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After foiled assassination attempt, there's fear amid American Sikhs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More now on a story we have been reporting on this week, the charges announced by the Justice Department against an Indian national for allegedly plotting to kill a Sikh activist on U.S. soil. Prosecutors say the assassination attempt was ordered by an Indian government official. Now, these allegations are similar to ones made by Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, after a Sikh activist there was murdered back in September.

To discuss, we have called Harinder Singh. He is senior fellow at the Sikh Research Institute. We have caught him in New York. Hi there. Welcome.

HARINDER SINGH: Nice to be here. Hello.

KELLY: Hi. Tell me, what went through your mind when you heard these charges announced by the Justice Department this week?

SINGH: Well, there were two things. One was regarding the people, the Sikhs living in America, the concern for their safety and the fear among them because this is happening on the U.S. soil. And this concern for the safety and then denouncing this kind of malicious behavior, which is - we welcomed as it was done by DOJ by bringing up these charges. So there was an element of fear and then as to how to deal with it. And there's also, how can this be happening in America?

KELLY: I want to follow up on one thing you just said - the word fear. Elaborate on that - fear of what?

SINGH: The extension of Sikhs in America is coming from primarily Punjab, which is - now half of it is in India, half of it is in Pakistan. But 80% of Sikhs globally still live in the Indian Punjab. And because of the issues of grievances, many have moved to U.S. I'm one of those in post-1984 as well. There was a genocidal campaign in 1984 in India, which was recorded by the courts in Delhi as well as such. So this idea of that we can be repressed and there is a whole issue of extrajudicial killings in Punjab, human rights violations, and that these repressions were happening in Punjab, but that this will be happening here and then government can hire people, Indian government and its intelligence agencies, to kill individuals here, even in dissent - that's the fear part.

KELLY: Can you give us some sense of what the conversation is, how people are responding to the charges that were brought this week?

SINGH: The regular folks - in fact, my conversation in last week has been from a businessman from New Jersey, from a entrepreneur in Boston, from an academic at Northwestern in Chicago. And, you know, they're all talking about India has to be held accountable now. And the reason that's important is this is an issue which I think Biden administration has been grappling with as well, as well as Trudeau and U.K.'s administrations because there is a big dissent happening in India. There's an opposition which was developed in India, but it was led by the farmers' protests in - two years ago, which was led by Sikhs primarily.

KELLY: So I want to make sure that I understand this. And I should emphasize that what we have right now are Justice Department charges. We have allegations. We have no conviction at this point. But what is happening with this alleged assassination attempt here in the States is being quite tied up with politics at the highest level, with the Biden administration, with Prime Minister Modi of India.

SINGH: Oh, absolutely. I think if we look at - we - only in the last year, Biden administration even sent an ambassador to India. There are larger issues at play here. Sikhs are small, you know, maybe one part of the hundred-piece puzzle here. It has to do with geopolitics. It has to do with India going from a democratic to semi-democratic to maybe non-democratic country in the last 10 years. So there are many things at play. And Sikhs being a very vocal and visible minority, and I think that's something which the world doesn't understand.

KELLY: Is there something that feels important to you that needs to happen now to prevent something like this from happening again?

SINGH: Well, the representatives here in - both in the administration as well as in Congress - need to be having these tough conversations. From a Sikh perspective and from Punjab perspective, I think the questions of human rights abuses, questions of extrajudicial killings, and now those entering on the U.S. soil, they must be directly dealt with. And people who have been doing this, they need to be brought to justice.

KELLY: Harinder Singh is senior fellow at the Sikh Research Institute. Thank you for your time today.

SINGH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Tinbete Ermyas
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.