The diplomatic fallout continues to worsen over Monday’s shocking accusation by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that India was behind the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader and Canadian citizen, outside a Sikh temple in Canada earlier this year.
Trudeau said Tuesday after the Canadian government expelled a senior member of India’s foreign intelligence agency:
India – and the government of India – needs to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.
What is the Khalistan movement?
Nijjar had been a designated “terrorist” by the Indian government in 2020 for his leadership role in a movement advocating for a separate Sikh state to be carved out of the Indian state of Punjab called Khalistan (the land of the Khalsa).
The history of the Khalistan movement is complex. It is, in its most simplistic form, a demand for a distinct homeland for the Sikhs. It was most active in the 1980s as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the economic, social and political conditions for Sikhs in post-independence India.
The partition of Punjab between Pakistan and India in 1947 created fear and disaffection in the Sikh community. They suddenly found themselves divided between a Muslim-majority Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India. In 1966, Punjab was divided again, this time on linguistic lines, as a new Hindi-speaking state of Haryana was carved out of the region.
Punjab’s Sikh community was also impacted by India’s Green Revolution, an initiative in the late 1960s to improve agricultural production. While this benefited Punjab economically, it created resentment among Sikhs due to the inequitable distribution of wealth, the lack of non-agricultural development and the central government’s monopoly over agricultural policy.
Another issue contributing to the Sikhs’ sense of injustice was the diversion of water from the Sutlej River that flowed through Punjab to the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan.
All this resentment was given a voice in the late 1970s by the Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who claimed the government was discriminating against Sikhs and intentionally undermining Sikh identity. Bhindranwale soon became a prominent political leader in Punjab, ultimately taking up residence in the Golden Temple complex in the city of Amritsar, one of the Sikhs’ holiest sites. He established something of a parallel government there, fortified with weapons.
To dispel Bhindranwale and the militants from the Golden Temple, the Indian army launched Operation Bluestar in June 1984. The operation further angered the Sikh population, including the large diaspora around the world, for the desecration of the holy site.
The resentment only worsened when more than 2,700 Sikhs (as per government estimates) were killed in New Delhi by rampaging mobs after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in November 1984. Within Punjab, this was a period of violence and draconian policing measures used to suppress the separatist movement.
Farmer protests in New Delhi in 2020–21, led predominantly by Sikhs from Punjab, brought the issue of Khalistan back into the public eye. Supporters in Punjab began advocating for the potential revival of the movement. Government actors also cited this possibility as a way to delegitimise the protests.
The Indian government has also claimed for years that Pakistan has provided support to exiled Khalistani groups to promote disharmony in India.
Then, earlier this year, Amritpal Singh – a self-styled Sikh preacher – was arrested after reviving calls for an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab. This stirred fears of renewed violence and reignited debates on a very polarising issue.
The Khalistan movement has always had a transnational character. The Indian army’s operation in Amritsar and the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 created an enduring memory for many Sikhs that has transcended India’s borders.
The Khalistan movement found supporters among the large and scattered Sikh diaspora, predominantly in Canada, the UK and Australia. Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside Punjab, comprising more than 2% of the country’s population. It also has significant political representation.
Canadian-based Sikh organisations were blamed for the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto to London, which killed 329 people onboard. One man acquitted in the attack was shot dead last year in the same Canadian town where Nijjar was gunned down in June.
The Indian government has repeatedly claimed the Khalistan movement remains active with the support of militants continuing to operate in Canada. New Delhi has repeatedly accused Ottawa of giving safe haven to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists”.
The Indian government was further outraged in 2019 when the Trudeau government removed mentions of Khalistan and “Sikh extremism” from a public report on terror threats to Canada.
And in recent years, New Delhi has been dismayed by public referendums on the creation of an independent Khalistan state, which have been held intermittently in Canada, the UK, Australia and other countries.
Owing to these issues, India-Canada ties have been on a rapid decline. In recent days, New Delhi paused talks on a landmark free-trade agreement between the countries over Ottawa’s perceived support for separatist groups in Canada. This followed a frosty exchange between Trudeau and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi.
India has largely avoided criticism for its own dwindling record on human rights as it has grown closer to the US, Australia and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years. Whether this changes following Canada’s accusations, however, remains to be seen.
Australia said it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations of India’s involvement in Nijjar’s killing. A UK government spokesperson also called the allegations “serious” but said the two countries would continue negotiating their own trade deal.
There are likely to be more public and diplomatic ramifications of this incident in the months to come.