With Khalistanis Across Road, R-Day in Washington an Action Drama
India’s Republic Day celebration in the US capital became an action-filled drama, complete with “good” guys facing off with the “bad,” background Bollywood music, police standing at the ready and a bit of dancing thrown in.
The excitement unfolded under the watchful eye of Mahatma Gandhi whose statue in front of the Indian Embassy became witness to a battlefield of sorts. Enthusiastic Indian Americans, many of them dressed in the colours of the flag, filled nearby streets.
The showdown was between a handful of Khalistanis who had announced a “worldwide” (read Twitter) campaign to burn the Indian flag on Republic Day and Indians. Technically, they could because flag burning is deemed a First Amendment right under the US Constitution.
But the Khalistanis were vastly outnumbered and outmaneuvered and their symbolic flag burning had to be done inside a can away from public view. And they didn’t burn the Indian flag but something entirely different – perhaps losing their nerve.
DC police kept a constant vigil, separating the two sides with a line of well-armed men and women.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to blows although tempers boiled over many times during the three-hour confrontation, chilly weather, frozen toes notwithstanding.
The Indian Embassy was more than prepared to face the Khalistanis. It had secured exclusive use of the small park with the Gandhi statue from city authorities, which meant the Khalistanis couldn’t cross the Lakshman Rekha of the sidewalk.
‘Own Occupy Movement’
In addition, six bus loads of dedicated supporters had come in from the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland for the 10 am celebrations. There were around 800 Indian Americans gathered inside and outside the embassy building – the largest such gathering for Republic Day in Washington.
Indian security officers had cased the joint and stationed supporters on all road crossings nearby to prevent the Khalistanis from gaining a vantage point.
It was its own “occupy movement” for five hours with Indian Americans, many of them Sikh and many students, doing the “needful” to keep the protesters from disrupting the celebrations.
Most of the embassy officers and staff were out supporting the “troops,” some adding their voices on the frontlines – in this case a 2-feet sidewalk, which served as the Line of Control. It was Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki Jai versus Khalistan zindabad and Down with India.
This ultimately very Indian scene was unique for Washington and several Americans stopped by to soak in the flavour. Some had come to see the Gandhi statue – now a tourist spot – others were just walking by when they noticed the excitement.
Sikhs for Justice, a Khalistani outfit, had announced it would burn the Indian flag on Republic Day to demand the secession of Punjab and to protest the classification of Sikhs as Hindus under Article 25 the Indian Constitution.
Sikhs for Justice is believed to be a Pakistani front and sure enough the Khalistanis waited to burn the faux flag until three Pakistani television journalists arrived at the scene to record the spending of their tax rupees by the ISI.
How This Movement is a ‘One Man Show’
The separatist “group” is largely a one-man show run by a lawyer in New York who is known to threaten children of Punjab army and police officers studying in the United States. At least three cases have been documented.
Indian diplomats had alerted the State Department to the possibility of things turning sour. Fortunately, the confrontation was under control if for no other reason than the Khalistanis’ desire not to get on the wrong side of US authorities and gain a police record.
Observers say the State Department should take serious note of the disruptive nature of these protests and help secure the parameter of the Indian Embassy. The parking spaces in front of the building ought to be returned for use by Indian diplomats. The spots were taken away in the wake of the Devyani Khobragade affair in a tit-for-tat battle between the two sides.
The Indian government has since returned to status quo in New Delhi but the US government has not – at least in the matter of parking spots. The periodic confrontations with the Khalistanis take up needless man hours.
(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. The views expressed in this article are of the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)