India Politics 
Explained: The ‘Khalistan’ issue that led to India-Canada stand-off

Adil Akhzer | 02/10/2023

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India and Canada are embroiled in a diplomatic row since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of having a hand in the assassination of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June this year. Nijjar was a vocal Khalistan supporter and advocated for the formation of an independent homeland for Sikhs in India.

Trudeau’s accusation in the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons on September 18 has severely dented the bilateral relationship between the two countries, with Delhi seeing it as Ottawa’s leniency towards Khalistan supporters in Canada.

What is the ‘Khalistan’ debate and why has it gained momentum in the media in India and abroad in recent years when the separatist movement has only a few sympathizers in Punjab. Adil Akhzer explains

Pre and post-Partition origin

Khalistan means the “land of the pure" and is the name given to the proposed independent Sikh homeland in Punjab. In the 1980s, secessionist militants in the Punjab state waged a war against the Indian state with Pakistan’s backing, but were eventually overthrown by the state.

The Sikh religion was founded in the late 15th century and as per the 2011 Indian census, there are about 20.8 million Sikhs, which make up 1.7 per cent of the country’s 1.4 billion population.

Chandigarh-based journalist and author of several books on Sikh separatism Jagtar Singh said the word “Khalistan” had gained prominence in September 1981, when an Indian Airlines plane carrying 111 passengers and six crew members was hijacked and forced to land in Lahore, Pakistan. Newspaper headlines the next day referred to the hijackers as “Khalistan men”.

Singh dates the Khalistan’s origin to pre-Partition. He said the idea of a Sikh homeland first appeared in a pamphlet circulated by Sikh leader Vir Singh Bhatti in 1940 as a response to the Muslim League’s Lahore Declaration. Subsequently, members of the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbhandak Committee convened in India’s Amritsar city in 1946 to pass a resolution, calling on Sikhs to strive for a separate Sikh state, he said.

He also calls Operation Blue Star, when the Army stormed the Golden Temple in 1984 to flush out secessionist Khalistan militants, a turning point. It was with the assent of the Akal Takht at the temple on April 29, 1986, that a five-member ‘Panthic Committee’ (apex body of radicals) formally demanded an independent state of Khalistan.

Recent Prominence

Jagtar Singh said the issue had gained more prominence in India in the last few years because the government said some gangsters were linked to pro-Khalistan leaders.

“Of late, there has been a crackdown by the National Investigation Agency on the Khalistan network in India, thus making the issue prominent,” he said. “So, what we are seeing is more of it in the news these days and it has become a bigger issue now,” he said.

US-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), an organization banned by India and headed by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, had announced in 2018 that it would hold an unofficial voting exercise, calling it the “Referendum 2020." Despite being declared a terrorist organization by the Indian government, the SFJ has held voting for the “referendum”.

In 2020, the Indian government declared Gurpatwant, a key member of the SFJ, a “designated terrorist”, along with several others.
The banned organization has been on the forefront, demanding the secession of the Sikh-dominated Punjab state under the name of Khalistan.

Likewise, in London, Jagjit Singh Chohan, a Sikh leader, started a campaign for the Khalistan movement.

In 1992, the Shiromani Akali Dal and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee had submitted an appeal to then Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the creation of an independent Sikh state in India.

In his book, “Sikh Separatism: The Politics of Faith”, published in 1986, author Rajiv A Kapur writes, “Between 1981 and 1984, Sikh political leaders led a series of mass civil disobedience campaigns against the Indian government for the fulfilment of a set of demands with greater autonomy for the state of Punjab.”

Gurharpal Singh, an emeritus professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, recently told the US-based based New Yorker magazine in an interview that at the time of the Partition, the Sikh community had seen itself as being vulnerable.

“One way the Sikh leadership thought that it could protect the community’s rights and identity was to campaign for a Punjabi-speaking state. This led to a great deal of bitterness and resentment among the Punjabi-speaking Hindu community, who opted for Hindi as a way of opposing that demand. They thought that a Punjabi-speaking state would largely be a Sikh-dominated state,” he was quoted by the magazine.

Troubled years

In the 1980s, the Khalistan movement reached its violent crescendo, with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale emerging as its leader.

Bhindranwale was killed in Operation Bluestar by the Indian Army in 1984 after it stormed the Amritsar’s Golden Temple following orders by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He along with his supporters had moved into the Harmandir Sahib, the sanctum sanctorum inside the Golden Temple complex — the holiest site for the Sikhs.

Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science at Panjab University, Chandigarh, said the Khalistan movement peaked in Punjab mostly in the 1980s around the period of the killing of Bhindranwale and Operation Bluestar.

“That was a period of 10 or 15 years when the radical elements came up and put mainstream politics on the margin. By 1993, terrorism was over,” Kumar said.
The operation which triggered huge anger among Sikhs resulted in the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. Her death triggered anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and other parts of the country, leaving thousands dead.

Support Overseas

While the Khalistan movement has found few takers at home, it has attracted more visibility abroad, with supporters organizing referendums to establish a separate Sikh homeland within India.

India has, meanwhile, flagged its concerns with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada about the increasing activities of Khalistan supporters and the subsequent vandalizing of Indian consulates in the UK and the US.

Prof Kumar, however, maintains that the movement has not gained much support in Punjab post the terrorism days. He terms the Khalistan issue “a Sikh diaspora phenomenon”. “It is the media hype. I don't think there is much support either in Punjab or abroad,” he said.

Future ahead

Experts say the pro-Khalistan feeling among a section of Sikhs abroad is unlikely to die down soon and sporadic activities to keep the issue alive will continue in the future.

“Thousands of people have lost their lives and that aspect cannot be ignored. The root cause is that justice hasn't been delivered,” said Sikh leader Jagtar Singh Chohan, also known as ‘Daaktar Saab’, by fellow Khalistanis.

In 1971, Chohan had announced the birth of Khalistan by placing an advertisement in The New York Times.

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