The Khalistan Movement and its Impact on India-Canada relationship
Tensions between India and Canada have heightened following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's statement on Monday, where he made mention of "credible allegations" connecting Indian government agents to the June assassination of a Sikh separatist leader advocating for an independent Sikh homeland known as "Khalistan."
What is the Khalistan Movement?
The Khalistan Movement seeks to establish an autonomous Sikh state separated from India. Its origins trace back to the negotiations preceding the partition of the Punjab region between India and Pakistan during their independence in 1947. Sikhism, founded in Punjab in the late 15th century, counts approximately 25 million followers worldwide.
While Sikhs constitute a majority in Punjab's population, they represent a minority within India, making up just two percent of its 1.4 billion population. Sikh separatists advocate for the creation of "Khalistan," meaning "the land of the pure," out of Punjab. The demand for Khalistan has surfaced multiple times, most notably during a significant insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s, which disrupted life in Indian Punjab for over a decade.
How Did India Respond?
The Indian government considers the Khalistan movement a security threat. The most violent incident in the conflict between the government and Sikh separatists occurred in 1984. Then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered the military into the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine, to remove separatist leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his supporters. This action incited outrage among Sikhs worldwide.
A few months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in her New Delhi home. The Indian army conducted operations in 1986 and 1988 to eliminate Sikh militants from Punjab. Sikh militants were also held responsible for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India, resulting in the deaths of all 329 people on board.
The insurgency claimed tens of thousands of lives, and Punjab still bears the scars of that violence. Although the Khalistan movement has lost significant support in India, it retains some backing within sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which hosts the largest Sikh population outside Punjab, as well as in Britain, Australia, and the United States.
Why Is India Concerned Now?
In April of this year, India arrested Amritpal Singh, a self-proclaimed preacher and Sikh separatist, for allegedly reviving calls for Khalistan, raising concerns about renewed violence in Punjab. India also criticized Canada for permitting a float in a parade that depicted the assassination of Indira Gandhi, which was seen as glorifying Sikh separatist violence.
India has expressed displeasure over frequent demonstrations and vandalism purportedly carried out by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in Canada, Britain, the United States, and Australia, and has requested improved security measures from local governments.
How Does It Impact Indian-Canadian Relations?
Indian diplomats in Canada have repeatedly voiced concerns about Ottawa's failure to address "Sikh extremism" and the ongoing harassment of Indian diplomats and officials by Khalistanis, straining foreign relations.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed strong reservations regarding Sikh protests in Canada during a meeting with Trudeau on the sidelines of a G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month. Consequently, Canada has paused discussions on a proposed trade treaty with India, and Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng has postponed a scheduled trade mission to India.