Canada-India Drama Peaks Over Sikh Activist Assassination Claims

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The escalating tensions between Canada and India have reached a climax, underscored by diplomatic expulsions and accusations leveled at Indian Government’s alleged participation in the assassination of a Sikh activist on Canadian territory.

At the heart of this bitter dispute lies the Sikh independence, also famously known as the Khalistan movement. The Indian government has, over time, claimed that Canada provides support to this movement, a notion that is prohibited in India but continues to enjoy backing among the worldwide Sikh diaspora.

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Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau took to the Parliament’s floor on a recent Monday to voice what he referred to as legitimate allegations implicating India in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar earlier in June. In response, the Indian Government denied any involvement in Nijjar’s death, further discerning that Canada was attempting to divert attention from the Khalistan activists within their borders.

Venturing into the Khalistan movement, it is paramount to understand that this was initially a campaign for Sikh independence, ultimately escalating into a violent armed insurrection that struck India in the 1970s and 80s. This insurrection was predominant in the northern Punjab state – home to the majority of India’s Sikhs who form about 1.7% of the country’s overall population.

Prolonging for over a decade, the revolt was eventually quelled through an aggressive Indian government crackdown claiming the lives of thousands, including noteworthy Sikh leaders. The revolt also witnessed the targeting of numerous Sikh youth during police crackdowns, many under controversial circumstances and alleged staged shootouts.

A notorious event occurred in 1984 when Indian forces besieged Sikhism’s most sacred place, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in an endeavor to eradicate separatists who had sought refuge inside. The fallout from the operation resulted in approximately 400 casualties according to the official figures, however, Sikh factions claim the death toll was in thousands and included the Sikh militant leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was accused by the Indian government of spearheading the armed rebellion.

This turbulent episode culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had sanctioned the attack on the temple, by her two Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. The tragic event instigated a series of violent anti-Sikh riots across northern India, particularly New Delhi, resulting in countless Sikhs being drawn from their homes and executed.

While there is no active insurgency in Punjab today, the Khalistan movement continues to retain supporters within the state, along with the sizeable Sikh diaspora outside India. Over the years, Indian government has issued repeated warnings of a potential comeback by Sikh separatists.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has amplified its hunt for Sikh separatists, detaining numerous leaders connected to the movement. However, following intense political pressure in response to the controversial agricultural laws in 2020, the Modi government rescinded its stance, overturning the laws.

Earlier this year, a separatist championing Khalistan was detained by Indian authorities and fears of renewed hostility in Punjab started surfacing.

Outside India, the movement continues to receive a fair amount of support. The Indian government has sought legal action against Sikh activists from countries such as Canada, Australia, and the U.K. In particular, concerns have been consistently raised with Canada, home to a substantial Sikh population.

Earlier this year, in an expression of fury against the apprehension of Amritpal Singh, Sikh protestors brought down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London, causing property damage. There was similar backlash at the Indian consulate in San Francisco.

India’s foreign ministry fiercely condemned these incidents and summoned the U.K.’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest against what they labeled as a breach of security at their embassy in London.

The Indian government further pointed the finger at Khalistan supporters in Canada, blaming them for vandalizing Hindu temples with “anti-India” slogans and attacking the Indian High Commission office in Ottawa during a protest held in March.

Adding fuel to the fire, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader heading the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan last year.