Does New Delhi Fear A Renewal of the Khalistan Movement?
September 27, 2023

Osman Softić || 27 September 2023

The killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada has sparked a diplomatic scandal between New Delhi and Ottawa. Could this case disrupt the strategic relations of the 5 Anglo-Saxon states, the famous “five eyes” intelligence sharing countries, with India? As reported by the world media, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last week in the Parliament of Canada that there is “credible” evidence linking India’s foreign intelligence service (R&AW) and its operatives to the recent murder of a leading Sikh activist and leader of the Sikh separatist group, which took place on 18. June, 2023. The way the Canadian Prime Minister approached this crime has already caused a serious deterioration of bilateral relations between Canada and India. India has been showing displeasure for some time because the Canadian authorities were perceived as unwilling to prevent frequent protests by the Sikh religious and political community in Canada who are advocating the establishment of a Sikh homeland on the territory of the state of Punjab in India. The Canadian authorities, after learning of the alleged involvement of the Indian spy service in the murder of a Canadian citizen, expelled a senior Indian diplomat who had been officially reported to the Canadian authorities, as a friendly and mutually trusted nation, by the Indian government as the station chief of the Indian foreign intelligence service, known as Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). India is outraged by the decision of the Canadian Prime Minister who decided to publicly name the expelled intelligence officer and thereby threaten his safety and that of his family, as stated by the Indian government and the media. As a sign of reciprocity, India has given Canada’s top diplomat in India, who is said to be the head of the Canadian Intelligence Service’s India station, to leave the country within 5 days.

India rejects all the allegations made by the Canadian Prime Minister that its intelligence agency R&AW organized the killing of an Indian dissident, a Sikh activist in Canada named Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Nijjar was shot in front of a Sikh temple in Surrey, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, in western Canada. The slain Sikh activist was actively involved in the organization of a non-binding referendum campaign to create an independent Sikh state, known as Khalistan. The movement for the declaration of Khalistan in the territory of the Indian state of Punjab dates back to the declaration of independence of India in 1947. This separatist movement appeared from time to time with varying intensity, especially during the 1980s, but each time the Indian government suppressed it with the use of force. Today, this separatist movement in India is practically considered over, as the majority of Indian Sikhs are loyal to the state of India as their motherland, but sporadic incidents occur from time to time, initiated by a minority of militant Sikhs in the state of Punjab. Of course, this movement is banned in India and its supporters are automatically treated as terrorists and punished accordingly. The murdered Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was also declared a terrorist, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. Some sources close to the Indian government accused the slain activist of having intensive contacts with members of the Canadian intelligence service, who allegedly warned him that he could become the target of an attack. The World Sikh Organization based in the USA believes it was a targeted political assassination.

Sikh religious community has about 30 million members globally. Most of them are concentrated in the northern Indian state of Punjab, which covers about 50,000 square kilometers and has about 27 million inhabitants. The other part of Punjab (Punjab) is located in Pakistan and constitutes the second largest province of Pakistan where approx. 100 million people live, who are mostly Muslims. Pakistani Punjab is 3 times larger than the province of the same name in India. The concentration of Sikhs in Punjab is quite high, about 58% while Hindus make up 39%. The separatist movement for the formation of Khalistan was active during the 1980s and the early 1990s. Thousands of people died in the clashes between Sikhs and the Indian security forces. After the movement for the independence of Khalistan, which, among other things, adopted violent methods, was suppressed, a large number of Sikhs, including a minority that advocates secession by violent means, emigrated to North America, Australia and other Western countries. Proponents of the Khalistan movement are today mostly present in the USA and Canada. There are about 800,000 Sikhs living in Canada alone, among whom there are a tiny but influential minority of vocal supporters of separatist causes, but most of them are loyal to India as their homeland, and therefore it would be wrong to equate the entire Punjab Sikh diaspora with separatist tendencies.

Canada has the largest number of immigrants from India, more than any other country. They make up 1.4 million people.  Although the majority of Sikhs are peaceful and dedicated to their jobs, business and trade, there is also an extreme minority of supporters of the Khalistan movement.  That minority is particularly well organized and certainly vocal and still entertains the idea of creating a separate Sikh state in India. The Indian authorities, but also some former R&AW intelligence chiefs such as Amarjit Singh Duval, and some political analysts and members of the academic community, agree that the Khalistan separatist project of the Sikhs in India is a thing of the past, and that this movement has no foothold in reality nor is it seriously accepted by members of the vast majority of Indian Sikhs, who are integrated into Indian society. Sikhs, although a small minority, are particularly active and have proven themselves in the armed forces, where they are the most decorated officers. Also, we should not lose sight of the fact that the respected economic expert, Dr. Manmohan Singh, as a Sikh, was at the head of the Indian government as the first non-Hindu Prime Minister of India for two terms, on behalf of the Congress party, which has now been in opposition for over a decade.

