Seldom has India been as brusque to a visiting prime minister as it has been to Canada’s Justin Trudeau. He was denied diplomatic courtesies usually taken for granted. Lest Trudeau miss the intended message, the Indian media repeatedly featured stories – based on briefings from unidentified people – that he was being snubbed because Canada is soft on Khalistani militants and even encouraging them.
Is Canada guilty of supporting Sikh militants? Is the Khalistani movement, crushed more than two decades ago, on the verge of revival in Punjab, raising the spectre of another round of mayhem? Or is politics driving the Union government’s discourse on Khalistanis conspiring in Canada to stage a comeback in Punjab?
For answers to these questions, Scroll.in turned to Paramjit Singh Judge, professor of sociology, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. An expert on the Punjab militancy and the Sikh diaspora, he has authored two seminal books on the subjects – Religion, Identity and Nationhood: The Sikh Militant Movement; and Punjabis in Canada: A study of formation of an ethnic community. Excerpts from an interview:
Sikhs constitute 1.5% of Canada’s population. I assume many in Punjab have relatives there. Against this backdrop how do you see India’s snub to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau?
There is an emerging widespread view in Punjab that our government has behaved with Trudeau the way it has because he is close to Sikhs. It took a while for people to read a pattern in the government’s response to Trudeau – he was received at the [Delhi] airport by a junior minister, not Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat did not receive him when he visited their states.
The government should not have forgotten that Canada is one of the G-7 nations [group of seven countries with advanced economies]. This is more important than the issue of whether he is close to Sikhs. Basically, India has annoyed the head of a very developed country with which we have had good relations.
There have been problems as well.
When the Pokhran nuclear tests were conducted under Prime Minister AB Vajpayee in 1998, Canada emerged as the biggest critic of India. So it is not just about Trudeau’s closeness to Sikhs. It is perhaps part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s memory that makes it feel that Canada is biased towards India.
Also, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh accused Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh of having links with Khalistanis. This has a background. When Captain Singh went to Canada in 2016, months before the Assembly elections, he was keen to interact with the Sikh diaspora because of the influence it has on the elections in Punjab. But the Canadian government did not grant him permission because of the popular pressure.
I think the Canadian government said that its laws bar foreigners from campaigning for elections on its soil.
That is right, but, in reality, it was an excuse. There were pressure groups working to prevent Captain Singh from addressing the diaspora. Those pressure groups did not comprise supporters of the idea of Khalistan, but people who were rooting for the Aam Aadmi Party. Captain Singh lacks diplomatic flexibility. He wanted to make the Canadian government pay – he refused to meet Harjit Singh on his 2016 trip. It is possible that the Modi government wanted to exploit the situation. From the perspective of the Modi government’s pursuit of Hindutva politics, there was no political gain to be made by being goody-goody with Trudeau.
The snub was because the India believes that the Trudeau government does not curb Khalistani activities on its soil, and has ministers who allegedly have links to Khalistani terrorists. Is the charge against the Canadian government justified?
The charge is not justified.
Recall the Kanishka plane bombing of 1985. The conspiracy to bomb it took place in Canada. There is no doubt that the case was mishandled by the Canadian government for which it was severely criticised. But we must also not forget that whether it is the United States, Canada or England, they allow all types of voices and views. Even though most of Europe is a bit different from these three countries, we should not forget that Ayatollah Khomeini lived in France until his return to Iran in 1979.
These western governments have clear-cut policies on exiles, refugees, and immigration. They believe their policies reflect the true nature of their democracy. Michael Ignatieff once headed the Liberal Party of Canada. He is Ukrainian by origin; he was also a novelist and historian. He wrote a book, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, which had an entire chapter on Ukraine. Ignatieff described how Ukrainians in Canada would protest against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Ukraine before its embassy. The Canadian government did not stop it.
The Canadian government will not crack down on Khalistanis until they violate Canadian laws. When they do so, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will come after them.
I will give you two other examples. Talwinder Singh Parmar, of Babbar Khalsa International…
Talwinder was the mastermind of the Kanishka plane bombing, wasn’t he?
Yes, he lived in Canada and campaigned for the idea of Khalistan. He then came to India and was shot dead in 1992 in an encounter. That is a different story. Or take the example of Jagjit Singh Chauhan, whom I knew closely. In the early 1970s, he had an advertisement printed in the New York Times showing the map of Khalistan. After living in the US, he shifted to England. Finally, he died in his village in Punjab.
