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Unravelling the complex nexus: India, Canada, and the Khalistan issue

As the tension mounted, a daring move by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent shockwaves reverberating not only through diplomatic corridors but across the entire global stage

Unravelling the complex nexus: India, Canada, and the Khalistan issue

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  24 Sep 2023 4:07 AM GMT

Bedanga Chutia

(bedanga987@gmail.com)

In a recent and unexpected twist, the diplomatic ties between India and Canada have embarked on a tumultuous journey, a narrative that has captivated and concerned the global community. The catalyst, a tragic event that unfolded on Canadian soil, was the killing of the ‘Khalistani’ activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar. This incident has served as a vivid lens, unveiling a complex interplay of historical, political, and socio-economic threads long concealed beneath the surface.

As the tension mounted, a daring move by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent shockwaves reverberating not only through diplomatic corridors but across the entire global stage. In a bold step, he publicly pointed the finger at Indian intelligence agencies in connection with the activist’s tragic demise. The ripple effect was swift and profound: the White House voiced deep concern, the British government chose a measured silence, and the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance openly expressed its unease. The world, gripped by anticipation, now turns its gaze with unparalleled intensity. The stakes have never been higher for both India and Canada, a high-stakes drama that has the globe transfixed.

To understand this geopolitical quagmire, we must delve into the historical roots of the Khalistan movement. The demand for an independent Sikh state, Khalistan, dates back to pre-independence India, when Sikhs argued that if Muslims could have Pakistan, they too deserved a separate homeland. This demand resurfaced when states were reorganized post-1956, but Punjab was denied statehood on linguistic grounds due to fears that Punjabi and Sikhism were inseparable. This perceived injustice fueled the ongoing discontent.

Over the years, Punjab’s political landscape has transformed into a fierce battleground for greater autonomy and resistance to the central government. The Anandpur Sahib Resolution, championed by the Akali Dal, embodied either greater autonomy or a path to independence, depending on one’s perspective. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale emerged as an influential leader, harnessing the Sikh community’s alienation and anger, while Punjab’s economic decline fueled discontent.

The 1980s marked a dark period in Punjab's history. It began with the military’s intrusion into the Golden Temple, a shocking event that was followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh security personnel. This tragic incident triggered horrific anti-Sikh riots, especially in New Delhi. This tumultuous era led many Sikh youth to seek refuge in Anglophone nations, particularly in Canada, contributing to the Sikh diaspora.

In the United States, the first generation of Indian immigrants consisted mainly of educated professionals, while in Canada, rural Punjabi peasants dominated the migration. These differing socio-economic profiles created distinct sensitivities among these diaspora communities. Remarkably, Canada, with over 770,000 Sikhs, hosts the largest Sikh population abroad and wields significant political influence.

Within the immigrant diaspora, faith often burns brighter than among their Indian counterparts, nurturing the seed of Khalistan. The 1985 terrorist bombing of Air India Flight 182, claiming 329 lives, mostly Canadians, underscores the issue’s gravity. However, it’s vital to note that Khalistan’s realization cannot be driven by those who abandoned Indian citizenship. Developments in Punjab are primarily shaped by local and national politics, allowing radical elements abroad and foreign agencies to exploit existing fissures.

The Akali Dal, holding indirect sway over Sikh religious institutions and gurdwaras, saw its moral authority erode after a mishandling of the Sikh Granth Sahib desecration in 2015. The involvement of Dera Sacha Sauda followers, devoted to Gurmeet Ram Rahim, deepened the fracture within Sikh sentiments. Complicating matters, the Dera’s electoral influence in Punjab and Haryana added layers of complexity to an already tangled situation.

In 2020, a wave of farmer protests erupted in response to contentious farm laws, initially dismissed as the work of alleged Khalistan supporters. However, this narrative crumbled as protests gained momentum, spreading across Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and eventually compelling concessions from the Union government. Ascribing rural Punjab’s discontent solely to the diaspora oversimplifies a multifaceted issue, one deeply rooted in government policies and mismanagement.

