A house divided: Tensions Grow in the American Sikh Political Community

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Introduction

*The following review was sponsored by individuals close to the American Sikh Congressional Caucus and their partner organization, the American Sikh Caucus Committee. The views laid out below represent my honest assessment of the book and have not been guided by outside actors except to clarify facts.

If someone wondered where the author of Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington, Pieter Friedrich, stands regarding the American Sikh Congressional Caucus (ASCC) or its organizational partner, the American Sikh Caucus Committee, the wait is not long. The accusations come quickly, often, and cut deep.

The author pulls no punches as he begins the book with a series of serious accusations. He wants you to see the “Caucus as not just an abject failure but, arguably, a premier example of guided subterfuge crafted to declaw and destroy the Khalsa” or as “an elaborate system of smoke and mirrors intended to trick Sikhs into dropping their defenses … and unwittingly opening their arms to welcome defeat.” He then goes on to proclaim that “the passivity of the Sikh Caucus is not a flaw but, rather, was intended by its engineers as a feature” and that the “Caucus was designed to centralize and … strangle the Sikh-American political voice.” All incredibly bold claims that become the author’s burden to prove through research and evidence. Unfortunately, the book often comes up short in this regard.

Time and time again, the author injects his opinions while eagerly citing circumstantial evidence and unsourced hearsay to create a tangled conspiracy theory that casts a dark shadow on both the people behind and members of the Caucus along with their motives. Worse, the conclusions that the author draws are often supported with problematic and anti-journalistic terms such as “reportedly,” “according to multiple sources,” and “allegedly.”

Ultimately, the author guides the reader to the viewpoint that the Caucus Committee was secretly formed by Indian government security service operatives sent to America. These agents provocateurs had a clear and direct purpose of infiltrating and neutering the growing and influential American-Sikh diaspora to silence their collective voice in the ongoing feud with the ruling Hindu-nationalist government of India. That is a staggering accusation, made dangerous by the lack of clear facts to support it and the potential damage it could wreak.

These myriad attacks are difficult enough to square, but that is just the warmup for the second, and shockingly more inflammatory, portion of the book. Here, the book quickly degrades into little more than a personal attack on Dr. Pritpal Singh. Pritpal, one of the key players in getting the ASCC up and running, is drug through the mud as the author questions his history, family, motives, and allegiances. Pritpal is cast as a sinister ringleader whose explicit purpose is to engage in subterfuge to undermine the Sikh community at every step. The author pushes hard to support this theory, contorting information as needed to build support for his narrative.

Under such a light, it is hard to read this book as anything other than an opinionated attack piece. Instead of letting the research tell the story as a journalist would strive to do, the author uses research as a guided missile aimed at a clear target to do the most damage possible. Thus, this book should be viewed instead as a position piece where the author promotes an already held belief, searching for information to support that view. This is a critical distinction that needs to be highlighted at every opportunity.

From this vantage point, it is easy to see why the author would refuse the repeated attempts by the Committee to engage in open dialogue about the numerous bold claims laid out in the book. Simply put, dialogue serves no purpose as improving the ASCC does not seem to be the goal. Instead, the book serves as an extremely sharp political ax wielded with some hidden motive that remains a mystery.

Throughout the book, the author portrays himself as merely the steward and mouthpiece of a tremendous and uncovered truth. His stated goal is to help remove the well-crafted blinders from the Sikh-American community put there by actors bent on its destruction. In reality, the accusations laid out in the book work as an erosive force undermining faith in the ASCC, leaving no room for communication, education, or improvement. An honest attempt to shape and mold the ASCC into a more effective advocate for Sikh causes is avoided at all costs.

What remains is a damning tale that serves to cut the legs entirely out from under the Caucus. Ironically, in the process, the author accomplishes precisely what he claims the Caucus is attempting: confusing and casting doubt in the Sikh-American community, minimizing their political power, and dampening the pressure it can bring to bear on the Indian government for their role in human rights and religious freedom abuses spanning decades.

