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Murder of Pro-Khalistani Leader Fuels Indo-Canadian Tensions

Canadian Pro-Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead in his truck by two masked gunmen outside a gurdwara this summer. While Nijjar's death remains unsolved, Sikh separatist protesters and the Khalistan movement have called for a comprehensive investigation into Indian State involvement. More recently, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau has affirmed these allegations, causing an escalation of tensions between India and Canada. Although prima facie, it appears to be so, it is more or less a blanket that unveils an age-old tension between Sikh separatists and the Indian State.

Historical Background

This particular separatism has its roots in the aftermath of India's independence from British colonial rule in 1947. As part of the partition, the Indian subcontinent was divided along religious lines: India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. Punjab, a region with a significant Sikh population, was divided into two parts, with the western portion going to Pakistan and the eastern portion becoming part of India. 

This division resulted in massive communal violence and displacement, with millions of people killed and uprooted. Thus began the fight for political and cultural autonomy.

The issue further gained momentum when the capital status of Chandigarh was deliberated upon. In 1970, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi agreed that Chandigarh would serve as the exclusive capital of the divided Punjab. However, due to opposition from the Hindu-majority population of Haryana, this agreement never materialised. To appease the Sikh minority, Gandhi appointed Zail Singh, a Sikh, as the Home Minister and later nominated him as India's first Sikh President. Unfortunately, these gestures failed to alleviate tensions.

By the 1980s, the demand of Sikh radicals extended beyond mere provincial autonomy to the pursuit of a separate nation-state known as Khalistan. Despite attempts at negotiation, radical extremists like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale gained momentum in and around Amritsar and eventually seized control of the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple. This period saw a surge in politically motivated killings and acts of terror that affected Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi.

In the midst of a looming election and escalating violence, the Prime Minister launched Operation Bluestar. This military operation saw the Indian security forces storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar to quell the separatist insurgency. Tragically, it resulted in a substantial loss of life and extensive damage to the revered temple.

Yet, the consequences of this action did not remain confined to this isolated incident. Shortly after, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards, igniting four days of widespread riots and violence, primarily targeting Sikhs. Estimates of the death toll during this period vary widely, ranging from approximately 3,000 to as high as 17,000 lives lost.

Sikh Separatism in India

Decades later, the call for an independent State is no longer a primary concern in Punjab. While there is no active uprising, the movement has not fully dissipated.

Indian authorities have banned the movement, designating several groups as "terrorist organisations” under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The government has also arrested dozens of individuals associated with factions linked to the Khalistan movement. Earlier this year, a 30-year-old preacher named Amritpal Singh was arrested. He had gained national attention through his fiery speeches advocating for Khalistan, claiming that he drew inspiration from Bhindranwale, a pioneer for the violent uprising of the movement.

Punjab University Professor of Political Science Ashutosh Kumar, quoted by CNN, stated that Khalistan supporters remain a “fringe," group adding, “The Sikh people living in Punjab know that if the militancy makes a comeback, they will be ones who will suffer.” This could be why the movement has gained traction beyond the geographical borders of India.

Sikh Separatism Outside of India

US-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), branded a terrorist organisation by India, campaigned for an independent state by conducting a referendum amongst diasporas in Australia, the UK, Canada, and the USA.

In Australia, prior to the vote, three Hindu temples around Melbourne were vandalised with pro-Khalistan graffiti and Sikh separatists attacked protesters with sticks while chanting 'death to India'. According to Geo News, over 31,000 Australian Sikhs voted for the referendum.

In the UK, pro-Khalistani activists took the Indian flag down from the Indian High Commission building in London during a protest in March. With New Delhi alleging that the UK had not done enough to curb such extremism, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in conversation with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, raised concerns about “anti-India elements” in the UK and called for action against them.

More recently, an independent review commissioned by the British government stated that a “small, extremely vocal and aggressive minority of British Sikhs, who can be described as pro-Khalistan extremists,” are encouraging an “ethno-nationalist agenda,” They are “known to support and incite violence and intimidation in their ambition to establish an independent state called Khalistan.” 

But the support for the movement lies mostly within Canada, the largest Sikh population outside India, with around 780,000 people

Sikh Separatism in Canada

In March, Canadian media reported that hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Indian consulate, demanding an independent Sikh State.  India summoned Canada's High Commissioner to "convey strong concern" and seek an explanation for how the protestors were allowed to breach the security of India's diplomatic mission and consulates. 

A few months later, in June, a parade was conducted in the Canadian city of Brampton wherein a float depicted the late Indira Gandhi wearing a blood-stained white saree as turban-clad men pointed guns at her. This glorification of the former PM's assassination was indubitably not met with delight. Minister of External Affairs of India S. Jaishankar, told reporters in New Delhi, "I think there is a larger underlying issue about the space which is given to separatists, to extremists, to people who advocate violence." Further lamenting, "I think it is not good for relationships, not good for Canada." Things only escalated from here onwards.

Indo-Canadian Ties

In the recent G20 summit in New Delhi, the two Heads of State knocked horns. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly expressed his discontent over protests against India, with a rather cutthroat statement accusing Canada of "...promoting secessionism and inciting violence against Indian diplomats, damaging diplomatic premises, and threatening the Indian community in Canada along with their places of worship."  

The Canadian Prime Minister, during a press conference, asserted that Canada will always nurture "freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and peaceful protest." He further stated, "At the same time, we are committed to preventing violence and countering hatred." He reiterated that the actions of some individuals "do not represent the entire community or Canada."

While the Indian PM conducted bilateral meetings with all other Heads of State, Trudeau was only granted an informal meeting on the sidelines. Tensions further escalated days after as Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng postponed a trade mission to India planned for October without providing any reason.  The Minister's spokesperson, Shanti Cosentino merely stated, "At this time, we are postponing the upcoming trade mission to India."

Days later, Trudeau delivered the icing on the cake in an emergency statement to the House of Commons, claiming, "Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India" and Nijjar's death. India has dubbed these accusations to be politically motivated and 'absurd', stating that they merely"... seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." Meanwhile, as Nijjar's death remains unsolved, Canadian authorities call for Indian cooperation in the investigations. 

Escalating Tensions

The situation has reached a point of no return, with both States expelling each other's diplomats and India suspending the visa process for Canadians. This will not only impact bilateral trade in goods which reached almost $ 9 billion in 2022 but also the Indian student population of 320,000, constituting about 40 percent of total overseas students in Canada. 

With the implications of the tensions rising, Western allies appear to be walking a fine line by refraining from condemning India without substantial evidence. However, these Western powers are motivated by the self-interest of maintaining ties with India as a strategic trade partner and a vital power in their alliance against China. 


As time ticks, Indo-Canadian relations remain on a precipice, with growing uncertainty surrounding the two nations. The murder of one man has reopened old wounds that may have never healed and left countless lives at stake. While diplomatic channels remain strained, the world watches hoping for a resolution to a conflict rooted in historical grievances and contemporary geopolitics. 

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Tags: #India #Modi #Canada #Sikh #Tensions #Trudeau #Khalistan #Hardeepsinghnijjar


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