The killing of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar and the Prime Minister’s assertion that the Indian government may be to blame have renewed focus on Khalistan, a state proposed by Sikh separatists that fuelled a violent insurgency decades ago and the 1985 Air India bombing.
More recently, Sikh separatists, including Mr. Nijjar, have been orchestrating an unofficial referendum for diaspora in Canada, Europe and Australia to press the case for an independent Khalistan. The issue has long been a source of tension between Canada and India, which has criticized Ottawa for failing to address the issue of “Sikh extremism.”
Here are the key details about Khalistan and Mr. Nijjar’s involvement in the movement.
What is the Khalistan movement?
Khalistan is the idea of an independent state that has long been championed by some Sikhs, including many living within Canada’s 770,000-strong diaspora community.
The separatist movement proposes that such a country could be partitioned from territory comprising the current Indian state of Punjab – a jurisdiction that is nearly 60-per-cent Sikh.
Elsewhere, India is a country dominated by Hindus, who also represent a strong minority in Punjab state.
India condemns the Sikh separatist movement as a threat to its national security. Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for New Delhi’s external affairs department, issued a statement on Tuesday denouncing “Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been provided shelter in Canada” and who “continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
What happened during the insurgency?
A flareup in tensions between the government of India and Sikh separatists in the 1970s and 1980s led to outbreaks of violence.
During the height of the insurgency in 1984, prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered her soldiers to stop Sikh militants by storming the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Militants vowed vengeance for the deadly raid inside the Sikh religion’s highest shrine. Ms. Gandhi was assassinated a few months later by her own bodyguards. News of her killing ignited deadly pogroms directed at Sikhs across all of India.
The violence then spilled beyond India’s borders. In June, 1985, B.C.-based Sikh separatists placed a suitcase bomb aboard an Air India passenger jet that originated in Canada. The bomb exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 people, most of them Canadian citizens, in what remains the worst act of terrorism in this country’s history. Two baggage handlers were also killed when a separate bomb detonated at the airport in Tokyo.
What was the fallout from the Air India disaster?
In a 2010 public-inquiry report, retired Supreme Court justice John Major blamed Canadian security officials for failing to avert a major massacre. “The Air India Flight 182 tragedy was the result of a cascading series of failures,” he wrote, outlining how police and intelligence officers in Canada had been slow to heed warnings and share information.
Reviews of the tragedy found that before the strike, the Indian government relayed to Canada warnings about potential threats to Indian diplomatic missions or Air India aircraft. In Canada, “intelligence officers were aware of the existence of the phenomenon of Sikh extremism” Mr. Major wrote. But he said that federal officers underestimated “the rise in the intensity, fervour and potential danger of this phenomenon.”
Despite years of subsequent investigation, police and prosecutors in Canada failed to bring to justice the masterminds of the Air India bombing. In 2005, two men were acquitted of those charges at trial. Two years earlier, another man pleaded guilty to manslaughter, admitting in court that he supplied bomb materials used in the attack.
Why has Khalistan been in the news recently?
Sikh separatism in Canada had fuelled tensions between Canada and India long before Mr. Nijjar’s June killing.
In June of this year, India’s foreign minister condemned images of a parade in Brampton, Ont., that were reported to portray the 1984 assassination of Ms. Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards. India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar blamed Ottawa’s lax approach to extremism.
Indian officials have been complaining in recent months about a resurgence of pro-Khalistan protests outside of its diplomatic buildings in Canada. In July, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly issued a statement reassuring India that “Canada takes its obligations under the Vienna Conventions regarding the safety of diplomats very seriously.”
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government has been urging Canada to crack down on Sikh separatists. At this month’s G20 meeting, the Indian government said Mr. Modi raised strong concerns about Sikh factions in Canada who are being allowed to promote secessionism.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Mr. Nijjar was the 45-year-old president of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C.
He had arrived in Canada from India in the 1990s and later became a Canadian citizen. In British Columbia, he was known as a plumber as well as a prayer leader and an outspoken advocate of Sikh separatism. He was among those pushing an unofficial referendum among Sikh diaspora in Canada, Europe and Australia to press for an independent Khalistan.
On June 18, Mr. Nijjar was killed when two masked men gunned him down as he sat in a Dodge Ram outside the temple.
In the weeks before his death Mr. Nijjar had already told associates that he had received cryptic warnings from Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers that someone was coming to harm him.
“The coming time is very dangerous,” he had said in Punjabi during a speech he gave to his gurdwara hours before his shooting.
Over the past decade, India’s authorities have aired several allegations against Mr. Nijjar, including that he has ties to violent Khalistani separatists. Police and intelligence agencies in India have posted public notices against him, offering a reward for his arrest.
In 2016, Mr. Nijjar wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying that India’s allegations against him were “fabricated, baseless, fictitious and politically motivated.”
What is the Khalistan referendum?
Mr. Nijjar also had ties to Sikhs for Justice, a group officially blacklisted by India.
Sikhs for Justice was founded by lawyers living in New York and the Toronto area. For the past three years, it has been encouraging members of the global Sikh diaspora community to cast votes in global cities about whether they would like to see the Punjab state become an independent Khalistan.
This summer, thousands of Canadians Sikhs participated by casting ballots at Sikh temples in the Greater Toronto Area and also Surrey.
Critics of the efforts say the attention-getting exercise is symbolic and unlikely to prove persuasive, given all the votes cast so far have occurred outside of India.
“If people in Quebec wanted to have separation, they wouldn’t go to Russia to have a referendum,” says Shinder Purewal, a professor of political science at B.C.’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University. In an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier this year, he said the Sikh secessionist movement has been fading in India but that Sikh separatist hard-liners in Western democracies are looking to revitalize it.
With a report from The Canadian Press