Realities of Political Participation and Influence

Means of Gaining Influence

In U.S. politics, the ability of a community or like-minded issue-group to advance their cause(s) is managed in one of two ways. The first is through direct lobbying of congress people partnered with campaign contributions to highlight a specific issue or cause. The hope is that persuasion coupled with funds will sway a congressperson to vote favorably on bills and resolutions of interest to the donor. This is the murky realm of the influencers of K Street and the focus of those that worry about topics such as “Dark Money” in politics.

Almost every conceivable group has a lobby or pays a lobbyist to promote their cause(s). From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, religions great and small, farmers, environmentalists, gun owners, mothers against drunk driving, and so on, they all pay to play. Lobbying is usually targeted at individual congresspeople and requires vast sums of money to acquire real influence over legislation, limiting its true power.

The second and more productive, if also more complex, avenue of political influence is through the formation of a caucus. At its core, a caucus is a collection of congress people brought together by an organizing force who agrees to form a voting block aligned with a specific group and their interests. This feat is rarer, though infinitely more potent than lobbying, because it necessitates more organization, money, time, and an ability to not only convince representatives to care about your issue(s) but to, more importantly, become an advocate for them. This is no small feat as politicians are noteworthy for being hard to concretely pin down on issues, have a self-interested drive to stay out of controversial situations, and have interests and allegiances that can at times conflict.

Realities of a Caucus

Against these headwinds, it can be an arduous and largely unsuccessful process under normal circumstances to form a viable caucus. The degree of difficulty increases dramatically when the group is from one or more minorities (e.g., American Sikhs). The feat becomes nearly impossible when the causes are international in scope and focused on human rights or religious freedom not named Christianity or Judaism -- topics with a poor track record of inspiring wide-ranging support and tangible progress in the U.S. Congress. In this light, the mere creation of a caucus for a marginalized group such as Sikh-Americans is an impressive feat. The struggle, though, is far from over.

There are hundreds of caucuses active in the U.S. Congress, ranging widely in age, size, focus, and political strength. The sheer number of caucuses clamoring for support from the 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate means that the average congressperson will be a part of multiple caucuses, sometimes a dozen or more. Representing a wide variety of constituents, they try joining caucuses that fit their personal beliefs, constituents’ desires, and political aims.

From the perspective of career advancement for a representative, joining a caucus is an easy way to promote themselves and raise their stature as their names become affixed to pending legislation. And if being a member of one caucus is good, being a member of multiple caucuses is better, increasing their political exposure and power. Casting such a wide net rarely has a downside. That is until an issue creates friction between two caucuses that they are members of. In these rare but important situations, the congressperson is left to weigh their options based on an internal political calculus.

Minority communities, such as Sikh-Americans, tend to focus most of their efforts and political power on a single, paramount issue (such as the Sikh genocide). This leaves other, more wide-ranging topics to second-tier status. This narrowed scope, which is often disconnected from the demands and concerns of most voters, means that representatives rank that community’s agenda lower than those of other, more influential groups. Thus, when trying to decide what stance to take, politicians will often lend their voice to the larger group, remaining silent on the cause(s) near and dear to the smaller group.

While this admission is frustrating for the community behind the caucus and does little to adhere to the best intentions of a democratic republic, it is based on cold, hard reality. Nothing in politics acts in a vacuum. Everything is interrelated and part of an ever-shifting calculation of political advantage, popularity, and helping ensure re-election. Representatives only put their necks out as far as they feel safe, tend to follow the crowd, and will suddenly run in the other direction when expedient.