In this context, the leading Indian analyst and journalist Shekhar Gupta states in his recent article published by The Print, that “Sikhs in Punjab may have 99 problems, but Khalistan is certainly not an issue that is weighing on them at this time”. Gupta states that they are proud citizens of India and great patriots. Gupta claims that if the residents of the state of Punjab are dissatisfied with their situation, they look for a solution in democratic processes and the voting of their new government, and they do not ask that Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau or some extremists from India to solve their problems, nor is their goal to mobilize foreign governments abroad to change authorities in India. Gupta confidently asserts that there is no more Sikh separatist movement in India, neither as a practical reality on the ground nor as an idea or a dream. According to him, such a movement is present only in Canada and it is the problem of that country but not the problem of India.

The Khalistan separatist movement lasted for 15 years, from 1978 to 1993. The 1983-93 decade was particularly deadly. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, 95 percent of Sikhs in India are “very proud” to be Indian. Gupta insists that “no community in India, however large, has a monopoly on nationalism, just as no community, however small, can be subjected to any scrutiny of its national commitment and loyalty’. In theory this may be true, but In the past decade, especially Muslims, 200 million of them, have come under attack from the Hindu majority, and their rights and status as citizens are increasingly being denied, and their loyalty to India is being questioned. This veteran Indian analyst believes that these are not legitimate calls for the establishment of a separate state for this Indian religious minority, but rather these are manipulations of several hundred criminals, and the criminals have never been able to lead the revolution. Nevertheless, this and other Indian observers of political movements in Punjab admit that there are major problems in this state, from anger to justified frustrations, especially among the majority Sikhs. New definitions and tests imposed on them to check their loyalty to India, to which they are often subjected, especially on social networks and some TV channels.

The frustration of Sikhs in Punjab, similar to frustrations of Muslims in Kashmir, caused by Punjab’s economic backwardness compared to the more developed and hyper-industrializing coastal states in India are justified. Last year Punjab was the scene of mass protests by farmers who have been facing severe economic hardships. Analysts call it “Punjab’s agrarian trap”. Most of the peasants at the protests were, of course, Sikhs who are recognizable by their turbans. The economy of Punjab, which is mostly dependent on agricultural production, is unbalanced and cannot compete with other more economically dynamic states of India, where the economy depends on industry, especially the IT sector, services, banking, education, etc. Also, in the skills and employment value chain, the people of Punjab lag behind their peers from south and west India. Punjab is therefore a special story and a kind of contradiction, because people there are not poor at all despite the economy being mainly agrarian. Even though farms produce surplus value, young people no longer want to work on them (a trend universally present around the world).

Therefore, they hire cheap labor imported from other parts of India, especially from the Hindu core, mainly from the state of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. These wage earners from the mentioned two states in Punjab are called derogatory (bhais) even though the name itself (elder brother) does not have a derogatory meaning. Analysts see the problem of the Sikhs in Punjab in the propensity of young people to criminal activities or their determination to leave India and emigrate to Western countries, especially North America, where in fact they themselves become new (bhais) hirelings. Although the security situation in Punjab has been stabilized since 1993 and there has been peace and stability for three decades, the Sikh political class is unhappy and apprehensive about the general national policy of the center in New Delhi dominated by Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which sees India primarily as Bharat , or as Hindu Rashtra, a state of majority Hindus and not, as before, a plural, democratic, secular, neutral and progressive state of pluralism and coexistence of different religions, races and worldviews. There are 200 million Muslims in India, but they are concerned for their future and face numerous grievances.

The Sikh population is many times smaller, only 2 percent of India’s total population of 1.4 billion. They are numerically estimated at 24-28 million. Sikhs are therefore considered marginalized in India. The concern of Sikhs in India, especially in Punjab where they form the majority, has become even greater after an increasingly aggressive campaign by the ruling regime, which wants to impose its ultra-nationalist Hindutva ideology as the foundation on which future India will rest.

