Are Khalistani allies in the West complicit in encouraging a secessionist movement in India? The virtual think tank Global Stratview tackled this question with a roundtable discussion on March 27, moderated by Jonathan Kay, senior editor at Quillette Magazine.
Panel members Gurdeep Randhawa, member of Angela Merkel’s ruling party CDU and councillor in the German county of Wachsenburg; Shipra Mathur, Indian journalist and founder editor of penliteracy.com; and Terry Milewski, retired senior correspondent for CBC News and author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute report “Khalistan: A Project of Pakistan,” examined the underlying issues of the Khalistani movement, one in which does not have a great deal of traction on the global media front.
Mathur pointed out that the farmers’ protests in India last November were the catalyst behind this latest resurgence of the Khalistani movement. The Khalistanis, who are fundamentally a Sikh separatist group, used the growers’ dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to introduce three farm laws: The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce Act, 2020: will allow farmers to sell goods outside the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee mandis; Farmers Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020: support for contract farming will enable a farmer and a commissioned buyer to establish an agreement before production begins; Essential Commodities Act, 2020: Various commodities including potato, onion, and oilseed are removed from the essential commodities list, ending forced stock-holding limits except under extraordinary circumstances.
Mathur was quick to state that the Khalistanis used the protests to draw attention to their cause. “The Indian security pointed out that it was a designed strategy on a terror module,” she said, adding, “The farmers’ protests became the Khalistanis’ easy target with a huge population of mainly Punjabi. So, this is how they grab the attention of the global community, and there is very clear evidence that a lot of money has been funnelled for the Khalistani network in Canada and the U.K.”
The narrative in Canada is that the Khalistani movement became extremely popular in the Sikh community in the 1980s and 90s, but it is less popular now. Kay noted that Sikh integration and moderate influences are not the same as the mass movement that Canada saw 20 to 30 years ago. Mathur agreed, saying, “Absolutely, Khalistanis have lost their ground.”
Cross-border militant activity, however, is quite solid. Mathur explained the Khalistanis have found a great deal of support from Pakistan, which has enabled the movement to operate an office from there.
Randhawa said there has been a turning point for this movement, which has leveraged social media to gain ground on an issue that is not being properly solved internally. According to the German politician, “Dialog will only solve the problem. The West does not have a great deal of experience with the Khalistanis. This is a problem that will only be solved within India, not outside of the country. As an outsider, we can only suggest things that could help. Sikhs will be loyal to their country, but promises must be kept.”
Contrary to what the movement hopes to achieve globally, the Khalistanis do not have a strong presence in Punjab, where 75 percent of the world’s Sikhs live.
Milewski touched on two key elements that impact Western support for this movement. Western politicians who help the Khalistanis by pandering to them end up not helping them very much because at the first sign of trouble, they run in the other direction. For instance, if the government raises questions, the politicians are quick to say they support a united India. “It’s a bit of a farce,” Milewski said. “It’s about those who try to get the votes for the domestic politics who pander to the Khalistani, who think they speak for all Sikhs when they do not.”
Pandering does go on in Canada and the U.K., and to a lesser extent in Germany. “But the reason is because the politicians have no idea what they’re talking about,” the former CBC News correspondent said.
Kay mentioned how Canadian politicians, especially in British Columbia, take part in events that cater to honoring individuals known for criminal activity. A case in point is the celebration of Talwinder Singh Parmar, who some in the community consider as being a martyr. Although Parmar was acquitted of all charges over the June 23, 1985, bombing of Air India flight 182 en route to New Delhi from Montreal, a commission investing the attack concluded that Parmar “is believed” to be the mastermind behind the deadly event.
Kay noted the media does not pick up on it, contrary to what it would have done had Osama Bin Laden’s face been plastered on posters everywhere. And no Canadian politician has ever declined to participate in the event honoring Parmar in Surrey, B.C.
In terms of what goes on in the Punjabi region, Mathur said the political leadership hobnobs with the perpetrators, who use social media to propagate their beliefs and gain support from those who take part in criminal activity. But the local media does not really report on it.
Does racism have a place in what is currently happening? Randhawa said, “Sikhs believe we have one race, we are all brothers and sisters.”
But Milewski, when asked about the Canadian landscape, said, “The Khalistani Sikhs have managed to convince politicians that they are the authentic voice of the Sikhs. Subtle, well, not-so-subtle racism is going on where white politicians stereotype all Sikhs as separatists. So, if you’re an anti-separatist, you’re a racist!”
Kay added that white politicians and journalists think the more militant you are, the angrier you are, then the more culturally and politically authentic you are.
The panelists also touched on Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the Canadian left-wing NDP, who, in past, has been evasive about responding to questions about the Air India bombing.
Milewski, who said he has no sympathy for these politicians, said, “They [the politicians] walk a fine line because it’s based on an illusion that they have to appeal to the militants or the Khalistanis. You don’t need to kowtow to Khalistanis to get voted in Canada.”
The panelists agreed that education and communication are key if peace and harmony are to come. “Policies, transparency and technologies help educate society,” Mathur explained. “We cannot go on and on with violence and the seeds that have been planted in our brains. The Khalistani movement was gone, and it has since resurfaced.” She went on to say Indians work in silos and must care about the issues and to work together if things are to be resolved.