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What you need to know about the Sikh movement at the center of tensions between India and Canada

NEW DELHI (AP) — Tensions between Canada and India have reached new heights with dueling diplomatic expulsions and an accusation of Indian government involvement in the killing of a Sikh activist on Canadian soil.

The row centers around the Sikh independence, or Khalistan, movement. India has repeatedly accused Canada of supporting the movement, which is banned in India but enjoys support among the Sikh diaspora.

On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described in Parliament what he called credible allegations that India was linked to the June killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. The Indian government denied any involvement in Nijjar’s killing, while also saying Canada was trying to divert attention from Khalistan activists there.

Here are some details about the problem:


The Sikh independence movement began in the late 1980s as an armed uprising among Sikhs demanding a separate homeland. It was centered in the northern state of Punjab, where Sikhs are the majority, although they make up about 1.7% of India’s total population.

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The uprising lasted for more than a decade and was suppressed by a crackdown by the Indian government, killing thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders.

Hundreds of Sikh youths were also killed in police operations, many of which were later proven in courts to have been staged, rights groups said.

In 1984, Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in Amritsar to drive away separatists who had taken refuge there. About 400 people were killed in the operation, according to official figures, but Sikh groups say thousands were killed.

The dead included militant Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who was accused by the Indian government of leading the armed uprising.

On October 31, 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the temple raid, was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, who were Sikhs.

Her death sparked a series of anti-Sikh riots, in which Hindu mobs went from house to house in northern India, especially New Delhi, pulling Sikhs from their homes, hacking many to death and burning others alive.

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There is currently no active insurgency in Punjab, but the Khalistan movement still has some followers in the state, as well as in the sizable Sikh diaspora outside India. The Indian government has repeatedly warned over the years that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has also intensified its pursuit of Sikh separatists and arrested dozens of leaders of several groups linked to the movement.

When farmers camped on the outskirts of New Delhi in 2020 to protest controversial farm laws, Modi’s government initially tried to discredit Sikh participants by calling them ‘Khalistanis’. Under pressure, the Modi government later withdrew the laws.

Earlier this year, Indian police arrested a separatist leader who had revived calls for Khalistan and stoked fears of violence in Punjab. Amritpal Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, had attracted national attention for his fiery speeches. He said he drew inspiration from Bhindranwale.


India has asked countries including Canada, Australia and Britain to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the country’s prime ministers. India has mainly raised these concerns with Canada, where Sikhs make up almost 2% of the country’s population.

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Earlier this year, Sikh protesters at the country’s high commission in London pulled down the Indian flag and smashed the windows of the building in anger over the decision to arrest Amritpal Singh. Protesters also smashed windows at the Indian consulate in San Francisco and clashed with embassy officials.

India’s foreign ministry denounced the incidents and called on Britain’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest what it called the security breach at the embassy in London.

The Indian government also accused Khalistan supporters in Canada of vandalizing Hindu temples with “anti-India” graffiti and attacking the offices of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa during a protest in March.

Last year, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, a Sikh militant leader and head of the Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan.

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