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India: Information on relocation of Sikhs from Punjab to other parts of India

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 16 May 2003
Citation / Document Symbol IND03003.ZSF
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, India: Information on relocation of Sikhs from Punjab to other parts of India, 16 May 2003, IND03003.ZSF, available at: [accessed 7 June 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


1) Do Punjab police, either on their own or with the help of national or other state authorities, pursue certain Sikhs who have relocated to other parts of India?

2) Do Sikhs from Punjab need to register when they relocate to other parts of India?

3) From the standpoint of jobs, language, and schooling, how difficult is it for Sikhs to relocate within India?

4) Do local police or non-state forces in India harass Sikhs who have relocated from Punjab?



Observers generally agree that Punjab police will try to catch a wanted suspect no matter where he has relocated in India. Several say, however, that the list of wanted militants has been winnowed down to "high-profile" individuals. By contrast, other Punjab experts have said in recent years that any Sikh who has been implicated in political militancy would be at risk anywhere in India.

Beyond this dispute over who is actually at risk, there is little doubt that Punjab police will pursue a wanted suspect. "Punjab police and other police and intelligence agencies in India do pursue those militants, wherever they are located, who figure in their lists of those who were engaged in separatist political activities and belonged to armed opposition groups in the past," a prominent Indian human rights lawyer said in an e-mail message to the Resource Information Center (RIC) (Indian human rights lawyer 4 May 2003).

In 1988, this same lawyer told Canadian asylum officials that, "[a] Sikh, a Kashmiri or anyone else who has been arrested one or more times on suspicion of being involved in political militancy, even a person suspected of such an involvement–whether or not the person has ever been actually arrested–is likely to be pursued wherever he or she goes" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999). He added: "This person can never live in any part of India without fear" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

Similarly, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who is an expert on India said in a telephone interview that "[i]f someone is accused of being a terrorist, police will track them" (Professor of Anthropology and Political Economy 22 Apr 2003).

Another human rights lawyer, who is based in the Punjab capital of Chandigarh, told Canadian officials in 1998 that Punjab police would likely pursue someone they wanted outside the state (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

Several observers suggest, though, that while Punjab police may be serious about pursuing Sikhs anywhere in India whom they view as hard-core militants, in practice only a handful of militants are likely to be targeted for such long-arm law enforcement. While noting that Sikhs who are on police lists for past involvement with armed groups could be at risk even if not presently active, the Indian human rights attorney said in his May 2003 e-mail to the RIC that, "[t]he number of persons who figure in such lists is really very small and I do not think the police and intelligence agencies have in the last years been adding many names" (Indian human rights lawyer 4 May 2003).

A South Asia expert at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research said that it is unlikely that Punjab police are currently pursuing many Sikhs for alleged militant activities given that the insurgency there was crushed in the early 1990s (U.S. DOS INR 25 Apr 2003).


As part of this effort to flesh out which Sikhs are most at risk of persecution, several experts have suggested that only those considered by police to be high-profile militants are at risk.

In early 1997, just a few years removed from the end of the Sikh insurgency, a Sikh religious official in Punjab told a Canadian diplomat that only the highest profile fugitives, numbering just a handful, would be at risk of arrest or of being pursued outside the state (IRB-RD 21 Feb 1997).

In 1998, John Spellman, then a professor at the University of Windsor, told Canadian asylum officials that, "[o]nly if the person had a very high profile or the Punjab police were able to get a national police force–such as the Central Bureau of Investigation or Central Reserve Police Force involved–would they be likely to pursue someone outside the state" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

The executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi told an official Danish fact-finding team in 2000 that a suspected Sikh militant with a high profile would not be able to relocate in India without being traced, though relocation would be possible for someone less well-known (DIS 2000).

Several experts say that Punjab police normally do not consider a person to be a high-profile militant, thus putting them at risk of being tracked down outside Punjab, simply for having strong political views or being politically active. Bob Brack, a Canadian immigration official, in 1997 defined a "high-profile" militant as someone who is either a perceived leader of a militant group or suspected in a terrorist attack. He said that a family member of such a person would not be targeted (IRB-RD 17 Feb 1997).

Similarly, the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi told Canadian officials in 1997 that a high-profile suspect is someone who had engaged in "violent anti-state acts" (IRB-RD 17 Feb 1997). He said that simply holding pro-Khalistani views–favoring an independent Sikh state in Punjab–would not make an individual a high-profile suspect. Moreover, a family member of a high-profile militant or someone who provided shelter to militants under duress during the height of the Sikh insurgency would not necessarily be considered high-profile (IRB-RD 17 Feb 1997).