While India did possess the option to pursue the extradition of H.S. Nijjar back in 2018, it faltered in its efforts, possibly entangled in procedural complexities or hampered by Canadian reluctance. India’s growing frustration is compounded by its domestic climate, where even mild critiques of the government, especially the Prime Minister, are swiftly branded as seditious and anti-national.

In Canada, the argument ensues, framing pro-Khalistan slogans as a manifestation of freedom of speech, further complicated by Trudeau’s reliance on right-leaning partners like Jagmeet Singh. Despite recent attempts to temper the rhetoric, Trudeau’s lingering disappointment over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rejection of shared information during the G-20 summit in New Delhi remains palpable.

The Khalistan issue transcends simple dichotomies, encompassing matters of security and freedom of speech. To navigate this intricate labyrinth, both India and Canada must forsake their one-dimensional approaches, embracing the nuance of diplomatic engagement.

The world watches intently as this diplomatic tango unfolds between two nations, and it becomes increasingly evident that the Khalistan issue transcends mere bilateral concerns. The intricate tapestry of historical grievances, domestic politics, diaspora influence, and global perceptions has elevated this matter into a global affair, resonating with far-reaching consequences.

In the days ahead, both nations must tread this precarious path with the utmost caution and sagacity, fully aware that their reputations and positions on the world stage are hanging in the balance. The international community eagerly anticipates a resolution that possesses the potential not only to reshape their bilateral relations but also to redefine the broader landscape of international diplomacy.

To comprehend the bold stance Canada has taken against India, it is imperative to delve deeper into the underlying political dynamics and global ramifications at play. Trudeau’s unprecedented allegations regarding Indian intelligence involvement in the activist’s killing extend beyond a mere attempt to placate the Canadian Sikh community; they ripple across the intricate fabric of international affairs.

If Canada’s allegations were to prove accurate, this incident could mark a startling precedent—a covert assassination by Indian intelligence conducted on Western soil. The apparent audacity, a lack of effort to cloak the operation, sends a stark and unambiguous message to Canada: if you fail to act decisively against Khalistani militants or neglect our security concerns, we will take matters into our own hands.

Undoubtedly, this assertion finds resonance in many corners of India. However, Canada’s response transcends being a mere reaction to Indian actions; it carries a broader message to its Five Eyes allies, which encompass Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. Canada is signalling that there are bounds to the West’s alignment with India, underscoring its willingness to defend its sovereignty and interests, even if it means challenging a longstanding ally.

While other Western nations have largely maintained a muted response, India would be unwise to assume that it will escape diplomatic or reputational consequences. Canada’s decision to elevate this dispute to the diplomatic centre stage has emboldened a substantial contingent of India sceptics within Western corridors of power. These sceptics may assess India’s actions through the prism of global actors like China and Russia, potentially constraining India’s strategic manoeuvrability in the years to come.

The prevailing geopolitical mismatch stems from a clash of values, pitting a conservative India against the liberal democracies of the West. This incongruity, previously obscured for strategic expediency, now takes centre stage, shedding light on why Western nations struggle to fully comprehend India’s perspective regarding the Khalistan issue, often perceiving New Delhi’s concerns as exaggerated threats.

Even if influential Western powers like Washington, DC, and London refrain from overtly supporting Ottawa, the political reverberations of Canada’s bold stance extend far and wide. The heightened sensitivity surrounding foreign interference in domestic politics within Western nations risks casting India into the same shadow as countries like China and Russia. Such an association carries the potential for long-term repercussions, impacting India’s global standing and strategic alliances.

The India-Canada Khalistan dispute has transcended its bilateral roots, encompassing a complex mosaic of historical grievances, domestic politics, diaspora influence, and global perceptions. As both nations navigate this intricate web of complexities, they must tread with the utmost care to safeguard their reputations and international relationships.

The path forward necessitates the deft application of nuanced diplomacy, a readiness to engage in constructive dialogue, and a clear recognition of the broader global implications at stake. The world’s gaze remains fixed upon this unfolding drama, yearning for a resolution that upholds the sovereignty of nations while promoting peace and cooperation on the grand stage of international affairs.

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