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Sikh Leader’s Killing in Canada Could Renew Ethnic Tensions in Modi’s India

The alleged targeting of Sikh leaders abroad by India’s far right government has raised fears of a new insurgency.

A man stands on a burning cutout of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a Sikh rally outside the Indian consulate in Toronto, Canada, to raise awareness for the Indian government's alleged involvement in the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia, on September 25, 2023.

Diplomatic relations between India and Canada remain tense after the murder of a Sikh leader in Canada, which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has blamed on India. Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed outside a Sikh temple in Surrey in June 2023. He was an outspoken advocate for a separate Sikh homeland called Khalistan. While a hero to Khalistani Sikhs, he was considered a terrorist in India, which remains vociferously antagonistic to the Khalistan movement.

The fallout of the incident remains ongoing, with the Indian government recently rejecting the notion that it violated international law in asking Canada to recall diplomats. On Sunday, tens of thousands of Sikhs turned out in Surrey, British Columbia, for a chance to vote in an unofficial referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state.

The recent referendum and ongoing diplomatic row place a brighter spotlight on the Khalistan movement, which India’s own heavy-handedness helped catalyze into an insurgency in the 1980s. While proponents of a Sikh state remain divided over the state’s proposed geography and whether it would be governed as a theocracy or a democracy, recent targeting of Sikhs abroad and in India may be breathing fresh air into the movement’s lungs.

The Khalistan Movement

The Khalistan movement is a separatist movement that aims to create a Sikh homeland in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. Calls for Khalistan predate India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947, with the Sikh political party Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) advocating for an independent state in the 1930s.

In 1973, the SAD passed the “Anandpur Sahib Resolution” which was a reflection of Sikh frustrations with the central government. Among other facets, it demanded that Sikhism be identified as a separate religion from Hinduism. It also demanded that apart from defense, foreign affairs, communications and currency, Punjab should be autonomous in its affairs. Sikhs also wanted a larger share of water for irrigation. The Indira Gandhi government saw the resolution as a secessionist document.

The document grew in prominence in the 1980s, when the SAD and Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale joined hands to implement the resolution. Bhindranwale became the leader of the Khalistan movement and was viewed as a champion of Sikhism. Ironically, Bhindranwale never demanded that an autonomous Sikh state be established within India, instead he wanted Sikhs to live as equals in India.

Punjab’s security apparatus responded to Sikh-perpetrated arsons, shootings and bombings with heavy-handed repression, in turn driving “a mood of overwhelming anger and resentment in the Sikh masses against the authorities.”

In 1982, Bhindranwale and his followers moved to the holiest site in Sikhism, the Golden Temple in Amritsar and made it their headquarters. While Bhindranwale remained controversial, at the time there was little evidence state authorities could muster to justify confronting the movement at the temple complex.

Those blessed with prescience correctly predicted what would happen if security forces made an aggressive advance at the holiest Sikh temple: It would create a new wave of Khalistanism. A non-Sikh bureaucrat in Chandigarh, for example, said, “I hope to God the Government does not [invade the Golden Temple Complex]. It will mean laying the foundations of Khalistan.”

Operation Blue Star

When negotiations with Sikh militants failed, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi targeted the Golden Temple and other Sikh gurdwaras across Punjab in Operation Blue Star in 1984.

The Khalistan movement has a vocal base abroad, but it’s not nearly strong enough to dent India politically, economically or diplomatically — not without India’s help at least.

This proved disastrous, as the Indian military implementation was severely flawed. The military brought in tanks, artillery and thousands of men to fight a much smaller militant force at the Golden Temple. The most reliable figures claim that the total number of deaths ranged from 5,000 to 7,000. Tragically, thousands of civilian pilgrims died with Khushwant Singh, one of India’s most well-known authors writing, “In the cross-fire almost 5,000 men, women and children perished.”

A report banned in India, “Oppression in Punjab,” uses eye-witness accounts to narrate the tragic events. The report belies the white-washed version the government touted through a 1984 white paper. A major miscalculation on the military’s part was that it conducted its operation when the temple complex was full of civilians, due to the martyrdom anniversary of the fifth Sikh guru.

