Sikh groups in Canada, the US and UK openly support a separate Sikh nation, and Indian security agencies believe they are trying to revive militancy in Punjab.
Chandigarh: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on his first visit to India this weekend, is expected to pay obeisance at the Golden Temple in Amritsar on 21 February. The Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), which manages this holiest of Sikh shrines, is all set to lay the red carpet for him, for in Sikhism, the house of the Guru is open to all.
But the irony of his visit to the Golden Temple will hardly be lost on anyone, least of all on the Indian government and consular officials accompanying Trudeau, considering that last month they were banned from entering gurudwaras in Canada. Some local gurudwara committees decided they needed to “protect” their followers from the “interference” of Indian government officials.
The ban was infectious. A fortnight later, a host of gurudwara bodies echoed the ban in the US, and now the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) is trying its best to invoke a similar embargo in Britain and Europe.
On 16 February, a gurdwara reportedly dedicated to the ‘martyrdom’ of Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was opened to the public at his ancestral village in Moga district.
Propping up a dead cause
What the immediate trigger for this mass ban was is not clear, but it is obvious that a section of the Sikh diaspora is at war with the Indian nation. They openly support the creation of a separate Sikh nation – Khalistan – and are wary of Indian security agencies. These, in turn, believe the diaspora is trying to destabilise Punjab, fanning emotions and propping up a dead cause in a bid to revive militancy in the state.
In the past decade, there have been several attempts to subvert peace in the state, and investigative agencies have found direct links to former Sikh militants living abroad, who find it easy to recruit sympathisers from the local community to carry out their operations on the ground.
The Khalistani movement abroad has, however, seen a recent surge with the vote-rich and vocal Sikh community becoming politically significant. Sikh news channels, websites and social media ventures being run by sympathisers of the Khalistani cause have fuelled the fire.
In April last year, Trudeau addressed a parade for ‘Khalsa Day’ in Toronto, an occasion where Sikh militants were glorified by the organisers. The move invited an immediate disapproval from the Indian side.
“Espousing the Sikh cause is a big money spinner in these countries. It is an issue which tugs at the heart strings and also purse strings of Sikhs settled there,” said a top intelligence officer in Punjab.
“Many gurudwaras are controlled by hardliners and the income is in millions. Also most of the Sikh migration to these countries happened in the 1970s and 1980s and those who left Punjab at the peak of militancy continue to believe that the situation here is the same.”
Trudeau’s cabinet to blame?
Trudeau’s Sikh minister Amarjeet Sohi was arrested in 1988 under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (known as TADA) and remained in jail for over 21 months in India before being released for lack of evidence.
Canadian defence minister Harjit Sajjan’s parents are believed to be closely associated with the World Sikh Organisation, a Sikh advocacy group which supports the Khalistani movement.
In a statement issued later, both ministers denied that they neither “sympathise with nor espouse the Sikh nationalist movement, which is bent on creating a separate country called Khalistan in India’s Punjab region”.
Last year, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh refused to meet Sajjan when he visited Punjab in April, and has been exhorting the Canadian government to come clean on the issue of supporting Khalistanis.
“Captain Amarinder has sought a one-to-one meeting with Trudeau during his visit to Punjab to underline his concerns,” said Raveen Thukral, the CM’s media adviser.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi too is said to have taken up the matter of Khalistani movements playing out on Canadian soil with Trudeau, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meet in Davos last month.
Expanding to the UK
The SFUK, which claims to be “the first ever Sikh political party in UK”, spearheaded a viral social media campaign to save 30-year-old British Sikh national Jagtar Singh Johal alias Jaggi, arrested by the Punjab police in November.
Jaggi was arrested for allegedly furthering the cause of Sikh militants that is suspected to have led to seven murders, including those of Hindu Right-wing leaders in Punjab in the past two years. According to the police, he was a crucial link between Sikh militants living in Britain, Germany, Canada and Pakistan, and their men in Punjab.
Created in 2003, the SFUK is suspected to be the successor to the separatist outfit Indian Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF) created in 1984. It was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in 2001 by London. In March 2016, Britain lifted the ban on ISYF following intense pressure from the SFUK. Sikh MPs Preet Gill and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who were supported by the federation during their elections in June, were among the first to ask the British High Commission to intervene in the Jaggi issue. New Delhi has recently asked London to consider banning SFUK.
The situation in the US
Last week, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a rights group based in the US, “invited” gangsters operating in Punjab to fight for the Sikh cause. The SFJ’s legal adviser Gurpatwant Singh Pannun put out a video message, saying gangsters should not waste their lives. “Instead, work for the Khalsa panth and your name will be written in golden letters and remembered for centuries,” he said.
The SFJ is known for litigating and protesting against Indian political leaders while they are visiting the US, including Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, and Parkash Singh Badal. The SFJ website is blocked in the Indian subcontinent. Pannun faces a sedition case in Punjab for launching ‘Referendum 2020’ to generate consensus in favour of Khalistan, and move the case to the United Nations.
The SFJ recently even claimed credit for forcing Amarinder to cancel his trip to Harvard University, following its announcement that it would protest against him.
No one contests these groups
Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, said the reason that these groups continued with their propaganda and mobilisation was because no one was contesting their ideology.
“We do not expose them. We allow them to incite and spread falsehoods, and intervene only when it takes the shape of a physical criminal activity,” Sahni said.
“A sustained information campaign of perception management generated from a relatively safer environment like India needs to begin. The moderate Sikhs abroad who counter them are silenced through violence or intimidation.”
This article was originally published on 7 February.