IIn its response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement that investigators in his country were examining a “possible link” between India and the murder of pro-Khalistan separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, the Indian government accused Canada of sheltering “Khalistani terrorists and extremists”, and said that the “inaction of the Canadian government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern”.
A statement by the Ministry of External Affairs said “Canadian political figures have openly expressed sympathy for such elements”, and that “the space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new”.
What kind of anti-India activities have been seen in Canada?
Over the years, there have been many instances. These are the two most recent ones.
* The most recent one took place on June 4, when a parade was organised in Brampton, Ontario, ahead of the 39th anniversary of Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
A tableau in the 5 km-long parade seemed to celebrate the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — a female figure was shown in a blood-stained white saree, with the hands up, as turbaned men pointed guns at her. A poster behind the scene read “Revenge for the attack on Darbar Sahib”.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar registered his strong disapproval. “…We are at a loss to understand other than the requirements of vote bank politics why anybody would do this… I think there is a larger underlying issue about the space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence,” he said.
* Brampton is home to Canada’s largest Sikh population. Last year, a pro-Khalistan organisation known as Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) held a so-called “referendum” on Khalistan here. The organisers claimed that more than 100,000 people had turned up in support of Khalistan.
The Government of India issued a strong rebuke, urging Canada to curtail any “anti-India activities”. It asked the Canadian government to designate as terrorists all those individuals who were so designated in India. SFJ is an outlawed organisation in India, and has been linked to the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack at Punjab Intelligence headquarters in Mohali in May 2022.
Have there been similar instances earlier too?
Yes. Back in 2002, Toronto-based Punjabi-language weekly Sanjh Savera greeted Indira’s death anniversary with a cover illustration of her murder and a headline urging readers to ‘Honour the martyrs who killed the sinner’.
The magazine received government advertisements and is now a prominent daily in Canada.
In fact, Canada has been considered a safe haven for Khalistan supporters and militant voices accused of terrorism in India for even longer.
“The meek Canadian response to the Khalistani challenge was a frequent target of Indian politicians as far back as 1982, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi complained about it to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau,” Terry Milewski wrote in his book Blood for Blood: Fifty Years of the Global Khalistan Project (2021).
Pierre Trudeau, who was Prime Minister from 1968 to 1979 and then from 1980 to 1984, was the father of Canada’s current leader, Justin Trudeau.
But why does Canada do this?
Milewski answered this question in his book. It is broadly the same as Jaishankar’s reference to “vote bank politics” in Canada.
“It is a question often asked by Indians: why do Canadian politicians pander to Sikh extremists?” Milewski wrote. “The short answer is that it is not easy to look out at a throng of 100,000 on Vaisakhi Day [in Canada], knowing they might vote for you if you keep your mouth shut, and then to open it instead and risk losing the votes.”
As per the 2021 Canadian census, Sikhs account for 2.1 per cent of Canada’s population, and are the country’s fastest-growing religious group. After India, Canada is home to the largest population of Sikhs in the world.
Today, Sikhs lawmakers and officials serve at all levels of Canada’s government, and their burgeoning population is one of the most important political constituencies in the country. In 2017, Jagmeet Singh, 39, became the first Sikh leader of a major Canadian political party when he took the reins of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP).
Isn’t the Khalistan movement all but over in India?
Yes. But even as the movement finds little resonance in the Sikh population within India, it survives in parts of the Sikh diaspora in countries like Canada, the US, and the UK.
In fact, the Khalistan movement had been a global movement from its inception. The first declaration for a separate Sikh state was made in the United States, in a publication no less significant than The New York Times.
On October 12, 1971, an advertisement in The New York Times proclaimed the birth of Khalistan. “Today we are launching the final crusade till victory is achieved … We are a nation in our own right”, it said.
Of course, at the height of the insurgency in Punjab, Pakistan and China were frequently involved in providing material support to Khalistani militants. The Indian Army found the militants holed up in the Golden Temple to be in possession of Chinese-made RPGs, and cited the use of these RPGs as the reason for the use of tanks in the operation.
So why is the Khalistan movement continuing in Canada?
It is important to note here that not all Canadian Sikhs are Khalistan supporters, and for most in the Sikh diaspora, Khalistan is not a “hot” issue.
“Canadian leaders do not want to lose Sikh votes but they wrongly think the loud minority of Khalistanis are all Sikhs of Canada,” Milewski told DW last year.
Milewski located the support for Khalistan within the diaspora in its lack of connection to the ground realities of Punjab.
The diaspora comprises people “who chose to leave”, including those who left during the 1980s, when the movement was at its peak and the Indian state was extremely hard on Khalistani separatists, with a lot of extra-judicial arrests and killings. The memories of those times have kept the movement alive among these people, even though the ground realities of Punjab are very different today.
However, even within the diaspora, support has dwindled over the years. “There is a small minority that is clinging to the past, and that small minority remains significant not because of popular support, but rather because they are trying to keep up their political influence with various political parties both from the left and the right. They can rally supporters en masse who will vote for the politicians who can sing their song,” Milewski told The Indian Express in 2021.
As a new generation of Sikhs grows up in foreign shores with little personal memory of India, the movement is likely to further dwindle.
Milewski said, “(Today) The Khalistan movement is not about popular support … it is about geo-politics. Countries like China and Pakistan can well tolerate, subsidise and assist in various ways the Khalistan movement on the basis that it is making trouble for their enemies in India.”
This is an updated version of an explainer that first appeared in June this year. You can read the original here.