Sikh separatism is not a problem in India except as a political boogeyman | ET REALITY


During his first trip to India as Prime Minister of Canada in 2018, Justin Trudeau paid a visit to the northern state of Punjab, where he posed for a photo in full Punjabi attire at the Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion.

He also received, courtesy of the Indian government, a slew of complaints and a list of India’s most wanted men on Canadian soil.

The murder this summer of a man on that list, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, has turned into a diplomatic war between India and Canada. Trudeau claimed this month that Indian agents had orchestrated the murder inside Canada. India rejected the claim and accused Canada of ignoring its warnings that Canadian Sikh extremists like Nijjar were plotting violence in Punjab in hopes of turning the state into a separate Sikh nation.

But beyond the recriminations, a more complex story is unfolding in Punjab, analysts, political leaders and residents say. While the Indian government claims that Canada’s lax attitude toward extremism among its politically influential Sikhs poses a threat to national security within India, there is little support in Punjab for a secessionist cause that peaked in deadly violence ago. decades and was extinct.

The violence in Punjab that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government attributes to Sikh separatists is, in fact, mainly gang-related, a chaotic mix of extortion, narcotics trafficking and score-settling. Criminal masterminds, often operating from abroad, are taking advantage of economic desperation in a state where farmers are crushed by mounting debt and many young people lack jobs or direction, problems compounded by a feeling of helplessness. political alienation in minority Sikh communities.

For Modi, the pursuit of a small but vocal group of criminals in a distant country (India had been pushing for the extradition of 26 people before Nijjar’s death) and the amplification of the separatist threat provide an important political narrative ahead of a national elections early next year.

It furthers his image as a strongman leader who will do whatever he can to protect his nation. This has led even some of his staunchest critics to join him in confronting Canada’s accusation. And it offers a new threat to point out after Modi capitalized on the violent Islamic militancy emanating from Pakistan before the last election, in 2019, to create a political wave.

On Tuesday, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said Canada had seen “a lot of organized crime” linked to “secessionist forces,” while adding that targeted killings “were not the policy of the Indian government.”

Raising the threat of Khalistan – the future Sikh homeland – as a national issue has once again thrust India’s 25 million Sikhs into a difficult situation. Old wounds of prejudice against them have been reopened and they now find themselves in the midst of a diplomatic clash that separates them from their family in the large Sikh diaspora.

It costs little for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to hint at a security risk posed by Sikhs, analysts say.

The party, whose leaders embrace a nationalist ideology that prioritizes the Hindu majority over minority groups such as Muslims and Christians, has tried to court Sikhs as an electorate, viewing them as part of the extended Hindu family. Modi himself has frequently visited Sikh temples and worn the Sikh turban.

But Sikhs have vehemently opposed that effort, seeing it as an attempt to erase their unique identity, both as a community and followers of a religion they consider distinct. Sikhs were a dominant part of a farmers’ movement in 2021 that posed Modi’s biggest political challenge of his decade in power, forcing him to make a rare concession: Parliament repealed laws aimed at opening agriculture to market forces.

In last year’s Punjab assembly elections, the BJP managed to win only two of 117 seats.

Whenever Punjabis have felt angry and unheard in recent years, they have voted to overthrow their government, they have not pursued separatism. By 2022, that discontent was so widespread that Punjab did not vote for any of the old parties that had previously ruled it, including the preeminent religious Sikh party.

Instead, he voted into power a relatively new group that was in power in only one other state, because it promised better governance: better schools and health care.

“There is no Khalistan movement as such,” said Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “But there is a feeling that somehow we are not getting justice.”

Khalistan has largely remained a diaspora issue, with supporters of violently persecuting the cause making up a small minority. To the extent that Sikhs in Punjab speak of separatism, they do so in opposition to a national ruling party and its sister organisations, some with their own track of violence, which speak openly of their desire to turn India into a Hindu state. .

It was a sentiment expressed earlier this year by a young man who paraded around the state presenting himself as Khalistan’s new prophet, prompting a persecution and an internet shutdown.

The rise of 30-year-old preacher Amritpal Singh was mysterious. His arrest in a cat-and-mouse chase this spring, after his supporters became so emboldened that they attacked a police station to free one of his detained accomplices, put a quiet end to his saga.

But Singh, giving speeches and interviews in which he mixed his call for the separatist cause with social issues such as drug rehabilitation, expressed the feeling that the BJP has been harmed by persecuting and prosecuting Sikhs for doing the same as the Indians. The Hindu right itself has done it: express ideas of religious nationalism.

“What mountain has been toppled by simply talking about Sikh rights?” said Gurdeep Singh, a farmer from Punjab.

The Khalistan separatist movement, which dates back in earnest to before the birth of postcolonial India in 1947, reached a bloody climax in the 1980s, when a group of militants violently took over the Golden Temple to further their cause. The wave of separatist violence at the time included the bombing of an Air India flight, en route to London from Toronto, which killed more than 300 people.

Later, as separatist violence vanished, hope for a more inclusive future for Sikhs took hold, even with little justice for widespread violence inflicted by the government in the name of cracking down on extremists. Between 2004 and 2014, India had its first and only Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

But Khalistan remained a concern for some Sikhs in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States. Canada, with more than 770,000 Sikhs, has the largest Sikh population outside of India. Large numbers of them left India during the separatist violence, or the years immediately following, carrying wounds that fueled their defense of Khalistani.

“They don’t even have funds and they can’t come here because they are banned in India, but they are trying to provoke people on social media,” said Paramjit Singh, 45, a truck driver who lives on the outskirts of Jalandhar. , in northern Punjab. “They don’t let people eat in peace.”

Amarinder Singh, who was Punjab’s premier in 2018 and gave the most wanted list to Trudeau, had made the meeting difficult before it even began: He had publicly declared that several of Trudeau’s cabinet ministers were Khalistani supporters. , including Canada’s first Sikh defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, who was part of the delegation.

“I gave him a list of 10, 12 names,” Singh said of Trudeau. “I told him these are the people who are creating mischief.”

Singh described those on the list as “gangsters” and criminals, rather than fighters carrying the torch of a united ideology. “When they can’t get money in these countries, they start shouting about Khalistan,” he said.

However, in the last three years there has been increasing talk of Khalistan in Indian national politics. As Modi’s lieutenants grew frustrated with the Sikh-led farmer protests in 2021, they often labeled protesters as Khalistanis fanned by outside forces.

“Mr. Modi is playing this politics for votes,” said Kamaljit Singh, a farmer on the outskirts of Jalandhar who participated in the protests. “We are caught in the middle.”

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