Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday accused the Indian government of involvement in the murder of Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. He was shot and killed in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. Sikhs make up less than two percent of India’s population but form a majority in northwestern Punjab. Over the past half-century, the fight for the Sikh homeland, often referred to as the Khalistan movement, has occasionally turned violent and been met with equally violent responses from Indian authorities. But an assassination on foreign soil would constitute a serious escalation of operations against Sikh separatists.
India’s foreign ministry denied any involvement in the murder but said Canada’s laissez-faire approach to terrorism would “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Trudeau’s accusations coincide with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to portray India as an increasingly important player on the global stage; in his words, this era marked “the first time the world knew that India could show for itself position”. The accusations also dovetail with the Biden administration’s general willingness to ignore India’s deteriorating human rights record during Modi’s nearly decade-long tenure as prime minister, in part because the United States valued India’s role as a counterweight to China.
To talk about the history of Sikh separatism and the Indian government’s response to it, I recently had a phone call with Gurhapal Singh, professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and author of many books on the Indian subcontinent , which includes “Sikh Nationalism: From Dominant Minority to Ethno-Religious Diaspora.” In our conversation, we discuss why the Indian government is so concerned about Sikh separatism, the role of Sikh political identity in the West development, and whether Western governments are doing enough to protect their citizens.
How did large Sikh communities emerge in countries like Canada?
Sikhs have emigrated in large numbers since the late nineteenth century. As part of the expansion of the British Empire, they were primarily involved in the armed forces and later in the security forces as police officers. So wherever the empire expanded, particularly in the Far East—China, Singapore, Fiji, and Malaysia—and in East Africa, the Sikhs went there. They began arriving in North America, particularly on the Pacific Coast, in 1887, after Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Technically, Imperial citizens had the right to travel and settle throughout the region. Since then, Sikh communities have had important settlements in British Columbia, California, and of course the United Kingdom, where large numbers of Sikhs have permanently settled since the 1820s, and since the Second Since the World Wars, there have been even more.
While Sikhs migrated to different parts of the world, there was a large Sikh community in the Indian state of Punjab, one of the two states that split into two during the partition of India. There was a movement there for some kind of independent Sikh homeland. Can you talk about how the movement started and what role it played in post-partition Indian politics?
At the time of Partition, the Sikh community considered itself very vulnerable. It is a small community in the British state of Punjab, accounting for less than 14% of the total population. The Sikhs tried to come up with various plans to keep the community together and keep Punjab united but unfortunately this did not happen as the British wanted to exit India and Punjab quickly. Thereafter, the states or provinces of India were organized along linguistic lines. The Sikh leadership believed that one way in which the rights and identity of the community could be protected was by campaigning for the establishment of a Punjabi-speaking state. This caused great anguish and resentment among the Punjabi-speaking Hindu community, who chose Hindi as their way of opposing the demand. They believe that Punjabi-speaking countries will largely be Sikh-dominated countries.
After some twenty years of campaigning, the demand was acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, in 1966. Another movement was launched between 1973 and 1984, demanding greater economic and political autonomy for Punjab. Finally, Indian troops entered the Golden Temple in 1984 during Operation Blue Star. It was a painful period, followed by a decade of trouble.
Can you talk more about this incident, followed also by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and more generally about how the push for Sikh autonomy became more violent in some cases?
Between 1980 and 1982, moderate Sikh leaders held lengthy negotiations with Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party in Delhi. But the two sides failed to agree on demands, and militant elements within the Sikh leadership gradually gained the upper hand. More moderate members, leading to polarization between the Indian government and militants. This culminated in Operation Blue Star, an effort to drive Sikh militants out of the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, before Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984 , nearly three thousand Sikhs in Delhi were killed in the ensuing backlash. This led to almost a decade of Sikh militancy and counter-insurgency operations by the Indian Armed Forces, which conservatively estimated killed around thirty thousand people. These events cast a long shadow over the Punjab issue, which has plagued all governments in Delhi ever since.
When did the Indian government become so concerned about Sikhs in foreign soil advocating for Sikh issues in India?
It has been regularly monitoring the activities of Indians abroad. It first specifically began to note the activities of Sikh militants in the early seventies, when the Sikh political leader Jagjit Singh Chohan, commonly known as Father of Khalistan, launched a quixotic movement for the Sikh nation. . More specifically, it was in the early 1980s, from 1980 to 1984, when the Indian government, especially the Congress Party, paid very, very much attention to monitoring the activities of Sikh militants.
Before we started the interview, you mentioned that you were interested in comparing the Sikhs to the Jewish community. what do you mean?
Well, you’ll find that comparison is that the Sikhs are small, they’re religious, and they’re about the same size as the Jewish community. [Worldwide, there are about twenty-five million Sikhs and fifteen million Jews.] They are both a diaspora, a nation and a race, and it can be interpreted this way. They are a complex minority group that is often viewed only from a religious perspective, but viewing them solely as a devoutly religious group ignores the more complex aspects of the group. They fought for their rights to autonomy and self-governance and to secure their identity as a minority in the West. For example, British Sikhs and Jews are the only two communities in England recognized as ethnic groups in legal proceedings following the 1976 Race Relations Act.
How important is the promotion of a Sikh homeland to Sikh identity in the many Western Sikh communities you study?