India’s Domestic Politics Swirling Around the Khalistan Issue

Christine Fair
13 min readOct 26, 2023

C. Christine Fair

India and Canada have been locked in an escalating impasse after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Canadian parliament that “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar” on 18 September. On the same day, Canada ousted an Indian diplomat, whom Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly identified as India’s intelligence chief in the country. Trudeau based this allegation upon intercepted electronic communications among Indian diplomats. Within a few hours, India announced that it had expelled an unnamed “senior Canadian diplomat” in response.

India rejected the assertion but vigorously excoriated Canada for continuing to harbor Nijjar, who is a much-wanted Khalistani terrorist in India with two Interpol Red Corner Notices issued in 2014 and 2016. India also shared information with Ottawa about a dozen criminal cases of murder and other terrorist activities in which Nijjar was accused. Despite this RCN, Canada simply responded by placing him on a no-fly list between 2017–18.

This week, India has further upped the ante on 4 October when it informed Canada that it must repatriate 41 of 62 Canadian diplomats out of the country by October 10 ostensibly on the grounds that there “should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in our diplomatic presence, in mutual diplomatic presence.” India has also suspended visas for Canadian citizens who wish to travel to India. Meanwhile Prime Minister Trudeau implored Delhi to demure from further expulsions.

India has been raising the specter of Khalistan in recent years beginning with the 2020–21 farmers’ protest. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, India’s state of Punjab was paralyzed by a reign of terror waged by Sikh militants demanding a separate state called “Khalistan” (the Land of the Pure) and corresponding brutality and excesses of India’s various security forces countering them. The insurgency claimed some 25,000 lives. However the Khalistan movement is dead despite the long-standing efforts by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to revivify it. The discordance between the Indian government’s claims about the Khalistani danger and what Sikh Punjabis see on the ground has motivated some Sikhs to worry that the central government is targeting Sikhs and the Punjab for larger domestic political interests. What motivates these concerns?

The Khalistan Bogey

This began with the 2020–2021 farmers’ protest when farmers from Punjab and Haryana mobilized against the government’s September 2020 passage of the so-called Farm Bills. Farmers’ unions denounced the reforms as anti-farmer. In January 2021, the Indian government alleged that Khalistanis had infiltrated the protests. Analysts pushed back noting the diversity of participants and the organizations behind the movement as well as the lack of robust evidence for the claim. Aditya Menon suggested that noting that a “Khalistan’ bogey is being created around the protest, which begs the question — what aim does it serve besides, of course, deligitimising the protest?”

Arguably, one of the characters who provided such evidence of Khalistani infiltration

Sidhu, along with gangster-turned-activist Lakha Sidhana, became notorious when they encouraged groups of protesters to enter New Delhi and vandalize the Red Fort, a historic site, where they clashed with police and hoisted the Nishan Sahib (a Sikh religious flag) atop it on Republic Day (Jan. 26) in 2021. Both men were subsequently arrested. Other parts of the movement denounced them for resorting to violence — or accused them of being agents provocateurs.

Then came Amritpal Singh Sandhu. Sandhu, a Dubai-based cleanshaven Sikh came to India to support the Farmer’s Protest. He returned to Dubai when the government revoked the legislation to end the impasse with the farmers. Sandhu returned to India in August 2022. This time, he had all of the visible markers of a pious Sikh: his beard was long and untrimmed; his uncut hair was covered by a blue turban; he wore both the steel bangle as well as a kirpan (ritual dagger or sword) tucked into its traditional strap and dangling from his waist. More importantly, both his sartorial style and rhetoric mimicked that of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale was the fiery leader of Sikh militants who made the Golden Temple his armed fortress precipitating the disastrous military operation, Operation Bluestar, in which he perished.

Those in the Punjab were completely bewildered by Sandhu, who appeared out of nowhere, and his seven-month political career. Many Sikhs began questioning who was the real force behind this rabble rouser. In fact, when I was in Punjab in December 2022 and January 2023, Sikhs began to speculate that the central government was behind the chaos he was causing. They speculated that the end game to create such havoc that a state of emergency could be called, unseating the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) state government. Indeed, the ruling BJP has set its sights on Punjab’s 13 seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house) as well as the 117 state assembly seats. After a month-long manhunt, Sandhu was arrested on 23 April and ferreted off to the Dibrugarh prison in the remote state of Assam. Nothing has been heard of him sense. If the gambit was to destabilize the Punjab government, it failed. The government limps on amidst various criticisms.

