Allegations the Indian government was involved in the murder of a Canadian Sikh leader in British Columbia have put a renewed spotlight on the Khalistan movement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell Monday in the House of Commons when he accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of playing a role in the June slaying of 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Trudeau said Canadian intelligence agencies have “credible” information that “agents of the Indian government” were involved in the murder. He did not elaborate further but described Nijjar as a Canadian citizen. Immigration Minister Marc Miller confirmed his citizenship in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday.
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India denied those allegations Tuesday and ordered the expulsion of a Canadian diplomat – a tit-for-tat move following Ottawa’s expulsion of India’s Pavan Kumar Rai, a diplomatic agent who heads up an Indian intelligence agency based in Ottawa.
The allegation has put a renewed focus on Sikh independence in India, also known as the Khalistan movement. Here is what you need to know.
What is the Khalistan movement?
The Khalistan movement dates back to the conflicts over India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947. The idea of a Sikh homeland was pushed for in negotiations preceding the partition of India’s Punjab region between the two new countries.
Sikh separatists demanded a homeland called Khalistan, meaning “the land of the pure,” that they said should be created out of Punjab.
The Sikh religion was founded in Punjab in the late 15th century and has about 25 million followers worldwide. Sikhs form a majority of Punjab’s population, but are a minority in India, comprising just two per cent of its population of 1.4 billion. Hindus make up 79.8 per cent of India’s population and Muslims account for 14.2 per cent, according to Pew Research Center data.
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The demand has resurfaced many times, most prominently during a violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s.
The movement was suppressed by an Indian government crackdown that saw thousands of people killed, including prominent Sikh leaders.
In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to flush out separatists who had taken refuge there. The operation killed around 400 people, according to official figures, but Sikh groups say thousands were killed.
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The dead included Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom the Indian government accused of leading the armed insurgency.
On Oct. 31, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the raid on the temple, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikh.
Her death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, particularly New Delhi, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.
The 2010 judicial inquiry into the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying to India from Canada said “Sikh terrorists” were responsible.
Is the movement still active?
There is no active insurgency in Punjab today, but the Khalistan movement has supporters in the state, as well as in the Sikh diaspora outside of India.
The movement has backing among sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which has the largest population of Sikhs outside Punjab, and in Britain, Australia and the U.S.
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, which is about two per cent of its total population.
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India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement. The Indian government has alleged over the years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.
The government, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been described by some prominent human rights groups as one that has cracked down on religious minorities.
“The government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims,” Human Rights Watch said on its website.
“This, coupled with vilification of Muslims and other minorities by some BJP leaders, and the police failure to act against government supporters who commit violence, has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity.”
India has been asking countries like Canada, Australia and the U.K. to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the nations’ prime ministers.
At home, Modi’s government has intensified the pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders from various outfits that are linked to the movement.
When farmers camped out on the edges of New Delhi to protest controversial agriculture laws in 2020, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit Sikh participants by calling them “Khalistanis.”
Under pressure, the Modi government later withdrew the laws.
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Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.
This past April, India arrested a self-styled preacher and Sikh separatist, Amritpal Singh, for allegedly reviving calls for Khalistan, sparking fears of new violence in Punjab.
Abroad, India hit out at Canada earlier this year over a float in a Brampton, Ont., parade depicting the assassination of Gandhi, perceiving this to be a glorification of Sikh separatist violence.
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India has also been upset about frequent demonstrations and alleged vandalism by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in Canada, Britain, the U.S. and Australia, and has sought better security from local governments.
Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions so long as they are not violent. The Liberals have called out threats to Indian diplomats by these groups, and offered the envoys 24/7 security, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said Sept. 14.
What will happen to India-Canada relations now?
The bombshell allegation will no doubt further sour relations between India and Canada.
India strongly denied the allegations Tuesday, calling them “absurd.” Before the allegations surfaced publicly, Canada paused talks on a proposed trade treaty with India. Trade Minister Mary Ng also postponed a planned trade mission to India.
Modi met with Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit earlier this month, and Modi’s office said he focused on Sikh separatists in Canada. Trudeau told reporters ahead of his arrival in India that he would be raising concerns about suspected Indian foreign interference in Canada.
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At the G20, Trudeau said he stressed to Modi the importance of respect for the rule of law, the integrity and sovereignty of democratic institutions and processes and the ability of citizens of a country to choose their future.
Trudeau said Tuesday he waited until he was able to raise the issue with allies and with Modi at the G20 before telling the public about the possible link in Nijjar’s murder.
Leaders of the most powerful countries were greeted by Modi at Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, with Modi embracing several politicians with a handhold. Trudeau, who shook Modi’s hand, was the only leader to pull away from the longer handhold.
Trudeau skipped Modi’s leaders’ dinner the night before, with the Prime Minister’s Office refusing to say why.
He also missed the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance, a partnership to make progress on rolling out cleaner, greener fuels.
At the time, Trudeau said he had other work.
— with files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters