Anger stemming from a 30-year-old religious clash in India that left thousands dead has crept into one of the closest and most expensive congressional races in the country.
Some Sikh political activists and the California Republican Party are campaigning against Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, saying he refuses to acknowledge the alleged involvement of the Indian government in the anti-Sikh rioting in 1984.
Bera, a physician representing a suburban Sacramento district, is the only Indian-American in Congress.
Other Sikh leaders are planning a fundraiser for Bera this weekend, dismissing the opposition as a fringe group that doesn't represent their religious community. They praise Bera, a freshman lawmaker and Unitarian who was raised Hindu by Indian immigrant parents, as a valuable advocate for all South Asians.
Sikhism is a monotheistic religion with roots in modern-day Punjab that emphasizes equality and good works. Male followers often wear turbans. In California, Sikhs have a long history as farmers in the Central Valley.
Bera's 7th Congressional District, which is about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, has about 6,000 registered voters of Indian descent, according to Political Data Inc., a California firm that provides detailed breakdowns of voting districts.
The race between Bera and Republican Doug Ose, a former congressman, has attracted more than $4 million from outside interest groups. The margin of victory in November is expected to be razor thin, so even a small-scale revolt from within a single ethnic community could help tilt the election.
Such attempts to gain votes by taking sides in emotional historical debates are unusual and can carry unforeseen pitfalls for the side that tries to appease one group while angering another.
The election debate over the Sikh massacre recalls a long-running disagreement over the slaying of some 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, which Armenians insist constituted genocide and Turks reject.
In the Bera-Ose race, a group of activists calling itself American Sikhs for Truth plans to send 1,500 anti-Bera mailers in English and Punjabi to Sikh households and to deploy volunteers on the streets in the coming days.
California Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Harmeet Dhillon, a Sikh, was among Ose volunteers knocking on the doors of Sikh households last weekend in the district.
The massacre of Sikhs marks one of the darkest periods of sectarian violence in recent Indian history. After violently suppressing a Sikh insurgency and an army attack on the holiest Sikh site, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
Her killing prompted anti-Sikh rioting across northern states that left more than 3,000 people dead, some hacked to death and others burned alive. Government officials have been accused of inciting then ignoring the violence.
“It was a huge, horrible crush to the psyche of the Sikh community worldwide,” said Dhillon, who had relatives forced into hiding.
Ahead of the clash's anniversary in November, a group of Sikhs asked congressional candidates in Northern California whether the deaths happened with government assistance or lack of intervention, and if they would pursue justice for the victims' families. Bera's campaign was among 10 that did not answer the questions.
In a prepared statement to The Associated Press, Bera called the killings a tragedy and said he is “hopeful that the Indian government has learned from the past.”
He previously told The Sacramento Bee that he is focused on issues faced by Sikhs in the U.S. and can't dictate how the Indian government approaches the rioting.
Voters who are critical of his stance say Bera is bending to pressure not to offend prominent Indian-American campaign donors in America or the government of India.
“As an Indian, my goal is to see my people rise up,” said Inderjit Kallirai, a Republican state worker who says he supported Bera in 2010 and 2012. “The only thing that divides us now is he doesn't want to stand for Sikhs.”
As he went door-to-door for Bera's Republican challenger, Kallirai told fellow Sikhs that Bera wouldn't speak out for their community. Some older Sikh voters familiar with Bera's position on the massacre, such as 66-year-old Gurdev Singh, agreed to place Doug Ose signs on their lawns.
Most Sikhs in the U.S. care more about domestic policy than foreign policy and “homeland politics,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at the University of California, Riverside and director of the National Asian American Survey.
That's the case for Harkirat Singh, a 30-year-old real estate agent in Elk Grove who was born in New Delhi a month before the massacre.
“The Indian government has to take initiative, not a congressman,” he said. “He is the only sitting Indian congressman, and we don't want to lose him.”
Bobbie Singh-Allen, an Elk Grove school board member, said she was disappointed Bera didn't take a stronger stand on the killings of Sikhs in 1984. But she said opposition based on that issue alone loses sight of Bera's advocacy on other Sikh priorities, such as improving hate crime monitoring, addressing school bullying and allowing turbans in the military and in international basketball games.
“I know people who lost family members,” she said. “To use this to divide the community is a disservice because you are basically saying Dr. Bera is not a friend or a supporter.”