And now the deaths of three Khalistanis: Nijjar was killed in June 2023 in Canada; Paramjit Singh Panjar, the head of the Khalistan Commando Force was killed in Lahore in May 2023; Avtar Singh Khanda, a Khalistani and alleged handler of Amritpal Singh Sandhu, died in disputed circumstances in Birmingham in June 2023. Many in the Punjab are wondering why the diaspora-based extremists has become a focus of the government’s foreign policy.

The confusion is not without justification. In the below graph I present data from 2000–2022 on fatal incidents collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal for three terrorist threats in India: Khalistani activism in Punjab; Islamist violence in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the Maoists who operate across several Indian states. The data are clear: in the last 22 years, there have been 33 fatal Khalistan incidents compared to 11,892 fatal events in Jammu and Kashmir and 5,247 Moist fatal events. If one looks at the timeline, it’s clear that the Khalistan threat is not the most pressing security concerns even though the Modi government is behaving as though it is.

Another curiosity arises in the Modi’s government inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor on 9 November 2019; a few days before the 550th birthday of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, on 12 November of the same year. Now, Sikh pilgrims with a special permit can traverse the 9 km (5.6 miles) stretch between Dera Baba Sahib, one of Sikhism’s most sacred sites situated on the banks of the Ravi River in India, and Gurudwara Shri Kartarpur Sahib, located in Shakargarh in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

However, if Modi’s concerns about Khalistanis and their Pakistani supporters were founded, why did his government go forward with this project? After all, there were numerous red flags. One of the persons involved with the project on the Pakistan side was Gopal Singh Chawla, a Khalistani who was the General Secretary of the Pakistan Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the organization overseeing Sikh places of worship in Pakistan. Chawla is also referred as a “close aide” of Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, and thereby also tied to the Pakistani state and its intelligence apparatus in India’s media.

Also of import, Indian media widely reported an un-named “top Pakistani minister” who claimed that the “opening of the historic Kartarpur corridor was the brainchild of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and it will hurt India forever.” Similarly, Sheikh Rashid, a long-time politician who has held several federal ministerial positions since 1991 declared that, “India will remember forever the kind of wound inflicted on it by General Bajwa by opening the Kartarpur Corridor…General Bajwa strongly hit India by opening the corridor.” Despite these warning signs, the Modi government enthusiastically supported the corridor.

Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Data Sheet-Punjab,” https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/fatalities/india-punjab; South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Data Sheet-Jammu & Kashmir,” https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/fatalities/india-jammukashmir; “South Asia Terrorism Portal, “Data Sheet-Maoist Insurgency,” https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/fatalities/india-maoistinsurgency.

Punjab is Feeling the Pain

For a variety of reasons, Canada is the most desirable immigration destination for India’s Sikhs, a trend which is evident in Canadian census data. Some come on study visas, others come via marital alliances. Of the 551,405 international students that Canada welcomed in 2022, 41% came from India. And of the 226,450 students coming from India, it’s estimated that some 136,000 are coming from Punjab.

To fund the enterprise, many are selling their farmland to raise many tens of thousands of dollars to secure admission, obtain a visa, and pay for educational expenses. Nijjar’s uncle, sitting in the Punjabi village of Bharsinghpura told a journalist that “Now every family wants to send its sons and daughters to Canada as farming here is not lucrative.” Rahul Bedi, a Chandigarh based journalist, reports that “Many young Sikhs planning to study in Canada have paid large sums of money as advance — and in many instances unrefundable — admission fees. They now face uncertainty over whether they will secure visas.” These fears have been exacerbated by the recent demand that Canada shrink its diplomatic presence. Not only do students worry about getting a visa for Canada, they are also uncertain whether Indian authorities will let them leave should they secure visas.