These tendencies sharpen when the issues and positions necessitate being viewed through the international lens where geopolitical considerations must be considered. This is especially the case in regions of significant national security concerns, such as South Asia. India, democratic, capitalist, and Hindu, fits the bill perfectly. That India borders an ongoing U.S. war against Islamist forces in Afghanistan, as well as an Islamic ally in the Global War on Terror and nuclear power in Pakistan, and acts as a bastion against a rising communist China, and suddenly its importance skyrockets. Throw in the fact that India is a vast and growing economic partner, and suddenly it vaults to near the top of many representatives’ agendas.

Viewed from this lens, it becomes easy to see that legislators in Congress are less willing to rock the boat often or violently against India, despite personal views they may hold about the nation’s behavior toward ethnic minorities and human rights atrocities. Everything gets weighed against each other, and all too often, security and economic considerations win out over beliefs and philosophies. This unfortunate reality often results, in the eyes of the overlooked community, in seeming acts of betrayal by members of the caucus who appear to be reneging on their promises.

This lack of real power also limits the ability of small caucuses to effect change promptly. Instead, they have to take what they can in a two steps forward, one step backward motion that can become frustrating for the community and its allies. But it also explains why from the outside, it can seem that a caucus is accomplishing little to nothing, begging questions in many confused minds about the point of having a caucus in the first place and whether it is worth continuing such a seemingly unproductive front.

The answer to those critical questions is a resounding yes. Even if slowly, a caucus is still the prime mover in Congress, and a group is infinitely better off with one than without.

The focus should then shift from questioning its existence to examining its capabilities and measures of success. What is needed are sober calculations and the setting of realistic expectations across longer periods of time. Because, as a minority in politics, you are often forced to play the long game, inching your way towards the ultimate goal. In other words, it is a marathon and not a sprint, no matter how noble the cause.

Accusations

The proceeding overview of the political realities governing influence in Congress serves as a valuable foundation to highlight a small fraction of the litany of allegations against the ASCC scattered throughout the book. Allegations that often gloss over the nuance inherent in politics, showcasing either a lack of understanding of how things are accomplished in Washington or a willful simplification that helps serve the author’s purpose of promoting a negative view of the ASCC.

An excellent place to start is with the accusation surrounding the formation of the ASCC and the language added at the last minute that stated the caucus would only focus on domestic issues related to Sikh-Americans. This deviation seemingly left issues important to the global Sikh community, such as the salient issue of the Sikh genocide, on the outside. This, on the surface, seems like damning evidence as to the true focus of the individuals responsible for the creation of the caucus. But a closer examination through the lens of politics sheds a less sinister light on the topic.

As discussed previously, politicians want to avoid controversy and protect their interests. This means that politicians have little stomach for outright agitation of a strategic partner, such as India. Considering that creating a caucus for a marginalized group focused on international human rights abuses is almost impossible, it becomes evident that those pushing for the caucus had little room to maneuver and even less ability to resist the wishes of politicians eager to avoid confrontation. Left with a decision between an imperfect caucus and no caucus at all, it is easy to see why that restriction was agreed to. However, this does not mean that the caucus is incapable or unwilling to tackle international issues important to the Sikh people. It is simply a case of political maneuvering.

One recurring point of attack in the book posits that because many Sikh Caucus members are also members of the Indian Caucus, it establishes concrete proof of complicity and questionable intentions. The author further spins this overlap as evidence of collusion between the Indian government and the Sikh Caucus. Again, we have a situation where the author is oversimplifying a complex issue.

On its surface, this dual membership does seem to constitute a conflict of interest. Because how could a congressperson who is part of a caucus that supports a Hindu nationalist government responsible for numerous civil, religious, and human rights abuses also be a member of a caucus supporting a community victimized by that same government? For starters, life and especially politics are not that black or white. Problematically, this line of thinking is reductionist and ignores realities in both politics and human nature.

As noted previously, a representative’s membership in multiple caucuses is the norm, and overlaps in ideologies, concerns, and geography are common. So too are divergences. Congresspeople join groups and causes that they believe in or can gain advantage through. But membership in a caucus supporting a nation is complicated, especially if that nation has a checkered history. Eventually, a congressperson will come across a policy or action that troubles them and leaves difficult choices that will alienate one group in favor of another. It is an unfortunate reality.

