Resurrecting Khalistan

In a tit for tat move New Delhi has expelled a senior Canadian diplomat hours after Ottawa expelled a top Indian official as tensions between the two countries escalate over the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar earlier this year. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in his parliament that India was connected to Nijjar’s assassination in British Columbia State in June. The Government of India, however, dismissed the allegation by the Canadian government as baseless and asked Canada instead to crack down on anti-India separatist groups like Khalistanis operating in its territory. The row actually centres on the Sikh separatist movement, commonly known as the Khalistani movement. If Canada could prove allegations, killing would violate international law. But so far Trudeau’s “credible allegations” are without any “credible evidence”. India has for years accused Canada of harbouring ‘extremist’ supporters of the so-called Khalistan movement.

Nijjar was reportedly organising an unofficial referendum for an independent Sikh nation at the time of his death. He was initially associated with the Babbar Khalsa International [BKI] militant outfit. New Delhi has listed BKI as a “terrorist organisation” and says it is funded by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. At one stage Nijjar became the chief of Khalistan Tiger Force [KTF]. He was also the head of Guru Nanak Sikh Gurduara in Surrey. He held that position at the time of his death. A person with many colours!

The separatist movement started as an armed campaign in the late 1980s among Sikhs demanding a separate homeland. The violent movement lasted more than a decade. It was brutally suppressed by India’s security forces. Thousands of people, innocent people, were killed including prominent Sikh leaders. Many innocent people died in cross-fire as it happens in every armed confrontation.

In 1984, Indian armed forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to flush out militants who had taken refuge in the temple complex. The operation killed about 400 people, according to official figures but unofficial observers say thousands were killed. The dead included Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom the authorities in New Delhi accused of leading the armed rebellion. Bhindranwale was originally propped up by the then Congress government at the Centre to curb the influence of Akali Dal in Punjab Politics but ultimately it backfired. Hundreds of Punjab youths were killed in police operations in those days. They died in fake encounters as many of the deaths were later proved in courts to have been staged. As the ghost of Khalistan returns Indian security establishment has started a massive witch-hunt in Punjab, creating an atmosphere of terror among ordinary citizens.

 India has been asking countries such as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Pakistan to take legal action against Sikh separatists for quite some time. Only last year Paramjit Singh Panjwar, head of Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan. India seems more concerned about Canada where Sikhs make up nearly 2 percent of the country’s population. They form a vote bank that can hardly be ignored. For Trudeau Sikh voters matter, particularly for his party---New Democratic Party. Trudeau even tried to condemn Nijjar killing at the G-20 summit without success as the Uncle Sam was against antagonising India. In truth Trudeau’s comments supporting the farmers’ agitation and the arrest of Amrit Pal Singh is a fall-out of domestic political compulsion. Incidentally the Modi government tried to discredit Sikh participants in the historic farmers’ agitation by calling them Khalistanis but the propaganda didn’t click.

Meanwhile, the Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal said Punjabis in Canada were in a state of panic due to India’s deteriorating diplomatic relations with Canada. The suspension of Visa services for travel from Canada to India has affected thousands of Punjabis, including students.

For all practical purposes the Khalistani militancy is dead. There is no active insurgency in Punjab today though the dea of Khalistan still has some backers in the state, as well as in the sizable Sikh diaspora beyond India. Vandalising an Indian consulate in London doesn’t mean insurgency is advancing. Or desecrating a Hindu temple in Australia is enough to give leverage to Hindu Right to spread their politics of hate .By such actions they are just alienating themselves from masses even in Punjab while allowing Hindutva forces to make polarisatin on religious and communal lines easier. If anything their actions suggest that the movement has lost its direction. For the ruling establishment in India the renewed Khalistani phobia will give them a spacious excuse to silence voice of dissent, particularly in Punjab.


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Vol 56, No. 15, Oct 8 - 14, 2023