How Sikh Separatism and Alleged Assassinations Have Strained India-Canada Relations - Seeker's Thoughts

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How Sikh Separatism and Alleged Assassinations Have Strained India-Canada Relations

Sikhs make up approximately two percent of India's population and have a size able diaspora in Canada, the US, and UK. Many Sikhs have become affiliated with separatist groups calling for independence for India such as Khalistan Movement or other initiatives that advocate independence for Sikhs.

Both countries expelled diplomats in September 2023, over what both contend are credible allegations against India related to the killing of Sikh separatist activist in Canada.

India- Canada relations are deteriorating recently due to Khalistanis. 

Who are Khalistanis?

Khalistani movement started when India was divided into India and Pakistan during 1940's by Sikhs as they wanted a seperate state for Sikhs in Punjab. 

This movement reached to its height in the middle of 1980s to 1990's and Sikh militants carried out a violent and decade long separatist insurgency. The following events took place. 

The Bombings on Air India

Loss of 329 lives in a June 1985 plane bombing off Ireland has cast a shadow over relations between India and Canada for decades since. Even though Sikh insurgencies were suppressed during this decade, Indian officials remain wary of any revival of demands for Khalistan, an independent state within India for Punjab's Sikh population. Additionally, small groups within Canada who support separatism often stage protests outside Indian embassies to demonstrate support.

At its height in the early 1980s, as India struggled with violence between Hindu and Sikh factions, the desire for a Khalistan state reached a fever pitch. 

Support for it among Sikhs frustrated with discrimination was strong but violent extremist elements like Bhindranwale Tiger Force and Babbar Khalsa had emerged within it; its proponents believed this movement would convince India that Sikhs did not belong in its national state and that remaining within it would leave them treated as second-class citizens.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was one of the leading advocates of radicalism. As leader of Bhindranwale Tiger Force, he used both religious training and military experience to inspire followers and impose his authority. Notably, in addition to Air India bombing claims Bhindranwale claimed credit for marketplace bombings that killed scores.

Recently, Sikh diaspora activists around the world have reignited their desire for a Khalistan state. Canada, home to 770,000 Sikhs, is particularly vocal on this front. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed deep concern regarding this matter during meetings with leaders from India, Australia and Britain.

He informed his counterparts during these meetings that Canadian intelligence officials were actively pursuing leads linking India with the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, president of a Vancouver-area Sikh temple and leader of Khalistan advocacy group Sikhs of Justice. Nijjar's killing at gunpoint in Surrey, British Columbia earlier this month has put strains on relations between both nations.

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 marked an inflection point in the Khalistan movement. For many Sikhs, her death highlighted India's failure to fully protect minority communities against an increasingly powerful majority population, prompting many to see that Sikhs needed their own sovereign state in order to safeguard their religious and cultural identities and preserve rights as citizens and safeguard rights under India law.

India has been highly vigilant of any attempts at separatism since then, specifically targeting small Sikh communities who support Khalistan movements abroad, particularly Canada where over 770,000 members reside. Such activities are considered national security risks in India and many groups affiliated with it are listed as terrorist organizations under India's Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.

India's fears of separatism revival are compounded by the fact that many of those supporting it belong to the Sikh diaspora in Western countries and therefore have access to political and financial resources there. Recently, Indian authorities arrested multiple members of this diaspora in an effort to dissuade them from supporting movements for an independent homeland.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar's death near Vancouver in June, Canada caused a diplomatic dispute between India and Canada. Nijjar was an outspoken proponent for Sikh independence who long campaigned for their own nation state; following his assassination speculation rose about whether there had been any involvement by an assassination plot, and his father warned that similar rhetoric against India could spark violence against Punjab, its home region for Sikhism.

Indian officials denied allegations that an assassination plot was being planned in Canada, saying such claims are meant to deflect attention away from pro-Khalistan groups that have found shelter there and continue to threaten India's sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

Terry Milewski from CBC made these claims; after reporting this information in 2007 about some members of the diaspora supporting terrorism against their cause for which he was sued by WSO for libel and slander.

The Assassination of Paramjit Singh Panjwar

Although its support in India may be limited, the Khalistani independence movement still finds a following outside the subcontinent - particularly within Canada which boasts the world's largest Sikh diaspora population. 

Khalistan has become an issue of contention between Canada and India, which have witnessed some contentious moments between governments. In April, Indian authorities arrested an individual believed to be reigniting calls for Khalistan and creating fears of violence in Punjab in northern India. 

Pro-India Sikhs protesting his arrest held protests that resulted in them throwing stones at the Indian high commission in London and shattering windows at its consulate in San Francisco, while pro-Khalistan supporters spray painted graffiti onto Hindu temples in Toronto while vandalizing offices belonging to India's high commission in Ottawa.

Conflict between India and Canada has worsened following the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a community leader shot dead outside his gurdwara on June 17 in Toronto's parking lot. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's allegation that there is credible evidence implicating India for Nijjar's killing sent shockwaves through diplomatic circles; India dismissed Trudeau's allegation as absurd while expelling one senior Canadian diplomat.

Nijjar was wanted by India as an individual wanted for fugitive terrorist activity and organizer of an unbinding referendum for Khalistan independence. To express their solidarity, hundreds of Canadian Sikhs protested outside the Indian high commission building in Toronto on Saturday - while smaller counter-demonstrations took place to show support for India.

Panjwar was an integral figure in the Khalistan Combat Federation (KCF) and its predecessor organizations, who took up arms against India during the 1980s to establish an independent state of Khalistan. 

Unfortunately, due to heavy police crackdowns against separatists, factional infighting, and disillusionment among Sikh population; its insurgency eventually subsided as result of factional fights among separatists and disillusionment from within Sikh society itself. Yet Panjwar remains considered an influential leader within KCF and was instrumental in convincing Sikh youth from joining its ranks; known for smuggling drugs through Punjab; his death has raised concerns regarding drug trafficking as well as terrorism among Western European Punjabis communities now scattered all across Western Europe.

The Assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar

Hardeep Singh Nijjar's killing, as a Sikh separatist leader in Canada, dealt a severe blow to Canadian-Indian relations. Nijjar had long advocated for an independent Sikh state outside India through the Khalistan movement which is illegal within India but popular among countries with significant Sikh populations such as Canada. Nijjar was shot outside his gurdwara in Surrey British Columbia and his death provoked protests among Sikh activists across Canada; Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Integrated Homicide Investigation Team suspect two heavyset men wearing face coverings killed Nijjar before fleeing with their getaway vehicles nearby.

Trudeau condemned India for their suspected involvement in the murder and addressed this concern directly with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a G20 meeting earlier this month. Whether Trudeau will be successful in opening dialogue with his administration is yet unknown.

India and Canada found themselves increasingly at odds, so India decided to exppel Canadian diplomats in response. India summoned its ambassador to Canada while expelling a senior Canadian diplomat as further tension between their nations increased.

Regardless of this dispute, Canada remains firm in its policy that does not support individuals or groups seeking to reinstate secessionist sentiment within India. Long a source of friction between India and Canada, Canada being home to one of the world's largest Sikh diaspora communities. Many Sikhs in India support the Khalistan movement, which is illegal under Indian law; thus New Delhi views this support for independence as a threat to national sovereignty. Due to these tensions between India and Canada, both nations have seen increased anti-India protests and temple vandalism - much to Ottawa's dismay as it attempts to strike a balance between local needs and those of its larger partner nation. But recent incidents may signal that that balance may have slipped.

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