In an eagerly-awaited move, the Government of India has urged local consulates to grant consular services to Indian American political asylees.

The new policy would abolish blacklists maintained by local consulates, which identified those who had obtained residency abroad by asking for political asylum. It will allow asylees to be granted Indian passports. If they are U.S. citizens, the policy will allow them to be granted visas to visit India.

The move was heralded by the Indian American Sikh community as well as U.S. consular officials.

No official announcement had been released by the Ministry of External Affairs as of press time May 2. But Sanjay Panda, consul general of India in San Francisco, told India-West that India’s missions throughout the world have been instructed to extend their services to asylees, who are primarily Sikhs from Punjab.

“We welcome the new policies which have been undertaken,” said Panda, a fierce advocate for extending consular services to all citizens of India residing abroad.

In an interview with India-West last November, shortly after taking up his post here, Panda said: “The thinking has been that anyone seeking asylum is anti-India, and India must disown them. But I look at it very differently.”

“Asking for asylum is not always anti-Indian. There are many reasons for seeking asylum,” he said, citing personal enmity, local and economic issues, among other factors. “We have decided that anyone who is not patently anti-India should be given a visa.”

Sikh Americans — thousands of whom have been unable to visit India for decades — have long advocated to remove the travel restrictions, arguing that the conditions under which they applied for political asylum in the late 1980s and ‘90s no longer exist.

Panda last week explained that the new policies allow consulates to extend their services to all persons of Indian origin, regardless of how they received their status in the U.S. He noted that the Indian government does not maintain a blacklist of PIOs who have gained their status abroad by asking for political asylum. “People themselves must state that they received their U.S. status via asylum,” he said, noting that consular forms ask that question.

Panda explained that the new policy does not apply to Indians who are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and have been given final orders of deportation. He explained that India must verify whether those applicants are actually of Indian origin before issuing an emergency certificate to travel back to India. He expressed his hope that the latter issue would also be addressed soon.

Indian American Sukhi Chahal, chairman of the Punjab Foundation, has been a long-time advocate for changing policies that have denied travel documents to Sikh political asylees. Chahal told India-West he has worked with several administrations at the San Francisco Indian Consulate and the Indian Consulate in New York to get the policy changed.

Chahal explained that in the late 1980s and 90s, it was very easy for Sikhs to apply for political asylum in the U.S., because of the alleged violence against the community following the death of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was killed in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards.

Gandhi’s murder on Oct. 31, 1984, set off a series of anti-Sikh riots. The Indian government estimates that 2,000 people were killed in the disturbance, while other estimates are as high as 17,000.

After the riots, Sikh separatists advocated for the creation of Khalistan.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people applying for political asylum had no involvement with Khalistan or any political movement,” Chahal told India-West.

“But attorneys in the U.S. suggested that they apply for political asylum even if their reason for coming to the U.S. was economic,” he alleged, noting that at the time the State Department was granting asylum to almost every applicant from Punjab.

But once they received asylum, they were denied Indian passports. Those who obtained U.S. citizenship were denied Indian visas. “It affected thousands of people who could not return to India,” said Chahal, noting that many Sikhs instead obtained visas to Nepal and then traveled to India by land illegally.

Chahal lauded the new policy. “We have been waiting for this for so long,” he told India-West. He said the move would provide a fresh perspective of India to Sikh Americans, who might engage in community rehabilitation efforts such as adopting a village and similar economic initiatives.

(Also see India-West article here: https://bit.ly/2VmBLS8)

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