A University of Notre Dame professor who is an expert on religious militancy agreed that Punjab police no longer systematically persecute Sikhs simply for holding pro-Khalistani views. She suggested, however, that individual Sikhs are "probably targeted" at times by local police because of their actual or suspected Khalistani advocacy, even though high-level officials no longer see such views as a threat (Associate Professor of Anthropology 15 May 2003). "There is still widespread harassment of anyone who expresses separatist sympathies," she said in a telephone interview (Associate Professor of Anthropology 15 May 2003).

In response to a question on whether this harassment could include detention and physical abuse, the Notre Dame professor said that she had no recent evidence of such treatment being meted out, but that reports of this type of abuse seemed plausible given conditions in Punjab. Like the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, however, she said that family members of suspected militants are generally no longer targeted by police (Associate Professor of Anthropology 15 May 2003).

With few militants still making their bases in Punjab itself, police in the state have largely refocused their anti-terrorism efforts on an alleged threat from Sikh militants aiming to foment violence in Indian Punjab from safe havens across the border in Pakistan, according to Paul Wallace, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri at Columbia (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "I think the major focus would be somebody who's involved with the group that is still in Pakistan–former militants or militants who continue to want to resurrect political violence in India–in Punjab," Dr. Wallace said in a February 2003 training session for asylum officers in San Francisco (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Dr. Wallace noted that several Sikh militants have recently returned to Punjab without facing harassment at the hands of police. He pointed in particular to Wassan Singh Zaffarwal and Sohan Singh, a pair that he described as "leaders of two of the biggest of the umbrella groups that were, in effect, directing the political violence or terrorism in the Punjab" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). Other militants have returned as well, he said (24 Feb 2003).

"And in a sense they've been reintegrated–former militants–into Punjab," Dr. Wallace said (24 Feb 2003). "And that seems to be–now I don't have any evidence for this–but it seems to be an understanding that if you come back to Punjab in a reasonable [time-] frame and accept the Punjab and Indian governments, then you can live something like a normal life," he added (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "At least there's a number of people who've come back who provide at least that kind of evidence" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Dr. Wallace cautioned, however, that the notoriety of Zaffarwal, who "probably was responsible for hundreds of deaths while leading a terrorist group," could actually be working in his favor (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). The hands-off attitude Punjab authorities have shown Zaffarwal "doesn't mean that somebody who was not such a very important person couldn't be persecuted....If you're really in the public eye, you're probably safer than if you were at the second or third level," Dr. Wallace said during the training session (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).


Some experts have also suggested that a Sikh who relocates could be at risk of persecution if his name is on a list of chronic offenders. Such lists are routinely kept by police throughout India and are relayed across the country via a police computer system (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999). The Notre Dame professor wrote in a paper presented at a July 1998 symposium on human rights in Punjab that Sikhs at "significant risk" included "history sheeters," defined as "individuals with a record of previous arrests and detentions," and "habitual offenders," or persons who are "rounded up whenever something untoward happens" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

The Notre Dame professor said in a May 2003 telephone interview that while Sikhs on lists dating from the militancy period are still at risk, it is unlikely that Punjab police have labeled many Sikhs as history sheeters since then based on suspected militant links. As with Dr. Wallace and others, she said that Punjab police today are mainly concerned with a small number of hard core militants, including those presumed to be sheltering in Pakistan (Associate Professor of Anthropology 15 May 2003).

Nevertheless, evidence suggests that Punjab police at times wrongly place individuals involved in ordinary political activities on chronic offender lists. The Indian human rights lawyer told Canadian asylum officials in 1998 that police stations in India typically have something called a "10 number register, which contains the names of people with proven backgrounds of criminality under their jurisdiction" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999). In Punjab, he said, "authorities manipulate these registers to also include names of politically inconvenient persons" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999). He also said that such lists are circulated among Indian intelligence services, and that individuals on these lists can be persecuted (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

At the same time, the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center told Canadian officials in 1997 that Punjab police do not necessarily pursue someone to another state just because he is on a list of chronic offenders. He acknowledged, however, that police generally do learn when a person on a list moves into their jurisdiction, often requiring the individual to report to them regularly (IRB-RD 17 Feb 1997).

Beyond the question of whether a particular Sikh who relocates outside of Punjab will actually be targeted, experts expressed little doubt that Indian security services have the capacity to pursue wanted persons who have crossed state borders. Rather than pursue a suspect outside of Punjab on their own, Punjab police normally would request help from federal authorities, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, according to the South Asia expert at the U.S. State Department's intelligence office (U.S. DOS INR 25 Apr 2003).

Ultimately, "[i]t is possible for the police to trace anyone in India if they really want to," the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center said in an e-mail to the RIC (Executive director 21 Apr 2003).


