Sikh Separatism and the Brewing Conflict Between Canada and India

On Monday, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, accused India’s government of having a role in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist who was gunned down in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. Sikhs make up less than two per cent of the population of India, but are a

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On Monday, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, accused India’s government of having a role in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist who was gunned down in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. Sikhs make up less than two per cent of the population of India, but are a majority in the northwestern state of Punjab. During the past half century, the struggle for a Sikh homeland—usually referred to as the Khalistan movement—has occasionally turned violent, and has been met by an equally violent response from the Indian authorities. But an assassination on foreign soil would constitute a serious escalation of the campaign against Sikh separatists.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has denied having anything to do with the murder, but also said that Canada’s approach to terrorism, which it characterized as laissez-faire, would “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Trudeau’s allegations coincide with an attempt by Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, to portray the country as an increasingly important player on the global stage; this era, in his words, marks “the first time the world has come to know that India can take a stand for herself.” The allegations also coincide with a general willingness by the Biden Administration to overlook India’s worsening human-rights record during Modi’s nearly decade-long premiership, in part because the U.S. values India’s role as a counterweight to China.

To talk about the history of Sikh separatism and the Indian government’s response to it, I recently spoke by phone with Gurharpal Singh, an emeritus professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of many books on the subcontinent, including “Sikh Nationalism: From a Dominant Minority to an Ethno-Religious Diaspora.” During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the Indian government is so concerned about Sikh separatism, the development of Sikh political identity in the West, and whether Western governments are doing enough to protect their own citizens.

How did there come to be large Sikh communities in countries such as Canada?

Sikhs have been migrating overseas in significant numbers since the late nineteenth century. As part of the imperial expansion of Britain, they were principally involved in the armed services and later in the security forces as policemen. So, wherever the Empire expanded, especially in the Far East—China, Singapore, Fiji, and Malaysia—and East Africa, that’s where the Sikhs went. They started arriving in North America, and particularly the Pacific Coast, following Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in 1887. Citizens of the Empire technically had the right to travel and settle throughout it. And since then there have been significant settlements of the Sikh community in British Columbia, California, and, of course, Britain, where they have been permanently settled since the nineteen-twenties in large numbers, and more since the Second World War.

At the same time that Sikhs are migrating to different areas of the world, there is a huge Sikh community in the Indian state of Punjab, which was one of the two states split in half during Partition. There is a movement there for some sort of independent Sikh homeland. Can you talk about how that movement got started and what its role was in Indian politics after Partition?

At Partition, the Sikh community saw itself as being very vulnerable. It was a small community in the united British Punjab—less than about fourteen per cent of the population. Sikhs tried to come up with various schemes to keep the community together, to keep Punjab together, but unfortunately that did not come to pass, as the British wanted to exit India and Punjab quickly. Thereafter, Indian states or provinces were organized along linguistic lines. One way the Sikh leadership thought that it could protect the community’s rights and identity was to campaign for a Punjabi-speaking state. This led to a great deal of bitterness and resentment among the Punjabi-speaking Hindu community, who opted for Hindi as a way of opposing that demand. They thought that a Punjabi-speaking state would largely be a Sikh-dominated state.

After about two decades of campaigning, that demand was conceded in 1966, but reluctantly. There was another campaign, between 1973 and 1984, for greater economic and political autonomy for Punjab. And that eventually culminated with the Indian Army entering the Golden Temple, in Operation Blue Star, in 1984. That was a traumatic period, which then was followed by a decade-long troubles.

Can you talk more about that event, which was followed by the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, also in 1984, and more broadly about how the push for Sikh autonomy became in some cases more violent?

There was a prolonged period of negotiation between Sikh moderate leaders and Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party in Delhi between 198src and 1982. However, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement on the demands, and gradually the militant element within the Sikh leadership outmaneuvered the more moderate members, leading to polarization between the Indian government and the militants. That eventually climaxed in Operation Blue Star, an operation to remove Sikh militants from the Golden Temple, the most sacred site in Sikhism, which was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October, 1984, and the killing of almost three thousand Sikhs in Delhi in the backlash that followed. That led to almost a decade of Sikh militancy and counterinsurgency operations, conducted by the Indian Armed Forces, which cost, on conservative estimates, around thirty thousand lives. These events cast a long shadow on the Punjab problem, which has continued to haunt all governments in Delhi since then.

When did the Indian government begin to get so concerned about Sikhs on foreign soil advocating for Sikh issues in India?

It has been monitoring the activities of overseas Indians on a regular basis. The first time it specifically started noting the activities of Sikh militants was in the early seventies, when Jagjit Singh Chohan, a Sikh political leader who left India, and who’s often referred to as a father of Khalistan, started a quixotic campaign for a Sikh state. More specifically, it was in the early eighties, 198src to 1984, when the government of India and the Congress Party in particular was very, very focussed on monitoring the activities of Sikh militants.

Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you were interested in comparing Sikhs to the Jewish community. What did you mean by that?

Well, you’ll see that the comparison comes in the sense that Sikhs are small, they’re religious, and they’re roughly the same size as the Jewish community. [Worldwide, there are about twenty-five million Sikhs and fifteen million Jews.] They’re both a diaspora and a nation and an ethnicity and can be read as such. They are a complex minority, which are often seen in terms of religion only, but seeing them just as a kind of dedicated religious community overlooks the more complex dimensions of the community. They have fought for autonomy and the right to govern themselves, and as a minority to have their identity rights safeguarded in the West. For example, Sikhs and Jews in Britain were the only two communities in England who were recognized as ethnic groups in legal proceedings following the Race Relations Act of 1976.

How important is the push for a Sikh homeland to Sikh identity in many of the Western Sikh communities you study?

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