As a thought experiment, imagine a politician in a foreign country who is part of a United States caucus and a Black Lives Matter caucus. On the surface, it is easy to rationalize how this politician can be an active and willing member of both groups. Look deeper though and imagine that politician trying to explain why they focused on economic and security policies important to the United States caucus and did not as vociferously promote bills that speak to U.S. civil rights abuses, the treatment of minorities, the growing problems with white nationalist groups, and so on. From this vantage point, it is easy to witness the dilemmas faced by congresspeople regarding specific policies and competing allegiances.

Another accusation in the book is that the ASCC has accomplished little to nothing in its eight years of existence. As I have noted above, the reality is that political movement for causes is slow. Look at the history of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., the right for women to vote, and other worthy causes that took generations to come to fruition after a long and arduous struggle against forces aligned against them. Their paths are all too often full of long stretches where few positive gains were achieved. Progress only happens through opportunity and favorable conditions in the political and geopolitical environment and persistent agitation by the affected community.

This frustrating fact means the list of obvious and tangible successes by a caucus will never be as long or quickly achieved as advocates would hope for. But this dearth of overt results does not mean a caucus has been absent, ineffectual, or without more minor successes on issues that have less political turmoil attached to it. While the ASCC continues to push for resolutions that will call the Indian government to task for their role in the 1984 Sikh genocide, there is still space to achieve victories on other matters in the meantime.

The book ignores this basic understanding when it uses the 2019 passage of a resolution describing the atrocities perpetrated against Armenians in 1915 as a genocide in juxtaposition to the lack of a similar resolution for the Sikh genocide of October 1984. On the surface, it is easy to see how this serves as a ready-made comparison, one that casts the ASCC in a poor light. The author fails to mention that the Armenian Caucus was formed in 1995 and had tirelessly advocated for this single cause for 24 years. It should also be noted that the resolution regarded an atrocity that happened 106 years ago. This overdue success required a long and continued struggle to initiate and ultimately convince 49 states to ratify the language of the resolution. Ask anyone involved with that movement, and they will not utter words such as easy or quick.

When looking at explanations for why it took so long to get the Armenian resolution to a vote in Congress, look no further than U.S. relations with and the importance of Turkey. As a NATO ally, it received special status and a long leash on behavior. Add in it being, predominantly, a secular nation in the Middle East, and it picked up strategic and diplomatic importance. Critically, the two countries have a long history of military partnerships through both the Cold War and the Global War on Terror. This multifaceted partnership made Turkey far too important to squabble over things like the rule of law and human rights. This was the political environment governing what was possible for decades, leaving the Armenian Caucus and its supporters to battle around the margins, advancing causes in individual states with lower bars of success and less complicated political situations.

It is not a coincidence that the resolution gained momentum on a national level as relations with Turkey eroded over the last decade. Their steady turn towards Islamist governance and away from democratic institutions, a rapprochement with Russia, and recent geopolitical decisions in Syria allowed congresspeople to advance bills and resolutions that would antagonize Turkey’s government. It was this seismic shift in national attitude that freed legislators to advance the Armenian’s cause. To expect the Sikh Caucus to ignore or be free from these political realities is wholly divorced from reality. To use it as a cudgel against the ASCC, as this book does, is disingenuous and problematic.

Lastly, it is worth examining some of the claims laid out in the book regarding Ami Bera and the contentious election of 2014. This singular event, unlike any other, has splintered the Sikh-American community to this day. Labeled a genocide denier by many, unfairly or not, the divisions over this issue can be seen as the initial fracture that eventually spurred the writing of this book. But here again, after closer inspection, things are not as simple as they seem on the surface.

