Relations between India and Canada are currently at a new low. First, there were rumours of during the G20. Then, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell last week and spoke about a “potential link” between Indian agencies and the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was also a designated terrorist in India under the UAPA.
India strongly rejected the allegations, they were “absurd and motivated”.
What this means is that the spotlight returns to that old bogey – Khalistan.
In the past, it’s implied tumultuous decades of militancy in Punjab, the bombing of an Air India flight, the murder of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
In present-day terms though, how relevant is the Sikh separatist movement, especially given it has little or no resonance within India?
We looked at the pages of leading global media outlets to see how they reported the Khalistan issue amidst tensions between India and Canada.
Furore abroad, little relevance in Punjab
The New York Times on September 28 the movement as “largely a diaspora illusion”. “There is little support in Punjab for a secessionist cause that peaked in deadly violence decades ago and was snuffed out.”
Headlined ‘Sikh separatism is a nonissue in India, except as a political boogeyman”, the report said violence in the state, attributed by Modi’s government to “Sikh separatists” is actually “mostly gang-related”.
Meanwhile, Khalistan is a “preoccupation” of a “tiny minority” of Sikhs abroad who, having left India at the peak of separatist violence, still carry wounds “that fueled their Khalistani advocacy”.
An in Politico on September 27 also said there is “little to no popular support for Khalistan in Sikh-dominated region of Punjab today”. There is “no imminent fear” of its revival too, but the “diaspora has clung to the cause”, it said, highlighting that at the time of his killing, Nijjar was mobilising support for a referendum on Khalistan.
on the issue echoed a similar sentiment, noting that the movement is “largely propagated from abroad” having “lost steam” in India due to “government crackdown and economic growth”.
The British weekly added that many Sikhs “still consider Bhindranwale a martyr, but few try to emulate him and those who do are quickly stopped” – referring to Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, who was at the helm of the 1980s Khalistani militancy in Punjab.
Yet Khalistan is “one of the most enduring threats” to India’s unity, Economist said. “Outside India the movement persists. Groups in America, Australia, Britain and Canada continue to support separatism.”
‘Opened up old wounds’
said the Khalistan movement “isn’t nearly as febrile” in India as it was during the 1980s, but Indian authorities are worried, especially after the emergence of self-styled preacher and Khalistan advocate Amritpal Singh this year.
The report said that the US-based Sikhs for Justice “has been mobilising members of the diaspora” for a referendum on Khalistan, and Canadian Sikhs have maintained that “their mainstream movement” is peaceful.
An in The Washington Post said that the diplomatic tit-for-tat between Canada and India has reopened “old wounds”. “Many Sikhs are in the diaspora. Their separatist movement in India itself had gone quiet. Yet Khalistan is once again in the news around the world,” said the report titled “Canada, India and the Return of Khalistan”.
The report quoted from Karishma Vaswani’s column in Bloomberg, that called Khalistan a crisis of “India’s own making” and a result of Indian government’s neglect and exploitation of Punjab and its populace, who are dominantly farmers. “That, in turn, has led to a brewing resentment among the community both in and outside India.”
The Khalistan movement in India is “largely extinguished”, but the activism over the issue abroad has intensified, said a on September 23.
What does it mean for Modi?
Ahead of the general election next year, the separatist threat is an “important political narrative” for prime minister Narendra Modi, said the NYT . “It furthers his image as a strongman leader who will go to any extent to protect his nation.”
The report noted that the issue was building a rare consensus in India and had “prompted even some of his staunchest critics to rally around him”. “And it offers a fresh threat to point to after Mr Modi capitalised on violent Islamic militancy emanating from Pakistan before the last election, in 2019, to create a political wave.”
It cited an analyst as saying that for the BJP, there is “little cost in an exaggerated portrayal of security risks in a minority community”. It described the governing party as one whose leaders “espouse a nationalist ideology that prioritises majority Hindus”.
On the spillovers of the India-Canada and Khalistan controversy, the published in The Washington Post cited columnist Mihir Sharm’s article, which said that there was both “jubilation” as well as “confusion” on social media over India’s role in Nijjar’s killing. “Some commenters seemed to assume we did carry out the hit — and should be proud of how powerful a nation we have become. Others tried to argue we didn’t do it and Trudeau was an obvious liar.”
“Canada’s allegations seem to be helping Modi and his Hindu nationalist party. Ask Modi’s supporters, and they think Bond and Smiley are all novices compared to Ajit Doval — India’s national security adviser and the second-most powerful person in the country…Months before Trudeau’s allegations, Hindu nationalists were complimenting Doval for crushing the Khalistani leadership,” said an in Politico.
Hindu nationalism vs Khalistan
There has been a surge in “sectarian violence” in India under Modi’s leadership, said the Bloomberg report. “Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party views the majority religion’s culture and history as central to the country’s identity.”
The New York Times said that today, when Sikhs in Punjab talk about separatism, it is “in opposition to a national ruling party and its sister organisations, some with their own trail of violence, that speak openly about their desire to turn India into a Hindu state”.
The political discourse in India has witnessed a more frequent discussion on Khalistan over the past three years, coinciding with the farmers’ protests, the report said. “As Mr Modi’s lieutenants grew frustrated with the Sikh-led farmer protests in 2021, they often labelled the protesters as Khalistanis stoked by outside forces.”
Al Jazeera a journalist as saying the Khalistan movement “has re-emerged stronger in recent years in response to the policies of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been in power since 2014”.
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