Understanding the Sikh Independence Movement at the Heart of India-Canada Diplomatic Strain

by Chloe Baker
Khalistan Movement

Relations between India and Canada have intensified due to reciprocal diplomatic expulsions and accusations concerning the Indian government’s alleged involvement in the assassination of a Sikh advocate in Canada.

The crux of the dispute revolves around the Sikh quest for independence, also known as the Khalistan movement. India has consistently accused Canada of harboring sympathies for the movement, which is outlawed in India but garners support among the global Sikh community.

Earlier this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau articulated in the national assembly what he deemed as credible claims that the Indian government had ties to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. In response, the Indian government refuted any involvement in Nijjar’s death, contending that Canada was attempting to divert attention away from Khalistan activists within its borders.

The Underpinnings of the Khalistan Movement

The Khalistan movement originated as an armed insurrection in the late 1980s, spearheaded by Sikhs advocating for an independent nation. The movement primarily took root in the northern state of Punjab, which has a Sikh-majority population despite Sikhs constituting about 1.7% of India’s entire population.

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The rebellion persisted for over a decade and was eventually quelled by stringent Indian governmental actions, resulting in the death of thousands, including noteworthy Sikh figures. Numerous young Sikh individuals also lost their lives in police operations, some of which were later demonstrated in judicial settings to have been fabricated, as indicated by human rights organizations.

In 1984, Indian military forces invaded the Golden Temple, the most sacred site in Sikhism, located in Amritsar, to eliminate separatists who had sought sanctuary there. Official accounts claim the incursion led to approximately 400 casualties, although Sikh organizations argue that the number runs into the thousands.

Prominent Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, accused by the Indian government of orchestrating the insurgency, was among those killed. Subsequently, on October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the temple raid, was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards. Her murder ignited a wave of anti-Sikh violence, where Hindu mobs targeted Sikhs across northern India, particularly in New Delhi, executing many and setting others ablaze.

Current State of the Khalistan Movement

While there is no ongoing insurrection in Punjab, the Khalistan movement retains a faction of supporters both within the state and among the international Sikh diaspora. The Indian government has continuously issued warnings that Sikh separatists are seeking a resurgence.

The administration led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ramped up efforts to apprehend Sikh separatists, arresting numerous leaders affiliated with various groups connected to the movement.

In 2020, amid farmer protests against contentious agricultural laws, the Modi government initially labeled Sikh participants as “Khalistanis.” However, under mounting pressure, the laws were eventually rescinded.

Earlier this year, Amritpal Singh, a 30-year-old preacher who had revitalized calls for Khalistan, was arrested by Indian authorities, reigniting concerns of potential violence in Punjab.

Global Reach of the Khalistan Movement

India has urged countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom to take judicial measures against Sikh activists. The issue has been particularly contentious with Canada, where Sikhs constitute nearly 2% of the nation’s populace.

Earlier this year, demonstrations against the arrest of Amritpal Singh led to violent incidents at Indian diplomatic missions abroad. Indian flags were torn down, and property was damaged, eliciting strong rebukes from India’s foreign ministry.

The Indian government has also accused Khalistan sympathizers in Canada of defacing Hindu temples with “anti-India” inscriptions and assaulting the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a March protest.

Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a notable Sikh militant and leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, was fatally shot in Pakistan.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Khalistan Movement

What is the Khalistan Movement?

The Khalistan movement originated as an armed insurrection led by Sikhs in the late 1980s, advocating for an independent Sikh homeland. The movement was mainly concentrated in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Although it was quelled by the Indian government in the 1990s, it still retains some support within Punjab and among the international Sikh diaspora.

What has led to the recent tensions between India and Canada?

The tensions have been primarily fueled by allegations of the Indian government’s involvement in the assassination of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. Additionally, India has accused Canada of supporting the Khalistan movement, which is outlawed in India but has some support among Canadian Sikhs.

Is the Khalistan movement still active in India?

While there is no ongoing armed insurgency, the movement retains a faction of supporters in Punjab and among the international Sikh community. The Indian government has issued repeated warnings of a potential resurgence and has arrested various leaders connected to the movement.

How has the Indian government responded to the Khalistan movement?

The Indian government has taken stringent measures to quell the movement, including military operations and arrests of key figures. Prominent events include the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984 and the subsequent crackdown, which led to thousands of deaths. More recently, the Modi administration has intensified efforts to apprehend Sikh separatists.

What actions have taken place internationally regarding the Khalistan movement?

India has urged countries with sizable Sikh populations, like Canada, Australia, and the U.K., to take judicial action against Sikh activists advocating for Khalistan. Incidents of vandalism and protests have occurred at Indian diplomatic missions in these countries, heightening tensions and eliciting responses from India’s foreign ministry.

How has the Khalistan movement been involved in recent farmer protests in India?

During the 2020 farmer protests against new agricultural laws, the Indian government initially attempted to discredit Sikh participants by labeling them as “Khalistanis.” However, under public and political pressure, the government later withdrew the controversial laws.

What happened to prominent figures in the Khalistan movement?

Several significant figures, including militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, were killed during the Indian government’s crackdown. More recently, Amritpal Singh, who had revitalized calls for Khalistan, was arrested by Indian authorities.

What is the stance of the Canadian government on the Khalistan movement?

The Canadian government has not officially supported the Khalistan movement. However, allegations from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about India’s involvement in the assassination of a Sikh activist in Canada have intensified diplomatic tensions between the two nations.

Have there been any notable incidents involving Khalistan supporters outside of India?

Yes, violent incidents involving the desecration of Indian flags and vandalism at Indian diplomatic missions have occurred in countries like the U.K. and Canada. Moreover, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a leader of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan last year.

More about Khalistan Movement

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FinanceGuy33 September 19, 2023 - 10:52 am

Interesting to see how this is affecting diplomatic relations between India and Canada. One to keep an eye on for sure.

MelanieQ September 19, 2023 - 10:53 am

it’s so easy to look at headlines and make quick judgments. This article digs deep and makes you question whats really going on. props to the author!

JohnDoe September 19, 2023 - 3:06 pm

Wow, didn’t know the situation was this complicated. Thanks for breaking it down for us. Really gives you a lot to think about.

WanderlustMike September 19, 2023 - 10:15 pm

i’ve visited Punjab and it’s hard to imagine such an insurgency taking place there now. Times have really changed.

TechNerd September 20, 2023 - 3:45 am

Man, politics can get so messy. Reading this just confirms that international relations ain’t easy.

PoliSciJane September 20, 2023 - 7:00 am

Had no clue about the Khalistan movement’s history. The Golden Temple incident seems to have been a tipping point, eh?

CryptoSikh September 20, 2023 - 9:39 am

So Trudeau actually pointed fingers at India? That’s gonna stir the pot even more. Dangerous game to play, if you ask me.


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