"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Macdonald Laurier Institute report on Sikh homeland is more like a propaganda material of the Indian state Featured

Gurpreet Singh  

The recent report on the imaginary Sikh state of Khalistan is full of gaps and lacks an in-depth understanding of the issue. 

Written by seasoned journalist Terry Milewski, and published by the Macdonald Laurier Institute, the document not only fails to tell us anything significant, but provides flawed and weak arguments to suggest that Pakistan has fostered an indigenous movement for a separate homeland for the Sikhs in northern India. 

Sensationally titled Khalistan: A project of Pakistan, the report focuses on an armed insurgency started by the Sikh militants in Punjab, India during the 1980s. The decade long conflict that ended in the 1990s left thousands of people dead.  

The proponents of the movement wanted to carve out a Sikh homeland of Khalistan in Punjab, which shares a border with Pakistan. The campaign was brutally suppressed by the police and paramilitary forces that were given sweeping powers by the Indian establishment to deal with the extremists.  

Apart from state repression, the movement also fizzled out due to lack of public sympathy, because of excesses committed by the extremists on innocent civilians, including the Hindus and their political critics within the Sikh community.  

Although the campaign for Khalistan has lost its popularity a long time back, its supporters in Canada and other parts of the world are trying to keep it alive through gimmicks such as a demand for referendum on Sikh nation in November 2020.  

Interestingly, the report itself acknowledges this fact, and yet it tries to make everyone believe this is a huge challenge, by simply overlooking the real picture.  

Frankly speaking, this kind of research is highly untimely, as there is no serious threat of Khalistan to India at this time. If there is any realistic threat to India, it comes directly from the Hindu extremists who have become emboldened under a right wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government, which is determined to turn the country into a theocracy where all minorities, including the Sikhs, would be treated as second class citizens.  

It therefore seems funny that anyone has taken so much pain to highlight a stale and dead issue instead of examining the situation at hand.  

It is hard to fathom why a person like Ujjal Dosanjh, a former BC Premier and so well up to date on current issues in India, chose to co-write the foreword of the report that says nothing about the present situation in India, where attacks on religious minorities have grown under an intolerant BJP regime.  

Notably, Dosanjh, who was once assaulted for being critical of Sikh extremism in Canada, recently condemned the violence against Muslims and other minorities in India. Why didn't this report try to put things into the perspective of ongoing attacks on minorities in India? After all, the Khalistan movement was a direct result of the persecution of Sikhs in Hindu-dominated India.   

However, the report conveniently ignores all that.  

When India and Pakistan were divided on religious lines in 1947, the Sikh leadership chose to go with India instead of Muslim-dominated Pakistan. They were promised an autonomous region in northern India, an assurance that was never fulfilled. On the contrary, when the Sikhs asked for a Punjabi-speaking state that could guarantee their independent religious identity, the Indian state tried to criminalize the demand at the behest of Hindu nationalists who wanted to assimilate the Sikhs.  

Nevertheless, after years of struggle, present day Punjab was created in 1966, but many Punjabi-speaking areas went to neighbouring states, after Hindu chauvinists decided to choose Hindi and not Punjabi as their mother language.  

Punjab was even denied its rightful share of the river waters, which hurt hard the Sikh farmers who dominate the rural side of Punjab.  

These injustices led the Sikh leaders to launch another political campaign seeking extra rights to the state, the re-transfer of Punjabi speaking areas, settlement of the river water dispute and protection of their separate religious identity. These demands were not seditious in nature, but the Indian government continued to fail the moderate Sikh leadership. This resulted in the emergence of a militant leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who later made the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar, into the nerve center of his activities.  

Accusing Bhindranwale of spreading violence through the precincts of the shrine, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military invasion of the Golden Temple in June, 1984. The ill-conceived army operation left many innocent pilgrims dead. This infuriated the Sikhs worldwide and brought a sense of alienation against them. It was precisely after this that the Khalistan movement became stronger. Earlier, this demand was mostly being raised by fringe elements mainly outside India. There were hardly any takers for that, but the military assault on the temple had made their task easier. 

As if this was not enough, thousands of Sikhs were murdered across India in the first week of November, 1984 by state-sponsored goons following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.  The police either remained mute spectators  or openly sided with the mobs.  

These ugly events culminated in the Air India bombing in June 1985. The crime that left 329 people dead was widely blamed on the Canada-based Sikh extremist group Babbar Khalsa.  

By glossing over these simple facts, the report does not help readers understand that the movement originated in India purely because of domestic reasons, for which the blame only lies at the doorstep of government in New Delhi.  

It makes no sense to suggest that it is a Pakistani project. It is not. Nobody can dispute that Pakistan has been trying to take advantage of internal strife in India, whether in Punjab or in Kashmir. But to call this a Pakistani project is laughable. 

