Earlier this week, the government of India advised its Indian nationals in Canada to remain vigilant in the wake of increased sectarian violence in Canada. In a recently issued hate crime advisory by the Ministry of External Affairs, the government of India. it warned its citizens about the growing incidents of anti-Indian activities in Canada and also advised them to seek help through websites like MADAD portal. However, in sheer response, the government of Canada released its India travel advisory, which suggested avoiding travel to areas such as Northeastern India and Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir; signaling a regional threat due to terrorist attacks and insurgency throughout the country. It is noteworthy that these statements came at a critical time, following the rise in activities around Khalistan Referendum that was taking place in Canada.
On September 18th, 2022, in an unparalleled display of power, over 110,000 Canadian Sikhs voted in the Khalistan Referendum in Brampton, Ontario, to demand an independent Khalistan state with Shimla as its capital. The vote began with a special prayer given by religious leader Bhai Daljit Singh Sekhon – a close colleague of Bhai Harjinder Singh Parha, in whose name the polling center was dedicated. It was organized by the pro-Khalistani advocacy group Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) and under the supervision of the Independent Punjab Referendum Commission (PRC). Based in the US, the Sikhs for Justice is an organization that advocates for the separation of Punjab from India in order to establish Khalistan. It was formed by Gurpatwant Singh Pannun who is a lawyer and is the primary leader of the organization. Although in 2019, it was declared an illegal organization in India, the ban came after it began efforts for a 2019 Punjab independence referendum to create a separate Khalistan.
Thus, keeping this in view, India reacted sharply to these phases of the referendum and called it “deeply objectionable and a politically-motivated exercise.” Nonetheless, besides repeated calls from India and diplomatic pressure for strict action against the rising pro-Khalistani sentiment in Canada, the government of Canada remained firm on its stance. Rather, it denied acting against the Khalistan referendum, labeling it as a constitutional and democratic political expression. However, India refuses to accept it as a constitutional right but rather terms it as an extremist move by the Indian Sikh diaspora. In their defense, Mr. Pannun reiterated that SFJ along with other pro-Khalistan organizations bears no links to violence, “We are for ballot, not bullet. India hates our approach to peace.”
Despite all, India’s concerns regarding this whole Sikh separatist movement continue. Nonetheless, this rift in the India-Canada relation following the Khalistan issue is not the first of its kind. In 2018 the two countries experienced a similar diplomatic brush-off during Trudeau’s visit to India. Thus, it is easy to comprehend that the two countries face diplomatic aperture whenever the matter of Khalistan is bought to attention. As part of Canada, they have made it clear to give Sikhs their due right to exercise their freedom for struggle through referendum as Sikhs represent 1.4% of all Canadians. But, for India, it’s a tough row to hoe. The indication of this could be traced back to the 1980s when there was a crackdown against the Sikh community which pushed them to migrate to the UK, Canada, the United States, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Similarly, another major factor that could also be attributed to this continued struggle is the birthplace of this movement i.e., Punjab. Being the bread basket of India, Punjab counts among the wealthiest states and is home to a majority of Sikhs thus, any kind of Sikh uprising in Punjab poses a direct threat to Indian unity.
Thus, to protect its Indian unity, the government of India has reiterated its concerns over the Sikh diaspora activities in Canada but that did not by any chance decreased the Canadian Sikh clout. Rather, an increase in Sikh’s political clout can be seen in Canada. For instance, the house of commons in Canada has in total of 18 Sikh MPAs, which is more than the Lok Sabha itself which accounts for only 13 Sikhs. Similarly, Canada’s support for farmer protests in India also did not come off well diplomatically. It was labeled as ill-informed, unwarranted, and an interference in the affairs of a democratic country. Thus, the growing support for Sikhs pervades Canadian politics and moves beyond borders and a series of such responsive decisions have not won many political friends for Trudeau in India.
Ostensibly, Trudeau is perfectly within his rights to advocate for the democratic rights of citizens around the world and to promote the political cause of the peaceful protest. His engagement and caring for the Sikh population is part of his electorate and ties to India’s Punjab; a logical course of action for any democratic leader. However, the point of reflection is that the foundation of India’s hostility rests in its unfortunate history of Sikh separatism and the perceived assistance that Canadian officials continue to offer to the Khalistan movement signaling that, the latter has been unable to assuage Indian concerns.
To resolve the long-standing stalemate in its relations with Canada, India needs to shift its focus away from politically challenging subjects. It should also keep in mind that historical events affecting the Sikh diaspora in Canada have progressively become part of the country’s political discourse. As a result, it is advantageous to create a new cooperative structure that is more pragmatic and focuses on mutually beneficial sectors where opportunities exist and much work remains to be done.
Both countries must view each other through a broader lens than the Sikh diaspora; otherwise, the relationship will struggle to transcend the Khalistan issue because India has deeply in-rooted memories of Khalistan separatism, and those recollections continue to shape its perceptions of Canadian politics. Despite their chequered history, it is pertinent for both countries to resort to mutual consensus and direct their focus toward an economic partnership as India still remains a sustainable option for Canada for a robust economic partnership.
Laraib Farhat is a Researcher associated with the South Asian Desk in a think-tank based in Islamabad.