By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher
On 19 September, a large number of Sikhs in Canada voted in an entirely unofficial referendum. On the ballot was the question of independence from India for a Sikh homeland, Khalistan. The Indian government has increasingly focused on the issue of Khalistan in its international relations, and was not pleased by the Canadian decision to allow the vote to go ahead.
The so-called Khalistan referendum was organized by a group called Sikhs For Justice, which refers to itself as a human rights advocacy group. In July 2019, a year after Sikhs For Justice first announced a referendum, it was banned in India under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, but continues to have operations in Canada, the USA, and the UK.
Sikhs For Justice have claimed that 100,000 people took part in the vote in Brampton, and while photos from the day show a sea of Khalistan flags, this is a clear exaggeration. Canada had indicated back in 2020 that it had no intention of recognizing the vote as legitimate in any way, but it did not seek to stop the vote.
This, of course, infuriated the Indian government. There is a longstanding history of violence between the Indian state and the Khalistan movement, which includes amongst its more brutal political developments Operation Blue Star, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the subsequent 1984 Sikh massacre.
Historically, the engagement between the Indian government and the Khalistan movement has been largely a domestic affair (aside from the perennial position that the hand of Pakistan can be found behind anyone opposing the Indian state). The Indian response to the referendum in Canada is part of an increasing trend of confronting the issue in international relations as well.
An Indian spokesman confirmed that his government had raised the matter diplomatically with Canada, but the Indian Ministry of External Affairs also issued a travel advisory about Canada on 23 September. This warned about a sharp increase in “incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence and anti-India activities in Canada”.
Justin Trudeau had already attracted the ire of the Modi government on the Khalistan issue by inviting Jaspal Atwal, an Indian-Canadian businessman, to a reception in India. Atwal was a supporter of the Khalistan movement and had previously been convicted over a 1986 assassination attempt in Canada against Malkiat Singh Sidhu, a Minister in the Punjab government.
He further provoked Modi’s government through his support for farmers protests in India. When Trudeau supported their right to peaceful protest, the Indian MEA referred to the comments as “ill-informed” and “unwarranted”. Although a direct response to proposed changes to farming laws by the Modi government, there was also an undeniable intersection with Sikh identity to the farmers’ protests. Around the world, Sikhs rallied to support the farmers. When protesting farmers entered the Red Fort on January 26 (Republic Day), 2021, one of them unfurled a Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikh religious community. This is a distinct flag and symbol from that of the Khalistan movement, but the Modi government has consistently sought to link the protestors with the Khalistan movement to undermine their support, and this sign was easily manipulated to help that cause. Earlier that same month, the government had claimed in a Supreme Court filing that Khalistanis had infiltrated the farmers’ protests and it has consistently utilized allegations of pro-Khalistan sympathies to block social media accounts. Within Modi’s India, the anti-Khalistan stance is serious business, and Modi is now using India’s international economic and political importance to address the perceived issue abroad.
The recent advisory issued by the Indian MEA was specifically directed at “Indian Nationals and Students from India in Canada”, a recognition on behalf of the Indian MEA of the economic value of its overseas students. Of the approximately Canadian 620,000 study visas issued in 2021, nearly 220,000 went to Indian students. This is a growth industry for Canada, with numbers of international students more than doubling in the last ten years. With already declining numbers of students coming from China, Canada cannot afford to jeopardize its largest market for education.
When multiple Indian students were attacked in separate incidents in a relatively short space of time in 2009, the Indian government issued a travel advisory warning about the dangers to Indians in Australia. The number of Indian students in Australia plummeted the following year and didn’t recover for nearly a decade. The attacks provoked demonstrations in India and were widely publicized, and the Australian dollar was at record highs, so the effect of the government advisory shouldn’t be overestimated. Nonetheless, countries such as Canada and the UK, which saw an increase in international students from India as a result, have seen how quickly these numbers can change.
The UK has also seen a notable increase in overseas students from India in recent years. Whilst China remains the first country of origin for non-EU students in the UK, with nearly 140,000 students in 2020-2021, the Indian market grew from just over 50,000 in 2019-2020 to nearly 85,000 in 2020-2021.
Sikhs For Justice held votes for their Khalistan referendum in the UK in late 2021 and early 2022. At the time, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval conveyed serious concerns from the Indian government over the vote to UK National Security Advisor Stephen Lovegrove.
During an April 2022 visit by then British PM Boris Johnson to India, the Indian PM reportedly raised the Khalistan issue with Johnson and informed him of India’s “zero tolerance” approach. Johnson, in response to public questions on the UK response, said:
We have a very strong view in the UK. We don’t tolerate extremist groups setting up in the UK with a view to threatening other countries, threatening India, but what we’ve done particularly as a result of this visit is set up an anti-extremism task force to see what more we can do to help India in that aspect.”
One of the reasons Johnson was in India was to continue negotiations on the India-UK free trade agreement, so it isn’t that unusual that he was happy to agree with the Indian position. Somewhat more unusual was his assertion that, particularly as a result of the visit he was still on, the British government had established a new anti-extremism task force to help India.
The UK has actually been the site of Sikh extremist violence. In 2012, Lieutenant General Kuldeep Singh Brar was stabbed in the neck near Oxford St while on holiday in London. Brar had led Operation Blue Star, a violent Indian military raid against the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984. Four Sikhs were convicted of the attack on Brar, which was in revenge for Operation Blue Star.
Despite Johnson’s claim to have already established a new anti-extremism task force to help tackle the Khalistan movement in the UK, and the relatively recent history of Sikh political violence in the UK, no such taskforce has been identified.
PM Modi is likely to visit the UK next month as the two countries seek to finalize their FTA before Diwali. The UK has already invested extensively in attempting to attract more students from India, including as part of its current negotiations. In July 2022, the UK and India signed an agreement to recognize each other’s higher education qualifications. The UK government press release on the matter explained the benefits to the UK:
The agreement will make UK universities even more appealing to Indian applicants and is likely to provide an economic boost, as the benefit to the UK of welcoming non-EU students is estimated by industry to be around £109,000 per person.
The Modi government has demonstrated that it wants to take its fight against the Khalistan movement to the international sphere and is willing to draw on its economic cards to do so. The Canadian government has ignored this stance to the detriment of its own economy. As the UK government finalizes negotiations with India over the two countries’ FTA, it cannot risk ignoring the Modi government.