What is the Khalistan Movement at the centre of tensions between India and Canada?

The nations have frosty ties over New Delhi’s claims that Ottawa gives shelter to Sikh separatists

Canadian pro-Khalistan Sikhs in Ontario protested against the Indian government and called for a separate Sikh state on May 6, 2012. Getty Images
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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim that New Delhi was behind the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar has put the spotlight on the Khalistan Movement.

Mr Nijjar, 46, was the leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force, a group designated as a “terrorist” organisation by India in 2020.

He was shot dead in his vehicle outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, in June.

Mr Trudeau told the Canadian Parliament on Monday that there were “potential links between agents of the Indian government” and Mr Nijjar’s killing.

New Delhi on Wednesday issued an advisory for its citizens in Canada

The allegations have inflamed tensions between the two countries that already have frosty ties over New Delhi’s claims that Canada gives shelter to Sikh separatists fighting to create a homeland.

What is the Khalistan movement?

Dating back to India's independence in 1947, the Khalistan movement is a secessionist group in the northern state of Punjab where some of the Sikhs sought the creation of a homeland called Khalistan.

The Khalistan insurgency peaked in the early 1980s only to decline in a decade after then-prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid to capture armed separatists taking refuge in Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.

Tens of thousands of civilians, militants and Indian security forces were killed in the conflict.

The idea of a separate land for Sikhs formed in the aftermath of the partition of the country into India and Pakistan, following independence from Britain.

Punjab, the home state of Sikhs, was one of the worst affected by the partition, which led to a sense of loss among the Indian Sikhs who were culturally and religiously connected with the city of Lahore that went to Pakistan.

Punjab is a deeply religious state with almost 60 per cent of its 27 million population belonging to the Sikh community.

Peaked in 1980s

The movement picked up pace in the 1980s and 1990s after Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh preacher, supported the idea of separate land for Sikhs and led an armed movement for Khalistan against New Delhi.

The movement was met with an iron fist counterinsurgency, resulting in the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Between June 1-10 in 1984 – at the peak of Sikh insurgency in the state, Mr Bhindranwale along with hundreds of heavily armed Sikh militants sheltered inside the most revered temple of the faith as the Indian Army launched Operation Bluestar.

His men had smuggled arms and ammunition inside the Golden Temple complex for defence.

The gunfight continued for days. Mr Bhindranwale and about 500 Sikh rebels were killed during the operation.

The artillery shelling by the Indian Army, leading to severe damage to the shrine, caused widespread criticism of Ms Gandhi and resentment among the Sikh community.

She was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards shortly after the operation.

Her assassination triggered anti-Sikh riots in the country in which more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in the capital and an estimated 20,000 Sikhs were killed across 40 cities in India.

Bombing of Air India Flight 182

An Air India Flight 182 was bombed off the coast of Ireland killing all 329 passengers, mostly from Toronto and Vancouver and crew members, in 1985.

It was the deadliest case of airborne terrorism before the September 11 attacks.

The Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa was accused of financing the plane bombings in retaliation to Indian government's Operation Bluestar.

Another explosion at Tokyo’s Narita airport on the same day killed two baggage handlers.

Is the Khalistan movement active in India?

While many academics, Sikh religious leaders and former police officers believe that a revival of a widespread movement in Punjab is unlikely, the government says the movement has remained active through sleeper cells.

There have been recent incidents when Sikhs both in India and abroad have called for separation.

Indian police detained 30-year-old Sikh preacher Amritpal Singh who fashioned himself as ‘Bhindranwale 2.0’ in March this year.

Mr Singh was the chief of ‘Waris Punjab De', loosely translated as Sons of Punjab, an organisation that openly spoke of the “genocide” of Sikhs in India in the 1980s and declared that Punjab was facing slavery under India’s “colonial rule”.

The police crackdown triggered protests in cities around the world, such as London, Canberra, San Francisco and British Columbia, where a section of the Punjabi diaspora supported the idea of Khalistan.

A group of pro-Khalistan demonstrators broke down makeshift security barriers raised by police and installed two Khalistan flags inside India's consulate premises in San Francisco.

Similar incidents were also reported from the Indian High Commission in London, where Khalistan sympathisers climbed the mission’s balcony and pulled down the Indian national flag.

Supporters also protested outside the Australian parliament in Canberra against the security crackdown on Mr Singh and his associates in Punjab.

Is the Khalistan movement active overseas?

India has accused secessionist organisations and leaders living abroad – especially in Canada, Australia and the UK – of funding and supporting Punjab's independence movement.

New Delhi had blocked the Twitter accounts of Sikh separatist supporters living abroad, particularly in Canada, for supporting the movement.

The Twitter accounts of Canada’s New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, activist Gurdeep Singh Sahota, and others, were also blocked in India.

Updated: September 20, 2023, 1:40 PM