Advocates for an independent Sikh homeland say they're looking to the future and pushing for a referendum in India within four years, but the Khalistan movement has been hit by a familiar controversy – an alleged link to extremist violence.
Hardeep Nijjar, a B.C. man who has collected signatures to have anti-Sikh violence in India in the 1980s recognized as genocide, was accused in an Indian newspaper report this week of running a "terror camp" east of Vancouver. Mr. Nijjar was also alleged to be the operational head of a group known as the Khalistan Terror Force and said to be linked to a 2007 attack on a cinema that killed six people. He denied wrongdoing and sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in which he said he has never supported violence.
Sikhs for Justice, a non-profit organization with headquarters in Toronto and New York for which Mr. Nijjar has volunteered, rushed to his defence and accused the Indian government of trying to discredit the push for Sikh self-determination.
The incident highlighted the trouble the Khalistan movement has had shedding its violent reputation, particularly in Canada.
Khalistan proponents were linked to extremist violence in the 1980s, most notably the Air India bombings, which killed 329 people on an airliner and two baggage handlers in Tokyo in 1985. During the subsequent trial, the Crown alleged the bombings were carried out in response to the Indian government's raid on the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine, a year earlier.
Since the report involving Mr. Nijjar surfaced, the RCMP has said little about his case specifically, or about the Khalistan movement generally. But a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said the movement appears to have quieted down in recent years and Canadian law-enforcement agencies have shifted resources elsewhere, such as Islamist extremism.
When asked if the Khalistan movement in Canada will ever be able to move beyond its violent past, Jatinder Grewal, the director of international policy for Sikhs for Justice, said he believes so.
"This idea that India can frame this dialogue solely in the aspects of violence and terrorism is false," Mr. Grewal, who lives in Toronto, said in an interview.
"The fact is this is a peaceful movement. We just want to hold a referendum."
Mr. Grewal said Sikhs for Justice, which was founded in 2007, is aiming for a referendum to be held in 2020. He said his organization would like the vote to be open to residents in the northern state of Punjab – which has a Sikh majority and would become an independent state. Mr. Grewal said those who have origins in the state but have since moved elsewhere should also be able to vote.
The High Commission of India in Ottawa did not respond to an interview request.
The RCMP and Public Safety Canada offered similar statements when asked about the Khalistan movement in Canada today. Neither offered specific details, but both said any potential threats are monitored and addressed appropriately.
Phil Gurski, who worked as a strategic analyst in Canadian intelligence for more than 30 years, including 15 years with CSIS, said it's unclear how big of a security threat the movement is at this point.
Mr. Gurski, who left CSIS in 2013 and is now the president of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, said there are undoubtedly fewer law-enforcement resources dedicated to Sikh extremism today than in the past.
"You put your resources where the greatest threat lies and as of today that threat lies with Islamist extremism," he said in an interview. "It's not rocket science that when you're forced to deploy your resources in one direction, you've got to take them from somewhere else."
Shinder Purewal, a political-science professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, said in an interview earlier this week that while the Khalistan movement in Canada has been linked to violence in the past, there have not been such incidents of late.
Ujjal Dosanjh, a former B.C. premier and federal cabinet minister, said in an interview that while Khalistan proponents have said there is no longer a violent presence in Canada, he has always felt there is a "hard-core element." In 1985, Mr. Dosanjh, who had publicly criticized the idea of an independent Sikh homeland, was taken to hospital after he was attacked with an iron bar.
Mr. Grewal stressed the movement in Canada is peaceful but also popular, describing it as "vibrant." He said his organization occasionally holds conferences and can draw more than a thousand people.
He said the movement is growing not only in Canada, but also in the United States, Europe, and Australia.
"One of the reasons why India has become very proactive in trying to discourage people is because of that," he said.