Sikhs are further disenchanted after the collapse of the coalition which their major and moderate political option had with Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP. The Supreme Party of God, (Shiromani Akali Dal), the party that represents the political will of the Sikhs in Punjab, and that inherits a moderate agenda and has nothing in common with the former separatist options that aspired to establish Khalistan (an exclusive Sikh state), is no longer part of the ruling majority in India. It fell apart due to disagreements over government policies in relation to modernization of agricultural production. But this party has not yet joined the opposition coalition bloc consisting of 28 political parties, led by the Congress Party (India Bloc), which will try to oust the BJP in the next general elections. The once ruling party in Punjab, the Akali Dal, is now on the fringes of provincial and national politics, after multiple electoral defeats.

Regardless of claims made by Indian authorities, the media, experts, and even the political elite of the Sikh community in India who have an interest in preserving their economic and political privileges and who are loyal to India as their motherland, the forcing of the Hindu ideology of Hindutva and the radicalization of politics in India and the extremism that the majority Hindus show towards the minorities, could encourage the minority Sikhs in India to reconsider the possibility of establishing their own state. It should be noted that Sikhs already constitute the majority population in the important northern state of India which borders Kashmir to the north and neighboring Pakistan to the west. An important shrine of the Sikh religion too is located in Pakistan. Indian intelligence sources therefore accuse Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of fueling Sikh separatism, claiming that Pakistan is secretly funding Sikh separatism in Indian Punjab. On the other hand, Islamabad accuses India of encouraging separatism in Balochistan and among the Pashtuns in Pakistan.

A. S. Doval, a retired veteran of the Indian intelligence community with special long-term experience of operations in Kashmir, and former head of R&AW, recently told the Indian liberal channel The Wire, in a conversation with well-respected journalist Karan Thapar, that the Indian secret services once had sympathies and supported the separatists causes abroad in enemy countries, especially in the fight with Pakistan. However, Dulat said that India had never carried out targeted killings of its political dissidents, neither on the territory of India nor abroad. Former Spymaster Duval has therefore categorically denied any connection of the Indian secret service with the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, simply saying that it is not the practice of the Indian state security agencies to assassinate political dissidents.

Regardless of the media spin or the wishes of the authorities in India, there is a growing belief among young Sikhs in Punjab that if some Indians can talk about Hindu Rashtra, why be so upset if others talk about an independent Sikh nation and state. If you can and are going to create a nation based on one religion, why not another? The rise of the far-right BJP, the lack of representation of Sikhs, especially Sikhs in Punjab, and the systematic isolation and displacement of their largest political party, the Akali Dal, the second oldest in India after the Congress, as well as the open victimization of India’s Muslim minority, have had a profound impact. on the mood of the citizens in Punjab.

Sikhs once offered their gurudwaras (prayer rooms) to Muslims who were denied permission to pray in parks. Muslims also showed similar positive gestures towards Sikhs during peasant protests on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi. Antagonism used to prevail between Muslims and Sikhs. The Sikhs in the past had their own powerful empire founded by Ranjit Singh, which existed for half a century, until the middle of the 19th century. The ruling BJP is banking on Muslim-Sikh animosity, but that time is a thing of the past and what unites Muslims and Sikhs in India today is fear for their fate in a common homeland. Sikhs no longer see a threat from Muslims. Religion is not the only determinant of their identity. There are other aspects, language and culture that bring them closer to each other. Sikhs have a lot in common with the vast majority of the population of Punjab in Pakistan. In the event of a renewed armed conflict between India and Pakistan, it is highly likely that a good number of Sikhs would side with Pakistan. In a polarized India, a Sikh-Muslim alliance seems not only logical but inevitable.

The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak in Punjab in the 15th century. Punjab was once the cradle of a large and powerful Sikh empire during the time of Ranjit Singh. The origins of the modern Khalistan movement date back to around the time of India’s independence from Britain in 1947, when some Sikhs demanded a state in Punjab based on a separate religion. However, Punjab was cut in half and most of it went to Pakistan. The Sikhs, being trapped in India, like the Kashmiri Muslims, began a struggle for political and cultural autonomy, with the Khalistan movement gaining prominence. Violent clashes later broke out between the movement’s followers and the Indian government, claiming many lives. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian troops to attack Amritsar’s Golden Temple (Sikhism’s most important shrine) to eliminate Sikh separatists. This operation caused the wrath of the Sikhs who never forgave her. Indira Gandhi was assassinated shortly thereafter by her Sikh bodyguards. More than 3,000 people, mostly Sikhs, were killed in the clashes. A year later, the violence spilled over into Canada, when Sikh separatists planted a bomb on an Air India flight that took off from Toronto airport. All 329 people were killed on that flight.