Eyewitnesses narrate that the government did not stop Sikh pilgrims from entering the temple complex even when cognizant that a military operation was forthcoming. Further, once pilgrims entered, they were barred from exiting under threat of arrest due to a strictly imposed curfew. Witnesses also asserted that the initial gunfire came from the army, not militants. No warning was given to pilgrims. Sikh militants’ own gunfire was negligible. One witness reported, “We saw a large number of boys blown to pieces.”

Aside from using aggressive tactics and attacking indiscriminately, India also refused to allow the Red Cross to enter. Singh wrote, “Even Mrs. Gandhi … was horrified at the extent of damage caused to sacred property and the horrendous loss of lives. Instead of admitting that she had blundered, she decided to cover up the whole thing with a barrage of lies.”

When the operation concluded and the blood-laden dust settled, Indian forces arrested the surviving pilgrims and subjected them to torture and executions.

The Sikh Pogrom

The aftermath of Blue Star saw Sikhs rally behind Khalistan. Sikhs’ retaliation for the Indian army’s attack shook India to its core: On October 31, 1984, two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, brutally killed Prime Minister Gandhi.

While India is no stranger to inter-ethnic clashes, religious conflicts or separatist movements, the assassination sparked one of India’s most harrowing episodes of communal violence to date: The 1984 Sikh massacre was a series of pogroms that claimed the lives of 8,000 to 17,000 Sikhs, according to independent estimates. Appallingly, these pogroms were organized by Congress members and the Indian government. In one example, Delhi’s police ignored Hindu rioters who murdered and raped Sikhs. These riots, which plagued India from October 31 to November 3 that year, are infamous for being the largest pogrom in independent India’s history. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation also reiterated that the riots were a part of a deliberate and well-organized conspiracy.

Only a few people were prosecuted — primarily low-level politicians and police. Many Sikh families, even to this day, have not found justice through courts. Most significantly, this dark incident inflamed Sikh militancy which spread throughout Punjab in the 1980s and further catalyzed demands for an independent state of Khalistan. As India worked to extinguish the flames of Khalistan in Punjab in the 1990s, many Sikhs escaped to Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. A segment of these Sikhs and their descendants would become the future of the Khalistan movement.

2020-21 Farmers Protest

With time, the situation in Punjab became better, Sikh militancy died down, and most Sikhs reconciled with the government. Things markedly changed, however, after the farmers’ protest, which began on August 9, 2020.

The protests began amid farmer opposition to three Bharatiya Janata Party-proposed Indian farm acts, which sought to deregulate wholesale markets so that farmers could directly sell to food processors. Farmers feared, however, that this might end the government-guaranteed price floors and would lead to lower crop prices. Many of the protesters were Sikh farmers from Punjab. The protests became violent amid tensions between Sikh farmers and the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sikh farmers even marched to Delhi and raised their flag at the historic Red Fort.

The BJP, its supporters and the Indian media largely characterized the farmers as Khalistanis. Hindutva supporters began tweeting statements like “Repeat 1984” and “Missing Indira Gandhi” amid baseless allegations that Khalistanis had infiltrated the protests. Fake images were disseminated online, and the BJP leveraged the “K-word” to discredit Sikh farmers.

The BJP strategy forced the Sikhs into a dubious position and reopened past wounds. A 50-year-old Sikh farmer decried, “The [Narendra] Modi media is calling us Khalistanis. We have been sitting peacefully for two months. That makes us terrorists?”

Eventually the BJP, in a rarity, conceded to the demands of the farmers and repealed the farm acts. The protests were considered one of the BJP’s biggest challenges.

Mysterious Sikh Deaths

During the farmers’ protests, actor and Sikh activist Deep Sidhu came into the limelight rallying for Sikh rights. He created the pro-Khalistan party Waris Punjab De, and before his death, lent support to pro-Khalistan leader Simranjit Singh Mann and the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Sidhu died in a car wreck in which he hit a parked truck. His girlfriend, who was also in the car, said that he had been speeding, but there were discrepancies. Pictures emerged on mainstream media of an alcohol bottle in the car, whereas fact-checkers stated that earlier pictures showed nothing of the sort.

