A little-known, self-declared human rights group based in New York, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which put up a few posters and hoardings in support of an as little-known referendum for a sovereign Sikh state, finds itself facing a government crackdown in Punjab. After the BJP protested, the Punjab Police has booked the legal adviser of the SFJ, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, and four others for sedition. Of the four, Pannu and two others are US-based. One of them, Harpeet Singh, who allegedly printed the flex board posters, has been arrested.
Recently, speaking at The Indian Express’s Express Adda, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh cited the action as proof that his government wouldn’t allow pro-Khalistani elements to take root in the state.
However, even his own party thinks that the SFJ, whose website and Facebook account had been blocked in 2015 at India’s insistence but which remained a fringe presence in Punjab, may have got undue publicity in the process. Says Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar, “The people of Punjab have no time or inclination for such separatist sentiments. These people should be left alone and not given any publicity. The BJP has the same radical agenda as them and catering to the same sectarian politics as they are and is hence raking up this issue, much to the benefit of this unknown group.”
Speaking to The Indian Express from New York, Pannun, 50, who is originally from near Amritsar, says, “This is all petty politics. Every party, including the Congress, Akali Dal, BJP and even Capt Amarinder Singh himself, have played politics with the sentiments of the community. Singh is the one who resigned because of Operation Blue Star, and if we are putting up banners 33 years after Operation Blue Star, why is he bothered? He was also against the Indian Army entering Golden Temple, and this is exactly what we say too.”
But the “publicity” is only helping the SFJ’s cause, Pannun adds. “Scotland is going to have another referendum, Kurdistan will soon have one as will Catalan in Spain. Most democratic governments allow referendums, and if India is projecting itself as the leader of the democratic world, it should also allow one,” he says.
According to a family member of Harpreet Singh, who did not want to be named, he ran a printing press, Baba Hanuman Publications, in Mohali and did not know anything about the SFJ. “Harpreet has been in this business for long, and S K Publishers who placed the order of printing posters were working with Harpreet for the last four years,” he said.
Harpreet’s advocate T S Sudan said Harpreet’s father had been a DTDC driver who shifted his family to Mohali after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. They would be posting his bail application.
Before the sedition charge, the SFJ made news last year when it filed a defamation case against Amarinder Singh and offered $10,000 to anyone who could serve the notice. Its posters carry the photograph of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and announce ‘Referendum 2020’ for a separate Sikh state.
The BJP had first lodged a complaint with the Punjab Police seeking removal of the SFJ posters, and later held press conferences threatening it would do so itself if no action was taken.
Says state BJP secretary Vineet Joshi, “We only reacted when we saw SFJ posters on highways. We gave ample time to the government to take them down. We raised the pitch when no action was taken.”
About similar posters bearing Bhindranwale photographs openly displayed for sale near the Golden Temple in Amristar, Joshi says, “This has never come to our notice.”
The BJP has also used the posters to target the Aam Aadmi Party, questioning its “silence” on the SFJ and accusing AAP leader H S Phoolka of having been a member of the Sikh Genocide Commission formed by the SFJ in January 2008. Denying this, Phoolka says, “In Jagdish Tytler’s case (in the 1984 Sikh riots), Pannun had located a witness in the US whom the CBI had listed as untraceable. Beyond this I have no knowledge about them. In fact, the SFJ had opposed my visit to Toronto in 2016 and campaigned against me in the media.”