What is the Khalistan movement that Hardeep Singh Nijjar claimed to be?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that allegations that the Indian government played a role in the death of Hardeep Singh were credible. Diplomatic tensions continued to rise Tuesday, as the Canadian public was already worried about Chinese foreign interference. The duty asked two experts for some context to see things more clearly.

What is Sikhism?

From the outset, the two specialists on India want to establish a very clear distinction between Sikhs who practice their religion, violence, terrorism or other political movements. Sikhs like to say that they have taken the best of Hinduism and the best of Islam. Which is not far from the truth, admits Professor Mathieu Boisvert: “It is literally a syncretism between these two religions. »

This religious tradition begins in the 16the century and draws on the experience of the founder, Guru Nanak, originally from Punjab, a region which was a kingdom at the time, says the director of the Center for Studies and Research on India, South Asia and its diaspora (CERIAS).

Sikhism is “a tradition of devotion, love and peace”, where service to the community takes a very important place, explains Diana Dimitrova, professor at the Institute of Religious Studies of the Montreal university.

Sikhs are not violent, she insists: “Even among sympathizers of the Khalistan movement, they are far from all advocating violence. […] » We must not make their lives even more difficult by marginalizing them, she adds.

How large is the Sikh community in Canada?

More than 770,000 people identified as Sikh during the last census in 2021, representing 2.1% of the Canadian population. It is the largest community outside of India, a major diaspora.

In Quebec, there are just over 23,000 Sikhs, a small community compared to those in British Columbia and Ontario. The city of Surrey, where Mr. Nijjar was killed last June in the parking lot of his temple, called a gurdwara in this tradition, includes the second largest Sikh population in the country, more than 154,000 people.

The World Sikh Organization of Canada has already been demanding since June that Canadian intelligence services clarify India’s involvement in this murder.

What is the Khalistan movement?

Hardeep Singh Nijjar was known for his activism aimed at creating an independent state of Khalistan, which would include the historic territory of Punjab, including the current province in India, where approximately 60% of the population is Sikh. He was allegedly involved in organizing a referendum for Sikh immigrants to Canada to demonstrate their support for “Khalistan”.

For Mathieu Boisvert, we have to go back at least to the independence of India in 1947 to better understand. At the time of the bloody partition of the territory hitherto under British control, the territory of Punjab was divided between Pakistan, with a Muslim majority, and India, with a Hindu majority. The Sikh inhabitants then felt “left behind” and desires for independence emerged with greater force.

“There are independence movements all over the world like in Catalonia or Scotland. It is not the speech itself that is problematic. From a Canadian perspective, this is about freedom of expression. But in the Indian view, it is an act of sedition. They are two very different perspectives,” he says.

From the beginning of the 20th centurye century, immigrants on the American and Canadian west coast, particularly in Vancouver, created the Ghadar movement, recalls Mme Dimitrova. The members, mostly Sikhs, then called for revolt against the British. “The diaspora community was already involved,” but for another cause, she explains.

What is the backdrop to recent events?

Tensions between different communities in India have been felt in fairly recent history. Violence left thousands dead, notably in 1984. The Indian army entered the Golden Temple of Amritsar, “the highest sacred place”, says Mr. Boisvert, during Operation Blue Star to dislodge independentists.

Following this incursion, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, which was seen as an act of revenge. Anti-Sikh riots break out and “innocent people” are then killed, also says Mme Dimitrova, real trauma for the community. “It also resonates emotionally with Sikhs in Canada and it contributes to the construction of identity,” summarizes Mr. Boisvert.

The other important event that left its mark was the bombing of the Air India flight between Toronto and Bombay (now Mumbai) on June 23, 1985, which killed all 329 people on board.

This tragedy certainly contributed to “labeling Sikhism as terrorist” by the Indian government and Sikhs then “faced a lot of mistrust” in the 1980s, relates Diana Dimitrova.

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