Observers agree that Sikhs relocating from Punjab to other parts of India do not have to register with local police unless specifically required to do so. "It is not necessary for any Indian citizen to register with the authorities if they move to a different state in India," the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center said in an e-mail to the RIC (Executive director 21 Apr 2003). "However, if there were a court order requiring the individual to register with the local police authorities that would have to be complied with" (Executive director 21 Apr 2003).

Besides court orders, Indian police may have more mundane ways of learning about newcomers to their area. "In many metropolitan cities in India, the police now require landlords to furnish information about their tenants," the executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center said (21 Apr 2003). "In this manner, the police do have an idea as to who is the tenant and have some kind of a registration process" (Executive director 21 Apr 2003).

Paul Wallace, in his training session for San Francisco Asylum Officers, similarly noted that while formal registration is generally not necessary, police might learn of a newcomer's presence through routine surveillance. "You don't have to report to police headquarters, though the police pretty well know who lives where and who's doing what..." he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). At the same time, he said, police in a large metropolis might have a tough time keeping tabs on comings and goings using these informal methods. "In a big city, for example, it's very hard to do" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

By contrast, Dr. Spellman, the former University of Windsor professor, suggested that local police in fact have little real inclination or ability to monitor Indians who relocate. "The local authorities would not report a newcomer to the local police, and the local police are not interested in newcomers," he told Canadian asylum officials in 1998 (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999). "Local police forces have neither the resources nor the language abilities to perform background checks on people arriving from other parts of India" (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

Regardless of whether newcomers initially attract police notice, they could come to the attention of authorities if they seek to re-emerge from life underground. "There are various things that you do register for," Dr. Wallace said (24 Feb 2003). "You might register for special rations if you fall below the poverty line. There's public distribution of lower-priced food grains, food items–you have to register for that," he added (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Dr. Wallace also pointed out that the Indian Government takes the initiative in registering citizens to vote. Moreover, Indians must register in order to get marriage or birth certificates, although he said he was unsure of the proof of identification needed for these certificates. "So there are various kinds of registration systems, but not for citizenship, not for movement per se," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Given all these forms of registration, "there's lots of ways of identifying who people are and where they are," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "So people could be traced if they're active at all" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). At the same time, "there are lots of people who are out of the system," similar to the way people in the US are not registered for the census and "are not part of any system" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).


For most Sikhs, the toughest barrier to successful relocation is likely to be the challenge of finding a job in a new area, Paul Wallace said in his training session for San Francisco asylum officers. "In terms of transportation, you do have an Indian citizenship, and you could move around India–you don't have a pass system, or national identification system. You're free legally to go anywhere," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "The constraints are–what are you going to do to support yourself" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Dr. Wallace said that it is generally important for Sikhs who are relocating to hook up with local Sikhs in their new area. "There are a lot of Sikhs in particular places in India," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "And to the extent that you have some sort of linkage to that network, then you could move around. But otherwise, it's the same problem of how you support yourself" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Although Sikhs from Punjab generally speak the indigenous Punjabi as their native language, most apparently would be able to communicate with locals outside of Punjab. "All states in India, with few exceptions, have their own indigenous languages, but the Sikhs seem to flourish in West Bengal and Karnataka and Bombay" nevertheless, according to Dr. Wallace (24 Feb 2003). Punjabi is not understood in Karnataka in particular, he said. In general, though, Sikhs should have little problem in places where Hindi is widely spoken, since Punjabi and the spoken version of Hindi are essentially "mutually intelligible" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). The exception would be a Sikh who speaks only a "really rustic Punjabi" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

In any case, most Sikhs speak not only Punjabi but also "a Hindustani which is sort of a lingua franca for a good part of India," according to Dr. Wallace (24 Feb 2003). "It's like a vernacular Hindi" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). Sikhs often pick up at least some Hindi from school and from watching Bollywood films and videos, Dr. Wallace said. He added: "I find it hard to believe now that if you're growing up in Punjab you don't understand the Hindi/Urdu street language–it's often called the 'bazaar language.' When you go to the marketplace and you have people from different parts of the country, you have this Bombay-kind of Hindustani now" (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

Better-educated and urban Sikhs are more likely to be familiar with a language other than Punjabi, with poor, rural Sikhs being least likely to have a second language, Dr. Spellman, the former University of Windsor academic, told Canadian officials in 1998. He also said that a Punjabi Sikh would have no more problem enrolling his or her children in school than any other Indian relocating to a new area (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

Sikhs make up around 60 percent of Punjab's population, but are only about two percent of India's Hindu-majority population of slightly more than one billion people (U.S. DOS 7 Oct 2002; U.S. DOS DRL Feb 1995).


