The continuing diplomatic tension between India and Canada over the killing of a Sikh separatist leader has spurred a fresh wave of resentment among Sikhs in India's Punjab state.
India and Canada are engaged in a diplomatic row after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September claimed that New Delhi was behind the killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Mr Nijjar, 46, a Canadian citizen, was the leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force, one of the Sikh separatist groups fighting for a separate nation for the minority community called Khalistan or the land of ‘pure’ in Arabic.
The row has not just inflamed tensions between the two countries but also ignited resentment among the Sikhs in Punjab, where a decades-long movement for a homeland still finds resonance among the majority community.
Critics who support the cause say that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is playing a “dangerous” game by equating political aspirations of Sikhs with “terrorism”.
New Delhi has often downplayed the existence of the Khalistan movement in Punjab, home to 16 million Sikhs, and has equated several overseas Sikh organisations that support or advocate the movement as “terrorists” and “extremists”.
“They are clubbing Khalistanis with terrorists and gangsters to give a bad name to the movement which is the aspirations of the Sikhs. They are pitting Sikhs against the rest of India which is dangerous for the community and peace,” Kanwarpal Singh, leader of Dal Khalsa, a secessionist group based in Punjab’s Amritsar city, told The National.
For decades, many Sikhs in India and those living abroad have fostered dreams of having a separate homeland called Khalistan carved out of Punjab.
However, their aspirations have always been met with an iron fist approach by consecutive Indian governments.
Punjab – the land of five rivers and one of the most fertile regions, known as India's breadbasket state – also shares a border with Pakistan, India’s arch enemy.
It is strategically important for India and any calls for its separation are seen as an attack on its sovereignty.
‘Khalistan aspirations are alive’
Sikhs say their demand for Khalistan is historic and is part of their religious belief.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak Dev in 15th century Punjab when it was under Muslim Mughal rule.
In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the ninth guru, reformed the religion with a political vision to protect Sikhs and ensure they are never subjugated by others. This idea gave birth to Khalistan, the homeland of Sikhs.
Punjab was one of the largest provinces in British India that stretched from Multan, a city presently in Pakistan, to Delhi.
When India got independence from the British, Punjab was divided and witnessed one of the deadliest spells of violence.
People were suddenly forced to swap their countries overnight on the basis of religion, leaving everything behind amid political upheaval, communal violence and bloodshed.
Punjab was still one of the largest Indian states post-independence, with an area of 370,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Germany, and included the now states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana and certain parts of Delhi.
After partition, a sense of loss among the Indian Sikhs prevailed, as they were culturally and religiously connected with the city of Lahore, that went to Pakistan.
Sikhs launched the Punjabi Suba movement demanding a fundamental constitutional autonomous state within India for Punjabi speaking people. It is defined as the forerunner of the Khalistan movement.
The movement picked up pace in the 1980s. Tens of thousands of civilians, militants and Indian security forces were killed in the conflict.
It declined 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.
The raid resulted in the assassination of Ms Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. As a consequence, anti-Sikh riots broke out across the nation in which more 6,000 Sikhs were killed.
Hundreds of Sikhs fled the nation and settled abroad but still harbour the aspiration for Khalistan.
Back home, it has largely fizzled out but Mr Singh emphasises that it never vanished.
“Aspirations are still alive and kicking and people are democratically expressing it. Golden Temple attack was the ultimate provocation when we decided to not live with India. It was the breaking point between Amritsar and Delhi,” he said.
“With our people who have perished in this movement, it will be dishonesty if we say we will rethink.”
Disconnect with New Delhi
Mr Nijjar’s death has also symbolised a growing disconnect between the Sikh community and Mr Modi’s government that is increasingly pushing the plank of Hindutva – the Hindu hegemony agenda propagated by right-wing ideology.
“They talk about one nation, one language, one culture and now one civil code. Such moves of the Modi government and the rise Hindu of fanatical extremism strengthens us because this justifies our Khalistan demand," Mr Singh said.
“The feeling of oneness has died. We don’t feel connected to the flag, national anthem."
Mr Singh’s views were echoed by the religious leaders of the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the powerful organisation that overseas Sikh temples and is often called a "mini-parliament" of Sikhs.
“They are attacking our religion, our identity…The way they are tarnishing our image is dangerous for the country. Their leaders talk about making this country a Hindu nation and that is not a crime?," Gurcharan Singh Grewal, general secretary of SGPC, told The National.
The leaders say the government is transforming the Sikh secessionist movement into another crisis just like Kashmir – the Muslim majority region fighting a decades-long independence movement, to gain political mileage as elections are drawing closer.
Patriotism plays centre stage in Indian elections and Mr Modi’s government had heavily benefitted from the deadly attack on Indian troops by Pakistan months before elections in 2019.
Sikh separatist leaders say that it is a tactic of the government to portray Sikhs as “terrorists” for political gains.
“They have created an agenda. They are ignoring the role of Sikhs in nation building and creating a conspiracy against us,” Mr Grewal said.
“If they challenge the Sikhs, which is not needed, it will backfire. Governments don’t last forever. Anger and anguish is growing among people.”