According to some analysts, the India-Canada dispute could easily turn into an India-US dispute, since, according to the Prime Minister of Canada, another member state of the five eyes intelligence alliance, which the Canadian Prime Minister did not name, shared intelligence with Ottawa regarding Nijjar’s murder, which implicated the Indian spy agency R&AW. The incident has already sown fear in the ranks of the Sikh diaspora in the US, perhaps even in Australia and the UK, who are not safe from retaliation by the Indian spy network. The question arises though, as to where such a sudden turn, and a slap to India, from Washington and Ottawa came from, just a few weeks after Modi was given a royal welcome in Washington, and after Joe Biden’s visit to Delhi to attend the G20 Summit, after which some important strategic projects such as IMEC have been announced. One of the most significant American strategic successes of this century is certainly the establishment of a strategic partnership with India, traditionally wary of alliances and a country which values its strategic autonomy. In addition to the US and Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand are considered close intelligence partners of the five eyes. One of the mentioned countries apparently intercepted communications between Delhi and its intelligence agents in Canada and linked them to the said murder.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently sided with Ottawa even as India accused Canada of wiretapping its diplomats and openly compromising them in parliament.  This sensitive international incident could shake the India-US strategic partnership that both sides have worked to cultivate over the past years. Some analysts even speculate that the mentioned incident indicates a conflict of factions in the American deep state that have diametrically different attitudes when it comes to American cooperation with India. On one side, supposedly, are the liberal globalists (neocons) who disapprove of the ultra-nationalist policies of India implemented by the Modi regime. They also oppose India’s close cooperation with Russia which is detrimental to Washington’s interests. The second camp is allegedly made up of more pragmatic realists who are not obsessed with imposing their “values” on other countries and who advocate policies of American adaptation to multipolar currents, putting objective national interests in the focus of American foreign policy.

In the context of India-US relations, liberal globalists prefer to put pressure on India to persuade it to impose sanctions on Russia and take a tougher stance on containing China. The manner in which Narendra Modi was welcomed in Washington is in favor of the fact that the realists may have prevailed over the liberal globalists. Therefore, some American analysts believe that there is a possibility of sabotaging the strengthening of American relations with New Delhi, at any cost, without obtaining concessions from India that will satisfy American value interests and not just bare realpolitik pragmatism. When it comes to India, and the trajectory it is being led to by the right-wing nationalist Modi regime, whatever one thinks about it, it might be a salvation for Indian democracy and the civilizational values of humanity if the liberal faction of globalists and internationalists in the American foreign policy establishment took control of the formulation of  American foreign policy towards India from pragmatic realists, at the cost of risking the weakening of the strategic partnership between the two countries, which does not reflect the same value system of America and India.

The Sikh diaspora in Canada represents a significant force on the political scales as one of its prominent members, Jagmeet Singh, is the leader of the fourth strongest political parliamentary option, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is in a coalition government with Prime Minister Trudeau. The Canadian Prime Minister’s support for the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which includes radical supporters of the movement for an independent Khalistan, must not simply be interpreted as a political opportunism of vote grabbing, despite many suggestions to that effect. It is true that Sikhs’ political support is important and may be instrumental in ensuring the stability of the Canadian government, perhaps even for the reelection of Prime Minister Trudeau’s political option. It would be more appropriate to go beyond party politics and understand the Indian-Canadian diplomatic dispute in the broader context of the global struggle to preserve the value system of freedom of religion and pluralism upon which the credibility of the western global alliances depend. Freedom of religion, protection of human rights, pluralism and inclusiveness is increasingly being challenged and coming under attack from autocratic policies that dominate the global movement for the establishment of a new multipolar world, devoid of western and the American leadership in particular.

It is therefore not unrealistic to assume that the Modi regime in New Delhi may be fearful of a possibility that India’s Five Eyes Anglo Saxon informal strategic allies, whose concerns and fear of China are shared by India, may be thinking of exploiting the restive and powerful Sikh diaspora community in the west, as a strategic tool for pressuring India to meet the western demands and become more forthright in embracing the US strategic doctrine in the Indo Pacific, to contain China’s influence more effectively, but also to distance itself from Russia, which India so far has refused to do, jealously guarding its strategic autonomy.

Osman Softić is a Research Fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front. He holds a BA degree in Islamic Studies from the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the University of Sarajevo and has a Master degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He contributed commentaries on Middle Eastern and Islamic Affairs for the web portal Al Jazeera Balkans, Online Opinion, Engage and Open Democracy. Osman holds dual Bosnian and Australian citizenship.

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Updated version: 2.39-20231022