Here in the Western world, when we think of a regional conflict between ethnic and political groups that has lasted since World War II, we tend to think of the Israel-Palestine conflict or the Korean North-South division. However, an equally violent and longstanding issue has been the separation of the British Raj into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. When European colonizers came to India it was a series of disparate states, loosely organized on a continental level. Britain combined the Indian subcontinent into one political state, however, this didn’t solve the various religious, ethnic, and cultural conflicts within the country.
One group that didn’t get their own state, and still want one, are the Sikhs. Sikh independence movements have largely been squashed and covered up by the Indian government. However, the subject recently became an international issue when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that there are strong connections between the Indian government and the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar—a Canadian Sikh independence leader—on Canadian soil.
Sikhism is a religion that originated during the 15th century in the Punjab region of India. Over the centuries, “Sikhs” began to refer to both the religious group and an ethnic group that followed the religion. Starting in the 1700s until the British colonization of India, Sikhs ruled over the Punjab region. Following the decolonization of India and the three state solution, Sikhs were left out of any form of power.
It was during this time that the “Khalistan movement” was born. This movement proposes a new ethno-religious state known as Khalistan that would include part of or the entire Punjab region — Sikhs make up 58% of the Punjab region. This movement has consistently been swept under the rug by the Indian government.
It wasn’t until the 2022 election that there was any Sikh independence representation in the Indian parliament, and that is a singular Member of Parliament (MP) in a 543-seat house where every other party is opposed to the movement.
The largest Sikh population outside of India exists in Canada — making up 2.1% of the total population. Mr. Nijjar moved to Canada from India as a young man and quickly became a community leader both as a Sikh and as a Khalistanist organizer. Mr. Nijjar was accused by the Indian government of “operationalizing, networking, training, and financing” members of the Khalistanist movement. He was also accused of being responsible for various terrorist acts such as a bombing, and a political assassination. However, Nijjar has vowed that he has “never believed in, supported or been involved in any violent activity.”
Since 2016, the Canadian police have said they are aware of India’s accusations but have never charged Mr. Nijjar with any crime. On June 18th, 2023, two masked gunmen shot and killed Mr. Nijjar at night in a parking lot. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told lawmakers on Monday, September 18 that Canadian authorities are investigating “credible allegations” that the Indian government was involved in the killing and discussed the subject with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India has lashed out at Canada in response. This response has involved expelling senior Canadian diplomats, no longer creating new visas to allow Canadians to visit India, and the Indian foreign ministry released a statement, saying, “Such unsubstantiated allegations seem to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
This situation comes at a sensitive time in the international world. The United States has refocused its attention from the Middle East to Asia, especially China. In a repeat of the Cold War strategy of containment, the United States is allying itself with states surrounding China to contain Chinese influence, regardless of how unsavory these states may be. One such state is India whose allyship could be a huge boon to American foreign policy, regardless of how much India’s dedication to democracy is questionable. Having Canada be at odds with a state that we’re courting is no way to move forward with this strategy. This is why many analysts believe that Trudeau will be forced to let this particular issue go, setting a dangerous precedent of what we are willing to accept in the race for allies in this Chinese Cold War.