After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unprecedented and explosive allegation that the Indian government had a hand in the June killing of Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Canada found itself at the centre of a geopolitical rift that has affected other international players with ties to India.
India has denied Trudeau’s allegations and since branded Canada a “safe haven for terrorists, extremists” and “anti-India activities.” It also accused Nijjar, who actively supported the push for an independent Sikh state in the Punjab region of India called Khalistan, of leading a militant separatist group. His supporters reject this claim.
Meanwhile, Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, are weighing their next moves as the political fallout from Trudeau’s accusation continues.
The history of tensions surrounding the Khalistan movement in India and abroad goes back decades, but experts say Canada is seen as the country where the movement is the strongest, and as a result, has drawn sharp criticisms from India, especially in the face of Trudeau’s allegations that India was involved in Nijjar’s killing.
WATCH | All about the Khalistan movement:
What is Khalistan? A look at the movement for an independent Sikh state
Featured VideoSome Sikhs have historically been seeking an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan. Experts say the history of the movement is complex, emotional and evolving.
No consensus among Sikhs on independence
India raising concerns about what it calls “Sikh extremism” isn’t new, and neither is Canada’s response.
In 2012, India’s foreign minister raised the issue of “the revival of anti-India rhetoric in Canada” with then Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was visiting the country. While Harper said Canada was a supporter of a united India, he refused to silence peaceful pro-Khalistan discourse.
“We can’t interfere with the right of political freedom of expression,” Harper said, noting that the movement was marginal within the Indian diaspora in Canada.
Trudeau echoed Harper’s response when he was questioned about the presence of Sikh Khalistani militants in Canada at the G20 in New Delhi last month.
“We are always there to prevent violence and push back against hatred,” the prime minister said. But he also noted that the actions of a few do not represent the entire Sikh community in Canada.
Canada has the largest Sikh population outside of India, with about 770,000 people, or about 2.1 per cent of the country’s population. In other Five Eyes countries, Sikhs constitute less than one per cent of the population.
While Canada may have a comparatively large Sikh population, there’s no consensus within the community on the need for an independent Sikh state, according to Baljit Nagra, an associate professor of criminology specializing in race relations at the University of Ottawa.
“There is only a small portion of the community that supports Khalistan,” she said.
That support began growing in the 1980s following deadly anti-Sikh riots in India. That helped spur closer connections between the Khalistan movement in India and Canada, according to Satwinder Bains, the director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C.
Bains says Canada’s focus on multiculturalism rather than assimilation has allowed Sikhs who immigrate here to retain their culture and maintain close ties to relatives and political movements back home, even during times of strife and unrest.
WATCH | Canada’s connection to the Khalistan movement
Canada’s connection to the Khalistan movement
Featured VideoThe National breaks down Canada’s connection to the movement calling for an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan and how it contributed to tensions between Canada and India even before Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed. Plus, CBC’s Salimah Shivji explains how the Khalistan movement resonates in India.
In the case of Sikh separatism, that has, at times, included sending money back home to support more militant arms of the Khalistan movement, she says.
Canadian Sikhs are also active in Canadian politics and have promoted their causes on the national political stage. That has sometimes helped elevate certain causes that India would prefer to ignore.
For instance, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh, spent much of his early political career as an MP in Ontario lobbying the province to recognize India’s 1984 anti-Sikh riots as an act of genocide.
A motion condemning the riots as a genocide was passed in Ontario in 2017. In 2018, Singh, who had by then become the federal NDP leader, said the same should be done at the federal level. The federal government has so far not done this.
India concerned about violent symbolism
During a recent visit to Washington, D.C., Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said violent acts by Sikh separatists have been “normalized in Canada in the name of freedom of speech.”
“We don’t think freedom of speech extends to incitement of violence, that’s a misuse of freedom; it’s not a defence of freedom,” he said.
Neilesh Bose, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, says India takes issue with the violent symbolism sometimes displayed by those in the separatist movement. For example, India’s foreign minister criticized Canada over a float in a June parade in Brampton, Ont., that portrayed the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards.
There have also been multiple protests outside Indian consulates in Canada this year that saw demonstrators burn Indian flags and stomp on cardboard cutouts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
”I think the threat posed to India is often exaggerated,” Bose said, “but India holds reasons to view the movement the way it does, especially given the longer history of the Khalistani movement and events such as the Air India bombing of 1985.”
Attempts within the Sikh diaspora to push for independence have been made through more legitimate channels such as referendums.
The pro-Khalistan organization Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which India has designated a terrorist group, has organized multiple unofficial referendums in Canada and other countries asking if an independent Sikh homeland should be created in northern India.
The group says it intends to bring results to the United Nations to garner support for Sikh self-determination.
Though some experts say the referendums won’t ultimately result in any meaningful change, Rupinder K. Liddar, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University in Montreal, says they’re a way to express political opinion and keep those in the Sikh separatist movement engaged.
Having an outlet for such opinions, even if it’s outside India, is seen as particularly important because, as many experts have noted, since Modi became prime minister in 2014, his government has tried to silence political dissent in general.
“There’s finally a place in which they feel safe to express their political opinions, which is not necessarily the case in Punjab,” Liddar said.
Reluctance to upset India
Though Canada’s Five Eyes allies say they’ve urged India to co-operate in the investigation into Nijjar’s death, the allegations come at a sensitive time in the world, when many countries don’t want to risk alienating India.
To that end, all of the other Five Eyes countries have been quicker than Canada to make public statements about keeping anti-Indian sentiments in check.
In July, an attack on the Indian consulate in San Francisco, including an arson attempt, prompted the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans to denounce it as a criminal offence.
In March, the Indian High Commission in London was vandalized by pro-Khalistani demonstrators and the Indian flag was replaced with a Khalistani one.
During his visit to the G20 summit in India last month, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was working closely with the Indian government to tackle “pro-Khalistani extremism.”
To Liddar, such responses demonstrate that Western democracies are wary of damaging their valuable economic and geopolitical relationships with India.
“Part of speaking for or not speaking for this issue is being framed as supporting and not supporting the Indian government,” she said.
The University of Victoria’s Bose says that if Canada can continue its investigation into Nijjar’s killing while also opposing any elements of extremism India sees as a threat, “it would go a long way” to calm India’s fears.
“I think India might change their attitude,” he said.