Protests broke out worldwide March 19 as the Indian government abruptly shut down all internet communications and text messaging in the state of Punjab over the weekend, leaving more than 27 million people without connectivity.
The internet was cut off by the Punjab state government as police continued their search for Amritpal Singh, a Sikh separatist and ardent advocate for the Khalistan movement, which seeks to make Punjab—a state that borders Pakistan in the country’s northwest—into a separate nation known as Khalistan.
Indian police have reportedly stepped up their search for Singh, who went on the lam March 18, and is considered a fugitive. Singh’s supporters say he has already been captured and could be killed by police. At least one vandalized site bore the words: “Free Amritpal Singh.”
Hindu Nationalist India?
The Khalistan movement, which began four decades ago, had died down in recent years, but rose afresh in 2015 as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. Critics of Modi say his administration is ignoring India’s many minorities and is moving towards a Hindu nationalist nation. Sikhs make up more than half the population in Punjab.
When the Prime Minister visited the San Francisco Bay Area in September 2015, protests broke out at every site he visited during his three-day sojourn, including Facebook, Google, and other tech companies. Modi was said to have met with representatives of several minority communities, ahead of his keynote speech at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
Jas Singh is a member of the California Sikh Youth Association, which was one of the organizations involved in organizing a March 19 demonstration at the San Francisco Indian Consulate. He told Ethnic Media Services that a similar protest has been planned there on March 22, from 3-6 p.m.
“The government has illegally shut down the internet. They have illegally arrested Amritpal Singh, who is simply preaching about the Sikh religion,” said Singh. “The government has been trying to shut him down.”
‘Unfortunate and Unacceptable’
“This is part of a longer attempt by the Modi Administration to make India a Hindu-only nation. Modi has snubbed Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and any minority voices.”
“We were frustrated that our voices were not being heard,” said Singh, addressing the violence that erupted. “Emotions were running high,” he said, urging people to consider the issues at stake, rather than the violence.
Satnam Singh Chahal, president of the North American Punjabi Association, decried the violence. “This is very unfortunate and unacceptable,” he told EMS. “We have the right to demonstrate but it should be done peacefully. I am against violence of any kind.”
Chahal said he was alarmed by the government’s shutdown of the internet in Punjab and urged for its speedy restoration.
In London, Khalistani demonstrators waved symbolic yellow flags for the nation of Khalistan in front of the Indian High Commission. Protesters then tore down the Indian flag, and smashed windows, which injured staff inside the building. One person was arrested, but immediately bailed out.
In a moment of merriment before the mayhem, a London police officer danced bhangra with the crowd to the popular tune “Jai Ho,” which means “Be Victorious.”
Similar protests were launched in Canberra and Brisbane, Australia, and Canada.
In San Francisco, a peaceful protest in front of the Indian consulate turned violent as protesters stormed the building, shattering glass windows and attempting to break down the door.
Several protesters had arrived the night before and camped out in front of the Consulate. The next afternoon, about 200 protesters arrived from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley, traveling more than 100 miles to attend the demonstration.
Violence Breaks Out in San Francisco
San Francisco Indian Consul General Nagendra Prasad told EMS that two off his staff were injured by shards of glass flying through the broken windows. They were treated at the scene and did not need to be hospitalized.
As of press time March 20, Prasad said there were still a group of demonstrators outside the Consulate, who were barring people from entering and leaving the building. “It is quite scary for my staff and for people who need to do their business directly with our consulate office.”
“But despite this, I am determined to keep the consulate office open,” said Prasad, saying he has asked the San Francisco Police Department for additional support.
Increase Police Presence
“This is a peaceful protest right now. But we don’t know when it is going to turn violent,” said the Consul General, comparing the attack to the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol in Washington DC. He has called for additional police deployment.
San Francisco Police Department Officer Robert Rueca wrote in an email: “On 3/19/23 at approximately 3:40 pm officers responded to a protest on the 500 block of Arguello Blvd. for crowd control. Officers arrived on scene and observed shattered glass windows on a building which is used as a foreign consulate.”
“Officers spoke with workers from the building who stated that unknown subjects made contact with them as they attempted to enter the building. “During the protest workers were attacked and sustained injuries. The suspects fled the scene in an unknown direction.”
“No arrests have been made at this time. Graffiti was also reported on the building earlier that day. Anyone with information is asked to contact SFPD at 415-575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411 and begin the message with SFPD,” said Rueca.
San Francisco Police
In response to the question as to whether additional police would be deployed at the Consulate, Rueca said: “We are precluded from providing any specific information in regards to any security plans for the consulate, including the number of officers assigned to patrolling the area.”
“We are working with the occupants of the building to plan for issues that may arise from these demonstrations/protests. We are prepared to respond to criminal issues and will provide appropriate resources to deal with the issues,” said Rueca.