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Sikhs converge on San Francisco to vote for an independent state

A man holds a yellow flag in front of a sign advertising a voting referendum at an outdoor public plaza.
A man poses for a picture in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza in front of a sign promoting Sunday’s non-binding referendum on the creation of a new state separate from India, which could be called Khalistan. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Waving bright yellow-and-blue flags, thousands of Sikhs arrived in San Francisco in cars, buses and trains Sunday to vote for a new country of their own.

The vote asks whether the predominantly Sikh state of Punjab in India should break away and form an independent nation called Khalistan.

The Khalistan referendum, as the ballot measure is known, is nonbinding, meaning even if the majority of voters favor independence, it won’t guarantee a new nation. But to many of California’s 250,000 Sikhs—most of whom live in the Central Valley or the Bay Area—the vote is about nothing less than freedom and democracy.

It’s a global election, held on various dates in different cities where Sikhs reside. The Jan. 28 ballot in San Francisco follows votes in London, Geneva, Rome, Toronto and Vancouver.

Proposed by Sikhs for Justice, a U.S.-based group, the referendum was borne out of what Sikhs say is an ongoing history of persecution in India and advocacy for increased religious freedom for the estimated 25 million followers of this 500-year-old religion that fuses elements of Hinduism and Islam as well as other faiths. 

Independence is fiercely opposed by India’s current Hindu nationalist government, which has sought to label the movement as misguided, if not dangerous. California elected officials of Sikh descent and Sikh activists say they have been surveilled and threatened.

A jeep-style vehicle with a large yellow flag drives along a bridge on its way into a large city
Hundreds of vehicles like this one on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge brought voters to cast ballots in Sunday's nonbinding voting referendum on the creation of an independent state in India's Punjab. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

At Civic Center Plaza, a large white tent had been set up Sunday for the voters to cast their ballots. Campbell resident Jay Wi watched the goings-on with pride Sunday afternoon.

“We want our own country,” Wi said.

Like many others traveling up from the Central Valley and other parts of the state, he had made the hourslong drive to San Francisco in the wee hours, arriving at 5 a.m. to make sure he had enough time to vote.

“It’s always been a struggle for us to be in India,” he said. “They’ve been trying to push us down, and we have been slaughtered over there.”

A vinyl decal atop a vehicle's hood advertises a Punjab independence referendum
A vinyl decal affixed to a parked car advertises Sunday's Punjab independence referendum in San Francisco. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Wi told stories of Sikh persecution from the time of India’s founding in 1947 through to recent events, including the June 2023 fatal shooting of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar and what prosecutors say was a failed assassination attempt against Sikhs for Justice founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Manteca resident Maninder Virk said he hoped for a future in which Sikhs like him could be citizens of both Khalistan and the United States. “We need our country, separate from India,” Virk said. “That’s why we are protesting here.”

Two bearded men in casual clothing wearing blue 'I voted' stickers stand in a public plaza outdoors under sunny skies
Ranjeev Singh and Neeraj Kamboj, both of Fresno, came to cast ballots in San Francisco in a nonbinding referendum Sunday on the creation of a separate state in part of India's Punjab region. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Inder Singh, who wore a fluorescent green vest identifying him as a volunteer, stood along Carlton B. Goodlett Place and kept an eye on traffic and the crowd.

Singh, who flew down from his home in Seattle on Saturday, said he was surprised by the turnout for the vote, which had drawn Sikhs from all over the Western U.S.

Singh added that he took heart not only in the numbers but also in the vision of the referendum movement, one for a homeland where “everyone can speak, everyone can live.”

A blue sticker with images of two people on it, with white and yellow lettering reading I VOTED and KHALISTAN REFERENDUM
Neeraj Kamboj received an "I Voted" sticker after casting his ballot in San Francisco in a nonbinding referendum Sunday on the creation of a separate state in part of India's Punjab. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

“We’re trying our best, and we’re voting peacefully, you know, not any violence or anything, every Sikh outside India. Because in India, they cannot talk. So, we are voting in every state wherever we can.”

Davinder Singh, a truck driver from Fresno, expressed pride at the sight of his fellow Sikhs gathering to cast ballots.

“You can see the little kids; you can see the old people,” he said. “They’re waiting for two hours, three hours.”

A bearded man in a shirt, tie and jacket stands in sunshine outside a large white tent on a public plaza.
Dr. Bakhshish Singh Sandhu, co-founder of Sikhs for Justice, said he came to observe Sunday's Khalistan voting referendum at San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Just steps from the large white tent on Civic Center Plaza, thousands lined up in orderly queues and waited patiently for a chance to cast their ballots.

Outside, Sikhs for Justice co-founder Dr. Bakhshish Singh Sandhu shook hands and answered questions.

“We feel good about it that people in thousands and droves have come here to vote for a Khalistan referendum to liberate Punjab from Indian occupation,” Singh Sandhu said. “There are innumerable Sikhs here, difficult to count, just like you can’t count the stars in the sky. They want Punjab to be liberated from Indian occupation.”

A line of people in casual clothing standing beside security fencing in a public plaza
Thousands of Sikhs formed orderly lines Sunday around San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza to cast ballots in a nonbinding referendum to form an independent nation in India called Khalistan. | Source: George Kelly/The Standard

Singh Sandhu predicted that more independence referendums would take place in California and other U.S. cities.

“We are gathering a maximum number of votes possible, and then move to have a binding referendum organized by the United Nations as soon as 2025,” he said.

Singh Sandhu said he envisioned an independent state for “Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists—it’s for all of them. We will create the country, and promise to the people religious and personal freedom, like here in the United States of America.”

George Kelly can be reached at