This wasn’t supposed to happen now. After all, the opening ceremony of Narendra Modi’s 2024 campaign for a third term as Prime Minister of India, aka the G20 Summit, had gone off without a hitch. A couple of weeks earlier, the Chandrayaan-3 moon landing also had served the campaign well. Social media images of the landing itself, while priming the pump of national pride, were drowned out by images of cheering crowds waving the Indian tricolor.
Already on cloud nine, I imagine Modi bhakts (devotees) passed out often from doing whatever it is they do in front of endlessly circulating images of their leader, now seen playing host to world leaders with gavel in hand. For weeks earlier, the presidency of the G20 had been talked up in the media as some sort of special achievement and not simply India’s turn at the wheel. News anchors (read: propagandists for Modi and his party) proclaimed that this was India’s vishwaguru (guru to the world) moment. The joint declaration that issued from the summit was applauded by liberals and right-wingers as a great diplomatic accomplishment, as was the announcement of an over-ambitious infrastructure project, the IMEC Corridor, a presumptive rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that will likely remain, shall we say, aspirational.
Then came Justin Trudeau’s sensational announcement that there were “credible allegations” of Indian agents’ involvement in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian citizen, on Canadian soil. The Modi government responded with indignation, calling the accusation “absurd” and accusing Canada of giving safe haven to “terrorists,” Nijjar having been declared one by the Indian government in 2020. Nijjar was killed by a rival Sikh gang, they said, and Trudeau was motivated by his own low approval ratings at home and was pandering to “Khalistani terrorists” to win support among Canadian Sikhs.
Indian news channels wasted no time disseminating the government line, backed up with background reports on the “terrorist activities” of the Khalistan movement and grainy images of bearded men with guns.
As of this writing, U.S. officials have confirmed that Trudeau’s announcement was based on intelligence shared among the Five Eyes Alliance nations [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, U.K., U.S. – Eds.]. The nature of this intelligence is unclear, although it seems to have come from Canadian surveillance of Indian diplomats. As more details emerge this could either shine a spotlight on India’s human rights record and its role in extrajudicial killings at home and abroad, and/or turn into a witch hunt of Sikh separatists around the globe. I doubt, however, that it will do much to hold back India’s emergence as an important U.S. ally or to dampen the spirits of Modi’s supporters at home and abroad.
Indeed a focus on “Khalistani terrorism” might help to distract the Indian public from a plethora of domestic crises that Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces: a deteriorating economy; an inter-ethnic civil war with communal overtones in the northeastern state of Manipur; recent electoral losses in the southern state of Karnataka and the subsequent formation of a unified opposition alliance (with the acronym I.N.D.I.A., no less); and a resurgent armed militancy in Kashmir. So: why Khalistan, why now? The answer from Modi’s PR team might well be: why not?!
Sikhs make up less than two percent of the population of India but about sixty percent of the current Indian state of Punjab. Historically, Punjab (meaning, Land of Five Rivers) referred to a much larger territory. In the eighteenth century, a confederacy of independent Sikh kingdoms that ruled this region successfully fought off the Mughal Empire; by 1800 the entire region had come to be unified under the rule of Maharaja (Emperor) Ranjit Singh. A half-century later the Sikh Empire was defeated by the advancing British in two wars (1845 and 1849), after which Punjab became part of the British Empire. In 1947 it was partitioned by the withdrawing colonial regime into two. Muslim-majority areas in the west were spliced away, and an international border was drawn down the middle of historic Punjab, dividing it between the newly independent nation-states of Pakistan and India. In 1965, the Indian portion was further truncated, as two new states were carved out of it–Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Since then, Sikh nationalism, like Tamil nationalism or Bengali nationalism, has had to find its own uneasy equilibrium within the Indian union. A 1965 reorganization of Indian states based on language helped soothe some of the friction but the desire for some degree of greater autonomy within Hindu-dominated India remained. These sentiments likely deepened and spread through the late-1960s and 1970s, when the Green Revolution boosted state revenues and accelerated wealth accumulation among better-off Sikhs.
Khalistan and 1984
The Shiromani Akali Dal, which had its roots in Sikh nationalist agitations in the 1930s, was an established center-right party by 1970. After failing to win a majority in the 1969 state assembly elections, they formed a coalition government with the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, precursor of today’s BJP. In an effort to outflank the Akali Dal from the right, the centrist Congress Party’s Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, is said to have tasked Zail Singh (later to become President of India) with the job of co-opting a young religious and political leader, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Little did they know that in a few years Bhindranwale, disillusioned by his experience, would break not only with Congress and what it represented (the Indian union) but also with the gradualist opportunism of the Akali Dal, and launch an armed rebellion for an independent Sikh homeland. Thus began the Khalistan movement we know today.
In 1981, Bhindranwale was falsely arrested for the murder of a Hindu priest. There followed widespread protests, some of which turned violent. In a daring act, five knife-wielding Sikh men hijacked an Indian Airlines plane, demanding his release. They forced it to land in Lahore, Pakistan, and were subsequently overpowered by Pakistani security forces. No one was harmed. (Years later, when two of them returned to India in 2018 after serving long sentences for this crime in Pakistan, they were charged with sedition by a vindictive BJP government but acquitted by a Delhi court on procedural grounds.) In response to the growing rebellion, the Indira Gandhi government, ever ready to bare its fangs when people in border states misbehaved, launched a bloody counter-insurgency operation, killing thousands, including many hundreds of Sikh youth. Bhindranwale and his supporters moved into the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar in 1982 and continued to coordinate their statewide rebellion. In June 1984, Indira Gandhi greenlighted an army operation, Operation Bluestar, to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple, killing hundreds of people including Bhindranwale, and invading and desecrating the holiest site in Sikhism.
