This week marks the 33rd anniversary of Operation Blue Star. In June 1984, the Indian Army was ordered by the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar to clear the holy shrine of armed terrorists and militants hiding there and working for the formation of Khalistan, a separate homeland for Sikhs. Over 30 years later, Khalistan supporters are rearing their head in Canada, which is home to the world’s second largest Sikh population after India. Is Canada really witnessing the “resurgence” of the Khalistan movement?
Canada’s Ontario Assembly passed a private members’ bill recently, recognising the 1984 anti-Sikh riots as “genocide”. The riots had taken place in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, which resulted in the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. The bill was introduced by Harinder Malhi, a Canadian Sikh and a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. This did not go down well with the Indian government and the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that the motion was “misguided”. When Malhi was approached by The Sunday Guardian to speak on the subject, her office declined comment.
However, terming the 1984 riots as “genocide”, Balpreet Singh Boparai, legal counsel of the World Sikh Organization of Canada said, “The recognition of the 1984 Sikh genocide is a human rights issue. The ongoing use of the term ‘1984 anti-Sikh riots’ to describe the events of November 1984 is a distortion and remains a sore point for the Sikh community. The term ‘riot’ implies unorganised violence between two communities. The 1984 massacres were organised by state actors and were not random violence, as suggested by the term ‘riots’. Sikhs across the world, including India, recognise the events of November 1984 as a genocide. Furthermore, the Ontario legislature’s recognition of the Sikh genocide is not unique. On 30 June 2015, the Delhi Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution stating that the House strongly condemns the Sikh genocide that happened 30 years back in November 1984.”
Other than the genocide motion, in May, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended the annual nagar kirtan organised in Toronto where Khalistani flags were raised. The event also featured floats that displayed posters of dead Khalistani activists. PM Trudeau’s presence at events where people openly support the Khalistan movement raises questions on the Canadian government’s role in sheltering such elements. But Canadian political commentators try to explain this away as mere “vote politics”.
In an email response, Sam Blackwell, senior correspondent for the Globe and Mail, said, “The Trudeau government—like the other two main parties, the Conservatives and the NDP—does court the Sikh community and has a disproportionately large number of Sikh-Canadian Cabinet ministers. And many of the leaders in the Sikh community appear to support the Khalistani cause. But there is no direct evidence that the Liberals (Trudeau’s party) support the idea of an independent Khalistan.”
Such posters or floats are not uncommon in Canada. In the past, officials of the Dasmesh Darbar gurudwara in Surrey, one of the largest in Canada, had come under fire for glorifying alleged terrorists on floats and posters at an annual parade. Posters of Khalistani activists, who India see as terrorists, can be seen hanging in the gurudwara lobby. The gurudwara president, Gian Singh Gill had said that the group provides “moral support” to those who want to create Khalistan, and that it is impossible to separate politics from religion.
Experts say that the India cannot ignore the Khalistani sentiment in Canada because of the effect that the diaspora can have on people in Punjab. Earlier this week, there were reports of Khalistani flags being raised in Punjab’s Bathinda. Sheets of paper with “Khalistan and Khalistan 2020” written with a black marker pen appeared in the Jaga Ram Tirath village in Talwandi Sabo subdivision of Bathinda. The state government is inquiring into the matter.
SUPPORT FROM CANADIAN SIKHS
But do all Canadian Sikhs support the Khalistan movement? The most insightful answer to this question came from the person who is a representative of an organisation, which is a powerful voice of the Khalistan cause. Boparai, legal counsel of the World Sikh Organization, in his email response said, “The Sikh community in Canada is large and as any community, has a diversity of political opinions. There is certainly a segment of the Sikh population in Canada that supports and advocates Sikh sovereignty.”
Lagan Kochhar, a leadership development consultant, who was born and brought up in Canada, said, “Yes, in Canada you can see people who support the Khalistan cause, but their number is limited, compared to those Canadian Sikhs who do not want any part in this. The present generation of kids is like any other country’s youth, who wants to study, work and grow. I cannot relate with any of this anymore, even though I have seen these posters and floats educating people about what happened in the past. The riots or the genocide should not have happened. It is sad. But today Sikhs as a community have come a long way from what we were back in the 1980s.”
But why does this smaller “segment of Sikhs” support the Khalistan cause? Boparai said, “Those Sikhs who advocate for the right of Sikhs in India to self-determination through peaceful means have a right to express their views and cannot be branded as radicals or terrorists. Canadian Sikhs have a legal right and are free to peacefully voice their political beliefs. In Canada, separatism does not equal extremism. Sovereignists from Quebec sit as elected officials in both the Quebec National Assembly and the Canadian Parliament, without issue.”
‘PEACEFUL’ KHALISTAN SYMPATHISERS
Emphasising that the Khalistan movement is only peaceful in nature, Boparai quoted Stephen Harper, former Prime Minister of Canada and said, “Terrorism and violence should not be confused with people’s right in Canada to advocate a political position. It may be a political position that both the Government of Canada and the Government of India disagree with. We cannot interfere with the right of political freedom of expression. Allegations of extremism or violence in the Sikh community in Canada are baseless and have not been substantiated with any evidence. There is nothing to suggest there is any violent movement among Canadian Sikhs.”
Assessing whether the Khalistan movement can become violent in nature, A.B. Mahapatra, director of the think-tank Centre for Asian Strategic Studies-India (CASS-India), said, “The character has totally changed since the 1980s. Today, the farmers of Punjab are going places across the world where their farming techniques are in demand. They are in business and they are a prosperous lot. Militancy started in Punjab out of political reasons and Pakistan, too, was a fringe element, which was willing to take some benefit out of the dissenters. Today’s Sikhs in India do not harbour any Khalistani sentiment and this is a reality. This movement has no future anymore.”
So why do some Sikhs in Canada continue to keep the Khalistani cause alive? Mahapatra said, “It is similar to hanging the coffin to keep the dead alive. People there have vested interests too. Most of the influential gurudwaras in Ontario are controlled by Khalistan sympathisers. It is their reluctance to let go of the power and authority they enjoy on gurudwara properties. There is an obvious financial and political interest here.”
To understand the political undertone of the pro-Khalistani sentiment, which is alive in Canada, a look at PM Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet might be enough. Canada today has a large number of Sikhs placed in Trudeau’s Cabinet. Harinder Malhi is not the only Sikh Canadian who has gone into mainstream politics in Canada. PM Trudeau, at a gathering in an American university, had proudly said that he had more Sikhs in his Cabinet than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PM Modi’s Cabinet includes two Sikhs: Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, and Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Minister of Food Processing. The Trudeau Cabinet includes four Sikhs: Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger and Innovation Minister Navdeep Singh Bains.
However, the presence of at least two of these ministers in Trudeau’s Cabinet is regarded as controversial. Defence Minister Sajjan is strongly connected to the influential World Sikh Organization, a group which, despite its name, has links to the fringe, militant radicalism of the Khalistan movement. Infrastructure Minister Sohi was born in Punjab in 1964 and grew up in a close-knit family. After moving to Canada as a teenager, he returned to India in his early 20s to work as a social activist. But he was swept up by the local police in Bihar amid a climate of fear over the threat of Sikh terrorism and was imprisoned for two years without charge. Eventually, he was released because of the lack of evidence and went back to Canada.
Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the Australian National University, pointing out in his column that the disproportionate Cabinet of PM Trudeau underlined appeasement vote politics, said, “Sikhs make up less than 1.5% of Canada’s population, while Indo-Canadians comprise just under 4%. That is, Sikhs comprise roughly one-third of Indo-Canadians and are heavily concentrated in British Columbia. Thus, the Sikhs in the Trudeau Cabinet are out of proportion to their numbers in both the Indo-Canadian and the Canadian community at large.”
Warning Canada, Thakur said, “The demographic imbalance carries a domestic political risk. The more numerous, disaffected non-Sikh Indo-Canadians are open to recruitment by the Conservatives. But the bigger risk is stepping on the minefield of the extremely sensitive domestic Indian politics and damaging bilateral relations with this key country being courted by many other countries.”
Back home, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has made public his strong opinions against Canada’s pro-Khalistan Cabinet public. While the Canadian government refused to let Captain Amarinder Singh campaign in Canada prior to the elections in Punjab, Singh refused to meet Sajjan because of the latter’s Khalistani links, when the Canadian minister visited India in April.
A DIPLOMATIC COUNTER
The Indian government, on the other hand, has tried to rein in any possible ignition to the Khalistan cause in Canada, through diplomacy. Sources say that there has been an increase in the attendance of Indian diplomats at public events organised by some gurudwaras that are traditionally known to be pro-Khalistani.
In February this year, the hardline activist group “Sikhs for Justice” (SFJ), whose website is banned in India, had written a complaint to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, saying, “Under the cover of ‘community outreach’, Indian diplomats are creating an atmosphere of intimidation among the Canadian Sikhs who have taken refuge in this country from India’s constant persecution.” SFJ’s legal advisor Gurpatwant Pannun, reportedly, wrote the letter to Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The letter was sent after SFJ took cognizance of the visits made by India’s Consul General in Toronto, Dinesh Bhatia to Greater Toronto Area gurudwaras once considered pro-Khalistan.
Another initiative taken by the Indian government to wean away support for Khalistan among Sikhs in Canada has been through visas for refugees. Indian missions in Canada, particularly in Vancouver, have started issuing visas to those who had reached Canada as refugees. This measure is gradually being rolled out and those with refugee status will be allowed visas of up to 10 years for themselves and their dependants. This gesture by the Indian government has also drawn SFJ’s ire.