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Murder of B.C. Sikh leader puts Khalistan movement in spotlight. What is it?

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Allegations that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader in British Columbia have put a new spotlight on the Khalistan movement.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fell on Monday in the House of Commons when he accused the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of playing a role in the June killing of 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Trudeau said Canadian intelligence agencies had “credible” information that “agents of the Indian government” were involved in the killing. He did not elaborate further but described Nijjar as a Canadian citizen. Immigration Minister Marc Miller confirmed his citizenship in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Tuesday.

Click to play video: 'Credible' intel links India to killing of Canadian Sikh leader: Trudeau'

‘Credible’ intel links India to assassination of Canadian Sikh leader: Trudeau

India denied those allegations on Tuesday and ordered the expulsion of a Canadian diplomat – a tit-for-tat move following Ottawa’s expulsion of India’s Pavan Kumar Rai, a diplomatic agent who headed an Indian intelligence agency that based in Ottawa.

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The allegation has put renewed focus on Sikh independence in India, also known as the Khalistan movement. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Khalistan movement?

The Khalistan movement began with the conflicts with India and the independence of Pakistan in 1947. The idea of ​​a Sikh homeland was pushed in the negotiations before the partition of the Punjab region of India between the two new countries.

The Sikh separatists demanded a homeland called Khalistan, meaning “land of the pure,” which they should create out of Punjab.

The Sikh religion was founded in Punjab in the late 15th century and has approximately 25 million followers worldwide. Sikhs make up the majority of Punjab’s population, but are a minority in India, comprising only two percent of its population of 1.4 billion. Hindus make up 79.8 percent of India’s population and Muslims make up 14.2 percent, according to Pew Research Center data.

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Click to play video: 'Canada expels top Indian diplomat after death of Sikh leader tied to Indian government: Joly'

Canada expels top Indian diplomat after death of Sikh leader with ties to Indian government: Joly

The need resurfaced several times, most prominently during a violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s.

The movement was suppressed by a crackdown by the Indian government that saw thousands of people killed, including prominent Sikh leaders.

In 1984, Indian forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to dislodge separatists holed up there. The operation killed around 400 people, according to official figures, but Sikh groups say thousands were killed.

Click to play video: 'Singh slams Modi government over allegations Indian agents killed BC Sikh leader'

Singh slammed the Modi government over allegations that Indian agents killed the BC Sikh leader

Among those killed was Sikh militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, whom the Indian government accused of leading the armed insurgency.

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On October 31, 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the attack on the temple, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs.

His death triggered a series of anti-Sikh riots in which Hindu mobs went from house to house in northern India, particularly New Delhi, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacked many to death and burning others alive.

The 2010 judicial inquiry into the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying to India from Canada says “Sikh terrorists” are responsible.

Is the movement still active?

There is no active insurgency in Punjab today, but the Khalistan movement has supporters in the state, as well as in the Sikh diaspora outside India.

The movement has support among sections of the Sikh diaspora in Canada, which has the largest population of Sikhs outside Punjab, and in Britain, Australia and the US

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Canada has a Sikh population of over 770,000, which is about two percent of its total population.

Click to play video: 'Poilievre calls for 'utmost transparency' from India amid investigation into BC Sikh leader's murder'

Poilievre called for ‘utmost transparency’ from India amid investigation into BC Sikh leader’s murder

India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement. The Indian government has suspected in recent years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.

The government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was described by several prominent human rights groups as one who disobeyed religious minorities.

“The government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims,” ​​Human Rights Watch said on its website.

“This, along with the vilification of Muslims and other minorities by some BJP leaders, and the failure of the police to act against government supporters who commit violence, has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to- target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity.”

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India has been asking countries like Canada, Australia and the UK to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the countries’ prime ministers.

At home, Modi’s government has intensified its pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders from various outfits associated with the movement.

When farmers camped out on the fringes of New Delhi to protest the controversial 2020 agriculture laws, Modi’s government tried to discredit the Sikh participants by calling them “Khalistanis.”

Under pressure, the Modi government withdrew the laws.

Click to play video: 'Canadian intelligence suggests Indian agents behind killing of BC Sikh leader: Trudeau'

Canadian intelligence suggests Indian agents behind assassination of BC Sikh leader: Trudeau

Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.

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This past April, India arrested a self-styled preacher and Sikh separatist, Amritpal Singh, for allegedly reviving calls for Khalistan, sparking fears of fresh violence in Punjab.

Abroad, India hit out at Canada earlier this year over a float in a parade in Brampton, Ont., depicting the assassination of Gandhi, thinking it was a glorification of Sikh separatist violence.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau's delayed departure from India proves awkward amid political tensions'

Trudeau’s delayed departure from India is proving awkward amid political tensions

India has also expressed anger over frequent demonstrations and alleged vandalism by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in Canada, Britain, the US and Australia, and has demanded better security from local to govern.

Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means that groups can express political opinions as long as they are not violent. The Liberals called out threats to Indian diplomats by these groups, and offered the envoys 24/7 security, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said on September 14.

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What will happen to India-Canada relations now?

The bomb allegation will undoubtedly further sour relations between India and Canada.

India strongly denied the allegations on Tuesday, calling them “absurd.” Before the allegations became public, Canada suspended talks on a proposed trade agreement with India. Trade Minister Mary Ng also postponed a planned trade mission to India.

Modi met with Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 leaders’ summit last month, and Modi’s office said he was focused on Sikh separatists in Canada. Trudeau told reporters before his arrival in India that he would raise concerns about perceived Indian foreign interference in Canada.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau suggests he may raise foreign interference issue with India's Modi'

Trudeau suggests he may raise the issue of foreign interference with India’s Modi

At the G20, Trudeau said he stressed to Modi the importance of respecting the rule of law, the integrity and sovereignty of democratic institutions and processes and the ability of a country’s citizens to choose their future.

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Trudeau said Tuesday that he waited until he had raised the issue with allies and with Modi at the G20 before going public about a possible link to Nijjar’s murder.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, September 10, 2023. Trudeau said on Tuesday that he waited until he could raise the issue with allies and with Modi at the G20 before going public about the possible link to Nijjar’s murder.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The leaders of the most powerful countries were greeted by Modi at the cremation ground of Mahatma Gandhi, where Modi embraced several politicians holding hands. Trudeau, who shook hands with Modi, was the only leader to break away from a longer tenure.

Trudeau skipped Modi’s leaders’ dinner last night, with the Prime Minister’s Office refusing to say why.

He also missed the launch of the Global Biofuels Alliance, a partnership to make progress on the launch of cleaner, greener fuels.

At the time, Trudeau said he had other work.

— with files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Reuters


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