For India to say that Canada supports Khalistanis shows we do not understand the nature of western democracy. Under Canada’s Constitution, provinces can withdraw from the Union. Quebec held a referendum [to withdraw from Canada] in 1995.
India’s attitude is discriminatory. Khalistanis are there in England. Khalistanis are also in the US, but India cannot snub the American president as it did Trudeau.
But there is also a counter-narrative – that Trudeau attended a Khalsa Day function in which Khalistani flags, and portraits of slain militant leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and Talwinder were displayed, that…
Some gurdwaras in Canada do display the photos of all these people. Khalsa Day falls on April 13, which is the day Guru Gobind [the 10th and last Sikh Guru] supposedly established Khalsa Panth [the community of baptised Sikhs]. Khalsa Day is not Khalistan Day; there is no such thing as Khalistan Day. On Khalsa Day, a large number of provincial as well as federal leaders come to gurdwaras in Canada, some of which may have photos of people like Bhindranwale. It cannot become the basis to say that Trudeau supports Khalistan.
How big is the Khalistan issue in Punjab?
It is not an issue at all. My own theory is that the disturbances [the secessionist movement] in Kashmir have led to money pouring in for development. The demand for Khalistan has not worked for Punjab in the same way. Even the Akali Dal’s rhetoric that there is discrimination against Sikhs and that the Panth is in danger has never worked for Punjab. The idea of Khalistan is not useful for Punjab; it has no functional basis. And, therefore, there exists no reason to raise the issue of Khalistan in Punjab.
What about occurrences such as the installation of Bhindranwale’s photo in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and his house in his native village being turned into a gurdwara?
In Sikh history, there is a concept called Ghallughara, which means mass massacre. The government’s attack on the Golden Temple in 1984 is understood as the last Ghallughara. The persons who were killed while facing the opponent are honoured in Sikh tradition. The political and moral justifications become irrelevant.
This is because it is in the domain of religion. In this domain people do not judge who is right or wrong. Bhindranwale’s discourse was about the rightful place of Sikhs in the Indian state. It is from this perspective that the picture of Bhindranwale has to be seen. Creating gurdwaras is not uncommon. I see his home being turned into a gurdwara as an excuse to create one.
A lot of people would contest your view that Bhindranwale just wanted a rightful place for Sikhs. They would say he wanted Punjab to secede from India.
You are talking to a person who has heard all his lectures, which were taped. I have not missed a single one. Bhindranwale would say that Sikhs do not want Khalistan. But if Indira Gandhi [then the prime minister] were to grant it to them, they would not refuse, that they did not want to repeat the mistake of 1947. Unfortunately for him, he did not know that Khalistan was never offered to Sikhs in 1947. His argument was that Sikhs had sacrificed a lot for India’s Independence and, therefore, deserved respect and a rightful place in India. However, he never explained what he meant by rightful place. All that he would say was that there should be no discrimination against the Sikhs.
Why is Bhindranwale’s house being turned into a gurdwara considered an alarming sign, but not, say, the advocacy of building a temple for Nathuram Godse?
If they [Hindutva groups] want to build a temple for Godse, they should build it. They do not want to build it. The problem is who will go to that temple. Is it a Hindu tradition to build a temple in the name of a person? No. The issue of Godse is raised only to criticise and make a villain of Gandhi. They are opposed to his idea of communal harmony and blame him for Partition. Through their articulation of Godse, they want to gauge the extent to which people still react to Godse as a villain.
Yes, but how come the demand for a Godse temple does not ring alarm bells as a mention of Khalistan does?
The State [has tended to] belong to that system – the prime minister belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as also so many of his ministers.
Has the Indian State become increasingly partisan?
Oh, yes, you can say that.
How would you compare the support for Khalistan in Punjab today with the support in the Hindi heartland for Hindutva’s activities such as lynching on the cow issue or its campaign against so-called love jihad?
For Khalistan, there is zero support. That said, I must confess I never thought Sikhs would support Khalistan, that they were too wise to do that. I was proved wrong.
I do think there is a tremendous attempt on the part of Hindutva forces to homogenise Indian society. Hindus are nearly 80% of India’s population. They have a high degree of heterogeneity in terms of linguistic and religious practices. It is for this reason I think the BJP will fail utterly in its endeavour to homogenise India.
Do you think India’s focus on militants in Canada during Trudeau’s visit could lead to a revival of the idea of Khalistan, as quite a few people I spoke to in Punjab fear?
