The shocking accusation this week by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that India may have been behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia has raised several complex questions about the nature of Sikh activism in the North American diaspora.
Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside India. There are about 800,000 Sikhs in Canada — roughly 2% of the population. The United States is home to about 500,000 Sikhs. While some Sikhs argue there is widespread support in the diaspora for an independent Sikh state in the subcontinent called Khalistan, others say there is no such consensus.
The debate over support for Khalistan and what activism looks like in the Sikh diaspora has intensified after Trudeau’s accusation that India may have had a hand in the assassination of 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen shot dead outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey on June 18.
That information is based on Canadian intelligence as well intelligence from a major ally, according to a Canadian official who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly. The information is based in part on surveillance of Indian diplomats in Canada.
Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader in British Columbia, was designated a terrorist by India in 2020 for his alleged links to the Khalistan Tiger Force, a group campaigning for independent Khalistan in the Punjab region of India. The active insurgency ended decades ago, but Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s government recently warned that Sikh separatists were trying to stage a comeback and pressed countries like Canada to do more to stop them.
The question of Khalistan or Sikh sovereignty “is not a fringe concept or idea in the community,” said Jaskaran Sandhu, a board member with the World Sikh Organization of Canada, the largest Sikh advocacy organization in that country.
“When you look at Sikh history, it has always been about sovereignty and self-determination,” he said. “Sikh voices calling for an independent state where they can practice their faith freely are getting louder. There is strong support for Khalistan in the diaspora because we have the right to free speech and the right to organize here, while you don’t have that in India.”
India has outlawed the Khalistan movement. Groups associated with it are listed as terrorist organizations under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and are considered a serious security threat by the government. In the U.S. and Canada, Khalistani activism is not illegal and is protected under free speech laws.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel with Sikhs for Justice, has also been listed as a terrorist by the Indian government. The organization was banned by India in 2019.
Pannun has been a leading organizer of the Khalistan Referendum, inviting Sikhs worldwide to vote on whether Punjab should become an independent nation based on religion. Organizers of the nonbinding referendum hope to present the results to the U.N. General Assembly in about two years.
“Sikh sovereignty means having your independent, autonomous state where you have total control of the state’s resources,” Pannun said, adding that Sikhs in India are still forced to live under Hindu laws governing marriage, inheritance and adoption. Pannun faces sedition and a slew of other charges in India and has faced criticism for saying “Indo-Hindus who work against the interests of Canada” should return to India.
Pannun says he worked closely with Nijjar for many years and calls him “one of the dedicated campaigners for Khalistan.”
“He knew his life was in danger,” he said. “We spoke 18 hours before his assassination. But he never took a step back.”
Not all agree that Khalistani activism is on the rise in the diaspora. Amandeep Sandhu, India-based journalist and author of “Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines,” believes it remains a fringe movement. Even if 200,000 people may have shown up to vote at referendums held so far, that number is small compared to the 30 million Sikhs who live in India and around the world, he said.
While Sikhs who migrated to North America, Australia and the United Kingdom may carry inter-generational trauma and memories of a “brutal Indian state,” they have not become engaged in the fight for Khalistan because they are busy building lives for themselves, Sandhu said.
“Life is hard for migrants,” he said. “How much money and resources do you have for Khalistan, a state that remains undefined?”
Neither the Sikh community in India nor the diaspora is monolithic, he said. In India, Sikhs are also among the most patriotic. They are about 2% of India’s population, but form 8% of the nation’s army, and Sikh soldiers are among the nation’s most decorated, Sandhu said.
Rajvinder Singh, a New Delhi store owner, said he believes “Khalistan’s ideology has no place in the minds of the Sikhs.”
“I don’t support Khalistan,” he said. “If some foreigners believe in it, what can we do about it? This is a matter for diplomatic discussions. Both countries should work towards becoming better trade partners and not fight over these issues.”
In the diaspora, it is hard to tell how many actually support state separatism, said Anneeth Kaur Hundle, associate professor of anthropology and a specialist in Sikh studies at the University of California, Irvine.
Hundle said that in addition to the Khalistan issue, a lot of recent activism in the diaspora has focused on gaining more recognition for Sikh suffering linked to events of 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of Sikh shrines, to flush out several key figures in the growing militant Khalistani movement. Months later, following Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, thousands of Sikhs were killed across north India as the violence spread beyond Amritsar.
“While community members are not in agreement when it comes to what autonomy is or looks like, all Sikhs do want to engage in whatever activism they want without being attacked or killed for it,” she said. “Trudeau, with this statement, has stood up for all activists in the diaspora.”
Some say these events are having an impact on the rest of the Indian diaspora and straining relationship with Hindus, who slightly outnumber Sikhs in Canada.
Samir Kalra, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation, said the “resurgence of Khalistani extremism in the diaspora has significantly impacted Indian Americans of all backgrounds and has led to a great deal of fear and insecurity within the community.” He cited “a disturbing trend” of incidents including vandalism at Hindu temples and Mahatma Gandhi statues in Canada and the United States.
“Indian men, women and children have endured intimidation and harassment at India Day festivals in both countries, as well as at a Diwali festival in Canada last year,” said Kalra. He said Indian Americans also have been harassed outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, where “Khalistani extremists have frequently shown up and attempted to break into and set on fire the consulate building.”
Cynthia Mahmood, professor of anthropology at Central College in Iowa and an expert on the Khalistani movement, has talked to militants and written about the concept of violence and nonviolence in Sikhism. She holds that it is different from Western ideas.
“In Sikhism, the question is about the fight for justice,” she said. “Sometimes you have to use violence, and sometimes, nonviolence, for self-defense and to pursue justice. The Western polarity of war and peace doesn’t quite apply in the Sikh context.”
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