From the Golden Temple to Punjab Independence

Indian Sikh activists hold swords and leaflets as they shout pro-Khalistan and anti-government slogans after prayers at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. —AFP

The Punjab Referendum Commission, a group of non-aligned political experts, held a press conference on September 6 in Toronto, Canada, with the dual purpose of officially announcing the Canadian phase of voting in the Khalistan referendum and also the publication of a report published by the People’s Self-Determination and National Independence Research Institute, titled “From Golden Temple to Punjab Independence”.

The Commission panel consisted of Dane Waters (Chair of the Commission and founder of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California), Matt Qvortrup (author and former adviser on referendum regulation for the UK FCO ) and Paul Jacob (president of Citizens in Charge). It is the responsibility of the Commission to supervise referendums to ensure that they are conducted properly.

Votes have already been cast by the British and Italian Sikh diasporas in London, Brescia and Rome respectively, and now Sikhs over the age of 18 in Canada will have the opportunity to vote on the issue: “Punjab, ruled by Indians , should it be an independent country? The vote is due to take place in Brampton from September 18. Although members of the Commission have explicitly stated that they take no position on the Khalistan referendum, they praised Sikhs for Justice for ensuring that the referendums they have held to date comply with international standards and that any coercion is prevented.

Independent experts have found that 30,000 British Sikhs voted in the Khalistan referendum in London on October 31, 2021, a date chosen to coincide with the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered Operation Blue Star. About six months later, more than 40,000 Sikhs took part in the referendum in the Italian district of Brescia, followed by 17,000 Sikhs in Rome. Matt Qvortrup said many Sikhs in Italy have low-paying jobs and yet still traveled to vote in the Khalistan referendum at “high personal cost”. This means that regardless of how they voted, this referendum matters to a lot of people.

Qvortrup reminded the conference audience that these referenda are “unofficial,” meaning their results will not directly lead to a change in laws or have any practical impact. However, he stressed the importance of such referendums because of the message they send to governments and the international community about the will of the people. He suggested that a potential positive outcome would be that an overall yes or no vote creates momentum that can lead to the achievement of the desired outcome, offering Norway independence from Sweden and the vote for Brexit in the UK as a priority for this phenomenon. Similarly, Dane Waters, when answering a question about the significance of the referendum in Khalistan, simply answered: “self-determination”, which he described as the “purest form of self-expression”. Paul Jacob agreed, asking what other process is better than voting for verifying people’s opinions?

Qvortrup and Waters also authored the non-aligned report launched at the conference. Unlike the referendums of Khalistan organized within the diasporas, it is about the possibility of a vote within Punjab itself, under Indian government. a non-governmental referendum would succeed, they claim that it would “enfranchise not only the current citizens of the region, but also members of the Sikh diaspora scattered throughout the world”. The report discusses referendum policy issues, followed by a commentary on how different international experiences relate to the 2021 Punjab referendum.

The first section is about the ‘referendum as a mechanism for changing public opinion’ and how a referendum can ‘set the agenda and change perceptions’ on an issue. That its success can be “the impetus for a more disenfranchised community to take action.” While they describe a referendum within a diaspora as “new and largely unprecedented”, the Sikh referendum could “gain momentum, boost its visibility around the world and push the issue onto the political agenda”.

The second section, “Practical Issues in Referendums,” discusses legality, special majority requirements (discrediting referendums with low approval ratings), voter eligibility, and the impact of biased questions on the results. The authors suggest that a vote on independence for Sikhs in Punjab would be “legally acceptable” if India, in the words of Judge Cassese, “constantly refuses to grant participation rights” to Sikhs and “grossly tramples and systematically their fundamental rights”. However, because the international community generally does not seem to agree with this characterization and the fact that referendums in undemocratic states tend to receive more recognition, they conclude that this “argument is unlikely to be supported by many “.

As the Sikhs’ Advocate General for Justice, Gurpatwaht Singh Pannun, put it, the authors suggest that if a referendum were to be held in Indian-ruled Punjab, all faiths should have the right to vote. Additionally, the authors state that the diaspora should also have the right to vote. To avoid any doubts about whether a biased question on the ballot would sway voters, they recommend that an “impartial international panel” draft the question.

The third section, “Political Questions about Referendums,” examines two political questions: When are referendums won and do they lead to conflict? Analysis of their specific relevance to the Khalistan referendum is not offered in this section, although the authors emphasize how the likelihood of a referendum leading to conflict in India is of “particular importance”, and it One therefore has to wonder whether the Khalistan referendum would lead to a peaceful settlement or not. In their analysis of secession cases between 1900 and 2010, they found 44 successful secession attempts and “secession was achieved peacefully” in 86% of those cases. But they stress that this does not mean that “referendums are not related to the conflict”.

This report was based on its analysis of the many complexities of holding a legitimate and internationally recognized referendum that leads to peaceful resolution rather than conflict. But its authors and the rest of the Commission’s panel at the conference stressed the importance of referendums because of what they stand for, regardless of their outcome: democracy and self-determination.

The author is a researcher and is currently undertaking a Ph.D. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.

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