Signs posted on the gates of a Sikh temple in the shadow of Toronto’s Pearson Airport declared it a “referendum war zone.”
But inside the gurdwara’s perimeter on Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere was festive. Drums beat and children played as hundreds of people formed a long snaking line toward the temple doors. They were waiting to cast ballots on a provocative question: Do you want the Indian state of Punjab to become an independent country called Khalistan?
Prayer and politics intersect at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha gurdwara, where a parked cube van festooned with signs served as a political bandwagon. From it flew the maple leaf banner, flanked by yellow-and-blue flags with the Sikh symbol and its double-edged sword – Canada and the Khanda, side by side.
“We want to have our own country,” said Paranvir Gill, a 22-year-old standing in the queue.
Wearing a black turban, aviator sunglasses and ripped jeans, he described himself as part of a new generation of Sikh secessionists, members of the diaspora who are looking to return to Punjab, the homeland their parents emigrated from. In India, Sikhs are a religious minority who represent a tiny fraction of the country’s 1.4 billion population. But in the Indian state of Punjab they are a religious majority, and Hinduism is the second most common faith.
“We face a lot of discrimination over there in the Punjab,” he said. “We want to live peacefully where our religion first started … The only way we can do it is if we have our own nation.”
For the past three years, the voting exercise has been a roadshow in Sikh communities. The first ballots were cast in London in October, 2021, then Rome in 2022, and Melbourne early this year. But the greatest response has been in the Greater Toronto Area. Organizers say tens of thousands of people cast ballots during two rounds of voting in the GTA last year, before the third round Sunday. In September, the exercise will be repeated in Surrey, B.C.
This effort is fated to be symbolic. Votes cast by Sikhs living outside India will never persuade that country to part with Punjab. Critics say Canada’s 770,000 Sikhs – the religion’s largest diaspora group – forfeited their right to have a say in Punjab’s future when they moved away from it.
“If people in Quebec wanted to have separation, they wouldn’t go to Russia to have a referendum,” said Shinder Purewal, a professor of political science at B.C.’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University who studies South Asia. He said the Sikh secessionist movement has been fading in India and abroad, but that hard-liners in Western democracies are looking to revitalize it.
While the referendum’s results, which are expected in one to two years, are likely to change nothing, the exercise is having real effects on Canada’s relationship with India, causing frictions that could spread to security and trade relations between Canada and what is now the world’s most populous country.
India is Canada’s largest source country for immigrants and international students, and it is increasing its role as a vital Canadian trade partner. But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government sees the Sikh secessionist dream as a major security threat. It has blacklisted several organizers of the ballot-casting exercise as subversives under its domestic laws, though many are out of reach – including those living in Canada.
For the two countries, these dynamics revive the searing tensions of another time. In 1985, when India was facing armed insurgency by some Sikhs in Punjab, it warned Canada about a cell of Vancouver-based terrorists who were preparing to lash out.
In June, 1985 a suitcase bomb was placed on an Air India passenger jet departing from Canada. The explosion over the Atlantic was a terrorist act of mass murder that killed 329 passengers, most of them Canadian citizens.
A 2010 public inquiry report on the tragedy, by retired Supreme Court justice John Major, blamed Ottawa’s security officials for lacking sufficient urgency in dealing with a threat they did not understand.
“The Air India Flight 182 tragedy was the result of a cascading series of failures,” Mr. Major wrote.
India’s concerns about Sikh secessionists and the Khalistan movement have not abated. In June, Indian Foreign Minster Subrahmanyam Jaishankar warned that New Delhi is very concerned there are “activities which are permitted from Canada which impinge on our sovereignty, territorial integrity, on our security.”
But Canadian politicians say they are not about to clamp down on a voting exercise, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denied India’s allegations that his government is being soft on extremism. “They are wrong,” Mr. Trudeau said early this month. “We have always taken serious action against terrorism … we will also make sure that we are pushing back against violence and extremism in all its forms.”
After Canada’s Khalistan activists circulated flyers that said “Kill India,” Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly issued a statement saying that this was unacceptable. She pledged to protect India’s envoys.
