The longstanding Khalistan separatist movement in India, supported by certain segments of the Sikh population, is in the headlines once more amid a spectacular diplomatic breakdown in relations between India and Canada.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the House of Commons on Monday to state that there were “credible allegations” that the Indian state may be linked to the murder of Canadian citizen and pro-Khalistan Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June.
India has responded by calling the allegations “absurd” and “politically motivated”, adding that Canada has long provided shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” who threaten India’s security.
The escalating row has seen Canada expel top Indian diplomat Pavan Kumar Rao. It is perhaps telling that Kumar is in fact a career intelligence officer with sources stating that he was the Canadian station chief of the Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
India has responded in kind by showing the door to a senior Canadian diplomat.
Canada is host to the largest Sikh population in the world outside of India — some 770,000 individuals. Canadian cabinet minister Harjit Sajjan is a Sikh.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Nijjar was born in Jalandhar in the Punjab province of India in 1977. He emigrated to Canada in 1997 and worked as a plumber. He was an advocate for the Khalistan movement. He was the elected head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia.
India has alleged in the past that Nijjar was the head of the Khalistan Tiger Movement, designated a terrorist organisation by the Indian state. India further alleges that he was in the past associated with the Babbra Khalsa International (BKI) Sikh separatist group.
Nijjar was killed on 18 June in the parking lot of a gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia.
In July 2022, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) announced a cash reward of INR 1000,000 for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest. India alleges Nijjar’s involvement in an attack on a Hindu priest in Jalandhar, Punjab.
Reports in the Indian media state that Nijjar was organising an unofficial referendum on an independent Khalistan at the time of his death. He is the third prominent Sikh leader to have died unexpectedly in recent months.
The history of the Khalistan Movement
The Khalistan movement, eponymously named after the homeland demanded by separatist Sikhs, dates back to at least the early 1940s in its current form and has enjoyed varying levels of support not only within the ranks of Indian Sikhs but also sometimes even more emphatically from diaspora Sikhs.
As it became clear that British India was heading towards the Partition that would eventually give birth to independent India and Pakistan, groups of Sikhs started to demand a separate Sikh homeland — with some stating their support for an autonomous province within India but others more hardline separatists envisioning a separate country. Sikhs comprise about two per cent of India’s population.
At its most expansive, this demand imagined a homeland comprising current-day Indian Punjab, Haryana and Pakistani Punjab.
Whilst the Khalistan movement has not proved a serious threat to the Indian Federation due to various factors, including successful state crackdowns, lack of a clear vision and faltering support among Sikhs, it has proved a constant force responsible for some significant showdowns with the government.
The 1980s in particular were marked by pro-Khalistan militant activity, which most notably resulted in the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
In 1984, militant religious leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and his armed followers took up residence in the sacred Golden Temple Complex. Amid a breakdown in negotiations between Bhindranwale and the government, Indira Gandhi ordered “Operation Blue Star”, an attack on the Golden Temple, with numerous civilians still inside.
There is some suggestion that intentional disinformation provided by the Soviets and purporting to show wide international support to the militant movement, including from the United States and Pakistan, may have influenced Gandhi’s decision to pursue military action.
The Indian government had underestimated the amount of firepower possessed by the militants. The shootout lasted 24 hours and resulted in the death of 5,000 civilians, 200 militants and scores of Indian soldiers.
Another notable incident was the bombing of Air India Flight 182. The flight operated on the Montréal-London-Delhi-Bombay route. On 23rd June 1984, it was the victim of a mid-air bomb explosion off the coast of Ireland that killed all souls on board.
The incident was linked to the Sikh separatist group, Baber Khalsa. Though several people were arrested, the only person convicted in the case was Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian citizen and member of the International Youth Federation who pleaded guilty in 2003 to manslaughter.
The escalating Canadian-Indian diplomatic row
In a sign of the highly sensitive nature of the issue, the Indian government has put increasing pressure on three countries that are home to sizeable Sikh populations: Canada, Australia and the UK.
Whilst few would have expected such a serious implosion on Canadian-Indian relations, signs of trouble were evident during the G20, hosted earlier this month in India. Days before his arrival, Trudeau unexpectedly paused talks on a trade treaty with India.
Further speculation followed after he skipped a weekend dinner. Neither was there a bilateral meeting between the two premiers. Their brief five-minute meeting on the sidelines was notable for the absence of Modi’s trademark hug.
Trudeau is understood to have briefed allies including Britain, the United States and Australia ahead of the revelation in the House of Commons. Britain says it is in close touch with Canada about the “serious allegations”.
Response in Britain
Nevertheless, Britain has said in the last hour that it will continue trade talks with India, with the prime minister’s spokesperson at No 10 saying: “It’s right that the Canadian authorities are looking into (the allegations), but I’m not going to get ahead of that work that needs to take place now.”
Meanwhile, Sikh organisations in Britain are highlighting the plight of Jagtar Johal, a pro-Khalistan and Sikh rights activist from Dunbarton. Johal has been in an Indian prison for six years without trial. He faces accusations of extremism but says he was tortured and forced into a signed confession.
Sikhs in Britain are expressing anger over the latter’s failure to secure Johal’s freedom even after a UN working group has called for his immediate release.
British Sikhs further warn that in the wake of Whitehall’s recent announcement of responding to “pro-Khalistan extremism”, of which there is little evidence in Britain, suppression of pro-Khalistan sentiment will have dangerous consequences.
This is a developing story.