SAN FRANCISCO, California — A peaceful protest in front of the Indian consulate here turned violent March 19 afternoon as protesters stormed the building, shattering glass windows and attempting to break down the door.
Several protesters had arrived the night before and camped out in front of the Consulate. The next afternoon, about 200 protesters arrived from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley, traveling more than 100 miles to attend the demonstration. Similar protests occurred throughout the world over the weekend as the Indian government abruptly shut down all Internet communications and text messaging in the state of Punjab, leaving more than 27 million people without connectivity.
At issue is the hunt for Amritpal Singh, a Sikh preacher who has called for the establishment of the separate country Khalistan in what is now Punjab state. Demonstrators say Singh has been illegally arrested, and have called for his immediate release.
The fight for an independent country of Khalistan has been an ongoing battle for more than four decades. The movement had died down, but began afresh as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2015. A number of minorities, including Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, have decried the Modi Administration’s alleged attempts to create a Hindu nation.
When the Prime Minister visited the San Francisco Bay Area in September 2015, protests broke out at every site he visited during his three-day sojourn, including Facebook, Google, and other tech companies. Modi was said to have met with representatives of several minority communities, ahead of his keynote speech at the SAP Center Sept. 27, 2015, in San Jose, California.
San Francisco Indian Consul General Nagendra Prasad told New India Abroad that two off his staff were injured by shards of glass flying through the broken windows. They were treated at the scene and did not need to be hospitalized.
As of press time March 20 afternoon, Prasad said there were still a group of demonstrators outside the Consulate, who were barring people from entering and leaving the building. “It is quite scary for my staff and for people who need to do their business directly with our consulate office.”
“But despite this, I am determined to keep the consulate office open,” said Prasad, saying he has asked the San Francisco Police Department for additional support.
“This is a peaceful protest right now. But we don’t know when it is going to turn violent,” said the Consul General, comparing the attack to the Jan. 6, 2021 riots at the Capitol in Washington DC. He has called for additional police deployment.
San Francisco Police Department Officer Robert Rueca told New India Abroad in an email: “On 3/19/23 at approximately 3:40 pm officers responded to a protest on the 500 block of Arguello Blvd. for crowd control. Officers arrived on scene and observed shattered glass windows on a building which is used as a foreign consulate.”
“Officers spoke with workers from the building who stated that unknown subjects made contact with them as they attempted to enter the building. “During the protest workers were attacked and sustained injuries. The suspects fled the scene in an unknown direction.”
“No arrests have been made at this time. Graffiti was also reported on the building earlier that day. Anyone with information is asked to contact SFPD at 415-575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411 and begin the message with SFPD,” said Rueca.
In response to the question from New India Abroad as to whether additional police would be deployed at the Consulate, Rueca said: “We are precluded from providing any specific information in regards to any security plans for the consulate, including the number of officers assigned to patrolling the area.”
“We are working with the occupants of the building to plan for issues that may arise from these demonstrations/protests. We are prepared to respond to criminal issues and will provide appropriate resources to deal with the issues,” said Rueca.
Jas Singh, a member of the California Sikh Youth Association which was one of the organizations involved in the March 19 demonstration, told New India Abroad that a similar protest has been planned for March 22 at the Consulate, from 3-6 p.m.
“The government has illegally shut down the Internet. They have illegally arrested Amritpal Singh, who is simply preaching about the Sikh religion,” said Singh. “The government has been trying to shut him down.”
“This is part of a longer attempt by the Modi Administration to make India a Hindu-only nation. Modi has snubbed Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and any minority voices.”
“We were frustrated that our voices were not being heard,” said Singh, addressing the violence that erupted. “Emotions were running high,” he said, urging people to consider the issues at stake, rather than the violence.
Satnam Singh Chahal, president of the North American Punjabi Association, decried the violence. “This is very unfortunate and unacceptable,” he told New India Abroad. “We have the right to demonstrate but it should be done peacefully. I am against violence of any kind.”
Chahal said he was alarmed by the government’s shutdown of the Internet in Punjab and urged for its speedy restoral.