Chandigarh: Sikh politics has always revolved around identity issues, and political parties have worked on these issues in different ways, often with success and sometimes not. The movement for a separate Sikh state – Khalistan – was one such expression, but the decade-long violent phase of terrorism which resulted in pain, loss and suffering has caused the average Sikh in Punjab to turn her back on it.
This is not to say that the ideology has been vanquished along with the terrorists. On the contrary, remnants of it are very much alive in present-day Punjab, but receive little traction from the public whenever people attempt to exploit it politically. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), misguided by a clutch of closet hardliners in its ranks, realised the peril of hobnobbing with perceived Khalistanis when it ended up with a surprise 20 seats against the 80 or so that it was hoping to win in the February 2017 assembly elections. The Congress led by present chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. which eventually won convincingly, had a better sense of ground realities and crafted its election campaign around the alleged pro-Khalistani leanings of the AAP.
Arvind Kejriwal’s stay at the house of a former hardliner was played up. The droves of NRI Sikhs from Canada, the US and elsewhere who came in chartered planes to fund and campaign for the AAP were also labelled as Khalistani terrorists by the Congress. The avowedly Sikh party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by former chief minister Prakash Singh Badal whose politics has always revolved around the Sikh identity, also used the “Khalistani” slur to attack the AAP. “Do not vote for AAP as it is aligned with Khalistanis and terrorists who will bring trouble for Punjab,” said his son and then deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal during the election campaign.
The AAP’s inexperienced Delhi managers, with little understanding of the religio-political complexities of Punjab, were sitting ducks. The Khalistan blot stuck. It’s another thing that the party has still not seen the writing on the wall and continues to test old-style identity politics as against its mandate of alternative politics.
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Amrinder Singh, on the other hand, who sensed that he had won mainly on the strength of his moderate, anti-extremist stance, plays on the fears of a revival of violent terrorism and misses no opportunity to tom-tom his government’s achievements in keeping Khalistani elements in check. Note his strident opposition to Canada’s defence minister, Harjit Singh Sajjan, when the latter visited Punjab last April. Amarinder Singh not only refused to meet him for his alleged links with Khalistanis, but even now, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came calling, the Punjab chief minister insisted on a clarification from two Canadian ministers of Sikh origin, that they do not support separatists, as a condition to meet with Trudeau. His eventual meeting with Trudeau in Amritsar on Wednesday on his own terms was a triumphant snub to Sikh separatists who are once again rising on foreign shores.
But if separatism is anathema for a majority of Sikhs in Punjab today and its polity bows to the sentiment, the situation is very different in Canada, where politicians are caught in the throes of a resurgent movement for a separate Sikh state incubating within its borders. Led by articulate, educated professionals who know how to use the liberal international environment to internationalise their demand for the right to self-determination for Sikhs, these radical groups have successfully used the huge Sikh population in Canada to influence and co-opt sections of its polity.
This is best explained by Ujjal Dosanjh, a Liberal party leader and former premier of British Columbia province, in a chat show on CBC News Network this week. “The Khalistan movement is long dead in Punjab, but it continues to find traction here, due to politicians of all hues playing footsie with Khalistan sympathisers,” he said. The straight-talking Canadian Punjabi with roots in Jalandhar further said, “Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab have realised that the 1980s were terrible times and have moved on…But second and third generation Canadians here haven’t been able to deal with their own minds and want Khalistan.”
The five lakh or so Sikhs in Canada form 40% of the 1.2 million Canadian Indians there. Trudeau’s cabinet has four ministers of Punjabi origin and as he himself points out, the number is more than what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has in his cabinet. The Canadian parliament, for which elections were held in 2015, more than doubled its Punjabi members – from the earlier eight to 18 – and many of them count the hardline Sikh community groups as their voters. This can be understood as plain vote bank politics and Trudeau, a democrat at heart, is a willing victim of the same malaise.
One of the most vocal and active separatist organisations is the New York-based Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which started the campaign for a 2020 referendum for Sikhs the world over to decide on a separate Sikh nation. SFJ’s legal advisor, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, and three others have been booked for sedition by the Punjab police. Pannun had in 2015 stalled a visit by Singh to Canada by filing a torture case against him in a Toronto court.
In a letter to Trudeau sent on Wednesday, the SFJ urged him to uphold Canada’s legacy, by,
“1. Defending Canadian Sikhs’ freedom of expression on Khalistan; and
2. Reminding Capt Amarinder Singh and PM Modi that advocating for Khalistan is campaigning for a political opinion and not an act of terrorism.”
The SFJ began as a three-member legal outfit a few years ago and is today spearheading the fast growing movement for a separate Sikh state in several countries with a significant Sikh presence. Canada, with its gurdwaras, is fertile ground for the SFJ’s activities because the heart of its politically-influential, well-off Sikh population still beats for an elusive religious homeland.
Pannun in his letter to Trudeau also took the opportunity to remind him that the head of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) Jagmeet Singh had in October 2017 stated that he considers the Sikh’s right to self determination as a “basic right” in the state of Punjab. This is a jab which is bound to hurt, because Jagmeet Singh – the first non-white head of a mainstream Canadian party – has emerged as a formidable political challenger to Trudeau in next year’s elections.
Among other things, Jagmeet is known for his activism on the November 1984 ant- Sikh massacres. He is among those who pushed for a resolution declaring the killings as ‘an act of genocide’ in the Ontario provincial assembly in April 2017. His activities have not endeared him to the government of India, which in 2013 denied him a visa. An official was then quoted as saying that he was “misusing the pretext of human rights to pursue the insidious agenda of disrupting the social fabric of India”. His links with the SFJ are also under the scanner in North Block.
Talk of the Modi government’s ‘public snub’ – real or illusory – to Justin Trudeau on his first India visit has given the Khalistan issue traction of the sort it hasn’t had since the days of terrorism in Punjab. As he grapples with competitive politics in an election year back home and deals with a resurgent Khalistan movement among Sikhs, the young Canadian leader will likely remember what he learnt in Amritsar – that Sikhs in Punjab don’t share the same sentiment for a separate nation as their brethren in Canada.
Chander Suta Dogra is a journalist of two decades standing. She is now a member of the AAP but the views in this piece should not be taken as the views of the party.