No. These things have been happening for a while. [Akali Dal leader] Parkash Singh Badal must be very unhappy. He wanted to welcome Trudeau in a major way. Badal will not allow the BJP to play such games [that is, keep harping on about Canada supporting Khalistanis]. Also, such games will lead to a collapse of the Akali Dal-BJP unity, and Hindus, being in a minority [in Punjab], will be in great trouble, as it happened in the 1980s. Nobody wants it. The differences between Hindus and Sikhs are very different from those between Hindus and Muslims.
Why is it that the idea of Khalistan appeals to the Sikh diaspora?
It is because of long-distance nationalism, a term coined by [political scientist] Benedict Anderson. He says long-distance nationalism is safe, romantic and exotic. You are safe living in a democratic country. You know nobody will touch you there as you work for the idea of nation that you have. Certainly, your native country cannot punish you.
Does Khalistan play any role in gurdwara politics there?
Gurdwaras are not under the control of a central command in Canada.
So the possibility of using Khalistan for mobilisation and competition to control gurdwara is not really there.
All such struggles are localised. Take the case of the gurdwara in Burnaby, a municipality in Greater Vancouver. It is a gurdwara constructed by rich Sikhs. If anyone wishes to become a member of the gurdwara, which you cannot otherwise enter, its membership fee is one lakh Canadian dollars or so. There is a board outside declaring that this gurdwara has nothing to do with the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee.
So why did 14 gurdwaras issue a diktat banning the entry of Indian officials and “all those” who undermine Sikh nations and institutions?
People in Punjab do wonder why gurdwaras in Canada should issue such declarations. In conversations, they say, “Have they gone mad?” But questions are also asked as to why officials should visit gurdwaras in Canada. India’s intelligence agencies have always been very active in the diaspora. Usually, these agencies groom Sikhs to give them information. At times, non-Sikhs too are groomed – gurdwaras, after all, are open to all. These informers are given fringe benefits in return. People do come to know about these activities.
…Officials in the Indian embassy are interested in knowing what is happening in gurdwaras. Nor should we be surprised that some Sikhs are supplying information to them. So, if some gurdwaras wish to ban officials, it just could be that there might have been a minor incident. But a ban on officials by some gurdwaras does not mean it is linked to the idea of Khalistan. It is not such a big thing as is being made out.
Once there is a diaspora in a country, the [Indian] state is interested not only in its money but also in its support for, say, building a pressure group to work on the American state, the Canadian state. In such situations, you have to keep an eye on the people of Indian origin. It is natural. But when people come to know that they are being spied upon, they are obviously going to react. The Indian state should understand that.
Successful Sikh NRIs are considered a role model in Punjab. In the last Assembly elections, they were looked upon with suspicion and dubbed as extremists. Why did this happen?
There was no reason other than the fact that they were supporting AAP [Aam Aadmi Party]. Had the Congress and the Akali Dal not worked together, AAP would have won. Wherever the Congress was strong, the Akalis had their supporters vote for it, and vice versa.
Behind the Akalis transferring their votes was another factor – they did not want the BJP to do well. This was because the BJP had started entertaining the idea of fighting elections [in the state] on its own. It was recruiting Sikhs in large numbers, particularly Jat Sikhs. The Akalis wanted to ensure that the BJP remained dependent on it. In Punjab, only the Congress can win on its own. The Akalis, therefore, do not want the BJP to become strong to fight on its own.
I suppose the Congress and Akali Dal did not want a fourth party to emerge and, therefore, they banded together to portray AAP as supporters of those who back Khalistan.
To what extent does the inability to reach closure on the anti-1984 Sikh pogrom play a role in keeping alive the idea of long-distance nationalism in the Sikh diaspora?
There is memory and there is forgetting. It is always good to have a memory, to observe certain important dates. At this level, the memory of 1984 will persist. But I also see that Sikhs are gradually forgetting 1984, in the sense that the rage and the vengeful feeling over it has declined tremendously. One of the great things that Sonia Gandhi did was to apologise for the 1984 killings.
It was Manmohan Singh who apologised.
Singh could not have apologised without Sonia’s consent. There has always been a discourse in Punjab that a Sikh general has never headed the Indian Army. We had two Sikh generals [JJ Singh and Bikram Singh] under the UPA [United Progressive Alliance]. There was also the issue of recruitment to the Indian Army. After 1984, the orientation of Sikh youth changed – they were not opting to get recruited for the Indian Army in the numbers they used to before. This has picked up after 2010.