Operation Bluestar boomeranged four months later when the Prime Minister herself was shot dead by one of her Sikh bodyguards. In the weeks that followed, thousands were slaughtered in anti-Sikh pogroms by vengeful mobs of Hindus egged on by politicians and leaders of Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party (the main opposition party today). Many Sikhs fled to Canada and elsewhere.
1984 thus marks yet another traumatic watershed in recent Sikh history. Since then, a combination of co-optation, accommodation, and repression by the New Delhi government has exhausted the Khalistan movement. At this stage, the movement has been largely delegitimized and driven underground. While it would appear to have little traction in Punjab today, there hasn’t been a referendum on the question, nor will there be one any time soon.
And yet, the trope of the “Khalistani terrorist” does have plenty of traction in other parts of India, and not just in the so-called Hindi-Hindu belt, where, among a plethora of religious and ethnic scapegoats, it is a favorite bogeyman of the far right. In its capacity to evoke fears of violence, it is second only to the trope of the “Kashmiri terrorist.” It is more specific than your everyday generic “Muslim jihadi” and more threatening than the scorned “Bangladeshi infiltrator.” When millions of Sikh farmers carried out a months-long protest outside Delhi just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it wasn’t long before they were accused of being “infiltrated by Khalistanis.” The BJP government even made this claim in the Supreme Court during hearings on the protests. But vilifying the farmers in this manner did little to stem the movement or cow its supporters; on the contrary, it revealed that the Hindu nationalist operates with a narrow, exclusive, and brittle idea of India.
Who was Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Hardeep Singh Nijjar was born in Jalandhar, India. He moved to Canada in 1997 at age 20. He worked as a plumber in a gurdwara [Sikh house of assembly and worship- Eds.] in Vancouver and became a Canadian citizen. He was elected head of the gurdwara and was a prominent leader and advocate for Khalistan among local Sikhs, but from what I can gather he wasn’t very well known in Punjab. The Indian government in 2020 deemed him a “terrorist” for his involvement in proscribed organizations Babbar Khalsa and Khalistan Tiger Front, and offered a reward of about $16,000 for information leading to his arrest in the killing of a Hindu priest.
Nijjar is not the first Khalistan activist to be murdered this year. In May, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, named “Khalistan Commando Force chief” in Indian media, was shot dead in Lahore, Pakistan by “unknown” gunmen. In 2022, Khalistan supporter Ripudaman Singh Malik, acquitted of involvement in the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 that killed 329, was shot dead in his car in Surrey, British Columbia.
Impact of Nijjar assassination
What happens next on the international stage is anyone’s guess. With the U.S. calling on the Modi government to cooperate with the investigation, the weeks ahead will test even Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s skills in sophistry (although, as of this writing, he has been uncharacteristically mum). The U.S. of course has no business lecturing the world on transparency and respect for other nations’ sovereignty, given its own history. Nevertheless, wag fingers it will. Will relations between the two sour? Or will growing economic ties and a nascent strategic partnership override “concerns” about rights (and wrongs) yet again?
The Indian government’s attempt to blame gang rivalry or Pakistan’s ISI in these cases rings hollow given its record of covert ops in Kashmir, Nagaland, and elsewhere. If on one side we need to question the stereotype of the violent Khalistani terrorist, on the other side we need to question the image of the soft Indian state as a Gandhian creation: all peace, chai and yoga. The Indian state relies on soft power abroad, it is true, but decades of dirty wars waged within its borders have come to be accepted and justified by the Indian public and by all the political parties as a necessary condition of maintaining the territorial integrity of India. Indeed, “encounter killings” (where details of targeted extrajudicial killings are fudged to make them appear like chance police “encounters”) have been a normalized part of the news cycle for decades now.
Government denials are therefore often taken with a grain of salt by most people. In the case of someone like Nijjar, we must keep in mind too that once someone is labeled a terrorist by the government, there is little public scrutiny of the case against them. Between a “known terrorist” and an “unknown gunman” who took him down, there is no contest. It is understood that RAW (Research and Analysis Wing–the Indian intelligence agency) agents must “do their job” and the government must deny it. Trudeau’s allegations, even if proven true, will likely only bolster hardline national chauvinism in India.
The U.S. and the Canadian Left, in my view, should speak out against the Indian state’s actions, demand accountability and justice for Nijjar’s murder, and defend the right of self-determination for Sikhs and their freedom to advocate for it. We must reject the demonization of Khalistan supporters and advocates by the Indian state and Indian news media. Sympathizing with the history of trauma that Sikh communities have faced, we must understand why the desire for an independent homeland persists and what that says about the Indian union. When pro-Khalistan protests sometimes turn rowdy and vandalize Indian consulate buildings or try to set them on fire, as earlier this year in San Francisco, the Left should “patiently explain” that such actions may do little to further the cause of Sikh self-determination and may even strengthen the hand of the Indian state and its repressive apparatus, not to mention the hold of Hindu nationalism and majoritarianism.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons, modified by Tempest.
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Nagesh Rao is a Lecturer at Colgate University, a proud father of two, and a long-time socialist who grew up in Bangalore and now lives near Syracuse, NY.