- author, Arvind Chabda
- position, BBC Correspondent
The Khalistan issue has been a troubling issue for India. Demonstrations by its supporters abroad bear witness to this. The Sikh population is also significant in these countries.
Relations between India and Canada are strained over the killing of pro-Khalistan leaders. On the other hand, there is a significant number of Sikh expatriates living in Australia, UK as well. Protests have been taking place outside the Indian High Commission in these countries. Demonstrations are still going on and pro-India demonstrations are also taking place against it. Many are worried about how this may affect the relations of these countries with India.
“The issue of the Khalistan movement has been a thorny issue for India with the West over the years,” says Professor Avinash Paliwal of SOS University – London.
“It intensified after the Kisan agitation in Delhi in 2020-21. Now the allegations leveled by Canada have created a deeper crisis in the bilateral relationship.”
Canada has the largest Indian immigrant-origin population.
There are a total of 7.8 lakh Sikhs which is 2 percent of the total population. Trade with Canada in 2022-23 stood at $4,109 million, up nine percent from the previous fiscal year. These figures are from the Government of India.
Students from India in Canada
After 2018, Canada had the highest number of Indian students. In 2022, the number was 3.20 lakh, indicating an increase of 50 percent. The House of Commons, which was elected in 2021, has 17 MPs of Indian origin and is headed by Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party of Canada.
Anita Anand was a minister in the previous government along with three other MPs of Indian origin. Even in the present government they have been retained and Sajjan and Kamal Khera are in the Ministry of Defence.
“The Indo-Canadian community is considered very active in Canada. All parties value them. They are very active politically,” says Shamil, a Canadian journalist.
Activities of Khalistan supporters in Canada
Protests related to Khalistan have gained momentum in Canada since the 1980s.
Khalil says, “There were demonstrations even after the police action against pro-Khalistan Amritpal in Punjab. Now after Nijjar’s killing, people gathered and pro-India people also gathered against him, thus clashed between the two. A pro-Khalistan protester was arrested.”
The Toronto event also saw posters reading ‘Kill India’ and ‘Killers for Indian diplomats’, prompting the Indian government to summon a Canadian diplomat.
Modi and Trudeau met at G20. Asked about Khalistan, Trudeau said Canada highly respects freedom of speech and the rights to protest. Will also protect it.
When India said about this, the concern about anti-India elements in Canada has been conveyed to Canada. In which incidents of violence and destruction of Indian diplomatic officers, Indians and diplomatic properties of India have also been mentioned. It also mentioned damaging the religious places of the Indian community.
Bilateral relations with Canada
Ajay Sahni, executive director of Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, says, “Relations are worse than ever. The Khalistan campaign in Canada has gained momentum because Trudeau’s government is in a minority and he has the support of Jagmeet Singh’s party, himself a Sikh leader. While India When talking about the Hindu nation, it is said from the front that you take the Hindu nation and give us our Khalistan.”
Former Ambassador Anil Trigunayat says that the relationship between the two countries is unlikely to improve in the near future as India has been demanding action by listing elements of Khalistan for 40 years and no action has been taken by Canada.
He added, “If Canada was to maintain relations, it would not have publicly accused and suspended Indian diplomatic officials.”
The UK has a Sikh population of 5.24 lakh which is 1 percent of the total population. In 2022-2023, the trade between the two was 11406 million dollars which was nine percent higher than the previous year.
According to the 2020 Indian High Commission report, there are 1.5 million Indian immigrants in the UK. And 65000 such people own companies. According to the report, “the 654 companies we researched have a combined annual turnover of over £36.84 and pay over a billion pounds in tax.”
Indian immigrants have been active in politics there since Dadabhai Navroji, a Liberal Democrat, was the first MP of Indian origin in 1892-95. In 2020, the House of Commons had 15 members of Indian origin, while the House of Lords had 23 members. The present Rishi Sunak is also of Indian origin.
Activities related to Khalistan
Like Canada, the UK also recently had a pro-Khalistan leader killed. Avtar Singh Khanda was the chief of Khalistan Liberation Force who died under mysterious circumstances in Birmingham. Many suspect poisoning.
