Minorities." [Accessed 19 Apr. 2022]

India. 25 August 2015. Ministry of Home Affairs, Press Information Bureau. "RGI Releases Census 2011 Data on Population by Religious Communities." [Accessed 28 Apr. 2022]

India. 2011. Ministry of Home Affairs, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner. Population by Religious Community – 2011. [Accessed 28 Apr. 2022]

India. 1950 (amended 2021). The Constitution of India. [Accessed 11 May 2022]

The Indian Express with Press Trust of India (PTI). 12 January 2021. "'Khalistanis' Have Infiltrated Farmers Protest, Will Show IB Inputs: Centre Tells SC." [Accessed 26 Apr. 2022]

The Indian Express. 23 August 2020. Kamaldeep Singh Brar. "To Keep Youth Away from Khalistan Agenda, Cops Walk a Tightrope." [Accessed 6 May 2022]

The Indian Express. 24 February 2019. Anju Agnihotri Chaba. "Punjab: Life Term for Three for 'Waging War Against State', Families in the Dark." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

Minority Rights Group International (MRG). June 2020. "India: Sikhs." World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. [Accessed 19 Apr. 2022]

New Delhi Television (NDTV). 28 November 2020. Mohammad Ghazali. "Haryana Farmers Hit Back After Chief Minister Says 'Protesters Not Ours'." [Accessed 27 May 2022]

New Delhi Television (NDTV). N.d. "NDTV." [Accessed 30 May 2022]

The New York Times. 19 November 2021. Mujib Mashal, Emily Schmall and Russell Goldman. "What Prompted the Farm Protests in India?" [Accessed 20 May 2021]

Press Trust of India (PTI). 28 December 2021. "3 Held with Pro-Khalistan Material in Punjab's Patiala." [Accessed 20 Apr. 2022]

Press Trust of India (PTI). 12 January 2020. "Khalistan Supporter Arrested in Bengaluru: Police." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

Religion News Service (RNS). 30 November 2020. Simran Jeet Singh. "Farmers' Protests Against India's New Agriculture Laws Follow Long Sikh Tradition." [Accessed 20 Apr. 2022]

Representative, World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO). 12 May 2022. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Reuters. 15 February 2021. Chandini Monnappa and Rupam Jain. "India's Arrest of Activist Tied to Greta Thunberg's Movement Sparks Outrage." [Accessed 27 Apr. 2022]

Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) Punjabi. 11 February 2019. "Three Men Get Life Sentence for Possessing Pro-Khalistan Literature." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

ThePrint. 27 November 2020. Neelam Pandey. "BJP Alleges Khalistani Agenda Behind Farmer Protests, Says Congress Playing with Fire." [Accessed 19 Apr. 2022]

ThePrint. N.d. "About." [Accessed 15 May 2022]

The Times of India. 23 February 2021. Aamir Khan. "Court Grant Bail to Disha Ravi, Says Citizens Can't Be Jailed Simply for Disagreeing with State Policies." [Accessed 27 Apr. 2022]

Toronto Star. 20 February 2021. Joanna Chiu. "Inside the Politics that Led India to Accuse a Canadian Man of Paying Rihanna to Tweet Support of Farmer Protests." [Accessed 26 May 2022]

The Tribune. 28 December 2021. Aman Sood. "Woman Among Three Khalistani Sympathisers Arrested in Patiala." [Accessed 13 May 2022]

United Kingdom (UK). November 2021. Home Office. Country Policy and Information Note. India: Religious Minorities and Scheduled Castes and Tribes. [Accessed 19 Apr. 2022]

United States (US). 16 December 2021. Department of State. "India." Country Reports on Terrorism 2020. [Accessed 26 May 2022]

United States (US). 12 May 2021. Department of State. "India." International Religious Freedom Report for 2020. [Accessed 21 Apr. 2022]

Voices for Freedom (VFF). N.d. "Profile." [Accessed 27 May 2022]

World Sikh Organization of Canada (WSO). N.d. "Our Work." [Accessed 26 May 2022]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: assistant professor of law at a university in Punjab; associate professor of religion in South Asian studies at a Canadian university; Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigar; Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project; CSW; Ensaaf; Human Rights Law Network; India – Bureau of Police Research and Development, Ministry of Minority Affairs; Indian Police Foundation; law firm in India with a focus on human rights; law office in Haryana and Punjab; National Sikh Youth Federation; practicing attorney at the Supreme Court of India; professor at a Canadian university with a research focus on politics in South Asia; professor at a Canadian university with a research interest in politics in India; professor at an American university with a research focus on religious identities in South Asia; professor of Punjab studies at a UK university; Punjab – Punjab Police; Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association; Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee; Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict.

Internet sites, including: #AskIndiaWhy; Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal; Al Jazeera; Amnesty International; Asylum Research Centre; Baaz; Belgium – Commissariat général aux réfugiés et aux apatrides; Bertelsmann Stiftung; CBC; Centre for the Study of Developing Societies; CNN; Common Cause India; ecoi.net; The Economic Times; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Ensaaf; EU – EU Agency for Asylum; EU DisinfoLab; Fédération internationale pour les droits humains; France – Office français de protection des réfugiés et apatrides; Freedom House; Germany – Federal Office for Migration and Refugees; The Guardian; India – Ministry of Minority Affairs; Indiaonlinepages.com; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; International Crisis Group; Khalistan Centre; The Lawfare Institute; National Sikh Youth Federation; Netherlands – Ministry of Foreign Affairs; The New Indian Express; Norway – Landinfo; Organisation suisse d'aide aux réfugiés; Outlook; Poetic Justice Foundation; Reporters sans frontières; Sikh Siyasat News; Tata Trusts; UN – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNDP; University of the Punjab – Journal of Political Studies; US – CIA, Congressional Research Service, Law Library of Congress, US Commission on International Religious Freedom; The Wire; World Population Review.