On June 3, 1984, the Indian army, on the orders of then prime minister Indira Gandhi, stormed the Golden Temple complex housing the Akal Takht. Operation Blue Star was aimed at the removal of Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters from the premises of the temple. The armed operation resulted in the death of several civilians along with Bhindranwale. The assault on the most revered site of the Sikhs was destined to have serious consequences. In the following months, the assassination of the prime minister by her Sikh bodyguards and the ensuing massacre of Sikhs would go on to alter much of the Indian political landscape for years to come. More importantly, however, the distress of the Sikhs echoed in lands far and wide, shaping up a militant struggle to demand recognition of a separate geographical territory for the Sikhs called Khalistan.
The seeds of the Khalistan movement had been sown soon after the country’s Independence and bloodied Partition riots that followed. It reached a whole new height, however, in the 1980s after the Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots. What sets apart the Khalistan separatist movement, though, is the fact that its strongest support comes from the Sikh diaspora, particularly in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s ongoing visit to India has made the Khalistan movement a talking point once again. Trudeau’s party is believed to lend passive support to the Khalistanis who have been using Canada as a strong base for decades now. During his meeting with Trudeau, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh said he raised the issue of Khalistan with Trudeau reportedly responding that “Canada will not allow anything which will come between us to create these problems.” In an incident causing further embarrassment to the Canadian primere, a picture of Trudeau’s wife with Jaspal Atwal, a member of an illegal Sikh separatist group, has emerged that shows him attending a formal event hosted by the Canadian High Commission on Thursday.
The emergence and development of the Khalistan movement in Canada and the militant groups it gave rise to has a long complicated history, the roots of which can be dated much before the independence of the country. The movement in Canada for a separate Sikh nation-state, is strongly intertwined with religious sentiments of the diaspora towards Punjab, a desire to look out for their kin back home as also an outlet for their economic and social frustrations in a strange land far away from home.
The Khalistan movement in India
When the birth of independent India was decided to be accompanied by the division of Punjab, prominent Sikh leaders of the state were clearly wary of their status as a minority community in a region with a Hindu majority. The feeling of insecurity was further heightened by the bloody riots of 1947. However, assurance from Nehru of civil liberties and protection for the Sikhs had convinced the community of sticking to the Indian union.
Political insecurities, however, gave rise to the demand for a separate territory for Punjabi speaking people which was accepted by the Indian government, after much convincing on the part of the Akali Dal. In the years that followed, however, political and economic grievances among the Sikhs kept increasing and would reach its zenith with the emergence of Bhindranwale in Punjab.
In the aftermath of the Green Revolution, accumulation of wealth in the hands of wholesale grain merchants, most of whom were wealthy Hindus, left the Sikhs feeling marginalised. Further, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh being carved out of the territory of Punjab meant that the Punjabi-speaking state had to share its agricultural resources, which was a cause of frustration for the Sikhs. Thirdly, those Sikhs who had managed to acquire wealth in the aftermath of the Green Revolution had also simultaneously alienated themselves from the orthodox traditions of the Sikhs. As a response, an attempt was made to purify the Sikh community by returning to its roots. The emergence of Bhindranwale needs to be seen in this context and it eventually culminated in an armed movement leading to several violent clashes in the late 1970s and 80s.
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The Indian government’s attack on the Golden Temple Complex and the anti-Sikh riots that followed further led to bitter emotions among the Sikhs, many of whom fled abroad during this period. Sikhs abroad viewed the incident as an attack on their religious identity that was rooted in Punjabi soil. While the demand for Khalistan was passive all these years, it soon turned aggressive after the 1984 riots.
The Khalistan movement in Canada
The 1984 riots had altered the nature of the Sikh separatist movement, partly as a result of the large diaspora community that had been settling abroad since the early decades of the twentieth century. “While grievances still exist in India between Sikhs and a predominantly Hindu government, the planning, fundraising, and execution of military activities have shifted abroad,” wrote sociologist Maryam Razavy in her work, “Sikh militant movements in Canada.”
The Sikh diaspora had been actively involved in Punjabi politics since the nationalist struggle while still dealing with issues of racial prejudice in Canada, UK and USA. However, after 1984, a fresh flow of Sikh immigrants moved to these countries following the violence in Punjab. Many of these were young, little-educated men and women who were uncertain of their future in a strange land. From among the new immigrants, there emerged several who served as the link between the Punjab of the 1980s and the diaspora community, and they helped aggressively spread the message of Khalistan.
Canada was a strong base for the mobilisation of the Khalistan movement among the diaspora. As noted by Razavy, the Sikh militant separatist groups are one of the two major areas in which the manpower of the Canadian intelligence services is deployed. By the mid-1980s, some of the most influential organisations took root in Canadian soil, that demanded a separate nation-state for the Sikhs. The World Sikh Organisation (WSO) was established on July 28, 1984 at a meeting held in Madison Square Garden, New York. The meeting included Sikh delegates from Canada, United States, United Kingdom and the Far East. Objectives declared at the meeting included a decision to promote and follow the teachings of the Sikh Gurus and “to strive, through peaceful means, for the establishment of a Sikh nation, Khalistan.” The WSO opened one office in New York and one in Ottawa and propagated their ideology, primarily through a newspaper called the World Sikh News. They also organised several rallies and political events.
The Babbar Khalsa, which was formed in India in 1978, went on to actively operate from Canada, Germany, and also Pakistan. While it was later banned and designated as an international terrorist organisation, it gained particular notoriety for massacring 329 civilians on an Air India flight in 1985. The International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYK) is yet another militant organisation demanding Khalistan, with its largest following being located in United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and the United States. Jaspal Atwal, whose picture with Trudeau’s wife has been making headlines, was a member of the ISYK and had been convicted on charges of an attempted murder of an Indian cabinet minister, Malkiat Singh Sidhu, on Vancouver Island in 1986. He was also convicted of an attack on Ujjal Dosanjh who was opposed the Sikh separatist movement.
The fervent support for the Khalistan movement among the Sikh diaspora has been a consistent source of trouble for the Indian government. In 2008, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had raised concerns over an apparent resurgence of the Khalistan movement in Canada. Extremist politics is known to be a part of most Sikh religious celebrations in these countries.
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