The Historical Context and Current Tensions Surrounding the Khalistan Movement

The Khalistan movement, which calls for an independent homeland for Sikhs in India, has sparked diplomatic tensions and heated debates. To fully understand the current situation, it is important to delve into the historical context of Sikhism and the movement itself. Sikhism is one of the major religions in the world, originating in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan in the 16th Century. When British rule ended in 1947, the region was divided between the two countries, leading to a significant Sikh population in both nations.

With a global population of around 25 million, Sikhs make up approximately 2% of India’s 1.4 billion people, with the majority residing in the country. However, large diaspora communities exist in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Canada hosts the largest population of Sikhs outside of India, with around 780,000 individuals, which accounts for over 2% of the country’s total population.

The Khalistan movement gained momentum in the 1980s when Punjab, an Indian state, experienced a wave of violence and attacks. The movement sought an independent Sikh state within India. However, the political landscape in modern Punjab has shifted away from the Khalistan movement, and calls for independence do not represent the majority opinion, according to Prof Shruti Kapila from the University of Cambridge. Despite this, supporters of the movement in the Sikh diaspora continue to advocate for a separate homeland, with their demands intensifying in recent years.

The Indian government staunchly opposes the Khalistan movement, and all mainstream political parties, including those in Punjab, denounce violence and separatism. The controversy surrounding Sikh independence has been at the center of two of the most contentious incidents in modern Indian history – the invasion of the Golden Temple and the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In June 1984, Indian armed forces stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs, to remove a preacher and dissident who had taken shelter inside the temple complex in Amritsar. This operation, ordered by Indira Gandhi, resulted in numerous casualties and substantial damage to the revered site. A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. Her murder sparked four days of rioting and communal violence, leading to the death of thousands of people, primarily Sikhs. The precise casualty count varies, ranging from around 3,000 to as many as 17,000.

Due to the scars left by the violence in the 1980s, Khalistan is a red line for India. All political parties in the country stand united against Sikh independence, making it impossible for any Indian government to disregard the issue when it comes to bilateral diplomatic relations. This historical backdrop sets the stage for the recent diplomatic tensions and allegations.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was fatally shot outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia on June 18 at the age of 45. Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader, was born in Punjab’s Jalandhar and migrated to Canada in 1997. He initially worked as a plumber and later gained prominence for his activism in the Sikh community. India designated him a terrorist in 2020, alleging his connections to the Khalistan Tiger Force, a group advocating for an independent Khalistan. Nijjar’s supporters vehemently deny these allegations, claiming that he had previously faced threats due to his activism. Reports suggest that at the time of his death, he was organizing an unofficial referendum in India for an independent Sikh state.

Nijjar is the third prominent Sikh figure to have died unexpectedly in recent months, adding fuel to the diplomatic tensions between India and the Sikh diaspora. India has exerted pressure on governments of three countries with sizable Sikh populations – Canada, Australia, and the UK. India’s government openly states that a failure to address what it deems “Sikh extremism” would impede positive bilateral relations.

Australia has acknowledged the situation by promising to investigate incidents of vandalism at Hindu temples committed by pro-Khalistan activists. However, Australian officials maintain that they will not obstruct Australian Sikhs from expressing their views on an independent homeland. On the other hand, Canada has faced harsh criticism from Delhi for what India perceives as a failure to counter the pro-Khalistan movement within its borders. While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to address ongoing violence, he has also emphasized the importance of avoiding “foreign interference.”

The UK has also found itself embroiled in the controversy, with a contentious incident occurring in March. Protests outside the Indian High Commission in London witnessed crowds waving yellow “Khalistan” banners, and a man removed the Indian flag from the building’s first-floor balcony. These incidents further exacerbate the tensions between India and the Sikh diaspora.

The current diplomatic tensions underscore the sensitivity of the Khalistan issue for India. With all major political parties in India unequivocally opposing Sikh independence, it remains an issue that cannot be dismissed lightly, especially in the realm of international relations. The situation warrants careful attention from all parties involved to prevent further escalation and seek peaceful solutions that respect the aspirations of the Sikhs while ensuring the integrity and unity of the nation.