In defense of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus

According to press reports, the Indian government has “concerns” about the creation of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, such that it has “warned” the U.S. government about its very existence. These concerns appear to be grounded in the suspicion that the caucus is a front for an effectively defunct movement for a separate Sikh homeland called “Khalistan.” The concerns are without merit, and the caucus itself stands firmly on bedrock American principles and traditions.

The caucus is a bipartisan delegation of approximately 30 members of the House of Representatives committed to addressing domestic issues facing the Sikh-American community, particularly the backlash against Sikh-Americans that has persisted in the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Sikh-Americans have borne the “disproportionate brunt” of such post-9/11 bias activity.

The Indian government has conceded that the post-9/11 mistreatment of Sikh-Americans is a “legitimate” and “real” issue that “deserve[s] attention.” It apparently believes, however, that something more sinister is afoot, specifically that the caucus is a “cover for potentially reinvigorating the Khalistan movement.”

As evidence, the reports note, only in generalized terms, that “the principal movers of the Sikh caucus were Khalistani activists,” “pro-Khalistani Sikhs succeeded in getting the caucus off the ground,” “some prime movers behind the caucus did not hide their pro-Khalistani affiliation,” that “one of the principal movers of the Sikh caucus is an associate of” a Pakistani national who was convicted of terrorism-related charges, and that members of Congress “may have joined the caucus” due to the patronage of “wealthy Sikhs.”

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The reports fail to identify by name one single separatist who is actually involved in the caucus. The absence of any actual names or identities of any such problematic individuals is telling. The claim instead seems to rest only on innuendo and suggestion, which lack the particularity or specificity needed to support the broad claim that the caucus is a cover for a splinter movement.

Without such detail, the charge amounts to an unfounded presumption that any Sikh-American attempt to forge stronger bonds with members of Congress on domestic discrimination issues is nothing more than a veiled attempt to call for a separate Sikh state. To be sure, a report quotes two Sikh-American members of an organization who claim that, ‘yes, the Caucus has been duped by a pro-Khalistani group.’ But a statement from the organization admits, “Neither we had any information about this Sikh Congressional Caucus nor were we invited” to events associated with the caucus. The credibility of these members is completely undermined by their concession that they had no information whatever about the caucus.

Moreover, even if someone involved in the process to erect the caucus has expressed viewpoints that may be construed as favorable to Khalistan, one cannot attribute that discrete viewpoint to the entire lot of Sikhs who seek greater ties with their elected officials. To do so would be the equivalent of utilizing the discredited shorthand of guilt by association. As former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson explained, “[I]f any fundamental assumption underlies our system, it is that guilt is personal.”
 
Properly viewed, the caucus reflects an attempt for a targeted, minority community to simply work with their elected representatives, and specifically to coordinate and develop solutions to the stubborn problems of ignorance and hate that continue to plague Sikh-Americans a decade-plus after 9/11. Sikh efforts to create the caucus fall well within the sort of time-honored free speech and expressive activity that is safeguarded by the First Amendment. Such actions are not only constitutionally protected, but they represent active civic engagement that is essential to a healthy, functioning democracy.

The Indian government proposes that, to the extent that Sikhs have legitimate interests, those issues are “best lobbied by the India caucus.” Yet there is no reason why that should be the exclusive or even primary advocate for Sikh-American interests. The Sikh-American caucus may be able to focus on and more efficiently address Sikh-American issues, which can be subsumed among issues facing other communities within the Indian-American diaspora. Rather than exclude outright the new Sikh-American caucus, the two caucuses can work collaboratively, in partnership, for the enhancement of the welfare of Sikh-Americans.

In short, there is no reasonable basis to silence or undermine Sikh efforts to engage with their democratic leaders. Those troubled by the caucus are free to substantiate their concerns, but until they do so, the caucus must be allowed to proceed unrestrained by such baseless, blanket accusations.


Dawinder is assistant professor of law and regents' lecturer at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and is and co-author of Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience.