Murder of British Columbia Sikh leader puts Khalistan movement in spotlight. What is this?

Allegations that the Indian government was involved in the murder of a Canadian Sikh leader in British Columbia have thrust the Khalistan movement back into the spotlight.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell in the House of Commons on Monday, accusing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of playing a role in the June a*sa*sination of 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Trudeau said Canadian intelligence agencies had “credible” information that “agents of the Indian government” were involved in the k*****g. He gave no further details but described Nijjar as a Canadian citizen. Immigration Minister Marc Miller confirmed his citizenship in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday.

India denied the allegations on Tuesday and ordered the expulsion of a Canadian diplomat – a tit-for-tat decision following Ottawa’s expulsion of Indian Pavan Kumar Rai, a diplomatic agent who heads an intelligence agency Indian based in Ottawa.

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This allegation put renewed emphasis on Sikh independence in India, also known as the Khalistan movement. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Khalistan movement?

The Khalistan movement dates back to the conflicts over the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. The idea of ​​a Sikh homeland was defended during the negotiations preceding the partition of the Indian region of Punjab between the two new countries.

Sikh separatists demanded a homeland called Khalistan, meaning “land of the pure”, which they said should be created from Punjab.

The Sikh religion was founded in Punjab in the late 15th century and has around 25 million followers worldwide. Sikhs make up the majority of Punjab’s population, but are a minority in India, making up just 2% of its population of 1.4 billion. Hindus make up 79.8 percent of India’s population and Muslims make up 14.2 percent, according to Pew Research Center data.

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This demand has resurfaced several times, including during a violent insurrection in the 1970s and 1980s.

The movement was suppressed by the Indian government’s crackdown which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders.

In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar, to flush out separatists who had found refuge there. The operation k**led around 400 people, according to official figures, but Sikh groups say thousands were k**led.

Among the dead was Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom the Indian government accused of leading the armed insurgency.

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On October 31, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had ordered the attack on the temple, was a*sa*sinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs.

His death sparked a series of anti-Sikh riots in which Hindu mobs went house to house in northern India, particularly in New Delhi, ripping Sikhs from their homes, k*****g many. ‘among themselves and burning others alive.

The 2010 judicial inquiry into the bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India in 1985 said “Sikh terrorists” were responsible.

Is the movement still active?

There is no active insurgency in Punjab today, but the Khalistan movement has supporters in the state, as well as in the Sikh diaspora outside India.

The movement enjoys support from sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which has the largest population of Sikhs outside Punjab, as well as in Britain, Australia and the United States.

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Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000 people, approximately 2% of its total population.

India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement. The Indian government has claimed over the years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.

The government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been described by some leading human rights groups as having repressed religious minorities.

“The government adopted laws and policies that discriminated against religious minorities, particularly Muslims,” Human Rights Watch said on its website.

“This, coupled with the vilification of Muslims and other minorities by some BJP leaders, and the failure of the police to act against government supporters who commit violence, has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to target impunity for members of minority communities or civil society groups. »

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India has asked countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the prime ministers of these countries.

At home, Modi’s government has stepped up its pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders of various groups linked to the movement.

When farmers camped on the outskirts of New Delhi to protest controversial farm laws in 2020, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit the Sikh participants by labeling them “Khalistanis.”

Under pressure, the Modi government later withdrew these laws.

Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.

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Last April, India arrested a self-proclaimed preacher and Sikh separatist, Amritpal Singh, for allegedly reigniting calls for Khalistan, sparking fears of further violence in Punjab.

Abroad, India lashed out at Canada earlier this year over a float in a parade in Brampton, Ont., depicting Gandhi’s a*sa*sination, perceived to be of a glorification of Sikh separatist violence.

India is also unhappy with frequent protests and alleged acts of vandalism by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in Canada, Britain, the United States and Australia, and has called for better security to local governments.

Ottawa has argued that freedom of expression means groups can express their political views as long as they are not violent. The Liberals denounced these groups’ threats against Indian diplomats and offered the envoys 24/7 security, Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said on September 14.

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What will happen now to relations between India and Canada?

This explosive allegation will undoubtedly only further deteriorate relations between India and Canada.

India strongly denied the allegations on Tuesday, calling them “absurd.” Before the allegations became public, Canada suspended negotiations on a proposed trade treaty with India. Trade Minister Mary Ng also postponed a planned trade mission to India.

Modi met with Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit earlier this month, and Modi’s office said he was focusing on Sikh separatists in Canada. Trudeau told reporters before arriving in India that he would raise concerns about suspected Indian foreign interference in Canada.

At the G20, Trudeau said he stressed to Modi the importance of respecting the rule of law, the integrity and sovereignty of democratic institutions and processes and the ability of a country’s citizens to choose their future .

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Trudeau said Tuesday he waited until he was able to raise the issue with his allies and with Modi at the G20 before speaking publicly about the possible link to Nijjar’s k*****g.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, Sunday, September 10, 2023. Trudeau said Tuesday that he had been waiting until he could raise the issue with his allies. and with Modi at the G20 before revealing to the public the possible link with the Nijjar murder.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Leaders of the most powerful countries were welcomed by Modi to Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, with Modi hugging several politicians. Trudeau, who shook Modi’s hand, was the only leader to move away from this longer hold.

Trudeau skipped Modi’s leaders’ dinner the night before, with the prime minister’s office refusing to say why.

He also missed the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance, a partnership aimed at advancing the deployment of cleaner, greener fuels.

At the time, Trudeau said he had other work.

— with files from The Canadian Press, the Associated Press and Reuters

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