The issue of “Khalistan” is, however, a lot more complicated than the public uproar betrays.
India’s relations with Canada have been roiled ever since the killing of “Khalistani” activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Vancouver on June 18. Exactly three months later, they hit rock bottom when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged in the House of Commons in Ottawa that his country’s security services had evidence of a credible link between the killing and “Indian agents”. The White House expressed deep concern and sought the inquiry to be pursued. The British government was a bit more circumspect, choosing to withhold comment until the investigation concludes. The “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and the United States has also expressed concern. The diplomatic damage to India has been limited so far, but if more credible proof of a nexus emerges then, as The Economist surmised, “it is unclear how high a price India will pay”.
The issue of “Khalistan” is, however, a lot more complicated than the public uproar betrays. The demand for an independent province for the Sikhs dates from before the 1947 Partition of India. The leaders of the Sikhs had argued that if Muslims could seek and get a Pakistan, then why could not the Sikhs -- the last sub-continental power to be subdued by the British. The call re-emerged when the states were reorganised after 1956. Only Punjab was denied the right to form a state on a linguistic basis, due to the unstated fear that Punjabi and Sikhism were inseparable. Thus, a state based on that language could be the first step towards the Sikhs seeking independence.
These irrational fears guided Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach to the issue, as indeed of his daughter Indira Gandhi. When the demand was eventually conceded in 1966, the division was vitiated by, amongst other conditions and territorial restraints, the partitioning of the capital Chandigarh. No other state, since or before, when getting divided has faced that inequity.
The history of Punjab politics since 1966 is a struggle for greater autonomy and resistance to the Union government’s interference. This culminated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution adopted by the Akali Dal, seen as either a demand for greater state autonomy or a charter for independence. From this quagmire emerged Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, harnessing the community’s alienation and fury. Punjab had also begun economically slipping after the Green Revolution’s peak. The 1980s saw the military intrusion into the Golden Temple, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh security personnel and the pogrom against Sikhs, especially in New Delhi. A generation of youth that grew up seeing this chaos migrated to the Anglophone nations, both to escape the police-militant face-off in Punjab as indeed to seek better economic opportunities abroad. This writer had served in the Indian consulate-general in New York in 1980-83. Being involved with community outreach, amongst other duties, he witnessed
that the gurdwaras were still in the hands of responsible and otherwise economically successful diaspora members. After the mid-1980s all that changed. The loyalists of Bhindranwale captured control of many of the major gurdwaras.
The situation in Canada, if anything, was even worse. The reason is the different socio-economic profile of the immigrants in Canada. In the United States, after the immigration rules were relaxed in the 1960s, the first generation of Indians were educated and sought and got high-paid professional jobs. The migration into Canada was dominated by the peasantry from rural Punjab. The latter group has been more sensitive to developments in Punjab. Moreover, the Sikhs in Canada number more than 770,000 (over 40 per cent of the Indian diaspora), and constitute the largest Sikh population abroad. Geographical concentration in some provinces gives them disproportionate political leverage.
Proverbially, the immigrants to far-off lands tend to value their faith much more strongly. The Catholics of Latin America could be more inflexibly orthodox than those in Rome. Thus, unsurprisingly, the seed of “Khalistan” keeps regenerating in Canada. The 1985 terrorist bombing of an Air India flight cost 329 mostly Canadian lives. But Khalistan cannot be formed by those who left their Indian citizenship and settled abroad. The developments in Punjab are shaped by local and national politics.
Radicals abroad and Pakistani agencies can only exploit fissures created in India.
The Akali Dal, which indirectly controls the institutions that handle the Sikh religion and the gurdwaras, has lost its moral authority after mishandling the desecration of the Sikh Granth Sahib in 2015. Investigations revealed the complicity of Dera Sacha Sauda followers, who revere their chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, now jailed for rape and murder. In Sikh minds, he and his followers are perceived as endangering the Sikh religion. But the Dera has had electoral clout in Punjab and Haryana.
The Haryana government’s mollycoddling of this serial offender for electoral benefits offends Sikh sentiments. It is such fault lines that Nijjar and his many clones exploit.
When the farmers’ agitation began in 2020 over the Union government’s three controversial farm laws, they were promptly labelled as Khalistan supporters. This lie dissipated as the support of farmers in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh swelled, helping sustain the agitation, until the Union government relented. Hence, to blame the diaspora for disaffection in rural Punjab is to ignore the real causes, mostly created by unwise policy-making in India and then by mishandling the ensuing angst.
In 2018, terrorism charges were filed by the Indian agencies against H.S. Nijjar. Logically, India could have sought his extradition. India’s failure to do so may have been due to its flawed extradition request or Canadian foot-dragging. India’s frustration is understandable as even domestically the BJP progressively treats even mild criticism of the government, especially of the Prime Minister, as seditious and anti-national.
They see Canadian arguments about freedom of speech covering pro-Khalistan slogans as appeasement. It is true, however, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau relies on right-leaning partners like the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh, an unabashed supporter of Sikh causes.
Prime Minister Trudeau has somewhat downscaled his rhetoric on India in his latest statements. His pique appears mainly over Prime Minister Narendra Modi having rejected outright the information he shared about the episode, in his short interaction on the sidelines of G-20 summit in New Delhi. Clearly this was a diplomatic slip-up. If India has nothing to hide, then engagement would have been a first step towards finding a cooperative resolution. The “Khalistan” issue needs nuanced handling as it is not simply a security matter. Nor is it merely a freedom of speech problem, as the Canadians see it. Damage control requires both sides to abandon their uni-dimensional approach.