US, asked about Sikh separatist groups, says it respects free speech

By Simon Lewis and Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The State Department on Tuesday said the United States respects the right to freedom of speech and assembly of individuals when asked about American factions of the movement for a Sikh separatist state that has long frustrated India.

The Indian government has complained about the presence of Sikh separatist groups outside India, especially in Canada. The groups have kept alive the movement for Khalistan, or the demand for an independent Sikh state to be carved out of India.

One such group called Sikhs for Justice is based in the United States and has been organizing an unofficial so-called "Khalistan Referendum".

"So we're not going to comment on the unofficial referendum," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

"What I will just say is that, broadly across the board, individuals have the right to freedoms of speech, rights to peacefully assemble in the United States, all of which are in line with our First Amendment protections, and adherence, of course, to any appropriate federal and local regulations."

The demand for an independent Sikh state surfaced most prominently in India during a violent insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s and paralyzed the state of Punjab. Tens of thousands died.

The movement is considered a security threat by India. Sikh militants were blamed for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India in which all 329 people on board were killed.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984 by two Sikh bodyguards after she allowed the storming of the holiest Sikh temple, aimed at flushing out separatists.

The cause hardly has any support in India presently and was crushed within the country by the government in the 1990s.

Canada last month alleged that India may have been involved in the killing of Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, whom New Delhi labeled as a "terrorist". India denies any involvement in his killing.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones)