A short history of Khalistani separatism

By

On 18th June, Canadian Sikh leader and pro-Khalistan separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was pronounced dead in Surrey, British Columbia outside a Sikh temple after suffering fatal gunshot wounds. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of the assassination, which India’s foreign ministry has denied as ‘absurd’, describing the allegations as an attempt to ‘shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ Nijjar’s death comes after a long-standing history of ethno-religious conflict in India, with the Khalistan movement gaining more momentum in recent years after having died down in the late 80s. Given Mr Trudeau’s recent allegation, diplomatic tensions between Canada and India have heightened, but will this escalate the deep-rooted antagonism and violence between separatists and the Indian government? 

Khalistan is the proposed name for a sovereign state carved out of Northern India, that would see the creation of a Sikh-dominant homeland. Pro-separatists are split on where the exact boundaries would lie but generally agree on the Indian state of Punjab being incorporated given the high population density of Sikhs. 

Nijjar’s death comes after a long-standing history of ethno-religious conflict in India, with the Khalistan movement gaining more momentum in recent years after having died down in the late 80s.

The concept of Khalistan dates back to the Partition of India in 1947, which saw the change of political borders between India and Pakistan. The divide caused extensive violence, displacement, and large-scale deaths, predicted to be as high as 2 million, resulting from enormous communal violence between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Mass migrations began as millions moved to reach where their ethno-religious majority communities were situated. 

Following the Indian Partition, the Punjabi Suba movement surfaced, widely acknowledged as the predecessor to the Khalistan movement. This sought a wholly autonomous Punjabi-speaking Sikh state to preserve the integrity of Sikh religion, language, and culture. In 1966, Indian Punjab was rearranged by language creating the current state of Punjab and in turn, a majority Hindi-speaking state in Haryana. This post-partition political agitation resulted in casualties and tensions between Hindus and Sikhs. 

Encouragement for the Khalistan movement began to accumulate in the 1970s and early 80s, resulting in a wide, armed rebellion headed by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. The Indian government suppressed this rebellion for over a decade, resulting in thousands of deaths. On the pro-Khalistan side, Bhindranwale and his followers began attacking Hindus. In efforts to suppress the growing agitation and violence, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the invasion of the Golden Temple in 1984, recognised as Sikhism’s holiest site, to drive out Sikhs who had barricaded themselves inside. Known as Operation Blue Star, hundreds were killed, including Bhindranwale. In October of that year, Prime Minister Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. These two highly controversial and devastating incidents, triggered a huge series of anti-Sikh riots and Sikh retaliation, causing widespread ethno-religious violence. The following year, 329 people were killed by a bomb explosion on Air India Flight 182, revealed to have been planted by Canadian-Sikh fighters. 

India recognises the pro-separatist movement as a terrorist organisation and has requested Canada, Australia, and the UK, where the highest non-Indian Sikh populations live, to take legal action against activists. 

Rooted in a devastating history for both Sikhs and Hindus, where does the Khalistan movement see itself today? Under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pro-Khalistan Sikhs are being pursued with a nationwide crackdown on the movement, with India’s anti-terror agency having raided 53 sites with alleged connections. India recognises the pro-separatist movement as a terrorist organisation and has requested Canada, Australia, and the UK, where the highest non-Indian Sikh populations live, to take legal action against activists. 

Outside of India, Canada has the largest Sikh community in the world. Following Mr Nijjar’s death, India stopped issuing visas to Canadian citizens citing ‘security threats’. Recently, Canada removed 41 diplomats and their families from India after threats were made to remove diplomatic immunities. Diplomatic tensions have escalated quickly, which is perhaps why in October the US and UK backed Canada, disagreeing with the Indian government’s decisions on the removal of diplomatic immunities. Currently, the UK continues to ‘encourage India to engage with Canada on its independent investigation into the death of Hardeep Singh Nijjar’. 
Canada is not the only country to have experienced pro-Khalistan activism. Earlier this year in London, activists pulled down the Indian flag from the high commission. Clearly, tensions are boiling over beyond India amongst the Sikh diasporas. However, despite there being protesting activity amongst Sikh diasporic populations, the Khalistan movement is banned in India and therefore there is ‘no active insurgency in Punjab today’ according to The Independent. Whilst ongoing investigations into Mr Nijjar’s death take place, India and Canada need to diffuse tensions swiftly to prevent further conflict and ensure we do not see a repeat of the 70s and 80s tragedies.

Image: Garry Knight via Flickr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.