With India halting visa processing for Canadians, other economic challenges arise for the Punjabi. Bedi explains that thousands of Canadian Sikhs who would ordinarily return to India for weddings or other family get-togethers that occur when Sikh Canadians flee the harsh Canadian winter are not likely to get visas. This impasse has “resulted in about 20 per cent of hotel and marriage hall bookings, airline tickets and taxi and luxury bus hirings being terminated across Punjab” with more cancellations anticipated if this impasse persists. Satish Arora, the president of the Punjab Hotel Association, told Bedi that “If things do not improve soon we will see more such cancellations in the coming days as few [in Canada] are willing to take the risk of continuing with these bookings amid uncertainty over visas.” Left unsaid is that all of the downstream business that depend upon the marriage season, such as caterers, makeup artists, purveyors of elaborate wedding attire and jewelry will also feed the pinch.

For some Sikhs, they feel as if they have become a target of Modi and his Hindu chauvinist party, the BJP. While the Punjab has never been a BJP-stronghold, the party took a drubbing in the 2022 state assembly elections. It was the worst performance for the party in the state in two decades. Punjabi Sikhs are rejecting the BJP because of a “a growing perception that there is anti-Sikhism among Modi’s party” and a long-standing fear of being absorbed by Hinduism.

India’s Strongmen

One of the reasons for Modi’s appeal among his supporters is that he working to remake India as a powerful and assertive Hindu state flexing its muscles in the global arena. Modi has done much to burnish those credentials. In 2015, he announced to much fanfare that India had conducted a “surgical strike” in Myanmar territory to target secessionists in Manipur and Nagaland, implying that there was no coordination with the Myanmar government. a government official said on condition of anonymity. Myanmar officials discounted many of the purported features of this account and “deeply resented” Modi’s characterization. Then there was the late September 2016 “surgical strike” of “militant launch pads” in Pakistani territory in response to terrorist attacks at Poonch and Uri on 11 and 18th of September respectively. India claimed that the raids inflicted “significant casualties.” While Modi claimed that this was the first of its kind as a swipe at the pusillanimity of previous governments, Shashank Joshi documented nine previous attacks.

Then came Modi’s braggadocious claims about the airstrikes against a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camp in retaliation for JeM’s suicide attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in February 2019, killing 40. Despite claims to have destroyed the “the biggest Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Balakot” in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killing “several terrorists, trainers and Jaish commanders planning more terror strikes in India.” However, numerous independent studies using satellite images could not confirm any of these claims. Later in response to Pakistani punitive airstrikes, India scrambled its own fighter jets. In the ensuing dogfight, Pakistan downed a MiG-21 Bison and recovered its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was returned to India unharmed. However, India claimed that Varthaman shot down a Pakistani F-16 before crashing and even provided “irrefutable evidence” for the downed F-16. However, the radar stills proved to be anything but “irrefutable.” Despite the lack of credible evidence for the F-16s demise, it has become a celebrated fact in India’s media.

Indian analysts believe that the twinned glories after Pulwama sealed Modi’s victory, while protecting him from credible concerns about the conduct of the election. After the event, Modi’s stock phrase was “hum ghar mein ghus ke marenge (we will enter your house and kill you).” The terrorist attack and the government’s response galvanized a deep sense of nationalism that likely “flipped the mood for the Prime Minister and the BJP in that general election.

Faraz Ahmad suspects that Khalistan is Modi’s next security crisis through which he can flex his strong-arm muscles once again. Because the BJP has little if any support in the Punjab, this impasse will not likely “weaken an already weak BJP in Punjab much further. However, Modi might be looking at reaping the Khalistan harvest in adjoining territories like Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana, where the BJP appears a bit shaky.” Moreover, Modi and his Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, seem to be winning the war of words to the delights of the BJP’s proponents. Pro-Modi media commentators are even floating the notion that Canada is the “next Pakistan.”