Asked at the training session whether Sikhs could safely relocate within India, Paul Wallace suggested that beyond the problem of supporting oneself, relocation generally would be a viable option. "If they're really being harassed in Punjab, I would think they could get out and go to Karnataka or West Bengal or Bihar or somewhere else, Bombay, where there are concentrations of Sikhs, though they're a minority, and be safe there," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003). "They could even go into Haryana and probably be safe," he added, referring to one of Punjab's neighboring states (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

A Danish Government fact-finding team that visited India in spring 2000 cited foreign diplomats as saying that most Sikhs who have been targeted in Punjab could probably relocate to another state without facing further harassment. "Sources from foreign diplomatic missions in India considered that there was no reason to believe that someone who has or has had problems in Punjab would not be able to reside elsewhere in India," the report said (DIS 2000). "Reference was made to the fact that the authorities in Delhi are not informed about those wanted in Punjab" (DIS 2000).

Similarly, Dr. Spellman, the former University of Windsor academic, told Canadian officials in 1998 that relocating from Punjab to another part of India would be a "very viable option" for most Sikhs, given that Sikhs tend to be a mobile and close-knit community (IRB-RD 12 Jan 1999).

Sikhs who move from Punjab to other parts of India normally are not viewed with heightened suspicion or harassed by local police simply because of their religion or where they come from, according to a lawyer who practices before the High Court in the western state of Gujarat. At the same time, local police throughout the country often harbor suspicion of anyone coming from another part of India, though this alone is generally not enough to lead to mistreatment, the lawyer said in a telephone interview with the RIC (Lawyer 22 Apr 2003).

For Sikhs as well as Indians generally, possessing wealth, status, or connections can be as important as anything else in making an individual less vulnerable to police abuse, Paul Wallace noted during the training session. "If you're poor, if you're tribal, if you're a minority in a given area anywhere in India, it's even more difficult for you. If you're higher income, if you're higher caste, if you have some important contacts, then the police treat you much more gently," he said (Wallace 24 Feb 2003).

While Sikhs generally have not been targeted on religious grounds in most areas outside of Punjab in recent years, they have come under increasing pressure from Muslim militants in India's troubled state of Kashmir. Suspected Muslim militants killed 35 Sikh men in 2000 in the village of Chatti Singhpora in southern Kashmir. And some 14 Sikhs were killed by suspected militants in at least two separate incidents in Kashmir in early 2001. In the aftermath of these killings, many Sikhs have fled Kashmir (U.S. DOS 31 Mar 2003; U.S. DOS 7 Oct 2002).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Notre Dame. Telephone interview (South Bend, Indiana: 15 May 2003).

Danish Immigration Service (DIS). REPORT ON THE FACT FINDING MISSION TO THE PUNJAB, INDIA 21 MARCH – 5 APRIL 2000 (2000), as cited in INDIA ASSESSMENT, Country Information and Policy Unit, Immigration and Nationality Directorate, Home Office, United Kingdom (Apr 2002), [Accessed 10 May 2003]

Executive director, South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center. E-mail to the BCIS Resource Information Center (New Delhi, India: 21 Apr 2003).

Immigration and Refugee Board, Research Directorate (IRB-RD). "India: Freedom of Movement, in Particular, the Ability to Relocate Freely from Punjab to Other Parts of India" (12 Jan 1999, IND30757.E),!2Ee/doc/{@1}?firsthit [Accessed 13 May 2003]

Immigration and Refugee Board, Research Directorate (IRB-RD). "India: Copies of the Speaking Notes from Bob Brack and Gurinder Singh Mann for the 24 January 1997 Punjab Conference in Montreal" (Ottawa: 21 Feb 1997, IND26409.E).

Immigration and Refugee Board, Research Directorate (IRB-RD). "India: Information From Four Specialists on the Punjab" (Ottawa: 17 Feb 1997, IND 26376.EX).

Indian human rights lawyer. E-mail to the BCIS Resource Information Center (4 May 2003).

Lawyer. Telephone interview (Ahmedabad, India: 22 Apr 2003).

Professor of Anthropology and Political Economy, University of Texas at Dallas. Telephone interview (Dallas: 22 Apr 2003).

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2002, "India" (31 Mar 2003), [Accessed 15 May 2003]

U.S. Department of State (U.S. DOS). INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT 2002, "India" (7 Oct 2002), [Accessed 15 May 2003]

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (U.S. DOS DRL). "India: Comments on Country Conditions and Asylum Claims" (Feb 1995).

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research (U.S. DOS INR). Telephone interview (Washington, DC: 25 Apr 2003).

Wallace, Paul. Professor of Political Science, University of Missouri at Columbia. "Transcript of Telephonic Interview with San Francisco Asylum Office–Training on Sikhs in the Punjab" (24 Feb 2003).

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