After hundreds of Sikh Victorians cast their votes in a non-binding referendum on the establishment of an independent Sikh state on Sunday, police used pepper spray to break up a minor scuffle between rival demonstrators in Melbourne.
When a group of supporters for India arrived at the polling place in Federation Square at 4.30 p.m., they waved national flags. Five people were pepper sprayed between the pro-India and pro-Sikh groups, and one man was detained and carried away by police.
According to a statement from Victoria Police, the incident at 12.45 pm was connected to a previous dispute. Due to the events of Sunday, two men, ages 34 and 39, were detained and given a penalty notice for riotous behaviour.
Police are still looking into the injuries sustained by the two individuals who were injured at the demonstration—one with a head wound and the other with a hand injury.
The non-binding referendum is being conducted by the US-based Sikhs for Justice organisation, which has proposed a new state called Khalistan that would include the Punjab areas of northern India and Pakistan as well as portions of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan.
The referendum question, “Should Indian-governed Punjab be an independent country?,” was put to the electorate on Sunday.
Amritpal Kaur, a 15-year resident of Melbourne, expressed her desire for a homeland for the Sikhs with “good prospects and good job opportunities.”
“We want our religion to be given the respect it deserves, the same as the other religions overall. There’s a lot of people who project [Khalistan] as a negative thing, but it’s not – we’re here for our freedoms and for our kids to have a better future,” she stated.
Since the campaign by local secessionists intensified recently, tensions within Australia’s sizable and expanding Indian diaspora have increased, and there have been a number of graffiti attacks on Hindu temples in Melbourne over the previous two weeks.
The ISKCON Hare Krishna Temple in Albert Park, which serves as the centre of Melbourne’s Bhakti Yoga Movement, was among three Hindu temples throughout the city that had graffiti on them. The Hindu Council of Australia denounced the vandalism.
The front wall of the temple contained graffiti that read “Hindustan Murdabad,” which can be interpreted as “Death to India,” and “Khalistan Zindabad,” which can be translated as “Long live the Sikh homeland,” which was discovered by temple management last Monday.
Many Sikhs present on Sunday claimed that since India’s division in 1947, when Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan, their religion has not been honoured in the country.
Jaswinder Singh, a resident of Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs, announced that he and his family would return to India right away and permanently if a Sikh independent state was established.
Singh asserted that he did not think the referendum had harmed ties between Hindus and Sikhs in Melbourne and that those opposed to a Sikh state had a right to their opinions.
As the deadline of 5 pm drew near, hundreds of people were still waiting in line to cast their ballots. When it became apparent that not everyone present would have time to cast a ballot, several attempted to cram into the voting booth area. Those barred from entering the room joined in the prayer while removing their shoes as a sign of respect.
Sikhs for Justice, a group that is outlawed in India, according to its coordinator Avtar Singh Pannu, plans to employ the results of the referendums previously held in Canada, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom as well as those in Melbourne to compel the UN into recognising a sovereign Sikh state.
Millions of people, according to Pannu, have already cast votes in favour of Sikhs’ right to self-determination in a separate state.
Approximately 210,000 Sikhs were found in Australia in 2021, an increase from 130,000 in 2016; nearly half of this population resided in Victoria. However, Hindus increased from 440,300 in Australia in 2016 to 684,000 in 2021.
Senator David Shoebridge, Senator for NSW, Australian Greens Justice Spokesperson on 30 January wrote a letter to Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Reece Kershaw and Acting Commander Special Investigations Command, Anita van Hilst regarding the “29 January Altercation Within Indian Diaspora in Melbourne.”
Senator Shoebridge’s letter mentioned the altercation which took place at Federation Square in Melbourne on 29 January 2023 between pro-Sikh and pro-India groups within the Indian Diaspora.He raised his concerns by stating that if the AFP does not act to effectively address these matters it may result in further escalation of offline harm, social discord and violent extremism.
He further stated, “the altercation which took place on 29 January 2023 in Melbourne highlights the fact that this is an issue that the AFP must take seriously and attend to urgently as there is a very real danger of such altercations escalating further, resulting in violence and harm to members of the Indian diaspora as well as innocent bystanders if such alterations take place in public spaces such as they did on 29 January.”