Bera, an American of Indian descent representing a district encompassing Sacramento, California, was seeking re-election to a second term in Congress in 2014. The fact that this was Bera’s first re-election campaign is a critical point that helps explain many of his actions. Even though he was a member of both the Indian and Sikh Caucus, he was also a junior legislator eager to curry favor, build his brand, and rise in the ranks. Everything else came in a distant second.

It is apparent that Bera made a calculated decision in 2014 that supporting the Indian Caucus as well as befriending the Indian government and its president, Narendra Modi, was beneficial to his political career. This helps explain his eagerness to be center stage for the event in New York City where Modi spoke. It also explains Bera’s reluctance to call the events of October 1984 a genocide, as well as his refusal to answer the questionnaire circulated to candidates about their stances on issues important to Sikhs.

While unfortunate for the Sikh community and their cause, these decisions do not necessarily mean that Bera is a genocide denier or unwilling to press for Sikh causes. It means he is a politician weighing the costs and benefits of every decision. Seen through this self-interested lens helps explain why Bera was willing to add his voice to secondary issues that did not touch on India’s government, such as the ability of Sikh basketball players to wear turbans. Simply put, these issues provided more cover for him politically.

Again, we get to the sad reality of politics. Bera is likely sympathetic to Sikh causes but unlikely to be a champion on the issue of the Sikh genocide as he works the political margins. The reality is that not every member of the Sikh Caucus will feel as strongly, work as hard, or speak as loudly as other members. But it is also possible to see an evolution in Bera’s thinking and calculus as he becomes more entrenched in the halls of Congress. As the chair of the House Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, Bera enjoys more freedom, authority, and security to push India, if ever so slightly.

While Bera is still mainly focused on significant issues such as economics and a strategic partnership, he has inched towards calling the Indian government to task on human rights issues and setting the stage for increased pressure and open debate. While championing India’s ascension to the U.N. Security Council and highlighting the importance of them being a secular democracy, he has also underscored the need for India to come to terms with their history if they wish to be a leader in the global community.

Viewed through the lens of politics, some of the quotes used by the author as an example of Bera’s inability to strike at the heart of the Sikh genocide can also be read as a nuanced advancement of those causes. Here are a couple of telling statements: “As India moves to sit at the table, it is going to come under criticism. It can’t be so sensitive to external criticism. It has to allow us to raise questions, raise issues ….” And “India’s strength is as a secular democracy. Holding on to that identity is incredibly important. And the strength of any democracy is protecting the rights of minority groups.” This is clear if weak political speak for the need of the Indian government to acknowledge past atrocities, including the Sikh genocide.

While this might be a far cry from what the Sikh community hopes for, it is not just window dressing. As discussed, politics and politicians move slowly, and small, incremental changes add up over time to create real change. Ami Bera will likely never be the loudest voice for Sikh causes, but the outright declaration that he is an antagonist to the Sikh people is disingenuous. When you are battling for justice as a marginalized group, you must take allies as they come, even if they are imperfect.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Sikh Caucus: Siege in Delhi, Surrender in Washington attempts to position itself as an important statement on the current status of the Sikh-American political movement and aspirations. Yet, while cloaking itself in the robes of a champion of the cause, it quickly devolves into a sensationalized opinion piece, wielded for unknown reasons.

Many of the questions the author poses and points he makes are fair criticisms that should spur a dialogue within the Sikh community and the Caucus Committee to improve the finished product. Unfortunately, this book, instead of positioning itself at the center of that debate, strides in with a sledgehammer, making a series of thinly substantiated claims propped up with innuendo and an oversimplification of the situation which potentially fractures the movement. Missing is the striving for perfection, replaced by a tactic that potentially does actual harm to the Sikh-American community and their political aspirations by eroding faith in the political process and their instrument for seeking justice. It is hard, in any light, to see this as productive and acts as a force which further marginalizes Sikhs in their fight for justice.

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Original Author: Dustin Wilson

Original Location: A house divided: Tensions Grow in the American Sikh Political Community

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