The death of a prominent member of the Khalistan movement has sparked a geopolitical feud between Canada and India in recent days and weeks, but the movement goes back decades and has long tried to create an independent ethno-religious sovereign state for Sikhs.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused “agents of the Indian government” during a speech Monday of killing Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh community leader who was gunned down in Surrey, British Columbia, in June.
The movement seeks to create an independent Sikh country called Khalistan, or “Land of the Pure,” carved out of the Punjab state of India, as well as parts of the surrounding area, and has caused tensions within India and throughout the Sikh and Punjabi diaspora.
The Khalistan movement has roots in British Colonial India, but took off within Punjab in the 1980s, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Before he was shot and killed by two unidentified gunmen on June 18 in Canada, Nijjar was the leader of a group called the Khalistan Tiger Force and was designated a terrorist by India, according to the Times of India.
The Khalistan movement has perhaps become even stronger outside of India than within as Sikh immigrants move abroad and the diaspora grows: western Canada, where Nijjar lived, has the largest Sikh community outside of India in the world with 771,000 people.
The Indian foreign ministry rejected Canada’s accusation in a statement Tuesday, calling it “absurd and motivated.” India went on to accuse Canada of providing shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists” that “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and said these accusations were an attempt to shift the focus away from that. Nijjar was a prominent supporter of the Khalistani movement that India is referring to.
Notably, a group of separatists led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale launched a violent campaign in 1982 that occupied the Golden Temple complex in Punjab and turned it into a de facto headquarters of a parallel government while the group launched attacks against Hindus and state institutions. In 1984, federal Indian forces converged on the complex in an incident that killed hundreds, according to the government (though Sikh groups say the number was in the thousands), including Bhindranwale. Still, the violence continued into the 1990s. Human Rights Watch said that militants within the movement “were responsible for numerous human rights abuses” including “killings of Hindu and Sikh civilians, assassinations of political leaders, and the indiscriminate use of bombs.” There is no active Sikh insurgency within India today, but Indian government officials have warned that the movement’s supporters are attempting a comeback.
Authorities in India had offered a cash reward for information leading to Nijjar’s arrest last year, and in 2016 accused him of being involved in a 2007 bombing at a Punjab cinema that killed six—Nijjar denied the allegations. He was part of a group that was organizing an unofficial referendum that seeks to ask Sikh people both within and outside of India whether they support the secession of an area of India to create Khalistan. The Punjab Referendum Commission, which is facilitating the international effort, calls it “a campaign to liberate Punjab” that “aims to gauge the will of the Punjabi people.” The vote, which is unbinding and has no governmental authority, has already been conducted in the U.K., Italy, Australia and Canada. Organizers hope to conduct a vote in Punjab, but it is doubtful the Indian government will allow them to. They hope to collect all votes worldwide by 2025 and present them to the United Nations, where they will make their case for an independent Khalistan.
On September 11, Vancouver, British Columbia, was the most recent location where organizers held a succession vote, the Vancouver Sun reported. Organizers said the vote was so well attended that thousands of people weren’t able to vote and they had to schedule a second voting day on October 29. Organizers there insisted the effort was peaceful and democratic. India has characterized the proceedings as “anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” and told Canadian officials it has “strong concerns” over the matter. Trudeau said he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a confrontation about Nijjar’s killing during the Group of 20 Summit in India earlier this month.
Justin Trudeau Accuses Indian Government Of Killing Canadian Citizen (Forbes)
India Expels Canadian Diplomat As Row Over Assassination Of Sikh Leader Escalates (Forbes)