A section of prosperous and conservative Sikhs in Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia, support the secessionist idea
Demonstrators gather in support of Khalistan, an advocated independent Sikh homeland, during a Sikh rally outside the Consulate General of India, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 25. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's assertion on Sept. 17 that agents linked to New Delhi may have been responsible for the June 18 murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, sent shock waves through both countries, prompting the reciprocal expulsion of diplomats. (Photo: AFP)
After a lull, the demand for Khalistan, an independent homeland for the Sikh community covering the Punjab area of India, has hit headlines in Canada, the US, and the UK. It has seen four murders in recent months, and India and Canada have expelled senior diplomats.
On Sept. 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Indian government agents were involved in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Khalistan activist, who migrated to Canada in 1997 and became a citizen.
India declared Nijjar a terrorist in 2020 and also announced a cash reward of some US$13,000 for sharing information on him.
Unidentified gunmen shot Nijar on June 18 in a Vancouver suburb with a large Sikh population. Canada alleged the involvement of Indian agents in the murder and expelled an Indian envoy.
India’s resounding denial of the allegation and tit-for-tat counter moves have worsened bilateral diplomatic relations.
Canada is home to some 770,000 Sikhs, the highest Sikh population outside their home state of Punjab in northern India. They form just over 2 percent of Canada’s 38 million population. The North American nation has seen many incidents that have irked India.
Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion worldwide with up to 30 million adherents. Some 23 million of them live in India forming 1.7 percent of the Indian population.
Proportionately, the Sikh percentage is higher in Canada than in India.
In Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia, a number of prosperous and conservative Sikhs have emerged and become politically influential of late.
Hundreds of Sikhs from these nations reportedly support the secessionist idea of Khalistan.
The demand for an ethno-religious Sikh homeland began during the Indian independence movement but did not gain much traction as a majority of Sikhs did not support the idea of forming an independent nation.
In Canada, Trudeau is backed by the New Democratic Party, which openly supported a Khalistan referendum on Canadian soil. The party is headed by popular Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh.
The Khalistan movement hit headlines in the 1980s, and in 1985 when Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland after departing Canada for India. All 329 passengers and crew on board perished and the tragedy was attributed to Sikh separatists.
Among Sikhs, there was an enduring sense of injustice when the Indian army conducted Operation Blue Star and stormed Sikhism’s holiest place, the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), at the instruction of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to clip the wings of the Khalistan movement.
For 10 days, starting June 1, 1984, the Indian army occupied the Golden Temple at Amritsar to remove Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and other separatists.
Months after the operation, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh security guards on Oct. 31. An anti-Sikh riot followed in the national capital New Delhi and nearly 3,000 Sikhs were massacred.
Gandhi’s Congress party was accused of bestowing the perpetrators of the Sikh massacre with influential and plum posts.
During Gandhi's time and the rule of her Congress Party, many Sikhs felt that the Indian state was over-centralized and that national devolution, envisaged during the time of independence from Britain, was not forthcoming.
Despite the trope of secular nationalism, the Congress government was comprised of many right-wing Hindu leaders who figured prominently in the party hierarchy and in the government set-up after India wrote its constitution in 1950.
Sikhism, founded by Guru Nanak at the end of the 15th century, advises a direct relationship with God. This is cited by pro-Khalistani supporters as the basis for a sovereign nation.
According to them, in the internal affairs of Sikhs, no external power has any say.
Why has the Khalistan movement become violently prominent all over the world again?
The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindu groups associated with it believe in a unified nation under Hindutva nationalism. It considers Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism as external religions, while claiming Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as offshoots of Hinduism.
The ruling BJP supports the idea of making India a Hindu nation.
Sikhs refuse to be part of Hinduism and fiercely defend their religion as independent. Pro-Khalistan sympathizers feel Sikhism, as a distinct identity, will be abolished entirely by the Hindutva movement, surreptitiously and sometimes openly.
Hindu groups consider the demand for decentralization, regional autonomy, and self-determination as threats to the nation and often take steps to quell them.
With Modi’s BJP in power in India, Khalistan sympathizers feel that their demand for a separate nation has greater legitimacy now. However, they also know that pro-Khalistan activities will be violently suppressed by the current Indian state.
There are four categories of people who stand for a sovereign Khalistan.
A small group who are ideologically committed to Khalistan for whatever reasons. The second group is made up of people who say Sikhs should be autonomous as they have their own history and their own heritage. The third group is made up of people who are dissatisfied with India over various anti-Sikh atrocities. The fourth group comprises new generations of Sikhs, born outside India. They are mostly professionals who feel that human rights violations have taken place in Punjab.
It is still unclear if Khalistan will be a theocratic state, or if it will be a pure capitalist economy or one with socialist features. But that is secondary.
The primary question here is will South Asia ever see a Khalistan, sandwiched between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India?
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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