India and Canada have been involved in a series of diplomatic expulsions following the killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has claimed that there are credible allegations linking the Indian government of Narendra Modi to Nijjar’s death. The incident occurred on June 18, 2023, outside a Sikh cultural center in Surrey, British Columbia.
The Khalistan movement, which seeks to establish an independent Sikh homeland in Punjab, India, is at the center of this conflict. Punjab is home to approximately 18 million Sikhs, with another 8 million living in other parts of India and overseas, particularly in the UK, US, and Canada.
The idea of an independent Sikh state, known as Khalistan, has existed since pre-partition India when the concept of a separate land for Muslims in India was being discussed. However, the Indian government rejected the idea and incorporated Sikhs into the state of Punjab. Sikhs have persistently advocated for a separate homeland, pointing to their history of having their own kingdom and their contribution to India’s army.
The demand for redrawing Punjab’s boundaries to create a Sikh-majority state was successful in the 1960s, resulting in the creation of Punjabi Suba. However, the desire for an independent Sikh nation resurfaced in the 1980s, leading to a violent uprising between Sikh militants and Indian security forces. The conflict culminated in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Operation Blue Star to retake the Golden Temple from militants. This event further fueled the demand for Khalistan, and Indira Gandhi was assassinated as a result.
The connection between the Khalistan movement and Canada can be traced back to the migration of Sikh activists who fled India in the early 1990s. Canada provided a welcoming environment for these activists, as a large Sikh community existed there. Canada’s Sikh population, constituting 2.1% of the total population, holds significant political influence. While support for Khalistan is illegal in India, Canadian Sikh activists are free to express their views and organize for the cause.
Although the Canadian government assures India that any acts of violence will be punished, they also respect the freedom of speech and the rights of Sikhs in Canada. The Indian government, led by Narendra Modi, is concerned about the revival of the Khalistan movement and aims to suppress it before it gains traction.