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Alleged plot to kill Sikh separatist highlights thorn in India’s side

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during day one of the high-level segment of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference at Expo City Dubai on Friday in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Sean Gallup)
By Sameer Yasir New York Times

NEW DELHI – The federal indictment this week of an Indian citizen in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme targeting a Sikh separatist in New York threatens to damage ties between the United States and India just as the Biden administration has been courting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The charges are rooted in a decades-old dispute: the demand by some Sikhs for a sovereign state known as Khalistan carved out of northern India, which the Modi government opposes.

In addition to directing the unsuccessful plot in New York, the federal indictment said, an Indian government official organized the killing of a Sikh separatist in Canada who was shot in June by masked gunmen outside a temple in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The idea of Khalistan is rooted in Sikhism, a religion with 26 million followers around the world, of which about 23 million live in the state of Punjab in northern India. Sikhs make up less than 2% of India’s population of 1.4 billion.

India has outlawed the Khalistani independence movement, and it has only limited support inside Punjab. But it remains a rallying cry among the roughly 3 million members of the Sikh diaspora, particularly in Canada, Australia and Britain.

The Khalistan movement

Sikhism was founded in the 15th century in Punjab, and in 1699 an influential leader of the faith at the time, Guru Gobind Singh, espoused the idea of Sikh rule. He also gave it a political vision, casting Sikh self-rule as a remedy for decades of misrule under Muslims and corruption among Sikh leaders.

After the Indian subcontinent was partitioned along religious lines in 1947, some Sikh leaders tried to establish a Punjabi-speaking Sikh state, leading to friction between Sikh groups and the Indian government, which was then led by Jawaharlal Nehru.

That effort never came to pass, but the dream of Khalistan survived. In the 1970s and 1980s, it gained traction among Sikhs in Punjab and the worldwide Sikh diaspora.

The movement eventually inspired an armed insurgency that lasted for more than a decade. India responded with force, using torture, illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings to suppress the movement.

In June 1984, India’s prime minister at the time, Indira Gandhi, ordered troops to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, in Amritsar, to arrest insurgents hiding there. Hundreds were killed in that raid.

Among those who died during the raid was Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a leader of the armed rebellion, who many historians say was initially supported by Gandhi’s government, which used him as a vehicle to split the Sikh movement.

In October 1984, Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards, a killing that prompted a wave of violence that left thousands dead and included looting and arson against Sikh homes and businesses.

In 1985, separatists linked to the Sikh diaspora bombed an Air India flight, en route to London from Toronto, killing more than 300 people.

Across northern India, from the mountains of Kashmir to the plains of Punjab, people still paste stickers of Bhindranwale on cars, motorcycles and the front gates of homes as a symbol of Sikh resistance.

But by the early 1990s the insurgency had largely been crushed in Punjab, with hundreds of rebels arrested, killed or driven underground. Hope for a more inclusive future for Sikhs took hold and, between 2004 and 2014, India had its first, and only, Sikh prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

How did Khalistan become an issue among the Sikh diaspora?

During and after the Sikh insurgency, the growing diaspora started demanding accountability for human rights violations committed by Indian forces in Punjab.

A large number of those Sikhs who left India during the separatist violence, or in the years immediately after it, carried wounds that fueled their advocacy for a Khalistani state. But political observers said those activists, while often turning out for protests against India, have largely remained unorganized.

While blessed with some of the country’s richest agricultural land, Punjab has long struggled with unemployment and drug abuse. Young men often force older relatives to sell land to underwrite their emigration. And once they move overseas, their social interactions are often limited to socializing with other Sikhs during visits to temples.

Sikhs waving Khalistani flags have become a familiar sight outside Indian consulates. At one point, a dentist in London, Jagjit Singh Chauhan, even declared himself president of a “Republic of Khalistan.”

Alarmed by the protests, India has responded by demanding that countries including Canada take action against Sikh activists, whom New Delhi considers a “threat” to its sovereignty.

Is the Punjab independence movement a threat to India?

Political leaders in Punjab say the Sikh independence movement there has been practically nonexistent for decades. But the Indian government has recently been sounding the alarm and arrested a separatist leader early this year, fearful that a resurgence in India could provoke violence there.

There have been sporadic episodes of violence inside Punjab, including bombings and killings of religious leaders, but police there have linked the violence to gang rivalry that sometimes transcends borders.

In recent years, India has also accused Sikh separatists in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples and, in one instance, attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission during a protest in March.

India’s relations with Canada were already strained before the June killing of the Canadian Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who supported independence for Khalistan. India has accused Canada of harboring separatist militants linked to the Khalistan movement.

India’s government has repeatedly asserted that any failure by foreign governments to tackle Sikh separatism would be an obstacle to good relations with that country.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.