India’s “James Bond”

What makes the so-called Khalistan issue so titillating is the mythology surrounding Modi’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. Doval is often heralded as India’s James Bond largely stemming from his posited larger-than-life role in various counter-terrorism exploits. His enthusiasts intimate that he “spent seven years in Pakistan as an undercover operative and was responsible for gathering intel on militant groups active in the country.” Another account claims that he “lived in Pakistan’s Lahore, disguised as a Muslim for seven years” during which “he befriended the locals visiting mosques and lived among the predominantly Muslim population. Acknowledged as a master of psychological welfare, Ajit Doval, as a part of his job also spied on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI.” Shekhar Gupta discounts the most grandiose claims but reports that Doval was “keeping a close eye, among other things, on the subversion and separatist propaganda to which Sikh pilgrims visiting their holy places in Pakistan were exposed.”

Another account purports that he played an important role in the 1988 operation on the Golden Temple, Operation Black Thunder in the late 1980s, to oust militant who had once again ensconced themselves in the Golden Temple. During this time, Doval allegedly was “disguised as a rickshaw puller” when Khalistani militants noticed him. Within ten days, Doval “convinced the militants that he was an ISI operative sent by his Pakistani authority to help the Khalistani cause.” As a result, Doval managed to enter the Golden Temple two days prior to the operation which allowed him to “gather crucial information for the Indian Security Forces,” including information about “the positions and strength of the militants inside the shrine,” enabling successful operation. However, many of the accounts of Doval’s “daredevilry as the centrepiece of the siege,” hasn’t born out scrutiny. It seems that in the later years of the insurgency, “Doval was more involved in tracking Khalistani terrorists across the country, and did that with his usual panache.

Doval has a serious fan-following which is unphased by questions raised about his actual role and activities. In fact, “months before Trudeau’s allegations, Hindu nationalists were complimenting Doval for crushing the ‘Khalistani’ leadership.” One enthusiast tweeted, “The dismantling of Khalistan has begun. Don’t Mess with Ajit Doval,’’while another declared “If you are against India and want terrorism in India, we will get you.”

While the Modi government has officially denounced the allegation, others are enthusiastically embracing the possibility that India’s intelligence organization, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) “‘Hunts’ Mossad Style!” Of the allegations that Indian intelligence assassinated Nijjar, R.K. Yadav, a former RAW officer said “I can only say that NSA Ajit Doval is not a person who can sit quietly watching the Indian flag being taken down from the Indian High Commission premises in London.” For Modi’s supporters, “Bond and Smiley are all novices compared to Ajit Doval.”

What’s Next?

Trudeau has long courted the Sikh vote. He is a frequent participant in Sikh religious and social events and he’s appointed several Sikhs to his cabinet. Arguably, any Prime Minister who believes that a foreign intelligence agency is killing their citizens would be derelict to not act. After all, what if he hadn’t acted and another Sikh was murdered. The opposition would hound him out of office when it became known that he had prior information about said intelligence agency. And it certainly plays well among his Sikh supporters.

But Trudeau’s actions have no doubt given Modi and his BJP a leg up in the coming 2024 general elections. No matter what happens in Ottawa, Modi wins. Should Trudeau be unable to muster persuasive evidence of RAW’s involvement in Nijjar’s demise, Modi’s bona fides increase for exposing the Trudeau’s government for being a reckless government and shameless abettor of Khalistani extremists. And if persuasive evidence emerges that India did assassinate him, Indians can say that “India is now tough enough to head to foreign shores and assassinate ‘enemies of the nation.’”

But while Trudeau’s moves may have comforted Sikhs in Canada, his actions have had just the opposite impact upon Sikhs in Punjab where “the push for independence is far from their reality as the state deals with high unemployment and a crippling drug crisis.” Moreover, Sikhs in Punjab are bearing the direct economic costs of this impasse while increasingly fearful that they are the next target of Modi’s Hindutva. Moreover, Sikhs in Punjab worry that the calls for Khalistan abroad may render them the targets of politicians who seek to sew discord to reap electoral gains next year.

A redacted version of this essay was published in Foreign Policy, “India’s Spat With Canada Is a Win-Win Situation for Modi,” on October 20, 2023.

--

--

Christine Fair

I study South Asian pol-mil affairs. I'm a foodie, pit bull advocate, scotch lover. Views are my own. RT ≠ endorsements. Ad hominem haters are blocked ASAP!