The Khalistan referendum campaign’s rhetoric is often incendiary. A billboard on a Brampton, Ont. roadway promoting the vote used the image of Talwinder Singh Parmar. It showed him surrounded by a stylized Canadian flag and a message urging motorists to “Investigate India’s role” in the 1985 bombing.
What the billboard did not say is that Mr. Parmar, a Canadian resident at the time of the bombing, was pursued by CSIS and the RCMP, who believed him to be the attack’s mastermind. Federal officers bungled a surveillance campaign against him, including by erasing wiretaps of his communications in the lead-up to the bombing. He was killed in India, in 1992.
Today, some members of the local South Asian community say signage featuring Mr. Parmar proves the referendum is revisionism, and not just a benign ballot-casting exercise.
“It’s like putting up Osama bin Laden’s posters all over the city in Brampton and Mississauga and celebrating his life,” said Arvind Mishra. The 35-year-old was among a group of counterprotesters who rallied around the Indian consulate during a recent demonstration by pro-Khalistan protestors.
The standoff between India and Canada over the resurgent Khalistan movement has been building in recent months. India has been calling for Canada to provide heightened security for its diplomats, and has also accused the federal government of pandering for Sikh votes.
“For us, how Canada has dealt with the Khalistani issue has been a long-standing concern. Because very frankly, they seem to be driven by vote-bank politics,” Mr. Jaishankar, the Indian Foreign Minister, said last month.
Canada’s Sikhs are concentrated in Brampton and Surrey, urban municipalities that can be crucial battlegrounds in federal elections.
Surrey is already a flashpoint. Last month, gunshots rang out at the city’s Guru Nanak gurdwara. Temple leader Hardeep Nijjar was killed in his Dodge Ram, and two attackers fled the scene. Police have said nothing of substance about the suspects, their identities or their motives. Nobody has been arrested in connection with the crime.
Mr. Nijjar, a Khalistan referendum organizer, was being sued in a Canadian court over a dispute about equipment used to print Sikh holy books. He had been deemed a terrorism suspect by India years earlier.
Randeep Sarai, the Liberal MP for Surrey Centre, said in an interview that the Sikh community wants answers about Mr. Nijjar’s death. He said he is part of a caucus of about 12 Sikh Liberal MPs who recently met with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino to urge a full investigation by the RCMP.
Mr. Sarai said he will not be voting in the Khalistan referendum exercise, but that people are free to express themselves as they see fit.
“Canada’s position is very clear: We believe in the sovereignty and integrity of the boundaries of India. We are not believers in any separatist state,” Mr. Sarai said.
But he added that India has “a very different way of understanding freedom of expression, democratic principles, free media” and that Sikh Canadians have the right to cast ballots if they want to. “I think quashing a movement is not our responsibility,” Mr. Sarai said.
The revitalization of the Khalistan movement is being spearheaded by a group known as Sikhs for Justice. “We want to use the ballot instead of the bullet,” said the group’s co-founder and legal counsel, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a New York-based lawyer who holds Canadian and American citizenship.
The group, a non-profit, was registered in New York in 2007. It opened its Toronto branch four years later. In the 2010s, the group launched legal actions accusing top Indian political leaders of atrocities against Sikhs. But these lawsuits, which were filed in Canada and the United States, were mostly scuttled by judges for jurisdictional reasons.
In 2019, Sikhs for Justice was deemed a subversive entity under India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. That was shortly after the group announced the Khalistan referendum campaign.
Mr. Pannun, who has also been blacklisted as a terrorism suspect by India, remains a member of the New York bar in good standing. He promotes his cause with attention-grabbing social-media videos. Some show an animated “Khalistan referendum rocket” speeding towards Punjab. Several Sikhs for Justice posts say the group will “balkanize” India through the Khalistan referendum.
Mr. Pannun said more time is needed to collect votes. Eventually, the ballots will be counted and potentially presented to the United Nations for consideration.
“What I see is, with the way we are progressing, and with the roadblocks that India is putting up, it’s going to take us a good year, year and a half to finalize,” he said.
With reports from Nancy MacDonald, Stephanie Chambers and Rick Cash