What to know about the Sikh movement at the center of tensions between India and Canada

By | September 19, 2023

NEW DELHI (AP) — Tensions between Canada and India have reached new levels with dueling diplomatic expulsions and an accusation of Indian government involvement in the killing of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil.

The dispute centers on the Sikh independence movement, or Khalistan. India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement, which is banned in India but has support among the Sikh diaspora.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Parliament on Monday outlined what he called credible allegations that India was linked to the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. The Indian government has denied any involvement in Nijjar’s killing, also saying Canada is trying to shift focus away from Khalistan activists in the country.

Here are some details about the problem:


The Sikh independence movement began as an armed insurrection in the late 1980s among Sikhs demanding a separate homeland. Its center was in the northern state of Punjab, where Sikhs are the majority, although they make up about 1.7% of India’s total population.

The insurgency lasted more than a decade and was put down by an Indian government crackdown in which thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders, were killed.

Hundreds of young Sikhs were also killed in police operations, many of which were later shown in court to be organised, according to rights groups.

In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to flush out separatists who had taken refuge there. The operation killed around 400 people, according to official figures, but Sikh groups say thousands were killed.

Among the victims was Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, accused by the Indian government of leading the armed insurrection.

On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the temple raid, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs.

His death sparked a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house across northern India, particularly in New Delhi, dragging Sikhs from their homes, killing many and burning others alive.


Today there is no active insurgency in Punjab, but the Khalistan movement still has some supporters in the state, as well as in the sizable Sikh diaspora beyond India. The Indian government has repeatedly warned over the years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also intensified the persecution of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders of various groups linked to the movement.

When farmers camped on the outskirts of New Delhi in 2020 to protest controversial farm laws, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit the Sikh participants by calling them “Khalistanis.” Under pressure, the Modi government later withdrew the laws.

Earlier this year, Indian police arrested a separatist leader who had revived calls for Khalistan and sparked fears of violence in Punjab. Amritpal Singh, a thirty-year-old preacher, had captured national attention with his fiery speeches. He said he drew inspiration from Bhindranwale.


India has asked countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to take legal action against Sikh activists and Modi has personally raised the issue with the nations’ prime ministers. India has raised these concerns particularly against Canada, where Sikhs make up nearly 2% of the country’s population.

Earlier this year, Sikh protesters tore down the Indian flag at the country’s High Commission in London and broke the building’s window in a show of anger against the move to arrest Amritpal Singh. Protesters also broke windows of the Indian consulate in San Francisco and clashed with embassy employees.

India’s foreign ministry denounced the incidents and summoned Britain’s deputy high commissioner to New Delhi to protest what it said was a security breach at the embassy in London.

The Indian government also accused Khalistan supporters in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples with “anti-India” graffiti and attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a protest in March.

Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.

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