Despite being the world’s largest democracy with 1.22 billion people, thousands of Indians regularly leave India to seek asylum. According to the Times of India, for example, 13,000 Indians applied for asylum in various countries between 2011 and 2013, mostly in Europe. (See “13,000 Indians applied for asylum in the last 2 years,” by Kounteya Sinha, March 24, 2014.) In the United States and Canada, 1,393 people from India sought asylum in the years 2012 and 2013 alone.
Historically, most Indian refugees have been Sikh. They flew directly to the U.S., entering at either New York or San Francisco and joining large Sikh communities. This began changing in 2013, when South Asians reportedly began flying into Central America then journeying overland to reach the Southern United States. Many Indians entering this way approach border officials and ask for asylum, after which they are given a date for a credible fear interview(conducted by an asylum officer to determine whether the applicant has a credible fear of returning to his or her country). (See, “Arizona sees surge of asylum seekers from India,” by Daniel Gonzalez, the Arizona Republic, 9/8/13.)
In 2013, the U.S. granted 3.24% of the asylum cases originating from India. On the list of asylum grants by country, this moved India from 7th (2011 and 2012) to 4th (2013). (See FY 2013 Statistics Yearbook, U.S. Department of Justice, EOIR.)
According to the U.S. State Department, crimes against women in India are widespread. The 2013 report states that “rape, domestic violence, dowry-related deaths, honor killings, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women” remained serious problems. (See State Department "Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2013," India.) Nevertheless, most asylum claims from India are made by Sikhs who say they have been persecuted or fear persecution by the Indian government on account of their Sikh religion or their political opinion.
The height of violence against Sikhs in India occurred in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were killed after an incident involving the Golden Temple, a Sikh holy place (retribution for the murder of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards). Thirty years later, Sikhs still leave India claiming to have been persecuted by the government. Most claim to be part of the Akali Dal Mann, a separatist group that advocates for a Sikh homeland in Punjab.
A U.S. immigration judge or asylum officer may deny a claim if the applicant is not credible -- that is, not detailed, consistent or plausible in his or her testimony. Importantly, there is more evidence that Sikhs are living quietly in India than there are articles exposing Sikh persecution in the years since 1984. Since an asylum applicant must have an objective as well as subjective basis for fear, lack of objective evidence can be a reason for denial. Also, if a judge or officer suspects ties to a designated terrorist group, an applicant can be disqualified for asylum.
If you are Sikh and have been persecuted or fear persecution, it is important to substantiate your case with as much objective evidence as possible. Find country conditions information from authoritative sources that supports your claim, as described in Nolo's article, "Preparing Persuasive Documents for Your Asylum Application." If you claim to belong to a Sikh organization, make sure you prove that it is not a terrorist one.
Sikh applicants should also be prepared to prove they are Sikh. If you claim to be religious, you should be able to explain your religion to the judge or officer. If you are not religious, you should be able to explain why you don’t practice your religion and how any persecutor would be able to recognize you as Sikh.