- Earlier, Sikhs would mainly come as economic migrants or to join their families already working and living in Italy.
- Local sources in Italy claim that since the last couple of months, a steady stream of Sikh asylum seekers have been arriving every day at the local refugee centres. And all of them declare to be ‘persecuted in India’, and claim to be members of the ‘Khalistan Movement’.
- Many Sikhs in Italy, for at least the past two years, have regularly been joining demonstrations organised by Pakistan in support of Kashmir, or simply against India, carrying placards with ‘Khalistan Khalsa’ written on them.
- Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), formed in 2007, is a US-based group seeking a separate homeland for Sikhs, and is behind a campaign called ‘Referendum 2020’. Pakistan has been actively aiding and supporting the campaign.
Naples, Italy: According to local sources, since the last couple of months, a steady stream of Sikh asylum seekers have been arriving every day at the local offices. They arrive mainly by boat, in most cases already carrying a petition written by a local lawyer. And all of them declare to be ‘persecuted in India’, being members of the ‘Khalistan Movement’.
According to the same local sources, it is a totally new phenomenon. Earlier, Sikhs would mainly come as economic migrants or to join their families already working and living in Italy. The stream of asylum seekers in the past few months is big enough to have been noticed by the people working every day at the refugee offices, and to puzzle them. There are no official datas yet about the number of requests being actually accepted by the Italian authorities, but most likely, they will accept almost all requests – mainly because in Italy, the concept of ‘Sikh militancy’ is widely unknown.
Sikhs in Italy: A Traditionally Well-Integrated Group
In Italy, there are about 70,000 persons of Sikh religion, mainly coming from Indian Punjab: the biggest minority community in Europe after the Sikh group in the UK. They settled in Italy mostly during the '80s and '90s, when the lack of local workers for the agricultural and food sectors had deeply affected many local companies. The communities settled mainly in the Po Valley in the North, and in the Agro Pontino area near Rome, soon becoming essential for the production and development of many ‘Italian excellences’, including the production of Parmesan cheese.
The Sikhs are traditionally well-integrated and widely respected in the region.
There are now more than thirty gurdwaras in Italy, the biggest one (the second largest in Europe) being built in Novellara, near Reggio Emilia, financed by a loan from the local Banca Agricola Mantovana.
‘Khalistan Khalsa’: How Have Italy’s Sikhs ‘Changed’?
But something is changing.
Many representatives of the Sikh community, for at least the past two years, have regularly been joining demonstrations organised by Pakistan in support of Kashmir, or simply against India, carrying placards with ‘Khalistan Khalsa’ written on them. And members of Sikh organisations banned in India, like ‘Sikhs for Justice’, advocating a separatist referendum, are now very active in Italy.
Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), formed in 2007, is a US-based group seeking a separate homeland for Sikhs, and is behind a campaign called ‘Referendum 2020’.
Pakistan has been actively aiding and supporting the campaign which seeks to ‘liberate Punjab from India’. Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, legal advisor to ‘Sikhs For Justice’, has requested for an official meeting with the Italian prime minister to discuss issues related to the Sikh community in Italy. It is believed that like the SFJ has done in the US, where the organisation filed a case against the Indian Counsel General in New York for ‘anti-Sikh activities’, they are considering registering similar complaints against the Indian Embassy in Rome, and the Indian Consulate in Milan.
Promoting ‘Referendum 2020’
Meanwhile, SFJ has begun numerous programmes to propagate ‘Referendum 2020’ in Europe and especially in Italy, with plans to get five million votes in support of the independence of Punjab from all over the world, and present the results to the United Nations. So, Avtar Singh Pannu, coordinator for ‘Sikhs For Justice’ has been in touch with heads of gurdwaras of Italy, asking them to disseminate information on how to register and vote for ‘Referendum 2020’, planned for November 2020.
The SFJ used the functions organised in the various gurdwaras during the 550th birthday celebrations of Guru Nanak, to undertake this political task. Pannu has urged gurdwaras to raise volunteers who could distribute voter registration forms, organise sessions to promote the referendum, popularise the map of Khalistan, and initiate fund collection to conduct the referendum process.
Moreover, committee members of gurudwara Shree Hargobind Sahib in Leno, Brescia, has been seen propagating the campaign. In fact, some of these members are even visiting Sikh families living in the areas of Bergamo and Brescia to ‘educate’ them on the referendum, and collect funds for the exercise.
‘Sikhs For Justice’ Using ‘Pakistani Jihadist’ Networks For Money Transfers?
Another gurdwara in Cremona (Gurdwara Shaheed Baba Deep Singh) has also been seen as ready to disseminate information on the referendum. According to local sources, the SFJ is using pliant Pakistani and Indian origin employees working in municipalities with high Sikh population, to collect personal data of those who could vote for the referendum.
The money is apparently being collected through the same money-transferring networks used by Pakistani-origin jihadist groups, the same networks used also in connection with the killing of six Hindu leaders in Punjab in 2018, and also, according to Italian sources, through local Pakistani consulates.
Recently, Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami Amir Siraj ul-Haq, in a media interview, expressed support for a ‘free Kashmir’ and ‘free Khalistan’. In fact, the campaigns for Kashmir and Khalistan have recently merged into a single campaign called ‘Kashmir2Khalistan’, promoted by SFJ and by Lord Nazir Ahmed, who has often expressed his support for Khalistan – and regularly joins every demonstration held in Italy by Sikhs and so-called 'Kashmiris' – who are usually not Kashmiris, but rather, Pakistanis from Brescia and its surroundings.
How Sikh Militancy Is Being ‘Reorganised’
To confirm how in recent years Sikh militancy – which had long since disappeared from the scene – is being reorganised, one need only recall the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence modus operandi. Pakistani Army and intelligence agencies have for years been particularly active in infiltrating agents, creating pressure groups, and lobbying at both the institutional and academic levels – throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. She tweets at @francescam63. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)