Pakistani Sikh minority hold placards during a protest against India over Najjar's murder in Canada, in Lahore, Pakistan, 20 September 2023. EFE/EPA/BILAWAL ARBAB

Sikhism, Khalistan: issues at the heart of the India-Canada conflict

By Indira Guerrero

New Delhi, Sept 20 (EFE).- The Sikh religious minority was this week in the middle of the India-Canada diplomatic crisis over the possible involvement of the Indian government in the murder of a Sikh separatist leader.

Tension peaked this week when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government led by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi of having a hand in the death of separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June.

Singh Nijjar, of the Sikh minority, was a promoter of the idea of Khalistan – land of the pure -, an independent homeland for the Sikhs, carved from Indian territory. The movement has been considered “terrorist” by New Delhi.

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion born in India in the 15th century. It is the fifth largest faith in the world, also one of the youngest, with the Guru Granth Sahib as their holy text.

Its founder Guru Nanak Dev was born in Punjab region, divided between India and Pakistan during the partition of the subcontinent after independence from British rule. Punjab is the only Indian territory where currently the Sikhs are majority.

There are about 27 million Sikhs in the world, most of them in India, but they also have a presence in Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

Sikhism practices equality between all races and avoids all forms of discrimination, hence all Sikhs bear the same surname – “Singh” for males and “Kaur” for females – so as to promote equality and dismantle the traditional caste system existing in India.

Men wear a turban in different colors to cover their hair, which is never cut as a sign of respect for what God has given.

The modern idea of the Khalistan movement for an independent Sikh homeland envisions the entire region of Punjab, cradle of Sikhism and home to the largest number of believers of Sikhs.

This separatist movement is only a few decades old, peaking in 1980 with an armed insurgency that left thousands dead in its wake, including India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1984 by his Sikh bodyguards.

Ideologues of Khalistan came to proclaim a government, create passports, stamps and even issue currency in the name of this unrecognized homeland.

After a decade of violence, the insurgency was crushed by the Indian government in ruthless operations. The movement is considered a terrorist, and several organizations with ties to Khalistan movement have been banned.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist government frequently warns of possible attempts to revive the insurgency, and has pursued and detained those posing alleged threats.

Much of this community within India seeks peace and is an integral part of the country just like other communities.

However, part of the minority that left the country during the time of the struggle against insurgency and government persecution continues to be critical of the state and its policies towards the Sikhs.

Earlier this year, the arrest of Amritpal Singh, a separatist leader who had proclaimed his support for Khalistan, sparked protests by thousands of people, for several days in London and several other cities.

The Sikh diaspora in Canada are almost two percent of the population, and there are communities of this minority in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.

The Modi government has on several occasions called on these countries to exercise controls against the Khalistan movement supporters, especially related to protests and public demonstrations.

The lack of response from foreign governments to India’s demands in this regard is seen by the current Indian government as a form of tolerance of anti-India sentiments.

Singh Nijjar was organizing an unofficial “referendum,” according to Indian media, to consult the Sikh community on its support for an independent nation.

The 45-year-old – designated as a terrorist by India three years ago – was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Vancouver on June 18. EFE