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A brief history of the Khalistan movement’s emergence in Canada 45 years ago

The fractious relationship between India and Canada, exemplified by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau telling the House of Commons on Monday that agents of the Indian Government may have been linked to the murder of a leading pro-Khalistan figure on June 18, goes back nearly 45 years.

As the Khalistan movement in Punjab gained prominence, many Sikhs sought refugee status in Canada citing political persecution. (Associated Press)
As the Khalistan movement in Punjab gained prominence, many Sikhs sought refugee status in Canada citing political persecution. (Associated Press)

Immigration of Sikhs into Canada started in the first decade of the 20th century. Soldiers in the British Army passing through British Columbia were attracted by the fertile land they saw. By the 1970s, Sikhs were a visible section of Canadian society.

There was scant sentiment regarding a Sikh homeland.

That changed in the 1970s. As India conducted the Pokhran nuclear tests in Rajasthan in May 1974, it left the Canadian Government furious because the CANDU type reactors, provided by Canada for peaceful nuclear energy, had been repurposed for military use. The anger of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the incumbent, caused diplomatic ties to wither.

Unfortunately, that came as the Khalistan movement in Punjab was gaining prominence. With generational ties to Canada, many Sikhs sought refugee status in Canada citing political persecution. Suddenly, there was an influx of Khalistanis into a country that did little to curb their separatism because of the poor relationship.

“Nobody cared about their background, they all got political asylum,” said Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.

Among those who made their base in Canada, was Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered the mastermind of the terrorist bombing of Air India flight 182, the Kanishka. Based in the town of Burnaby in British Columbia, Parmar also headed the Babbar Khalsa International.

Canada also proved a convenient point for Khalistani figures to travel to Pakistan to meet and train with their handlers from Pakistan’s intelligence wing, ISI, as in the case of Parmar.

The doomed aircraft was flying from Montreal to London, when it was blown up by Khalistani terrorists on June 23, 1985. Some of its remnants were strewn over the coast of Ireland’s Cork region, the rest sank into the North Sea. All 307 passengers and 22 crew members on board were killed. It remains the worst episode of terror in Canadian history and is recognised as its National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism.

While Canadian intelligence grasped the potential domestic threat Khalistani elements could pose, there was little political appetite for acknowledging the incident as a Canadian tragedy, something that only happened in the 21st century.

Most among the initial group of Khalistani leaders spoke little English but by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, a sophisticated cohort of English-speaking politicians with pro-Khalistan leanings started emerging within the community. Many were brainwashed children of the refugees of the 1980s.

The Khalistan movement may have died in India in the late 1990s, but it survived in Canada, particularly in some Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gurdwaras controlled by radicals. Even in 2010 when thenmet his counterpart Stephen Harper on the margins of the G20 summit in Toronto, he expressed New Delhi’s frustration over Ottawa allowing the Khalistan issue to simmer.

Also Read: Killed in June, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was one of India’s most wanted terrorists

Meanwhile, groups like Sikhs for Justice leveraged human rights laws and avowed freedom of expression to undertake lawfare against India, including a failed attempt to sabotage Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Canada in 2015.

However, the true rejuvenation occurred after Justin Trudeau swept into power after the 2015 Federal elections in Canada. Pro-Khalistani groups supported the Liberal Party in seat-rich areas in the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver.

Interestingly, there was an attempt to work with the Modi Government, but that expired once New Delhi adopted the tactic of trying to woo prominent Khalistanis away from the movement, as evidenced by Ripudaman Singh Malik, considered a major conspirator in the Air India bombing, though acquitted due to lack of evidence, penning a letter in 2022 praising the Indian Government.

By that summer, he was murdered by two alleged gangsters. The motive for the crime has yet to be revealed by Canadian police.

The Trudeau Government, at least within the senior ranks of its security officials, recognised the Khalistan problem especially after it caused the PM to suffer from a disastrous visit to India in February 2018. Later that year, the 2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada listed Sikh (Khalistani) extremism. It said that the movement was of “concern” and “while their attacks in Canada have been extremely limited, some Canadians continue to support these extremist groups, including through financing.” Within months after an uproar, that term was deleted from the report.

Canada’s openness has also been leveraged by SFJ for its so-called Khalistan Referendum. Originally planned for 2020, the results for the separatist referendum will now only be released in 2025, according to SFJ’s legal counsel Gurpatwant Pannun. In July 2020, in response to queries from the Hindustan Times, Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign ministry, clarified Canada will not recognise the results of the referendum.

However, each time Canada has attempted to renew relations with India, as with its Indo-Pacific Strategy, released in November last year, describing India as a “critical partner”, Khalistani activity has undermined ties. With several Cabinet Ministers making successful visits to India, a potential Early Progress Trade Agreement appearing likely, along with a visit by Trudeau in September, it was hardly surprising that Khalistani groups raised the temperature.

The tableau of the assassination of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in June preceded another phase of the Khalistan Referendum in the Greater Toronto Area, before, the next in Vancouver in September. In between, SFJ’s campaign turned to posters targeting India’s senior-most diplomats in Canada, as it accused them of being behind the assassination of Nijjar, its principal in British Columbia, and head of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the town of Surrey.

That Canada’s PM has validated SFJ’s accusation of India being behind Nijjar’s killing, will embolden such elements. After the expulsion of an Indian diplomat, the secessionist group is already demanding that India’s High Commissioner to Ottawa be expelled.

The outcome of the investigation is awaited as it is now being led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or RCMP. But almost certainly, Trudeau’s statement on Monday could ensure ties are at their worst state in nearly 20 years, and will languish until Federal elections are held in Canada in September 2025.

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