On Monday, Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made an announcement stating that there is "credible" information connecting Indian government agents to the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia in June.
This revelation points to a significant deterioration in the diplomatic relationship between the two nations, especially as India has already expressed discontent over Canadian authorities not taking strong measures against Sikh demonstrators advocating for an independent homeland.
In recent months, a series of attacks targeting Hindu temples and the emergence of anti-Indian graffiti in various parts of the Western world, including Australia and Canada, have sparked apprehensions within the Indian administration. These events have led to growing suspicions that Khalistani separatist groups may be attempting to regroup and make a resurgence in India while operating from foreign soil.
Much of the graffiti prominently advocates for Khalistan and voices opposition against the Modi government. Moreover, incidents of clashes between pro-Khalistan and pro-India supporters have also occurred in countries like Australia.
In another instance, two individuals who support Khalistan defaced a prominent temple in the province of British Columbia, Canada, by spray-painting "anti-Hindu and anti-India graffiti" on its walls. This event occurred at 12:29 am in the month of Augat the Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir in Surrey, marking the latest in a series of incidents targeting Hindu places of worship in the country.
Another such example is from UK when in the moneth of March this year a protester, who was chanting pro-Khalistani slogans, attempted to seize the Tricolour flag flying above the Indian High Commission, resulting in an arrest connected to the ensuing violent disturbance.
During their bilateral discussions in New Delhi in the month of March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised this concern with his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese. He expressed worry about the attacks on temples in Australia and the Australian government's decision to permit a Khalistan referendum within the country.
There have been four reported incidents of temple desecration in Australia since January, with the most recent occurrence happened in Brisbane. In these cases, the temple walls were defaced with either anti-India or pro-Khalistan graffiti.
The Khalistan movement
The Khalistan movement, which advocates for the separation of Punjab from India, gained prominence in the 1980s. During that time, separatists resorted to widespread violence and targeted political leaders in Punjab and other regions of the country to advance their cause.
This turbulent period led then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to order the military operation to retake the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Khalistani leader Bhindranwale and his armed followers had taken refuge. While the military operation succeeded in eliminating Bhindranwale and most of his supporters, it inflicted significant damage on the Golden Temple, which is revered as the holiest Sikh shrine.
In response to the military operation, Indira Gandhi was tragically assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This event triggered widespread anti-Sikh riots across the country, resulting in the loss of many lives.
Although a significant portion of the unrest and violence in Punjab and support for Khalistani separatists was linked to Pakistan, which provided shelter to many of them, the situation in the violence-prone state eventually stabilized in the subsequent years.
The attack on the Shree Laxmi Narayan temple in Brisbane in the month of March was the most recent incident, but in recent months, several Hindu religious sites in various countries, notably Canada, have been targeted with vandalism and anti-India slogans. Additionally, last year, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was vandalized outside a Hindu temple in New York.
Furthermore, since last year, referendums advocating for an independent Khalistan state have been conducted in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Despite India expressing concerns about the potential consequences of such referendums, the governments of these countries chose to permit them, citing them as an exercise of democratic rights by their citizens.
Will this strain India’s foreign relation with Canada?
On Tuesday, an Indian government spokesperson called the allegations made by Canadian PM “absurd and motivated”, adding that “similar allegations were made by the Canadian prime minister to our prime minister, and were completely rejected.”
The two countries, which previously expressed the possibility of reaching the framework of a trade agreement by the end of 2023, have now suspended talks on this agreement. Canada provided limited details about this decision, while India cited "certain political developments" as the reason.
Following its rejection of the allegations in a statement issued on Tuesday, the Indian government called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take action against what it referred to as "anti-India elements" operating from within Canada. In response, India took the step of expelling a senior Canadian diplomat from the country.
What led to the rise of the Khalistani movement in Canada?
Canada boasts the world's second-largest Sikh population, surpassed only by India. Consequently, since the inception of the Khalistan separatist movement in Indian Punjab, Canada has never left the spotlight.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Sikh movement was in its peak in Indian Punjab, it required financial resources, support, and strategists. Canada emerged as an ideal location due to its sizable Sikh population, similar to India's, and the presence of strong anti-Indian sentiments fueled by Pakistan's ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and separatists who had fled India seeking refuge. An important consideration for many of these individuals was that Canada's legal system was perceived as having weak extradition laws, making it challenging to prosecute those accused of crimes committed elsewhere.
Pakistan's ISI swiftly recognized this opportunity and began relocating prominent separatist leaders, previously based in Pakistan, to Canada. They established connections with the Sikh community in Canada, achieving two primary objectives. Firstly, by having these separatists operate from Canada, it created a level of separation that made it difficult to directly implicate the ISI. Secondly, they were able to gather financial support for the movement from the already Sikh community residing in Canada.
Pakistan's history of exporting terrorism to other parts of the world is now causing internal instability within the country itself. It's essential for Canada and other nations to recognize this trend. The same separatist forces that are currently opposing India may pose a threat to other countries in the future as well.