London has seen major demonstrations in recent months. Especially on 19th March. This happened after the Punjab Police took action against Khalistan supporter Amritpal Singh. Demonstrations also took place outside the Indian High Commission in London where one person was seen pulling down the Indian flag.
The UK has also reacted to the Canadian incident. Foreign Minister James Clavery tweeted, “Every country must respect integrity and the laws of every country. We are in constant contact with Canada about the allegations raised in the Canadian Parliament. The Canadian investigation is ongoing and those found guilty will be punished.”
However, experts believe that since Rishi Sunak is at the highest position, the relations between the two countries are unlikely to deteriorate. “Rishi Sunak assured India during the G20 summit that illegal activities will not be allowed in his country,” says former ambassador Anil Trigunayat.
Ajay Sawhney says, “Relations are positive and likely to get better as India has no particular expectations.”
“This government has no extraordinary expectations from foreign or western governments. They are not expected to arrest and extradite everyone who is troubling India. It is equally expected that concrete action will be taken against those causing special trouble.”
However, some experts worry that the new developments may have the opposite effect.
Shamil says, “It remains to be seen how the strained India-Canada relationship affects the UK and the West. But what affects ordinary citizens is worrisome.”
“Just as people in Canada are in a dilemma as to what to do with their travel plans to India. Similarly, the situation is similar for Indians coming to Canada. So this situation is not good for people.”
According to the 2021 census, there is a population of 6.73 lakh Indian immigrants or people of Indian origin.
Out of which 2.39 lakhs are Sikhs. There is a large number of Hindi and Punjabi speaking people here.
Punjab is second in that subgroup. More than 92 thousand people speak Punjabi language and consider themselves descendants of Punjabis.
Ruchika Talwar, a local journalist from Melbourne, says, “Punjabis are increasingly dominating here in every field, including politics. It is also in medicine and IT. Their representation in state and central government and parliament is also significant. Most of them are born in India.”
“However, there is not much political activism here in the way it is in the UK and Canada. Lisa Singh became a senator for Tasmania, Daniel Mookhe was elected to parliament, made treasurer and became the first person to take an oath from the Bhagwat Gita.”
In terms of trade, trade with Canada was 6951 million dollars in 2022-23. According to Indian government statistics, it is 16 percent higher than the previous year.
Activities of Khalistan
Ruchika Talwar says that just this year the Sikhs for Justice organization held a referendum in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Also, when Modi came, he expressed concern about the Khalistan campaign to the Australian government. And Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese also assured him that India’s interests would not be allowed to suffer.
“Australian foreign ministry spokeswoman Penny Wong was quoted in local media as saying that Australia is aware of the India-Canada dispute and that Canada’s allegations are troubling.”
“But India-Australia ties are also close. Indian students and tourists also come here in large numbers. Hence, the aim of moving towards a resolution of the dispute is the basis of the Indo-Pacific policy.”
In July this year, an Indian student was thrashed by Khalistan supporters with an iron rod. The Tribune noted the news.
Khalistan Zindabad slogans were shouted in Sydney. With these slogans he broke down on the student.
“I was on my way to work around 5 am when Khalista supporters surrounded me and beat me with sticks after sitting in the car,” said the student, who did not want to be named.
Also, the issue of writing Khalista slogans on Hindu temples in Australia also caused tension between the communities. This happened at the beginning of the year. India also urged the Australian government to stop this. Police also released documents from an investigation into an incident at a Brisbane temple in March.
However, Shiromani Gurdwara Management Committee’s statement said, “Such incidents can create tension between the two communities as the cameras were turned off when anti-Hindu text was written in the temple.”
This statement was given by the General Secretary of the organization Gurucharan Singh Grewal. He claimed that only some Hindu persons had done this work.
How are bilateral relations with Australia?
Says Ajay Sahni, “Such incidents happen and controversies happen but they cannot affect the country’s relations to the extent that it deteriorates. I don’t think the Khalistan issue has become so serious for both of them that the relations will deteriorate now.”
Anil Trigunayat adds that relations with Australia, including trade, will continue. The situation was not good in 2008 when there were incidents in the temples. But then Australia took over.