After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explosive and unprecedented accusation After the Indian government had a hand in the June murder of Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Canada found itself at the center of a geopolitical divide that has affected other international actors with ties to India.
India has denied Trudeau’s accusations and has since canada brand a “safe haven for terrorists, extremists” and “anti-India activities”. He also accused Nijjar, who actively supported the push for an independent Sikh state in India’s Punjab region called Khalistan, of leading a militant separatist group. His supporters reject this claim.
Meanwhile, Canada’s allies in the Five Eyes Intelligence Sharing Networkincluding the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, are weighing their next steps as the political fallout from Trudeau’s impeachment continues.
The history of tensions around the Khalistan movement in India and abroad goes back decades, but experts say Canada is seen as the country where the movement is strongest and, as a result, has drawn heavy criticism from the India, especially in the face of Trudeau’s decision. accusations that India was involved in Nijjar’s murder.
There is no consensus among Sikhs on independence
India’s concern about what it calls “Sikh extremism” is not new, nor is Canada’s response.
In 2012, India’s foreign minister raised the issue of “resurgence of anti-India rhetoric in Canada” to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was visiting the country. While Harper said Canada was a supporter of a united Indiarefused to silence peaceful pro-Khalistan speech.
“We cannot interfere with the right to freedom of political expression,” Harper said, noting that the movement was marginal within the Indian diaspora in Canada.
Trudeau echoed Harper’s response when asked about the presence of Khalistani Sikh militants in Canada at the G20 in New Delhi last month.
“We are always there to prevent violence and confront hatred,” the prime minister said. But he also noted that the actions of a few do not represent the entire Sikh community in Canada.
Canada has the largest Sikh population outside India, with around 770,000 people, or about 2.1 percent of the country’s population. In other Five Eyes countries, Sikhs make up less than one percent of the population.
While Canada may have a comparatively large Sikh population, there is no consensus within the community on the need for an independent Sikh state, according to Baljit Nagra, an associate professor of criminology specializing in race relations at the University of Ottawa.
“There is only a small portion of the community that supports Khalistan,” he said.
That support began to grow in the 1980s after Deadly anti-Sikh riots in India. That helped spur closer connections between the Khalistan movement in India and Canada, according to Satwinder Bains, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia.
Bains says Canada’s focus on multiculturalism rather than assimilation has allowed Sikhs who immigrate here to retain their culture and maintain close ties to family and political movements at home, even in times of conflict and unrest.
In the case of Sikh separatism, that has sometimes included sending money home to support more militant arms of the Khalistan movement, he says.
Canadian Sikhs are also active in Canadian politics and have promoted their causes on the national political stage. At times, this has helped highlight certain causes that India would prefer to ignore.
For example, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh, spent much of his early political career as an MP in Ontario pressuring the province to recognize the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India as an act of genocide. .
A motion was tabled condemning the riots as genocide. approved in Ontario in 2017. In 2018, Singh, who by then had become the federal leader of the NDP, said the same It should be done at the federal level. The federal government so far has not done so.
India concerned about violent symbolism
During a recent visit to Washington, DC, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said that violent acts by Sikh separatists have been “normalized in Canada in the name of freedom of expression.”
“We do not believe that freedom of expression extends to incitement to violence, that is a misuse of freedom; it is not a defense of freedom,” he said.
Neilesh Bose, associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, says India takes issue with the violent symbolism sometimes displayed by those in the separatist movement. For example, India’s foreign minister criticized Canada for a float in a June parade in Brampton, Ontario, which depicted the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of her two Sikh bodyguards.
There have also been multiple protests outside Indian consulates in Canada this year in which protesters burned Indian flags and trampled cardboard cutouts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I think the threat it poses to India is often exaggerated,” Bose said, “but India has reasons to view the movement as it does, especially given the long history of the Khalistani movement and events like the 1985 Air India bombing“.
Attempts within the Sikh diaspora to push for independence have been through more legitimate channels, such as referendums.
The pro-Khalistan organization Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which India has designated a terrorist group, has organized multiple unofficial referendums in Canada and other countries asking whether an independent Sikh homeland should be created in northern India.
The group says it intends to take results to the United Nations to gain support for Sikh self-determination.
Although some experts say referendums will not ultimately result in any significant change, Rupinder K. Liddar, a doctoral candidate in political science at McGill University in Montreal, says they are a way to express political opinion and keep separatists away. Sikhs. committed movement.
Having an outlet for such opinions, even if it is outside India, is considered particularly important because, As many experts have pointed outSince Modi became prime minister in 2014, his government has tried to silence political dissent in general.
“There is finally a place where they feel safe to express their political opinions, which is not necessarily the case in Punjab,” Liddar said.
Reluctance to upset India
Although Canada’s Five Eyes allies say they have urged India to cooperate in the investigation into Nijjar’s death, the accusations come at a delicate time in the world, when many countries I don’t want to risk alienating India..
To that end, all the other Five Eyes countries have been quicker than Canada to make public statements about keeping anti-Indian sentiments in check.
In July, a Attack on the Indian consulate in San Francisco.including an attempted arson, led the Congressional Caucus on India and American Indians to denounce it as a criminal offense.
In March, the Indian High Commission in London was vandalized by pro-Khalistani protesters and the Indian flag was replaced by a Khalistani one.
During his visit to the G20 summit in India last month, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he was working closely with the Indian government to tackle “pro-Khalistani extremism”.
For Liddar, such responses demonstrate that Western democracies fear damaging their valued economic and geopolitical relations with India.
“Part of speaking or not speaking on this issue is framed as supporting or not supporting the Indian government,” he said.
Bose, of the University of Victoria, says that if Canada can continue its investigation into Nijjar’s murder while also opposing any elements of extremism that India sees as a threat, “it would go a long way” in calming India’s fears.
“I think India could change its attitude,” he said.