Canada and Khalistan

[An interview with the news website, The Conversation, regarding what Khalistan is, and why it has featured in Canadian politics, following the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between Canada and India as part of an escalating row over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil.]

The expulsions follow claims by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that there are “credible allegations” linking the Indian government of Narendra Modi with the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Nijjar — a prominent member of the Khalistan movement seeking to create an independent Sikh homeland in the Indian state of Punjab — who was shot dead on June 18 outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia._

With tensions between the two countries rising, The Conversation reached out to Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert on religious violence and Sikh nationalism at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to bring context to a diplomatic spat few saw coming._

## 1. What is the Khalistan movement?

“Khalistan” means “the land of the pure,” though in this context the term “khalsa” refers broadly to the religious community of Sikhs, and the term Khalistan implies that they should have their own nation. The likely location for this nation would be in Punjab state in northern India where 18 of the 26 million Sikhs in the world live. Another 8 million live elsewhere in India and abroad, mainly in the UK, the US, and Canada.

The idea for an independent land for Sikhs goes back to pre-partition India, when the concept of a separate land for Muslims in India was being considered.

Some Sikhs at that time thought that if Muslims could have “Pakistan” — the state that emerged through partition in 1947 — then there should also be a “Sikhistan,” or “Khalistan.” That idea was rejected by the Indian government and instead the Sikhs became a part of the state of Punjab. At that time the boundaries of the Punjab were drawn in such a way that the Sikhs were not in the majority.

But Sikhs persisted, in part because one of the central tenets of the faith is “miri-piri,” the idea that religious and political leadership are merged. In their 500 year history, Sikhs have had their own kingdom, have fought againstĀ  Moghul rule, and comprised the backbone of the army under India’s colonial and independent rule.

In the 1960s the idea of a separate homeland for Sikhs re-emerged and formed part of the demand for redrawing the boundaries of Punjab state so so that Sikhs would be in the majority. The protests were successful, and the Indian government created Punjabi Suba, a state whose boundaries included speakers of the Punjabi language used by most Sikhs. They now comprise 58% of the population of the revised Punjab.

The notion of a Khalistan separate from India resurfaced in a dramatic way in the large-scale militant uprising that erupted in the Punjab in the 1980s. Many of those Sikhs who joined the militant movement did so because they wanted an independent Sikh nation, not just a Sikh-majority Indian state.

## 2. Why is the Indian government especially concerned about it now?

The Sikh uprising in the 1980s was a violent encounter between the Indian armed police and militant young Sikhs, many of whom still harbored a yearning for a separate state in Punjab, a Khalistan.

Thousands of lives were lost on both sides in violent encounters between the Sikh militants and security forces. The conflict came to a head in 1984 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched Operation Blue Star to liberate the Sikh’s Golden Temple in the pilgrimage center of Amritsar in order to capture or kill the figurehead of the Khalistan movement, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. He was killed in the attack on the Golden Temple, though Sikhs around the world were incensed that their sacred place was violated by police action. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in retaliation by Sikh members of her own bodyguards.

In recent years, several firebrand Sikh activists in India have reasserted the idea of Khalistan, and the Indian government fears a return of the violence and militancy of the 1980s. The government of Narendra Modi wants to nip the movement in the bud before it gets too large and extreme.

## What is the connection between the Khalistan movement and Canada?

After the Sikh uprising was crushed in the early 1990s, many Sikh activists fled India and came to Canada, where they were welcomed by a large Sikh community — many of whom had been sympathetic to the Khalistan idea. A sizable expatriot community of Sikhs has been growing in the country since the early 20th century, especially in British Columbia and Ontario.

Sikhs have been attracted to Canada not only because of its economic opportunities but also because of the freedom to develop their own ideas of Sikh community. Though support for Khalistan is illegal in India, in Canada Sikh activists are able to speak freely and organize for the cause.

Though Khalistan would be in India, the Canadian movement in favor of it helps to cement the diaspora Sikh identity, and give the Canadian activists a sense of connection to the Indian homeland.

## 3. Has the Canadian government been sympathetic to the Khalistan movement?

The diaspora community of Sikhs constitute 2.1% of Canada’s population — a higher percentage of the total population than in India. They comprise a significant voting block in the country and carry political clout. In fact, there are more Sikhs in Canada’s cabinet than in India’s.

Although Prime Minister Trudeau has assured the Indian government that any acts of violence will be punished, he also has reassured Canadians that he respects free speech and the rights of Sikhs to speak and organize freely as long as they do not violate Canadian laws.

## 4. What is the broader context of Canada-India relations?

The Bharata Janata Party (BJP) of India’s Prime Minister Modi tends to support Hindu nationalism, as indicated by Modi’s recent use of the term “Bharat” rather than “India” as his place name at the G20 conference. Bharat is the region cited in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and many non-Hindu minority communities in India, including Sikhs and Muslims, have taken Modi’s use of it as another example of the BJP privileging Hinduism and disrespecting their traditions.

Considering the high percentage of Sikhs in Canada’s population, Prime Minister Trudeau understandably wants to assert the rights of Sikhs and show disapproval of the drift towards Hindu nationalism in India.

And this isn’t the only time that Trudeau and Modi have clashed over the issue. In 2018 Trudeau was condemned in India for his friendship with Jaspal Singh Atwal, a Khalistani supporter in Canada who was convicted of attempting to assassinate the Chief Minister of Punjab.

Yet both countries have reasons to try and move on from the current diplomatic contretemps. India and Canada have close trading ties and common strategic concerns with relationship to China. It is likely that in time both sides will find ways to cool down the tensions from this difficult incident.