Sikh Separatism Is a Nonissue in India, Except as a Political Boogeyman

During his first journey to India as Canada’s prime minister in 2018, Justin Trudeau made a go to to the northern state of Punjab, the place he bought a photograph op in full Punjabi gown on the Golden Temple, the holiest web site of the Sikh faith.

He additionally bought, courtesy of the Indian authorities, an earful of grievances — and a checklist of India’s most-wanted males on Canadian soil.

The killing this summer time of 1 man on that checklist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, has changed into a diplomatic warfare between India and Canada. Mr. Trudeau claimed this month that Indian brokers had orchestrated the assassination inside Canada. India rejected the assertion and accused Canada of ignoring its warnings that Canadian Sikh extremists like Mr. Nijjar had been plotting violence in Punjab in hopes of constructing the state into a separate Sikh nation.

But past the recriminations, a extra complicated story is unfolding in Punjab, analysts, political leaders and residents say. While the Indian authorities asserts that Canada’s lax angle towards extremism amongst its politically influential Sikhs poses a nationwide safety risk inside India, there’s little help in Punjab for a secessionist trigger that peaked in lethal violence many years in the past and was snuffed out.

Violence in Punjab that the federal government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attributes to Sikh separatists is, in truth, largely gang-related, a chaotic mixture of extortion, narcotics trafficking and score-settling. The legal masterminds, typically working from overseas, make the most of financial desperation in a state the place farmers are crushed by rising debt and plenty of youths lack employment or path — issues compounded by a feeling of political alienation in minority Sikh communities.

For Mr. Modi, the pursuit of a small however noisy assemblage of criminals in a faraway nation — India had been pushing for the extradition of 26 earlier than Mr. Nijjar’s demise — and the amplification of the separatist risk present an necessary political narrative forward of a nationwide election early subsequent 12 months.

It furthers his picture as a strongman chief who will go to any extent to guard his nation. It has prompted even a few of his staunchest critics to rally round him in the face of Canada’s accusation. And it affords a recent risk to level to after Mr. Modi capitalized on violent Islamic militancy emanating from Pakistan earlier than the final election, in 2019, to create a political wave.

On Tuesday, the Indian international minister, S. Jaishankar, stated that Canada had seen “a lot of organized crime” associated to “secessionist forces,” whereas including that focused killings had been “not the policy of the Indian government.”

Stoking the specter of Khalistan — the would-be Sikh homeland — as a nationwide concern as soon as once more has pushed India’s 25 million Sikhs into a tough house. Old wounds of prejudice towards them have been reopened, and so they now discover themselves in the center of a diplomatic conflict that separates them from household in the big Sikh diaspora.

For Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., there’s little value in insinuating a safety danger posed by Sikhs, analysts say.

The occasion, whose leaders espouse a nationalist ideology that prioritizes majority Hindus over minority teams like Muslims and Christians, has tried to court docket Sikhs as a constituency, seeing them as a part of the prolonged Hindu household. Mr. Modi himself has typically visited Sikh temples and worn the Sikh turban.

But Sikhs have vehemently opposed that effort, viewing it as an try and erase their distinctive identification — each as a group and as followers of a faith they take into account distinct. Sikhs had been a dominant a part of a farmers’ motion in 2021 that gave Mr. Modi the largest political problem of his decade in energy, forcing him into a uncommon concession, with Parliament repealing legal guidelines meant to open agriculture to market forces.

In Punjab meeting elections final 12 months, the B.J.P. managed to win solely two out of 117 seats.

Whenever Punjabis have felt unheard and indignant in latest years, they’ve voted out their authorities, not pursued separatism. In 2022, that discontent was so widespread that Punjab voted for not one of the outdated events that had beforehand ruled it, together with the pre-eminent Sikh spiritual occasion.

Instead, it voted into energy a comparatively new outfit that was in energy in only one different state, as a result of it promised higher governance — improved faculties and health care.

“There is no Khalistan movement as such,” stated Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor of sociology on the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “But there is a sense that somehow justice is not done to us.”

Khalistan has remained largely a diaspora concern, with proponents of violently pursuing the trigger making up a tiny minority. To the extent that Sikhs in Punjab discuss separatism, it’s in opposition to a nationwide ruling occasion and its sister organizations, some with their very own path of violence, that talk brazenly about their want to show India into a Hindu state.

It was a sentiment expressed earlier this 12 months by a younger man who paraded across the state portraying himself as the brand new prophet of Khalistan, prompting a manhunt and an web shutdown.

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

But Mr. Singh, giving speeches and interviews in which he combined his enchantment for the separatist trigger with social points such as drug rehabilitation, gave voice to a feeling that the B.J.P. has been prejudiced by pursuing and prosecuting Sikhs for doing the identical factor that India’s Hindu proper itself has executed — categorical concepts of non secular nationalism.

“Which mountain has been brought down by merely talking about Sikhs’ rights?” stated Gurdeep Singh, a farmer in Punjab.

The Khalistan separatist motion, which dates in earnest to earlier than the beginning of post-colonial India in 1947, reached a bloody climax in the 1980s, when a group of militants violently took over the Golden Temple to push their trigger. The wave of separatist violence on the time included the bombing of an Air India flight, en path to London from Toronto, that killed greater than 300 folks.

Afterward, as the separatist violence fizzled out, hope for a extra inclusive future for Sikhs took maintain, even with little justice for the widespread violence inflicted by the federal government in the identify of cracking down on extremists. Between 2004 and 2014, India had its first, and solely, Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

But Khalistan remained a preoccupation of some Sikhs in nations like Australia, Britain and the United States. Canada, with greater than 770,000 Sikhs, has the most important Sikh inhabitants outdoors India. Numerous them left India in the course of the separatist violence, or the years instantly after it, carrying wounds that fueled their Khalistani advocacy.

“They don’t even have funds, and they can’t come here because they are banned in India, but they try to provoke people on social media,” stated 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 the chief minister of Punjab in 2018 and gave the most-wanted checklist to Mr. Trudeau, had made the assembly tough earlier than it even started: He had publicly declared a number of of Mr. Trudeau’s cupboard ministers to be Khalistani sympathizers, together with Canada’s first Sikh protection minister, Harjit Sajjan, who was a part of the delegation.

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

Mr. Singh described these on the checklist as “gangsters” and criminals, relatively than fighters carrying the torch of a united ideology. “When they can’t get any money in these countries, they start shouting about Khalistan,” he stated.

Nevertheless, Khalistan has turn out to be extra frequently mentioned in Indian nationwide politics over the previous three years. As Mr. Modi’s lieutenants grew annoyed with the Sikh-led farmer protests in 2021, they typically labeled the protesters as Khalistanis stoked by outdoors forces.

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

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