Let’s face it - India and Pakistan have never had cozy relations. They have already fought two major wars, including one in 1971 that culminated in the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The whole world knows that India tried to take advantage of a liberation movement in Bangladesh and supported its insurgents. But to believe that this was a project of India would be living in a fool’s paradise. Bangladesh was imminent, as the Bengali-speaking population was being suppressed by the Urdu- speaking Pakistanis. India only tried to do what any enemy nation does in such circumstances. Similarly, Pakistan has only been taking advantage of the conflicts in Punjab and Kashmir, which could have been best resolved by the Indian state itself.  

It seems the report serves no other purpose than to say something which the Indian government likes to listen. The Indian government has habitually blamed Pakistan all the time. Today, when India is facing international criticism for mistreating its minorities, this kind of report will give them some satisfaction. They have already intensified their campaign against Khalistan, which the government in New Delhi has been trying to club with its enemy next door.  

It was not long ago that the Indian government banned Sikhs for Justice, which is seeking a referendum on Khalistan, and began arresting its supporters for merely distributing posters and using social media to spread awareness about their cause, which hasn’t gained any serious traction on the ground. On the other hand, Hindu extremists continue to target Muslims and other communities at will with impunity.  

The credibility of the report becomes questionable when it begins with the official version of the Indian government on the killing of Babbar Khalsa leader Talwinder Singh Parmar in 1992.  

Parmar was liquidated in a staged police shootout after being arrested. He was never given a fair trial, and was branded as the Air India bombing mastermind after being killed in an extra judicial manner.  

The report claims that two other men who died along with him in the so-called exchange of fire were Pakistanis. Considering the poor human rights record of India, where killing political activists in cold blood has become a norm, how appropriate was it  to give such controversial details, which the report did not even try to verify independently?   

The only real evidence about Pakistan’s direct involvement with the Khalistan movement is the picture of Parmar armed to the teeth. Milewski claims in the report that it was taken in Pakistan, which certainly gave and still gives refuge to the anti-India insurgents. But that is not the complete truth. The truth is that the picture was taken during the cold war era, when the US and Russia were engaged in a serious conflict. While Pakistan was on the US’ side, India was in the Russian camp. This was the time when anti-Russia Islamic extremists were being supported by the US in that region. The Sikh militants became allies in their fight against the Russian-backed Indian state, but that by itself is not sufficient to establish Khalistan being a project of Pakistan.  

That reality has changed anyway, with the US and India now allies under right wing governments which repeatedly talk tough against Islamic extremism. Pakistan too continues to suffer at the hands of Islamic extremists and is in no position to openly support any movement like Khalistan, which has lost its charm.   

The Indian state is also involved in double speak. On one hand it uses every tool in its toolbox to obliterate the Khalistan movement, but on the other it recently gave a visa to Vancouver-based Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik.  

Malik is a former suspect in the Air India bombing. He was the alleged financier of those involved in the conspiracy but acquitted for the lack of evidence. How come the report is silent about it? Why not blame India for running a parallel project to weaken Khalistan by roping in people with a problematic background? In an interview with a Punjabi TV channel, Malik’s own brother thanked the head of India's R&AW intelligence agency for making this happen. If Pakistani spy agency ISI can be mentioned in the report for supporting Khalistanis, then why not question R&AW for rubbing shoulders with someone like Malik, who until yesterday was seen as an enemy of the Indian government?      

The most offensive part of the report is the way it minimizes the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984, which it tries to equate with the religious violence of 1947 and sporadic violent attacks on Sikhs in Pakistan. This makes absolutely no sense. What happened in 1984 was perpetrated by the state machinery, which is supposed to protect its citizens and not to kill them. To make India accountable for the happenings of 1984 is an obligation of not only the Sikhs in Canada, but of the entire humanity. But until now, the Indian diplomats have been trying to deny the Sikh Genocide.  

One can safely conclude that the report is in line with the narrative of a government which has lost any moral right to raise the issue of terrorism. 

Canadians should rather pay more attention to what is happening under BJP at this time. No less than the Prime Minister, Narendar Modi, brought a suspected terrorist to parliament in the last general election in 2019.  

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur was arrested and charged for a 2008 bombing targeting a Muslim community that left 10 people dead. She was part of the module that wanted to establish a Hindu state through terrorism. She was given the BJP ticket to run for office even though the trial was not completed. Modi unashamedly called her their symbol. Isn’t it worth asking why she never met the same fate as Parmar if the Indian political system is really fair?  

Maybe Canadian think tanks and journalists should do some hard work on what’s going on in the name of democracy, instead of raising false alarms about something which has lost its relevance.  

*** 

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