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Why India's warnings about Sikh separatism don't get much traction in the West

People hold flags during a Sikh rally outside the Indian Consulate in Toronto to raise awareness in the wake of the Canadian prime minister's comments alleging Indian government agents were potentially involved in the June killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia, on Monday.
Cole Burston
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AFP via Getty Images
People hold flags during a Sikh rally outside the Indian Consulate in Toronto to raise awareness in the wake of the Canadian prime minister's comments alleging Indian government agents were potentially involved in the June killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia, on Monday.

Michael Kugelman is director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The current India-Canada crisis has exposed a sharp disconnect between India and the West on the issue of Sikh separatism.

Ever since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged possible Indian involvement in the June assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia, New Delhi has doubled down on a long-standing grievance: Canada is home to dangerous anti-India extremists that Ottawa refuses to curb. It is a controversial contention, and one that Ottawa has never endorsed.

In New Delhi's view, these anti-India elements are exemplified by Nijjar, a supporter of the Khalistan movement that seeks a separate Sikh homeland in India's Punjab state. Indian officials accuse Nijjar of heading the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a banned violent group. New Delhi formally categorized him as a terrorist in 2020. Recently leaked Indian intelligence reports claim Nijjar funded terrorism in India and organized arms training camps in Canada.

India's decision to issue a new travel advisory urging Indians to "exercise utmost caution" in Canada and suspend visa services for Canadians is meant to signal that with anti-India elements allegedly operating with impunity in Canada, Indians are unsafe there. (On Sunday, Canada issued its own new travel advisory that warns Canadian citizens in India to "stay vigilant and exercise caution.") On Saturday, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi referred to Canada's "growing reputation as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists, and for organized crime."

India's positions on terrorism, especially Islamist militancy, generally converge with those of Washington and other Western capitals. It's a different story with Sikh extremism.

In the immediate post-9/11 era, before the China challenge became the core driver of U.S.-India cooperation, counterterrorism constituted a key focus of partnership — and especially after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which gunmen killed 166 people, including six Americans. U.S. and Indian officials blame Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-sponsored and India-focused terrorist group, for the assault. After the attacks, Washington ramped up its covert presence in Pakistan, and one of its prime motivations was to gather more information on LeT.

Washington and New Delhi generally see eye to eye on the threats posed by LeT, but also by al-Qaida, Jaish-e-Mohammad (another Pakistani India-focused group) and the Islamic State. Joint statements from meetings between senior American and Indian leaders — including one after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's state visit to Washington in June — often contain strong pledges to combat terrorism.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a luncheon hosted by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on June 23.
Samuel Corum / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends a luncheon hosted by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on June 23.

However, U.S and other Western officials have not categorically condemned violent Sikh separatism. U.S. officials and lawmakers did denounce two actions by pro-Khalistan protesters at the Indian Consulate in San Francisco earlier this year. One was an attempt by pro-Khalistan demonstrators in July to set the consulate on fire. The other was in March, when separatist demonstrators breached the entry barriers of the same facility and installed two Khalistan flags on the consulate grounds.

They haven't endorsed New Delhi's categorization of Nijjar as a terrorist (Indian press reports claim Nijjar was on a U.S. no-fly list, but Washington hasn't confirmed this). Washington hasn't formally designated any violent Khalistan groups as terrorist organizations — though it did designate another South Asian separatist outfit, the Baluchistan Liberation Army in Pakistan, in 2019.

Several reasons may explain why India's warnings about the dangers of Sikh separatism haven't galvanized Western governments. Above all, the Khalistan movement, unlike Islamist terrorism, rarely poses a direct threat to the West. Its violence mainly targets India (though its supporters have threatened Indian diplomats in the West, and in 1985 Sikh terrorists blew up an Air India jet that took off from Montreal, killing all onboard, most of them Canadians).

Additionally, Sikh separatist violence has declined in recent years, keeping it out of the headlines in the West, where many are unaware how serious a threat it used to be, and perhaps reducing governments' threat perceptions. A Khalistan insurgency raged in India in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, in fact, U.S. officials were quite concerned about it: A declassified CIA memo published in 1987 referred to Sikh extremism as a "long-term terrorism threat." Three years earlier, radical Khalistan supporters had seized a Sikh temple in Amritsar, India, sparking a bloody government crackdown and prompting two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards to assassinate her. This provoked revenge attacks on Sikhs and religious violence which, at the time, was the worst since the 1947 Partition of British-ruled India into independent India and Pakistan. Indians haven't forgotten about these traumatic events, but many in the West, especially outside Canada, aren't even aware of them.

Democracy also drives the West's restraint. India believes many dangerous Sikh separatists are based in Western countries — Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the U.S, all members of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance. But these countries uphold democratic principles that give nonviolent Sikh activists space to gather and demonstrate. They don't want to initiate policies that risk conflating the small number of violent Sikh separatists with the much larger number of nonviolent Sikh community members — some of whom have advocated peacefully for a separate Sikh state. (Some Indian commentators claim that in Canada, Trudeau's desire not to upset Sikh voters prompts Ottawa to treat Khalistan extremists with kid gloves.)

In the coming days, Washington can expect to get an earful from India about a growing Khalistan threat emanating from Western soil and the need for Washington and its Five Eyes allies to do more to counter it. It'll be a delicate conversation, and not just because of New Delhi's current perceptions of Western impassivity — and also the growing concerns among U.S.-based Sikhs, intensified by FBI warnings, about potential dangers to their safety. There's a historical grievance, too. Some prominent Indians — including Indira Gandhi and former senior intelligence officer B. Raman — have alleged that the U.S. covertly backed Sikh separatists in the 1970s and 1980s, when Washington was in a Cold War alliance with Islamabad, a likely sponsor of the Khalistan movement (India has long accused Pakistan of backing Sikh separatists, and Pakistan officially denies the charges, but former senior Pakistani intelligence officials have acknowledged that Pakistani operatives have provided support to Sikh separatists).

There's no evidence to support the allegation that Washington covertly backed the Khalistan movement. But it underscores the mistrust that afflicted U.S.-India ties in a previous era. The relationship has since experienced rapid growth, especially with Washington now viewing New Delhi as a critical counterweight against Chinese power. And yet, differing U.S. and Indian positions on Khalistan today are a sobering reminder that even in an otherwise deep partnership, some historical baggage still lingers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Kugelman