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

During his first trip to India as Canada’s prime minister in 2018, Justin Trudeau made a visit to the northern state of Punjab, where he got a photo op in full Punjabi dress at the Golden Temple, the holiest site of the Sikh religion.

He also got, courtesy of the Indian government, an earful of grievances — and a list of India’s most-wanted men on Canadian soil.

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

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and his family in Punjabi attire during their 2018 visit to India.Credit…Public Relations Office Govt. of Punjab, via Associated Press

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

Violence in Punjab that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attributes to Sikh separatists is, in fact, mostly gang-related, a chaotic mix of extortion, narcotics trafficking and score-settling. The criminal masterminds, often operating from abroad, take advantage of economic desperation in a state where farmers are crushed by rising debt and many youths lack employment or direction — problems compounded by a feeling of political alienation in minority Sikh communities.

For Mr. Modi, the pursuit of a small but noisy assemblage of criminals in a faraway country — India had been pushing for the extradition of 26 before Mr. Nijjar’s death — and the amplification of the separatist threat provide an important political narrative ahead of a national election early next year.

Billboards in the Jalandhar district of Punjab advertising study abroad programs that provide visas.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

It furthers his image as a strongman leader who will go to any extent to protect his nation. It has prompted even some of his staunchest critics to rally around him in the face of Canada’s accusation. And it offers a fresh threat to point to after Mr. Modi capitalized on violent Islamic militancy emanating from Pakistan before the last election, in 2019, to create a political wave.

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

Stoking the threat of Khalistan — the would-be Sikh homeland — as a national issue once again has pushed India’s 25 million Sikhs into a difficult space. Old wounds of prejudice against them have been reopened, and they now find themselves in the middle of a diplomatic clash that separates them from family in the large Sikh diaspora.

For Mr. Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., there is little cost in insinuating a security risk posed by Sikhs, analysts say.

The party, whose leaders espouse a nationalist ideology that prioritizes majority Hindus over minority groups like Muslims and Christians, has tried to court Sikhs as a constituency, seeing them as part of the extended Hindu family. Mr. Modi himself has often visited Sikh temples and worn the Sikh turban.

But Sikhs have vehemently opposed that effort, viewing it as an attempt to erase their unique identity — both as a community and as followers of a religion they consider distinct. Sikhs were a dominant part of a farmers’ movement in 2021 that gave Mr. Modi the biggest political challenge of his decade in power, forcing him into a rare concession, with Parliament repealing laws intended to open agriculture to market forces.

Sikh farmers were part of a movement in 2021 that posed a huge challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

In Punjab assembly elections last year, the B.J.P. managed to win only two out of 117 seats.

Whenever Punjabis have felt unheard and angry in recent years, they have voted out their government, not pursued separatism. In 2022, that discontent was so widespread that Punjab voted for none of the old parties that had previously governed it, including the pre-eminent Sikh religious party.

Instead, it voted into power a relatively new outfit that was in power in just one other state, because it promised better governance — improved schools and health care.

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

People attending a rally this month demanding pensions and inclusion in the regular work force in Jalandhar.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Khalistan has remained largely a diaspora issue, with proponents of violently pursuing the cause making up a tiny minority. To the extent that Sikhs in Punjab talk about separatism, it is in opposition to a national ruling party and its sister organizations, some with their own trail of violence, that speak openly about 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 portraying himself as the new prophet of Khalistan, prompting a manhunt and an internet 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 of their detained accomplices, put a quiet end to his saga.

But Mr. Singh, giving speeches and interviews in which he mixed his appeal for the separatist cause with social issues 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 same thing that India’s Hindu right itself has done — express ideas of religious nationalism.

The Sikh separatist Amritpal Singh, in yellow turban, with his supporters in the village of Jallupur Khera, near Amritsar, in January.Credit…Prabhjot Gill/Associated Press

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

The Khalistan separatist movement, which dates in earnest to before the birth 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 cause. The wave of separatist violence at the time included the bombing of an Air India flight, en route to London from Toronto, that killed more than 300 people.

Afterward, as the separatist violence fizzled out, hope for a more inclusive future for Sikhs took hold, even with little justice for the 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 preoccupation of some Sikhs in countries like Australia, Britain and the United States. Canada, with more than 770,000 Sikhs, has the largest Sikh population outside India. A large number of them left India during the separatist violence, or the years immediately 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,” 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.”

Paramjit Singh, left, Gurdeep Singh, second from left, and Kamaljit Singh, fourth from left, in Chaheru village this month on the outskirts of Jalandhar.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

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

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

Mr. 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 any money in these countries, they start shouting about Khalistan,” he said.

Nevertheless, Khalistan has become more frequently discussed in Indian national politics over the past three years. As Mr. Modi’s lieutenants grew frustrated with the Sikh-led farmer protests in 2021, they often labeled the protesters as Khalistanis stoked by outside forces.

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

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