Regardless of the truth, many of Sidhu’s followers, including his successor, Amritpal Singh, believe he was killed by Indian security agencies. This conspiracy mentality is prevalent among Sikhs due to a plethora of cases where “troublesome” Sikhs have been extrajudicially killed. These extrajudicial killings, called “fake encounters” or “encounter killings” in South Asia, occur when police or armed forces, allegedly in self-defense, kill suspects. United States-based Sikh activist group Ensaaf “uncovered evidence of unlawful killings in over 12,000 villages in Punjab to date, whilst there are still to this day regular allegations of fake encounters resulting in the deaths/disappearance of Sikhs all over India,” according to the Sikh Press Association.

Mysterious deaths of influential Sikhs from the past include that of Khalistani leader Jagdev Singh Khudian, who disappeared from his home in 1989. Bimal Kaur, the wife of one of the assassins of former Prime Minister Gandhi and a former member of the Indian Parliament, also died mysteriously in 1991.

More recently, the massively popular Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moose Wala died in a shooting. While it is alleged that his death was related to gang violence, many Sikhs believe he was killed because of his references to Khalistan. He used clips of Bhindranwale in a song and speeches made by Khalistan supporter Bharpur Singh Balbir. He was also friends with Deep Sidhu.

Amritpal Singh’s takeover of Waris Punjab De after Sidhu’s death sparked a massive Indian crackdown in March. The following month, Singh was arrested under the National Security Act. He and his supporters were booked under several criminal charges including attempted murder and attacking police, among others.

Interestingly, only a few months after Singh’s arrest, a series of “coincidental deaths” of Khalistanis took place outside India. Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the man at the center of the India-Canada row; Paramjit Singh Panjwar; and Avtar Singh Khanda all died in the span of just two months. A few days before his demise, Nijjar alluded to the pattern of Sikh killings, saying, “You see it has been just a month, and look at the killings. [Sikhs] need to be vigilant. I am already on the enemy’s target.”

There is some evidence that Indian diplomats were complicit in Nijjar’s murder, with CBC reporting, “intelligence includes communications involving Indian officials themselves, including Indian diplomats present in Canada. … The intelligence did not come solely from Canada. Some was provided by an unnamed ally in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.”

Khalistan Commando Force Chief Panjwar was killed by unknown gunmen in Pakistan in early May, while Khanda, the U.K.-based chief of the Khalistan Liberation Force, died mysteriously in the U.K. These foreign killings, particularly in Canada and the U.K., have activated the pro-Khalistanis abroad.

BJP’s Hubris

Had India been more reticent to attack the Golden Temple, there might not even be a Khalistan Movement today. G.B.S. Sidhu, a former special secretary of India’s foreign-intelligence agency, was posted to Ottawa, Canada, in 1976 to gather intelligence on Khalistan. Sidhu found “nothing amiss in the Sikh diaspora in North America during the three years he was there.” Delhi, according to him, was therefore unnecessarily making Khalistan into a specter that it wasn’t.

Further, former Indian spymaster A.S. Dulat also wrote, “Khalistan was never a movement and may have remained a chimera, but Bhindranwale dead became much bigger than Bhindranwale alive and Punjab was to witness a decade-and-a-half of terrorism.”

If there is indeed an Indian campaign to eradicate Khalistanism, it lacks any logic. The Khalistan movement has a vocal base abroad, but it’s not nearly strong enough to dent India politically, economically or diplomatically — not without India’s help at least.

In its hubris, the BJP will continue to undermine Khalistan — as it has done with the minority rights of Muslims, Christians and Dalits — for Hindu nationalism. The party has evaded the consequences of iniquities, such as revoking Kashmir’s special status, fomenting anti-Muslim violence, introducing the Citizenship Amendment Act and fostering violence in Manipur, to name a few. But, in the face of Sikh resistance, the farm acts were one thing it could not get away with. Despite the BJP’s efforts to co-opt the Sikh faith, the party, along with Prime Minister Modi, remain unpopular among Sikhs in Punjab.

While Khalistani leader Bhindranwale never demanded a separate Khalistan state, he rightfully asserted that “If the Indian government attacks the Golden Temple, it will lay the foundation of Khalistan.” If India continues to surreptitiously and illegally target Khalistani Sikhs, it’s only a matter of time before a resurgence of Khalistan erupts on its soil.

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