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Some Sikhs in Punjab Worry About Pro-khalistan Sentiments From Abroad

The conversation is rowdy at a home in a small village outside Amritsar, in India’s northern state of Punjab, as paneer tikka and pakoras are passed around to the elders gathered, and it’s dominated by the deepening tensions between India and Canada. 

But every time the word “Khalistan” comes up, it’s dismissed. 

The dream of an independent Sikh homeland in northern India called Khalistan is at the heart of a diplomatic rift between the two countries, with the movement banned in India but enjoying some support in the Sikh diaspora. 

Not so in Punjab, where much of the Sikh population feels as though the push for independence is far from their reality as the state deals with high unemployment and a crippling drug crisis. 

Some Sikhs in the state now fear the increased attention on Khalistan, fuelled by the diaspora community, might make them targets of politicians hoping to stoke divides ahead of India’s general election next year. 

“When extremist [discourse] wins, it’s always the general public that feels like it’s exposed and vulnerable,” said Kulvinder Singh, 58, one of the leaders of Sangna village.

Ramanpreet Kaur, 31, passing around tea to her guests, was also concerned that politicians are too quick to “pour oil on the Khalistan [issue], separating Hindus and Sikhs.”

“It is wrong,” she told CBC News.

The contentious issue has been the prime focus of discussion for many in Punjab, and in the wider media landscape across the South Asian country, since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the government of India of having a hand in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia in June. 

“What does it mean, what is Khalistan, really?” said Sardoor Singh, 78, as he sat with his neighbours and fretted over how the political tensions between his country and Canada would affect the Sikh minority in India. 

“We just believe that Sikhs should get justice.” 

While Singh said he doesn’t believe in the fight for independence, he would like those who committed crimes against Sikhs in the past to be prosecuted. 

That sentiment was echoed by Kaur, his granddaughter. 

“We don’t want Khalistan. We want justice,” said 31-year old Kaur, a lawyer who is pursuing a master’s degree in criminology. 

She said that the people of Punjab don’t want a return to the violence and chaos of the 1980s, when the Khalistan movement was at its height. 

“We just want our state to be peaceful.” 

ted on social media. CBC’s South Asia correspondent Salimah Shivji breaks down why.

Thousands of people were killed when the Indian government initiated a crackdown to stifle the movement for an independent Sikh state, which had grown into an armed and violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s. 

The crisis culminated in 1984, when Indian soldiers stormed the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar, after armed separatists had taken refuge inside. Operation Blue Star killed around 400 people, according to official figures, although Sikh groups believe the number is in the thousands. 

Months later, deadly anti-Sikh riots erupted after the Indian prime minister who ordered the raid on the temple, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. 

Lingering anger

Anger against the Indian government and its actions towards the Sikh minority, which makes up less than two per cent of the country’s population, is still very present on the ground in the state, even decades later, along with the sense that Punjab has been slighted and not given its due.

One of the men at the village table, 65-year old Naseeb Singh Sangna, said he was serving as a police officer in the early 1980s and recalled “the dark days” of the religious riots. 

He told CBC News that those outside Punjab who had not experienced that time could not fully understand how much trouble it caused to hear the word “Khalistan,” even as he also expressed a wish the Indian government would give Punjab more autonomy. 

Still, “we definitely want to stay with India,” Sangna said. 

The worry for many whom CBC spoke to in Punjab is that as the movement for an independent Khalistan garners more attention globally, all Sikhs will be branded as terrorists. 

The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increasingly warned of what it sees as a potential revival of separatist sentiment in Punjab, and that rhetoric has heated up online following the accusations from Canada. 

Worry over rhetoric

The term “Khalistani” was also used by some in Modi’s party, the BJP, in reference to the large-scale farmers’ protests and unrest a few years ago, which eventually resulted in three controversial farm laws being overturned.

“Khalistan is a fantasy, a rhetorical nuisance,” prominent Sikh journalist Hartosh Singh Bal, editor of Caravan Magazine, one of India’s few independent publications, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sept. 22. 

But the heavily charged rhetoric online is a major worry for Kaur. 

“Politicians have a policy to divide and rule,” she said. “They have an election ploy: Let’s talk about Khalistan. Let’s create a mess in the people,” Kaur added, referring to India’s general elections, set to take place by May 2024. 

Kaur also criticized the “people who are talking about Khalistan in Canada,” saying they should come to Punjab and see what the reality is. 

“We are living here peacefully, why are you demanding Khalistan?” she said. 

‘Things have changed a lot’

According to retired political science professor Jagroop Singh Sekhon, a co-author of the book Terrorism in Punjab: Understanding Grassroots Reality, the Khalistan movement in Punjab “abruptly came to an end in 1992 or 1993.” 

But even though support among the general Sikh public in India collapsed decades ago, Sekhon said the diaspora has clung to a past that is no longer.

“There, they don’t go by logic, sometimes they go by history. Some [think of] that glorious period that was there. But things have changed a lot,” he said. 

Not least of which is that the younger generation in Punjab is more aspirational, Sekhon said, with many putting all of their energy into securing a visa to study abroad, mostly in Canada, as a path towards permanent residency. 

There may be no active insurgency in the state, but the Khalistan movement still has some support. 

Kanwar Pal Singh is a longtime activist and one of the leaders of Dal Khalsa, a pro-independence group based in Amritsar. He spoke to CBC News in the group’s small office filled with posters, some faded after so many years on the wall, with slogans like “Khalistan is our Birthright” and “Never Forget 1984.”

The newest sign, printed in the past week, thanks Canada for “exposing brain behind killing of H.S. Nijjar.” 

In Singh’s view, support for Khalistan in the state is strong but silent.

“Over here, there is fear of a crackdown. There is fear of harassment. There is fear of being booked under draconian laws, which is not the case in Canada, the U.K. and U.S.A.,” he said. 

“Whatever we see in the diaspora [communities], that is a reflection of the movement in Punjab.” 

But outside the Golden Temple, the site of so much violence in the fight for Khalistan four decades ago, Amanpal Singh firmly rejected the idea that the independence movement is thriving in the state. 

“There is no Khalistan movement in Punjab. Nobody wants it,” Singh, 40, told CBC News as he visited the temple with his wife and young child.

He said unemployment is the main issue that people in Punjab are focused on, and any renewed push for Sikh independence could easily disrupt the harmony of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs living together peacefully. 

That’s why, he said, “I don’t want to have any kind of Khalistan right now.” 

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